Heaven is on earth, it’s in Bolivia

Perhaps this will sound presumptuous to some, but one of the most beautiful places that exist on earth is the largest salt flat, and its in Bolivia.

Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and an elevated 3,656 meters above sea level.

Of course as a Bolivian, I can only but praise how wonderful my country really is. It’s wonderful in so many ways, its music, its people, its food. But Salar is something unique, something that truly takes your breath away. Once you arrive, you are speechless at its immensity and purity.

I left my country when I was 12 years old, there were still so many places I hadn’t seen or experienced, and I had always dreamt of visiting Salar, even if just once. Last August I took my Dutch boyfriend to meet my family for the first time, and I decided that we had to do and see as much as possible. In recent years, more and more people have started to travel to South America. There are tourism agencies emerging everywhere in Bolivia that take care of hotels and transportation. We decided to take a bus from Sucre to Potosi, where we spent a few hours waiting for the next bus that would drop us off in Uyuni.

We arrived in Uyuni around 3 a.m. and spent the night in a small hotel. The next day, our guide arrived bright and early. Two weeks before our trip we learned that a group of Danish tourists got stuck in one of the roads that froze because of the cold, it was winter after all. They were rescued eventually, but the idea of going on vacation is not to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, especially when no GPS or phones will be of good use. Our guide offered a different route, which meant that we wouldn’t see some of the main attractions that listed on most guides, such as Laguna Colorada or the Geysers. Our guide, who was incredibly friendly, promised he wouldn’t disappoint us with an alternative route. He didn’t.

During the day the sun shines like it doesn’t anywhere else. The whiteness of the Salar and the sun’s reflection can burn your skin badly. We took hats, sunglasses and lots of sunblock. Also, lots of water bottles, toilet paper and some alcohol to drink at the little hostels we were going to stay, to keep warm. As warm and nice the days were, temperature dropped quickly at night.

We were a group of six people, and the tour includes your personal guide and a Land Cruiser 4×4, in which we loaded our bags and everything else we were carrying. This is the only way to travel while visiting. Salar is massive, you are walking on a salt desert, and things seem closer than they are, you can lose your sense of direction quite easily.

Our trip lasted three days. We started the tour visiting the train cemetery, Uyuni served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals to Pacific Ocean ports. However, with time, this stopped. Trains aren’t used any longer and you can visit Uyuni to pay your respects.

After the cemetery we were on the road again, to our first encounter with the Salar. We wanted to stop everywhere to take photos. We visited a shop where people treat the salt, to sell it. The workers heat up the salt in ovens, then dry the salt, bag it and then a woman seals the bags. She does this by hand, sitting right next to a gas tank. If you have ever protested about having a bad day at work, think again, this woman could blow herself up if she’s not careful.

Near lunch time our guide took us to the first salt hotel ever been built, which is now a point of reference to all the people passing by. There, we ran into a lot of other tourists that were making funny pictures, and eating. Our guide opened the back of the jeep and started to prepare lunch. While we were goofing around, and sun bathing, our guide prepared us a feast of llama meat marinated with lemon, boiled potatoes and quinoa, and of course Bolivia’s always and forever drink of preference: Coca-Cola (it’s no joke, everyone, everywhere in Bolivia drinks Coca-Cola with almost all their meals).

In a way, it’s so strange to think that a few hundred years ago, Salar used to be filled with lakes, everything was just water. At that very moment you are walking on salt, there is water underneath you.

Our last destination on our first day was Tunupa Volcano. When we arrived we were able to see a few flamingos hanging out, and posing for us! I must have taken over 1000 pictures on those three days because everything seemed a one time only opportunity. There was a moment when I put my camera down, and just quietly observed what was actually happening before my eyes.

As it we had expected, temperature dropped quickly once the sun set, we had some dinner and then took out our wine and played some games. Due to the location, electricity runs on a generator, and around 9 p.m. all lights were off. Wrapped up in our sleeping bags, we fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning, we woke up to face a challenge, climb the volcano.

I’m a bit embarrased to admit this, but I was left behind on the climb to the top. I couldn’t breath properly while walking, and maybe I was out of shape, or maybe the altitude just hit me right then. I climbed only half way, and decided to hang out with my new found friends, a couple of good looking llamas.

Once everyone had returned, we headed back to our little hostel and packed up the car. Our next destination was Isla Inkawasi, an island filled with cactuses. When we arrived at the island, we learned that cactus have genders, the male cactus are straight and have no extremities, and female cactuses have extremities. The height of the cactus helps you determine their age, the oldest cactus was 900 years old, so she was nine meters high.

We walked the entire island making hundreds of photos, and admiring the surroundings. We ran into people from various countries, Japan, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Spain, England. I felt proud knowing that people find Bolivia so much more beautiful  than they could have ever imagined.

The second night we slept at a hostel made of salt. It was one of the nicest nights of the whole trip. Even the beds are made of salt, and had a thin mattress laid on top. We sat at tables made of salt, and had another feast cooked by our guide. We stayed up talking under the dim candle light, and even shared some ghost stories.

Our last day was a bit more relaxed, we spend a lot of time in the car and realized the greatness of the Salar, how far everything actually was. We stopped at Laguna Negra, (black lagoon), and had lunch on top of large rocks. Our last stop was a miners town, where we had a bathroom break and bought some snacks for the ride back. Once in Uyuni, we said good-bye to our guide, Neftali, who called us amigos (friends) from the very first day, and we thanked him for making the trip all the better.

Salar’s significance lies not only on tourism, Bolivia holds about 43% of the world’s lithium reserves (used for batteries and green energy) and most of these reserves are in Salar.

There are wonderful places in the world, some we might never able to visit, but if you have the time and the money, come to Bolivia and be marvelled at the kindness of my people, the deliciousness of our food, and the beauty of it all.