Bolivia: salt flat day 1 – train graveyard, perspective photos and Incahuasi Island

Post 9 of a series detailing our trip around South America. View the series so far here.

Like many tourists, we went to Bolivia to see the Salar de Uyuni  the world’s largest salt flat and the amazing landforms and coloured lakes that lie nearby. We decided to take a three-day, two-night tour that would take us to all the sights and drop us at the Chilean border, where we’d get a bus to San Pedro de Atacama.

Having booked ourselves onto an Andes Salt Expeditions tour yesterday, this morning all we had to do was sign in at their office. Here we met our half of the larger tour group, including a young couple from the US (originally from the UK), a German couple, our English-speaking guide Juan, and our driver Vladimir (who also spoke quite a lot of English). I immediately felt put at ease by how friendly everyone was.

Train graveyard

We all piled into two 4x4s, six of us plus a driver in each, and drove just a few minutes out of Uyuni to the ‘train graveyard’. Juan told us how the trains came to be here, then gave us 20 minutes to climb on the trains and take photos.

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The rusted, stripped-down trains looked awesome, and figuring out how to climb up them was fun! There were loads of other people there too, which made it difficult to take photos without others in them (thank you Adobe Lightroom for your help in this area!). Juan was happy to take photos of me and Steve together. We could really have done with more time there, as 20 minutes did not feel long enough.

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We drove back into Uyuni for a toilet stop and to collect lunch, then continued to a small village on the border of the salt flats. We spent another 20 minutes here, which felt completely unnecessary and would have been far better spent at the train graveyard, I thought! Nevertheless, some of the group bought souvenirs here and we were soon on our way.

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The great white expanse

We drove out of the village and onto the salt flat and suddenly there was no longer a road  just the flat white expanse and the pale blue sky in every direction we looked. It felt even more surreal when we got out of the car, stood on the salt crust near a shallow pool of water, and felt the full impact of how tiny we were in the midst of this immense, empty expanse. It was like nothing I’d ever seen or experienced before.

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Lunch at the flags

We drove on until we reached an outpost featuring a large statue commemorating the Dakar rally, a diverse collection of colourful flags, and the building in which we’d be eating lunch. We took photos in front of the statue and the flags (which looked stunning against the plain white and blue backdrop!), then headed inside for lunch. The food was pretty good: tasty thin-cut steaks of llama meat, a cucumber and tomato-based salad, and coke and water to drink (with bananas offered for dessert).

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Salt flat photos

After lunch came the part of the tour we’d all been waiting for: the infamous photos where the salt flat is used to manipulate perspective, making things and people appear much larger or smaller than they are.

We began by doing group shots where we were running away from a dinosaur figure, where Juan took the same photo on everyone’s camera. We filmed a couple of videos too, but because it was only on one person’s iPhone most of us never saw it. It would have made much more sense for Juan to take the photos and videos on his camera, then send them to everyone on the tour by email…

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Next, we moved onto doing photos in pairs. Steve and I went first, with Juan beginning by asking which of us was the ‘best jumper’ (we agreed it was me) then directing us into a variety of poses. It was only when we saw the photos on my camera that we realised what we’d actually been doing, and we were so pleased with the results  they were hilarious! We had time to try to take our own photos while Juan photographed the other couples, but we didn’t do very well. Clearly, Juan had developed a skill for taking these photos thanks to a lot of practice!

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Incahuasi Island

After the photoshoot we drove to Incahuasi Island: a hill jutting suddenly out of the middle of the salt flat in the most surreal way. This hill is absolutely covered in cacti, right down to the ticket office built from cactus wood. Juan gave us a guided tour as we walked up the hill, telling us about the cacti and the surrounding landscape. It was another fascinating and spectacular stop on our jam-packed day.

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Sunset on the salt

About halfway through the drive to our accommodation for the night, we stopped by a shallow lake so that we could see the sky reflected in the water as the sun set. It was too windy to see smooth reflections, but it was still a beautiful and otherworldly sight. We spent around 20 minutes here before continuing our journey. It was a tense half-hour for me as we drove over the flat, roadless salt at a high speed, veering from side to side to avoid pools of water, until we reached the hostel.

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Freezing in the salt hostel

The hostel we were staying at was built completely of salt, and absolutely freezing cold. It was so cold that we suspected the salt walls may be drawing the heat out of the rooms  it felt colder inside than outside. There was no heating besides a few gas heaters in the dining room, and all the tap water was icy cold.

Upon arriving we were shown to our private rooms, then regrouped in the dining room for dinner. We chatted in our group over tea and biscuits while we waited for dinner to be served. Dinner started well with a lovely, warming bowl of soup. This was followed by a sharing plate holding four cold chicken escalopes stacked atop soggy chips and a pile of sliced peppers and onions. There was no alternative provided for the two vegetarians in our group. It wasn’t a bad dinner, but it certainly wasn’t enough to feed the six of us!

After dinner the cold drove us all straight to bed for possibly the coldest night of my life. I had to wear thermals from head to toe, snuggle under many layers of blankets, and top it off with my woolly hat and gloves just to shut out the cold enough to sleep! But sleep I did, in preparation for another day in the wilderness tomorrow.

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All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2018. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Bolivia: salt flat day 1 – train graveyard, perspective photos and Incahuasi Island

  1. Wow! What an amazing experience! Your perspective photos are hilarious (great jumping skills by the way!) The cacti are surreal – well the whole place is actually! Fantastic photos and a very interesting read. I would have been terrified on the high-speed drive across the salt flats too – it looks rather like ice that could give way at any minute :O

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