South America | Bolivia | Uyuni | Salar de Uyuni (Reserva Avaroa) – Salt and flamingos in Bolivia
I spent the last few days going around desolate southern Bolivia in a jeep, where I encountered a diverse range of unusual phenomena. Tons of salt, giant cactuses, alien rock formations, flamingos, steaming geysers, and a zany Brazilian. It was very surreal.
After spending some time in La Paz, I left for Oruro by a four hour bus, a small town south. The following afternoon I caught the comfortable train bound for Uyuni, a seven hour journey through lakes dotted with flamingos. Uyuni is a quiet and sleepy town, with nothing much to it. However, it is also the base where tourists come to explore the surrounding salt flats, and that is what I did for the next few days, providing for another mini adventure.
The following day I joined up with five other people: a pair of Brits, a couple from Brazil, and Wild Bill, a cantankerous fifty-three year old American who nonetheless was great fun to be with. The Brazilian guy also unwittingly provided some comedy, mostly unintentional, over the next few days. Whenever he tried to describe something, his gesticulations would provide more amusement than anything we encountered. We piled into a four-wheel-drive jeep with our driver and headed out.
The Salar de Uyuni is one of the largest salt flats in the world. When we drove across, it resembled a vast desert expanse, only instead of sand it was blindingly white salt everywhere. We stopped at a spot where people had shovelled the salt into mounds to dry, when they would later be taken away to be refined. It was such a surreal landscape, to be surrounded by endless salt for miles everywhere. Before coming here I had expressed doubt on whether the salt would eventually run out, but I could see that there would be enough salt to be sprinkled on quite a few billion dinners. Over the next few days, the running joke during meal times would be “Would you like some salt with that?”.
We drove on and arrived at Fish Island, a mound of rock and earth rising up from the salt desert and where giant cactuses sprout up everywhere. Some of the cactuses reached twelve metres in height. We spent some time climbing around the island. With this lone island of alien cactuses against a backdrop of endless white salt, I think most people would struggle to find a more unusual landscape.
Ice cold flamingos
The next day we were no longer in the salt desert, but headed out into rocky desert terrain (real sand this time). At around noon we reached one of the many lakes in southern Bolivia, where three varieties of flamingos come to nest. The altitude up here is around 4100 metres, which meant that it was cold, and that some of the lake was frozen over with ice. Despite this, the flamingos would effortlessly strut around on the ice, dispelling any myths that they were associated exclusively with tropical climates. The ground around the lakes here are borax or sulfur, used in common household cleaning chemicals.
At this point something funny happened. Nelson, the Brazilian guy tried to jump across a bit of water, except that he missed and fell knee deep in the stinking sulfur water. He came away cursing in Portuguese while the rest of us couldn’t stifle our chuckles, for his antics were hysterical. It was a blessing that he had a fresh change of clothes, otherwise he would have stunk the whole jeep for the rest of the trip.
Alien rock formations
For the rest of the afternoon we stopped at various rocky formations in the desert. There was a bunch of giant rocks whose shapes have been carved into weird shapes by wind erosion thousands of years ago. It was strange that they would just be sitting there in the middle of the desert, but we were told that they were the result of volcanic explosions that shot them to this spot. One of the more famous rocks is the Stone Tree, which funnily enough resembles a tree.
When we stopped at one of these locations, we discovered that the Brazilian’s pants, which he had tied to the roof of the jeep to dry, had blown off somewhere. Our driver graciously offered to drive back to look for it while leaving us at the rocks. He eventually found them, but not before a few more curses in Portuguese from Nelson.
The next day we woke up to a freezing morning, for the temperature had dropped well below zero during the night. We headed out and came to the geyser field. The altitude up here is 4870 metres, which made it quite cold, but the puddles of hot mud in the ground were up to ninety degrees Celcius. White clouds of steam bellowed metres into the sky against a backdrop of mountains.
Later in the morning we came to one of the thermal pools, whose warm water was a welcome thawing agent to my freezing hands. Our Brazilian, however, decided it was a good idea to strip down and take a dip in the pool. He appeared to have a good time while in there, but when he jumped out it was of course freezing cold, making for more comical antics.
On to Chile
After that amazing trip through Bolivia, we were dropped across the border at the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile where I stayed and some of the others moved on. We had all come to appreciate the entertainment provided by our zany Brazilian. As I chilled out in San Pedro reflecting on what I had just experienced, I couldn’t help but remember the various things that he had unwittingly done to make this trip so much more interesting.