Three days exploring the extraordinary Altiplano, from the Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni.
During my year out, three months spent travelling through South America took my friend and I through a fair few borders, yet the prize for sheer incredulity has to go to the Chile-Bolivia crossing. A known favourite on the backpacker route, the three-day tour begins in the arid, dramatic wastes of the Atacama Desert – the driest place on Earth – and ends in south-eastern Bolivia, home to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on the planet. As if these two monumental backdrops weren’t enough, the journey itself winds across the alien landscapes of the Altiplano, which covers parts of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru – making it the most expansive high-altitude plateau in the Western Hemisphere.
The first day began with the actual border crossing, before a bus ferried us up the first few hundred metres to the waiting 4×4’s. There were seven of us in the group, as well as the driver, so our bags were lashed to the roof, we squeezed into the back, and we were off. The remainder of the day was spent entering the enormous Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, which at 4,200m plus certainly left us all feeling the effects of altitude sickness – and spending the night in -23C didn’t help much!
Day two compensated for the initial discomfort, as we were treated to the wealth of sights the Altiplano has to offer. From snow-spattered volcanoes to furious geysers, the endless landscape truly felt like another world. Bizarre rock formations carved by fierce winds scattered the terrain, and occasionally we passed wildlife, including the hordes of pink flamingoes that wander around the salt and freshwater lagoons. As we neared the border town of Uyuni, we took a short detour to another popular attraction, known as the Train Cemetery. Here, the rusting hulks of Bolivia’s enterprising past lie battered, a kind of eerie visual metaphor of a country still struggling to find its stride in 21st century. The night then spent in the grotty, concrete animosity that is Uyuni was a small price to pay for what lay in wait for the last morning.
The final day of the tour was more of a half day, and we were up around 4am to make the most of it. Our driver took us about twenty minutes out of town, in pitch darkness, and onto the expanse that is the Salar. To see the sunrise over such a landscape was truly spectacular, and after having our fun with the lack of landmarks – and so perspective, allowing for amusing photoshoots – we spent the day exploring the ancient lakes. From the gigantic cactii on the isle of Inca Huasi to the infinite, azure skies above, it was almost difficult to comprehend – there was just so much space. A wild, eternal kind of silence, broken only by a camera shutter, the gentle crunch of salt underfoot, or those rare little gasps of pure, primal awe – another country, another continent, another world.
Photography and words by Dafydd Haine