Moving on from Potosi was a ridiculously scenic bus trip through Bolivia’s high desert to the town of Uyuni which sits at the edge of the biggest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. Uyuni isn’t really much of a city, its main reason for existing is to use as a base for the tours through the salt flats and Altiplano. When the four of us arrived just on nightfall the town was buzzing with activity with dozens of bars and restaurants packed with backpackers. It was also one of the most desolate places I’d been so far. If you can picture an old western movie with windblown sand, no trees and tumbleweed, that’s Uyuni in a nutshell. Not wasting any time we book a three day tour leaving the next day which will end in San Pedro de Atacama.
The numbers for the salt flats are kind of hard to get your head around. It covers around 11000 square kilometers, sits at 3600m in altitude, has a salt crust meters thick and the brine that sits below the salt crust contains around 50% of the lithium on earth. That’s right, either the smartphone or computer you’re reading this on right now probably has a battery made with the lithium from the lake. In summer the rains fill Lake Titicaca which then overflows into the salt flats for a few weeks.
The only way to explore the lake is with a 4×4 and the next day when our ride turned up we somehow managed to get business class treatment. While everyone else’s 4×4 was some variation of a beat up old Landcruiser (the peasants) we had an old Lexus. So basking in the Luxury we set off on a very, very cool road trip with a German guy and Italian woman joining Myself, Jenna, Sarah and Conor. Right away just on the edge of town is the first stop over to make sure the cameras are all working properly, a train graveyard. Sitting in the middle of nowhere are the rusted out shells of dozens of steam trains which must have been driven to the end of the railway line and abandoned. The whole area is like a giant adult playground and we climb around on the shells at least half an hour before it’s time to go.
From here the really fun part begins and after driving a short distance we reach the edge of the salt flats. In every direction ahead of us all we can see is pure blinding white to the horizon. Rising up above this white are the cones of volcanoes sitting on a mirage, giving a really awesome illusion that they are floating. We drive across this expanse for hours stopping a couple of times at mid-lake hotel and an island that sits almost in the centre of the flats. Sometime during the afternoon we arrive at the spot where we can take our obligatory optical illusion photos. The surface is so perfectly flat that it’s the best spot on earth to take wildly out of perspective photos with small things looking enormous or vice versa. See photos below.
It takes a couple more hours to reach the edge of the flats where we begin four wheel driving to our place to stay for the night. We had heard some pretty bad stories from other people about their accommodation so we weren’t keeping any high expectations about what we would get. Luckily for us when we arrived it was a really nice hostel/motel run by a family with a really cute baby, which the girls melted for on the spot. So after some great dinner and some drinks we settle in for the night and wait for the next day which is supposed to be even better.
Our driver tells us that he will pick us up at 8am, which in Bolivian time means somewhere around 9am and we pile into the Lexus for day two. The first half of the day is driving through a massive valley lined with, I don’t know, hundreds of volcanoes and they aren’t small either. As a guess most of them would be at the mid 5000m range so the landscape looked more like another planet. The Atacama is also one of the driest deserts in the world so there was no life to be seen anywhere apart from some groups of Vicuña. During the afternoon, still driving down the valley, we start to visit a series of lakes (the famous one being Colorada). They are full of thousands of flamingos casually walking around on the lake eating and doing whatever flamingos do. With zero wind the lakes reflect the amazing scenery around them and we just stand there taking it all in for a long time.
The accommodation that night is a bit sparser but you can’t really expect very much in the middle of the desert. It’s also the highest place we would be sleeping during the trip at somewhere in the mid 4000m range. We have another decent dinner and get stuck into some bottles of wine, which was a terrible idea. Getting stuck into some wine at sea level is a dicey idea but at extreme altitude things just become messy. Take my advice, just stick to water. We leave at 5am the next morning and drive through darkness for what seems like hours. Just as the first twilight is starting to appear we come over a ridge into a small valley which is full of geysers and steam vents, which was made even more surreal being so hungover.
Just on sunrise we make it to some thermal springs and take in the view while we watch the sun come up over the biggest salt lake yet. With the steaming water and some steaming volcanoes to add effect it made for another postcard experience. The last part of the drive is to the border with Chile and to give us one last strange experience before we go it starts snowing on us as we are in the line for passport control. You really never know what’s going to happen in Bolivia.