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Exploring Bolivia's Uyuni salt flats

The Uyuni salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) have been at the top of my travel bucket list for a long time, and are definitely among the highlights of my world tour itinerary. We took at three-day trip out to the flats in 4x4s to immerse ourselves in the stunning landscape and the surrounding desert.

Antique train graveyard

A popular stop on the way to the Uyuni salt flats, the antique train graveyard features abandoned trains from over a century ago. Set against the sparse desert terrain, this looks like a stunning film set. Visitors clamber over the rusty trains, which are now bedecked with graffiti, serving only to add to the surreal aesthetic.

The 4x4s that took us on the three-day salt flats tour

After a bumpy few hours in the 4x4s on our journey from the small, quiet town of Uyuni, we made it to the breathtaking salt flats.

The Uyuni salt flats

We spent a long time just taking in the spectacular view. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before in my life, with the white expanse stretching as far as the eye could see. It felt a bit like walking on top of an ocean, with the plains lined by mountains and dotted with islands.

The white expanse of the salt flats

The salt flats were formed when the tectonic plates pushed against each other to create The Andes, and took some of the sea with it. It is incredibly flat - with just a metre difference in altitude over its expanse of 10,582 square kilometres. The sea evaporated, leaving a crust of salt, with layer upon layer of salt and clay now forming the flats.

Tourists posing for pictures on the salt flats

On the salt flats, everyone's narcissistic side comes out. In the villages around the flats you can buy props to pose with, from toy dinosaurs and Pringles cans to cutlery. Most of our time on the white plains was spent snapping away trying to get the perfect perspective shot.

Dusk on the salt flats

We drove to our first night's accommodation as the sun was going down, which made for some spectacular views.

Sunset on the salt flats

We were lucky enough to enjoy this incredible sunset as we sped across the salt flats. The sky was streaked with purple, orange, red and black, which made for an amazing backdrop.

The salt flat island where we stayed on the first night

Our first night's accommodation was a hotel on the salt flats, where we enjoyed a dinner of rice and beans before sleeping in the midst of this incredible scenery. The islands in the salt flats are the remains of ancient volcanoes that existed before they were submerged when the landscape shifted.

Inside our cabin, which was made of salt

We stayed in cabins made entirely of salt. The bricks were made of salt, and so were the beds! The lack of light pollution made for the clearest night sky I've ever seen, with all the stars out in full force.

A friendly vicuna that lives on the salt island

The next morning we met Vicky - a baby vicuna that had been adopted by the people living on the island. She was extremely cute and very friendly to visitors, happily posing for pictures with all of us. After seeing all the vicunas in the wild, it was amazing to get to interact with one up close.

The view from a salt island where the Incas would sleep when crossing the flats

The next day we travelled across the flats, stopping on this island, which the Incas used to sleep on as they crossed the flats. The Incas mainly used the flats to get from one place to the next, but these days it is also used for salt farming. While the flats contain 50 to 70 per cent of the world's lithium reserves, there are no plans for lithium mining, with locals believing the profits would not reach them.

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After leaving the white plains, it was time to explore the mountainous scenery around them, which was almost as breathtaking. Active volcano Ollague sits on the border between Bolivia and Chile.

A black lagoon near the salt flats

The following day we visited this black lagoon, so stunning it looked completely surreal, which was surrounded by rocky mountain scenery.

High altitude hot springs

Then it was time for a dip in some 40 degree Celsius hot springs, which are volcano-warmed. The shock of the warmth, alongside the altitude, can make some visitors subject to altitude sickness. For me it was worth it for the incredible view.

Flamingos and llama at the pink lagoon

On the way back to Uyuni, we had time for one more stop: this lagoon which features shocking pink waters, and, to add to the pink theme, a large population of flamingos.

Llama in front of the mountainous landscape at the pink lagoon

Of course no Bolivian lagoon would be complete without a number of llama wandering around its banks.

The Uyuni salt flats: Trip highlight or let down?

The salt flats were billed as one of the high points of my trip, and they did not disappoint. In wet season, the flat is reflective, making for even more stunning views than the ones I got to see. However, our guides noted that in wet season, the 4x4s often can't take people far into the flats: due to the difficulty of driving on such terrain they have to go extremely slowly, rather than speeding across the landscape at 160 miles per hour as we were.

The three-day trip didn't just give us the opportunity to see more of the salt flats, but to understand the surrounding history and culture - and the spectacular mountain terrain we enjoyed on the last days of the tour would have been worth a trip out there in itself.

At the time of writing, the Uyuni salt flats are up there with the Inca Trail as one of my South American highlights. One very pleasant surprise was the views Bolivia offers up: and it's not just at the bits I expected to look nice. Everywhere you look, whether you're just taking a stroll around town, or you're on a bus journey to get from A to B, is aesthetically stunning.

I'm so looking forward to seeing the rest of this stunning country, and then travelling to Brazil, where I'm sure there will be many more eye-opening surprises to look forward to!

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Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

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