Bolivia’s Salty South-West

Southern Bolivia is not only one of the most beautiful areas of the country, it’s one of the most interesting parts of South America.  The area south of Potosí is full of sights, from Tupiza (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand), to Tarija (home of the world’s highest-altitude vineyards), to the empty border with Argentina (where the population density is single figures per square mile).  But the most famous part is in the far south-west, near the border with Chile, where the otherworldy landscape includes smoking volcanoes, hissing geysers, bubbling mudpools, multicoloured lakes, and huge salt flats.

Stretching the length of Bolivia, the Altiplano (high plain) is a bleak, barren landscape of deserts and mountains.  The very north of the altiplano is in southern Peru (around Lake Titicaca), and the very south of it is in northern Chile and northern Argentina; but the bulk is in Bolivia.  It’s a high-altitude desert that separates the eastern and western chains of the Andes mountains as they march south through the country.  After Tibet, it’s the highest plateau in the world (averaging 4,000 metres above sea level) – while the Andes of Peru look a lot like their Himalayan cousins in India or Nepal, Bolivia’s altiplano is a dead ringer for the Tibetan landscape north of the Himalayas.  Like Tibet, it’s a treeless land sparsely populated by people (but surprisingly full of animals), and it’s roasting hot in the day and freezing cold at night; but the empty vistas and endless blue skies give it a stark beauty that few other places on Earth can match.

It’s also a place of superlatives – from the highest lake (Titicaca) to the highest capital city (La Paz) to the richest mine (Cerro Rico, in Potosí) to the biggest salt flat (near Uyuni).  And it’s to Uyuni town that I travel to start my trip.  Located in the middle of nowhere, devoid of any tourist attractions, with sunburn-inducing heat in the day, and blasted by freezing winds at night, it’s not a place you would go to unless you had to.  But as the starting point of the south-west tour circuit, Uyuni has a busy feel, plenty of hotels and restaurants, and is full of gringos.  A former railway town (located at the junction of the lines that enter Bolivia from Chile and Argentina), the collapse of the rail industry has been offset by the burgeoning tour industry, meaning that Uyuni is busier and more prosperous-looking than many other places in Boliva.  Tour operators are everywhere, all offering the same thing for the same price.  The size and remoteness of everything means it’s impossible to see the sights in one day, or to do them independently.  So the standard offering is a guided three-day jeep tour, which finishes at either the end of the third day (back in Uyuni), or drops off people in the middle of the third day at a remote border crossing with Chile (for transfers to the nearby Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama).  So the tours are not only popular with tourists seeing Bolivia, they’re also a great way to cross the border and continue south (which is what I’m doing).

We meet at the agency the next morning, while the guide/driver/cook loads up the 4X4.  After the introductions (and the realisation that the guide doesn’t speak any English, and I’m the only tourist in our group that speaks any Spanish – so by default I’m the translator), we head off to our first stop (along with about 20 other jeeps, all doing the same tour).  The Cementerio de Trenes is a huge collection of steam locomotives, passenger carriages, and freight wagons, all slowly rusting into the desert outside Uyuni, a decaying testament to the long-gone glory days of rail, and now looking like a set from a Mad Max film.

After clambering all over the trains, it’s off (along with the rest of our convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers) to Colchani, a village on the edge of the salt flat, that survives on salt processing (and now tourism).  Along with salt souvenirs of every description, you can visit the ‘museum’, which proudly displays the world’s biggest llama (it’s not real, obviously, it’s made of salt, of course).  And there’s also a visit to the salt processing plant, where several thousand tonnes of the several billion tonnes that are in the nearby salt lake are processed every year.

And then it’s into the salt.  Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt lake, a 12,000 sq km perfectly flat expanse of pure white emptiness.  During the rainy season, the salt is covered with water, forming an enormous mirror that reflects the sky so completely that it’s hard to discern the horizon, attracting photographers from all over the world to document the surreal views.  As amazing as it looks on photos, the only downside of visiting at that time of year is that you can’t drive very far into the lake – whereas now, in the dry season, we can drive right across it.  The hard white surface looks like ice, and the dry top layer of salt has contracted in the constant sun, forming endless hexagonal patterns across the surface.  Underneath is more salt (saturated with water), and under that is the world’s largest deposit of lithium, enough to power the all world’s electronic devices for the rest of the 21st century.  As we drive across, we can see the numerous small, white mounds of salt that the miners have scraped off and shaped, leaving them to dry in the sun before transporting them to Colchani.

