Salar de Uyuni: the largest salt flat on earth. And a showcase of Bolivia at its most barren and uninhabitable. It is enchanting.
South of the salar too exists a dream landscape of lagoons, volcanoes and dry harsh desert. What you see is incredible, bleak and vibrant, pastel and hard. Forces of nature, awesome, eerie. Man wouldn't stand a chance.
To access the flats and the other sights in the area, most people begin their tours in Uyuni, a dusty remote hamlet in the middle of the altiplano in southwest Bolivia. It's harsh living out here, desolate, cold. The town's main industry is tourism, and the main plaza is lined with tour companies and restaurants that are geared towards travelers.
Our salar excursion began midmorning at the office of our tour company. The scene was frantic. An Israeli group had just arrived from La Paz on the overnight bus and were hastily packing for the trip. The entire office was filled with hiking boots, wrinkled clothes, tired backpacks and lots of bickering in Hebrew. Outside, large SUVs were being loaded with food and supplies and given last-minute maintenance checks. We were finally ushered into our car, where met our car-mates -- there were six of us plus our driver/cook/guide -- and we were off.
Among our stops was a train graveyard close to town. It's exactly what you would imagine: corpses of trains strewn over desert sand, carnage from the days when Uyuni was a thriving railroad town. They'd been left there to rust, were covered with graffiti and are now quite a sight to see. After monkeying around in the wreckage, we drove to the salt flat.
The salar, brittle and dry, is blinding to the naked eye. It's about 10,000 square kilometers in area and is normally driven through on the first day. The salt was so compact that it could cut through skin. A favorite activity of visitors is to take forced perspective shots because the surface is so perfectly white and flat, unchanging and shadowless, stretching all the way to the horizon.
Since we were there at the beginning of the rainy season, parts of the salt flat were submerged in a thin layer of water resulting in perfect -- and I mean perfect -- reflections of the clouds. Land merged seamlessly with sky, creating horizon-less optical illusions that made us feel dizzy from the wide-angle immensity. In these doppelganger skyscapes, we seemed to fly among dark brooding shapes formed by far-off mountains and their reflections, skim over the tops of cloud ranges and plow into textured heavens. All the while, the car sent saline water splashing in all directions.
We stopped at Isla Incawasi, Fish Island, towards the end of the day. The salar is the vestige of an ancient sea that was connected to the ocean millions of years ago. While the sea eventually became landlocked and dried up, Fish Island remains, the corpse of a magnificent coral reef that is now covered with 1,200-year-old cacti and home to the occasional llama. A strange juxtaposition? Yes, very. But the climate makes the land fit for hardier life forms like giant succulents and woolly creatures, despite being the remains of an underwater jungle. The surrounding salt flat, white and endless, almost had us convinced that we were stranded on a desert island except jeeps were parked on the salt.
I won't even try to describe sunset. It was magical. I hate to admit this, but my pictures do it better justice.
The next day was full of delicious lagunas in all the colors of the rainbow. From a lovely seafoam green to easter pink and prismatic shades of blue, the lakes would usually appear when the landscape couldn't be any more formidable. I loved the approach: a blotch appearing in the distance, shimmering in the dry heat of the day, solidifying into a very still, very calm body of water usually accompanied by a perfectly conical volcano in the background.
Our very first lagoon was set in an alien planet. It appeared unobtrusively, was suddenly just there, surrounded by dramatic peaks and flamingoes dotting the water. Flamingoes, I say! The only sign of life in an otherwise still tableau. I felt like an intruder. We left behind footprints from stomping through the borax fields and stalking the wildlife.
Laguna Colorado was amazing, the biggest of all the lakes. All the colors of the rainbow converged in one pool. We stood on a windy crest and watched the flocks of flamingos in the distance -- it's home to the largest population of St. James flamingos in the world -- wanting to get closer but afraid of being berated by the parkkeeper, or Guardian of the Birds rather, as his sole job seemed to be to chase people away from the not-at-all obvious boundary line of stones laid out across the sand.
Besides stopping to see the lagunas, we spent the entire day off-roading on some pretty rough terrain, driving hundreds of kilometers past all kinds of desert, some patchy with small shrubs, others vast and striated. All the while, volcanoes and mountains loomed nearby. We also stopped at places with unusual rock formations, dry lava fields and rock sculptures shaped by the wind.
On our third and final day, we were up at 4:30 and on the road by 5. Our first stop? The geysers. We saw them from the distance as ghostly flumes that eventually became illuminated by the light from the rising sun. Like the earth's excretory system, hot air spilled out of the bubbling holes, groaning with the stench of sulfur. The steam rose tens of feet high before dissipating into the cloudless sky. It was ethereal.
On the other hand, the bubbly earth-stew at our feet made me think of creepy and crawly things, earthworms, termites. The sluggish sludge bubbled and burst, reabsorbing back into the depths from which it came. The surrounding area was stained the colors of putrefaction. The air was so thick with the steam, you could get lost in it. Or fall into one of the depressions in the ground and maybe get turned into a mutated grasshopper.
Afterwards, we drove to the thermal hot springs for a quick dip, which warmed frosted fingers and toes, but only for those who dared change into swimsuits in 40-degree weather. I braved the cold and scampered into the pool with the others. The water was crystal clear, the temperature perfect and we were soon rejuvenated.
This ended the tour. Two of our car-mates were dropped off at the Chilean border and gateway to the Atacama Desert. For the rest of us, we enjoyed a luxuriously roomy ride back to Uyuni, this time, the fast way.