All white in the salt flats of Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni - where dust devils etch the surface

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Vast salt flat is said to have been created by a mountain goddess. Neil McQuillian is in thrall to this otherwordly landscape

The most popular bar in Uyuni is Extreme Fun Pub. It offers "llama sperm" shots and phallic drinking vessels. Spend an hour in this 1km-by-2km town and you can understand why merrymaking has found such awkward, overeager expression. Fun feels far away here, a forgotten concept to be guessed at. Step down from the first-floor bar to street level – albeit a 3,668m-above-sea-level street level – and the town's dusty, congestion-free boulevards, sickly and pallid in colour, are as functional as ducting, petering out into flat Altiplano badlands of scrub and rubble. The streets' unusual width affords glimpses of this landscape from many points in town, as if daring you take it on. Occasionally, a fine dust whips up, so that people squint their eyes and raise hoods. Electricity lines stretch in great sagging lengths. One popular internet café advertises high-speed connections, though the owner admits to every customer that it is in fact muy lento. Very slow – that's Uyuni all over.

The town did once have greater purpose. Stand on the platform of its railway station, which still serves the Oruro-Villazon passenger line, and listen to the clanging as workers repair rolling stock, turning Uyuni into an echo chamber and recalling its former status as a rail nexus for the transportation of mined booty. With that role redundant, why didn't Uyuni give up the ghost? Extreme Fun Pub provides the answer: in one of its rooms, the floor is thick with salt.

It is during the daytime that Uyuni is at its most desolate, because tourists are out gazing at the town's modern-day raison d'être: the Salar de Uyuni. This, the world's largest salt flat, extends over 9,000 harshly beautiful square kilometres, but the clincher that draws visitors away from Bolivia's northern highlights – La Paz, the Bolivian Amazon and Lake Titicaca – is that the standard three-day-two-night trip also takes in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, whose lakes of red and green, stinking mud pits and pink flamingos contrast in the most clamorous way imaginable with the salar's blank whiteness.

With principal base towns such as Uyuni and Potosi – where the draw is a frightening descent into the once-bountiful mines of Cerro Rico mountain – the regional tourist board's motto might as well run: "It's grim down south (but in a good way!)". Indeed, the Uyuni expeditions kick off by visiting a graveyard (of sorts). A few minutes' drive in the 4x4 beyond the town's edge, with the Altiplano billowing out all around us, we arrived at the Cementerio de Trenes, two long rows of locomotives, wagons and carriages seemingly frozen in their death throes. The gritty rust suited their make-up, all rivets and parts. Graffiti ranged from "Viva mi patria Bolivia" and "Nicole Te Amo" to "Mickey From Boyzone Woz Ere" and "NUFC". Our driver-cum-guide, Garcia, said the train cemetery had been in place for over 70 years.

Glowering beneath his big "Countryside Ford" baseball cap, Garcia had so far hardly spoken – though his habitually parted lips suggested he was on the cusp of speech – and then only in Spanish. But it quickly became clear that he would express himself through the medium of breakneck speed, a practice that did have one early benefit. As we careered through the still-salt-free landscape, a giddy sense suddenly washed over me that everything was dropping away, as if a clifftop loomed ahead of us. My right foot searched for a brake. Then, all at once, we were upon the salar. Driving seemed to become gliding. On the horizon, mountains floated, their bottoms cut away by some optical illusion. This was the dry season; during the rainy months (November to April), salar tours are more highly prized since the submerged surface becomes one vast mirror.

Garcia's speed was particularly troubling because the terrain so resembled ice, but soon the salar was fragmented into a vast network of polygonal shapes, formed by the evaporation of salt water through cracks on its surface. To the north, Volcán Tunupa was coming into view. This dormant volcano gives the salt flat its traditional name – Salar de Tunupa – and plays a part in indigenous theories of its creation, according to which the mountain goddess Yana Pollera filled the plain with her milk to keep apart volcano gods Tunupa and Q'osqo, who were fighting over fatherhood of the goddess's child.

In the lake, an island. Brown and green against the overarching white, the cacti-studded Isla Incahuasi (or Isla del Pescado) grew closer. Its raw beauty was spoilt by a long line of tour group 4x4s parked along its southern flank, so neat and numerous they might have just rolled off the production line. The salt lake appeared to lap at the island in a series of little bays, while the crooked cacti, sprouting ice-blue flowers, could have been gently waving underwater. Of course, the whole region was once submerged: some 12,000 years ago, the salar was part of enormous Lago Tauca. At the island's peak, we found offerings to the Andean earth mother, Pachamama: coins, cigarettes and a lone hair scrunchie. The mountain-dominated horizon was split, front to back, into three lines of varying grey, like a photography test strip. An approaching 4x4 sounded like a jet plane high overhead, its track cutting through one of the circular shapes that salt dust devils etch on the salar's surface.

