Mopping up a small puddle of Lipeña Cerveza, a beer made from Quinoa, which had found the express route into my lap thanks to the latest in a long line of pot holes that we had endured over the last 2 days, I was confident nobody had noticed.
We were almost at our destination for the day, the destination many of us has booked this trip for really. After 5 hours of twisting, turning and bouncing our way across the Bolivian Altiplano, we were just around the corner from the world famous Salar De Uyuni, more commonly known as the Bolivian Salt Flats.
Salar De Uyuni is one of the most visited spots in southwestern Bolivia with just over 60,000 visitors currently. It lies on the Bolivian Altiplano at 11,995ft (3,656m) above sea level and for mile after mile, kilometre after kilometre you will see nothing except flat desolate plains of salt crust, the result of a vast evaporated prehistoric salt lake known as Lago Minchín which at one point was over 160 meters deep.
It is a favourite spot for photographers to be able to play with perspective and also the reason I was gulping down a half litre bottle of beer; selflessly sacrificing my sobriety just after lunch for the group so we could get a shot with the (now empty) bottle.
The area is so vast and remote it is generally visited by small group tours, like ours, that have made their way from the Chilean Border near the Lincancabur Volcano through the simply stunning, and equally desolate landscape of the Altiplano. We had already visited numerous coloured lakes, an indication of the high mineral concentrations they contain.
We had stopped off at the otherworldly Árbol De Piedra, also within the larger confines of the Edwardo Avaroa National Park, a windswept plateau that happens to be the highest and driest desert in the world. And damn cold with it despite the blazing sunshine. We had stopped off at the highest geyser field on the planet, Sol de Mañana at 5000m. Not a good place for a little jog, I found out to my cost. These places were so special and unexpected they deserve a post to themselves. For now let’s concentrate on the Salt Flats.
Salar De Uyuni
The main selling point of the Salar De Uyuni is the unique landscape and photography options but it wasn’t until we pulled around the last corner of the mountain pass and saw the vast expanse of….nothing! Nothing but the brilliant white crust of the plains spreading out below and all around us far off into the distance, that we knew we were in for a very special 2 days.
Driving onto the salt plain you do indeed lose all sense of perspective. Below you is the white crust of salt and above you is the bright blue sky (hopefully; it can occasionally get overcast). The only points of reference are the mountains that mark the edge of this once vast lake. The further you drive onto the plains those reference points shrink until they become distant dents far on the horizon leaving nothing but the flat white plains of the Salt Flats for as far as you can see.
20 minutes in and our faithful but somewhat clapped out 4X4 with suspect suspension came to a shuddering halt. Switching the engine off our driver announced we would be here for the next few hours.
Stepping onto the salt for the first time I expected it to be somewhat soft under foot but it was as hard as chalk. You could easily chip away at the surface and make a dent in the thin crust but it could easily support our weight and that of all 4 of our support vehicles.
Looking around, the mountains were now mere specs in the distance to our north and west while to the south and east there was nothing but dazzling white and blue skies as far as the eye could see.
Fun with perspective…
We had obviously stopped for some fun with the cameras and numerous objects we had all brought with us or acquired along the way. What we didn’t realise was how much planning went into each shot. The next 3 hours flew by in fits of laughter and all kinds of silly poses but the results were more than we could have expected.
Where else on this planet could you have so much fun with a beer bottle, a red clown nose, a box of pringles crisps, a llama keychain, a plastic T-Rex, an iPhone camera and 3 immaculately kept kilts?!
You can also have fun with video. The limit really is only your imagination…
The perspective photos are not always easy. It takes precision, patience and practice and it’s truly a group effort but at the same time it is a lot of fun.
The ensuing 3 hours saw numerous goes at headstands, running from imaginary monsters as well as ourselves and precarious balancing on all sorts of common objects. It was a really fun end to our last full day on the Bolivian Altiplano.
Our home for the night was a cosy, if slightly frigid, dorm room on the very northern edge of the Salt Flats. A breath taking position to watch the sunrise over the dormant Tunupa Volcano that looked over us from its 5,321m (17,457ft) peak.
