Don’t Mess With The Sun: By jeep and motorbike, Graeme Green explores Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, one of the most unique and dazzling landscapes on Earth, discovering natural ‘artworks’ and local legends along the way…
“I advise from now on that you wear your sunglasses,” Javier told me, as our jeep reached the edge of the salt flats. Ahead of us was a watery blue-white surface that was a perfectly reflection of the sky, so vast it stretched to the horizon. Travelling through South America, I’d been told by other travellers that this – the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – was one place that’s ‘unmissable’. On first impressions, they were certainly right. “The thing about Uyuni,” said Javier, a local guide, “is there’s no place like it in the world.”
Uyuni is unique, vast and otherworldly, 10,500 square kilometres of brilliant white. Sunglasses are essential kit here, as the landscape can be literally dazzling. Travellers are known to sometimes get headaches, sun-blindness and other problems. Local people experience high rates of early onset blindness. Light seems to be everywhere here, filling the sky, bouncing off every gleaming white surface.
The high altitude (3640 metres) air is as pure as the landscape. According to a local story, when a new cemetery was built in Uyuni, no one (from the town’s 15,000 inhabitants) died for a year because the dry, cold, clean air doesn’t carry germs or disease. Eventually, they ‘borrowed’ a corpse from a nearby mining town to break ground at the cemetery.
As we drove onto the flats, I saw men with shovels loading piles of salt into trucks, small black marks against the white world. Nearly half a million tons of salt are mined each year. There are large amounts of lithium here too, the power source of the future, with industrial powers larger than Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries, lining up to make use of it. But there are fears too that this pristine environment could be lost if industrial mining comes in.
There were no roads across the plains, just faint tracks that I could make out where other vehicles had passed through. Perspective was lost in the whiteness. With no objects and nothing to cast a shadow, there was no sense of distance. Something that looked close could be several kilometres away. Local drivers have mastered navigation using markers like the Tenupa volcano and jagged dark peaks on the far edge of the flats. “If the driver isn’t from these parts, it’s easy to get lost,” Javier explained.
We drove past a salt hotel in the middle of the plains, with an island of tall flags next to it, the colours of the world dancing on the wind. Deep into the plains, we stopped the jeep and got out. Javier and I walked to the edge of one of the large ‘salt eyes’ and watched it bubble and spill out onto the surface. At this altitude, there’s a 30-degree temperature drop between day and night, making the salt expand and contract, creating these holes.
Raul, the jeep driver, called me over to where he was fishing around in a salt eye with a stick. At his suggestion, I plunged my arm into the icy water and searched around the underwater shelf, breaking off a chunk of crystals that had formed under the surface. It was the size of a fist, a cluster of crystallized salt in perfectly formed cubes. “Beautiful,” Raul nodded in approval. It looked like a work of art, a small strange modern sculpture. I asked if anyone minded people taking ‘souvenirs’. “No one minds at all,” said Javier. “There are 10 billion tons of salt in the Salar de Uyuni. No one will miss it.”
We drove to Incahuasi, one of 53 islands on the plains. Travellers posed on the salt for photos playing with scale and perspective, ‘tiny’ people standing far off made to look as if they’re cradled in their friend’s palm or jumping into Cola bottles.
Javier and I hiked up over the cacti-covered dot of land, a fossilized coral reef. The cacti here grow just one centimetre per year. Some, at over ten metres, have existed for a millennium. There are only thorny plants here, Javier pointed out, an example of Darwinism in action. “Vegetation is mostly thorny on the high plateau. There aren’t many plants in the area, so the thorns are there to stop them being eaten.” At the summit, we visited a shrine to Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) with scattered offerings of alcohol, coca leaves, coins and cigarettes around it, left by local people.
We crossed over to Fish Island. Despite being minutes from busy Incahuasi, no one comes here. It was deserted, ours alone. I climbed high up to the cliffs to look out over the white plateau. The scene was like an Arctic wilderness, just with salt instead of snow and ice. The silence was absolute.
A lone vicuña, a golden deer-like animal, ran alongside the jeep as we drove across the salt to a peninsular of land. Bright pink flamingos were filter-feeding along the shores, beak-deep in watery sand. Up ahead stood the ragged white and iron-orange crater of extinct Tenupa volcano.
Before dark, we drove out onto the salt with Javier and Aldo, owner of the tents we’d be sleeping in later on the edge of the flats. The way the salt forms, settles and sinks creates a giant mosaic of hexagons across the flats. Raised edges caught the orange and pink light of the setting sun. “I could happily drive eight hours from La Paz just for this sunset,” smiled Javier.
