Gazing out at the ethereal landscape, I feel like I am on a different planet. What appears to be sand, or maybe even snow, continues endlessly on. The waves of heat create eerie shapes on the horizon, and the stillness around me makes me realize how vast and unique this place really is.
While it may feel like I have transported myself to another world, I have not. We are simply standing in the middle of the world’s largest salt flats – the Salar de Uyuni, in the isolated south of Bolivia. Plains of blinding white salt surround us, and pockets of water reflect the sky, creating a strikingly beautiful image.
The only things around us are several other 4×4 jeeps, parked while fellow visitors eat lunch or take the mandatory “optical illusion” photos. With the endless horizon and no obstacles in sight, the salt flats make the perfect place to take fun photos and get creative with the depth of field.
Getting here was not the easiest. The Salar is only accessible via 4×4 from the town of Uyuni, and the town itself is quite remote. A long overnight bus-ride from La Paz on an incredibly bumpy route was the transportation method of choice. With no actual roads (more like a rocky salt path) we had at least two blown tires that needed changing along the way. Yet we finally made it, albeit a bit bruised up, to our final destination.
The town of Uyuni doesn’t appear particularly welcoming; it only consists of a few blocks and has an unshakable sense of isolation and loneliness about it. The main industry is tourism, so besides a few restaurants and hostels the highlight of our quick foot tour was petting a passing llama. We had come to the city to meet with a local tour operator that we had booked on the spot while in La Paz. The name of the company between there and here had somehow changed though, and so did a lot of other things- namely the existence of an English-speaking guide and a “spacious jeep”. That’s the thing about Bolivia though, it’s stubborn and wild. You never get quite what you expect.
Our small jeep somehow filled up with a total of 8 people. Nice and cozy, we left the town behind us, driving into the heart of the salt flats. Sun blazing, we began to see the incredible views that this place so tantalizingly promises. We spent most of the afternoon driving across this blindingly white landscape, taking the time to stop for a drink at a building made of salt.
With the terrain spreading out, unchanging for miles, it often felt like we had not moved at all. This dizzying experience was soon remedied though with lunch at the Isla de Pescadores. This place is home to a large “island” of rocks and cacti, appearing like a mirage in the middle of the salt desert. We were able to hike up the hill formation of the island, and see cacti that were 20 feet tall and over 200 years old. From the top, we were also able to see the nearby Tunupa Volcano.
After lunch, the bouncy jeep ride continued on for several hours. Near dark, we arrived to a hostel in the tiny town of Agua Quiza, home to a booming population of 87 Quechua-speaking residents. From the outside, the place looked a bit questionable-but we had no idea what was in store. When a hostel is built entirely of salt, and has salt tables, chairs, beds and walls, it instantly becomes charming.
The following day, we left the Uyuni section of the salt flats and drove through the rocky, desert-like landscape of the Salar de Chinguana. This area still has salt deposits, but not in as intense of a concentration as Uyuni. The highlights of this area are still plentiful however. After some more obligatory jostling in the jeep, we arrived at a stranded collection of rocks which created the perfect overlook of the Ollagüe Volcano. Straddling the Chilean border, this active volcano had been emitting smoke that morning. It was an amazing sight, if not a bit foreboding.
The next stop was the Laguna Hedionda- which literally means “stinking lagoon”. Despite the odd omnipresent sulfur stench, it was a peaceful and truly beautiful representation of nature at its finest. From our vista, the water created a myriad of colors, some with a dark reddish tint. The chemical causing this color also attracts thousands of flamingos, and makes for an uncommon sight.
After the Laguna, the real driving began. Our guide booked it through some very rough, rocky terrain. By the time we ran over a vicuña or two, we arrived (a bit numb) at the Arbol de Piedra. This site is another popular stop for visitors to the Salar. It is essentially just a giant rock, but what makes it interesting is its abstract shape. Known as the “Stone Tree”, it may not sound exciting-but it is strangely fascinating to see. The rock was carved over time from the intense whipping winds in the area, and is truly a unique natural feature. It is also at this point in the Salar that you hit the highest elevation of the journey, and so climbing a nearby rock mound to view the Arbol de Piedra is literally breathtaking.
Our final stop was the National Park, sanctioned off in the middle of the flats. We entered the Reserva Avaroa to the sight of some sand tornadoes, and ended up at a destination that will always stand out in my mind as a quintessential postcard moment: La Laguna Colorada. It’s being promoted as a candidate for one of the “Natural Wonders of the World”, and I can understand why- It is truly one of the most beautiful sights I have seen in all my travels.
The view there was like seeing a watercolor painting come to life. Covering the expanse were waters with gorgeous hues, and a scenic mountain backdrop with flamingos dotting the lagoon. With intense winds ripping through the valley, it is a place where you can feel truly alive.
That night at our camp-like hotel, we could all see the Milky Way in the sky. The stars were winking at us, letting us know that while we may think we have conquered the Salar and can check it off the list, there is still so much more to explore.
That last morning we all headed towards the Cordillera, and then found ourselves swimming in natural hot springs, walking alongside live geysers, and enduring an insanely long drive back to civilization. It felt strange to be back. The stunning, otherworldly presence of the Salar de Uyuni is one any visitor will not soon forget.
The wild, remote landscape of the world’s largest salt flats is a true natural wonder; one that will leave you wondering when you can return.
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