2. Bolivian Altiplano & Salar de Uyuni

Day 3: Salar de Uyuni, Incahuasi Island -> Uyuni

The final day of our tour started as we sleepily boarded our 4×4s in the dark at 5 a.m. The sandy gravel of the desert gradually transformed into crystalline salt, crunching underneath our tyres as the jeeps relentlessly rolled along. We had finally bid farewell to the Altiplano desert, entering the immense Salar de Uyuni. While we departed the hostel with several other tour groups, the noises from other engines soon grew distant as our jeeps parted ways.

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The sun rises over the Salar and our group.

After finding an unobstructed view of the horizon, our vehicles came to a halt and we watched the sun rise over the salt flats.

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Braving the cold to watch the spectacular vermillion sunrise over the salt flats, the group witnessed a blush spread like wildfire across the horizon.

Soaking in the serenity of the sunrise, we advanced to the nearby Incahuasi Island, the remnants of a prehistoric submerged volcano in the centre of the Salar. The island is also a centre of religious significance, especially during the summer solstice, when massive festivities on the island attract surrounding locals. During these festivities, various tributes and sacrifices are made to Pachamama (Mother Earth), seeking her blessing.

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Strikingly, the island is populated by massive cacti; in turn, dried cacti are used to build structures on the island, given that the surroundings are completely devoid of any usable vegetation.

We climbed Incahausi Island as the sun rose over the Salar, accompanied by the resident dog Luna, who ascends to the summit with the first tourist and descends with the last.

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The summit provides spectacular views of surrounding volcanoes and the vast Salar, marked by jeep tracks radiating outwards from the island.

By the time we descended the island, bidding our farewell to Luna, morning had well and truly broken. The overcast evaporated to reveal an azure sky and the brilliant sun. We ventured even deeper into the lifeless Salar.

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The Salar is incredibly bright as it reflects the unrelenting desert sun. The effect turns out to be just as striking as the blinding effect of snow.

 

The Salar is stunning. Nothing quite prepares you for the interminable whiteness of the largest salt flat int he world. The lack of any drainage outlets meant that the salt remained after evaporation of the large prehistoric lagoon, forming satisfyingly regular hexagonal honeycombs.

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Salar de Uyuni is covered by a few metres of salt crust most of the year. Also impressively flat, the salt flat’s altitude varies by no more than a metre over its entirety.

With no visible point of reference, cruising along the Salar was disorienting and almost hallucinogenic. In a region where even GPS does not function properly, it was a minor miracle that our drivers had an intuitive sense of our direction of travel.

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The Salar is so massive that certain landmarks, even towering volcanoes, would not be visible because they would be below the curvature of the Earth!

The salt flats become even more incredible when it rains. Several centimetres of rain suffice to transform the salt flats into the world’s largest mirror, with its near-perfect flatness giving rise to incredible reflections of the surrounding mountains. We were unlucky to travel through the Salar during the dry season, preventing us from observing the famed mirror effect.

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The Salar’s flatness and lack of background perspective allowed forced perspective photos to be taken. Even our tour guide and the drivers joined in with brainstorming photo ideas and taking photos for us!

After a gruelling brainstorm session of photo ideas, and what felt like hours setting up for the photos, we were again on our way. On the edge of the Salar, we stopped for our farewell lunch and a brief shopping detour in a street market.

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Moving further from the barren interior of the Salar, the bleak whiteness of the salt flats is gradually terraformed back into the familiar desert vegetation. For our victory stretch, we even rode on top of the jeeps!

Finally reaching paved roads, we journeyed towards Uyuni, a small and frankly unclean town bordering the Salar. The amount of rubbish we saw on the streets was in stark contrast to the untainted purity of the Salar and the surrounding lagoons. We finally finished our tour with a visit to the Cemeterio de Trenes (cemetery of trains), an area with numerous rusted locomotives, together forming a steampunk dream.

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The trains in Cemeterio de Trenes were once used by mining companies but were abandoned as minerals in the area were depleted.

Returning to Uyuni, we bid farewell to our guides, and left for hectic and bustling La Paz the same afternoon.

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Lifeless rocks dot the incredible Siloli Desert. Be sure to take precautions when climbing some of these immense structures!

The Bolivian Altiplano is home to some of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet, and we were sad to leave the amazing scenery behind. Unencumbered by worldly troubles and devoid of tourist encounters, the high plains afford the rare chance to truly immerse in the natural backdrop. Departing Uyuni, we are about to swap natural beauty for the hustle and bustle awaiting us in La Paz.

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