Salt of the Earth

Exploring the world’s largest salt flat, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, and its vast expanse of white. Starkly beautiful, it is a landscape that is simultaneously inhospitable and undeniably alluring.

Our tough old Lexus LX450 came to a back-slamming halt and out dove Raul, our driver and navigator. Vaulting onto the car roof, he planted his feet between the 10-gallon jugs of water and fuel perched there, took off his wool hat and started waving frantically, like a desperate survivor madly trying to flag down a rescue helicopter.

I was at a loss. I did a 360, searching the endless panoramic expanse of southern Bolivia’s high, burnt sienna desert, a horizon broken only by newbie volcano cones resembling the perky breasts of tanning PYTs lying on the beach at spring break. Though I’d seen no other vehicle for most of the day, Raul’s sharp, peripheral sweep had caught sight of an overland truck that seemed to be meandering off the worn and twisty roadway, perhaps following a GPS, but definitely not established tire treads.

We were nearing the Sol de Mañana, a shifting, ill-defined geothermal field, where earth’s molten bowels angrily escape as boiling sulfur mud-pits and hissing geysers surrounded by putrid-smelling gas vents emerge from collapsing surface crust. Not following recent jeep tracks could be perilous, hence Raul’s sense of urgency. After finally signaling the vehicle to the edge of the expanse, he jumped down, satisfied the errant travelers were on a safe path.

After this, navigating the fumaroles field, my traveling compadre, Sigrid, and I followed our lead guide, Alvaro, like kindergarteners holding onto a walking rope, for there were no paths. Many who have misstepped have been scalded and died. The explosive, unpredictable roil of activity made this eerily graceful spectacle curiously alluring, inveigling us to stare.

Shepherded by Alvaro and Raul, we were circumnavigating Bolivia’s 3,000-square-mile Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve (REA), a wildlife preserve founded in 1973, located snug inside Bolivia’s border with Chile and Argentina. At 16,000 feet, it’s often called South America’s Tibet and had been a longstanding exploration priority for me since viewing Art Wolfe’s otherworldly images in Travels to the Edge on our local PBS channel. Coupled with the Salar de Uyuni to the north, the world’s largest and highest salt flat, this bizarre, yet fragile, Altiplano ecosystem has become one of the most popular ecotourism spots on the globe, despite its frigid temperatures and barren, remote and inhospitable terrain.

We had flown into the new airport of the frontier town of Uyuni, leaving Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz, in a snowstorm. When we arrived, ferocious cold winds drove so much sand in the air that only a fraction of sun filtered through, like a solar eclipse. Though trash flew around the rooftops, the rough weather in no way deterred locals from celebrating a special saint—I never found out which one—with all-night imbibing, fireworks and big tuba bands marching up and down the street under our cozy hotel room.

The next morning, Alvaro and Raul picked us up. The only way to fully explore the vast, sometimes treacherous expanse of the REA and the Salar de Uyuni is to hire a reputable guide and a 4×4, so I had turned to Hugo Torres at Ecuador-based Ecoandes Travel (the excellent folks who arranged my 2007 Ausangate Trek in Peru).

Our day at the Sol de Mañana had begun further north at the reserve’s infamous shallow Laguna Colorada, home to thousands of rare flamingoes who have adapted to the altitude and cold, including the endemic James’s or puna flamingo. In the mid-1920s, this bird was thought to be extinct, but a few nests were discovered in the late 1950s at this lake, and their numbers have increased ever since. The James’s, along with its compatriots, the Chilean and Andean flamingos, filter-feed off this shallow lake’s red diatoms in the algae brine and thus, their feathers and beaks turn from bright pink to deep salmon, becoming more color-saturated as the day progresses. The REA currently protects their wetland habitat, but disruption by potential mining is a very real source of concern. Lithium deposits located in this region are estimated to be around 9 million tons—more than 50 percent of the world’s reserves (think demand for the batteries in hybrid cars and smartphones).

