Salar de Uyuni: a Photophile’s Dream Come True

Here’s a gaowei GIF to start the post off (but I’m really trying to illustrate a point). 

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Made with Gifmaker; I think it’s funny how Jo and Matt have to tiptoe to make room for us

For those who take things too seriously: I didn’t actually become a Mrs over the holiday. We did, however, make like a wedding party and take lots of photographs at our 2D1N stay in Uyuni, the gateway city to  the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni.

The trip to Uyuni is a photo-loving girl’s dream come true. The large expanse of salt flats make for a good backdrop for “crazy pictures” (as our guide put it). It’s extra beautiful if it has rained, because then the salt flats transform into the world’s largest mirror, like so:

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Photo by FyeahSteveKim @ Tripping.com

No such luck on our end, but the flats still remained a glaring white, making it the perfect place to take perspective shots.

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As one has probably guessed, the white stuff is salt. Just 5 squared kilometers out of some 10,000 have been allocated to the Colchani co-operative of salt farmers, a small town of 611 people. Legend has it that a grieving goddess, whose husband ran away with another woman, started to cry while breast-feeding her son. Her tears mixed with milk and formed the Salar.

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A farmer carting off dried salt in his truck

Piles of salt drying out in the blazing sun

Piles of salt drying out in the blazing sun

While lithium is another product they have been dealing in more, most of the salt is harvested for consumption within Bolivia and sometimes Brazil.

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That’s real table salt, packed into 10 kg blocks and treated with iodide. Yes, Matt’s licking it. Thank goodness Bolivia doesn’t export its salt to the States.

Salt is an economic alternative to now-depleted mineral mines. Because minerals used to be such a big thing, British trains were brought in to create a transport network. When the industry collapsed in the 1940s, the trains were sent to die… in the train cemetery. In its new life, it’s really a glorified playground for tourists to take more pictures by.

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Trains still run between La Paz, Uyuni and Potosi, though with far less frequency than in their heyday. I suppose that only translates to more opportunities for thought-provoking horizon shots.

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Along our journey, we saw llamas that Alan would not leave alone.

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As we travelled through the flats, we reached its center — Isla Incahuasi, Quechua for Island of the Incan House. (It’s also known as Fish Island because it apparently looks like a fish from a distance; I did not see the semblance.) It’s not really home to much besides gigantic cacti and unflushable toilets (imagine hundreds of tourists with bladder issues… ugh), but it was yet another photographic opportunity that reminded me of my lack of height.

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The tallest cactus on the island is 12m; this is about 7m

Channelling Kate and Leo

Channelling Kate and Leo

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From a distance

From a distance

We also visited Phia Phia Island, an island that’s mostly a giant cave and one lone cactus.

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Boyband moment

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Taking a harder-than-it-looks walk back from the island to the car

Our sunset by the salt flats was surreal. Our guide brought us to this “concert hall” — a stage made entirely out of salt blocks, where the townspeople came out to celebrate the town’s birthday.

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Boyband plays on a real stage at sunset

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At night we stayed in the Chuvica salt hotel. Yep, you guessed it. Everything was made out of salt: walls, tables, beds. My sleep was surprisingly comfortable, although the super padded (7 layers!) of blankets helped.

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Photo taken by Sherlyn Chen

Perhaps one of the most magical parts of my entire winter trip was watching the stars in complete darkness, save for the occasional glare of headlights from the few passing cars. The deepest of blacks, a jar of stars emptied across the sky, swathed in misty clouds. Alan and I sat there marveling: the last time we had the opportunity to see stars in pure glory was on a beach in Laoag, Philippines, Dec 2007. There was a time where we would have been blown away by nature’s sheer beauty but I think even Perfection loses its lustre if you don’t really sit down to appreciate it. I was glad for the reminder.

Day 2 was far less eventful: we visited the active volcano Ollague, and again camwhored.

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If you look closely you can see smoke billowing out from the left of its peak

The viewpoint consisted of funnily shaped rocks, with its own tiny caverns — perfect for framing shots right out of America’s Next Top Model.

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We took waaaaay more than just 4 shots

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We also visited Turquiry Lagoon, a smelly pond with high levels of sulfur, and also home to pink James’ flamingos. I think I would have appreciated the sight a little more if it didn’t smell so much like rotten eggs.

flamingo

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Our last stop was the rock valley. Over time, weathering and erosion creates all sort of shapes and patterns, including this condor-esque one.

uyuni (353 of 355)I think what made this short journey so memorable was our mode of transport, the 4WD. This thing can go across any terrain, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget sitting on the top with my friends, the wind blowing in my hair, all of us belting “IT’S MY LIIIIIIIIFE IT’S NOW OR NEVER I AM GONNA LIVE FOREVERRRRR.” 

uyuni (73 of 355)Anyway, I shall leave you all with a selection of photos from the salt flat… Make sure you scroll all the way to the end to see my favorite.

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And what you’ve all been waiting for… uyuni (98 of 355)

RACHEL’S SALAR DE UYUNI LOWDOWN

  • Who to go with: Book with Quechua Connection (a legit company even though there’s no website; email quechuaconnection4wd@hotmail.com) and ask for Jose, a great driver, awesome photographer and superfun DJ (he has an iPod stocked with a billion English songs to rock out to)
  • What to bring: Sunglasses (the glare from the flats can hurt), sunblock, altitude sickness pills if you haven’t acclimatized yet, props to take pictures with at the salt flats — we brought a Pringles can, our stuffed toy Simon
  • How to get there and survive it: We took Todo Turismo (~US$39 one-way), a 10-hour bus ride through Hell. It’s shaky and I got woken up cos I was doing the shimmy for 10 minutes straight. The bus is great (serves food, leans all the way back) but the road isn’t. Bring sleeping pills.
  • How long to go for: Due to time constraints, we took the 2D1N tour and practically did nothing on the second day (because the route is a circuit). I’d take the 3D2N if I could do it again.

8 Comments

  • wanderoneday says:

    These are such fun photos! I’ve been seeing a lot of pictures of these salt flats recently, makes me think I should add it to my list of places to visit!

    I think my favorite is the dinner plate.

  • Julia Chan says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Awesome pictures. I am a Singaporean too planning for Dec 2014 to Uyuni. I have a few questions to ask you and hope you can help me (needed badly). I email more than 10 tour agency for a 3 days, 2 nights. I also email to Jose David. He quoted USD 230 per person for this 3 Days, 2 Nights tour. Problem is I read that the hotels for this 3 Day, 2 Nights were shared and not private room with own toilet. Your post above is on which day of your 2 Day, 1 Night tour. Problem with Jose David, he seldom replies emails so, are other tour agency.

    • Rachel says:

      Hi Julia,

      Awesome, Uyuni is great fun.

      When we headed over in 2012, Jose charged us $118USD for a 3D2N plan and $88 for 2D1N (before adding extra for English-speaking guide, etc). We also had 6 pax – not sure how many you have with you.

      As for the salt hotels, yes most of the salt hotels are shared rooms. What they did for my group was that they let the six of us stay in an eight-bedder room, so two were left empty. I am not sure what it was like for smaller-sized groups. The bathrooms are shared, and most of the time you have to pay a little bit extra (less than US$2) to get hot water as it’s the middle of the salt flats. But I think it is worth the experience.

      The pictures you see here are mostly of the first day, but also some taken on the second day. In my opinion, we did not do very much on the second day because it was mostly spent getting back to the main Uyuni town. I would recommend the 3D2N if you can spare the time.

      Hope Jose replies you soon – he took on average about 1-2 days to reply each email. It is good you’re starting early.

      Rachel

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