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Active volcanoes, hot springs and a palette of colour-splashed lakes populated by hardy flamingos punctuate surreal, high altitude landscapes of blindingly bright salt plains and deserts, considered by many  to be one of the most extraordinary sights in all Bolivia.

Uyuni is the gateway to Bolivia’s remote southwestern corner. The town itself isn’t noted for much apart from its train cemetery, where rusting hulks of steam engines and railway carriages slowly decay—victims of Bolivia’s shortage of intact railways. Not far outside Uyuni, the terrain soon becomes engulfed by the blinding whiteness of the 12,000 sq. km. (about three million acres) Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Miles and miles of dazzling white nothingness are bizarrely punctuated by two “islands”: sports stadium-sized mounds of rock and earth upon which flourish cactuses and a population of marooned viscachas (large Andean rabbits).

The Salar formed from two evaporated lakes. The salt is the result of minerals leeched from surrounding mountains and deposited at the lowest point in the region. The ramshackle Colchani factory is the only plant to commercially exploit the estimated 10 billion tonnes of Uyuni salt. Workers hack out raw material with picks and shovels and heap it into long rows of conical piles. With supply greatly outstripping demand, there is understandably no hurry.

To the south of the great Salar, the terrain turns higher and wilder as the Altiplano meets the Andes: a harsh desert landscape dotted with snow-capped pink-brown mountains, active volcanoes and isolated, serene lakes. The fiery red Laguna Colorada (4,278 m, or about 14,000 feet) never fails to astound, its incredible coloration caused by micro-organisms and a high ochre level. Several species of hardy, brightly plumed flamingos somehow manage to prosper along its ice-lined shores.

More sensational still is Laguna Verde, isolated in Bolivia’s southwestern corner (over the next pass is Chile) at 4,260 m (13,976 feet), with Volcán Licancábur rising 5,960 m (19,500 feet) behind its turquoise, borax-lined surface. The lake’s green-blue colour derives from a high cobalt concentration and is particularly striking when the frequent winds whip the surface into froth. When the winds calm, the vista assumes a dreamy, otherworldly quality you will never forget.

Temperatures plummet as fast as the setting sun, although the single great advantage of this remote, rarefied location is the astonishing clarity of the night sky. Above this high altitude wilderness, even a full moon struggles to outshine a night sky as spellbindingly clear and starry as anywhere this side of outer space. Nights can be freezing cold and visitor facilities very basic, but you will never forget the Milky Way or the jaw-dropping salvos of shooting stars.

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