After surviving the morning blizzard in the mountains, we emerged intact onto the dusty plains south of Uyuni. This was the last portion of a long, three-day journey which had offered some of the most incredible nature I’ve ever been exposed to. Salt flats, semi-active volcanoes, deserts, lagoons, and more. But there was still a bit more to be astounded by.
The refuge for the second night of our Uyuni trip was located high up in the Andes. It was cold. Regardless of my sleeping bag and fourteen layers of clothes, I laid awake half the night shivering and listening to the pattering sound of something against the roof. “Hail”, I thought aloud. “Sand”, came a voice from the other bed. Jürgen apparently wasn’t sleeping either.
We were both wrong: it was snow
Soon after entering the Eduardo Abaroa Andean National Reserve, we arrived at the Laguna Colorada. With water that shifts spectacularly between deep blue and dark red, the reason for its name is immediately apparent. Home to bright pink flamingos, the lagoon is bordered with yellow rings of sulfur and highlighted with mounds of pure-white borax, which jut into the water like tiny glaciers and are slowly disappearing. With the gray, snow-capped peaks of the Andes serving as a backdrop, the Laguna Colorada looks like one of Bob Ross’s fever dreams.
On the second morning of our trip from Uyuni, we awoke with sore backs and cold toes after having spent the night in a salt hotel. The place was built entirely from the stuff: salt tables, salt floors, salt walls. Instead of sleeping, I spent the night licking my bed. But we loaded our tired bodies dutifully into the jeep and, within no time, had reached the desert of Chiguana. Shrubs, sand and the occasional llama were our only companions as we cut southwest through one of Bolivia’s most underdeveloped corners.
A geological marvel, the Salar de Uyuni is one of the most perfectly flat areas on earth. There aren’t hills, bumps, shadows, vegetation or depressions of any sort, and given the lack of visual reference points in such an immense area, one’s sense of perspective is bound to become skewed.
The Salar de Uyuni is the most bizarre landscape I’ve ever stepped foot on, wresting the title away from South Dakota’s Badlands, which I visited when I was nine. (That’s a long run, Badlands, nothing to hang your head about!) Absolutely level as far as the eye can see, the salt flat becomes one of the world’s largest mirrors when covered with water, and serves as an important orientation point from space. But we were visiting during winter, when the ground is cracked and dry.
Also called the Isla del Pescado thanks to its fish-like profile, the island of Incahuasi is situated smack in the middle of the enormous Salar de Uyuni. We arrived there midway through the first day of our tour. Covered by millennial cacti and composed of coral, the island is a stunning reminder that the salt flats used to be part of a gigantic lake.
Desolate, dusty Uyuni in the sparsely populated southwest of Bolivia feels like a town abandoned to the march of history. Founded in 1889, it was once a bustling railway hub connecting Bolivia’s mines with the world beyond the Pacific. But the mines eventually dried up, and the trains stopped running. Rather than decommissioning and selling them as scrap, depressed Uyuni left the useless locomotives to rot in a fascinating “train cemetery” just a few kilometers outside the city.
One of the most popular Bolivian drinks is api morado, usually referred to as just “api”. Made from purple maize, cinnamon, water and sugar, the beverage is colorful, heavy and delicious. And it makes for a hearty breakfast, especially when accompanied with fritters (buñuelos).
At 6am, we were out on Sucre’s streets, desperately searching for a taxi to take us to the station for our bus to Uyuni. But there were no taxis. There wasn’t even any traffic. The streets were dead calm, except for our cursing and complaining. A morning dash to the far-away bus station wasn’t the best way to start this trip.