Bolivia II: Salt flats and stargazing


IF you want to scare yourself before going on a family holiday, you can always rely on Google to help you out. Try ‘Bolivian Saltflats’ if you really want a fright – the internet can furnish you with plenty of lurid tales of drunk drivers veering off course, temperatures of minus 30 and discomfort all round.

Didn’t stop us, though it did ensure we did our research beforehand. Unfortunately, once you get out to the Salar de Uyuni – a saltflat so big you can see it from space – any thought of a comfortable time pretty much goes out of the window (you’ll be keeping that window shut by the way, its perishingly cold).

So, like everyone else, we flew on a tiny plane to a tiny airport heated only by one of those patio heaters so beloved of British smokers in the winter months (did I mention it was chilly?) and booked ourselves onto a three day excursion out into the Salar. I’d done my homework, so we picked an operator with an impeccable safety record, called Salty Desert Aventours. If I couldn’t do anything about the discomfort, we could at least ensure that we didn’t get a drunk driver.

It emerges, however, that pretty much every salt flat tour is the same. You are loaded into a Toyota Landcruiser (in our case with two very lovely Colombians, since there weren’t really enough Spanish speakers to go round, though I think the girls would have preferred an English-speaking group) and herded across the flats.

First stop is the train graveyard, home to locomotives shipped all the way from the UK- and left to rust. They are the world’s best playground, as long as you don’t mind a lack of health and safety. The girls will never see the school climbing wall the same way again.

Then it’s off to the flats themselves stopping in the middle to take awesome pictures of yourselves with giant dinosaurs and toys.

These pictures are achieved using a technique known as ‘forced perspective’ – but Father Ted fans amongst us just refer to it as the ‘these are small, those are far away’ technique (hint, the salt flats are very, very flat, wide and reflective). The driver will be much better at taking these pictures than you will be. He probably has his own plastic dinosaur, but the girls were particularly thrilled with the shots of them whispering into Sheepie’s ear and kissing Monkey.

Some stats for the salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, and its nearly 4000 metres above sea level (that’s high). The hexagonal salt crusts stretch across 4000 square miles and cover over half of the world’s lithium reserves. You don’t need to know too much about mobile phone and battery production to worry that this area isn’t going to stay beautifully preserved for too much longer.

For now, though, it’s indescribable- though that’s not going to stop me trying. Day one, after the silly pictures, included some cold bubbling springs (hot ones come later), some glorious lakes and a night at a hotel made entirely of salt. This was about as cold and cheerless as you imagine it might be. Turns out salt beds are not that comfortable. Who knew?

So after the ‘luxurious’ salt hotel, I was dreading Day 2, described as the ‘cold and uncomfortable’ bit of the trip. This is where temperatures really began to drop as we drove past incredible lakes rich with flamingos on the Chilean border (see last week’s episode of Planet Earth II).Weird landscapes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Dr Seuss book made me wonder whether this was where he got his ideas from. The girls loved watching the flamingos, and tolerated the weird-coloured lakes (appreciation of scenery appears to come quite late in the childhood development scale). I tried very hard to cope with the fact there was no mobile phone signal. Trying to read a proof for the Mail on Sunday on the Bolivian salt flats turned out to be a bit too tricky.

We spent that night in an approximation of a youth hostel, filled with a polyglot mix of nationalities, including the brother of the family we’d been hanging out with in La Paz, the former manager of one of the estate agents down the road from us in London, and a French/American family whose children instantly palled up with the girls. It didn’t quite get down to minus 32, but it was insanely cold, and we were super grateful when our driver turned out to be the only one who’d brought hot water bottles. The stars were incredible.

Day three started off with a visit to some very dangerous hot springs very early in the morning. Watching the ground bubble beneath you is disconcerting anywhere, but the Bolivian attitude to health and safety appears to stop short at telling people ‘just be careful not to fall in’. We left the girls in the car to observe the geography from afar.

We were so glad to arrive at some slightly less dangerous hot springs where we could bathe – such a nice feeling. We watched flamingos feeding while the girls played mermaids with their new friends, before driving back to the airport via a bizarrely good pizza restaurant.

How would I describe the Salar? Otherworldly, and I suspect as near to a trip into space as Paul and I will ever get. No wonder they train astronauts there. Should you go? Undoubtably, but take your thermals. And a plastic dinosaur or two.