Day 3 of our tour took us to the extraordinary Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat which is located 3,656 metres above sea level. A pool of lithium-rich brine lies underneath a salt crust that varies in thickness from 20 centimetres to 2 metres, creating a vast flat surface that forms a major transport route across the Bolivian altiplano. The effect is mesmerising. As soon as the jeep drove onto the surface it seemed to be floating along on a white cloud. The view in all directions is a dazzling expanse of white stretching up to the horizon until it meets the astonishingly blue sky. Not a single cloud punctuates the sky. It is truly an otherworldly experience.
As we sped along the surface—the jeep drivers taking it in turns to overtake each other—we could see the hexagonal formations of the salt on the surface, as well as small cracks in the ice revealing the salty water beneath. We stopped at Incahuasi Island, a strange rocky island comprising of gigantic cacti and stunning views across the salt flat. The island had a small fee of 30 Bolivianos, which we paid and began the short ascent to the top. The sun on the Salar de Uyuni is merciless. With very little to no atmosphere at all we were in great danger of sunburn, heat stroke and dehydration, although the climb was not long, the heat and altitude made it much more difficult. A small shrine at the top was dedicated to Pachamama (Earth Mother) and offerings of money, business cards, paper clips and cigarettes had been left. I’m not sure that the Earth Mother would be particularly impressed with most of the offerings and I am surprised that people think she might want to smoke!
After the visit to the island we stopped to take the obligatory silly perspective photographs on the Salar de Uyuni. By utilising the lack of anything other than white salt and blue sky it is possible to manipulate all sorts of pictures to make yourself look like a giant next to other people, or tiny compared to any objects that you might have handy. The more creative you are, the better the image! We spent a long time running around, helping each other take pictures and jumping around (again) and were very sad when the drivers announced it was time to head to the next venue.
Driving through the rest of the salt flat we saw piles of salt that was in the process of being harvested for manufacture and made a quick stop at a Salt Hotel that was located actually on the Salar de Uyuni itself. The Lonely Planet warns against this particular hotel as apparently it was built illegally and the sewage from the hotel is polluting the salt flat. Thankfully the hotel was closed so we did not give it any business and then made our way towards an interesting train cemetery-a spot in the desert where steam trains have lain abandoned since the 1930’s, and onwards to Uyuni—the end point of our trip.
The small town of Uyuni is a ramshackle hotch-potch of half-built concrete houses and tour operators. It is not a pretty town but it was a welcome sign of civilisation after three days of being unable to shower the thick layer of dust and salt off.
Check out the video:
If you are considering taking this tour you should ensure that you are fully prepared. It is vital that you take:
- Bolivianos—the toilets are not free, so you will need some change.
- Sun cream—the highest factor you can find.
- Hat—it gets both hot and cold. Some people had woollen hats for the cold and sun hats for the heat.
- Lipbalm with SPF—you’ll be pleased you brought it, believe me!
- Water—MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU WILL NEED
- Altitude sickness pills
- Playing Cards
- Spare camera batteries (fully charged)