I am forced to remind myself that, yes, this is still Planet Earth. Not Planet Salt, with flat plains of sodium chloride, stretching as far as I can see. Not Planet Mineral, with bright green and blue lakes. Not Planet Thermal, either, with steaming volcanoes, boiling rocks, hot mud and purple skies. The landscape in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni certainly looks like an alien planet in some fantasy novel. It's a cheap country to visit, so why not get multiple planets for the price of one?
Crossing the world's largest salt desert is a well-marked signpost on the Gringo Trail. Travellers typically use it to journey from Bolivia into the Chilean Atacama, or vice versa. There's certainly a lot of transport involved. It's a four-hour bus ride from La Paz to Oruro, and then a seven-hour train to Uyuni, an outpost town from which tours depart. As the train nears Uyuni, the tracks elevate above the awesome flatness of the region, which has been coated in a shallow layer of rain water. The desert has become a massive mirror, which is why scientists use it to calibrate satellites. My train feels more like a boat.
The water dries up around Uyuni, the launch pad to explore 10 billion tons of bright white salt. From here, tour operators offer one-to-four-day excursions crossing the Salar, gathering parties of six into well-corroded Land Rovers. Sleeping bags, food and gear are loaded on the roof, and just a few kilometres out, I already feel like I've left the world behind. We're 3,656 metres above sea level, and the strong sun is reflecting off the salt, turning the sky a rich shade of blue. We stop at a train "cemetery," where rusty steam engines lay abandoned from failed mining projects in the 1940s. It's distinctly post-apocalyptic, and as I explore the old engines, I half expect to bump into Mad Max polishing his shotgun.
There are no roads to speak of. Our driver just points the car in one direction until eventually we reach something interesting. We hop out at a salt mine, where indigenous Aymara men gather and process salt. It's physical work, and, given the heat, I gather that each worker is worth more than his weight in salt. The car continues into the desolation, which might resemble ice, if it weren't a mild 20 C outside.
A hill floats like a mirage in the distance, an island refuge in this endless sea of salt. It's called the Isle del Pescado, translated as Fish Island, which locals believe it resembles. Giant cacti spike into the sky, some of them hundreds of years old. Climbing up smoothly eroded rocks, I stare out over this alien landscape.
Once we leave the island, there's too much space with no traffic, and nothing whatsoever to bump into. You could fall asleep at the wheel, and apparently drivers sometimes do. After several hours, our wheels enter deep puddles of brine, evidence of the November-to-April wet season. Soon enough, the water is up to the passenger doors. How these vehicles survive these conditions I don't know, and frankly I was too afraid to ask. Breaking down in this desert would not be pleasant. Reaching the plain's edge, we enter a small Aymara village called Bella Vista, where we spend the night in a simple dormitory. The temperature falls below zero, so I stop chasing wooly llamas around the village, and return to the dorm to play UNO by candlelight.
The Land Rover continues south, skirting small villages and a military post. Red, blue and green lakes appear as the minerals turn the white salt into a silt of many hues, as vividly colourful as if I had poured in dye. The blue-green algae and brine shrimp are perfect fodder for flamingos, which gather by the thousands. Perfect conical volcanoes let off steam in the distance. The view is unlike anything I've seen before or since.
We pass further signs of life, like wild vicuna, a llama-like creature prized for its soft fur. We stop for a break next to unusual rock formations created by volcanic activity. My favourite is the aptly named Rock Tree. The second night's rustic accommodation is in a desert reserve with dusty dorms next to Laguna Colorado. Altitude and lack of light deliver maximum stars, if you can stand the strong icy wind.
An early morning on the final day gets us to Sol de Manana for sunrise. I strip down in the predawn freeze to watch the sun rise from the warmth of a shallow thermal spring. Bubbling geysers and boiling mud are scattered about, so we're advised to walk carefully. It's still several hours to the Chilean border, passing volcanoes, lakes and desert formations, including a section appropriately called the desert of Salvador Dali. Here, stones appear as bent and twisted as objects on his canvases.
At the border, an exchange takes place. Bolivian companies cannot cross, so travellers from Chile hop into our Land Rover, and we jump into their bus. Dirt tracks turn into tar roads, the prices triple and I leave Bolivia for a few hours drive to the Chilean resort town of San Pedro de Atacama. I've spent three days in the world's largest salt flat, off the grid, on another planet. It's about time I come down to Earth.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is www.robinesrock.com.
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