The day after arriving in Bolivia, we headed out on a tour of the Salt Flats, which really means a trip around the exotic landscape of the country’s south west.
It was a visual spectacle like nothing else I’ve ever seen, an utterly incredible four days that required a lot of photos – over 1000 in all! We drove for much of each day in a four-wheel drive, four of us passengers as well as our guide Will, and cook Katty. Each night we slept in a different place, very basic and distinguished by the floor – first mud, then stone, then the unusual choice of salt! Without any heating or decent insulation, all were freezing cold and had us shivering beneath layers of blankets each night.
The thing that stood out most for me as we travelled around were the unusual contrasts: vast dry deserts with snow capped mountains behind them; pink flamingos standing in near-frozen red water under a bright blue sky with a blazing sun; the seemingly endless white of the salt flats cut by a long cargo train painted in a varied palette of rusting reds. We also saw huge differences in wildlife – plains with llamas and vicuñas wandering around, valleys with condors flying overhead, arid stretches where even the hardiest desert plants had died out, and then the bright green poison lakes, full of arsenic, magnesium and lead which had seeped from the surrounding mountains.
The salt flats themselves are huge, over 100km wide, and the salt itself 14m deep. They are the residue of what was once the sea; considering they are now at 3650m above sea level, it really makes you realise how much landscapes change over time. Our final night was spent in a ‘salt hotel’, the whole place constructed entirely from blocks of the stuff and an utterly surreal experience – Laura had to lick the walls just to check!
The last day of the tour was Laura’s birthday, and so in an attempt to match my Everest Base Camp experience, we spent an amazing sunrise admiring the incredible colours over the salt flats. It had also been the birthday of another girl in our group, and so later our guide and cook surprised us with a breakfast picnic in the middle of the salt, complete with birthday cake!
We finished the trip at the eerie train graveyard on the outskirts on Uyuni, which paints an interesting history of Bolivia’s industrial past. The country has vast mineral deposits, and the rail network was constructed to export goods from the mines. However, the locomotives were often of poor quality and not up to the task, and so were abandoned in various states of disrepair at this train yard outside Uyuni. It is now a strange combination of junkyard, rubbish heap, adventure playground (complete with swings made from the trains), and teenage hangout, with modern graffiti adorning much of the rusting metal. We climbed up and around the warped and crippled engines, and Laura even managed to get inside an old furnace, apparently boiling hot (but from the sun and not coal!)
Later that night when we rolled into our hostel after a birthday pizza with some newly made friends, we found a strange device sitting in the middle of our room. Plugged into a socket in the wall was some newfangled invention – an electric heater! It was only after we had all stared at it in awe for some time that we burst out laughing, realising quite how much we’d missed the feeling of warmth and some home comforts when staying in the basic accommodation on the tour. However cold at night, our trip around the altiplano was most definitely worth it – a wonderful display of natural beauty, brilliant colours, and some memories to be savoured for a lot longer than the lick of salt we got from the ground beneath us earlier that morning.