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march 29, 2005 -> into the salt pan and into the fire: bolivia  

The guides called it Dali's Desert.  Huge, orange, misshapen boulders lay scattered about a gravel slope.  They said that volcanoes had spat them there, millions of years ago.  Waves of color rippled across the bare mountains: red, orange, white, black, grey and green.  We were above 4,000 meters (almost 13,000 feet), in the middle of a wide, gritty plain, with a limitless blue sky above.  ‘What a perfect name,' I thought.  I made a quick sketch of the landscape in my notebook.  Later, I would add a 40-foot elephant. 

The paintings of Salvador Dali are famous for their bizarre subjects: spindly-legged, quadruple-jointed, sky-scraping elephants carrying gold palanquins; a melted pocket-watch draped over a leafless branch; castles and headless busts floating on air.  Yet, for all his imagination, he often chose the same background: a flat desert plain beneath a monochrome sky.  I think I know why.  The desert is empty, inhospitable, and most importantly, unfamiliar.  Had his towering elephants been striding across green fields, our minds would reject the image as frivolous or childish.  The desert sustains his surrealism because it is, for humans anyway, a surreal place. 

Over the next four days, we would pass through a landscape so surreal that Dali might have found it a tad boring.  We were in the altiplano (high plain) of southern Bolivia, on a four-day tour to see the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt pan on Earth.  On the first morning, we drove steeply uphill from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (2400 meters) to the Bolivian border at 4400 meters.  I asked the border guard about the recent demonstrations and road blockades in Bolivia.  “In La Paz, Cochabamba, and Potosi, there are always problems,” he replied, “But here everything is tranquilo.”  Once we all had our entry stamps, we continued to the national park entry post.

A histogram on the wall showed that 45,594 tourists had entered the park in 2003.  The French led the way with 7,707 visitors.  The English and Germans came in second and third with 7,565 and 4,220, respectively.  Amazingly, Israelis occupied the fourth post with 4,003.  Dirt-cheap Bolivia is a favorite with Israelis who have just finished their years of mandatory military service.  The area around Sagarnaga Street, in central La Paz, is full of Israeli hostels, and all the tour agencies have signs in Hebrew.  Sadly, the USA was in 7th place, with 1,837 visitors, despite being much closer to Bolivia and having a far larger population.  That depressed me.  It's difficult to combat the perception of Americans as insular non-travelers when those are the facts. 

The altiplano is a harsh, unpopulated land.  It burns in the summer, and freezes in the winter.  But its austerity is beautiful.  Rich in minerals, the landscape bursts with color. One mountain reminded me of images of Jupiter's swirling gases.  We drove past the Laguna Blanca (White Lake) and continued on to the Laguna Azul (Blue Lake,) a turquoise oval spread between an extinct volcano and black lava fields.  The color of the blue lake seemed to intensify as winds blew across it.  That night, we slept in a freezing refugio near the shores of Laguna Roja (Red Lake,) a shallow expanse of iron-rich water filled with carmine-necked flamingoes and bordered by salt piles like snow drifts.  An ‘iceberg' of salt jutted up from the rust-red water, and a few birds were perched on it.  I experienced a strange déjà vu.  It was Antarctica, in Technicolor. 

The altiplano may look desolate, but it is geologically very active.  On our second day, we had lunch next to an old lava plain.  A grey volcano puffed in the background.  It looked harmless, but the bubbly, folded lava that spread below it proved that it had once been a monster.  Hot springs, boiling mud pits and thermal vents abound; some of the latter have been capped as part of a geothermal energy project.  After a very long and rough day driving, we spent the night in the unique Salt Hotel, constructed from blocks of salt quarried from the nearby pan.  Compared to the very basic refugio it felt like the Grand Hyatt.  In the morning, our driver protected the Land Rover's engine and electrical wiring from the salt with a barrier of shrubs. 

It was the end of the wet season.  In some areas, a thin layer of water remained atop the salt, creating a magical illusion.  The water reflected the blue sky, erasing the horizon, and placing clouds ‘below' us.  We appeared to be flying towards mountains that had morphed into dirigibles.  I got out and waded through the surprisingly frigid water. Pancakes of salt crystals floated on the surface like oversized snowflakes.  The salt pan looked flat and smooth, but it felt like I was walking on glass, and I was literally ‘putting salt in the wounds.'  As we drove, the water became shallower until it disappeared beneath the surface of the salt.  In some places, the salt is 10 meters (33 feet) thick. 

The Salar is a blinding white sheet of gypsum and halite so large, flat, and barren that one loses all sense of relative motion.  Even driving at 80 kph, the distant mountains appeared stationary.  Our driver was stuffing coca leaves into his mouth.  The tedium of the landscape could easily put you to sleep - a drive through Kansas would be scintillating in comparison.  The sun's rays slashed through the thin air, turning the old Land Cruiser into a microwave and the Salar into a frying pan.  Like most salt pans, the Salar de Uyuni is the remnant of a gigantic, ancient lake (inland sea is perhaps more correct.)  Rivers that once fed the lake carried minerals from the mountains and volcanoes, including salt.  Eventually, a warmer climate led to increased evaporation, until only the salt was left.   

In the north of the pan rose the Isla del Pescado (Fish Island,) a solitary prominence anchored in a white sea.  The ‘island' bristled with ancient cacti.  Most people hiked a trail that climbed to a viewpoint, and passed by the oldest cactus on the island - at least 1,200 years old.  Camping was not allowed on the island, but there was a bathroom and a little café serving cold drinks.  I couldn't believe that they weren't selling margaritas.  I imagined the rim of a souvenir cocktail glass encrusted with salt from the Salar.  Everyone would want one.  

At the eastern edge of the pan, a low-tech salt mining industry sustained a desperate community.  Perfect white cones studded the ancient shoreline, their reflections creating a field of diamonds.  A lone worker, spade in hand, walked from one cone to the next, appearing to walk on water.  All the backpackers were up in arms about the planned lithium mine, sure to destroy the ‘pristine' environment.  I tried to keep quiet.  It was yet another injustice that they would soon forget about.  Didn't poverty-stricken Bolivia have the right to profit from its natural resources?  Furthermore, the environment wasn't as pristine as they imagined.  Over 60 (mostly budget) companies offered tours to the Salar, and as a result there were tire tracks everywhere.  If you took the time to look carefully, you could see bits of trash blowing across the white plain. 

At US$100 per person for 4 days, including all meals, accommodation, and transport, the Salar de Uyuni trip represents incredible value – perhaps the best-value on our entire trip.  We covered at least 1000 kilometers, and had one night in the unique Salt Hotel.  Unfortunately, many tourists still have unrealistic expectations.  They complain about the food (basic but plentiful), the cars (crowded and prone to breakdowns), the guides (rarely conversant in English), the accommodation (the first night in a freezing refugio,) and even, amazingly, the altitude (not much the agency can do about that.)

On our last day, we rose very early and drove in the darkness.  Our Land Rover was having some problems.  When our guide pulled for to have a look at the motor, a few of us got out to admire the stars.  It was freezing.  We had to wrap ourselves in blankets. Suddenly, a brilliant arc of light illuminated the heavens.  It wasn't like a shooting star; it was too wide and moved too slowly.  A few seconds later it was gone.  My best explanation was that it had been a decommissioned satellite self-destructing as it passed through the earth's atmosphere.  Of course, it could have just been a flying headless bust.  It seemed a fittingly surreal end to a surreal trip.  

Scott

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