Standing ankle-deep in salted water, with rays of sun washing over my upturned face, I was reminded inescapably of the idea of the end of the earth: a mythic, utopian place which fascinated explorers for centuries and still exists as a turn of phrase, despite the fact it has been rationally proven to be impossible. The salt flats contained that same feeling, especially when the rainy season had flooded them with inches of water which reflected the clouds until the horizon had transformed from an obvious line, into a vague and distant idea. Where did the earth end? Where did the sky begin? I stared in contented perplexity for hours with no boredom and no answers. There was no perspective between myself and the distant ring of mountains, nothing standing between me and the horizon to suggest that I could not have easily walked to it. I could only imagine how easy it would be to get lost out there, to disappear into the salt and leave no trace behind, not even footprints.
Thinking back to the surreal feeling of walking amongst the clouds mirrored over hexagonal patterns of crusted salt, I understand completely the magnetic pull of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, and for some tourists the only attraction that Bolivia bears. Despite being in a country full of natural beauty, I personally went hundreds of miles out of my way to just to place my bare feet on the salt crystals. Just like any desert, the glory and incredibility of the flats came not from presence but absence: a once-dominating lake had dried to create thousands of miles of uninhabitable empty space. And in a world increasingly dominated by cityscapes, it was a rare pleasure to find an empty skyline so entirely cut off from the world.
In spite of this gloriously remote feeling, the salt flats are incredibly accessible, not only from Uyuni in Bolivia, but as part of tours that leave from Chile, Peru or Argentina. Arguably the best option, if it coordinates with your desired route, is a three-day tour which runs between San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and Uyuni, taking in dreamily-coloured lakes, the rugged mountain landscapes and many other attractions besides the star of the show — the salt flats. I found it best not just for price but also for quality, to take my tour from Uyuni, and the plethora of tour operators means that you can find your 4×4 in the morning and head straight out, as well as personalise your itinerary. Such accessibility has also driven down the prices in a country already notoriously affordable for tourists. One quick word of advice is that if you fancy eating or drinking anything it is far better to bring it yourself (and of course pick up your own litter!), as the Salt Hotel — which is an accommodation option located on the flats — is pretty pricey for Bolivia.
Whilst there is also some preconception that the salt flats are best in the dryer seasons, I would argue that year-round the desert provides stunning photographs, and an unforgettable experience. Of course, during the wet seasons when the flats are washed out it’s not possible to visit the ‘fields’ of petrified cacti or go as far out, but there’s something magical about how the water transforms the stark, dry landscape into a mirror. A view that did not exist in my wildest and most surreal dreams was suddenly opening up in front of my eyes as the jeep crunched and splashed through the clouds, the salt. Honestly, regardless of the time of year the striking salar will surpass expectations, with even photographs unable to capture the raw beauty of nature. So go and lose yourself among the strange hexagons of salt crusted into the earth, and try not to get sunburned by the increased UV as you stroll through the sky towards a disappearing horizon.