Like the swing on the edge of the world took us to Banos, Ecuador, it's unbelievable and dreamy photos that draw travelers to the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) in Bolivia. Images of the jeeps driving across an endless expanse of whiteness contrasted against the rich blue sky, the giant mirror effect creating by just an inch of water atop the salt, and especially the truly wonderful photos that make everyone look miniature atop a tequila bottle or like they're being chased by a tyrannosaurus rex (which is actually just a 5-inch figurine).

 

My Experience in the beautiful Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: Walking on Water & Driving through a dream

 

I woke up in our summer-camp style bedroom in Uyuni and all of us strangers sharing a sleeping space went our separate ways. The Argentinian couple heard they could take a city bus to the salt flats for a dollar and walk through it themselves (it’s in the middle if nowhere so I find this very hard to believe, but props for being adventurous I guess), and the French guys were committed to the 3-day excursion idea. As someone with a limited budget and attention span, but not in the mood to be lost in the desert alone, I went with a middle option and signed up for a one day tour. Everyone had told me horror stories of some of the terrible companies and warned that you can’t just pick any random tour. They all seem exactly the same when you walk through the tiny ghost town that is Uyuni, so it's hard to know.

I chose Brisa Tours, a recommendation from a guy I had met in Humahuaca. They were cheap, spoke English, guaranteed they could find an area with water (what you see in the really stunning mirror-like photos), and would stay for sunset but be back in time for the night buses to La Paz (to which I had a ticket). Oh and they had all the fun toys for photos where you look like you’re running from a T-Rex, or riding a banana boat, which, lets be honest- is basically what you go for.

 

Megan in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia

 

I stepped out of the tiny tour company office into the bright sun and looked at the list of names of my now-full car. I observed quite quickly that every other person was from South Korea. And 30ish. And the guy said they were all pairs of friends or couples, so in a bunch of parties-of-2, I was the one rando, and not from their country or able to speak their language. Feeling overwhelmingly excited to see the salt flats, but having already learned these downsides of traveling alone all too well, I just waited to leave over a cup of coffee and hoped for the best.

I got in the car (cool, jeep-like, upped the adventure vibe for sure), and was wondering if I picked the wrong tour as everyone began chit-chatting in Korean. They introduced themselves to each other quickly, were connecting, laughing and gesturing happily as they became new friends. Then, they suddenly all looked over at me like they'd just realized there was one more. They instantly flashed the largest smiles I’ve ever seen not on a cartoon character and started introducing themselves, hugging me, and the two that spoke English (thank you every deity ever) began introducing everyone and translating for me. I have never been so relieved.

We took off and I was so thankful for this group. Our first stop was the Train Graveyard, which would be a stunning location for a photo shoot or something, but at this point of the day was just a bunch of backpackers standing on top of steam stacks and taking jumping photos on top of very old and rusting train cars. It was a little creepy seeing a bunch of abandoned train cars out in the middle of the desert, all still attached like they could move at any minute, with train tracks that just ended without going anywhere. But creepy in a great-for-photos-way, and I actually just realized that all of the scenery from my day is in Naughty Boy’s “La,La, La ft. Sam Smith” video, so I guess someone else has realized that too. (It’s cool, you should watch it).

 

Visiting Uyuni Salt Flats Bolivia

 

Next, we stopped at a tiny artisan’s market in the middle of nowhere, with no more than 10 stalls of handicrafts. We could see what looked like the salt flats in the distance (basically an area with nothing until the horizon and endless white ground), so this 30 minute stop that nobody was into except the guys who wanted a cigarette break was sort of just delaying the main act for us.

But the tour operators just love that, you know? No matter where you go, what tour you’re on…It’s all about stopping at these markets that are selling you the same crafts you’ve seen in every city or town on your trip, probably consistent throughout multiple neighboring countries, but they allow just enough time that you don’t know what to do with yourself and you end up buying something, even though you already decided that nobody at home wants a keychain coin purse that’s also a magnet with fake dollars and clay-modeled llamas glued on it and a lifetime’s supply of chiclets inside.

 

Geometric patterns on the salty ground of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia

 

Finally, after some people in our group spent $30 on pieces of rock salt from the salt flats (to which our guide replied that you can also just pick them up off of the ground yourself- but of course we didn’t know this because we were cleverly taken to the market before the flats), we headed out for real.

Driving into and out of the salt flats were two of the most exciting parts of the day, because you see this vast whiteness that continues to every horizon and you just drive, what feels like aimlessly, into it. There are only a few places with tire tracks and the rest looks untouched. It feels like you could reach the furthest point you see in ten minutes, yet we drove for over two hours in one direction and the horizon never changed. It was stunningly incredible how endless it was.

First, we pulled up to some little mounds of salt, just as the ground turned from dirt to salt, to get a taste of the group photos and kick it all off. Just behind it was the Salt Hotel, which was cool but not much more than a shell of a building…but just next to it was a mound of flags from all over the world that were stuck into the salty ground, some that people had signed or written dates on, and we watched as some German guys came and added their country’s first contribution.

