If there was one place more than any other that I was excited about visiting in South America, it was the Salar de Uyuni. Before I traveled, I read countless blog posts and saw hundreds of amazing photos about the place, and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
After a slightly frustrating evening in the rather dull town of Uyuni (everyone told me it was only good for one thing: Minuteman Pizza, allegedly the finest pizzas in all of South America. We went quite early in the evening. It was fully booked for the entire night. Grrr.) our little group – two Brits, one Irish girl, one Belgian, one Kiwi & an Australian set off in a jeep for what would be a three day tour across one of the world’s strangest and most amazing landscapes.
First stop was the train cemetary. Uyuni is one of the main railway junctions in Bolivia, and on the edge of town sit dozens of old, rusting trains, which were great fun to clamber all over.
Uyuni Train Cemetary
After a brief stop there, we were soon onto the star attraction, the Salar de Uyuni itself. It was once part of a giant inland sea, but over the millenia it has dried out, leaving behind the world’s largest salt flats. And they are enormous. Once you get out into the centre of the lake, all you can see for miles around is one giant expanse of endless whiteness. It’s a very weird sight, quite unlike anything else on earth I’ve ever seen.
Salar de Uyuni
If that wasn’t strange enough, sitting in the middle of the lake is the Isla de Pescados, which is completely covered in ancient, giant cacti (some are up to 1000 years old), making the place feel even more alien.
Isla de Pescados
If the mornings attractions had been pretty awe-inspiring, it was really just a warm up for the main event – taking lots of silly pictures and videos, as the endless white expanse of the Salar offers possibilities for mucking around with perspective. The hour or two we spent doing that was one of the most fun things I’ve done on the whole trip – you can see the results in a separate post here.
After the wonders of the first day, there was nothing to do once we got to the hotel but block out the sound of the whiney French woman from another group (who was complaining about EVERYTHING in a VERY LOUD VOICE) by playing cards and drinking lots of wine (which also had the beneficial effect of helping us ignore the freezing temperartures).
Day two began with a very early start to catch the sunrise over the Salar (tip: don’t bother) before heading off into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, home to colourful lakes, strange rock formations, and lots and lots of flamingoes. (oh, and as an aside, it was interesting to discover that the Spanish word for Flamingo is Flamenco – as in the dance & music – which in turn is also for the Flemish language and people. Any Spanish speakers know if that’s a coincidence or is there some link between the bird, the dance & the people that’s not exactly obvious to me?!
The day turned out to be rather an eventful one, as the Australian & the Belgian decided they’d liven up the long hours of driving by polishing off a bottle of vodka and several cans of beer between them before lunchtime. It wasn’t until we arrived at the first lake that we realised quite how drunk they were, when the Aussie decided he wanted a closer look at the Flamingoes, and waded straight into the freezing cold lake. Amusement soon turned into anger, but luckily he’d peaked a bit too soon and promptly fell asleep as soon as we’d managed to herd him back into the jeep.
Next stop was yet another lake full of flamingoes – the reserve is home to three different species of them – which was a stunning sight, with the lake being surrounded by huge mountains.
Highlight of the second day was the Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree), so-called because the high winds of the Altiplano have eroded a rock so it balances precariously on a very narrow point, making it look a bit like a tree.
Arbol de Piedra
Final stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada, which gets its name from the algae that colour the lake red (which for some reason was particularly difficult to capture in photos), and yet another freezing cold night in the hostel.
Day three was pretty brief, but equally spectacular. We had yet another early start to make it to a nearby geyser field which is at its most active at sunrise, which was a truly ghostly sight, with the bubbling pools of mud and stark landscape shrouded in clouds of steam from the geezers, gradually being lit up by the rays of the emerging sun.
Sunrise over the Geysers
Fed up with three days of being absolutely freezing, our final stop was absolutely perfect: a natural hot spring for bathing in. Despite the brief agony of having to strip down in the baltic morning temperatures, it was all worth it for the chance to submerge ourselves in a bath-hot pool, looking out across a lake with the early morning sun scattering light across the water. Beautiful.
After our dip and a quick breakfast, it was a short ride to the border; bye bye Bolivia, hello Chile…
The rather isolated border post
Three long days of driving in a Jeep is pretty damn uncomfortable (another tip: bring your iPod with you, most of the jeeps have connectors so you can plug into the car stereo, which helps make the drive a lot more bearable, as long as you don’t end up fighting over the music!), the temperature is mostly bloody freezing, and the accommodation is at best basic. But all the discomfort is worth it – I’ve never seen anywhere like it.
You can see all of my photos of the Salar de Uyuni & the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa here.