The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the entire world and spans over 4,000 square miles in size. Originating as a series of vast prehistoric lakes, this otherworldly setting is a hotbed of unusual wildlife such as pink flamingos in red lakes, impossible-looking rock formations, cacti islands, metres of salt beneath your feet and of course the principle setting to do those slightly irritating tourist perspective photoshoots.
The salt flats are the most popular tourist destination in the whole of South America and as a result the neighbouring town of Uyuni is lined with countless tour shops offering one-day trips up to five-day tours of the whole location. Not only does it reveal the magnitude of the setting but it also means that there is an abundance of choice. Although it is possible to get to the salt flats alone, which is always the more preferred method when travelling, access requires at least a 4x4 vehicle meaning most will opt for a tour.
One Day Salt Flat Tour - $20
All the tours begin at 10.30, at which a 4x4 will arrive at your hostel and collect the day’s adventures.
The first stop is a fifteen-minute drive away at the Train Cemetery which had been built by British engineers in the 19th century to encourage trade within Bolivia. By the 1940’s as the mining industry collapsed these train tracks and the antique trains on them were neglected and eventually abandoned altogether leaving a spooky cemetery of rusted steam trains that were perfect tourist photograph material. Arriving to a cohort of other 4x4 cars and with over 50 tours of people doing exactly the same thing you are left with little space to find your own carriage to climb or any space to truly examine the history behind these trains. There also isn’t a single person without a smartphone in front of their face.
The next stop brings the 4x4 to a vast colourful market set amidst the backdrop to brilliant white salt. It is as if stepping into another reality as the market was erected with the aim of catering for the tourist cohorts that piled into the area every day. Of about twenty stores all selling identical tourist paraphernalia such as magnets and alpaca jumpers as vendors beckoned you over in the scorching midday sun you can overhear tourists haggling in English, getting frustrated at the Spanish responses and spot visitors who failed to see past the opportunity of a good Instagram photo.
After a prepared lunch at a hotel built of Salt you are then driven as far as the eye can see into the depths of the Salt Flats. The drive takes several hours, nothing lies around you except the dazzling white reflection of the crusted salt below and a hazy outline of mountains in the distance. Despite the array of 4x4s offering the identical tour, the vast size of the salt flats means there is not a car in sight in any direction.
The salt crunches loudly beneath your feet as the car pulls up at a random spot in the middle of nowhere. The air is still, silent apart from a crisp, dry howl that you often find in vast barren landscapes. The next hour (perhaps much to some people’s reluctance) will see your tour guide compiling a series of perspective shots with numerous props before driving another hour to your final stop along the tour at a huge island overcome with gigantic cacti. Isla Incahuasi is another alien landscape that offers phenomenal views of the salt surrounding you before embarking on the long three-hour drive back to the dusty civilisation of touristic Uyuni.
The organised tours are somewhat conflicting, particularly through promoting the type of tourism that wrecks the balance of nature and shows little respect for the people or the land.
On the contrary, the Bolivian tour guides are happy to facilitate the world’s interest in this otherworldly land. It’s an exhilarating experience that serves as a reminder of the sheer scale of the natural world and reminds you of a history that spans back before time itself. If you go to Bolivia, it goes without doubt that this will be a place you visit - and being mindful of the local communities that live as a result of this phenomenon, rightly so.
Words and photographs by Tamara Davison in: Tamaradavison_ Camera: Samsung S3