Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia's most dramatic natural beauty lies in the Salar de Uyuni, better known as the Salt Flats, a 12,000 km area on the southern end of the altiplano near the Chilean border. This area has kilometer after kilometer of spectacular landscape. Deep red mountains rise out of sandy plateaus. Active volcanoes spew smoke. Brightly colored lagoons suddenly appear around each corner. Their colors come from their high mineral contents and the red, green, deep aqua blue burst out amongst the tans and browns of the open terrain. The edges of the horizon were met with clear bright blue skies.

The highlight of Salar de Uyuni are the actual salt flats (which the entire area is also nicknamed) The first day of our four day 4-wheel-drive trek drove us out into a flat white dry salt sea. Years ago when the tectonic plates moved and formed the Andes, water was caught and an enormous lake was formed. With no new streams to fill it eventually the water dissolved and left solid salt behind and the to the eye this solid white background creates optical illusions. Floating mountains rise from the horizon. It is almost indescribable.

Our noontime break was a Fish Island which rises out of nowhere and is covered with giant saguaro cactus making for dramatic photo ops with the contrast of colors on background where there are none.

The other days in the Salar took us past geysers and hot springs, where we could dip our cold bones. Mostly the bitter winds slapped at us when we dared to get out of our vehicles. The wind was so strong at times that I felt like I was going to be blown over. The climate in this area can be very harsh. At night at certain times of the year the temperatures can get down to -20's Fahrenheit. The daytime sun is bright though so the daily temperatures vary depending where you are.

Out of the vast sand pop out rock formations that have been battered by the wind and been carved into impressive craggy shapes. There is one valley with huge rocks, probably 40 feet high. Their rectangle shapes make the Bolivians think of Italian buildings. Its hard to see it, but heck, these people have never been to Italy!

My favorite place was the Stone Canyon. We drove through a narrow pass of broken rock alleyways to reach a peaceful valley. We hopped through the steams that flowed in the valley's floor from one moss stool to the next. The valley was filled with llamas left there to graze among the big rock cliffs. The sun shone, complete silence reigned as we relaxed there.

You may be wondering where we slept on this journey. Out of the middle of nowhere little villages would appear where people managed to forge a meager existence farming quinoa, ranching llamas and harvesting borax,
salt and other minerals. Just a few families huddled together had created real communities with churches, stores and schools. I suspect the rise in tourism is becoming an economic driver. While the area is not by any means crowded with tourists there is a steady growth in traffic that will only continue in the future.
I have never been somewhere so open, vast and immeasurable. Sure, the bush in Kenya rolled on forever but the scenery, while extremely beautiful, was not as varied. I really got the feeling that I couldn't close my eyes for one minute or I would miss something and this was throughout Bolivia on every drive between cities, in the Salt Flats or from the airplane looking down.

1 comment:

JA Huber said...

I love your photos! (and your stories, too)