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Surreal – but sublime

A fish-shaped island of cacti, surrounded by endless gleaming white desert, the flat horizon punctuated by the occasional volcano – this surreal image is not what the average country would choose as its national icon. But then, Bolivia is far from an average country.

Standing on the top of the so called Fish Island, the landscape is like nothing I have ever seen, and the closest parallel I can imagine is that of a scene in the Pacific Ocean, albeit with different colours. Switch the white desert for blue water and replace cactus for rainforest and you’d have it.

This is Salar de Uyuni, the vast salt flats that Bolivia has selected as its new marketing image, in a bid to attract more tourists to the country. While neighbouring Peru has flourished as a popular destination in recent years, Bolivia’s reputation for political instability and drug trafficking has meant that it, one of the poorest countries in South America, has struggled to become well known to the tourism industry. But for those eager for an adventure, and keen to discover bizarre landscapes and fascinating indigenous cultures, Bolivia offers a great deal.

On a three day tour from Uyuni, a desolate town a day’s travel south from the capital La Paz, we were exploring the salt plains and the wilderness around it, near the Chilean border. Our group of six was a mixture of English, French and Brazilian, making for an interesting few days of communication. Trips can be arranged to return back to Uyuni but we opted to finish ours in the north of Chile, in the relaxed desert town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Just a few minutes out from Uyuni and we were already in the eerily flat salt plains, watching local workers extracting and processing the salt. You need strong sunglasses to avoid being dazzled by the light here, which is intense due to both the altitude and the reflection in the salt flats. The freezing at night and melting in the day of the top layer of the ground produces a remarkable hexagonal pattern effect, repeated endlessly – this is the biggest salt flat in the world, stretching for about five thousand square miles. Bolivia does process and sell some of the salt but for the most part it is untouched, another potential cash cow in this country rich in resources but poor in implementation skills.

The Incas managed to cross this barren region, en-route to northern Chile, by sleeping in the islands of cactus by day, and walking at night to avoid the burning sun. This was explained by our driver and guide, who had a disconcerting habit of just letting go of the steering wheel and turning round to talk to us – although of course when you’re surrounded by nothing but flat desert for miles around, going a few metres off course doesn’t really matter too much.

The land gradually changes further south, leaving salt plains behind and entering an even more desolate region of mountains and rocks. We stopped for the night in a wind swept village that from what we could see contained neither shops, nor a market, nor people except for the surprising happy kids playing football in the dust.

On our next day, we pass a volcano gently smoking in the brilliant blue sky, as we head further south towards a set of coloured lakes on the border and inside the Eduardo Abaroa National Park, on the Chilean border.

The lakes – coloured because of the high concentration of chemicals and algae – are full of pink flamingoes. Flamingoes are probably one of the last creatures you would expect to see in such a landscape, but they are attracted in their hundreds to the algae and saline waters.

Coming from the north rather than from Chile is the best way to approach these lakes, allowing a gradual build-up in impressiveness from the mildly interesting to the sublime. The last lake is the blood-red Laguna Colorado, with strands of yellow and white patterns in the water, and surrounded by rocky peaks – like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.

At nearly 5,000 metres altitude the sun is strong but the air is still cold, and once the sun dropped the temperature plummented. Even though it was mid-summer – as Bolivia is in the southern hemisphere – the winds were icy cold and perpetually gale force. Our guide cheerfully informed us that it could reach minus 40 degrees in winter but in summer it only drops to about minus 10 at night.

With such encouraging news we prepared to get up at 4.30 the next morning for our final sights. After stumbling around in the dark to find gloves and hats – no electricity in our remote hostel on the edge of the Laguna Colorado – we got into our jeep. I wondered, sleepily, how the driver managed to navigate at night with no signs, or even roads for that matter.

As the sun was starting to rise, we arrived at a valley with steaming volcanic geysers. The early departure was necessary to make sure that the wind was still gentle, so that we could walk among the geysers without risk of being steamed alive, and peer cautiously into the hot plopping volcanic mud below. As the sun rose the colours of the fire-red rocks filled in around the geysers.

After two nights of basic accommodation our penultimate stop was a relief – a bath in piping hot thermal waters next to the White Lake, so called because of the mounds of borax on the edges. Borax, which is used in products like detergent, soap and pesticides, used to be mined by Bolivia but now it is handled by a Chilean business.

Just before we cross into Chile to finish our tour, is the last lake – bright green this time, thanks to plentiful supplies of copper. No flamingoes on this lake, but with a perfect cone-shaped volcano on the far bank, it is a more than adequate final image for one of the most unique wildernesses in South America.

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