The sky is huge in Bolivia.
There's something about the vast amount of blue up there that makes me feel different; like I'm at once an intrinsic part of something, and yet I'm also utterly tiny and insignificant.
It's both dangerous and strangely thrilling to think of yourself as nothing more than a speck.
The vast, open landscapes that make up the southwest of Bolivia illustrate this feeling like no other place I've been. For hundreds of miles, this region is desolate, empty, and enormous – and there's a strong likelihood that you would get completely lost and probably die if you tried to journey through it alone.
Of course, a place like this was always destined to whip tourists into a frenzy – particularly when you throw Bolivia's infamous salt flats into the mix. Whether you find yourself in Tupiza or Uyuni, both towns are home to a myriad of tour companies willing to put you in the back of a jeep for a few days, accompanied by a guide and a cook, and let you loose.
The salt flats tour from Tupiza to Uyuni is hands down one of the most bizarre trips I've ever taken. But what I hadn't realised before our trip began was how little time you actually spend on the salt flats themselves. Bolivia, as ever, has been underselling itself.
It's not just about perspective-skewed photos while surrounded by salt; it's also bright pink flamingos, lakes, mountains, hot springs, llamas, rocks, geysers, sand dunes, and a few more flamingos.
In short, this area of Bolivia holds the most spectacular array of contrasting scenery that I've ever seen in such a short space of time.
Four days, six people, one jeep: welcome to the Bolivian desert
We set off from Tupiza with English Becky and Canadian Paul, a couple who we'd spied in the tour company office and immediately snapped up as likely looking travelling companions. Along with Elvis, our driver/guide, and Nancy, his mother and also our resident cook, our jeep trundled out into the Bolivian desert – and it didn't take long for the surreal nature of the trip to kick in.
Within hours, we were off any recognisable path and seemingly following an invisible track that only the drivers could see. Deep, steep canyon drops flanked by cacti, rocks and dust quickly gave way to dry scrub land that stretched indefinitely in every direction.
Occasionally we'd spot a herd of llamas or vicuñas, but for most of our first day, the landscapes ruled over our eyes.
It gave us optimum time to get used to our mobile home for the foreseeable future: seating plans, where to store all our water bottles, bags and much-too-heavy walking boots, and learning the ways of Elvis's jeep politics.
“Cerran las ventanas, por favor!”
The terrain of the Bolivian desert is, unsurprisingly, rather dusty. The altitude there varies, but we were usually at around 4000m – so when the sun was shining, it was also pretty warm. And thus a paradox was formed: Elvis didn't want dust in his car, but we didn't like overheating…
The amount of window opening was therefore in constant flux. Every time we caught up to another vehicle or passed a cloud of dust, up went our windows – only to immediately pull them open again when we deemed it safe.
That same dust, though, became very familiar over the course of four days. Each evening I would pull out a pack of baby wipes to run over our heads, faces and hands; the rudimentary accommodation buildings where we slept didn't have showers, and the water from the taps was freezing – much like the night outside. I often forget, on a hot sunny day, that it's possible for the temperatures to drop below freezing at night when you're at such a high altitude.
As we buried ourselves beneath layers of blankets in our concrete room, we could hear the wind whistling eerily over the rooftop – and I even saw the static from my clothes sparking as I turned over in bed.
These sounds and sensations are one of the things I remember most vividly from the whole trip. The feeling of the wind pushing angrily against the sides of the jeep; the visible heat rising from the hot springs; the overpowering stench of sulphur from numerous lakes.
Lakes, loo breaks and more lakes
I, for one, definitely wasn't expecting so much lake action. But every hour or so, a vast body of water would appear on the horizon, the jeep would slow, and we'd stare at colours that seemed like they simply couldn't be natural. Surely someone was wreaking havoc with a paint pot?
With these constant water-related stops, it's no surprise that bathroom breaks were also necessary. Maybe it's altitude related, but I've found myself needing the loo significantly more in Bolivia…
Of course, in a place as sparse as the Bolivian desert, there aren't exactly toilets at the side of the road. While it wasn't a problem for the guys, Becky and I had to embrace the “squatting anywhere” mentality – and it was actually strangely liberating to simply drop your trousers beside the jeep and go for it, regardless of being in full view of anyone that might come along.