 

Flags from all over the world at Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia

 

But sadly, despite being incredibly obnoxious and marking our territory on every other inch of the planet (and other items in the solar system), there was not a single flag from the United States. So, next American who goes, let’s give the rest of us something to take a picture with!

We finally left the traveler-inspiration hub of the flags and really began the journey. We spent the next hour driving towards what seemed like pure nothingness until a little hill popped up out of nowhere. Cactus Island, as they creatively call it, used to be an island and is now covered in a million cacti. And three llamas! Exactly three llamas- no more, no less. Our adorable driver made us a picnic lunch here and let us wander over the island (and mainly chase the llamas for photos).

After a few selfies with llamas and a walk around, we headed back into jeep headed for more of the infinite whiteness. It was that feeling again that the white hole of salty ground had swallowed us up and we might never return to brown ground again.

 

Cactus Island in the middle of the beautiful Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia

 

He pulled the jeep over in a spot that seemed as good as any since it all looked the same, and after letting us poke around the salt and dig our hands into the underground water, he announced that it was the moment we had all been waiting for- the prop photos. This tour guide was so prepared, he laid out his towel and the toys, lined up our cameras and start directing us like the world needed it to ACTUALLY look like we were riding the banana, not just pretending to. It was everything I had wanted out of the tour. One couple brought a bottle of Korean alcohol for us to jump on, we ran from a miniature T-Rex, danced Gangnam Style on a banana, and cuddled on a Pringles can. We splayed out like starfish surrounding a Bolivian flag, and everyone had their chance to suggest poses.

After our moment of glory, he told us we had a little time for our own pictures before we headed out.

 

Taking our fun photos in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia salt flats

I remember reading a sign (I think it's at the Grand Canyon) that says to take a minute to just look. No talking, no photos, just seeing what's in front of you. So I did...

 

Standing in the dead center of the Salt Flats was truly incredible, and like driving endlessly through it, being able to do a 360 and only see white in every direction is an insane feeling. What’s also beautiful is that the ground, for some reason related to science and salt that I didn’t pay close enough attention to, is covered in pentagon outlines, and this is what covers every inch of all that white you see. Every inch. It's mesmerizing. If you step away from the T-Rex photos for a moment you realize how, forgive me if it's cheesy, truly magical nature is. It's unbelievable. We get so used to natural beauty, but the fact that something like this exists in the world of its own accord is mind-blowing every time you give it more than a few seconds of your attention. The Salar de Uyuni does what travel is meant to do to you- It makes you stop, with wide eyes, and appreciate your chance to be wherever you are at that exact moment. It makes you appreciate, grateful and most importantly, speechless.

 

Panoramic shot in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia

 

For the grand finale of the day, our sweet guide drove us, again for what felt like forever, in a new direction. After a lot more of that whiteness (which misleadingly makes it sound like I had had enough of it, far from the truth), parts of the ground ahead looked slightly blue and we could see a set of mountains at the edge of the skyline. Everyone rolled down the windows and in addition to the constant crunching sound of the salt under the tires, we could now hear a new slush sound as well. We had reached the water-covered salt flats that a majority of the world claimed only existed once or twice a year after a heavy rain. Our tour guide told us that this edge of the flats always had water, it was just a matter of knowing about it…as I noticed only two other cars there, out of the fifty plus tour companies running multiple cars per day that had been advertising in town, I realized that there was still something out there that was a well-kept secret in the traveling world. And I, along with my new Korean friends, had stumbled upon it. Thanks to that kind guy I met in Humahuaca, Argentina whose name I have already forgotten.

We played with the mirror-like water and our camera, sloshed around the salt puddles in the giant rain boots they gave us, and watched the most incredible sunset, reflecting pastel hues onto the still water.

 

Sunset over the water-covered area of the Salar de Uyunu salt flats in Bolivia

 

The sunset was orange with hues of deep blue around the sun, bright and clear. On the opposite side of the sky, the mountains looked like a pink and purple cotton candy fog had settled around them. It was such a beautiful and varied sunset. After the sun was gone for good, we turned around to get in the car and at that exact moment saw what we actually thought was a fire behind the mountains. As it grew, we realized it was the moon rising, directly opposite where we had just watch the sun slip away.

I have never seen a brighter moon, or watched the moon in a more beautiful place in my entire life, and I have accepted the fact that I probably never will again. This happened in August of 2014- Remember that moon? This was the super moon. That crazy, giant, fireball of a moon, many times larger than it usually appears. Shining bright and rising high over the water-covered portion of the salt flats. As with almost everything breathtaking and unbelievable moment in life, not a SINGLE one of our cameras could capture it. I think they actually just couldn’t handle the light of it, mine was spastically trying to unfocus itself each time I focused on that moon. But here’s an unfocused photo because that’s a moment that couldn't be captured in it's true nature, but is one that I wish I could share with the world.

 

The Super Moon setting over Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia

 

Traveling alone may make us lonely sometimes. It may make you worry that you don't speak Korean, or realize you are an outsider, or bring any other uncertain areas to the surface. But when you look at those opportunities, see past the chance to be uncomfortable, and remember what you're there for, you realize that there is nothing more beautiful than trusting strangers, taking a chance, and sharing a moment that makes you happy to be on this planet with people from a totally different corner of the world.

 

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