Magical Realism: The Land, Salt and Water of Southwestern Bolivia
By Molly Beer
Blank as an empty page, a plane of possibility stretching white to the horizon, then blurring seamlessly into sky, a spattering of distant purple hills and “islands” are visible, floating on colliding light.
Even having read the descriptions, the guidebooks and tour company fliers, even having seen the photographs, the vastness of this body—not of water, nor snow or ice, but of salt—is startling.
The Salar de Uyuni, a sea of salt, a salt desert, in southwestern Bolivia, was once an inland sea, or giantsalt water lake, but the water vanished into the thin dry air of Andean altitude.
All that remains is the salt, tens of meters thick, lying stark beneath bright sky: a sun-bleached skeleton of a dead sea.
By bus and train, tourists, the majority international backpackers, make their way to he dusty town of Uyuni where travelers join tours.
Most opt for the standard three-to-four day tours that explore the Salar and the windswept, Martian landscape beyond. It is possible, for a price, to design a private tour: camping, longer excursions, translators, even transfers into northern Chile can be arranged.
Crossing the Salt
On the first day, the tours head directly to the Salar and it takes most of the day to cross the salt, including stops to shoot wild, perspective-skewed photographs (your friend positioned in the background to look as though he or she is dancing in the palm of your hand, for instance) and to visit the ironically mis-named Fish Island that juts, cactus covered, above motionless whiteness that appear to be lapping the rocky beaches.
Even on this pure white plane, the landscape changes. Across some stretches of the Salar, after the rains, there is a thin layer of water above the salt; it is an Alice In Wonderland moment—driving in miniature across a gigantic mirror with sky above and sky below.
Sore-eyed and sleepy after so much light and whiteness, our Land Cruiser delivered us into a little mud-brick village called San Jose just as the afternoon sunlight was at its prettiest on the purple hills in the distance. Waiting for dinner, a few of us mingled with the grazing llamas outside the village, all of them looking down their noses at us, snootily, except for the curious babies who ventured close for a visit before scooting off.
Back in the Cruiser
The second day, under strict orders from our guide, Leoncides, we rose from our very basic sleeping arrangements at gray dawn and shivered as we nursed plastic mugs of coca tea or Nescafe. Then we repacked ourselves into our Land Cruiser, salt and dust free after Leoncides’ meticulous cleaning of the body and engine the night prior.
Still grumpy from waking, I wondered what possibly could merit such an early morning now that the highlight of the trip, the unbeatable Salar, was over. My cynicism was checked, however, as we crested a rocky hill and descended towards brilliant blue water cradled
beneath snow-tipped red mountains. Around the lake was a fringe of white, like ice, which made what was in the lake more shocking: for there in the midst of Bolivian moonscape, stood hundreds of pink flamingos.
We were instantly transformed into small children pouring giddily from our truck in thrilled wonder, our cameras clicking. After madly photographing the phenomenon of the lake and gaping at the flamingos, we made our way back to our guide for the facts.
It was not snow, Leoncides confirmed what we had discovered for ourselves — this paradox of a place old hat to him — but potassium and other minerals that created the environment for the microbes upon which the flamingos were feasting. Awed, we scurried off again to take some more pictures, high on cold thin air and the myriad colors around us.
Day two and three followed suit with wonders. The landscape was ever-changing and never expected: the water and the rocks first were red, and then turquoise and green with minerals an microbes. The creatures we came across were unearthly, let alone unlikely in their barren, windswept habitats.
Over the course of our trip we wandered over lava-flow formations, the source still puffing benign wisps of smoke into the stunningly blue sky. We romped between wind-carved boulders, looming like dinosaurs or petrified giants in a sweep of nothing.
We visited the surreal lakes Laguna Colorada, Laguna Blanca, and Laguna Verde; we discovered viscachas, little bunny-squirrel critters, mysteriously living on rocky crags surrounded by nothing but wind and rock for miles on all sides.
We glimpsed wild guanacos and vicuñas, and socialized with their domestic counterparts the alpacas and llamas; we visited geysers at puffing into pastel light at sunrise and breakfasted with our feet dangling into thermal springs, watching more flamingos grazing gracefully in the mists where the warm water flowed into the cool of the lake lying serenely in the desert.
And, on our final night we met an orphaned vicuña found by our hostel owners out with their llama herd; touching the baby was like touching air it was so unbearably soft and light, its great alien eyes seeking its proud “mother,” the proprietress whose bustled skirts were the infant’s obsession.
Ornate Village Gates
Beyond the sensual thrill of the trip, we got to experience a bit of social intrigue as well. Our final night we stayed in a remote village that was distinctly different from every other village I have ever visited in Latin America. The neat, newly cobbled streets were lined with pretty thatched homes brightly painted pink, yellow, blue, or green, the plazas were embellished with metal sculptures, and ornate village gates stood at either end of the cobbled main street, as though welcoming greatness in from the desert.
Interrogated, Leoncides explained that this fairy-tale village was a new town, built as compensation by a group of international companies extracting copper from a hill near the original town. In fact, the town was planning to celebrate the arrival of internet (another gift from the copper miners) that very night. I was thrilled when shyly asked to assist with opening their first email account for the town, even though all I had to do was show them that Hotmail spoke Spanish.
Returning four days later as if from an off-Earth voyage, we stopped for our last picnic lunch in a train graveyard outside of Uyuni. The geometric skeletons of steam engines baking to rust in the sunny air, like the dusty, desert village of Uyuni itself, a beautiful wasteland-turned-tourist-magnet boasting the phenomena of rust and rock and salt.
1. Four day tours cost around $80 including food and lodging. This does not include the park entrance fee or your guide’s tip.
2. It is cheapest to book a tour in Uyuni—the train station is bustling with tour hawkers, although in high tourist season (June-August) business get busy.
3. Hotels (and simple restaurants) abound in Uyuni, most boast tourist lures like hot showers, but are otherwise basic.
4. There are dozens of tour agencies in Uyuni. Your guidebook will list some options. Colque Tours () appeared to be the biggest and most polished of the lot; personally, we were turned off by their long (albeit shiny and new) caravan. We booked weeks ahead with Tonito Tours but we were passed off by Tonito to Tunupa Tours and, although inconvenienced, we were not disappointed. (Search for the latest dirt on agencies!)
5. Bring cash (Bs. or $US)in low denominations and good condition (dirty money will be rejected). There are banks in Uyuni but lines are long and frustrating. There are exchange offices, but they run out of money.
6. WARNING: do not attempt to buy your train tickets to Uyuni in Oruro, the town where you catch the train. In travel agencies in La Paz, you can buy tickets ahead, but in Oruro you must buy the day of your trip; the line starts to form around midnight the night before. In a pinch, a pre-dawn arrival will cost you half a day waiting, but will get you a seat.
7. Acclimate to the altitude in Bolivia before setting off into remote areas like Uyuni and beyond.
8. What to bring: PLENTY of water, serious sun protection (including hat, sunscreen, and, most crucially: sunglasses), warm clothing, and lots of film (bring low speeds for bright light!).
9. ¡Tenga un buen viaje!
Molly Beer studied abroad in college with SIT’s Tibetan Studies Program in India, Nepal, and Tibet. After graduating with a degree in English, she became a high school teacher in El Salvador. She now lives in New Mexico.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Bolivia