A great thing about planning while you are on the road is that you can take on board other people’s tips – in the case of Uyuni, I was told multiple times not to bother even spending half a day in the town itself. I decided to therefore arrive late at night from Potosi and arrange my crossing to start the next morning. Pulling in in pitch black, I was glad about my decision – the whole town is built on an unimaginative and dusty grid, with only tourist shops and salt flat agencies on offer.
So it was up early after crashing in a strange blockbuster guesthouse, where I’d booked a single room in the hope of securing a good quality sleep before the crossing, which I’d been told could often have very cold or basic nighttime accommodation. I went straight to Red Planet Expeditions, who I can only recommend wholeheartedly – they had some great reviews as a good midlevel option (as opposed to overpriced ‘luxury’ or less informative budget options). Once in the office it was a case of signing some papers, renting a sleeping bag, waiting around a little and then we were divided into cars and were off.
These cars were 4×4 vehicles with space for 6 plus the driver – one in the front, three in the middle, two in the back. And they would be our mode of transport for the next 3 days! In my car we had Ishi, Zen, Sonam and Emerson, travelling together from the States and Canada, plus Paul from Ireland. We were lucky in several ways – it was a great bunch of people with a fun atmosphere in the car, and we also had Jaime, our guide, driving us (which was nice, instead of having two separate people). Jaime seemed serious and quiet at first but turned out to be hilarious as well as a real fountain of knowledge. He took his job very seriously; for example arranging every picture down to the last detail, then making a sarcastic comment if someone did something to mess it up, then finally cracking and joining in with a barking laugh when we started to laugh at him.
Our first stop was the train ‘graveyard’, remnants from Bolivia’s once prosperous and now defunct train lines. To this day apparently the only passenger train you can get in the country is a service to Chile, as the locals simply prefer the buses, cheaper and more regular as they are. So outside of Uyuni there are a load of rusty train wrecks and shells, some done up by local artists – basically a moody Instagram photographer’s dream location!
Next was the first stop on the flats themselves – the largest deposit of salt anywhere on the planet. As we drove into them we noticed the landscape change – dust becoming patchy with white, and bright reflections in the horizon giving the illusion of floating rocks far off. The sky was blue and then having this wide flat expanse of white up ahead was really quite a surreal feeling.
First we stopped at the huge Dakar rally salt sculpture, where there were also hundreds of international flags, a colourful contrast and also fun to try and find your country – unfortunately England wasn’t too largely represented as you can see!
After a few photo opps we moved on and drove further into the heart of the flats, stopping where there was nothing but the salt and the horizon. Here we took the famous ‘perspective’ photos! The light is so bright and the salt so white that you can take some great shots, or rather Jaime could, lying down on a mat especially to get some good ones.
We then went to Cactus Island, which is absolutely crazy – literally an island of giant cacti surrounded by saly. Such a contrast, having these spiky silhouettes positioned high up on rock against the wide horizon of ‘nothing’! The salt flats were formed because there used to be a sea there millions of years ago – hard to imagine but here you could see the ‘tide’ lines of salt against the island, making it all the more clear. I love cacti anyway but this was an incredible experience.
That night’s accommodation was in a hotel of sorts, made out of salt! The bricks were huge slabs of salt cut from the ground, the floor like salty gravel. We had been told to expect basic accommodation but actually the beds were very warm and there were even lukewarm showers. Dinner was also a nice two course affair, and we went to bed shattered. You know the feeling of exhaustion after being at the beach all day, with salty hair and drowsy from the sun, that’s exactly how it felt (but much colder now). Not sure if the salt tires you out as we were in the car most of the time though?!
The next day was just as jam packed if not more – up at 6, driving at 7, and venturing past the flats now I to the beginnings of the desert. We had various stops, some with interesting rock formations (where the rocks are so porous you can literally see where they were ancient coral), and eventually the Stone Tree, where the desert wind is so strong it has carved a kind of tree out of a huge rock there. All the while surrounded by an incredible backdrop of mountains of all sizes and colours!
You didn’t even notice how long each section of the drive was, the scenery was so breathtaking. As the day’s driving drew to a close we started to see dramatic colours in the mountains – the reds and greens were even familiar to me having visited Peru’s Rainbow Mountain. The area is just so rich in minerals and this also leads to other natural phenomena. We stopped at series of lagoons that afternoon, and all had a unique colour giving each its nickname – blue, green, and the most stunning of all, the Red Lagoon or Colorado Lagoon. There is such a high concentration of red algae in the lagoon that it is a natural red pink colour. It is therefore the perfect feeding ground for 3 breeds of flamingos, the most anywhere in the world! Flamingos are actually born white and it is feeding off this algae that gives them their pink colour so you can imagine these were some very healthy pink looking birds. We spent almost an hour just quietly watching them socialise and feed, and I couldn’t quite believe I was in the same spot as a Planet Earth episode I saw earlier this year… if that’s not proof how special and unique this place is, nothing is!
Incredibly the day still wasn’t over – we climbed up and up and eventually stopped at hot geysers at over 5000m altitude. These were the first I’ve ever seen to my knowledge, and being at such high altitude made it even more dramatic. The extreme wind and the bitterly cold air created a fantastic contrast and there was hot steam blowing absolutely everywhere, manically spreading the smell of sulphur and the sound of bubbling mud. The water there was over 140 degrees Celsius so incredibly hot (no place for a dip!). However, although we stayed in a very basic lodge that night (2 hours only of electricity and no running water), this was more than compensated for. At 9, we paradoxically piled on our warmest clothes over our swimsuits and traipsed down in the pitch black about 200m to a completely natural hot springs pool. The water was excruciating hot upon the first dip, in comparison to the cold air (for a measure of temperature, people who left their swimsuits out to dry that night woke up to them frozen solid into blocks!). But after a few seconds the water was incredible, so warm and relaxing you could fall asleep right there. We were advised not to take valuables down in the dark so sadly no photos, but the best moment yet came once I settled down by the side of the pool and looked up. I’ve never seen so many stars and I’ve certainly never seen the Milky Way so clearly (not even a week later when stargazing in the Atacama Desert!). We were in a protected reserve, in a huge flat expanse at high altitude, so there couldn’t have been less light pollution. Everything was so clear and it felt (cliché alert) truly magical at that moment.
So despite the cold outside and basic beds, I slept relatively well after that hot dip. The last morning sped by. First we saw the Dali desert, where the strange landscape makes it seem as if you are in one of the artists surrealist paintings.
Then visiting more beautiful lagoons and learning about the mountains which straddle Bolivia and Chile, and even the Argentinean border. It seemed like no time at all until Jaime left us at the Chilean border high in the desert, where our transfer bus awaited. After an amazing few days and such a good time in general in Bolivia, I felt sad to be crossing the border, but there was definitely no better way to do it! Although Machu Picchu was undoubtedly the ‘man-made’ highlight I’ve seen in this trip, the salt flats and desert crossing has to take the natural crown. So many fantastic landscapes in the space of such a short time, it’s truly hard to believe places like these can exist, let alone that I have been lucky enough to visit them!