Salar de Uyuni - Uyuni, Bolivia
Life is an illusion. Almost nothing is how it really seems. That is partly why absurdly strange places such as Salar de Uyuni feel completely real and unreal at the very same time. It doesn't get much more 'real' than this stunning place.
Whiteness and blueness envelope everything: the brilliant white of the world's largest salt flats and the blue of the endless azure sky. An endless patchwork of hexagonal-shaped tiles stretches away in every direction; millions upon millions upon millions of them filling 10,000 square kilometres of whiteness. The only time this whiteness is broken is by an island of cacti in the middle of the salt flats. Apologies for the over use of the word 'surreal' but...some cactus are several metres high and date back hundreds of years, I am told. There were once prehistoric lakes here. Now the water is gone and only 10 billion tonnes of salt remains; several metres deep. The crazy thing is that the altitude here only varies by up to a metre across the entire flats! And partly for this reason, the Salar creates incredible tricks of the light. We all take turns attempting to create surreal photographic images: I stand 20 metres behind Katya, who has her right hand outstretched. In the lens it appears that a tiny, miniature version of me – only a few centimetres high - is stood on top of her hand. In other images we are stood upon an orange or a book, or flying through the air as if parachuting in from above.
Truly, Salar de Uyuni is one of the greatest sights on Earth. But, be warned! The majority of the world’s lithium lies here, and so, sadly, we all know what is going to happen to this place eventually!
Perhaps if you have lived in North-Eastern Europe, where you are used to seeing great blankets of white during snowy winters, then the shock of it all won’t be quite so intense. However, there is no denying that driving by 4WD through this great salt flat is an unforgettable experience that will never be forgotten.
Felix knocks us up lunch on the salt flats. It is just seven of us, a car and a few plates of food in a sea of white. Happy-to-be-alive rating: 10/10.
At the far edge of the salt lake, dozens of different national flags flutter in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags. There is a massive structure close by which simply reads: Dakar Rally. This part of Bolivia and some wilderness areas of Chile, Peru and Argentina are now the location for the Dakar Rally after the original Paris-Dakar Rally was moved away from Western Africa due to security issues. It is the first sense we have had of the commercial world since we arrived in this country three days ago.
Leaving the unforgettable salt flats behind we enter something of a dustbowl as we near the town of Uyuni. Out on the outskirts of town there is an antique ‘train cemetery’; the place where ageing trains come to die. When the mining industry in this area collapsed in the 1940s, the majority of the rolling stock was abandoned. As the dust blows in, the trains begin to rust away into nothing. But for now the old locomotives serve as a surreal and fun playground for visitors here.
Uyuni itself is an ugly dust ball of a town reminiscent of the dying towns of the Ubek Aral Sea region. After a month in Chile this truly looks Third World. The centre of the town is seeing some investment ,however ,and there are a couple of pleasant streets that sport a promenade or two and plenty of garish statues devoted to trains and miners.
It is time to say farewell to our driver FelixX. Of all the long road trips I’ve ever endured around the world, Felix would be my shout as the best driver I’ve ever had. He didn’t make a single mistake in 520 kilometres of off road driving across a myriad of different terrains. He never drove too fast or lost his concentration. And he also had to put up with the whims of four vegetarians in one vehicle; something that must seem very odd to a carnivorous Bolivian man in his forties. If you read this blog and you plan to cross the Bolivian salt flats, search for Felix and his company World White Travel!
We check into the Hotel Avenida just across from the train station. It ain’t as cold as it was up there in the middle of the wilderness but it is still very uncomfortably chilly. It seems like the Bolivians don’t believe in the concept of heating.
Uyuni is a transit town for tourists. Hundreds arrive and depart from here every day as they come and go from the salt flats. For that reason, the main drag in town is home to more than a dozen restaurants catering to said tourists. From the outside most appear attractive with their food boards offering pizza, spaghetti and rosti. But step inside and most of these places are ridiculously overpriced dives serving up sub-standard food, very often from filthy kitchens manned by kids, cats and not-very-bright ‘cooks’.
We enjoy beers with our Aussie couple friends – Ravinesh and Nakita - and the three top lads from Chile who were also on our tour. The Aussies are on the overnight train out of here while the lads are travelling back to Chile.
I nip down to the bus station to try and book tickets to Potosi for tomorrow on a decent local bus. Rumour has it that buses here are shockingly dangerous so I want to book up the best and safest option possible. As soon as the sun goes down the temperature drops like a stone in a lake. It immediately heads for zero and below. Down by the bus station the vibe is dodgy. Everywhere I look there are drunks and junkies – many of them dressed in traditional clothing – staggering around or slumped in shop entrances. Three blokes are all taking it in turns to snog one drunken woman in the entrance to the bus ticket agency where I want to buy a ticket for tomorrow. And she is the one who is supposed to be selling the tickets! Bolivia looks downtrodden and very rough around the edges. The welcoming smiles of Chile have been replaced by poker faced stares.
I abandon the bus-ticket-buying idea and return to the Avenida. It is desperately cold in the room. Katya is already hidden under three layers of blankets, the only warmth in the room an imaginary one, coming from listening to my transistor radio.
The three-day 520-kilometre trip across the wild Bolivian wilderness was world-class but first impressions of urban Bolivia are that this country is an absolute dive.