22. Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni.

Descending from the final pass toward Uyuni gave a great view of the town, a vast open flat expanse of desert terrain with distant mountain peaks and the faint whiteness of the epic Salar de Uyuni.
The Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world's largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). Located in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí (southwest Bolivia) near the crest of the Andes, sitting at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. With eleven different salt layers, the average total thickness is 100 metres. The top salt layer has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variation within one meter over the entire area of the Salar! The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's known lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites.
Founded in 1890 as a trading post, sitting slightly lower than Potosi at 3,700 metres it has a population of around 10,000. Dropped of at the town's edge I wander along its dusty, broken, uneven pavement-lined streets to the centre. Plastic bags and rubbish blowing in the wind litter the streets. Old buildings in need of repair demolition a-join newer ones, signs advertising prosperous investment in the town as part of it's continued economic growth, personally I thought relocating the town to a new, virginal patch of terrain and starting afresh would prove better than trying to polish a cow pat, but here for the salt-flat and not the town I shrugged it off.
Soon booked in at a hostal I'm planning my next move. Copious tour operators surrounding the central plaza area caught my attention. Having entered Bolivia from the eastern border I'd unfortunately missed the southwest Altiplano area which the tours included visiting parts of, along with the epic salt-flat. To be honest, I was concerned about riding across it, it's big, in fact, it's bloody huge! With just a few Islands in its central area - the main one that all visitors head to being the infamous Incahuasi Island, at only about several kilometres circumference finding it successfully would be like finding a needle in a haystack, the following blue outline shows comparatively just how big the salt-flat is, I was heading for a tiny little dot, smaller than the black dot of central London;
The closest attraction to Uyuni is the legendary railway Train Cemetery. Located 3 km outside Uyuni, still 'connected' to it by the old train tracks the town once served as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports. The train lines were built by British engineers who arrived near the end of the 19th century and formed a sizeable community in Uyuni. The engineers were invited by British-sponsored Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies, which is now Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia. The rail construction started in 1888 and ended in 1892. It was encouraged by the then Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, who believed Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system, but it was also constantly sabotaged by the local indigenous people who saw it as an intrusion into their lives. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly due to the mineral depletion. Here the locomotives, carriages and wagons lay, [thanks to minimal humidity] v-e-r-y slowly rusting away. 
Enroute from Uyuni to the cemetery;
For a selection of the best photos from the morning's visit click here.

Wandering back I decide to book a tour. It would be great to take a break and also meet some other travellers for a few days, also, I could then gauge the difficulty - or not - on riding across the salt-flat. With a four-day tour booked the following morning I leave my bike and bags at the tour company and board the 4x4 along with a newly married Peruvian couple and an Italian father and daughter. Our permitted luggage is stowed upon the roof-rack along with several 25 litre jerry cans....there were no petrol stations where we'd be going!
Heading off our first stop was the Train Cemetery! With a packed schedule, time there was limited so was glad I'd walked there the previous day to ponder at my own pace. Heading back into and through Uyuni we then head twenty three kilometres north along the main road to the salt-flat's easterly entry village Colchani. With about 60,000 visitors to Uyuni each year tourism generates a welcomed income to the area and the village here benefits from the through traffic. All the 4x4's (every one being the rugged Toyota Land Cruiser) stop here whereby visitors are encouraged to wander around the village's market area, colourful blankets, shawls and hats are sold along with snacks and drinks, trinkets and typical tourism offerings. Wandering around I notice a small hostal tucked away down a side-street...making note as it could prove useful for a plan lurking in the depths of my mind. 
Several kilometres further down the washboard gravel route the vehicles heavily laden bump-bump-bump ceases as the graunchy sound of vehicle-over-salt commences..we were now on [for me] what Bolivia was all about, the epic Salar de Uyuni!!
I was amazed at its flatness, along with it's surface - a naturally-formed hexagon crystalline pattern etched across it that tapered infinitely into the horizon, somewhere out there, merging with the sky.
Who says the camera never lies?... due to the openness, simple photography tricks can easily be achieved due to the camera having little else to focus on except 'subjects' placed within the field-of-view along with nothing else for subject size-comparison. I'd seen many-a photos like this and our tour driver was obviously well versed at taking the photos with the necessary required 'extras'....my green friend was only about 20 centimetres (8 inches) high
As we head across the salt I'm taking mental note of the surrounding mountain peaks, these would be crucial in successfully navigating to the Island, a few degrees in the wrong direction could yield a big error after just 20-30 kilometres, all being well the vehicle tracks would also help guide me.
An hour later we arrive at Incahuasi Island, parked up amongst 50-60 other Land Cruisers along with two single-engine planes at the far end. It was so strange, so visually out of place, a relatively small craggy blot of land just several kilometres around smothered in cacti, it really emphasised just how strange and unpredictable the natural world can be. The cacti are able to flourish due to it's own miniature eco-system.
Paying the small entrance fee we follow a trail leading up to the island's 'summit' - still at altitude pausing regularly for a few deep breaths - 100 metres or so above the salt flat gave a great panoramic.
Dropping back down the trail leads through a small cave, the darkness in stark contrast against the salts reflective white.
Ambling around for an hour in awe of this strange island we take photographs galore before regrouping. Driving several kilometres south from the island we then stop to watch the sunset over this magical place.
Driving on we finally reach the salt flat's edge and join a bumpy dusty dirt road,later arriving at a small village where we were to eat and sleep Although the accommodation's sleeping quater's didn't look too special from the outside, inside was amazing! Made from salt-bricks it was really impressive, rather smart and trendy that with the right marketing back home would certainly attract a high price tag.
The adjoining restaurant was also pretty cool, a sandy-like floor scree led to several knee high tables surrounded by small salt-brick built stools topped with colourful clothes. Sitting in our correct groups (I was told off for sitting, talking to another!) we're served our dinners.
The following day continuing along the bumpy dusty routes we firstly visit a sand-stone rock formation area, dotted with random green lichen-covered rock, in its setting they looked as out-of-place as Incahuasi Island, these tiny organisms smothering the rocks hanging on to life in this dry, barren, wind-swept area - so strange.
Continuing, we next head to one of the many areas's salt lakes with many flamingos standing in the middle, a fox, perfectly coloured to blend with the terrain cautiously ambles around the parked vehicles sniffing for anything edible and awaiting the inevitable "Ah, he's cute" as he gets thrown a few extras. Having been slowly climbing upwards the temperature had been descending and with distant snow-capped peaks when the wind blew across the lake it was quite cold.  A couple of bicycle tourers pass by at a snail's pace, slow going in the soft dirt 'road'... I was content having not come this way, with company it would be okay, resolving issues together, but on my own, no thanks.

