If there’s a place in the travels I did I wasn’t expecting so damn amazing, this place is the Salar de Uyuni, the Uyuni salt flats, in Bolivia.
I was in South America backpacking between 2009 and 2010 and on my way back to the north of the continent I decided to go through Bolivia, mainly for the Titicaca lake, something I wanted to see since I was a child, due to a package film by Disney, Saludos Amigos (here’s the trailer).
I entered Bolivia at Villazón, and I took a train to Tupiza, where I spent one night. Tupiza is a small city in the Potosí department and is home to many tour operators that offer guided tour through the Bolivian Altiplano (high plateau) and the Salar. There are daily departures and arrivals since they do the same tours in Uyuni and Tupiza is the ending spot.
It’s really not difficult to find a tour operator since every hotel, hostel o whatever you can spend a night into, usually have an office where you can book your adventurous trip. Keep in mind, anyway, that the more you are, the less you pay. You’ll go in off-roads vehicles, with everything you need to spend 3/4 days on the road, and the price is fixed. So you have to find some travel mates to share the tour with, but I can assure it’s not difficult to find other travelers there, willing to save some money.
The tour twists and tours through valleys, mountains, lagoons and small villages (pueblos), where we’re going to spend the nights, and that’s already something difficult to forget since the landscapes and the natural environment of Bolivia are incredible. But then on the last day, you reach the Salar…
On the last night, the drivers manage to find some accommodation in “salty hotels”, that are hotels made of salt blocks. Everything inside is made of salt: walls, beds, table, everything. The morning after, at a very early time, we leave the hotel to see the sunrise on the Salar, and that’s where the magic begins!
A never-ending shadow seems to originate from your feet as the sun rises on the flat surface of the Salar, and slowly you start seeing all the surroundings, an incredible, white expanse that seems a place from another planet.
If you’re lucky enough to find good weather, the view is alienating: blue sky, white shining ground, nothing around for miles. It seems like being in an unfinished child painting, where the sky is always a stripe of blue and the rest is the white paper, ready to be painted.
I’ve never experienced before the feeling to be nowhere like there. Especially when in the middle of the Salar, you turn your head around 360°, and you see and hear nothing. NOTHING. You seem lost in a white desert, with the sun hitting and salty ground reverberating. Sometimes you can also experience mirages too, Fata Morgana ones, where it’s possible to see mountains floating far on the surface of the Salar.
Not far from the south border of this desert, there is a sort of island, Isla Incahuasi, where we do a stop. All the tours starting from Tupiza stop here for breakfast time, so while the drivers and the cooks prepare the meals, you can visit this island full of gigantic cacti, some of these thousand years old. It’s weird to see this rocky place, once a volcano top, rising in the middle of the Salar, but probably is even more strange when you realize that Salar de Uyuni, once, was a lake. Anyway, the tour continues and so the magic!
The crusty ground of the Salar crackles every step you take and behind the surface usually you can spot some humidity since it’s not uncommon to have rainfalls in this area, that will evaporate during hotter months. Our off-road vehicles go ahead toward the horizon, but the drivers have to set them up for the voyage because the salt is corrosive: underneath the platforms, hooked to the bumpers, there are tarps to protect more metal parts as possible and avoid rust. It’s not an easy thing to prepare, and it happens that they break during the crossing.
As soon as the sun gets higher, we do another stop to take some of the typical pictures everyone being here takes: funny pictures with weird perspective! Since everything is so white and flat and there are no objects that let you understand proportions and distances, everyone goes wild with the camera. The results are often silly, but something nice pops up too. Obviously, we also did a group picture!
To reach the other side of the Salar it takes several hours, so we stop again in a strange place not close to the end of our tour. It’s a sort of restaurant/hostel/souvenir shop, half closed, with only the shop open to tourists. Outside there are tables and chairs, guess what? made of salt. And a swimming pool, or at least something resembling a swimming pool. What I’m sure is that is a big rectangular shaped hole in the ground, full of water, but I can’t be sure of its purpose! We take some other picture since the panorama is changing: some white clouds appeared while approaching the border, we see mountains all around and water. Yes, some days before our arrival it rained and this part of the Salar is covered with a layer of water, a couple of centimeters most.
Clouds and mountains reflect in this low and salty water, and the effect is stunning. It seems to be on a tropical beach, with incredibly white sand and crystal clear water. I’d like to hear some seagulls too, but I’m probably asking too much!
After something like 7/8 hours from the departure, we reach the end of the Salar. In the last part, water was deeper, and we could see small piles of salt all around since people from adjacent villages work here to extract it. Salt is a crucial element of their life, not because they have to cook with it, but for many other purposes, like building material as we saw before. Furthermore, almost half of the world lithium reserves are in Bolivia, and in most part precisely in the Salar de Uyuni, so it’s importance is also economical from a world-wide point of view.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve never been in a place like this one, and I don’t know if I’m going to find something else that will make me feel so many emotions together. But I will search for sure for it, and if there is, I’ll visit it!
And you, ever been to a place that left you absolutely mesmerized? Write it in the comments!
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