John Malathronas is dazzled by the world’s greatest salt lake


Uyuni has two main sources of income. Firstly, the Bolivian army keeps a permanent division, as it is in a sensitive border area where in the late nineteenth century one of the few purely South American wars was fought – between Chile, Peru and Bolivia. (Chile won.) Then, during the last decade, tourism exploded because of the famous Salar (salt lake) whose descriptions of beauty and otherworldly charm spread like wildfire amongst travellers in the age of the Internet. One day, two-day and four-day tours of the Altiplano leave almost daily from Uyuni.


The first stop of every tour is the Salar, and it’s a spectacular sight. It’s totally flat and totally white, with hard salt extending down to 10-15 feet below ground. It’s the world’s largest salt lake extending over 11,000 sq km. Everyone asks the same question: does the Salar dissolve when it (rarely) rains ? OK then: when it does – once a decade – the water stays on top and forms a lake. You see, the Salar has a top crust so hard that they make bricks out of it. In fact, our first tour destination was a salt brick production site. As it was Sunday, we were left alone to wander around and check out the works.


Soon, our group saw the results: a hotel built out of salt. There were tables made out of salt, chairs made out of salt, walls and a roof made out of salt, beds out of salt, a bar made out of salt, sculptures made out of salt - you name it, you could lick it. If it wasn't so damned hot you could easily believe you were in Greenland and you were looking at an Inuit’s igloo. It was deserted; it could not survive economically in the middle of the saltpan with all waste having to be carried manually to the, ahem, shore.


The huge stretch of blinding-white skyline played games on the imagination. Mirages were the norm: the horizon did not end when you thought it did, for the more remote parts acted as a mirror and produced reflections of the surrounding mountains; reflections so deep that you thought the mountains were suspended in the air, like those Roger Dean LP covers from the 1970s.


I started mentally humming Duran Duran: Look now, look all around, there's no sign of life/ Voices, another sound, can you hear me now/ this is Planet Earth.


Huh? Is it?


Yet, even here you can find life, in the most amazing site of the Salar, the Isla de Pescadores. This is a small island in the middle of the saltpan. It’s thickly populated with giant columnar cacti that can reach thirty feet in altitude. You can also find stray llamas, viscachas (Andean hares), hummingbirds, bees – in short, a complete closed ecosystem. The island is volcanic: you can visit the crater and step on the lava which has solidified looking like frozen cowpats. We climbed up to the crater and descended on the other side of the island, where a 'beach' has formed – a beach with solid salt in place of water. With several jeeps.


The Salar of Uyuni is getting so popular,  that there can be up to twenty cars on the small 'harbour' during high season. So choose your timing: November. Not too cold, still dry, off-season and the cacti are in bloom. I’m sure the Salar is soon going to achieve a reputation equal to Tierra del Fuego, the Amazon or Foz de Iguaçu : an exotic place that has become a legend. Certainly the landscape is like nothing anyone will ever experience.


Not on our planet anyway.


You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here have some great options in South America here