In a salt desert or in a train cemetery, never stop playing

4.00 a.m. There it was expanding in front of us: the Salar de Uyuni. The biggest salt flat in the world. Actually looking like a gigantic puzzle because of the cracks on the ground that form millions of irregular pentagon-shaped pieces. The reason we were leaving that early (again) was that we needed to get to a small hill full of cactuses to see the sunrise on the desert from there. Rubén was just awesome at this, managing to get us to each place at the right time, before anybody else, or if not before, at least avoiding the moments where there could be a crowd. We arrived there shortly before 5.00 and, yes, it was magical. The salt turning from dark blue to pink and, finally, white. And although the number of people joining us at the top of the hill was constantly growing, the peacefulness of the place and the moment was enjoyable. These kinds of moments pass away so quickly that you have to be able to be fully in the present to enjoy them. Once the sun was completely out, we went to explore the rest of the hill and its numerous cactuses. They didn’t look very special at first, but they appeared to be pretty impressive too. Just because it takes so long for them to grow to their actual height. Many of them were around 200 years old. We had breakfast at the bottom of the hill then took off again.

One of the “must do’s” in the salar, is a series of pictures where you play with perspectives. Having just one huuuuuuge piece of white paper with nothing but some very distant mountains at the horizon easily allows to play at giants and Lilliputians. So we took 30 minutes of our time and put our driver’s photographer talents at work to do just that. But not only are the salt flats an impressive place and a wonderful playground for grown up children, like most deserts, it is also a dangerous one. Particularly during the rainy season, between January and March. The water doesn’t penetrate the very thick and condensed salt crust and, by staying on the surface, transforms the place into one gigantic mirror reflecting the sky. This makes it impossible to cross the salt flats completely. Without any landmark to rely on, even the most experienced drivers get lost. Sometimes for several days. Eventually, they might need to be rescued by helicopter. Now, when I told this to one of my friends back in Europe, he asked me “but why don’t they use a compass?”. Which is a very good question indeed, which I was kind of pissed I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask myself. If anyone knows the answer to that, I’d be happy to hear it.

Long is the road.
Long is the road.

Another customary stop in the salar includes a visit to the Hotel de Sal. A hotel similar to the one we had been sleeping in, only bigger and in the middle of the desert. It was built somewhere between 1993 and 1995 and attracted many tourists. But its isolated location – meaning no water and no evacuation – very quickly became a problem that, together with mismanagement, led to environmental pollution and, finally, the dismantling of the place as soon as 2002. This background of the hotel soiling its surrondings probably explains why, when I set to use the toilets and asked if I could have a refill of toilet paper, the person in charge coldly replied that we were in a desert and that I would have to manage with what he gave me.

Towards the end of the desert ride, we stopped alongside a series of small piles of salt. Workers, covered from head to toe in order not to  get burned by the sun, make those as about 25 000 tons of salt – out of an estimated 10 billion tons over the whole desert – from the salar are being traded every year. Michel wanted to take a picture of one of them but the miner refused. Our French guy was a bit frustrated but I guess such a reaction is understandable. He’s probably not the first one to want a portrait but when you work under very harsh conditions for probably very little money, you can easily get annoyed by people coming there with a big smile and hoping to get a nice picture as a souvenir to impress their family and friends at home. Same situation as in Potosí, actually. And how would we  ourselves react if a bunch of aliens would stop by our desk every day to see how we work. The first few would be amusing, I guess. But after a while, I don’t think I would want to grant them my most beautiful smile anymore.

Salty mini mountains.
Salty mini mountains.

Besides salt, the salar also holds an impressive amount of lithium, which is essential for the making of batteries. Bolivia holds about 43% of the world’s reserves. However, as for the salt, only a small quantity is being extracted every year. One of the reasons for this is that Bolivia does not want any big foreign conglomerate to be in charge of the extraction. They try to do it by their own means, slightly increasing the quantities over time.

We did one last stop at a small village with the typical tourist market and then, around noon, arrived at the city of Uyuni. The most peculiar thing about it is its train cemetery, an internationally recognized amusement park for photographers of all sorts. When everyone else was probably done after 15 minutes, I spent about an hour in there, looking for a more special angle, sight or light that maybe hadn’t been photographed yet. But when you visit tourist places and take touristy pictures, there’s not much you can do about it. Although I bumped into a bunch of playing kids and I would have loved to spend another two hours there trying to get some nice shots. But my travel companions where impatiently waiting for my return to get back to the city centre and have lunch.

Last stop before Uyuni.
Last stop before Uyuni.

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