There is no central heating out here, no television, very little electricity and we hadn’t had mobile coverage since we had left the Chilean border 2 days previously. It is by every measure about as remote as you can get. The nearest main town, Uyuni, a 45 minute drive east across one of dozens of invisible highways that criss-cross the Salt Flats, is supported largely these days by tourism. In this harsh almost desert like environment there is no agriculture to speak of because of the lack of fresh water.
If you worry, as I did, about buying something made from the salt for fear of supporting the destruction of this fragile ecosystem, know that the mining is strictly controlled and can only be done by the residents of the village. While many thousands of tonnes are mined every year from the fringes of the Salt Flats, this is replenished with the onset of the wet season maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.
Back in the accommodation, it was clear that the dorm rooms were not the place to hang out on account of a lack of heating. 20 minutes after settling in, afternoon tea was offered in the main bar area, a stunning circular building made entirely of salt. Tables, seats , bar, walls; all made of huge (and seriously heavy) salt bricks.
10 minutes after firing up the centrepiece wood burner we were all cooking but 3 steps in the wrong direction (usually towards the windows) and you were instantly reminded of the harsh environment we were staying in.
Nights out here are perishingly cold with the altitude, lack of atmosphere and modern comforts us humans have all gotten far to used to. Dare to step foot outside the cosy confines of the main restaurant and the sub zero dry winds instantly remind you to respect your surroundings. Get lost out here without water and you will be dead within 18 hours.
Setting the alarm for the ridiculous hour of 0430 in the hope of being one of the only people to catch the sunrise, I retired to bed safe in the comfort that tomorrow was to be our last day in this most wild of wildernesses. Tucking myself tightly under the freezing sheets I settled in for one of the best nights sleep I had had since I landed.
A sunrise worth getting up for…
The alarm didn’t need to go off; I was already awake (one of the common symptoms of being at altitude). The air was so cold in the dorm I could see my breath. I had been lying here for the last hour waiting for the right moment to move.
With Max and Matt both stirring it was time to move. Having learnt a freezing cold lesson 2 nights previously when the thermometer hit -15C , I had kept my phone toasty warm, relatively, under the covers of my bed. Our first night on this 4×4 expedition I had left it in my bag and woke up to a dead battery as had most other people in the group. My clothes however were a different matter. Putting them on felt like they had spent the night in a freezer not laying in the top of my bag.
40 minutes and 4 layers of clothing later, standing on the salt flats with just a handful of other people looking back at our overnight accommodation nestled under the Tunupa Volcano in the pre dawn glow I realised why people come here.
Photos such as those in this post really don’t do the enormity of the landscape justice, no matter how stunning you think they may look on screen. There really is no substitute to seeing the salt flats in person. No HD video, drone footage or 360 degree photo or panorama can possibly express what it’s like to be standing on the salt flats watching the best sunrise of your life unfolding before your eyes.
Turning around from the bright glare of the sun as it slowly rose above the distant mountains, I could quite clearly see the shadow of night racing across the flat white surface as another new day was beginning.
35 minutes standing in sub zero temperatures can feel like a lifetime. It didn’t here but my, by now frozen extremities, told me it was time to head back for breakfast and some warmth. We had a packed morning of photo taking on the salt flats before we left via the original salt hotel, Hotel Sal, that is now a museum, and also a controversial home since 2014 to the Dakar Rally.
Inside you will find a small gift shop and exhibit space in the huge main hall on the history of the place. Entry is free but it’s expected that you will purchase something from the shop to keep it that way for all.
Standing here on the fringes of the Salt Flats before we would drive to the tiny one street town of Colchani, the main start or end point for pretty much every visitor that make this beautiful area part of their travel itineraries every year, I was struck with the vastness of this place.
People come here precisely because it is so remote. If it was easy to get to it wouldn’t be so special. I realise this type of trip isn’t for everyone but the effort of getting here is absolutely balanced by what changes in you after you have witnessed the beauty of Mother Nature all around you.
Standing on the northern edge of the salt flats silently looking out as night descends on the area you can’t help but feel so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the world. Standing out here surrounded by the silence and beauty of the mountains you will realise that the world is a diverse place with any number of amazing adventures to have and surprising places to visit. It will leave you hungry for more and with jaw dropping views around every turn you may even forget about that beach holiday you were planning in the first place.