Bolivia's railway graveyard: A 'really crazy place' in a breathtaking salt flat


The largest salt desert in the world is just one of the things that bring in the tourists to Bolivia. — Photos: MANUEL MEYER/dpa

The journey to a stunning natural wonderland in South America starts in a railway graveyard, of all places. A little bizarre and surreal – but somehow fitting.

From the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, mighty steam locomotives once carried silver, minerals and, above all, salt from south-western Bolivia to the Pacific coast of Chile.

In Europe, these 19th century gems would be centrepieces in any railway museum. But here, on the outskirts of Uyuni, a desolate backpacker town at 3,670m above sea level, the steam engines just rust away.

Tourists clamber around on them, looking for the ideal spot for a selfie.

“This is a really crazy place,” says Carmen as she snaps photos with her boyfriend Christopher.

The couple studied together in the German city of Augsburg and decided to explore Latin America for a few months before starting their working lives.

Tour guide Marco Arancibia calls them and the rest of the group back to their off-road vehicle. There is still a long day ahead, he says.

After only a few kilometres they reach Colchani, the gateway to the desert-like flats and the centre of salt production.

More than a century ago, small family businesses were already mining huge blocks here and taking them – with llamas – to the markets to sell.

The railway cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni.The railway cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni.

The salt is still extracted in a relatively traditional way, piled up with shovels to form small mounds for drying. In this process, at least, the llamas have long been replaced by corroded trucks.

Colchani is the last stop to buy snacks and water before heading into the endless white of the flats.

Arancibia puts on his sunglasses and advises everyone to do the same before he steps on the gas, salt crunching under the Toyota’s wheels.

“It’s actually not a desert at all, but a salt lake 140km long and 110km wide, on which a 1m-thick salt crust has formed,” he tells the group as the vehicle speeds along.

All in all, this area of around 10,600sq km makes the Salar de Uyuni the world’s largest salt expanse.

In the rainy season between December and March, the desert turns into a kind of lake again.

A knee-high layer of water on the salt crust turns the Salar into the largest mirror in the world, heaven and earth merging in its breathtaking reflections.

The tour group pushes deeper into the desert – or into the lake, depending on your perspective. Suddenly, a black island form rises from the horizon, no mirage, but the remnants of a volcano that was submerged beneath the lake some 40,000 years ago.

Pushing 100m above the flats, the Isla of Incahuasi offers incredible views of the Salar’s pentagonal salt honeycombs.

The island bristles with giant cacti up to 10m tall, which, given that the Echinopsis atacamensis grows an average of 1cm per year, makes them hundreds or even a thousand years old.

How long will this natural wonder remain intact? Will the salt desert really become a national park as planned? Arancibia is not sure, given the region’s inherent wealth.

Bolivia is a poor country, and under the salt lies a treasure that can turn everything upside down – one of the largest lithium deposits in the world.

The precious mineral is vital for the production of batteries for smartphones, tablets and cars – and there is an estimated 5.4 million tons of it buried here.

In the high plateau of Bolivia, you're likely to see shepherds with their llamas.In the high plateau of Bolivia, you're likely to see shepherds with their llamas.

The next morning the group sets off early again, away from the Salar flats and bouncing across dusty tracks, stone and desert towards another surreal yet distinct landscape.

Outside the barren otherworld, life begins anew. Herds of vicunas – alpaca-like camels – graze here.

At an altitude of more than 4km, the Laguna Colorada in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve shimmers rust-red in the midday sun.

As idyllic as it seems, the Sol de Manana geyser field is an eerie contrast, bitterly cold and resembling Mordor from Lord Of The Rings.

Smoke rises from the summit of the 5,870m Ollague volcano, which marks the border with Chile.

Stinky sulphur clouds drift over the hissing geysers where mud bubbles burst and plop. But the volcano-heated terrain is also a source of welcome respite: The track leads down to an altitude of 4,400m, to the delights of the Polques Hot Springs.

At 0°C, it takes some effort after dinner to go out and strip down to your swimming trunks.

But once immersed in the 38°C, mineral-rich pool, you feel like royalty as you survey the huge, starry sky over the Bolivian desert. – dpa

Incahuasi Island in the Salar de Uyuni is covered with cacti.Incahuasi Island in the Salar de Uyuni is covered with cacti.

Travel notes

Malaysia Airlines, KLM and Turkish Airlines offer direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to La Paz in Bolivia. A handful of other airlines offer multi-city stopovers along the way.

To get to Salar de Uyuni, you would first need to fly into La Paz (or Santa Cruz if you’re flying in from somewhere else). From La Paz/Santa Cruz take a domestic flight to Uyuni or hop on the bus. Mind you, the bus journey is about 12 hours.

In Uyuni, there are countless tour operators offering day tours and up to three-day excursions. Three-day tours are recommended at a cost of up to about US$150 (RM668). All of the tours head for the same attractions, but the quality of food, accommodation and jeeps varies considerably.

Best time to visit: Although the Salar de Uyuni can be visited all year round, the best time is in spring (April and May) and autumn (September to November).

Local currency: Boliviano, but in many places, US dollars are also accepted as a means of payment. It is also often possible to pay by credit card.

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