Later we arrive at another lake, our driver pulling up to higher ground for a good view, also breaking for lunch his tail-gate doubles as a serving table for the food supplies he'd collected back in Uyuni. The driver only spoke Spanish so at points of interest Italian Giulia would usually translate for me. although Italian she now lives in New York City and was on holiday with her visiting father.
Climbing up even higher, we reach 4600 metres (15,000 feet), the mountains cold and uninviting views reiterate the timelessness of this place.
The infamous Arbol de Piedra in Desierto Siloli is our next stop. tree-like sculpture wind-carved over thousands of years attracts many-a tourists. I wondered how much longer before its inevitable collapse?
Another lagoon that I reluctantly exit the vehicles warmth to see, this one being well and truly frozen, five minutes later we're jumping back in the 4x4!
That evening we arrive at another tiny remote village, again I start to wonder what do people do here? Cold and desolate, a small shop selling the basics, Giulia buys a 4-pack of beers. After being served a good dinner, apart from play the Gringo-Monster chasing a couple of kids around the corridors within the hostal with little else to do due to the coldness we're soon tucked into our beds..also in our sleeping bags that we'd been advised to bring.The following day would be an early start, up at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise and head to a few more attractions as we head back to Uyuni. Each day we'd drove several hundred kilometres over some really rough terrain, again, content I'd not done this on my bike. Beep beep beep, awaking in the dark coldness of the new day, reluctantly peeling ourselves from the beds, fed and watered we're off along the trail. In line with several other Land Cruisers I think our driver was after pole-position or the prime-parking spot at the first attraction as was overtaking at the slightest chance, I was amazed at what these vehicles were being put through, a serious pounding that he drove twice a week, If I was after a 4x4 I'd definitely buy a Toyota Land Crusiser!  
Forty five minutes later we stop to see a geyser, too cold and tired and also as my camera's flash no longer worked I stayed in the 4x4, from here the sun started to rise but unfortunately due to the mountains the horizon was not visible. The next stop was a thermal bath just at the entrance of the national park area we'd drove into the night before. Soon several 4x4's are there and people are make their way from changing rooms into the water...it would be fine that way, but emerging from the hot waters into the morning's icy air...not bloody thank you!
By midday we pass through another sand-stone formation, with more of the lichen-covered rock scattered here n there. Like a scene from a Spaghetti Western, expecting Butch Cassidy to ride into view!
A vast openness of nothing.
Having covered around 800 kilometres we arrive back in town, here's the team; 
Giulia, her farther and the newly married Peruvian couple.

Next up, do I find the Island?
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