Visiting the greatest salt lake

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Visiting the greatest salt lake
August 7, 1997

We set off to explore the salt
lake with our guides
Boldly positioned in the center of Uyuni's main drag stands a bizarre monument. A silver statue of a worker clad in overalls, jaw firmly set, giant wrenched clutched in hand, and eyes locked on the future. A cow trails at its heels, no doubt struggling to keep a pace behind this juggernaut. It is a strange sight here in this remote outpost in the far southwest of Bolivia. Its distinguished Soviet style seems better suited to a park in Moscow or Pyongyang, North Korea. On second though, perhaps it represents the promise of the rail line from the Chilean coast to Potosi, an attempt to placate Bolivian anguish over their lost sea coast.

But after seeing the rusting trains in the graveyard outside town, this too seems unlikely. With only the model worker to draw tourists, Uyuni would surely fade into oblivion. Uyuni owes its surging popularity not to the statue, of course, but to its location at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world. With 23 tour companies vying for the lucrative market, it is obvious the Salar tourism is becoming big business. For the aspiring tourist the competition is good news, until one considers the difficulty in choosing between companies who offer identical tours, each boasting their vehicles, drivers, and cooks the best.

Although one- and two-day tours of the Salar are possible, it is the four-day odyssey that captured our imagination. Nancy and I, along with two Dutch tourists, wedged into a trusty Toyota Land Cruiser. Geraldo, the best driver in all Bolivia, and his wife Segundina, our acclaimed cook, would be our guides.

Almost immediately outside Uyuni you can see the Salar, a thin slice of whiteness on the horizon. Soon you are enveloped. Covering over 12,000 square kilometers, the Salar is what remains of the once-great lake that covered this region. Minerals left behind by the evaporated water have created this overpowering sea of whiteness and guaranteed Bolivia a supply of salt until the end of time.

After a brief stop at the world's only hotels made entirely of salt, the tour continued on to the Isla de Pescado, a volcanic island in the middle of the Salar. This is an otherworldly place, covered with ancient cactus towering over 40 feet high. In the distance, the mountains ringing the Salar float ethereally in a purple haze disconnected from the earth.

We saw geysers at 16,000 feet
After blissfully wandering the island, we pile back in the truck and begin a pounding ride toward the outer edge. This year's rains have transformed the salt into a nightmare of washboards, and although interesting, the patterns in the sand have us banging our heads on the roof.

At dusk we roll into the adobe village of San Miguel, a small town on the Salar's edge, subsisting on potato and quinoa harvest. Friends of our driver have recently opened a hostel; in fact we are the first guests. Although we suspect nepotism, no one complains as we are each greeted in turn with an exuberant handshake. Ironically, the beds are the most comfortable we've had in Bolivia, and we sleep blissfully beneath the gaze of the Disney family.

The next day we're in the car early, and it's a day of solid driving through the hinterlands bordering Chile. Snow-capped volcanoes accent the barren brown landscape, and bizarre volcanic rock formations break the monotony. Vicuñas, small cousins to the llama, occasionally chase alongside. But it's not hard to imagine that 40 kilometers to the west stretches Chile's atacama, the driest desert in the world.

Then, amid the arid terrain, pale blue lagoons appear, their edges ringed in white. Amazingly, vivid pink shapes move across the water — flamingoes at 14,000 feet. It is as though Mother Nature is engaged in magic. Before our eyes we watch as the water changes from turquoise blue to ruddy red. We walk for hours, marveling at the transformation before our eyes and the fragile pink flamingoes arching over the water.

Day three is an epic. We wake up to geysers at 16,000 feet, the sun's rays fractured by the steam, the earth bubbling around our feet. We eat breakfast lounging in nearby hot springs, but Laguna Verde remains, and we continue on to the furthest southwest corner of Bolivia. There, beneath the hulking mass of 6,000-meter Volcan Licancábur is this little gem. But alas the waters are frozen, and we have to take Geraldo's word that a similar magical transformation also occurs here.

Back in the truck we look forward to a long day-and-a-half's drive back to Uyuni. It's a thought no one relishes, as we've exhausted our four cassettes, including the two of classic Dutch rock. Looks like it's the Bolivian marching-band tape again. Anyone familiar with the intrinsic monotony of the music can't help but feel pity.

Our return saga is broken by another stay at the new hostel in San Augustine, named in our absence the Posada del Tigre. We are delighted to see the financial contributions of our previous visit have been well utilized. When the power goes out at 10, the owner cranks up a new gas lamp so we can enjoy our tea, and on my way to the bathroom I am redirected from the hole in the ground to a new toilet, where freshly painted footprints indicate where to place your feet for maximum efficiency.

We sleep again under Disney's eyes, thinking how the work ethic of Uyuni's mascot has finally spread his auspicious promise beyond the Salar and into the fringe.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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