The Flats & The Flamingos: Drifting Through Uyuni

Bolivia is full of amazing and wild places but as far as tourist draw is concerned, one exist in a league of its own: The Uyuni Salt Flats a.k.a Salar de Uyuni. Almost any South American travel itinerary includes a trip through the unique landscapes that lay between the little town of Uyuni, Bolivia and the tourist hub of San Pedro, Chile. There are many places to take a trip from, and an ungodly number of agencies hawking them, but once you and your five companions load into that Toyota Land-Cruiser, you enter a different planet. However, the itinerary of a Uyuni trip is pretty set no matter what any guide agency may tell you. So over the course of three days it’s pretty rare to have a moment to yourself; your extra-terrestrial explorations might include many extra, terrestrial beings.

There are a few iconic sights in this region, and the first two stops take the cake in that regard. First off is the train graveyard, a collection of antique trains from the boom days of Bolivian mining. The rusted remains of an abandoned industry clutter the desert like the floor of a child’s playroom. The salt air and dust storms have decayed the old steam engine carcasas into nothing but rusted hulls. Though it's a rather fantastic site, this place was overrun by visitors to the point it was difficult to truly enjoy. After about 20 minutes sorting through rusted trains and selfi sticks it was time to move on. 

Hitting the old rusty rails...

Main event time comes pretty early if you start from Uyuni, and soon the truck was plowing it's way through a deep rainwater moat into the salt flat. A vast plain of white as far as the eye can see distorts perspective. A thin layer of water coats the surface creating a giant mirror, the horizon disappears. The salt flat environment is one unlike anything I have ever seen, it's simply endless, white, nothingness. It felt like landing in a twilight zone post apocalyptic situation, and I think I could have been convinced had other trucks not dotted the horizon proving life still exists. 

Getting my sodium intake

Probably the second biggest draw to the entire salt flats concept (maybe the first these days thanks to Instagram) is the opportunity to take highly effective perspective photos. Because it is so flat, and there are so few reference points in frame, it is easy to take very convincing photos with distorted perspective by staggering the distance between the objects and the camera. People spend hours setting these up, preparing props, and planning the perfect shot. Google it and you will be amazed at how creative some people have been. I like to think the group I was with came up with a few keepers. 

With the 'highlight reel' of the tour behind me I wasn't quite sure what to expect for the next couple of days. I had accomplished everything I was familiar with, yet had not made much progress towards Chile. What I found is that, as per usual, the good stuff is not the most publicized. As the tour moved deeper into desert terrain, increible rock formations emerged, and the clouds froze in time, stuck around the peaks of volcanoes like stickers on a blue wall. The rules of nature began to break down. Impossible stones carved from eons of water erosion now stood as sculpture. Lakes turned from blue, to green, to red. The smell of eggs emanated from the dusting of off white powder that covers the ground like a gentle flurrie. This is some truly unique scenery and for the first time, I struggled to understand what natural forces were at play to generate such an unfamiliar landscape.

No life could, or would exist in this bizzaro, surrealist world. Well, none but one, the flamingo. In my mind flamingos are a rare creature, unicorn esc, exclusive to African safaris and zoos. However, it turns out this is only because they all chose to live in the Bolivian desert. If there is a puddle of water in this region, flamingos will be there, and the bigger the puddle the more of them you will find. Their flying style looks like a Boeing 747 taking off (to be honest I didn't really think they flew all that much), the whole operation looks a little wonky, yet somehow it manages to all work out.  The silly looking pink birds filled every lake to the brim and after two days their constant presence took the mythical status once bestowed upon them all the way down to pigeon.

Flamingos lingering in a red lagoon

Onward the group forged. Impeccable starscape bleed out into vibrante sunrise and geyser fields erupted through frozen air. Monochromatic rainbows of ancient volcanic eruptions lit up as I passed through the Dali Desert, fittingly named after the painter whose landscapes the region resembles. Reflecting pools lay serene, mirroring the mountain faces as they prepare for the day to come. Dust slowly filled the air as the herds of 4x4s awoke and zig-zaged along their prescribed course.

Mountains flanking laguna blanca

Ultimately, the dirt road ceased to exist. A small shack marked the end of the tour as well as my time in Bolivia. Beyond a useless gate was paved road, proper signage, and a different world.  A long line and quick stamp later, I was in Chile. 

Gazing back into Bolivia