We spent four days traveling via 4x4 from San Pedro de Atacama to La Paz, Bolivia. I would venture to say the areas of southwest Bolivia that we explored had to be the most remote I have ventured into. We were greeted at the border by the smiling faces of our guide Willy and driver Chino. Bolivia is a country full of head scratchers, which we immediately learned at the border crossing. Back in Phoenix, the process and time it took for me to prepare and process our Bolivian Visa applications was mind melting. Everything told, it cost me many hours, a yellow fever vaccination and a few hundred dollars. The application also informed me there was no other possible way for it to be done. At the border, Willy handed us two small forms and said, “just fill these out, give me $50 each and I will run back there and get you visas”. He laughed when I told him that was unnecessary and of the great efforts I went through to get them beforehand, to which he claimed would have taken us about fifteen minutes that day.
With hard fought visas in hand, we headed out along the bumpy dirt roads to our first stop, the Laguna Colorada. This lake sitting at an elevation of 14,000 feet is bright pink – colored by the millions of pink microorganisms that inhabit the salty waters. The lake is spotted with thousands of flamingos who eat these organisms, thus giving them their pink color. This incredibly salty lake contains islands of borax mixed with ice, and was our first introduction to the otherworldly nature of the region, created by the altitude and volcanic activity. Llamas fed on grass at the edge of the lake and the wind raced across the landscape at breakneck speed as we attempted to take photos that accurately captured the drama of our views there.
A few hours later we arrived at volcanic hot springs and spent an hour soaking in the waters and listening to the blaring pop music of the young Israelis sitting next to us. At 14,000 ft + altitude, it quickly became apparent we couldn’t spend too much time in the hot water and decided to venture on to the nearby geysers. They weren’t the geysers in the way we think of them in Yellowstone, but they were impressive nonetheless. Steam and sulphur smoke constantly spewed forth and made for some funny photos.
The last stop on our long first day was the Dali Desert. The landscape is so stunning and surreal there that its resemblance to many of Dali’s paintings is striking. As Dali is my favorite artist, it made for an exciting surprise.
We ended the day in a remote village where we stayed in a small inn. The conditions were spacious but rural. There was no electricity other than what was powered by the generator our 4x4 brought with it which could only run for two hours, 7pm - 9pm. Needless to say, it was early to bed for us that evening.
The next few days were spent driving through the desert and touring some of the sites in the area including quinoa fields, mountain ranges with large cacti and some of the other small pueblos along the way. I was very struck by the level of poverty I saw during that time. Up to this point we had traveled in Argentina and Chile, both wealthier countries with a high degree of European influence. Bolivia was the first time we saw people who looked like they came from purely indigenous origins. The lack of access to any ocean as well as fewer resources and industry has impacted the development of the country fiercely. It feels quite a bit like being thrust back in time to when South America was a continent populated by its varied indigenous societies. Many of the different indigenous groups remain to this day in Bolivia and carry with them a unique culture, geography, and style. To me the country felt more like a union of indigenous societies than a post-colonial nation surrendered by the Spanish to their genealogical descendants rebelling against a crown half the world away.
We made a quick stop at a museum built by Evo Morales – Bolivia’s political leader commemorating himself, his childhood, as well as the history of Bolivia. While many in his country see him as a champion for the poor and indigenous, the cult of personality he has created is especially obvious in touring the museum. This is shocking to see from an American viewpoint especially considering the politically irreverent world we live in today. Seeing the level of love and seemingly unconditional support Evo receives seems almost reminiscent of videos I have seen of North Korea’s dictator. Evo is celebrated as the country’s first Indigenous leader. He rose from the child of subsistence farmers to the leader of the country in 2005 after riots and unrest removed Bolivia’s right winged pro-American leader in 2003. The political environment is unabashedly socialist in nature and his policies have been oriented towards wealth redistribution and the lifting of his indigenous population out of poverty.
After some long days on the road, we arrived at the destination we had been looking forward to the most – the Salar de Uyuni. The salt flats are the largest in the world measuring over 4,000 square miles. The flats were formed of formations between prehistoric lakes and the salt is a few meters deep. It is one of the flattest places on earth and after a rain, the lake exhibits what is known as a “mirror effect.” For miles in every direction it is truly as if the flats are the largest mirror on earth. To put the scale of this wonder of the world in perspective, astronaut Neil Armstrong saw a reflection of the flats from space that looked to him like sunlight reflecting off of a mirror and visited the flats when he returned to earth to see what it was up close.
Our first experience of the flats was during sunset while the mirror effect was in full swing. It is hard to accurately describe what I saw in a way that properly conveys the depth of the beauty that evening. I think as a human being I am used to the random patterns woven into the organic beauty of nature but what I saw was so linear and symmetrical it felt more celestial to me. While the pictures are breathtaking, I think anyone who can, should see this for themselves. There is so much beauty in this world but this was one of the most unique displays of natural beauty I have seen in my life. Layer on top the colors of the sunset bursting into the water covering the flats and reflecting the clouds above, it was like peering into an alternate universe.
We spent that night in a hotel made completely of salt after a dinner of alpaca meat and woke up early the next day to drive across the flats. The dry flats were just as fascinating as when covered in water and is over sixty miles from one end to the other. We drove around the flats for a few hours taking photos and running around (literally). The consistency of the plane makes for great photos and optical illusions of scale.
The four days we spent traversing the area taught me a great deal, changed the way I thought about nature, introduced me to some great people in Willy and Chino, and drove home the fact that there is so much more in world I must see. // Jeff