The world is a predictable place right? Water is blue, plants are green, the earth is brown. This is what I thought until my world view was rocked during four days in and around the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Due to the extreme altitude and climate, natures colour palate has been flipped on its head with a new and surprising landscape around every dune or mountain ridge.
We set off from San Pedro De Atacama in Chile on a short bus ride to the Bolivian border. The border checkpoint must be one of the worlds most remote government offices but even here you can expect a queue. Red tape and bureaucracy knows no borders. After having our passports stamped we loaded backpacks onto a Landcruiser and myself, our guide Juan Carlos and my five other travellers set off into a string of lakes of varying colours. Some lakes bright red, some bright green and some a rainbow of colour due to the play of various minerals, hot geysers and algae within the lakes.
At an altitude of almost 6000m the air is cold even in the summer months so a welcome stop was the ”Agua Caliente” or hot water pool. Sitting back in the warm waters of the pool looking over a steaming lake full of flamingoes was a travel highlight to lock into the memory banks forever.
From the pool it was back into the 4WD and on the move with the many other groups doing this route. Although remote there is an informal convoy of tours covering this area. They all share the makeshift facilities and local community accommodation along the way to give you a basic bed and food as you explore. After a full and unforgettable day we shared a meal and travel stories before settling into our shared dormitory style room for the night.
Another day of surreal natural beauty started with a location where angular and gravity defying rock formations appear out of nowhere in flat sand. This whole area really highlights natures force in creating this planet. Huge rocks thrust into the desert by geological forces and weathered into remarkable shapes litter the landscape.
Next we arrive to see these forces in action at the geysers. Plumes of steam come from below the earth and bubbling mud pools splash new soil out into the desert. From here we travel all day witnessing flamingoes by the hundreds, llamas and their smaller native cousin the Vincuna walk this seemingly uninhabitable land.
That night we stayed in a building constructed of salt with solid salt walls and crushed salt floors. This building had fantastic thermal properties keeping us warm at night. It was even more solid than a house of bricks although I would not recommend it to the third little pig as it would make him irresistibly salty and bacony to the big bad wolf.
We woke at 3.30am under the brightest of stars and headed towards the Salar De Uyuni for sunrise. It was still dark when we hit this expansive salt plain and Juan Carlos turned off his headlights to emphasise how vast, flat and predictable the plain is. The pattern of salt hexagons stretches to the horizon creating a view like no other. In the centre of this lies an “island” in the salt covered in cacti adding to the strangeness of this place.
After leaving the salt we head for Uyuni and get an unexpected treat. Today is the day the Dakkar rally takes place in this backwater town. It’s usually quiet streets are full of life with the excitement of the race and even the Bolivian president coming to town.
Another early morning and spectacular sunrise as we head back to the border and into Chile. We say our farewells and all head our own way into various parts of enchanting South America. For me travel is about expanding your view of the world. This four days in Bolivia showed me the friendly welcoming way of Bolivian people and that nature is not as predictable as I thought.
Words by Wade Ranson Images by Michelle Ranson and Wade Ranson