El Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Latitude 20.24066°S Longitude 67.62679°W

Friday, January 24, 2003

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After an all-night bus ride from La Paz and Oruro, which undoubtably was the most uncomfortable we'd ever had to suffer, we arrived - sleep deprived and bleary eyed - at the remote town of Uyuni to set off a few hours later in a 4WD for a 3 day, cross country trip that would take us through some of Bolivia's most remote, desolate and spectacular countryside and drop us off in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The trip was pre-arranged by us while we were in La Paz, and it's the main activity for visitors to this part of Bolivia. Along the route we would see the world's largest salt lake El Salar de Uyuni, the great technicolour lakes Laguna Colorada and Verde, the geysers at Sol de la Mañana, thermal springs, and more.

Although the tour company we used was quite good in terms of food, accomodations, execution, etc., the journey was still pretty rough in parts. However, the astounding beauty of the places we visited, and the lack of any other way to see this part of country, made the trip worth the discomforts, and, in fact, it became the highlight of our visit to Bolivia.

The first day was largely spent driving across the immense salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni. With an area of over 12,000 square kilometers the size was hard to comprehend. After several hours of driving past countless salt harvesting communities on the edges of the lake, we were surrounded in every direction by a sea of white crystaline salt, blazing so brightly in the sun that it actually caused pain to view it without sunglasses. The surface of the lake was a crust of solid salt scores of meters thick - strong as concrete and easily able to support the vehicles driving on top of it. The salt is so strong, in fact, it is commonly used as a building material. There is even an entire hotel made of salt in this area, furniture and all!

The surface of the salt flats alternated from being totally dry in some places to laying submerged under a few inches of water in places where rainstorms had recently fallen. In the dry areas, the surface was a shiny, opaque, hard-packed crystaline salt pavement that was arranged in huge, naturally-forming hexagonal tiles. The surface was the most disorientating and surreal, however, in the places it was wet. Shallow water laying over the flat bed of white salt formed a perfect reflective surface that gave the illusion one was standing on an infinite mirror - as perfect as a mathematically generated computer image. In those sections it was impossible to detect the horizon dividing land and sky. Both were merged together into surreal abstract vistas like so many Rorschach ink blot pictures.

Driving on the surface of the lake was even more remarkable! There were no roads defined anywhere on the salt flats - our 4WD drivers drove in straight lines in whatever direction they wanted, navigating using distant mountains on the horizon as landmarks. In some of the wet areas the illusions created by the perfect reflection of the ground were so complete that we lost all sense of motion as we gazed out of the 4WD. While we could feel the wind blowing and hear the engines roar, we seemed to be completely stationary and suspended motionless in a white space for lack of being able to see anything moving past us outside. The effect was so powerful it was almost hallucinatory.

We stopped for lunch at the Isla de Pescado, an island that rose out of the salt lake like an shimmering oasis. The island was as surreal as the salt flats in which it was set, covered in monstrous towering cactus plants that had no difficulty thriving in the the almost toxic environment of pure salt that surrounded them.

As the long day drew to a close, our caravan of 4WD's finally reached a tiny village on the remote southern shore of the salt lake where we were to spend our first night.

Our second day was spent traveling to the remarkable Laguna Colorada, a lake coloured bright red from the unique algaes that thrive on the surface, and home to large communities of pink flamingos. The scenry along the way was spectacular. Having left the salt lake far behind us, now we were treated to a stark and barren desert landscape dotted with occasional extinct volcanos.

Along the way we stopped at the tiny village of San Juan, where we were lucky to witness a "fiesta de las llamas", an ancient ritual by the village folk in celebration of their llamas! On this special day, every llama had been rounded up, washed until squeaky clean and gathered into a pen, where, one by one, they were decorated by the villagers by piercing their ears with brightly coloured yarns and threads and attaching various other bright ornaments on them. The entire community of San Juan was celebrating the occasion with local wine and chewing coca leaves, and welcomed us to join their festivities with genuine warmth and friendship. I jokingly asked an old man if the llamas had names, and he replied that they all did - and he knew them all! We challenged him and to our disbelief he proceeded to recite the name of every llama we pointed to, to the great delight of the surrounding villagers. While the llamas did not seem to appreciate getting their ears jabbed with needles while it was happening, afterwards they frolicked about with everyone in evident fine spirits.

On our third and final day we rose long before sunrise and travelled on to the remarkable Sol de la Mañana geysers. We arrived just as the sun arose, bathing the underworld landscape in a blazing golden light. The crystal clear air at that elevation of over 10,000 feet and the subzero morning temperature enhanced the panoramas of dramatic colour visible in every direction: an indigo blue sky, red sand dunes, crimson mountains, yellow and gray cratered land. This was a landscape where fumaroles and deep gashes in the earth vented clouds steam and other noxious gases. Deep pools of mud, crusted with pure sulfur and other colorful minerals, simmered, bubbled and vigorously boiled over like so many witches cauldrons. A faded, decrepid sign warned visitors to not proceed on "risk of death". That didn't seem to deter anyone as we picked our way across the vaporous landscape, stepping lightly lest we break through the thin crust of the surface.

The next stop was at the nearby thermal springs of Thermas de Polques where we ate breakfast. Since there was no running water at last night's accomodations, the chance to wash was greeted enthusiastically by those in our group who had not succumbed to any illnesses yet.

After the thermal springs we journeyed further to the emerald green lake Laguna Verde, and shortly after that, to the Chilean border town of San Pedro de Atacama. Thus ended a trip that took us through some of the most unique and beautiful natural formations we'd ever seen.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

El Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt lakeHarvesting saltHuge crystals of pure saltA house made of salt bricksKaz, Rob, Nick & KeikoWater on the salt flats forms a perfect mirror,
totally surreal for the 4WD to drive on
Standing on an infinite flat white mirrorIsla de Pescado rises from a mirror of pure saltThe surreal cactus landscape on Isla de PescadoHuge cactus on Isla de PescadoAt San Juan's Fiesta de las LlamasLlama gets its ears pierced with decorative ribbons
Keiko schmoozes with the San Juan localsVillage elder, San JuanHappy llamas enjoying their fiesta!Crossing the red Valles de Rocas desert in southern BoliviaA long way from anywhereThe amazing wind-sculpted "arbol de piedra" (stone tree)
Pink flamingos at the red lake Laguna ColoradaFlamingos at Laguna CañapaThe geysers at Sol de la MañanaWalking through HellNico warms his hands in a powerful steam ventA craterful of steam and boiling mud
Bubbling mud poolLadies, Mr. January: Rob ("Grubby") Hopkins!The sexiest man at Thermas de Polques??A pastel desert landscape near the border with ChileThe El Salar Survivors!

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