Well…I officially found it. After years of scouring the globe, poking my way around desolate island chains, malaria plagued jungles, and dingy third world urban centers, I can finally say that I have found the weirdest place on planet Earth. Granted I still have many places to explore, but until I find some place even stranger, the title will officially rest in southwestern Bolivia. Why? Because as your reading this right now, from the comfort of your own home, there is a wild flamingo standing in a red lake next to a llama and a pool of bubbling mud. Oh, and it’s all happening between 14,000-16,000 ft, most likely next to a fuming geyser, or a hotel made completely from salt. Welcome to 3 days in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni and Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, a place where desolation is king, and your perception of normal comes to die.
Day 1: We opted to head out from the Bolivian town of Uyuni with Tunupa Tours, a company who did a decent enough job and one that I would recommend to anyone making the journey. Starting from the town of Uyuni—itself a windswept town in the middle of nowhere—our very first stop was to the “Cemetery of Trains” that sits just outside of town. Not really an attraction that has to do with anything, as you would expect in a train cemetery, there are rusted locomotives all slowly deteriorating together amongst the blowing sands of the frigid high desert. Perfectly intact but decidedly defunct, as far as the eye can see there are just rows of abandoned locomotives standing in stark contrast to the sheer emptiness of the desert around it. Not 5 minutes out of town and the oddities are already starting to pile up.
The real attraction of this area—and the first day of most of the tours running from Uyuni—is entering into the fabled Salar de Uyuni, which at over 12,000 sq. km (larger than the entire state of Hawaii or Massachusetts) is the world’s largest salt flat and one of the most desolate places on the planet. And it’s still growing. A mirage-invoking sea of endless white horizon, the salt is reputedly over 100 ft. thick towards the center, where ever that may be. We trucked across the salt desert in our trusty 4×4 Land Cruiser (which suffered an immediate flat tire right out of town) for a couple of hours or so before arriving at the aptly named and curiously situated Isla Incahuasi. Literally an island in a vast lake of salt, the island seems to float on the horizon without ever getting closer until finally when you reach it you discover it s covered in 1000 year old cacti. As far as the eye can see in every direction is an endless plain of salt, and suddenly you happen upon a mini oasis where a certain species of cactus has managed to thrive for millennia. Perfect place for lunch!
Another highlight of this area is taking pictures out on the salt flats and doing your best to tinker with perspective. Completely devoid of surroundings except for a distant horizon and an endless sea of salt, it’s possible to take that picture where you appear to be standing on someone else’s shoulder, or perhaps on top of a water bottle. While entertaining, the entire photo process is much more difficult than it appears to be, and the harsh conditions on the sun-baked, wind-swept terrain are not very conducive to casual photo shoots. Nonetheless it’s fun to snap a few weird photos.
After a couple more hours of driving through the center of absolutely nothing (allegedly 6 years prior a Japanese woman became the first—and only—woman to ever successfully traverse the Salar de Uyuni by foot, and it took her a month), it was time to check into our hotel that was actually made entirely out of salt. The beds, the chairs, the walls…everything is comprised from massive salt blocks that somehow come together to form the shape of a hotel. Even the floor is salt. It’s like walking through sand that you can also season your meat with. Remarkably warm and surprisingly comfortable considering the remote location the evening spent in the salt hotel was a novel one to remember. And yes, I did lick the walls.
After a chilly morning of watching the sunrise in complete silence on a 1-mile jaunt from the hotel, it was back into the 4×4 for a long day of driving through desolation. With the scenery turning more from seas of salt to those of sand, the terrain simply becomes for arid, dusty, chilly, and desolate the further up you climb. Finally stopping to take in the views of the active volcano that sits on the Bolivian and Chilean border, the wind was brisk enough to pierce directly through clothing and chill the nerves in your teeth. This is not a place you want to find yourself lost or alone.
The volcano behind us and God knows what ahead of us, we finally pulled up for lunch at the first of what would be many strikingly bizarre and awe-inspiring panoramas dotted throughout the region. Although the Atacama desert region is officially the driest place on Planet Earth, there are occasionally high altitude lakes that bubble up from the volcanic plains that provide a habitat and hydration for all of the region’s…wild llamas and flamingos? The llamas I can understand, but seriously, flamingos? Apparently, the central Andean plateau is literally swarming with thousands of pink flamingos who make their homes in these frigid ponds that teeter on the edge of the Earth. Intermingled with the flamingos on the lakeshore are herds of wild llama who roam the patchy grasslands in search of the most meager amounts of nutrition. Recall that all of this is taking place beneath active volcanoes between in valleys that still measure 15,000-16,000 ft in altitude. A shockingly surreal reality to say the least.
After dining with the llamas and birds it was off to Laguna Hedionda, itself another flamingo filled oddity, before leaving the oases behind and gallivanting across some serious tracks of nothingness. Never before in your life have you witnessed a corner of the Earth that is so dry, so arid, so completely and utterly devoid of life, and felt the sensation that if left alone out here you would surely be dead by the end of the day. The Atacama desert is one of those places on Earth where Mother Nature can kill you in mere hours by your simply standing there and doing nothing. Incredibly humbling and terrifying.
