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Stepping on the Salt

THE jeep pulled up as Augustino, our guide, encouraged us to ponder our chosen destiny for the days ahead.  Before us lay the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt lake in the world, and one of Bolivia’s most magical natural wonders.  The scene was one of a vast white blanket of salt, stretching out towards the horizon under a perfectly clear blue sky.

At first glance the Salar appeared to be made up of snow, with curious pyramid-like piles of salt dazzling like diamonds in the morning sun.  We actually found ourselves bending down to smell a handful, in order to convince ourselves that this really was salt.  It was hard to imagine that this was once a conventional lake – the surface being so hard that it comfortably accommodates the numerous tour jeeps that now make this same journey each day.

Continuing in the jeep in a somewhat numbed state, we came to the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island).  A true highlight, this bizarre island is covered in giant cacti and nestles in the middle of the Salar.  The view from the crest of its slopes stunned us into momentary silence.  A perfectly white expanse, with chains of snow-capped mountains rising up in the distance along the horizon, the region is eerily isolated.  It was moving to be there, so apparently detached from the rest of the world.

Leaving the Salar behind, we spent the night in a mud-brick refuge in San Juan.  A tiny place with barely 500 inhabitants set amidst a rolling landscape littered with volcanoes, the sad excuse for a plaza made me chuckle, before I contemplated the lives of the indigenous people who eked a living out in this barren landscape.  Watching children chase one another around the rudimentary school yard, you realise people really do put down roots in the most unlikely corners of Earth.

An early start the next day saw us venture amongst a series of volcanoes as we began to climb above 4000m.  Initially we were puzzled as to whether a curious white streak arising from the peak of one volcano was actual smoke or merely the only cloud in the empty sky.  We soon enough learned that it was indeed smoke from the only active volcano in this region – Volcan Ollagüe.

At one point Augustino advised us to abandon the jeep and to walk whilst he negotiated a particularly steep and challenging part of the track.  It was encouragingly refreshing to be out in the open air.  The landscape is so barren and desolate – it was difficult to imagine how any kind of life could survive in such a forbidding environment.  Yet we passed colonies of flamingos calmly going about their ways in a series of lakes amidst the spectacular mountains. 

Scaling 4500m, we crossed the Pampa Siloli.  This is a high-altitude desert where we encountered a series of rock formations that had been sandblasted into mysterious shapes by the constant howling wind.  Most prominent among them was the Arbol de Piedra (Stone tree), an austere boulder over eight metres high that balances on a narrow stem.   It was a strange feeling to observe such rocks in the wind-swept terrain.  Their sheer isolated structures saddened me somehow.

We then arrived at the Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake).  Bordered by bleak mountain slopes on one side, and by a strange white crust on the other, the outlandish redbrick colour of the rippling lake was unforgettable.  The colour is due to the natural pigment of the algae that live in its shallow, mineral-laden water, although one could be forgiven for thinking at first glance that the colour was the result of some chemical accident, such is its other-worldly appearance.  Only the undeterred flamingo colonies convinced us that the water must be by and large safe.

The second night is widely hailed to be the cold one, and so it proved as we made the best of the basic huts we were provided with.  I took no chances, sleeping in with six upper-body layers, and finally making decent use of the thermal running tights I’d taken on the trip. 

The following day’s pre-dawn start was piercingly cold.  Wearing two pairs of gloves was still insufficient.  I ended up keeping them tugged into my coat pockets, trying in vain to ease the circulation, and failing to fully appreciate the awesome starlit sky that on any other occasion would have struck me as the most beautiful sight.

How fortunate it was, then, when we reached the hot springs on the shore of Laguna Polques.  A couple of adventurous souls bathed their full bodies – I made do with just my feet, but felt no less cleansed for that.  It was quite simply the perfect antidote for the high-altitude chill, and the perfect culmination to the adventure.

The long drive back to the small town of Uyuni and human civilisation allowed us time to reflect on our experience over the three days.  Maybe each of us felt a tinge of melancholy as we gazed out at the passing mountainous landscape, and contemplated the magic of a land unspoilt by man.

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