Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the biggest salt pan (sometimes called also salty desert) in the world is a goal on its own. It’s not an easy adversary, though. You can reach it in two ways. Either by flying to a city, that is situated near its borders, or by land. And that is the real challenge. I have to get to Salar de Uyuni through Atacama desert in Chile, which means travelling through 1100 kilometers through rocky and desert wastelands with no roads.
It comes with some technical challenges too. First of all, there is no way you could do it without a car with four-wheel drive (4×4). Second of all, you need to know the terrain and the area, as there are no signs on this route, the GPS does not reach it, your smartphone wouldn’t be in range as well. So, to put it shortly – the man must rely on experience and off-road instinct.
I’m not going to give up this trip, because in this situation the saying “your way is your goal” is literally true! Between Chile and Bolivia, going in the direction of Salar de Uyuni there are one of the most fabulous and magnificent lagoons of South America. They are one of the best attractions here.
I decide to join forces with the local driver, who knows this area like the back of his own hand and inside out. That’s how I met Luis, who became both the ship and the steer of this journey, the sole brick in this empty space.
We meet in the morning at the Chile-Bolivia border. Luis is younger than me, he’s 27, and he speaks Spanish but also Quechua, like a proper descendant of mighty Incas. I am really fascinated with his good looks. He has sharp facial features, slightly slanted-eyes and quite dark skin shade. He is also much shorter than me but he explained that among his family and his people this height is just an average. I love this diversity of people that you can witness on the road. For me, it’s one of the best aspects of learning the world.
Before we set off, Luis checks our water supply and gas cans, so two things you cannot forgo there and also two things that you can’t get on the road through these wastelands.
Our car is a twenty year old Toyota. At first sight, it looks like it was going to fall apart any minute. It turns out that here, at Altiplano, such cars, without fancy, modern electronics, do their best, because they are easier to repair in the middle of nowhere.
After a half an hour drive I begin to understand, why the San Pedro – Salar de Uyuni road is nicknamed the worse road in Bolivia, if not in the whole South America. I think that the reason for this is because there is literally no road there! Tire marks every 500 meters are not a road, it’s only an ersatz, making you feel safer, cause you chose the right direction. Luis has a totally different opinion on that and undoubtedly he has some unique abilities to see and spot what – in his opinion – is a road and what is not. He tries to explain to me that the groove on the left side and two stones next to it are a full blown passage. When I show something similar 100 meters ahead, he is surprised and says that there is no road there, it’s already a “roadside”. Apparently you need some Bolivian blood in your veins not to break the “desert” traffic regulations.
It is jolting and it hurls us inside from side to side, I hit my head on the roof on and on. If I thought that I’ve experienced off-road life on Atacama, I take bake everything inside my head now.
We drive through Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Abaroa in the Potosí Department. This region is situated in, so-called, Altiplano, that is the biggest (after the Tibet) plateau in the world, encompassing areas in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, surrounded by Cordillera ranges. This rolling space ranges from 3650 to 4100 meters above the sea level, is 200 km wide and 800 km long. So you are guaranteed to have more altitude changes.
This region is famous with three incredible lagoons: Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon), Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) and Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), although the typical translation would be “colorful” but in South America they call everything red as colorado.
Our first goal is the Laguna Blanca. When we reach it, there is not even a single car around. Where are those, that parked right next to us and were to take the same – by the way the only one – road?
Luis stops right next to the water sheet, so when I get out I almost fall into it. The view left me speechless. The water sheet is perfectly even, nothing disturbs it. We are on 4350 meters above the sea level. So, in the other world, I am one and a half kilometers above Rysy peak.
Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca are generally one huge lagoon, because they are interconnected. They are situated at the foot of one of the highest volcanoes on Earth – Licancabur, reaching 5920 meters above the sea level, right at the Bolivia-Chile border. It reflects perfectly in the lagoon water. If I wasn’t standing here on my very legs and someone showed me a picture of this view, I wouldn’t believe it, I would have thought that this is simply a painting. But it isn’t. It’s another wonder of Mother Nature, created casually, just as whim.
Lagoons that are spreading in front of me, although they are connected, vary with the water color. The greenish and strawberry-like color of the Laguna Verda is caused by a high content of magnesium in the water.
This frozen view is suddenly disrupted by a small, tiny vicuña, that shyly approaches the shore and causes some ripples on the water with its muzzle. It is very skittish and shy. We don’t want to scare it away, so we silently walk back to the car and set off towards geysers.
I open the window to have a breath of fresh air but it doesn’t help, as at this altitude, there is little oxygen in the air. I breathe in short aspirations and although I take a deep, full breath, I still feel the stabbing pain in my lungs.
And then I begin to smell an intense odor of sulfur. We are entering one of the few geyser areas in the world. The clouds of steam curl up around the car and from time to time boiling water spurts from the ground.