The main attraction in this area (aside from the human-sucking oceans of sand), is a massive rock known as “La Roca de Arbol” (Tree Rock), which is a place where a unique quirk of nature has left behind a rock that in fact looks exactly like a tree. A testament to the harsh conditions, the shape of the rock was molded by thousands of years of briskly blowing sand eroding the foundation of the rock to create what now appears to be the “trunk” of the tree. Above the level of the swirling sands of death, the rest of the rock retains its original shape and gives the appearance of a clump of leaves hanging serenely over the ever-narrowing trunk. If the blowing sand can shave down solid stone, imagine what it could do to you if stranded out here!
Entering the Eduardo Alvaroa Reserve for the first time after the Tree Rock (entrance fee 150 Bolivianos or about $21/person), we were immediately greeted to a panoramic vista of La Laguna Colorada, which is another flamingo stocked lake in the middle of nowhere that I can only imagine exists due to some freak process during the Earth’s creation. While I was starting to get used to the flamingos, I wasn’t entirely prepared for a massive lake that—aside from the flamingos—is streaked with wide ribbons of cranberry red water that give the lake the appearance of a liquid tub of raspberry swirl ice cream. With flamingos as the topping. And it’s all happening at over 16,000 ft. To put this is perspective there are only a few places on the planet that even reach over 16,000 ft. One place is called the Himalayas, another Denali, and finally one more is a little place called Mt. Kilimanjaro. There is nowhere in the 48 states that stands as high as 16,000 ft, and instead of just some craggy mountain peak there sits here a massive red lake that is chock full of seemingly indifferent flamingos. Believe it or not, the terrain would only continue to get weirder.
Luckily for us, our driver knew the way to some hostels (officially called refuges because that is literally what they are), in the area where we were able to shovel down a decent dinner and knock off a few hours of sleep. Completely removed from everywhere, the refuges have no phone lines, computers, or any other way of contacting the outside world, hence they also have no reservation system other than first come first serve. We struck out on 2 refuges that were full before finding room at the 3rd. I asked our guide if in the busy season there are ever groups who don’t find rooms available, and he nonchalantly replied that you just have to sleep in the car sometimes. Outside air temperature at 16,000 ft: about 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. One group we encountered at the refuge didn’t have it as lucky as we did. They had had success in locating a room for the night, but while they were sleeping their guide stole the bottle of rum that they had brought for the trip, emptied it into his Bolivian gullet, and then abandoned them in the morning in a moment of apparent desperation. Waking in the morning to find no guide, no car, no food, and no rum, they finally sorted out a ride to Uyuni—12 hours away by car—at around 5pm for a rather steep price. Remember all that life-sucking terrain I just mentioned? Yeah…they planned to cross it at night. Sketchy.
Frigid and early, this is where things got really weird. Rising at 4am to catch the sunrise at a location an hours drive away, I found out quickly it’s hard to enjoy the expansive Milky Way above you when you can literally feel your lungs freezing. Air temperature probably hovered around 10 degrees F, while wind chill dropped that to well below zero. The solution? Pile into a car a drive into the caldera of an active volcano!
Officially the strangest place I have every watched the sunrise (and there have been many), the entire morning seems like an ordeal out of a Dr. Seuss book, this of course being if Dr. Seuss had been drunk and on acid.
The first stop at sunrise was to literally jump through a boiling geyser. A tremendously powerful stream of steam that rivals that of Old Faithful, this geyser loses authenticity points in that it is actually man made. It gains them right back, however, when you learn that the geyser was formed when some people from a nearby village were sick of all of the earthquakes, so they simply pierced a 100 ft. hole into the Earth that acts as a pressure relief valve that now runs 24 hours a day. Essentially a nonstop stream of the Earth naturally venting gas, it is possible to pose right next to the geyser, hug the geyser, or even jump right through it. This last option is slightly more violent than it seems, as the sensation of sulfur rocketing up your nasal passages at 200 mph is decidedly a masochistic way to spend a sunrise.
Leaving the plume of pain in our dust, it was now time to drop straight down into the caldera and casually traipse through pools of bubbling mud. With visibility greatly reduced by the plumes of toxic steam venting from massive cracks in the Earth, an added variable that contributes to the danger is the existence of random depressions that are literally filled with pools of boiling mud. Attempting to take photos while trying to avoid putting one ankle into the center of the Earth and the other into a vat of bubbling brown death, the chattering nerves in my teeth reminded me it was probably simply time to get back into the car. Oh yeah, don’t forget to watch the sunrise!
After escaping the crater I shall now dub “The Halfway Point to Hell”, we descended down to the glorious natural hot springs for a heaping breakfast of pancakes and a decidedly much needed bath. Although the air temperature was still hovering below freezing—as exhibited by the frozen pond on the outskirts of the springs—the water temperature inside the natural pool was most likely pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This is probably the only reason that 100 or so shivering backpackers from many different tours would all simultaneously decide to strip down to boardies and bikinis at 7am in the middle of an Andean tundra. Stoic in their indifference, the flamingos once again acted as if they’d simply seen it all before.
Having bathed and gorged ourselves on pancakes, the only adventure left was a pause for a view of the majestic Laguna Verde (which is only “Verde” (green) in the afternoon due to the wind whipping up the sediment in the water), it was time to drop down to the Chilean border to catch our transfer to San Pedro de Atacama (1 hour from the border) and out of the natural Bolivian freakshow we had spent the last 3 days immersed in.
One of the most enthralling trips I have ever been a part of, I highly recommend quitting your day job just to see this place; it will absolutely blow your mind.