Resting high atop Bolivia’s southwestern Altiplano, some 11,000 feet above sea level, Salar de Uyuni is famous for one thing – salt!
The offspring of a dried-up prehistoric lake, Salar de Uyuni is technically a saltwater lake. But due to a dense, 6-foot salt crust, it appears more like a desert. Blanketing a 4,085-square-mile area – 25 times the size of Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats – the Salar contains over 10,000 tons of this favorite household seasoning. In addition, the liquid brine hidden beneath the crust accounts for over 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves.
As the name would suggest, the flats are extremely flat, varying only a meter in altitude over the entire salt crust. This natural level not only has geologists astounded but climatologists as well. Scorched by day, frozen by night, the flats harbor one of the most extreme daily temperature dichotomies on the planet.
Rivaling the temperature variance is the disparity of scenery. It shifts from the candescent floors of a briny heaven to the aberrant, iron-rich surface of a planet like Mars in a matter of miles. It is a mystical plateau full of inexplicable discovery.
The nearby one-horse town of Uyuni is a mandatory stop for arranging tours. Dozens of companies will vie for your business, but they are essentially the same. All offer 3-4 days of guided Jeep transportation, basic shelter and simple Boliviano repast. The only discerning characteristics to be wary of are Jeep quality, working heaters and an English-speaking “guia.” Once you’ve ticked all the boxes, it’s time to haggle. Averaging anywhere from $70-$120, be sure to shop around.
Day one began with a blinding performance! Flying across the sparse flatlands, our Jeep barreled toward a milky white horizon. Weaving dangerously close to hundreds of salt pile land mines, I tried to convince myself the driver was skilled, not stupid.
The heavenly horizon urged us to drive faster and faster until – EEEK! Our driver slammed on the brakes. Enveloped in a cloud of dust and salt, our guia used this moment of blindness to further disorient us. “Close your eyes,” he urged, explaining the awe factor would be intensified in the middle of the flats. When all eyes were tightly sealed, he slammed on the gas. A few anxious minutes later, we crunched to a halt. “Open” he cried.
As if the twinkle of a billion stars had been bottled up and poured out over the horizon, the ivory radiance of the salt flats consumed my every angle of vision. Direction, distance and depth were all lost in this natural illusion, as the gap between cottony clouds and salty earth collided into one solid wall of white.
The only thing more mystifying than the scenery was the photos that followed. Thanks to a natural green screen effect, with a frosty substitute, perceptually deceiving photos were effortlessly caught on film.
Utilizing just about every strange object we could find for these briny masterpieces (toy cars, beer cans and even a slinky), the only way our guia could persuade departure was with the promise of more salt. Welcome to the original “Salt Hotel” – bed frames, tables, chairs, even walls, all constructed of this edible material. Let’s just say you don't have to ask “pass the salt” at the dinner table.
Moving from salt flats to just plain flats, our next day afforded very different vistas. Replacing the former whitewash effect, dizzying hues of iron-rich oranges and burgundies set the Altiplano ablaze while armies of large, petrified coral littered the otherwise uncompromised horizon.
As night fell on day two, so did the promised cold. The warmth of day quickly lost to the paucity of atmosphere. Not even the crushing weight of six oversized alpaca blankets and my deluxe sleeping bag were enough to ward off the glacial attack. Rendered physically immobile, all I could do was pray for morning, when the warmth of day would vanquish the unbearable chill of night.
Arising well before the sun, we set off for the next grand site – the Sol de Manana Geysers. A ticking time bomb, the valley is smattered with dozens of active geysers, bubbling lava pools and smoldering volcanic craters. A thick coat of steam disorients most who enter, and the consequences for taking the wrong step can be grave – risking a dip in, undoubtedly, the last bath of your life.
This natural sauna provided only an inkling of the heat we so badly desired. Our only hope was the nearby thermal pools. Challenging the blistering cold, we swiftly de-layered and dropped into the cloudy abyss. My fingers and toes burned against the drastic temperature change, but the stabbing pangs eventually subsided, replaced by an incredible tingling sensation. Finally, digit mobility was restored.
We finished up the day with a visit to the famed Laguna Verde (“Green Crater Lake”) and Laguna Colorado (“Red Lake”). Yeah right, a red lake? But the tales were true. Every day, when the sun hits the fiery red-rocked mountains, an auburn shadow is cast over the lake. Combine the powerful shadow with an abundance of red algae already in the water, and you have a recipe for one majorly crimson lake.
From one end of the Altiplano to the other, the return drive to Uyuni was the longest, but most spectacular, leg by far. Whipping past our window, an encore performance of the beauty and mystique of this previously unknown world rewound in front of our enchanted eyes.
Salar de Uyuni is a trip of a lifetime that will dance in your memories forever.