The moment our 4×4 entered the salt flat was very unassuming. The road simply changed from dirt to salt abruptly, as if someone covered it with a thin, white blanket. But as our driver changed gears and stepped on the gas, I felt myself holding my breath and unable to blink as I looked around me at the vast desert covered with blindingly white salt. I turned around to look at my fellow tour mates and we all let out a laugh at the same time and shook our heads in disbelief. How could this be? One moment we were driving on a dirt road, through a small village selling alpaca sweaters and llama keychains. The next, we appeared to be floating on a surface as flat and white as a sheet of paper.
In fact, if I didn’t force myself to look at the crusty polygon shapes on the ground, I couldn’t even notice we were moving. Other SUVs far in the distance appeared to be suspended in the air, while mountains and volcanoes seemed to be hanging just a notch above the horizon.
But soon enough the optical illusion was disrupted as we approached a building, made entirely out of salt. This was the oldest salt hotel on Salar de Uyuni, with everything from walls to tables and chairs constructed out of blocks of salt. I was impressed and also a bit worried since I knew we were going to stay at a similar salt hotel later that night.
We walked around, taking in the vastness of the flat. There were other tourists taking “perspective pictures”, playing with the illusion of the endless desert. A collection of flags outside of the salt hotel drew people to pose with the flag of their home country, while a monument of the 2015 Dakar Rally was hard not to photograph.
The sun was high up in the sky and I tried to take off my sunglasses only to squint so hard that I couldn’t see anything anyway. The salt was blinding! It was cold enough for a jacket, but the sun was beaming down so hard that I was also afraid of getting burnt.
Soon it became our turn to take perspective pictures. We hopped back into our SUVs loaded at the top with our backpacks and jugs of gasoline to last us the full three days of our trip around Salar de Uyuni. After driving for another fifteen minutes right into the heart of the flat, we stopped in a place where there was nothing around us, but the vast stretches of salt. No other tourists were in sight and even the mountains blended into a single purple haze, indistinguishable from one another.
We were two SUVs and our drivers were kind enough to help each one of us to take some fun pictures, playing with the endless horizon of the salt flat. Our guide even coordinated two fun videos by positioning a Pringles can into the shot and having us “come out” of the Pringles can, pretending that we were entering a new planet for the first time.
The emptiness of the flat was unbelievable. I felt like I was in the Matrix, transported into the training module where there was nothing around me but whiteness. We must have spent about an hour taking pictures, but it felt like ten minutes for me. Before I could exhaust all the possibilities of crazy photographs that we could take, we were ushered back into the cars to our next stop – The Cactus Island.
Just when I thought the salt flat was completely empty, out of nowhere appeared a piece of land, full of cacti. The salt flat is actually the bottom of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists, and this piece of land is an island called Incahuasi. In fact, there are many islands on the salt flat, but this one is extra special since it is home to five thousand cacti, many of which are over one hundred years old.
The cacti are extremely tall with trunks as wide as trees in some cases. Although their needles are thicker than toothpicks, I’m sure they could do some serious damage if touched. Interestingly enough, these cacti are not native to this island. Their seeds were blown over here by the wind, sprouting up on the scarce pieces of fertile land among the desolate landscape. I could only imagine how colourful this island must be when the cacti flower.
We climbed to the top of the island, walking past the giant cacti and trying not to slip and fall. On more than one occasion, I felt like there was a person from our tour standing next to me only to discover that it was actually a tall cactus towering over me. I knew that I had to be more careful if I didn’t want to end up with a free acupuncture session!
As the sun started to set, we made our way back to our vehicles and set off for another spot on the flat where not a soul could be seen all around us. There we watched the sky as it lit up with shades of red and orange, admiring our shadows that stretched for probably a kilometer or two as the sun slipped below the horizon. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped drastically. Despite all of the layers of wool clothing I was wearing, I began to shiver.
We drove in pitch darkness towards a much larger piece of land, harbouring our hotel made entirely out of salt. The temperature in the room was cool just as I suspected, but the salt blocks insulated us from the strong winds that howled outside throughout the night. We slept under two alpaca blankets with a sleeping bag on top of us for good measure.
The remaining two days of our tour were full of adventure and admiration of the diverse landscape that this south-western part of Bolivia has to offer. The second day turned out to be particularly tough. We had an early morning start and started driving across another stretch of flat land, but this time it was not covered in salt. There were mountains and volcanoes all around us, and the land was so flat, that you could see the shadows of the clouds on the ground and on the slopes of the mountains. The wind was strong and cold, even though it was very sunny.
I sat in the front passenger seat because I usually get a little carsick if I sit in the back. From my great vantage point, I spotted a South American animal called vicuna crossing the road or nibbling at the grass in the distance. Our driver was a Quechua man, and true to his roots, he continuously chewed coca leaves the entire day to fend off hunger and the effects of altitude. I sat there in the front, admiring the volcanoes around me, trying to spot vicunas and breathing in the smell of coca leaves as we drove on, stopping in certain spots to take pictures.
Our entire trip to South America was timed to avoid the rainy season. As a result, we were visiting Bolivia during the winter – the driest, but also the coldest time of year. It just so happened that this year in particular, the area around Salar de Uyuni got a little bit more snow than usual. In fact, we were under the impression that we could only go on a two-day tour, because we were told the three-day tour may not be possible due to the heavy amount of snow.
However, we got lucky and the tour company decided to run three-day tours after all. But in the afternoon of the second day of our tour, we tried to make our way to Laguna Colorada (or the Red Lake as it is commonly called), and our group of four SUVs took turns getting stuck in the snow.
At one particular stopover, we were pummeled by hail as we hobbled through the snow to a nearby restroom. The visibility decreased radically throughout the afternoon, but our guides were determined to show us all the must-see places on the tour. Due to the delays getting stuck in the snow, we were way behind schedule. By the time we got to Laguna Colorada, I started to feel carsick and altitude sick. Although Salar de Uyuni sits at over 3,600 meters above the sea level, I didn’t feel the altitude on the first day. But on the second day, we climbed all the way to an altitude of 5,000 meters. Coupled with a long afternoon on bumpy roads, the freezing weather and the snow, the altitude started to get to me. My head was pounding and I felt nauseous. When we finally got to our hotel for the second night, I went straight to bed.
Our final day of the tour was filled with wildlife spotting and looking at various rock formations. We started out looking at rock paintings made by the ancient Viscachani culture, which would mix animal blood with llama fat to make red paint. This ancient culture actually knew astronomy and painted various animals on the rocks, such as snakes and pumas, which they believed corresponded to the constellations in the night sky.
While looking at the paintings, we spotted a viscacha among the rocks. This is a furry rodent that is a mix between a chinchilla and a rabbit. I even came across a ball of its fur stuck on a bush as it escaped from us between the rock formations. There was evidence of llamas from the hoof markings on the ground and an abandoned bone with a hoof that I found lying around. We saw Andean geese flying in twos above the land, and wild ostriches walking around among the bushes. There were also many llamas grazing on the grass in a mossy canyon that we visited.
Unlike Peru that heavily promotes tourism, Bolivia is humble and quiet on this front. As a result, it remains largely undiscovered and often overlooked by backpackers and tourists alike. But our tour of Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding areas clearly illustrated that there are natural wonders and ancient history that should be on everyone’s bucket list.