It's not just the high altitude that will take your breath away at Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia. The world's largest salt flats make for a truly unearthly road trip
“How long will it take?” I shout to the driver from the back of the overcrowded jeep. “Si!” he responds enthusiastically. I try again: “What time do we stop for lunch?” “Si!” he grins, his eyes flashing happily in the rear view mirror. It is at this point that we realise our ‘English-speaking’ guide perhaps doesn’t have the language skills boasted on his CV.
There are eight of us in total, crammed into the dusty 4x4; me, my girlfriend, our two Canadian friends, two giggling Israeli girls, Maria the cook and the driver who we have now dubbed ‘Si’. We are careering through the Bolivian wilderness on our way to the Salar de Uyuni and the trip of a lifetime.
Two days earlier we had arrived in Uyuni. A sleepy, nondescript town miles from anywhere, it functions as the jump-off point for people setting out on tours of the salt flats that stretch, seemingly forever, across the southwest of Bolivia. Amongst the countless tour operators, all eager to attract the tourists trickling into the town from La Paz, Peru and beyond, it is difficult to know which to choose. Colque Tours (www.colquetours.com) are one of the largest and most established, but my advice is to wait until you get there and see which one looks best for you. You may want to travel with some friends you have met on your travels, and booking in advance would make this more difficult. Many of the companies work with each other to fill their vehicles, so promises are sometimes broken and people shifted from jeep to jeep.
There are various different options when choosing a tour. We chose a three-day tour ending at the Chilean border (where we would then take a connection to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile). You can end your tour back in Uyuni if you wish. A three-day tour shouldn’t cost more than $60, with four-and five-day tours costing between $80 and $100. Our trip would take us across the Salar de Uyuni, through the mountainous land beyond and on to the border at the southwest tip of the country. We would reach heights of almost 5,000 metres and witness some of the most unearthly landscapes known to man.
Most operators make Uyuni’s ‘train graveyard’, just outside the town, their first stop. Here, there are a number of old and rusting locomotives incongruously dumped in the desert. The dark red, skeletal structures make for a bizarre sight against the brilliant blue of the Bolivian sky. After this we visited Colchani, a small village on the edge of the salt flats, where the salt is processed and packaged for selling. Old ramshackle buildings, ancient techniques and a small museum make for an interesting point of call but we were itching to see the salt in its natural state.
Much of the first day is spent crossing the huge expanse of the Salar, with occasional stops for lunch, photographs and to visit a hotel made entirely of salt (some tours include a night here). The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, covering an area of just over four thousand square miles (10,500 km) and is said to contain up to 10 billion tonnes of salt. It is a vast, bright white, moon-like landscape, and driving across it is unlike anything I have ever experienced, before or since. The whiteness stretches as far as the eye can see and in large parts nothing else is visible. The occasional outline of another jeep can be seen blurred and distant on the horizon. Rather than isolating, the strange otherworldliness of the scenery is refreshing and awe-inspiring.
We stopped for lunch (all meals are included in the tour price and consist of simple but delicious meat stews, vegetables and rice) at Isla de los Pescados (Fish Island), a rocky outcrop in the middle of the flats, covered in cactuses of varying sizes. With the sea of salt surrounding it in every direction, it is a great place for photographs. However, easily the most popular (and fun) photo opportunity at the Salar is the chance to produce perspective-distorted shots. With some careful positioning, the unending white canvas of the salt allows you to look as though you are holding your friend on the palm of your hand, or balancing them on your fingertip.
Our first night was spent in San Juan, a small, uncomplicated settlement on the edge of the Salar. The lodgings were basic (be prepared for no heating and freezing temperatures) but the evening we spent there was a peaceful, atmospheric time. As the sun set over the salt, producing a calming, ethereal light, long-haired boys played football in the dusty twilight. Over the road from where we sat a herd of llama grazed lazily on a balding patch of earth. While Si and Maria prepared another lovely meal, we warmed ourselves against the plummeting temperatures with a nip of rum from our Canadian friend’s supply.
In the morning, we continued our tour, making our way south towards Chile, the terrain now more Martian than lunar. We passed icy lagoons and stopped to take a look at a top-heavy rock formed by many years of strong, sandy winds. The Dali-like structure seems to defy physics but fitted into the alien landscapes surrounding it. Reaching the red waters of Laguna Colorada, we came across one of the most wonderfully bizarre sights of the tour. Dotted around the shores of the 4,228m lake were hundreds of flamingos. They have long made this remote part of the world their home and while they weren’t unexpected, they were no less spectacular. Our second night was spent here, and the basic facilities and even colder temperatures didn’t at all detract from the beauty of our adventure.
The following morning, after stopping to look at some natural geysers spraying powerfully from the ground, we completed the trip, arriving at the border around lunchtime. It was nice to swap the confines of the jeep for a bus to San Pedro but I wouldn’t have swapped the last three days for anything in the world.