ARTICLE: The salty highway to heaven, Bolivia

This story appeared in NEXT magazine

If there was a highway to heaven it would looklike this. We are crossing salt plains that stretch like a great white carpetto the horizon. It’s been raining and a shallow slick of water covers them inparts, reflecting a mirror image of the skies above, so it looks for all theworld like we are driving across fluffy clouds and wide expanses of blue.

This is Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt plain. Formed by the remnants of a prehistoric lake, they spread over 12,000 square km and sit at 3653 m above sea level. The plains are framed by volcanic dessert and the sum total is a vast, uninhabited landmass that takes days to traverse.

It’s a classic Bolivian pilgrimage for travelers and six of us are making it in a beaten up old blue jeep driven by Fermi. He’s a stocky Bolivian of few words who has been ferrying travelers across this strange and eerie part of the world for ten years. Riding shotgun is his wife Maura who, in classic Bolivian style, wears a skirt puffed out with petticoats, a brown bowler hat, and has two thick black braids that almost reach her waist. She will cook for us on the three day tour.

Squished into rickety back seats that squeak and shudder at every bump are an artist from the U.S., an economist from Ibiza, his fiancée a naturopath from Canada, two French women and me.

The first stop on day one is the village of Colchani to visit an eccentric little museum with kitsch salt statues. There’s a clock tower that reaches the ceiling with gold roman numerals stuck to its face, a mother earth figure with streams of salt flowing from her big breasts, an oversized llama with an embroidered cloth on its back for tourists to pose on. Attention in the museum is captured by a real live llama with chocolate brown fur as soft as cotton wool and blinking bambi eyes. One of the museum girls breaks the news that it is destined for the dinner table. ‘But it’s sooo cute,’ wails Nahuel from Ibiza. ´But llama meat tasted sooo good,’ the girl smiles back.

This is llama territory, who along with their blood relatives the vicunas, live as small herds in the highlands around the salt plain. They’re naturals in front of the camera. As the jeep rumbles past, they turn their long, long necks to observe curiously as cameras are thrust out the windows in their direction.

By lunchtime the sky has clouded over and it feels like we’re in the midst of an impressionist’s landscape painting with a colour palette of dazzling whites and greys. There is no depth of field on the salt plains and the French women get us started on taking photos with tricks of perspective. One person standing 20 metres behind another can be made to look like a fairy pirouetting on an outstretched hand.

The next stop is the Isla de Pescada, Fish Island, a massive rock named for its shape. Curiously, Fish Island is covered in a forest of cactuses. They’re a variety that grows a mere one cm per year, so the ones standing around 5 metres have been there for more than 500 years. It’s a classic stop-off point for salar tours and the edge of the rock is like a small parking lot for 4WDs. Bands of travelers are more or less the only human life in these parts.

Back in the jeep and it seems like a pattern is emerging: drive, drive, drive, stop off, tumble out, ooh and ahh at the otherworldly landscapes, pack back in and drive, drive, drive.

That night we have a reservation at the Hotel de Sel, Salt Hotel. It’s built from salt blocks and contains salt pedestals, bedside tables and bed bases. It’s like a real-life fairytale. Don’t lick the walls children, not in the land of salt. ‘It’s not often you get to stay in a hotel that is melting away,’ quips Nahuel as it starts to rain. True enough, water dissolves the walls that have to be re-white-washed after a rainfall. The hotel’s passageways are covered with fine sand and the windows are draped with red satin and Muslim curtains. This is Hansel and Gretel meets 1001 Arabian Nights.

For dinner we are served a brothy soup of quinoa grain followed by steaks of llama meat. Excitement has been building at how good this meat must taste if people can bear to part with their excruciatingly cute pets to eat it. Our pink steaks turn out to be tough and dry like overcooked mutton. Figure we must have got an old one.

In the morning, the salt plain behind us, we pass acres and acres of quinoa crops, a local grain and protein staple. The bobbly cone shaped plants are a few feet high and come in shades of yellow, crimson and pink that light up the empty brown land around them. We are now crossing the arid volcanic dessert Desierto de Siloli.     

At one pass its all rocks that the jeep takes over an hour to crawl over. We bump and bump and bump in our seats while cheesy Bolivian folk pop plays over and over and over in the cassette stereo.

The monotony ends when we arrive at lakes full of flamingos in the afternoon. The birds conjure up images of balmy weather, soupy warm weather and tropical cocktails at sunset, but here they are, as elegant and pink as you could imagine, high up on the cold, barren, desolate antiplano. They mince around on their stilt like legs and bend their curly-wurly necks down to dip their beaks in the water. Hundreds live here year-round in a string of small adjacent lakes, the most beautiful of which is the laguna colarado which is, astonishingly, a splendid shade of coral pink. The colour is caused by a large population of microscopic flagellate algae that the flamingos feed on. The algae are also responsible for the pretty-in-pink pigment of their feathers.

It’s early evening and the sky is dripping with a golden sunset, while the ranges around the pink lake have turned of soft purple. It’s utterly beautiful and utterly freezing. We have climbed to 4278m where the temperature can fall to –20 degrees and there is an icy wind stinging our ears and nostrils. We forage for pink flamingo feathers in the muddy flats then walk backwards to our lakeside hostel to keep the icy wind from whipping at our faces.

The hostel. If you could call it that. While the location is a surreal paradise our lodgings are concrete boxes with broken windows in the passageways and a dark scary bathroom with loos without seats and a redundant bathroom sink that has neither running water nor plumbing pipes. Six of us are crammed into a room with metal framed beds. It does have the redeeming feature of wonderfully kitsch apple-green and crimson velveteen bedspreads with a pattern of hearts and bows. Spirits are raised by two hip-flasks of cheap rum bought from the hostel shop, mixed with a bottle of coke haggled from Fermi from our food rations. The Frenchies produce a can of French pate and bread from their rucksacks, and voila, we have a little party on the edge of our beds.

I knew none of the other five people in the jeep as we spluttered off towards the Salar de Uyuni from the town of Uyuni, but the six of us have fast become close…  literally, packed like sardines in the back of the jeep, and figuratively too. The wonderful six degrees of separation rule applies even on salt plains. Turns out Jen from Canada and I share the same Scottish ancestry through the Drummond family name.

Our wake-up call on day three is 5am. In one small room six of us fumble out to get dressed and zip up bags by torch light. After our standard breakfast of white rolls that are staler everyday and a thermos of hot water for Nescafe with powdered milk, we head off, driving into a beautiful sunrise. The first stop is geysers and up at 4850m, snow is falling lightly around the bubbling mud. It’s a bit early for me to be amazed by more natural wonders but a dip in some nearby thermal baths is another story. We lounge in the little pool surrounded by mountains until Fermi hurries us out. We’ve got schedule to keep to. I’m meeting a mini-van to cross over into Northern Chile with Rachel from the US while the others are looping back to our starting point in Bolivia.

It feels strange climbing out of the squeaky jeep for the last time. I’m going to miss my salar comrades and after three days of salt carpets, cactus islands, arid volcanic desserts and flamingos, being in a regular town with streets, houses and shops is going to feel like a new and surreal world.     

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