Our stop for lunch is one of the salar’s salt hotels (outside of which is a huge salt monument to Bolivia’s section of the Dakar Rally).  Not only is salt the obvious first choice for building materials around here, it’s light, easy to shape, and a good insulator.  Tourists are no longer allowed to stay overnight in the hotel (as the human waste generated is damaging the fragile environment); but it’s a great stop for lunch, eating quinoa soup and llama steaks in a room made almost entirely of the white condiment (although the passage of time has turned it a grey-brown).

En route to one of the islands in the middle of the salar, we make the obligatory photo stop in the middle of the lake.  The guide has a collection of small plastic toys, and there’s much fun to be had (after a considerable amount of prep work) involving tourists, perspective, and a tiny Godzilla.

Isla del Pescado (named for its shape, not for its fish – there aren’t any) is in the heart of the salar, a tiny cactus-studded island surrounded by miles of flat white sea.  Before the advent of mass tourism, it must’ve been one of the loneliest places on earth; but these days, it’s overrun with foreigners, checking out the cacti or snapping photos of the resident viscachas (small, rabbit-like creatures, that somehow survive in this harsh environment).

The rest of the afternoon is spent driving across the salar, stopping to see a salt ‘quarry’ (where the locals hack blocks of the stuff out of the crust, to make their various constructions), and witnessing a sunset as spectacular as it is cold.  It’s dark by the time we get to the tiny village on the salar’s edge, where we’ll be spending the night.  The tour groups are all staying in various identical salt hotels, with salt block walls surrounding salt beds on crushed salt floors, and where we all eat dinner on salt chairs around salt tables.  The village has electricity and water, but no heat or TV or internet.  So after dinner and a few games of cards, it’s bedtime (wearing most of my clothes).

The next morning, we head south – passing more, smaller salt flats, crossing the lonely railway line from Uyuni to the Chilean border, and driving past Ollagüe (Bolivia’s only active volcano), towards the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a 7,000 sq km protected area in the most south-westerly part of the country.  For lunch, we pause at Laguna Hedionda, an algae-rich lake that’s a habitat for all three South American species of flamingo.  Having seen flamingos before in the wild (in tropical Mexico), it’s quite a surprise to see these birds freezing their feathers off in this 4,000m-high lake, surround by snow-dusted volcanoes.

Just before the entrance to the reserve, we cross the Desierto Siloli, a high-altitude plain covered in volcanic ash and gravel, and scattered with rocks that have been blasted into surreal shapes by the continual winds – the strangest of which is Árbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), a massive boulder that balances on a narrow base, and looks as though it might be blown off at any moment by the howling gales.  Adding to the odd nature is the yareta, a flowering plant that grows only on the altiplano, at altitudes above 3,000m.  It looks like a stunted broccoli or a green brain on the ground, and the leaves form such a compact mass that it’s as hard as a rock, like a painted boulder – the shape and density prevents it from being blown away or freezing.  Another trick to cope with the inhospitable environment is to grow very slowly, so slowly that many of the larger yaretas are over a thousand years old.

At the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, we stop at Laguna Colorada.  As everyone knows, flamingos are pink due to the algae in the water they drink.  Well, the birds here must be the pinkest in the world, because Laguna Colorada is bright red.  This part of the altiplano is famous for its colourful lakes, stained different colours by the minerals in their waters.  But Laguna Colorada is the only one that’s red.  The ruby water contrasts with the bright white deposits of salt and borax that have collected at the lake’s edge.  Throw in the pink flamingos, the sunburnt brown mountains in the background, and the cerulean sky above, and it’s a sight that’s as beautiful as it is otherwordly, and as colourful as it is surreal.

We spend our second (and last) night in the one village on the shores of the lake.  It’s a lonely, forlorn-looking place, blasted by the constant freezing winds coming down from the mountains or across the lake.  None of the buildings look finished, the people seem to have disappeared (leaving just the stray dogs to wander the dirt streets), and the whole place has the desolate feel of somewhere that’s barely survived some unknown apocalypse.  Continuing the similarities between the altiplano and Tibet, the village reminds me of Tingri, an equally miserable-looking hamlet on the Tibetan plateau that I once visited in order to access Everest Base Camp, as part of a trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu.  But, instead of yaks and Himalayan mountains in the distance, here there’s the Andes, the blood-red lake, and herds of vicuñas (the wild ancestor of llamas and alpacas).  And like Tibet, there are also the (very) cold nights, clear skies, and abundance of stars.  And after dinner (our chef knocks up another good feed, accompanied by a surprisingly-tasty bottle of Bolivian Cab Sav), and a quick look at the starry heavens (it’s unavoidable, as the cold-water bathroom is outside), it’s bedtime again.  In all my clothes.  At 9PM.

