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dali's desert

Emily Bax

The Altiplano – Bolivia

Stretching over four countries, the plateau is largely situated in south-west Bolivia. A prehistoric, arid landscape evokes euphoria among sci-fi location scouts and awe-inspiring bewilderment amongst visitors. It is the driest non-polar region in the world, and its extreme ecosystem creates a hallucinatory scene where dream and reality collide. White expanses of salt encounter giant cacti islands; malodourous, technicoloured lagoons host flamingos that shelter in a forest of geezers; trees of rock are born which embody the harsh climate.

The variety of these illusory scenes resonates with André Breton’s ideas on Surrealism. In Manifesto of Surrealism he affirms, when two “distant realities” are juxtaposed, “the more the relationship between the two realities is distant and true, the stronger the image [becomes and] the greater its emotional power and poetic reality” will be. The “poetic reality’” of the Altiplano cannot be denied. If there ever was a place on earth that could “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” it is the Altiplano.

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our experience.”

Within this dream-like wilderness, there is an area dubbed ‘Dali’s desert’ where panoramic red sands monopolise your vision and the reality of your distant, everyday environment is dubious. Salvador Dali’s non sequitur paintings capture the spirit of this region. His recurrent desert backdrop can be seen in various paintings perhaps most famously in The Elephants (1948) where sulfurous yellows melt into ominous reds embodying not only the sights but also the smells (from several acrid Lagoons) of the ancient plateau.


The most common way to view the desert is to take a three-day Jeep tour from Uyuni, Bolivia to the Chilean border. Just outside of the town there is a ‘train cemetery’ where decaying trains remain from the collapse of the mining industry in 1940. Even here before the entrance to the desert there are Dalian traces, Premature Ossification of a Railway Station (1930) embodies this abandoned graveyard of rust-eaten skeletons. Its infamous melting clock motif illustrates how time quite literally ran out for the mining industry here; time seems of little consequence when you enter the infinite region.


Leaving the cemetery and heading south-west a luminous white plain appears before your eyes. The transition from manmade destruction into nature’s ruthless wilderness is seen. In The First Days of Spring (1929), a congested foreground gives way to an open horizon. The salt flats are perfect for creating illusory photos and photographers play with perspective often with comic effect.



Over the course of three days, you will be exposed to chilling elements due to the region’s elevated altitude (3,750 ft.). The distance felt from everyday life is not merely physical, a mental journey takes place: normality is subverted. Dali once said, “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our experience.”

At the top of the world, this unique journey paradoxically aligns you with Alice as you fall into a waking dream.

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