October 6 - 9, 2014
SALAR DE UYUNI
From La Paz, Jesse and I took a 3.5 hour smooth bus ride to Oruro where we spent the night. The following day, we purchased tickets for the night train to Uyuni. Although taking a train long distances can be dreadfully slow, the road conditions in Bolivia are often times questionable especially at night. It was hard to fall asleep in our carriage with the flickering lights and the constant buzz of the television. When we arrived at 2:30 in the morning, we had no reservation and we were prepared to sleep at the station. As we stepped off the train, the temperature was bitterly cold and we decided that sleeping outside was our last option. Many of the hostels either didn't answer or were completely booked. Luckily we found Hotel Julia for 100 Bs a night ($15) which was quite an improvement from the hostels we're accustomed to. Afterwards, Jesse and I spent most of the day comparing reputable agencies and their prices. Andrea Tours offered 3-day tours of the salt flat and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve for around 800 Bs. We left the following morning on a rugged 4x4 through the desert in all of its vastness.
Our first stop was less than 10 minutes away called Cementerio de los trenes (Cemetery of Trains). Once a symbol of progress, the remains of these neglected train carriages rust in the desert plateau, abandoned and forgotten for more than a century. This graveyard had an aura of mystery and felt like I was on set of an old western film. The railroad tracks run all the way to Chile and trains would transport minerals like silver and tin. When the mining industry collapsed and war lead to a landlocked border blocked access to the sea, the trains were no longer operated and today lead into an empty horizon. The scraps from the industry's untimely death are now a tourist playground. Trains are littered with graffiti as a form of protest, advertisement, and art. It is believed that Bolivia holds almost half of the world's total lithium reserves and many local residents continue to combat and protest against foreign interest for extracting lithium reserves in the salar. The industrial revolution that could have propelled Bolivia onto the international spotlight is now a wasteland of progress.
We were joined by 4 tourists from the UK on our tour who knew very little if any Spanish. Our guide could not speak English very well, so the language barrier prevented a lot of the history and details from being told. Our guide was rather shy, but he was responsible and experienced when it came to changing one of our many flat tires in the heart of the desert. We finally were off to the main attraction: the salar.
Salar de Uyuni is honestly one of the most beautiful natural places on the planet. The immensity of the salt flats alone is the largest in the world, covering approximately 4,086 square miles. The infinite landscape is so surreal that I had to touch the surface and taste the salt myself to convince myself this was reality. The salar is saturated with water under a thick layer of salt that runs up to 400 feet deep and is capable of withstanding the weight of a car. As we drove across it, silhouettes of blue mountains line the horizon and make you feel that you're on a different planet.
Exceeding an elevation of over 12,000 feet, the salar was once a prehistoric salt lake that dried up and left one of the most intriguing landscapes. To give you a perspective, Salar de Uyuni is over 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. During the rainy seasons, the whole salar acts like a mirror, reflecting the sky above in all of its colors and shapes. The horizon quite literally disappears and feels limitless. Even without a reflective surface, the expansive white floor is beautiful. Although for the sake of pictures, it would have been amazing to witness the magnificent salar flooded, reflecting the sky on its surface. Our group took funny pictures that used different perspectives with dinosaur props. I wish we had more time to be creative and experiment with the perspectives, but there was a lot to cover in our tour.
We briefly stopped at Colchani, a tiny town 12 miles north of Uyuni that processes 25,000 tons of the salt annually and sells cheap souvenirs. Shortly after, we stopped at the salt hotel which had hundreds of national flags planted on the salar, excluding the United States. In fact, we met other Americans who were actually told how unwanted they were at the border of Paraguayan border. I could not tell by their character on a personal level from our brief encounter, but I understand from a national perspective the damage our country has caused to many of South American countries. There are no roads on the salar, so drivers can literally drive wherever. Our next stop was Isla del Pescado ("Fish Island" or also known as Isla Incahausi ("Inca house" in Quechua) that apparently looks like a fish from an aerial perspective. This unique island was covered in cactus that were 3 times as big as me and one of the only protrusions on the salar floor. Fossil records indicate that the island was once a volcano, submerged in a lake over 40,000 years ago. I remember imagining the blinding salt as waves crashing into the island.
