Hardcore fans of the British motoring show, Top Gear, can relate to how chuffed I was when I headed to the salt flats of the ‘Salar’ De Uyuni. Oh, it wasn’t just the excitement of retracing the steps of the three pestering motoring journalists – who incidentally were the first to drive across the expanse in cars – but rather the exhilaration that arose from the fact that I was standing in the largest salt flat in the world.
And even better was the fact that it had just rained the night before, meaning that the salt flat wasn’t a salt flat anymore but the largest reflective mirror I had ever seen! Of course, walking on the surface requires some level of guts, which I garnered from the several ‘Murican tourists who were fooling around, kicking salt at each other and doing other touristy thingamajigs.
There was nothing to fret about, though, as the salt flats expand over 10,582 sq.km, and getting away from the crowds – and heading into nirvana – is as simple as driving away a few hundred metres – with the tour guide alongside, obviously.
To the average passerby, the Salar De Uyuni, in Bolivia, will simply be a vast spread of nothingness, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll realise that it is home to some of the Earth’s well-kept secrets – literally.
The Salar was formed as a result of the evaporation of several prehistoric lakes. Today, it remains covered in a few metres of salt crust – which can prove deadly if you’re driving. In any case, the crust is also incredibly flat, and you can see the curvature of the Earth if you look into the horizon. The ‘Flat Earth Society’ needn’t waste time trying to debunk scientists; they can simply head to Bolivia.
Nevertheless, the salt flats contain several fossils, which are million years or more old, and also nest 50 to 70 per cent of the world’s known lithium reserves. These reserves are in the process of being exploited, but thankfully are far, far away from the tourist spots, of which there are several. Also welcoming you into this geographical marvel is the flora and fauna. Did you know that there’s an island within the Salar that actually has towers of cacti? What a wonderful world we live in!
My favourite place: Without a doubt, the highlight of the area is the salt flats. I mean, it may seem like an area of emptiness to some. But, you know what they say: one man’s trash is another man’s gold. It’s a bit challenging to traverse, especially because the salt and water form a brine-like goo. But, spend some time digging and you could be rewarded with preserved million-year-old fish bones or even more. Oh, and I cannot deny the eeriness of the train cemetery. Yes! It’s a cemetery of trains. You’d have to walk 3km into the Salar, but upon doing so, you will be treated with the sight of British-built trains and tracks – all abandoned and rusty.
Highlights: Because the Salar De Uyuni is part of central South America, it receives consistent rainfall. This creates an illusion of staring at a mirror. After a nice shower, you can also recreate some stunning images of the reflections of clouds on the ground. Now, if that isn’t a shot worth being featured in National Geography, I don’t know what is. The temperature in the region is low, so it’s best to go prepared with several layers of clothes. During the course of my visit, the nights were consistently below 0 degrees Celsius and the days 5-to-9 degrees Celsius. Another interesting fact about the salt flats in the Salar is that they are perfect for calibrating the measuring equipment of satellites. The large, stable surfaces with strong reflection resembles ice sheets, and give the extra-terrestrial devices a stable reference point.
Lowlights: There are several to point out. For starters, the mushy salt flats will almost certainly ruin your trekking shoes. I ruined a perfect set of Caterpillar (!) shoes while there. It’s best to stock up on flip flops while there. Also, carry extra cash in hand as there are no ATMs in the vicinity. Just to be safe, do carry extra set of camera and phone batteries (or portable chargers); hotels charge you to use the power sockets. Lastly, do not forget to bring sweaters or jackets – it gets very cold at night.
Souvenirs: There’s a souvenir shop in the Salar that is made up of salt! From there, you can purchase photos of the salt flats, tee-shirts and even some local handicrafts.
Getting there: Qatar Airways operates flights from Muscat to La Paz, in Bolivia. The flights are expensive, but travelling across the country is cheap. You can opt for public transportation, or even flights from La Paz to the Salar. A round-trip should set you back about RO50.5.
Where to stay: If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you can opt to camp in the salt flats. For all others, there is the Hotel De Sal Luna Salada and the Hotel Palacio De Sal – both of which are made up of salt blocks – and cost roughly RO40 per night.