Notes From Afar – The Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia
Notes From Afar
For those who seek ultimate adventure…
Further yourself by going to the frontiers with Furthest Frontiers Expeditions
The Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia
By Ben Flotken
The Bolivian Salt Flats are a dreamscape. A vast, completely flat ocean of salt crystals that stretches out almost as far as the eye can see in every direction, punctuated by mountains that rise sharply on the very edges of your vision. There is no vegetation, nothing could possibly live here, except for in small pockets or on the very outskirts. The utter aridness of Uyuni during the dry season stands in sharp contrast to the wet season, when it floods, turning the flats into a giant, brilliant mirror reflecting the sky and mountains around it, leaving one to feel like they’re within the very heavens themselves. Meanwhile, the only movement is the occasional jeep zooming across the desert, shuttling travelers to the lonely, cactus covered hill in the middle of the barrenness, flanked by swiftly flapping flags representing countries from all over the world, to the mountains off in the distance, and finally to the border Bolivia shares with Chile, where many people will cross over to the Atacama Desert.
Everyone comes here for a picture, the complete flatness making perspective complex and allowing objects far off in the distance to appear much closer than they actually are. Thus, all tour drivers carry a bag of props with them, such as toy dinosaurs, that if positioned correctly, can look like they’re terrorizing a distant traveler. Even without these props, a bad picture simply can’t be taken. In conjunction with it’s moonlike atmosphere, it’s why movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi have been filmed here.
Once a giant, prehistoric lake, the Bolivian Salt Flats, also known as Salar de Uyuni, are now the largest salt flats in the world, coming in at over 4,000 square miles, almost all covered by feet of salt. Along with its immense size and composition, what gives Uyuni its ethereal feel is the fact that the average elevation change over the entire region is less than a meter. All of this at an altitude seldom reached in the United States, since it rests on the Bolivian Altiplano, nearly 12,000 feet above sea level.
Most tours start off in the city of Uyuni, along the edge of the salt flats. Here tour companies compete for business, trying to lure tourists into their offices and cutting deals in order to fill their jeeps. Surprisingly, some of the best pizza in Bolivia also is here, as an American from the east coast settled here years ago and opened his own pizzeria. While not very exciting to those still in the States, to people who have been traveling South America for a bit, it’s a godsend. Meanwhile, just outside of town is a train graveyard. At one time a hub for transporting minerals to the Pacific, all that remains are the abandoned, hulking, rusty corpses of antique trains stretching along this barren expanse. From here travelers take jeeps across the vast expanse of the Salar de Uyuni, pausing occasionally for pictures and meals, until they reach the other side, where flamingos reside in their multi-colored lagoons, among a much craggier landscape. At the end, visitors have the option of taking in a dip in the naturally occurring hot springs before either continuing on into Chile or looping back around.
While often bypassed by travelers due to its location in one of the poorest and least known countries in South America, the Salar de Uyuni is nevertheless one of the treasures of the continent, a place unlike anywhere else in the world, where the gap between dream and reality becomes infinitesimal.