No matter how little you know (or think you know) about Bolivia, you’ve heard about at least one spot: el Salar de Uyuni. You might not even have known it was in Bolivia when you got shown photos of it by that random traveller, but you’ll no doubt remember the endless whites and perspective-twisting photos involving dinosaurs. It’s one of the top destinations in South America for backpackers both for its very unique landscape, and its convenient location: a three- or four-day tour around the Salar is also one of the easiest way to cross from Chile into Bolivia, or vice-versa.
So naturally, I didn’t do that. Having said a definitive goodbye to Chile the month before (until I come back one day to drink its wineries dry, of course), I chose to keep to a packed-full single-day tour of the Salar. That also meant limiting my time in Uyuni to a minimum, which was good because Uyuni is… pretty much a dead town. For real. Don’t go there.
There are dozens and dozens of tour operators organising tours through the Salar, and every single one does the exact same route. The first stop is always the train cemetery.
Back in the day, Bolivia had big plans to build up its transport system, mostly on the back of the mineral trade. Then between indigenous people taking a dislike to the system, and the collapse of the mining industry, trains fell into disrepair. Uyuni, which used to be a railway hub, became the resting place of many of the old wagons.
Next stop is the old salt hotel, now the lunch spot for all the visitors. It’s a completely uninteresting place in itself, aside for this:
This spot that feels in the middle of nowhere, alone against the blue-and-white horizon, filled with brightly coloured flags from pretty much everywhere around the world… including my home region’s Gwenn ha Du!
Not pictured: intense levels of internal excitement
And then… the salt flats themselves.
Do not wear black jeans to the salt flats. They will end up white.
I loved visiting Isla Incahuasi, a small island completely covered in cacti in the middle of the flats. From there you’ve got the most incredible view of the Salar, and you also get to feel Indiana Jones-like as you climb up bouldery hills without hearing a sound.
I spent my day in the Salar on a tour with four other people, all Spanish speakers. Two of them, filmmakers both, were really keen on finding water. I was blissfully unaware of that aspect of the area, thanks to my complete absence of research into Bolivia ahead of this trip, but the Salar attracts many in the wet season because of its mirror effect. It took us over an hour of what seemed like pointless driving… but it proved out to be well worth it.
This is one of those cases were the pictures actually tell a better story than the actual event. My day in the Salar was one of the most tiring and stressful I’ve had travelling. I only accidentally ended up in a Spanish-speaking group and it took a lot of effort for me to follow the day’s conversations, and the decision to look for water was one done through debate and arguing between passengers and with the driver, with the promise to pay him an extra fee. And yet looking through the photos now, and writing about the day, it comes back to me as a precious day of sorts – one of those that proves that travelling is worth it, in spite of the obstacles on the way. It’s all a matter of perspective…
And speaking of perspective…