We arrived in Uyuni early in the morning and stepped off our night bus into the cold and crisp air. Having spent nearly a week in the hot and humid Amazon, it was a bit of a shock to the system to be back at more than 3,600 metres above sea level.
Uyuni is the place where everyone in Bolivia comes for a tour of the world’s largest salt flats – a huge 4086 square mile desert made entirely of pristine white salt. As soon as we dropped our bags off, we were off on our tour – a day trip that would take us to a train graveyard, a town made of salt, an island covered in cacti and a place where a thin layer of water turns the salt flats into a giant mirror of the sky.
Our first stop, the train graveyard, is a scrapyard that’s full of rusting old steam trains that were used in colonial times to ship silver and other minerals from the mines of nearby Potosi all the way to Chile – to be exported to Spain.
It was a bit surreal to see so many trains disintegrating away within such a barren landscape, but it was fun to climb through them and explore.
We were then taken to Colchani, a village that harvests the salt for exporting (and also sells handicrafts for tourists to buy).
The most interesting thing about the town is that you could see the houses themselves were made of bricks of salt! It looked impressive, but I’m not sure how much insulation a block of salt provides…
Our next stop was a place where water bubbled up to the surface in small gurgling springs. It looked like something from another world and the orange-tinge made by underground minerals made the little pools look toxic. One brave (or stupid) soul decided to stick a finger in and pulled it out to find that crystals of salt were forming on his skin.
For lunch, we visited Isla Incahuasi– an ‘island’ amidst the flat expanse of salt that is completely covered in cacti. The island itself is made from fossilised coral, and from here it’s easier to imagine what the place was like before the salt flats existed – when it was a huge prehistoric lake.
Afterwards, we were taken to a place where there was literally nothing – just so we could take in the vastness.
It’s obvious to point out, but the salt flats really are flat – apparently the surface varies just one metre over its entirety – which means you can see for miles and miles around and is an excellent place to take the obligatory (but fun) perspective pictures.
Our last stop was what I had been really looking forward to; a place where a thin slick of water reflects everything above it perfectly. We arrived before sunset and the effect was stunning.
The whole day we’d felt like we could be on another planet, but this was like being in another dimension altogether. Two suns set toward each other, with the sky and surface of the salt changing simultaneously from blue to orange to pink. In the distance, other cars and people could be seen – along with their upturned doubles. At times it was almost disorientating – we were literally seeing double!
With the suns disappearing into each other and everything darkening, it was time to head back. It was amazing to see the salt flats and, considering it was the dry season, we felt extremely lucky to have been able to see how the water transforms it from a dry and arid landscape into an unspoiled mirror of nature.