We’re up on the third and last morning at a very unholidayish 5AM.  The reason for the ungodly hour is so that the driver can drop me off at the Chilean border, and still get back to Uyuni with the rest of his tourists by nightfall.  Our first stop is the highest geyser field in the world, at 5,000m, the appropriately-named Sol de Manaña (Morning Sun) – a collection of sulfurous pools, hissing fumaroles, bubbling mud, and spouting plumes of steam.  This being Bolivia, there are no railings or fences or safety notices; so it’s possible to walk right over the unstable ground, warming up while taking my life in my hands (or feet, in this case).  As freezing as it is outside, and as much as I’d like a hot bath, the water is literally boiling; so maybe I won’t jump in…

Fortunately, the next stop is a hot spring, at Termas de Polques.  So I, and every other tourist on the south-west circuit, can have that hot bath after all.  There’s plenty of geothermal energy bubbling away under the surface, an abundance of useful minerals like borax and gypsum, and massive deposits of lithium; and yet there doesn’t seem to be any industry here to extract any of these things.  The only thing resembling industry is the salt-extraction plant near Uyuni, and that’s low-key, to say the least.  Maybe the Bolivian government is so environmentally-aware that they don’t want to damage this pristine-yet-fragile environment.  Or perhaps they’re happy to exploit it, but only through tourism.  Or maybe it’s just too expensive to create the infrastructure required (although I’m sure there are plenty of international mining companies who would love to ‘help’ the Bolivians).

We push on, driving past the Desierto Dalí (another plain covered in strangely-shaped, wind-blown rocks, that appear to have been plonked there by surrealist master Salvador himself), to Laguna Verde.  According to the guidebooks, it’s a striking turquoise lake (hence the name).  The lagoon’s dramatic colour is due to the high concentrations of sulphur and arsenic, and icy winds often blow the water into rows of green froth.  The guidebooks may be exaggerating a little, as today the lake’s colour is a very faint green – but the altiplano setting is gorgeous, and the symmetrical cone of Volcán Licancabur (straddling the Chilean border) is perfectly reflected in the water.

We pass one more lake (the pale Laguna Blanca), and then arrive at the border crossing, nestled at the foot of Volcán Juriques.  It may well be the most remote and lonely border crossing I’ve ever seen (not to mention one of the highest, at 4,500m).  Admittedly, right now it’s buzzing with tourists doing the same trip as me, all leaving Bolivia at the same time.  But after we’ve all filed through, and the tour buses have left, it must be as empty as a hermit’s address book.  And it’s in the absolute middle of nowhere – the last human habitation I saw was back at Laguna Colorada (several hours’ drive away); and the nearest town in Chile (where the Chilean border post is located) is in San Pedro de Atacama (another hour by road).  There’s the Bolivian customs building, the endless altiplano, and that’s it.

After paying our exit fees and getting our passports stamped, all the Chile-bound tourists collect our bags from our Bolivian jeeps, say our goodbyes, cross the invisible border (there isn’t any fence or wall or river – as I said, there’s, well, nothing), board the convoy of Chilean minibuses, and trundle off to San Pedro, leaving the border post empty and forlorn (at least until tomorrow morning).

The area we pass through was once Bolivian territory, extending west from the altiplano all the way to the ocean.  But after Chile won The War Of The Pacific in 1883, it gained Bolivia’s coastline (as well as winning land from Peru), leaving Bolivia landlocked (and giving Chile some of Bolivia’s valuable mineral reserves, which it has been quick to exploit).  The Chilean victory is celebrated as much as the Bolivian defeat is commiserated, and is still a source of friction between the two countries.

We start to drop in altitude, and drive through the Atacama Desert, an arid region that’s the driest place on earth.  There’s not a spot of greenery around, just the yellows and oranges and browns of the constantly-parched landscape, as we leave the extra-terrestrial beauty of south-west Bolivia and travel through the Martian landscape to San Pedro, and Chile.

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