The sky was an unbelievable blue. It was both warm and cold, there was little wind. Overhead, the sun was utterly spectacular. An other-wordly halo of light ringed around the yellow star like an infinite rainbow, a sight that defied any and all logic, both magical and incomprehensible. The ground crunched underfoot, everything was so dry. There was a sense of something unusual in the air. The ruins of abandoned, rusted trains stood all around us, not another sight for miles. It was … enigmatic.
In the altiplano of Bolivia, pressing up against Chile in the southwest and Argentina in the south, lay the Salar de Uyuni. Three and a half thousand metres above sea level, spanning four thousand square miles, at no point varying in altitude by more than a metre, vast and empty, solitary, cold – here the great salt flats of Bolivia, the world’s largest, kiss the endless horizon in all directions. We stood on the brink of a harsh and seemingly lifeless world, white like a blank canvass, as though God had forgotten to create in this land, and we were unsure of what to expect. Stepping into the awaiting 4×4, sunglasses on to avoid being blinded, we began to move out.
As snow-capped mountains became vaguely discernable on the horizon, the South American Andes in miniature, we pulled up aside a crop of towering cacti, some over a thousand years old, which stood atop a large mound of salt and got out to gather our bearings. Clambering to the top, along the perfectly hexagonal cracks running across the metres-thick crust of salt underfoot, a brief gust of wind dared to disrupt the pervasive stillness and ruffled the spines of the cacti which groaned unappreciatively. We looked out over a vast expanse of crystal whiteness, the occasional dirty line created by a vehicle ruining the otherwise perfect uniformity of the colour, the odd mound of salt laying unattending, harvested from the salar, ready to be transported. A pure, endless white surrounded us, small specks on the land, all around an absolute silence, no birds in the air, no background noise, nothing at all. We stood in the graveyard of ancient lakes without any sense of perspective, or reference. It was discomforting. It was stunning. We pressed on.
Only a short drive onwards, the world suddenly exploded into unbelievable colour. The salar was not a lifeless, empty desert as the previous day had suggested. Before us stood a lake, a lake unlike any other I had ever seen, a lake which was crowded with life. We stood agast as hundreds upon hundreds of bright pink flamingos waded through the water, gaggling amongst themselves, utterly inconceivable. As we looked harder, an almost more startling realisation dawned upon us – not only was it the flamingos that were creating the striking colour, but the water itself was an intense, bright red. This was the laguna colorado, stained bloodred by algae in the water. Having seen nothing but white upon white for the last 24 hours, to suddenly see the world coloured such a vivid red was almost unsettling, but truly awe-inspiring, an experience truly unique to the Bolivian salar, quite incomprehensibly remarkable. The world had never been harder to believe.