South America | Bolivia – The Wonders of Pachamama
Sometimes the World is too beautiful to believe. Sometimes the Earth can show you a part of herself that makes you stagger and stop in your tracks. Often the beauty is too much for words, requiring the invention of an unspoken language. A language that only the eyes can understand, expessions without words, feelings without the clumsy restrictions of grammar and order. Yes, if my fingers could just understand what my eyes have seen in the past days it would be much easier to tell the tale. Unfortunately this new language will take some time, a fair bit of fantasy, and many more landscapes and smiles, to develop. Until then I am forced to muddle through with words and cliched descriptions of a magic that exceeds my tongue.
San Pedro de Atacama had been a good stop, providing the serenity that we had needed to prepare ourselves for the road ahead. While the town itself is well established on the ‘Gringo Trail’ there is magic in the lunar landscape that surrounds; jagged ranges rising out of the arid desert plains, winding canyons and bizarre formations of stone that only wind and TIME can create. Each venture into these landscapes was amply rewarded with wonder and amazement ending inevitably, in an explosive sunset that streaked across the sky in hues of scarlet fire.
Far from the lights of civilization, the night sky was as brilliant as I had ever seen. From the Magellenic Clouds to the Southern Cross and across the neon belt of the Milky Way the heavens of the Southern Hemisphere were alite in full glory. As the sky would grow darker the constellations filled with the precise detail that the ancients must have seen when they first set about putting names to them. Embracing the freedom in both the celestial and terrestrial landscapes was the missing key, we were now ready.
The motor coughed and spat as the road rose before us, leading towards the Andean volcanoes that define the border between Chile and Bolivia. Higher we climbed as as our eyes sprung from summit to summit and again to San Pedro’s fading oasis in the desert below. Towering above us the bulk of Licancabur’s, nearly 6000 meter, volcanic cone stood, as if it were a divine road sign, welcoming us to the Bolivian Altiplano…Bienvenidos a Bolivia !
At the border we left the ailing mini-bus, that had just barely reached the sprawling 4500 meter plains, and transferred our gear to a much more assuring and suitable Land Cruiser. Before the ink had dried in our passports we were off into the barren wilds of the Altiplano. Ochre summits under indigo skies, the altitude and absence of man gives an intensity of color and contrast that, aside from Tibet, remains unparalelled the world over. These were the first of many gifts that Bolivia had in store for us.
As the dusty track followed it’s way around the base of Licancabur few words were spoken. Though I had made this tour 6 years before I was just as awestruck as the rest of the passengers in the Land Cruiser. The mineral-rich mountains were painted in a spectrum of colors leading down to piles of scree and stone that were piled hundreds of meters high. Huge volcanic rocks lie scattered about the plains, be it the work of giants, demons, or angels, there was little doubt that we were entering a divine landscape.
Our first stop was Laguna Verde (Green Lake)which, suprisingly, was not at all as green as I had remembered it. That aside the setting was still breathtaking; Licancabur was mirrored in the still waters, a diamond too precious to be worn by any other than Pachamama herself (Pachamama = Mother Earth).
As we sat the wind began to pick up and churn the waters, a turquiose green appeared on the far side of the lake. Within 15 minutes the color consumed the whole surface transforming the grey waters to the green that I had remembered. (The lake is filled with copper sulfates and once the wind picks up, usually in the mid-morning, the fine metallic sediment oxidizes giving the lake it’s turquiose green appearance) It was quite a show but only one of many that were still ahead. We climbed back into the land cruiser and watched as the Altiplano unfolded before us.
That day was to bring us across thermal springs, geysers and other wonders of nature before reaching the shores of Laguna Colorado, our stop for the night. As the name would imply, the lake has an almost unbelievable orange-red color due to a special algae that thrives in the cold waters. As if the lake’s eerie color were not enough, the laguna, which lies at an altitude of 4300 meters, is filled with pink flamingos. It appears that all is possible in the Highlands of Bolivia !
The following 2 days took across some of the finest landscapes that the Earth has to offer but even they paled in comparison to that which we were to find at the Salar de Uyuni.
At an altitude of 3700 meters, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with a surface of more than 12000 square kilometers. In the dry season the flat is a shimmering white, which is how I had seen them 6 years before, but now, at the tail end of the rainy season, it was submerged in about 20 centimeters of water. To our suprise our driver, Fidel, pulled off of the slightly elevated road and plunged into the waters (the depth of which was still unknown to us !). Under the water, the salt, which reaches a depth of 6 meters, was solid and we sailed across the salt lake as if we were in a hydrofoil.
Within about 20 minutes the depth of the water decreased to less than 2 centimeters and it was here that the show began. The shallow water above the white expanse became a sheet of glass mirroring the clouds above. The effect was out of this world, we sped along the surface until the surface seemed to fall away, we were now flying, between the clouds above and their reflection below. The mountains in the distance hovered in the air and Fata Morgana twisted our vision to the point that there was no longer a horizon.
At this point I asked Fidel if I could climb onto the roof, and though silently he surely declared me a “gringo loco”, he obliged and it was then that I learned to fly. Despite me clinging to the equipment strapped onto the roof, Fidel kept his heavy foot on the accelerator and we rose high above the Salar, through the clouds, in the sun, with the wind, mountains floating through the sky in the indeterminable horizon. Surreal to the tenth power, it was a moment that would have made ANY hardship that had crossed our path worthwhile. Pure adrenaline, pure energy, Pachamama shared the intensity of her love and beauty…and I soared.
It is exactly this feeling that renders my words useless. It is almost impossible to describe the magic that lies in our planet, but when it touches our souls there is no pressing need to even try. (unless, of course, you want to share the experience with worldsurface.com !!)
Vayacondios y hasta luego Viajeros !