In the rocky pits a thick mud is boiling – surprisingly it’s deep blue. You can feel that the nature lives in its own rhythm here and under the surface there is an incredible power just waiting to get away.
Quite close to us there is one of the highest situated bathing beaches in the world. So, somewhere around 4850 meters above the sea level, so even higher than Mont Blanc, you can warm your bones in the middle of this wasteland. This time I pass. Regardless of the sun shining it’s not warm at all and the mental image of me changing clothes at ca. 10 degrees is not satisfy me. By the way, at this altitude, burdening the already tired organism with additional, sudden change of temperature does not seem that tempting.
Besides, I’ve already have our next goal in my head – Laguna Colorada. The drive takes us another two hours. But the views are not making me bored, au contraire. The space is so clear and bright. And this silence… I learn again, what it really means to hear silence.
Luis plays his favorite Peruvian songs, which fit with the scenery incredibly well. He tell me anecdotes about his family, he’s got really good sense of humor. This brings a reflection to me that no matter which culture we are from, the sense of humor is something that makes people from the farthest places of the world connect.
I don’t even notice the dozens of kilometers disappearing under the tires. We race through a vast wasteland and I feel like lulled to sleep by the rocky landscape.
On the way, we arrive at the only sheltered overnight stay available in the area. This is a stop for those who stay here for a longer time. It looks a bit like taken from a horror movie, but in broad daylight.
No one is there, maybe except the llamas. The locals, who manage this “motel”, vanished. Except the falling apart building, which is both sleeping and dining room there also – hello, hello – shops. Of course, empty and without any goods. The most hilarious shop is the one with a huge ad of Coca-Cola, painted on the wall. Full-blown globalization. That is what you call a “recognizable brand”.
When we arrive at Laguna Colorado, I am like in a trance, brought back to the world with what I have in front of my eyes. The lagoon, situated 4560 meters above the sea level is currently struggling to be recognized as one of the seven nature wonders. And since that moment I will do all my best to help it gain the title. I have never seen anything like that. Around me, as far as eye can see, stretches the lagoon in so intensely orange color that it seems that someone poured hectoliters of paint in it.
The color comes from the high content of seaweeds of red pigmentation. The shade of the water is perfect and saturated. As if this were not enough, the Andean flamingos shine in the sun like pink diamonds. There are over 50 000 of them here. They don’t even care if we are there or not, they just stand in the shallow lagoon water in a dignified manner. They are at home, they fit perfectly, like this place was theirs from the dawn of time and suited their own colors the best.
I sit at the shore, ‘cause I can to nothing more but admire in awe. It is simply perfect. Every time, when I think that I will not be able to see something more exciting and more perfect during this journey, the South America accepts the challenge and quickly brings be back down to earth. And always, indeed every single time, it wins. It’s irrevocably the most beautiful continent I was privileged to see. It’s worth every dollar, every moment fighting for the air, every hour of headache, gotten from the altitude. The price you have to pay to be a part of this world is nothing, compared to what you get in return.
I am happy. This is the only feeling I can think of, when I watch the spectacle of colors. So peaceful in it beauty and unthreatened by nothing or no one. Wonderful moment.
I sit so for long, so long that Luis begins to grow impatient, because there is a long way ahead of us and we have to reach Salar de Uyuni before the sunset.
The closer we are to our goal, the more often small villages appear. They are remains of the silver fever. In the era of Spanish conquest, the Bolivian Plateau was an area, where this ore was mined and even the gunslingers from the Wild West came here in search for the wealth.
It is said that the amount of silver the Spanish extracted in Potosí are would be enough to build a bridge between Madrid and La Paz. One strip of the bridge would be constructed with the bones of the people who perished in the silver mines because of the terrible working conditions. The problem was not only the food shortage (it’s hard to cultivate grains at this altitude) but also the altitude itself, which made intensive working really difficult.
The times of the intense mining are forever gone and now you can see only small and neglected villages around. Driving through a one of them, we stumbled upon a surprise. In the middle of a sandy desert, all of a sudden, there is a “barrier”, or more precisely a beam that should imitate the barrier. On both sides of it, local Bolivians are falling asleep. As we drive closer, they come lazily to us. It seems, that we’ve just drove past a paid road and we have to pay the fare. What road and what do we pay for, God only – or maybe these Bolivians – knows.
We reach the town, on the border of the salt pan, already in the dark. Despite the fact that I spent most of the day sitting in a car, I am literally dead tired. It’s so hard to get used to the constant altitude changes.
This is definitely a trip NOT for everyone. And it’s not about the money, though. Bolivia is relatively cheap country, if you want to travel cheaply and not to spend whole bunch of bucks. But the little content of oxygen in the air and breathing difficulty might finish off even the most fit, seasoned and hard-bitten travelers.
Have a look on my video from the round-trip to South America – the path of natural wonders.