Snapping Away in the Salar de Uyuni

10 May

Dawn at the Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni might be off the radar for many travelers, but then again, Bolivia is off the radar to many travelers as it is. The giant salt flats in southwestern Bolivia are a virtual wasteland which inspires imagination in even the most jaded of journeymen. Those who have heard of it or even seen the pictures hold it up on a pillar as one of those fabled places worth visiting before dying, and might even consider it to be one of the natural wonders which, once having experienced, gives you the right to carry a certain pop in your step.

If you’ve seen the pictures, then you know what I’m talking about: the conga line of friends walking into a can, a perfectly timed jump over a white desert and clear sky, or the aspect games in which one person is huge and another is tiny. These are the traditional and touristic photos that all must demote themselves to, for in reality, the only thing to do in the salt flats is take pictures.

As fun as it might seem, the act of taking the pictures is much less enjoyable than the end result. The smiles on our faces is a bit of false advertising, because as we spent the better part of an hour struggling to figure out exactly how to get the pictures to come out correctly, we realized that sometimes you have to work hard for a simple photo. At first we had zero success and tension was building. Blame the camera or blame the photographer, but it sometimes comes down to the fact that it’s hard to take the perfect shot. We eventually enlisted the help of our driver, Gonzalo, who has become a seasoned expert after so many trips through the desert with tourists wanting the same thing.

Playing with the aspect

We began with a walk into a Pringles can. Easy enough, right? Next up was a bigger challenge. I was to kneel down and hold my arms up so that the girls could appear as small objects resting on my hands and head. I had the hardest part because I needed to keep a firm position bent down with my arms up while Gonzalo ordered the girls to move forward, backward, closer, farther, etc.

The idea that these pictures come out perfectly is almost impossible. At the time we wondered how people do it, yet later on we checked other photos and realized that by looking closely you can always notice something a little off. After all, it’s not Adobe Photoshop that you’re working with. It’s simply white salt as far as the eye can see, clashing with bright blue sky, creating a natural sort of green screen. When water covers the salt you see perfect mirror images, and as the sun rises the desert gets brighter and more powerful.

For that reason, you get there before dawn (on a good tour) and watch the sun rise. It’s a bitterly cold experience, and it seems like the sun is lazily getting out of bed and taking it’s time. The effects of the cold and slushy salt made me think of February in Boston, and if you hadn’t told me it was a salt flat, I would have assumed that it was snow. Little mounds set up to drain water rested in front of the famed Salt Hotel, where you’re not supposed to go to the bathroom, but paying for it can get you in to the facilities.

Once the sun has risen slightly the temperature jumps up, explained by the Salar’s high altitude (3,656 meters/11,995 feet above sea level). This area, which contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves, becomes a hot pan by midday, though you’ll still most likely remain in warmer clothing for most of your experience there, the wind remaining a factor. Even in the beginning of the dry season, your 4×4 will likely have to ford through flooded parts of the area, and in the wet season you’ll be able to witness one of the largest mirrors on earth. (The water recedes six inches a day in dry season).

Mirror image of a salt mound

So besides these things to see, a tourist going to the Salar is most likely to go picture crazy. There isn’t a ton else to do. But it’s the highlight of a tour which for me was the culmination of 3 nights and 4 days of roughing it through the Bolivian Altiplano. To be in a place so different and unique that I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere else like it, it made it all worth the trouble. You take pictures that will eventually create hundreds of words as you try to explain what the otherworldly place is like.

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