Salar de Uyuni (published in Gwangju News)

Andean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus andinus), Lag...

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(published in Gwangju News 04-06-11)

After two minutes of driving there was nothing around. Our driver was hitting 80kph; it could have been double or we could have been stationary; it made no difference. It was the beginning of time, where nothing had existed. The white of the salt was like a blank sheet of paper or an empty canvass. It was breath-taking, out-of-this-world, like God had come down from the heavens and hadn’t started his work yet.

Having awoken early from our warm tents in San Pedro de Atacama, a pint-sized dwelling in the midst of an expansive desert; and the only stop between the Pacific Ocean and the picturesque – Salar de Uyuni.

An hour in the back of an old van we quickly ascended up to 4600m to the border crossing, nothing but a knackered hut with a torn Bolivian flag dangling from the pole above. The air was as thin as paper, everyone was gasping for whatever oxygen they could find. Our group was quickly separated into smaller groups and was assigned a driver that was going to chaperon us for the next few days.

The paved roads of Chile suddenly changed into horrifying tracks in Bolivia with more razor-sharp rocks than you would find on the moon. This did not unhinge our driver. He hit his pace and had no intention of slowing down. It was a 4×4 with one soul in the passenger seat, three in the middle and two more squeezed tightly into the back with all the food and equipment. For the first hour the jeep bounced around violently like a broken washing machine.

Our first stop at the height of 4,300m was the sumptuous Laguna Verde. This jade lagoon with mountains the colour of caramel and a sky of sapphire made the bumpy ride worthwhile. On the edge of the waters were a number of flamingos idly poking at its edge. Then on to the Laguna Colorada – a red lagoon, inundated with a thousand more brightly coloured flamingos. Their rosé feathers, their long slim necks and slow delicate sauntering across shallows make them arguably one of the most elegant creatures in the world. Time stood still whilst gazing at these stupendous creatures.

A quick stop for lunch, then onto to Sol de Manana. These large volcanic geysers boiled at exceedingly high temperatures shooting huge plumes of mud and water into the air. Watching them gurgle was like staring a roaring fire – it was hypnotic.

Throughout the day our small group was beginning to fill the nauseated affects of altitude sickness. To this our driver pulled out a small bag of green leaves. He told us this was the ‘only’ cure. He handed to each of us a small measure of coca leaves, the base form of cocaine, which grew prevalently in the area.

‘Masticate on this,’ he said, ‘and it will wake you up…’

We all continued to get worse!

The following day we’d continue our journey past more stunning lagoons and treacherous terrain. The highlight would be spending the night in a hotel made entirely of salt.

It was difficult to see how anything could survive in this climate; to our surprise we saw a small herd of llamas as if appearing from a mirage. They came forward and became so comfortable in our presence that to get close was of no concern; truly remarkable beasts.

Another rough afternoon in the jeep, our driver told us we were now entering the edge of the Salar. Immediately the horizon looked a billion miles away. The curve of the Earth could be seen as it twisted into oblivion. We were on the edge of the world, an eternal abyss.

Our hotel – Hotel de Sal was completely made of salt, from the tables and chairs to the doors and windows. After a hearty breakfast we loaded up the van and set off for the centre of the flats.

We flew across this white desert into nothingness. The smooth calm surface rolled under our tyres and in every direction there was nothing. We remained quiet; we were soaking up this spectacle.

Isla de los Pescados in the centre is home to thousands of giant cacti, the only vegetation around. These ginormous statues, some at least 1000years-old towered over as you make your way to the summit. At the top is arguably one of the most phenomenal panoramic views on Earth and in front lies before you over 12,000sqkm of nothing but pure sodium chloride!