Which wasn't very likely in some places – and almost impossible to avoid in others.
In the midst of these jaw-dropping natural scenes, though, there were also a number of animals maintaining an existence – surprising, seeing as there's barely any vegetation for them to feed on.
The times we spotted condors circling in the sky above was understandable. The herds of grazing llamas, a little less so. But the flamingos?
Dear lord, the flamingos. Clearly totally unbothered about standing in the middle of a blood red lake, feasting on algae, while the surrounding gale force winds batter the hapless tourists trying to capture them on camera. It's a tough life.
Paul had been reliably told by a friend that by the end of a four day tour of the salt flats, he would be sick of flamingos. Paul had scoffed. But it was truly incredible how many groups of flamingos we spotted – and even if we weren't sick of them, our cameras certainly ended up taking a backseat whenever another group appeared.
The Salar de Uyuni is actually a major breeding ground for four different species of flamingos, some of which never once leave the lakes they live in.
Approaching the salt flats
When we reached the edge of the salt flats on the third night, we were done with Bolivian wildlife and ready for the main salty attraction – and we were just in time.
Just as one of the well-discussed salt hotels opened its doors to us, a truly violent rainstorm began, and it didn't cease the entire night: causing a room full of tourists in llama-patterned-jumpers to navigate their dinner with head torches, as the lights kept blowing out.
The salt hotel, though, was an experience in itself. With salt ceilings, walls, furniture and even scattered salt covering the floor, the hotel's marketability clearly lies in the fact that it's 'made of salt'; except that only the area where the tourists stay is actually salty.
When I headed out to explore the rest of the building and found myself in the kitchens where the guides and cooks spend their time, it was all normal – plain brick walls and green tarpaulin on the floors. A very interesting and somewhat sobering realisation of just how tourist-centric this place can be…
But soon enough it was time for the grand finale of the trip – and visiting the source of all this salt.
Uyuni salt flats: the stats
At over 3600 metres above sea level, the prehistoric lake bed of Salar de Uyuni covers a distance of 12,000 square km. When the original lake dried up under the fierce sun, it left behind puddles of water and a huge amount of salt deposits due to the water's high salinity.
The Salar contains over half of the world's lithium reserves (currently being extracted) and is the largest salt flat in the world.
But we didn't see any of this to start with. Driving along the flats at five in the morning, a hazy sun struggling to rise above the horizon behind us, Elvis worryingly letting his eyes close a bit too often, we eventually reached a cactus island.
Presumably something many tourists want to enter, our group were less than keen, and so wandered around the outskirts of it, checking out the salt underfoot.
Next up was breakfast: weirdly located on the salt flats themselves, in amongst a few slightly intrusive cacti. Our group were getting a little frustrated by this point.
Surely we could get on with exploring the flats?
When we finally reached a photo-worthy spot for the long-awaited “loco photo” session, Elvis succumbed to his sleepiness, and reclined his driver's seat for an hour of nap time while we took perspective-skewed photos outside on the salt flats to the best of our ability.
I'd heard that many guides really get involved with this part of the trip, suggesting ideas and playing the photographer. I can only glean that Elvis either thought we had it under control, or simply wasn't keen to help out.
Either way, we had fun posing in the falling snow (or was it salt?) – and I even found my blogging namesake hiding out on the salt flats!
A surreal and salt-filled trip
Our salt flats tour was breathtaking, there's no doubt.
It felt like so many parts of countless landscapes I've looked out on through train and bus and car windows were all mixed up together – through England, out into Europe, across India and Thailand and so many of the vistas I've come to love in South America.
And my words will simply not do this place justice.
Bolivia may have had me speechless on many occasions when dealing with the sheer obstinacy of many of its people, but driving through its landscapes has really struck me dumb. Staring through jeep windows, yes, but in no way feeling disconnected.
All the senses are involved in the Bolivian desert. A total sensory overload which, when it gets too much, prompts you to look up, straight towards that ridiculously giant sky.