Long before the sun had decided to come out of its hiding place on the other side of the world, before its golden troops had set off on their relentless, indomitable march across the plains, the salt flats resembled an infinite white ocean of frozen foam. We had arrived well before the sunrise, and as I sat on a sharp rocky ledge, I noticed that everything, the rocks, the enormous cacti, even the people, had a surreal, dream-like quality.
The air felt thin, the dark blue sky like that of the Moon. I pressed my gloved hands between my legs to keep them warm. But in spite of the biting cold, I found myself wishing that the moment wouldn’t end. For I knew as soon as the sun rose, it would wipe away the magic with its bright broom of light, replacing it with a harsh reality of clear lines and well-defined shadows.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said; ‘Life is a journey, not a destination’, and so it goes with travelling. One of the reasons why we travel is to see. And a part of the appeal of seeing is the sense of surprise of finding yourself in the presence of something truly grand. But sadly, I think we have partially lost that ability to be surprised. Instagram and Facebook bombard us daily with photos of exotic, but well-photographed destinations, while every travel agency and tour company have a thousand photoshopped pictures of the places you have to see staring out through the display windows at you. And so when we do finally get there, we know exactly what it’s going to look like. And sometimes, that robs the place of some of its wonder. The journey, however, is spoiled harder, retaining its potential to take you to places you did not expect; to surprise you.
I was on Isla Incahuasi, a rocky island situated in the middle of the Bolivia’s most famous natural phenomenon; Salar De Uyuni salt flats. We had booked a 3 days/2 nights tour in Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama to take us there.
Insider tip: The tours to the salt flats can be organised both San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or Uyuni and Sucre., Bolivia. 3Days/2Nights tour costs around 100,000 Chilean Pesos. Booking it in Bolivia will save you 20-30%
The tour includes: All meals (except for dinner on the last day)
Drinking water during meals
On the first morning, we found out the roads leading into Bolivia were packed with the white powder (not that white powder). We had to wait for some of the snow to be bulldozed out of the way before crossing the border. The border control was a simple hut, dwarfed by the surrounding vast, dry plains. But the crossing was straight forward and within half an hour we had met our driver, Vlad and were bouncing around like potato sacks in his heroically battered Land Cruiser.
Insider Tips: Pack the following essential items for your tour;
- Extra drinking water (7L bottles are available in San Pedro)
- Warm clothing (beanie, gloves)
- Lip balm
- Some Bolivian currency (Bolivianos can be purchased at money exchange outlets in San Pedro) for the park entry fees.
We spent the first night at a simple hotel where the beds were made of concrete slabs. At an altitude of 4800 meters, walking felt like running and running like rock-climbing. But that evening’s sunset more than made up for it; a brilliant moon standing alone in the red sea of sky.
The next morning, Ivan asked us whether we wanted to take the conventional or the more bumpy, but the less-trodden route to the salt hotel (A hotel mostly made up of salt, complete with salt beds and dinner table) which was our destination for the day.
The cheeky fellow must have known the answer to his question before he even asked it. And so off we went in search of the more alluring elsewhere. The drive was a jolting, leg-numbing experience. We took turns swapping seats to give everyone a fair go in the cramped middle row seats. But what it led to was well worth it.
The natural spring was walled in on three sides by great, jagged walls of sandstone, the water sparkling like a liquid green tourmaline under the desert sun. We arrived there at mid-day. We dashed out of the cramped truck and began climbing the rock faces. I sat on a smooth boulder, out of breath and warmed by the sun’s rays and took in the sweeping views. The wind blew softly, caressing the aquatic grasses and whispering in the rock crevices. The world felt complete, an homage to an older world; there were sun and land, water and life, all hand in hand, a small haven in a harsh world.
When the sun did eventually rise, everything changed. Everyone, who had up until then, sat in a respectful silence, began getting up and moving around, jostling for the best positions to take a photo. Some were so overcome by the wonder that they had to ruin it for others, commenting in various languages on the dazzling display. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what they had to say.
And then the world began to look more and more like all the thousands of photos that I had seen. We descended the mountain, had our packed breakfast that Vlad had brought along and begun taking the obligatory photos.
The salt flats were truly a sight to behold; an endless white which made all other colours pale in comparison. Yet, in spite of the flats’ magnificence, I found myself grateful for the journey we had had; for that sunset, for that lagoon, and all the places where the world still retained the power to surprise.