The wind whistled. The plains seemed to have no end. “The first time I was out here, I realised how small we are,” Aldo told me. “This place is so huge, you better respect it.” His wife got stuck out here overnight once, he confided, and nearly died.
We settled in for the night in three large tents on the shore. Fierce wind whipped a dust storm along the black mountains. The wind howled outside, violently shaking the tent.
Javier beckoned me outside. The wind was freezing. It pounded the tent canvas, the sound like the beating of giant wings. “If you don’t mind the storm, the stars are fantastic,” he said, looking up.
We battled against the wind, eyes streaming, Javier pointing to the Southern Cross and bright red Antaris in Scorpio, and telling a story. “The constellation of Scorpio for the Indian people was the constellation of ‘Slingshot’. The legend says that Viracocha, the sun, professed his love for Pacha Mama. Pacha Mama refused his advances and commanded her strongest sons – Huayna Potosi and Illimani, the mountains – to confront him. Huayna Potosi grew arrogant and tried to slay the sun. Obviously, the sun didn’t like that, so he gave an Inca a magic slingshot with a golden stone. In the constellation of Scorpio, you can see the Antaris star in the middle, which is the golden stone. The Inca shot 12 times and destroyed Huaynapotosi, by beheading him.”
“Is there a meaning to the story?” I asked
“Uh, don’t mess with the sun, I guess,” Javier shrugged.
Early next morning, we drove back across the salt to the sandy streets of Uyuni. At a garage with motorbikes outside, I said goodbyes to Javier, Aldo and Raul, and introduced myself to Robin, a British-born Bolivian citizen who seems to live for motorcycling. “Riding Uyuni is unique, the experience of the vast openness,” Robin told me. “It’s quite humbling riding a motorcycle here.”
My bike was a yellow and black Suzuki DR650, solid, good for both on- and off-road. “This one’s got a bit of oomph, so be careful,” Robin warned me as he handed me the key. It had been a while since I’d ridden a bike. The 650CC ‘beast’ lurched forward when I first let out the throttle and I stalled more than once. But I soon got the grip of it and we set off together for what has to be one of the world’s greatest landscapes to ride a motorbike in.
The feeling as the pure white and blue of the ‘salar’ openned up in front of us was exhilarating. The bike purred and roared as I opened the throttle. The ground sparkled under the sun. The landscape was so clean, crisp and fresh, it felt like we were riding through a toothpaste advert. That, combined with the rush of speed as we openned the bikes out to 120kmph, felt like pure pleasure. Robin led us away from the faint tyre tracks of cars and minibuses into virgin salt and we picked our own freely winding course across the plains.
Psychologically, it’s strange terrain to ride on. The ground looked so much like snow and ice that it felt crazy to be riding at high speed over what, in my mind, should be a treacherous, slippery surface. But the salt was solid and grippy under the tyres.
The kilometres flew by as we headed for Incahuasi, around an hour from the border with Chile. There were no tracks, no people and no other vehicles all afternoon as we rode the parts of the flats other travelers seldom reach. The immense landscape was all ours and we took advantage of the freedom, giving each other plenty of space as we zig-zagged in big swooping lines across the great wide open. There were times when Robin was just a dark speck on the horizon, other times when we looped around and crossed each other’s tracks, like two lone skaters on what felt like the world’s biggest rink. Even through sunglasses, the colours were immense, brilliant blue and white filling my visor.
In the late afternoon, we left the slushy shores of the salt lakes and rode a sandy road along the banks, arriving at the ‘train cemetery’ as the sun set. “This is a bleak and desolate place,” Robin said, as we explored the hulking rusted trains, abandoned engines and carriages covered in graffiti. I enjoyed it, though, walking around the decayed giants from the past.
The trainyard was the birthplace of football in South America, Robin informed me. When British engineers came here in the 19th century to build Bolivia’s rail network, they brought ‘the beautiful game’ with them, which spread in popularity. Bolivia played their first international football match in Uyuni.
Darkness fell. We rode back into town and dropped off the bikes. I stayed overnight in a nearby salt hotel overlooking the salt flats, before heading south next day. It had been a long time since I’d been so reluctant to leave a place. With landscapes like this, you just want to keep riding forever.
Graeme Green is a journalist, travel writer and photographer for international publications, including The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, Wanderlust and the South China Morning Post. For 15 years, he has travelled the world with a camera and a notepad, from Japan to Haiti to Ethiopia. His work encompasses outdoor adventure, traditional and modern cultures, global issues, wildlife and luxury travel. For more, see graeme-green.com
Follow him on Instagram at @graeme.green
All photos by Graeme Green.