In a far-off grouping of similar but smaller lakes, we crept within spitting distance of all three species—James’s, Chilean and Andean flamingos—clustered together on strips of borax crust and pecking through the lake ice to feed. When they launched for take off, divulging their coal black flight feathers, these long-necked, carmine strutters reminded me of red-carpet fashion mavens. Set against a backdrop of snow-laced mountains and deep turquoise sky, it was clear why this region is the number one destination in Bolivia. As we packed up after lunch, Alvaro quietly pointed out a culpeo, an Andean fox camouflaged against a rock outcropping, patiently waiting for any crumbs we might drop or perhaps a flamingo to venture too close to shore.

Driving southward took us by a welcome hot spring at Polques, and after a soothing dip in a solitary mineral-rich pool, we motored on to volcan Licancabur straddling the Chilean border. At the base of this perfectly symmetrical stratovolcano stretch two dramatically opposing lakes. Standing on the shore of the sparkling emerald Laguna Verde was like something out of a 1950s declassified nuclear test filmstrip—glaring, silent, a body of lifeless liquid poison, full of arsenic and magnesium. In contrast, to the east and connected by a thin rivulet lay Laguna Blanca, white-blue water surrounded by gleaming white borax shores and the home of small birds. NASA scientists use these lakes, as well as the one in the caldera—a cauldron-like land feature that forms after a volcanic eruption—atop the 19,423-foot volcano, for experiments simulating manned Mars missions.

With the afterglow of sunset guiding us, we drove to a basic hostel near Laguna Colorada where we planned to stay that night. Though warm and convivial, this was barebones compared to our lodging the night before, when, dead tired after driving from Uyuni across the Altiplano, we arrived at a desolate clump of random stone shelters and parked in front of a garish yellow block built flush into an undulating rock wall: The place was a dead ringer for an adult bookstore on the strip. Inside the front door, however, the long, low-lit vermillion hall emptied into a huge great room with fireplace, exposed stone walls, low modern sofas and chairs—rustic South American chic. For two people who are happy in a tent, this was more style and comfort than we’d expected, and a harbinger of the gracious and tasteful Tayka hotels—Bolivia’s eco-friendly lodges—booked for us around the Salar.

Throughout our 4-day drive across the empty desertscape (in August, temperatures often dip to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), we would head toward concentrations of haphazardly strewn, massive distorted boulders that looked a bit like asteroid droppings from space. The most photographed one of these and poster child for the REA is a rock called the Árbol de Piedra, or stone tree. Standing en pointe, this wind-hewn piece of sandstone looked like one of the hippos in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

Another such splattering of boulders lies in an area appropriately called Dali Valley, a tribute to the similarities between the artist’s work and this surreal terrain. Alvaro referred to such formations as frozen lava, particularly in a place called Valle de las Rocas. There, the wind had etched towering rocks into silhouettes resembling giant Muppet-like creatures. These rocks crown warped, rippling canyons, which drop down to wetland cavities called bofedales. Bofedales behave much like peatlands, harnessing nutrients in their spongy, matted surface, providing an Eden-like habitat for vicuña (camelids related to alpacas) and rare bird species.

Heady from the sheer visual scope of this natural paradise, we rolled into the small town of San Pedro de Quemes, near Bolivia’s western border. There are few communities in this vast uninhabitable region, with most consisting of miners or struggling quinoa and potato farmers. This settlement lies beneath the enshrined, burned-out hulls of a former village torched by the Chilean army in 1879 during the Saltpeter War (1879–1883). It is now home to the Tayka Hotel de Piedra rising from the volcanic stone and sand, a welcomed gateway to the amazing Salar de Uyuni.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, they noted a huge, white space in the South American continent and first thought it was an unknown glacier. Later, they discovered it to be the 5,000-square-mile, 10-billion-ton evaporated sea of salt known as the Salar de Uyuni. No causeways provide access to the salar from the seldom-traveled south like the popular tracks east and north of Uyuni, so to get us there, Raul had to navigate out onto the flat straight from shore, where the raw surface is broken and squishy for about 100 yards. Getting stuck could be hazardous—no phone service, no people, no help—and we had no desire to end up like the two salt-encrusted, partially wolf-devoured vicuña we’d seen embedded in the salt at the base of a rock outcrop. Sigrid, Alvaro and I hopped out of the car and watched Raul work road magic—slowly, never stopping, finally grabbing traction onto the thick, hard salt. Breathing more easily, we cruised for miles onto the sea of white.

After taking a gazillion photographs (the illimitable white canvas makes it fun to play with perspective and illusion) and examining the hexagonal honeycombed salt bed, we headed north toward lsla Incahuasi, a fossilized coral island, actually the peak of an ancient volcano and main destination for most Salar de Uyuni tourists. It was like going from solace to deluge. We pulled up to the island’s base, parked amidst a bevy of 4x4s loaded with backpacking travelers from around the globe and ducked into Cafe Mongo for an excellent llama steak. By the time we finished, the day-tripping hordes had vanished, and we leisurely perused the island’s jagged backside, ducking into interlaced caves as a brief storm passed overhead. The island is covered with giant cacti, and each appeared to be giving the middle-finger salute, resembling a desert colossus with attitude.

That evening, we watched the glow of the downed sun turn the salt sea pink from the Hotel Tayka de Sal, located under Volcan Tunupa at the northern edge of the Salar. Constructed entirely of salt—even its beds and chairs—it was amazingly comfortable. The next morning, we hiked along the volcano’s flanks to a cave near the village of Jirira to view a burial site containing the mummified remains of ancient indigenous Aymaras, some folded to fit inside clay vessels (such archaeological discoveries are not uncommon in this area). We then headed back across the flat to the town of Colchani, where citizens have cooperatively mined salt for generations. The salt is mounded on the Salar, dried, and then brought into town for the addition of iodine and packaging. The cooperative extracts about 25,000 tons annually and sells it in Bolivia and Brazil.

Though our escorted adventure had come to its end, we were ready to strike out on our own. Over a garlic chicken lunch, we thanked Alvaro and Raul, and then bought our bus tickets. Standing outside the Uyuni station, carrying thousands of images and memories (and a small bag of salt), we waited for a bus to take us on to the colonial cities of Potosi and Sucre, where we would explore elegant churches and convents and parade during joyous weeklong fiestas before heading down to the Amazon jungle.  

Bolivia’s history is as conflicted as its topography, with unexpected peaks of unusual brilliance and self-determination, which plummet to the savage depths of cruelty and suppression, particularly with regard to the originales.

The Tiahuanoco and Aymara empires left rich legacies as seen in pre-Hispanic artifacts, as well as communal agricultural and other practices still in use today. The arrival of the conquistadors in 1532, however, set into motion a rule of subjugation of the indigenous peoples, including seemingly small but insidious acts, such as forcing Indian women to wear the now-traditional cholas skirts and bowler hats. With the discovery of silver in 1545 at Cerro Rico in Potosi, Indians were forced to work in the mines where hundreds of thousands died alongside imported African slaves.

Following the exceptional strategies of Símon Bolivar and his principal general, Antonio José de Sucre, independence from Spain was declared Feb. 9, 1825, in the Jesuit convent chambers (now the Casa de la Libertad), in the colonial town named Sucre after the general. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Sucre is still the on-paper capital of Bolivia. Since those enlightened times, however, the principles of the revolution have largely been usurped by chronic political turnover and instability, regional wars and exploitation, and mining of natural riches. And yet, geographically, Bolivia has it all, from the breathtaking high Andes to the Amazon.

For me, however, the Salar de Uyuni and Eduardo Avaroa Reserve represented the quintessence of the natural world’s power to excite and mystify. This exhilarating, surreal and ethereal experience far surpassed all hype—a priceless, intangible heritage.

Travel Bolivia

Lonely Planet Bolivia, by Greg Benchwick and Paul Smith

Bolivian Handbook, by Robert & Daisy Kunstaetter, Footprint Handbooks

Hugo Torres’ Ecoandes Travel, EcoandesTravel.com

U.S. Department of State: Search for Bolivia to obtain visa, safety and security information. Travel.State.gov


This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.

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