This is the tale of our quest to see the spectacular Bolivian Salt Flats. And yes, it was a quest. Renowned around the world for their striking beauty, it’s a testament to their draw that so many travel so far to see them. They are in the MIDDLE of nowhere. No, not even the middle. They are in the outskirts of nowhere.
The adventure starts in San Pedro de Atacama, which is a desert town that bears a striking resemblance to a Wild West movie set. The town’s main claim to greatness is that it has a combination of high altitude and dry air, which makes it the perfect star gazing spot. This past Spring, San Pedro de Atacama became home to the world’s largest astronomy observatory, which allows scientists to probe deeper into outer space than ever before. Nerd’s delight.
We took a tour of the night sky by SPACE Star Tours which has the largest telescopes in South America and wonderfully entertaining guides. Words fail when it comes to the wonder that is outer space. Our awe at our galaxy, and the galaxies beyond, is as indefinable as the limits of space itself.
The other main activity in San Pedro was obviously planning our next step in the adventure to see the salt flats. None of the companies will book online, so you have to book in person, and the travel reviews range from fantastic to positively terrifying. We did our research in San Pedro before booking our transfer, and thankfully, there is a wonderful tourism office that helped enormously.
We took a day-long transfer in a very dusty car up to Uyuni, Bolivia. We thought San Pedro was a tiny town, until we drove through the dusty roads leading to Uyuni where there isn’t a sign of street names or human life in sight. We realized this is officially off the beaten path. Thankfully the scenery is as breathtaking as the roads are bumpy.
In Uyuni we stayed at a simple hotel called Oasisa Blanco and it paid for itself in its recommendation of a reliable tour company for the salt flats. We walked around the dusty town negotiating and finally booking our tour for the next day. It is hard to imagine any place being worth the time and (butt) pain it took to get here, but we would soon be able to decide for ourselves.
The salt flats. An area twice the size of Rhode Island, this natural phenomenon beats all others. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but here is the scientific explanation of how on Earth this is even possible:
So, about 40,000 years ago (!), there was a large lake where the salt flats are today. Over the next 20,000 years, the lake transformed and eventually evaporated, leaving behind all of its salt content. Even today, water sits just under the salt layer, which ranges from 10s of inches to a few meters. As the water under the salt continues to evaporate, it causes these crazy hexagonal shapes in the salt, which continue as far as you can see. The entire area (which covers a crazy 4,086 square miles) is exceptionally flat and only varies one meter in altitude. But then in contrast, the surrounding Andes Mountains explode out of the Earth. It is THE craziest natural phenomenon we’ve ever seen.
Oh, the flats also serve as a breeding ground for several species of flamingos. Yes, seriously.
The breathtaking terrain also serves as a dream opportunity for cheesy photo enthusiasts. In our group we had some VERY enthusiastic participants, and we obviously couldn’t resist some of the gimmicks.
During certain times of the year, large portions of the flats flood and create a beautiful reflective surface. We made it for the very beginning of the season so a small portion of the flat was flooded and served as a backdrop for the most spectacular sunset you can imagine.
Yes, the ridiculously difficult trip to get to the salt flats was very worth it (and that’s saying something). It is a place that can only be described as otherworldly. Our trip has been full of natural wonders, but this one is by far the most unique.