Now we know where landscape photographers find technicolor aquamarine flamingo-filled lakes. Four-wheeling from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, to Uyuni, Bolivia was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip. We began by taking a bus around the local volcano to the Bolivian border, where the ominous vision above portended some events to come. It was all dirt roads from there.
Switching to a four-wheel drive Toyota at the (above) border, we met our guide, Victor. He only spoke Spanish, but so clearly that we understood a lot.
The whole drive was over Altiplano — miles and miles of incredibly high flat plains, surrounded by mountains. It is strange to think there are such large open spaces, so high above sea-level. Driving through tan, barren, mineral-rich landscape, we occasionally stopped for small, intensely hued lakes.
Laguna Blanca was frozen, with chalk and other minerals caked around the edge; the glossy surface had a strange cast. We breakfasted there and met the rest of the group — a German doctor, two Canadian twenty-somethings, and many French teachers. Bolivia has a different kind of bread from Argentina and Chile — a light, airy baked bun. I like Chile´s heavy bun better.
Laguna Verde apparently contains copper, and changes color as the wind blows across it, becoming a brilliant emerald. The photo could have been taken in Tahiti, or Flores, Indonesia, but it was much colder on the Altiplano.
Victor played some kind of Bolivian music that fused tradition with pop. The song that sticks in our minds goes "Ma ma ma, ma ma Maria," and encourages you to clap your "las palmas!" We were to hear this song many times. Traditional Bolivian favorite and hair band classic, "Love Hurts" was also on the play list, to be heard again in Uyuni and Potosi.
We took a dip in a hot spring, and ate a lunch of llama. The llama looked and tasted like roast beef. Tasty quinoa soup was also served.
Further on, boiling geysers spewed a sulfurous mix. Tiptoeing around them, earth sometimes fell from beneath our feet. Cold winds whipped around us. Sulfur splattered my trusty red camera, rendering it useless. I had to borrow Jason´s from then on, so some of these are his photos.
The Andes landscape was surprisingly varied. In addition to the expected Swiss snow-covered mountains, there were many-hued mountains colored by minerals, bizarre rock formations, scrubby or coral-like vegetation, and of course the colored lakes.
Laguna Colorada reminds one of those brightly hued, contaminated Chinese rivers. But the color is natural ochre, and the lake attracts many species of flamingos. The wind was at its worst as we struggled to the lake’s edge.
Llamas sat at lake’s edge; the red pompons in their ears mean that someone owns them.
Our lodging that night was a rude adobe with no heat, hot water, and often no water at all. We ate a nice dinner that again included quinoa soup. I felt some effects of food poisoning a little later and popped a Cipro. Piling five layers of blankets over our sleeping bags, in the room we shared with the German and Canadians, we attempted to sleep at 8pm. There was nothing else to do in the cold. My feet were about to freeze off; temps dipped to -15 to -20 Centigrade. Our hearts were racing from the 4,600 meter altitude, and we spent a fidgety, cranky eleven hours in our bunks. Trips to the bathroom were foul, as water had been cut off. None of us slept.
Sleepy and disoriented, we ate our simple breakfast and headed out. Victor played Ma Ma Maria again.
We arrived at a fascinating rock formation — red rock formed into steps that you can climb, about five stories high. The rock was dotted with alien vegetation — coral-like green globes crawling over the rock, made of tiny, tough, star-shaped plants.
A viscacha appeared on a rock shelf, after we’d descended. Viscachas are rabbit-like rodents with long curly tails.
Victor was clambering under the truck’s hood; he took a few minutes for "improvements." In Bolivia, all drivers are also mechanics.
The Altiplano was surreal; indeed, Salvador Dali once went there to paint some eerie volcanic rocks that we saw sprinkled across the plain. Visually, I was always noticing the contrast between three-dimensional and flat-looking surfaces on the plain.
Nearby were other rock formations, including the much-photographed "stone tree." This image makes me think of Dali, with his hyper-dimensional rocks and personas superimposed on barren landscapes of flat color.
We forded several streams, and the terrain got much bumpier.
Rock formations resembled advancing soldiers or a shantytown. One rock is a condor-like form.
We stopped at a tiny town laid out on a broad, flat grid for lunch, including the familiar quinoa soup.
Wandering around town, we saw some lovely old stucco buildings, and I spotted a taxidermy bird that looked like a small ostrich in a shop window.
Driving through a dry valley, rivulets of water streamed through; llamas and donkeys grazed. We drove by stucco settlements, and saw odd, geometric plantings on the hillsides that looked like ancient patterns inscribed to deliver a message to aliens.
A llama seemed to be bathing in the stream, but it had gotten stuck, and couldn´t get out. Our heroic guide Victor and one of the other tourists stepped into the cold stream and pulled the llama out by its wool. The beast was blase as it trotted away.
We stopped at a small town that was once a much larger railroad hub. Only five families remained in the ghost town. Three little sisters came out to see us. Their future prospects are slim in a place like this. We wished we´d brought pencils and paper for them.
The town’s water tower had sprung a leak, and a frozen waterfall clung to its side. The little girls stood by the ice.
Several cars from an old train sit on the unused track, and the cemetery had more residents than the town.
I recall the truck had another little breakdown that day.
Much of the day was about driving to the world’s largest, highest salt lake, the Salar de Uyuni. We arrived at the dry lake’s edge in the late afternoon, and drove a short distance across it to a salt hotel. The hotel was built out of salt blocks, and arranged in a straight line along the shore, so that each room had a view.
Jason and I shared a little Chilean wine, while watching the intense blue and pink sunset across the lake. After a dinner of, yes, quinoa soup, we were looking forward to the promised hot shower. Alas, the pipe was broken. I sponged myself off with some water from one of the tea thermoses. We had another freezing night, but in more comfortable, private digs.
That morning, we began our drive across the salt lake. We drove in a straight line for forty minutes, before reaching the Isla de Pescado, the Fish Island.
Though it’s incredibly isolated, we saw more plants and animals on Isla de Pescado than on shore; huge cacti, scrubby plants, even a chinchilla, hopping across the rocks. It was interesting to climb up these huge coral formations, after having recently swum around them in places like the Great Coral Reef in Australia.
The island sits some distance from the shore, and the part of the lake adjacent to the island is 120 meters deep — 120 meters of salt! Incas once rested at the island, while journeying across the lake. What’s amazing is the is that much of the craggy island is made of ancient coral, from when the lake was an inland sea.
We climbed up and around the steep little island, and marveled at all plant life.
A shrine to Pachamama was at the top.
We drove another forty minutes or so across the blank salt, stopping for photo ops.
An older salt hotel was in the middle of the lake. Every aspect of the structure was salt including furnishings.
Further along, local people toiled on the lake, breaking salt loose with pickaxes, and shoveling it into trucks.
A few miles away was their tiny settlement, where they process table-salt for all of South America. People sold salt sculptures of llamas and dice cups.
I cuddled a baby llama.