Salar de Uyuni

Posted by Arlo on Feb 4, 2011 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

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The Salar de Uyuni has to be one of the most surreal places I have ever been.  Situated high in the Andes, it’s the world’s largest salt flat.  In over 12,000 square kilometers, the elevation varies by less than one meter and the tricks that plays on perspective almost have to be seen to be believed.

We’d raced through Peru to get to the Salar de Uyuni by early February because we’d heard that the best time to visit it was in the rainy season, during a new moon.  This time of year, during the day, water covers the salt flat and reflects the sky, and on a moonless night, the reflection of the stars – supposedly – creates a universe both above and below your feet.

We had also been planning to meet our friends, Dusty and Wendy from, at Uyuni since we’d hung out with them in Lima.

Everything was going well the night before.  After much debate, we’d booked a 3-day/ 2-night private tour with the Red Planet tour agency.  We were happy to pay a little extra for the two unused seats in our Land Rover (and pay a little bit less for a Spanish-only guide.)  Come the morning of our visit to the Salar, however, things started going downhill.

Both Oksana and I woke up sick.  If it had been only us, we’d probably have cancelled our tour, but we wanted to hang out with Dusty and Wendy, so we decided to soldier on.

And boy are we glad we did!  We drove onto the Salar in the Land Rover at about 5 miles an hour, pushing 10 inches of water out away from us in every direction. Our guide, Roy, stopped at the first dry island so we could take pictures, but one of the many passing showers caught up to us before we really got started.  We piled back into the SUV and he drove us to the Salt Hotel, farther out on the flats.

From the hotel, you could barely see the horizon in any direction.  Miles and miles of salt was covered by just a few inches of water which created floating mirages out of the mountains in the distance.  Aim your camera towards wet ground and your subjects appeared to be walking on the sky.  Point it at one of the few dry spots and the lack of perspective lent itself to hundreds of humorous opportunities to play with scale (for instance, a person standing 25 meters behind another might appear to be perched on their shoulder.)

Unfortunately, it felt like Oksana and I spent half our time on the flats doubled over with stomach cramps and while I took a few good photos, I wasn’t feeling especially creative with the camera.  We decided over lunch that we would cut our tour short and just go back to the hotel and sleep.  Our biggest regret: Bailing on our friends.

(Three days later, we’re feeling much better.  We’re about to catch a train back north into Bolivia, but I expect we’ll return in a couple weeks, because the agency we used has an easy option for border transfers into Chile and that seems like a fine place to go next!  Maybe next time we’ll find a way to get those night shots!)

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 1:51pm, 02 February 2011
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/1600 second, -.7 step bias
Aperture: F/8
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, desaturated SUV after auto color tinted it green.

Because I was well aware of how our sudden sickness was affecting the mood of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I asked Wendy and Dusty to help us stage a photo so we could all remember how our day together felt: