One of the coldest, driest and most isolated places I managed to visit on my South American trip was the famous Salt Plains of Bolivia.
It’s also probably one of the most photographed areas in the world not least because of it’s stunning beauty but because of the optical ‘mirror image’ of the land reflecting the sky (on a good day!).
According to the eggheads in Wikipedia, the salt flats stretch across over 10,000 square kilometres in the Western edge of the country. I was headed for Argentina from Peru and had heard rave reviews from friends who had taken one of the many tours on offer in the small town of Uyuni.
Having taken an eight hour overnight bus journey I arrived pre-dawn in the ‘town centre’ which was really just a cluster of run down buildings assembled around a cross road. My guide book up until that point had gotten me out of a few scrapes and I leaned on it for some compelling intel about my new habitat. At that hour it was still dark which made reading difficult, and now there was a biting cold wind which was hard to find shelter from.
Having travelled alone and with it being a Friday, I failed to find any notable attractions in my trusty Lonely Planet or immediate line of sight that would inspire a want to spend longer in the town. It basically served as a port for people coming and going to the Salt Flats. I walked around town to warm myself until the tour operators began to open their doors, and quickly signed up for one that was leaving that day.
The options on offer were ranged from 1 day – 4 days. With the 4 days you would take much more in, and included accommodation and food each night. It was most expensive of course.
Groups sizes were up to six. The majority of signups opted for 3 days, 2 nights experience or a day trip to see the main show.
The highlight of course were the Salt Plains themselves but other distractions littered the trail which were marketed into the overall experience.
However, 4 days seemed like overkill in my opinion.
I lucked out and got thrown in with a great group. An Australian couple and 3 Uruguayan guys who fortunately spoke great English.
The two days covered a lot of driving which was ass-numbing but time spent well with the right company.
Several stops dotted the trail and we took some stunning photos of surreal landscapes. Flamingos grazed on the lip of shallow lakes. Cactus fields sprouted from nowhere. Bizarre rock formations. Blood Red Lagoon that changed colour seasonally.
However, the daddy of them were the plains itself, and we got a little giddy when finally reaching it. Some of the group had prepped in advance and bought tiny toy creatures in anticipation of the photo opportunity to come. It’s a great place to play with camera angles because of the reflective quality of the plain and difficulty in measuring scale.
We were driving over what was essentially a salt lake which had formed a crust on its surface like ice that was just thick enough to withstand the weight of the vehicle.
Our driver pulled the Jeep up to a hole in this salt cap, and reached into the water and began pulling on the underside. He managed to snag some rock salt crystals that had formed which were pretty cool, before we did the obligatory photo thing.
For the two nights, we stayed in popup Salt hotels which was unreal. The furniture and beds were made of compressed rock salt which added an interesting dimension to our experience.
Other groups collected in these hotels too, and we were meeting them at various points of their own tour journey. Because our altitude was several thousand metres above sea level, the alcohol that was passed around at dinner time went straight to our heads and there were one or two singsongs had!
What I will say is that, it was blisteringly cold. I was still nursing my arm in a sling from a bad accident two weeks earlier, so couldn’t quite wrap myself up well enough, or tuck myself in comfortably.
Fortunately, the days were a little warmer and visiting the hot pools and warm geysers helped to chill our weary tail bones.
I made several new friends and joined up later in my backpacking travels in Uruguay, where we had one of the best weekends of my life.
But that’s a story for another time!