Rising early the next morning to a steaming cup of the ubiquitous third world Nescafe, we headed out towards what would be the highlight of the trip…the Salar de Uyuni.
As empty as a newborn’s imagination, it is a plane of shimmering white stretching from horizon to horizon, with only the distant outline of far away mountains separating it from the equally vast sky. Even with previous traveler’s tales fresh in our memory, having read about it in guidebooks, and even seeing photographs in the tour office, it was still surreal to stand alone in the vastness, facing away from one’s companions and transport, and to simply experience the sheer nothingness of it.
The genesis of the Salar was an ancient sea, desiccated into oblivion by the thin dry air of the Andean Altiplano. All geologic time has left behind is a meters thick deposit of white salt lying in stark contrast to the deep blue sky; a sun bleached desiccated corpse of this once majestic inland sea.
The salt naturally dries into hexagonal plates about five feet across, extending out as far as the eye can focus. Our group drove for hours, stopping occasionally to get out and take photos. Eventually we came to what gets my vote for the world’s most misnamed geographic feature; a cactus covered island of land in the middle of the salt desert called Isla del Pescado (Fisherman’s Island). We got out of the jeeps for lunch and climbed to the island’s highest point where the views in every direction were simply stunning. You could forgive your brain for the mixed messages it was sending; every experience tells you that there should be water instead of solid salt lapping at the shores of this lonely outpost.
Eventually we headed to our destination of the evening; a hotel built entirely out of salt blocks. Except for a few pieces of wood used for trim, everything in the building, from the floors to the furniture was constructed of salt. Even though intellectually I knew the composition of the building materials, I still had to lick the walls a couple of times to prove to myself that it really was the pure salt our guide promised.