Uyuni: Magical Desert of Shifting Perspective

Uyuni: Magical Desert of Shifting Perspective

Magical perspectives in a white salt desert!

I’ll be honest – I originally had no desire to go to Uyuni in Bolivia.  My friend Val insisted that we go, but I couldn’t see what the appeal was of the desert.  The whole point of a desert is that there’s nothing there, right?

How wrong could I be!  Uyuni turned out to be one of the major highlights of my trip.  The Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats, should be considered one of the wonders of the world in my opinion.  Mile after mile of snow-white land, flat as a pancake and crystalized into intriguing hexagons, spreads before your eyes as far as you can see.  You don’t have to be a professional photographer to be able to take some of the most stunning photos of your life there.

Bolivian Salt Flats
Our ride

Getting there

The best way to get to Uyuni is to fly, and so we caught an early morning red-eye in order to get to our tour company’s office for our morning departure.  From there, a motley group of 8 Europeans and Aussies (plus this one American) piled into 2 different all-terrain vehicles and set out to drive the desert for the next three days.  There are no ‘roads’ per se – just the tracks of previous cars gone before.

We stopped at various points along the way to take pictures, playing with the perspective.  The incredible flatness coupled with zero land features interrupting the scene and the bright whiteness of the ground allow you to take creative pictures where your friend may appear to drop kick you, you could be standing in a frying pan, you might dance out of a Pringles can, or you might be about to be eaten by a large plastic dinosaur.  I’ve never had so much fun playing with a camera!

We bunked down in hotels in the desert each night in isolated places that I could barely believe supported life, much less small towns built around the hotel.  In the evenings, our drivers cooked us dinner and we huddled around the dining table in the bunkhouses with fires for warmth.  It was rustic, but cozy, and we entertained ourselves by exchanging tales of our travels.  The Aussies in the group, as ever, provided the greatest entertainment, regaling us with tales of their ‘Cocaine Tour’ in Columbia.  (Tip:  just ask for the “horse tour”.)

Snorkeling in the Desert

The second day, we pulled out of the salt flats and met desert that used to be the bottom of a vast sea.   There, entire coral reef beds are left fossilized, and you can ‘snorkel’ amongst them, imagining what life must have been like for them millions of years ago.  There were also incredible caves in islands of rock outcrops that contained burial sites for ancient tribes, with the skulls of the small former inhabitants are still visible in the dug-out graves.  At first, I thought they were all graves of children, until our guide asked me to look at the teeth – sure enough, they were adults!  The tribe must have been practically hobbit-like.

As we drove across the desert, we occasionally saw wild and vicunas – a relative of alpacas and llamas with fine fur that is highly prized – as well as foxes.  It’s amazing to think that these critters are able to survive out in such a dry, unsheltered place!  Apparently the native tribes used to bind the feet of their alpacas in order to help them cross the flats, so tough is the terrain.

Vicunas crossing the desert
Vicunas crossing the desert

Flamingo Cities

The third day, we reached the many salt lakes where the flamingos live.  Seeing these gorgeous birds with their pink and black colors over water that changed in color each time (from red to white to blue to green) as we encountered each new lake – a photographer’s delight!  We were grateful for our digital cameras, as we practically filled their memory with photo upon photo of these graceful water birds.

The final stop on our tour was the thermal springs.  We were able to see geysers of all variety – water, steam, and mud – exploding in their predictably unpredictable punctuated fashion.  Then we were off too swim in thermal springs *slightly* cooler than those of the geysers.  These springs had a lovely view of another lake with flamingos, and it was a delightful way to end our visit, sitting in the hot water, steam rising off our bodies, while drinking in that gorgeous scene.

Hot springs in Bolivia
Enjoying a hot spring bath in the desert

Kelly’s Top Tips for Uyuni:

  • If you’re thinking of going, go soon! It seems that the Bolivian government may make an about face on their preservation of the salt flats in order to open them up for development and further lithium mining to power the world’s electronics ☹
  • I didn’t mention it too much, but we were there in October and it was COLD! I’m talking negative Celsius.  The buildings that we stayed in had minimal heating, so I’d advise taking the warmest clothes you have and possibly hand/feet warmers if you’re susceptible to the cold like I am
  • It was on my second night in the salt flats, at an altitude of 3,656 meters, that I started coming down with full blown altitude sickness. If you’re susceptible, be sure to take your altitude sickness pills!
  • The salt flats are gorgeous – but they are dangerous all the same! They can warm up during the day, and you will want to take off your jacket and possibly wear shorts. Be forewarned that the salt flats are also a big mirror, and your legs and arms will get BURNED if you’re susceptible to burning!  So be sure to either cover up, or bring lots of sun screen.
  • The rainy season is from December to March, so if you want to see the salt flats as a big reflection of the sky, plan your travel then.  This site shows some pictures when the flats are in their reflective glory.
  • You might want to purchase some toys in one of the markets that you visit for your perspective photos in the salt flats – it’s fun to have a photo of you being eaten by a dinosaur!
  • Take binoculars or a telephoto lens for good shots of the flamingos – you aren’t allowed to get very close to them.
  • Our tour company, Perla de Bolivia, good in case you don’t know where to start – our guide was bilingual, our days were packed with adventure, the fellow travellers were nice, and the price was reasonable.  The only thing I would say is, prepare for basic accommodation in the desert hotels.

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