It was incredible that such a place exists. I have never seen anything like this before in my life. But there is more to Uyuni than just salt.
Desert of Colors
We spent the night at a hotel near the salar made entirely out of salt. To pass the time, the six of us played a version of golf, a card game where you want to have the smallest number of points by the end of the round. To spice it up, one of them proposed that the loser would have to lick the wall of the hotel. As much as I disliked the idea, it was very entertaining for the one idiot who lost three times and licked the wall in front of the entire group. The next morning, we drove through the colorful desert, stopping at a few lagoons along the way. The surrounding volcanoes reflect on the waters surface while hundreds of flamingos bathe and bask in the sun. I have never witnessed flamingos before and it was quite strange to see them in the middle of the desert. We visited Laguna Cañapa where we saw a coyote wandering nearby and as our guide fed him, I managed to snag a few pictures before he scattered.
Scattered throughout the Siloli Desert lies a collection of rock formations sculpted by erosion for thousands of years. The volcano Ollagüe is the tallest mountain to the south of Bolivia, reaching heights of 5,800 m and composed of many different colors. The volcanoes and bizarre rock formations are surreal. One of the strangest is known as Arbol de Pierda or the "Stone Tree", which balances on a narrow stem. A curious figure made from the product of centuries of erosion. It is believed that heavy concentrations of iron on the top half allowed strong winds to sculpt the less concentrated lower half, giving the rock a tree-like figure.
Jesse and I were less interested in the tree rock, which was a little underwhelming. We climbed the windswept rocks nearby instead and enjoyed the out of place rock formations. We visited a similar location called the Valley of Rocks as a final stop on our tour back to Uyuni. It is an isolated spot and a climber's heaven. I distinctly remember one of the rocks (see photograph #6) had a long cut from a lightning strike, slicing cleaning as if by a knife.
Laguna Verde receives its emerald green hue from high concentrations of arsenic and cooper. The Lincancabur Volcano towers over the lagoon, complementing the landscape and reflecting off the waters. When we visited, the winds were strong enough to make the lagoon appear more blue than green. As the wind stirs the sediments, Laguna Verde varies from turquoise to deep emerald. Regardless, the landscape was spectacular and I still have no words for its beauty. Previous visitors stacked and balanced small rocks in front of the lagoon.
One of my favorite places was Laguna Colorada, a shallow lagoon tainted in a blood red hue. The intensity of the red color changes throughout the day and is due from the red algae called Dunaliella salina and the carotene, which photosynthesizes to create the hue. The sun changes the redness of the lagoon. It has 3 species of Andean flamingos, which feed off the algae and make the environment even more stunning. Laguna Colorada has served as the entrance as the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve since 1973. With over 1.7 million acres, the reserve protects the natural environment and the unique species of flamingo native to Bolivia. We stayed the night in a shelter nearby, a long, terraced building with several bedrooms. The pictures won't tell how cold and windy this place was, and it was felt through the walls. Temperature fluctuations can reach anywhere from 86°F when the sun reflects off the salar surface and below -13°F or even -40°F depending on the wind chill.
On the final day, we woke up early to see geysers of Sol de la Manana. As the name suggests, it is best seen in the morning. The temperature was blistering cold at 16,500 ft altitude, but the pools of bubbling wells emerging from crevices were remarkable. Sulfur gas erupts vertically from the ground in some cases as high as 50m. I watched as the sun kissed the ridges of the surrounding mountains. About half an hour away, we stopped at the Termas de Polques hot springs. The water flowing from the bedrock reached an average temperature of 100°F, which was relief from the strong desert winds and cold temperatures.
Our experience with Andrea Tours was very good. Although our jeep had multiple flat tires during the expedition, our guide was resourceful and communicated well with other drivers. All of those horror stories of being stranded in the desert did not happen to us thankfully. Every time someone wanted to stop for a photo, he obliged. The accommodation was above my expectations, especially for vegetarian meals. They were delicious! After the Valley of Rocks, we returned to Uyuni where we stayed one more night in Uyuni before we took a bus to Potosi.
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