Exploring Bolivia’s Salt Flats

It was early. Too early. And while thoughts of catching a few zzz’s went through everyone’s mind, it wasn’t possible. The jeep was shaking, rattling and rolling us in every direction, the road so bumpy that you might sustain a head injury if you weren’t holding onto something. But we were much too excited anyways. The anticipation kept the chatter to a minimum as we admired the starry sky and wondered how the hell our driver knew which unmarked dirt “road” to take, in a maze that kept us turning and bouncing this way and that.

After 3 days of traversing the Martian-like landscape of southern Bolivia, we were finally en route to the main attraction: watching the sun rise over the Uyuni Salt Flats. We arrived just as the first rays of dawn started poking out from behind the low mountains surrounding the extinct sea bed.

I’ll never forget the first steps I took on the crunchy salt that looked and sounded like snow beneath my feet. Between that and the cool chill in the air, I had to convince myself that I wasn’t back home in Canada. We put on every layer of clothing we had and stood, teeth chattering, in the middle of what felt like an endless, flat, white desert landscape.

A few other jeeps from our group soon showed up to join us. With over 10,000 square kilometers of dessert, there was plenty of room to share.  We watched the sun slowly rise, taking silhouette photos, enjoying the calm still air. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, the endless dazzling white, bordered by the low mountains that seemed to be close by yet just out of reach. With so much space, we took advantage of it, jumping for joy and running around to keep warm.

After the sun made its grand entrance, we all piled back into the jeep and took off across the smooth expanse, heading towards Cactus (Inkawasi) Island. On our drive in, the dirt roads seemed like a crazy maze with no signs to direct you. Now that we were on an open dessert, we’d lost roads entirely. You could literally drive wherever you wanted to without fear of hitting anything.

Again our driver somehow managed to get us to our next destination without a single road sign, map or navigating device. While our breakfast was being prepared, we set off on the short hike up to the top of the island.

Cactus Island is exactly that: an island in the middle of the flat dessert, rising up out of the extinct sea floor, topped with some interesting coral rock formations.  And of course, covered in cacti. From the top of this little island I had a 360 degree view of, well, dessert. Endless, flat, white dessert reaching out in every direction. It felt so isolating yet refreshing to be surrounded by so much open space.

When we arrived back at our jeep, our guide had a wonderful breakfast spread out for us. Having been up since the wee hours of the morning we were all starving and dug right into the toast, cereal and yogurt set out on our little stone table.

After warming ourselves with cups of tea and coffee, we all climbed back into the jeep. We weren’t quite done with the salt flats yet! Our driver took off into the sea of white, eventually stopped in the middle of nowhere to stretch our legs and play around on the flattest and largest “field” we’d ever seen.

Our driver patiently waited and at times, took on the role of photographer for us, as we jumped in the air and set up numerous depth perception shots that have become the requisite souvenir for anyone who ventures out onto the endless salt flats.

Back in the jeep we drove for a while longer until we came to our last stop on the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats were locals “farm” the salt. We could see piles of salt shaped like upside-down cones and stacks of salt bricks waiting to be taken away.

There was a small “island” made out of salt that past travelers had filled with flags from around the world.

Every day of this 3 day journey had been absolutely incredible. The landscape in southern Bolivia was simply out of this world and I can’t say which day I enjoyed the most. Each time we set out in the jeeps we’d find a new natural wonder that left me in awe. Exploring the Uyuni Salt Flats was one of the most amazing adventures I’ve done and I hope to return there again some day!

If you’d like to see pictures from the entire 3 day journey, check out my article on Road Trip Across Southern Bolivia: A Photo Essay.


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