Bolivia is colder than I expected, and no wonder. The country is one of the highest in the world. At Uyuni, we stop by the old train cemetery, where rusting carriages and cabs sit silent and mildly accusing in the bright sunshine. Uyuni once was (and by some extent, still is) an important transportation hub, carrying materials from Alto Peru (modern day Peru and Bolivia) to ports on the coast. The trains and tracks were built by the British (who else!) who were brought in by the Bolivian government. When the mining industries collapsed, the trains fell into disuse, and were abandoned.
The town itself has a frontier-like feel, so close to the borders. The major industries are salt mining and tourism. It is the gateway to Bolivia’s star attraction: the world’s largest salt flats, formed by several prehistoric salt water lakes.
The flats are covered by a crust of salt a few metres thick, underneath which is a lake of brine. There are several islands in the salt flats, many of which were submerged at some point in prehistoric time, and now contain cacti as well as the remains of delicate marine coral.
Cacti on Isla de Pescadores, flamingos on the altiplano
The landscapes here are surreal and dream-like, stretching as far as the eye can see to distant mountains. The extreme flatness of the land lends itself to perspective photographs, allowing us to take some very weird and wonderful shots.
What strikes me most is the immensity of the flats, the silence and the ever present wind. I feel dwarfed by the horizons and tall sky. We spend days rattling in our jeeps from one point to another on the bumpy road. Dusty feet and happy hearts.
Here on the altiplano, the wind is cold, arid. Despite the salinity and the harshness of the land, there is life – pink flamingos breed and feed here. We spend a night at a salt hotel, constructed entirely out of salt bricks. At dawn, we load up our dusty 4x4s and set out across the flats, heading towards the coloured lakes and lagoons.
The lakes here are coloured red or green by the minerals inherent in the water. Close by, steaming geysers create towers of hot water and calm thermal pools. Everywhere on the altiplano there is a stark, otherworldly beauty, of pristine landscapes, wild yet, and untouched.
Coloured lagoons; dawn and sunset on the altiplano