Any farmer will tell you – I presume; it occurs to me while writing this sentence that I don’t actually really know many farmers all that well, come to think of it – that a large amount of salt is one of the most thorough ways to render a tract of land completely useless. And yet the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia are one of the country’s biggest money-earners. It would be a little harsh to claim that as emblematic of Bolivia’s position in the world: that the country’s best (tourist attraction) is other countries’ worst (threats to sustainability, etc.). But there you have it…
Aka Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are just that: large expanses of salt – as far as the eye can see. They’re up in the Atacama desert, in Bolivia’s south-western highlands. And are the highlands ever high: our four-day tour had us sleeping above 4000m every night, and cresting 5000m on a couple of the days. My lasting memory of which is going to be the observation that there’s a lot more high altitude snoring that goes on when unacclimatised. (Not that I’m claiming that I was magically unaffected by this, of course.)
Touring the salt flats is a little bit surreal, to be honest. Basically, you’re being driven around the desert for several days so that you can see (a) some salt, (b) some rocks, and (c) some lakes. Still, they’re all much-vaunted features of the Bolivian landscape, and so it seemed silly not to go see them. And they were very pretty.
We got to Uyuni on an overnight bus, and spent the morning shopping around the various tour agencies for a tour which satisfied our two primary criteria: first, was it leaving today; second, was there a high likelihood that we would return alive and uninjured. (Bolivia does not exactly have a reputation for great driving conditions – nor for great drivers – and many a salt flat tour has ended very unhappily for those who have chosen their provider poorly. See upcoming post for recommendations on avoiding that fate yourself.) Finally we found one and set off, discovering as we did that not only did it seem like we’d picked the tour operator well, but also that we’d been particularly fortunate in the travelling companions who’d chosen similarly – the four others in our 4WD were fantastic company for the time we spent with them.
Actually only one of the days of the tour is about the salt flats. Probably a good thing, too – as fun as it is taking fancy photos playing clever tricks with perspective, it’s an activity which I imagine you’d tire of pretty quickly if you tried more than a couple of hours of it.
Because of course part of the point of the salt flats is that they’re so surreal, so unusual, so uniform, that you lose all sense of perspective. Which means you can play fun tricks.
So, once we’d done that, what else was there to do with our three days? Well, there was a train graveyard, there were flamingo-filled lakes, there were beautiful sunsets, there were colourful lakes with mirror finishes beautifully reflecting mountains in the background, there were cool-shaped rocks in the desert, there were…
Well, there were lots of pretty things. Which I guess means they’re better looked at than described. Uyuni – and all of southern Bolivia – is most definitely a visual sort of area.