"Down to the Puritan
marrow of my bones
There's something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones."
—Elinor Wylie, "Wild Peaches"
No one crammed into an overnight bus traveling through the Bolivian Altiplano would ever construe the world as flat. In eight shattering hours, the road from Potosi to Uyuni traverses a continuous succession of valleys and passes in the country's southwestern corner, where vicuñas, the smallest and rarest members of the llama family, preside over barren terrain.
And yet, beneath peaks that top 20,000 feet and where "bagging a fourteener" often just means that you got out of bed in the morning, the Salar de Uyuni presents an improbable 4,000-square-mile salt plain of such precise flatness that satellites use it to calibrate laser-guided altimeters. Even from space, the salar, or salt flat, would be hard to miss. Bleached a stentorian shade of white, it consists of millennia of saline alluvium, collected in a basin that once belonged to an inland sea whose most prominent liquid vestige is Lake Titicaca, 250 miles to the north.
When southern summer storms breach the Andean rain shadow, the cloudbursts collect in a giant, shallow pool that reflects the contours of the sky. Hip-high piles of salt, gathered by locals for drying and harvesting, appear like measures of cocaine, Bolivia's most infamous export, on a mirror. And when the clouds disband and the sun demands the water's return, the salar reverts to whiteness, even smoother than before.
Predictably, the salt flat harbors scant flora or fauna. For all its photogenic beauty, its monotony can drive the mind to the depths of boredom--or inspire flights of whimsy. Absent any topographical frame of reference, strategic camera angles capture surrealistic exercises in foreshortening: Soda cans tower over Land Cruisers; a Pete Townsend–style jump, with air guitar and skyward-pointing heels, looks like a giant leap for humankind.
More contemplative moments send the eye in search of the sublime, somewhere between firmament and salt. Your shadow in the morning strides infinitely westward. At dusk, it stretches to greet the darkness. And when night falls and the temperature plunges, all the salar would seem covered in snow. —Josh Stephens