Almanac Travel: The Bolivian salt plains



Imagine a landscape that’s just white and blue. Completely white and blue. No trees, rocks, or flora of any kind nearly as far as the eye can see. White earth, blue sky. Off in the distant the peaks of the mountain range are just a dark smudgy line drawn roughly across the horizon, like a charcoal scrawl on butcher’s paper. This is Salar de Uyuni, the Uyuni Salt Plains, in southwest Bolivia.


We disembark the plane at Uyuni airport which gives the impression of being a few shipping containers jammed together to form a structure of sorts, and are met by the improbably named Freddie, our guide. The sun is brilliant against the stark blue of the sky and yet the temperature is struggling to reach five degrees Celsius. We’re at about 3500 metres altitude. The air is reasonably thin, and the chill is bone deep.


We are welcomed to Uyuni but can’t see anything to be welcomed to at this point, except vast open, treeless plains of sand and soil, windswept and tired looking. It’s as dry as a Monday night. Rainfall at this time of the year (July) is pretty much nil and will stay this way for a few months. The clear skies provide no insulation. As night descends it can drop from 10 or 12 degrees Celsius to minus 7 or 8 Celsius in about 10 minutes. Once the mountains put the curtain up the frigid air seizes the landscape in a parched, freezing grip.


We drive out of the airport and Freddie advises that the first stop is the train graveyard.


The what?





When this country was being opened up it was the trains that did the heavy lifting. Like most colonial outposts. So the best English steam engines were brought here and put to work. At first all went well, then steam engines began bursting. Literally. It turned out that the added pressure of a high altitude gradually took its toll on the thick steel casings. Eventually they violently ruptured. The engines were unceremoniously towed to their desert resting spot and left to rust here in Uyuni. Some have been here for well over a hundred years.


After leaving the ghost trains we motored across the stark countryside to a place that has made a profound beauty out of its own emptiness. The salt crunches under your boots and the wind cuts its way, unchallenged, across the cosmic terrain. Standing on these salt plains is visually confusing. Your eyes and mind are craving context. Bigness is only measurable if there’s something there. But out here there is nothing. A sea of salt like a moonscape that stretches from here to eternity.





We drive across it for about twenty minutes in search of the island that miraculously survives in this seemingly dead world. Yes, things live out here! A mound of dirt and rock potrudes above the salt. And on it cacti have found a way to persist. Life finds a way. These plants grow only about a milimetre a year – in a good year. Some of them are 1200 plus years old. They grab whatever passing drop of moisture falls their way.  Its just staggering.





The sun dips. The big freeze is on. Cold drops like a stone. I step out of the car to try and capture the sunset. But the camera can only snap where I point it. It can’t capture the grandeur of our surrounds. The photos are a rather poor illustration of a small patch of this place. It’s like trying to photograph a great thought.


I snap away. The colours go orange then red then yellow then purple then deep blue. Then seemingly all of them in a final hurrah. Light dims and the night creeps in. I can’t take the cold any longer. It’s ferocious. I make for the car but take one more snap. In the warmth of the vehicle, I look at what’s been captured. The salt collage. It’s spectacular. Designed and constructed by the wind and the desire in the crystals to cling together. In this extraordinarily tough environment, the salt forms rigid little walls which in turn throw tiny shadows and give the dusk a most beautiful artistic flair.  Nature’s imagination knows no bounds.  The shapes, the contrasts, the texture, and the subtle hues.  I find myself trying not to step on and damage these seemingly fragile patterns. It’s like walking across a giant, painted, crunchy canvas.


This petrified ocean of salt has been here for millions of years and is apparently still growing. Crystals clinging to crystals clinging to crystals. We dart back across the plains to our hotel which sits where the land meets the salt, on the edge of the white world. It’s almost a relief to see contrast again. The hotel itself is constructed largely out of salt bricks cut from the ground and fashioned together like a normal house brick. It’s a magnificent concept.





Over dinner in the Hotel, we’re seated at a window table. There’s a thin layer of glass separating us from the vicious cold outside and the warmth of the room and the Chilean red wine. I can hear the wind whipping up the sand and salt outside. It’s unrelenting.


The waiter discovers we’re from Australia.


“I’m trying to improve my English”, he says, “Perhaps one day I’ll get to Australia.”


“You’re doing a great job” I reply, referring to the fact that his English is about a million times better than my Spanish.


But then I asked him for some butter. In my flat, bland, Australian accent it probably sounded to him like “budder”.


He looked confused.


“Butter” I say. “For the bread.” Then I grab my knife and sweep it across the bread as if buttering it. Frances is feverishly trying to get Google translate working.




He returns a moment later, beaming, and places another knife on the table. So, I have two knives and no “budder”.


“Muchos gracias” I say. No benefit in labouring the point. No butter is healthy for me anyway.


He leaves our table and I see him talking to a colleague. I can imagine the conversation:


“Those Australians are weird. The bloke over there wants two knives.”



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About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Kevin Densley says

    Excellent piece, Dips. You evoke an exotic place splendidly. It’s a bit like you’re sending the reader a message from Mars – I suppose you might as well be, given your location.

  2. Cheers Kevin.

    Amazing place. Its incredible that a whole lot of nothing can be so beautiful. The atmosphere out there is very unusual. Uninviting, like its daring you to stay. Hard to put a finger on it.

  3. Well played, old Phileas Fogg.

    Sounds like you had an amazing trip

  4. Phileas! Good one Smoke.

    It was a trip of contrasts.

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Throughly enjoyed this Dips, travel certainly broadens the mind!

  6. Cheers Col.

    Travel sure provides perspective. It’s a great education.

  7. Blue and white. Nothing but blue and white as far as the eye can see. Bitter wind. Bone chilling cold. The taste of salt in the mouth.
    Reminds me of my first (and forever only) trip to Kardinia Park. Down 15 goals at 3/4 time we make for South Geelong train station and an early escape back to our Melbourne hotel. No train for an hour – to capture the post game crowd and to torment early deserters (VicRail conspiracy). We look around for a pub or cafe to escape the biting wind off Corio Bay via Antarctica. But South Geelong is as barren, deserted and inhospitable as the Bolivian Salt Plains.
    You’re welcome to both of them.

  8. Ha!! That comparison did occur to me PB!!!

    Nice work.

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I thought you meant Bolivar for a minute there Dips.

    I see an investment opportunity involving South Australian chickens looming.

  10. English barkeep: Really? You’d like a soda and lime?

    Me: Yes please.

    English barkeep: As long as you’re sure.

    Me taking a sip: Yuk. What is this?

    Yep, a cider and lime! The joys of accents.

    Enjoying your travelogues, Dips. Sounds like an amazing experience. The alien landscape you describe reminds me of Iceland.

  11. Cheers Swish. Salted South Australian chicken?

    Mickey – the poor old waiter didn’t have a clue! My fault not his. Bringing over another knife was hilarious.

  12. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    Think Mitani, Dips

  13. roger lowrey says

    Great work Dips. Very evocative geographical stuff.

    Mind you, if you were to suddenly growl at me “Bolivia!”, in an instant I would know to say “La Paz” or get the strap. Thank you Sister Baptist.

    It’s great to know thete is much more to know about the joint than this.


  14. RDL if someone had growled Bolivia to me I would have said Butch Cassidy. So strap for me too!!

    La Paz is fascinating. Chaos and order fighting for control. I’ll never complain about heavy traffic again (I will but just sayin).

  15. Luke Reynolds says

    Great photos Dips, what a fascinating place!

  16. Yes, was gunna ask if any sightings of But h and the Sundance, but beaten to the punch. Looks a bit like some of my visits to Lake Eyre.

  17. Butch

  18. Cheers Luke. It is fascinating both to look at and to imagine how it got here!

    Never been to Lake Eyre Bucko but it’s a place I’d like to see.

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