The bus to Uyuni takes seven hours and I spend the journey reading a chapter of my book, watching the landscape, flicking back to my book, leaning my head on the window and watching the Bolivia roll by.
The landscape becomes more barren: huge plains with hundreds of alpaca, mountains in the distance turning brown, yellow and indigo, dry riverbeds and dust caked to the bus windows. The bus stops for half an hour so the driver can have lunch; I pay 5p to the old lady sat outside and brave the disgusting toilets. People get on and off in the most remote of places, places that you can’t imagine people living. Old women pull huge bundles wrapped in woven cloth from the belly of the bus and heave them onto their backs. When we arrive in Uyuni it feels like a frontier town, like we’re at the end of the road. It’s a town built in a grid, dusty brown and with a clock tower that is stuck permanently at the wrong time. It’s bitterly cold at night when we venture out to find dinner, a cosy pizza place and cheap red wine.
We’ve booked onto a three day tour of the Salar de Uyuni, at 4000 square miles the largest salt flats in the world. I don’t think I quite have the words to describe the days that followed but I’ll try.
Our tour group gathers – a lovely bunch of 11 people from Germany, Switzerland and the UK. We load our bags onto the roofs of a collection of 4x4s, climb inside and head out of town. Our first stop is to see a train graveyard, hulking relics of the mineral trade and slowly rusting away into the dust and salt.
We get back into the jeeps and head towards the salt flats, a mirage on the horizon which draws closer and closer until suddenly we’re in it, burning white all around. It’s the strangest landscape I’ve ever been in: totally flat, patterns of salt crystals beneath our feet, the huge sky above us, and nothing else.
Moz teaches me to cycle with no hands and the sun is hot as we reach midday and our lunch spot – a communal table on the flats, sheltered from the wind behind the 4x4s. Afterwards we take silly photos, playing with the perspective of the landscape. Some people have come prepared with apples and plastic dinosaurs, Moz and I have no clue what we’re doing but we mess around anyway.
Afterwards we drove to Isla Incahuasi, an outcrop covered in large cacti plants and at the top it’s like being surrounded by a cloud except the white is simply miles and miles of salt, faintly marked in places by jeep tracks. On from there to Isla Pia Pia, Quechua for “cave within a cave” and we climb inside the cavernous mouth and look back out to the salt flats and the beginnings of the sunset.
We’re driven to another spot, empty of anything except the flat land, and watch the sun going down over the horizon. It’s incredible, like being in another world, with the colours all around us. It felt very very special to be there.
That night we stay in a salt hotel; the floors and walls made of salt, one of the oddest places I’ve ever stayed. It’s cold outside but we share tea and biscuits and then dinner with the group and talk about the day before heading to our cosy beds for an early night.
Up at 6am, we wake after a good sleep and tuck into hot chocolate and coffee, then head out early over the salt flats into the bright white. Our driver Ademah has a great playlist and our group – Julia and Eric from Germany, Sioladh and Charlotte from the UK and Moz and I – sing along to the music. The day is a long one with lots of driving through incredible scenery: we stop at fossilised coral rocks, a canyon, two lagunas to see the beautiful pink Chilean, Andean and James flamingos, climb on huge lumps of volcanic rock and walk around sulphur-smelling, mud bubbling geysers.
One of the highlights is a trip to Laguna Colorado, bright red with algae, the volcanoes rimming the edge of the lake and thousands of flamingos in the shallow salt water. It’s an amazing day and our brains are full of information and incredible sights. The skin on my hands is dry from the sun and wind, and I have to keep rubbing salt from my lips. Every photo I took seemed useless, unable to capture the beauty and size of this amazing place.
That night we’re staying in a basic bunkhouse – it’s very cold up at 4000m and we huddle together sipping tea and talking about the day. At dinner, the guide bring us shot glasses of wine, perhaps to prepare us for stripping off in the freezing dark and then plunging into the hot springs just down the road from the bunkhouse. It’s beautiful, the huge full moon and starry constellations overhead.
The next day we drive through one of the highest deserts in the world, a surreal Dali-esque landscape and one which is nicknamed ABC, the place where the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile meet. We’re heading onto the Chilean border and are sad to leave Bolivia – and this amazing landscape – so soon.