Salt of the earth

A local campesino digging salt out of the Salar de Uruni
Photos by Mary King

Seasoned traveler Mary King tours the Uyuni Salt Pan.

It is the wildest, craziest landscape I have ever seen. For miles and miles, as far as the eye can see, there are endless rows of pyramids jutting out from the glaring white earth. But these are not ancient tombs in the Egyptian or Mexican sense. Miniature in scale, they consist of pure salt and glisten like piles of rough diamonds in the intense Bolivian sun. Walking among them makes you feel as if you are viewing the works of some eccentric artist, or strolling on the surface of some other planet.

Bolivia mapPass the salt
But the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Pan), situated in this Andean country' southwest, is perfectly terrestrial and real, and it's simply the appetizer for the surreal terrain you can expect to find on the four-day excursions offered by tour operators from the small, dusty town of Uyuni. Tours are around US$50-80, including transport and all meals. Accommodation en route is basic, not costing more than $5 per person per night, but it's necessary to bring good sleeping bags and warm winter clothes. Once you've coughed up the cash and sorted out your travel partners tour operators usually require six people to make up a group you're off, with the first stop at the world's largest salt pan.

At an altitude of over 3000m, the immense Salar de Uyuni stretches out toward the country's border with Chile. Covering an area of about 12,000 km2-about twice the size of the Great Salt Lake in the US-it was once part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Manchin. The ancient body of water covered most of Bolivia's southwest until it dried up, leaving behind what are now Lago Poopo and Lago Uru Uru, and several salt pans, including Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Coipasa. The larger of the two, Salar de Uyuni is said to contain 10 billion tons of fine salt reserves. Until now it has only been exploited by local campesinos (peasants), who can be seen hacking out the salt with pick and shovel, creating the miniature pyramids that provoke such awe on this seemingly endless snow-white carpet. More surprises were in store after our driver took us a short distance to Colchani for lunch at the Hotel Cabana de Sal, which is constructed out of salt blocks.

This remote architectural oddity, with saline chairs and tables, evokes memories of the house in Hansel and Gretel. "But this is salt, not candy," Helen, an Australian traveler, assured me after wiping her finger across the window ledge and tasting it. The one-story hotel is very basic, with mattresses mounted on blocks of salt, and charges just $20 per night (with three meals) for the novelty of staying there.

Mother and baby in the village of Alota

Andean jewels
Next we stopped at Laguna Honda, where hundreds of pink and white flamingos waded in the sheer blue waters. Later, we took a short break to view the bizarre rock formations in the Valle de las Damas de Piedra (Valley of the Rock Lady) that over the eons have been sculpted by the elements of the Siloli desert. In the evening, we finally arrived at our rough-and-ready hostel (no beds, only stuffed sacks to serve as mattresses) on the shore of Laguna Colorada, said to be one of the jewels of the Andes.

Lying 25km away from the Chilean border, the area is inhabited by the rare James' flamingo. The lake is famed for its fiery redness, but due to heavy clouds we were unable to witness its blood-red waters seen at sunset or on brilliantly sunny days. We all snuggled up tight for the night, desperately trying to keep warm, as outside temperatures dropped below minus 20ļC. Sleep was not to be our privilege that night, and we were all relieved when the driver knocked on the door at 5am, telling us to get up and depart. By 7am we had reached a 4800m-high geyser basin, where the great fumaroles were belching out thick clouds of sulfurous smoke and gurgling and bubbling ferociously as we gingerly walked around their gruesome, gaping mouths.

Further on, at Sol de la Manana, we had breakfast and freshened up with a dip in the gloriously hot spring water before venturing on through the surreal, treeless landscape - which was occasionally interrupted by gentle hills resembling split chocolate sundaes and towering volcanoes that rise abruptly near the Chilean border. Racing through the desert, our driver Felipe was determined that we should not miss the spectacle of Laguna Verde, another Andean jewel, that is said to change color as the wind ripples its waters. "Usually around 10am the waters change from blue to a very intense turquoise," he told us as he hit the accelerator.

It was already well past 10am, and we did not hold out much hope that we would arrive in time,. But as luck would have it that day, the winds picked up late, stirring the copper oxide and sulfur on the lake bottom, and we were able to enjoy the stunningly beautiful spectacle of the lake changing color, obliterating the sharp reflection of the Volcan Licancabur, on whose summit lies an ancient Inca crypt.

The Hotel Cabana de Sal in the village of Colchani

Coca roller
By this time, we had reached an altitude of some 5000m, and most of us had the throbbing headache that accompanies lack of oxygen. Jason passed around his bag of coca leaves, the Bolivian panacea that when chewed with the ashes of other plants, mainly quinua (cinchona bark), yield an alkaloid drug that is the base of cocaine. None of us were too impressed by the taste as we stuffed wads of the dried green leaves in our mouths, but we were willing to persevere with the coca if it could ward off the pain.

"They say it makes you feel good - that it kills hunger, cold and also pain. But my head is still killing me. The only thing that's gone numb is my gum," Jason told us as he piled more of the leaves into his mouth. Laughing at the faces some of us made as we chewed on the bitter leaves, our driver indicated that it was time to leave. We followed the route back to Laguna Colorada, which by early afternoon was already turning a brilliant red, and from there headed out on a desert road toward the Valle de Rojas - a vast area of scattered rock formations. These rocks, like those at Valle de las Damas de Piedra, are eccentrically shaped like people, birds and animals, and when viewed together can give the impression of a temple or indeed of a ruined village. At sunset, the valley takes on a mystical dimension of its own and one feels as if passing through a Dali-esque world of wild and eerie images that etch themselves onto the subconscious.

Vicuna in the desert

It was dark by the time we reached the Indian hamlet of Alota, our place of rest for that night. At sunrise on our final day, we managed to crawl from our beds and stroll around the narrow, dusty streets, taking in the modest church and tiny plaza, as well as the rows of small adobe houses with thatched roofs. Once on the road, we lurched past fields where Indian women in bowler hats, shawls and billowing skirts spun llama wool with drop spindles or sat picnicking with children. The odd lone cyclist passed by on the road, waving toward us, and walkers would occasionally try and flag us down for a ride. We picked up one such hitchhiker, a middle-aged man, heavily wrinkled and sunburned, who had to content himself with a ride into Uyuni on the roof of our jeep. On the outskirts of the town, he leaped off and walked the rest of the way. We made our final stop at the Cemetery of Old Trains, a collection of grand old locomotives, many of them rusting and rotting away, that had once steamed through to Chile laden with silver mined from this area, once famed for its rich silver deposits. From salt to silver, Uyuni never ceases to amaze.

For information about tours and tour agencies in Bolivia see  


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