We spent our first night at a basic, salt-constructed refuge in Puerto Chuvica, one of 20 or so communities along the salar's banks. The surrounding hillsides were flecked with cacti that looked to be moving at iceberg pace down the slopes. The main signs of life were grazing vicuñas, the undomesticated, cartoon- cute relation of the llama and alpaca, whose coat is hugely valuable. Taking a walk into the hills, I passed among coral-sharp rocks covered in fossilised algae, and piles of stones known as apachetas, ceremonial constructions linked to communion with nature. Stumbling upon a couple engaged in their own amorous communion with nature sent me quickly back the way I had come. As I descended, the hills' shadow made slow, sliding progress across the salar.

Next day we visited a sequence of lakes. The first, and the most beautiful spot yet, was Laguna Cañapa, where 100 or so pink flamingos stood erect, piercing reflections of the surrounding mountains in the shallow waters. Lowering their heads to feed, the birds appeared to be kissing themselves. The next lake, Laguna Hedionda, reeked of sulphur – the name means "stinky" – and the flamingos squelched as they stepped about the sludgy waters.

Soon nearly all sense of a road was gone and Garcia powered his way through a dark brown landscape that rolled this way and that, like thick-spread dulce de leche. The only times he slowed were to pack his cheeks with coca leaves, fastidiously nibbling each one from its stem before pressing it into his mouth. Copper-stained mountains etched with patterns like satellite images of Mars rose up in the distance and a dust twister raced away ahead of us. We stopped for a staring match with a trio of viscachas, rodent creatures like a cross between a rat and a hare, and suitably peculiar guardians for the reserve which we were about to enter.

Named after Eduardo Abaroa Hidalgo, a colonel killed during the War of the Pacific in which Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile, it's as if the reserve were doing its landlocked best to assuage that loss. It puts on quite a show. The highlight, and the location of our second night's accommodation – a motley hamlet of low concrete refuges – was Laguna Colorada, whose silky red waters were scattered with white islands of the mineral borax, like so many dollops of cream. On the lake's far shore, a wall of dust drifted like a ghostly ship's sail, then dissipated. Come nightfall the sky was a planetarium, with more and more stars appearing the longer I looked. Beyond the darkness-obscured lake, some distant storm caused flashes of dusty red on the horizon, showing up the mountain line.

At 5am it was 5C on our final day – it can reach -20 to -25C come June and July, Garcia had told us with relish – and the sky was still a deep blue. With mountains glowing red in the early morning sun, he accelerated blindly through the dust, racing other 4x4s to reach the geothermal field known as Sol de Mañana. At a freezing 5,000m this was the highest point on our tour. The stinking, bubbling pits were shrouded in steam, beyond which a nearly full moon was pale in the cloudless blue.

By now we'd had our fill of eye candy. Garcia took us on to a paddling pool-sized hot spring – Laguna Polques – and then on to the so-called Salvador Dalí desert, whose strange rock formations couldn't even tempt us out of the vehicle. Laguna Verde wasn't green on this visit, which Garcia put down to an absence of wind, but that was fine – we'd seen enough.

The seven-hour drive back to Uyuni was undertaken in near silence. Garcia sent coca leaves fluttering out of the window as we passed occasional roadside shrines, blessing himself in a conflation of indigenous and Christian belief. At one point we passed a small, ugly industrial facility. I asked if this had anything to do with the processing of lithium, the mineral that powers mobile phone, laptop and electric car batteries, since the salar holds vast reserves of this grey gold under its surface. Garcia didn't know. A pilot plant has recently been endorsed by President Evo Morales; however, if those tentative steps become a rush, Extreme Fun Pub may find that far fewer gringos will come looking for refuge from Uyuni's streets.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) flies from Gatwick, with a change of plane in Madrid, to Santa Cruz in the east of Bolivia. American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, via Miami.

Staying there

La Petite Porte (00 591 7388 5960; www.hotel-lapetiteporte-uyuni.com) offers doubles for US$90 (£56), including breakfast.

Seeing there

Recommended Uyuni tour operators with offices in town include Red Planet Expedition (00 591 7240 3896; redplanetexpedition.com) and Cordillera Traveller Tours (00 591 2693 3304; cordilleratraveller.com).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments