The next day we left our hotels early and assembled excitedly at the gringo plaza. There were 7 of us altogether in the group and it was a great bunch of fun loving people from all over the world. There was a young German high school student, a Swedish gardener, a French professor couple, a HongKong based real estate dealer and yours truly from India. Our driver Pepe was from Chile, but had been living in Bolivia since last 50 years. He was an adorable father figure, a notorious gossip monger and an unabashed liar. Luckily all of us hit off the moment we met and Pepe regaled us with his fabricated travel stories. He helped load up our things on a trusty clean 4 * 4 and all of us excited started our dream Salar de Uyuni trip.
TRAVEL TIP – Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and one of the most spectacular places on earth. Situated in south west of Bolivia, near the crest of Andes mountains it was formed due to sequential transformation between lakes. Around 40,000 years ago the area was a part of a giant lake which transformed drastically over the years creating more lakes, islands and completely changing the geography and topography of the region. Today it has the snow white salt desert, the important Avaroa national park, neon coloured lakes, strange fossil filled islands and unique wildlife. Salar is most exquisite during the wet season when a sheet of top layer water reflects the sky and everything on its surface and creates a mirror like image, thus rendering it the name earth’s mirror. It is a very important zone in terms of economy (from salt production), tourism and agriculture (best quinoa in Bolivia comes from Uyuni).
Our first stop was the antique train cemetery which was located around 3 kilometers away from Uyuni. A strange eerie place it had skeletal rusted shells of the abandoned trains lying scattered in the middle of nowhere. They looked very desolate, used and some were still connected with their tracks. Uyuni used to be an important transportation hub in South America and in the early 19th century, big plans were made to build an even bigger network of trains from there. But the project later got abandoned due to technical difficulties and it was constantly sabotaged by the indigenous people who saw it as an intrusion into their lives. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies and with the collapse of the mining industry, the train hub turned into a spooky cemetery in the middle of the desert.
We left the cemetery soon and headed towards Colchan. Vicunas (small woolly camel like animals) raced along with our jeep and the cold high altitude air pierced our eyes and ears. Colchan lay at the edge of the Salt Flat and salt was being cultivated there busily. The surreal white stretch of the Salt Flat sparkled endlessly before us and reflection of the salt workers mirrored magically on the surface. It was the most breathtaking sight and the reason behind the exorbitant prices of Colchan edge of salt desert hotel rooms.
Leaving touristy Colchan behind we continued deeper into the desert and made the customary stop at the flag ground, near the Salt Museum. Everybody excitedly pointed out their national flags while Lee and I proudly placed the first Indian and Hongkong flags there. The Salt Museum which had an impressive collection of Chulpas (Andean mummies) and salt sculptures was formerly a salt hotel. We rushed through the exhibits and queued up for a loo break. The salt toilet however was smelly and the filth completely ruined the novelty of its unique salt construction. Blocks of condensed salt, pressed into bricks made up the walls, furniture, fittings, ceiling as well as the toilet and we shuffled uncomfortably on the loose salt of the floor. Needless to say, that unique loo break went in vain.
Inkawasi island thankfully came soon and we ran out looking for cover. Our bladders nearly burst and constant food sharing inside our car did not make things easier as well. Inkawasi (Inca House) turned out to be an expensive affair and while the entrance fee was really a joke, the charge for letting people use the toilet was exorbitant (40 Bolivianos). Dejected and extremely uncomfortable we came out and walked around the strange island to find solitary spots for the most pressing issue on our hands. A hilly and rocky outcrop, Inkawasi was a former island and is actually the top of an ancient volcano which got submerged when the area became a part of a giant prehistoric lake around 40,000 years ago. It has giant cacti, unusual and fragile coral-like structures, fossils and algae deposits.
After tending to our needs we paused for lunch on the island and feasted on pasta, quinoa and llama steaks served on coral picnic tables. Quinoa is a recently discovered super food and available in abundance in Bolivia. It tasted like a tastier version of oats and was very enjoyable but the llama steaks were salty and tough. We clicked some customary goofy Salar photos and happily drove on into the eternity of the white desert. Salar however ended soon and harsh, rough patch of land appeared. Indigenous peasants toiled on their paltry quinoa fields and their small herds of llamas stared at us curiously. They seemed to be marooned alone in the middle of nowhere and I wondered how they met their medical, educational and social needs. Even the capital city of La Paz was at least a night away and my country for them might have been on some other planet. Pepe stopped to chat with them and while they gave the familiar white faces amiss, Lee and I got stared at incredulously. They had no idea of either HongKong or India and culturally we were as strange as extra terrestrials to them.
We left them to continue with our drive and suddenly my world shrank. It felt incredible to realize my small place in the huge wide world and the anonymity was most liberating. I was deep in my thoughts when our jeep screeched to a stop by a littered shallow lake. It was San Juan, a small village of around 7 houses where our night halt was scheduled. We hopped out, unloaded our bags and gratefully checked into a salt block home. The drive although beautiful had been for more than 10 hours and we desperately needed to rest.
It was early evening and the stark sky reflected mild sunset colours before turning ink black quickly. Our stay at the salt hotel could only be described as interesting and it was quite a bizarre experience to sleep on a salt bed surrounded with salt block walls and loose salt floors. The doors were made of cactus and the though the toilets worked, the much anticipated showers unfortunately were nonexistent. It was a huge hygiene shock to me, who had badly looked forward to it but there was nothing which could be done about it. Dinner was served soon and it was a big, delicious affair of a wholesome lasagna, quinoa salad and llama cheese. Post dinner we had plans for a game of cards, but fatigue overpowered us like a drug and we crashed out immediately into dreamless sleep.
The next day started at 4 in the morning and after stumbling into the car, our still zombied group snoozed till sunrise in the warmth. Pepe raced deeper into the desert, clocking miles over geysers and mountains while his sleeping bunch snored at the back of the car. He finally woke us up for a beautiful sun rise over the stunning Laguna Hedionda and we gasped in unison at its beauty. It was the most breathtaking sight and we gaped in silence as the sky turned into delicate shades of mother of pearl before exploding into brilliant multi shades. The placid mirror like lake reflected the colour play of the sky and tinted the countless flamingos into deeper shades of pink.
It was obviously a very popular spot because small picnic tables were scattered around the lake and the small paid toilet was scrubbed clean. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast by the colourful lake, before continuing deeper into one of the world’s remotest regions. Still sleepy and moodily silent, we were a grubby bunch that morning and looked more and more raggedy as the trip progressed.
Because of early morning starts and freezing cold (lack of facilities too) showers became impossible and eventually the baby wipe sponges too stopped happening. Salar de Uyuni trip was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and grueling experiences I had ever had. High altitude, remoteness, lack of facilities and back breakingly long drives were at times too taxing on the body, but the mind blowing beauty of the place made every minute of the trip worthwhile.
Landscape became harsher as we went deeper, more remote and absolutely surreal, taking almost a lunar surface like appearance. Isolation and unlimited empty expanse at times made us feel as if we were the only ones on earth except for still shell pink flamingos. Multi coloured mountains kept stretching endlessly and soon smoking volcanoes appeared in the distance. We passed through endless river beds, strange mirror like lakes and rocky canyons and soon lost track of time and date. The landscape changed rapidly and drastically and suddenly from flamingo dotted lakes, we found ourselves lunching at narrow stony gorges with big colonies of inquisitive, friendly viscachas (rabbit kind of animals with squirrel like bushy tails) surrounding us for crumbs.
Multi coloured shimmering lakes with pretty names passed by one after the other and their dream like beauty almost put us in a trance. Laguna Verde (green colour) and Laguna Blanca (white colour) made us stare in silence and the land became so wildly beautiful that we forgot about fatigue, hunger and even gossiping. Silence filled our usually gregarious car and even Pepe let us enjoy the beauty in peace. Finally after driving for what seemed like eternity we reached the shore of the most spectacular of Uyuni lakes – the blood red Laguna Colorada.
A stunning white-speckled, red lake Laguna Colorada stood out from a distance like a giant ruby. It was undoubtedly the highlight of our Uyuni trip and we could not believe our eyes. An ecologically and environmentally important lake, Laguna Colorada falls within the Avaroa National Park and is home of big colonies of a nearly-extinct species of flamingos. Because of existence of red algae and other microorganisms in its water, the lake is of a deep shade of blood red. Massive borax deposits on the lake’s surface creates the perfect contrast of large pools of white interspersed with deep hues of sapphire blue water, which makes its surface an unbelievable tapestry of blue, white and red combination. With the perfect juxtaposition of rolling mountains, colonies of pink flamingos and craggy rocky shores, Laguna Colorada was an unforgettable sight.
We stayed overnight at Avaroa National Park at basic rooms on the edge of the park. It was worse than the previous places we had stayed at, colder and barer, but as we sat by the the lake till evening we could only feel blessed to have witnessed such incredible beauty of nature. Night arrived soon with temperature dropping below zero and frost crunching underneath our feet. After dinner we went back to the shore of the lake for a night sky watch and stared in silence as the huge white band of Milky Way spanned over us. The inky black sky was a claustrophobic cluster of millions of heavenly bodies and I had never seen before or after such a big, clear crowd of stars and planets.
It was a breathtaking night, a fitful ending of an amazing day. We came back to our room, went to bed early and slept fitfully under a canopy of a million celestial lights somewhere in the middle of a Bolivian desert. Life could not have gotten more beautiful and blessed.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE