Monday, November 19, 2012

Of Mirages and Mirrors: The Bolivian Salar de Uyuni

 After several frustrated attempts, last October I finally travelled to Bolivia to see the fabled Salar de Uyuni. I was extremely lucky to have the company of two very good friends eager for a different experience and curious about off-the-beaten-track destinations. Salar means a salt flat in Spanish. The Salar Uyuni is one of these remote and hard to reach mythical places frequently used as the backdrop for adventure and science fiction movies. Uyuni is located on the Altiplano (plateau) in the south-west corner of Bolivia. It covers an area of 12,000 sq. kilometers (6,575 sq. miles) at 3,668 m above sea level between two chains of volcanoes, the Andean Cordillera. It contains more than 10 billion tons of salt, and 50 to 70 % of the world’s lithium reserves. Lithium is a much sought-after mineral widely used in computers, cell phones and electric car batteries.


The Salar is renowned for its dazzling and surreal whiteness and changing appearance from mirage to mirror. The salt flat often appears to be a mirage and confuses visitors as its horizon disappears in the hazy sky. It can also be mistaken for an ice surface. A couple of months a year, usually in January and February when rain falls on the Salar, a thin film of water replaces the mirage with a mirror where the surrounding volcanoes reflect their mighty bodies. During the rainy season the cloudy sky reflects on the water. Hence the reflective surface of the Salar has been dubbed “heaven on earth”.


Our twelve-day trip started in Sucre, the colonial capital of Bolivia (now constitutional capital, an honorary title). This small city stands at the civilized altitude of 2,750 m above sea level (9,000 ft.). We also visited Potosi, the highest city in the world at an altitude of 4100 m (13,500 ft.) and the former world capital of silver mining. Purposely we avoided starting the trip in the capital La Paz (altitude 3600 m) as we wanted to be gradually acclimated to the altitude. We ended our expedition in the village of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. We drove some 1,000 kilometers with our guide and driver in a reliable four-wheel-drive Toyota.

The Salar de Uyuni may be unfamiliar to most people in our baby boomer age group. It is much better known to the Facebook generation. In Latin America, Uyuni is first and foremost the backpackers’ destination of choice. Until very recently, access to the Salar was a rough experience even for budget conscious travelers, as hotels were few and far between; moreover since there are no paved roads to speak of one has to make do with the rustic comfort of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and the usually sporty driving of its owner. Although more comfortable hotels are now being built, Uyuni is still not on the itinerary of the “five star” travelers. Total immersion in the Uyuni spirit is not complete unless the traveler sleeps in a hotel room built with salt blocks. In our upscale hotel even the bedside tables were made of salt. We wanted to travel in relative comfort and peace of mind. We had to organize our own circuit and book hotels, and our guide and driver through a reliable travel agency. Self-driving is still neither advisable on the Salar or on the dirt tracks to San Pedro de Atacama. Tracks are unsigned and known only to the local taxi drivers. The city of Uyuni counts some 200 four-wheel-drive taxi companies that take budget travelers from the Salar to the Chilean border where they are met by Chilean taxis for the drive to San Pedro. Bolivian rented cars and 4X4 taxis are not allowed into Chile.

Before traveling to the Salar I could not resist surfing the web to read about other travelers’ experiences. Posted pictures are extremely beautiful and texts are wildly enthusiastic. When in situ I found the Salar de Uyuni still more mesmerizing than its pictures. One feels both humbled and overwhelmed by its white emptiness (it is bigger than Lake Tahoe in Nevada, USA), its quietness and bareness. The Salar is so pure and so unspoiled that it makes the visitor feel free and light. The clean fresh air is invigorating, but deceptively so: at over 4000 m altitude one often feels short of breath. Even if the contrast between the white expanse and the brownish bulky volcanoes is overpowering, it doesn’t seem threatening. A metaphor for this sensation of tranquility is the sight of groups of usually skittish vicuñas grazing unhurried by the road side. Part and parcel of the Uyuni experience is the visit to the Eduardo Avaroa National Andean Wildlife Reserve which is located 150 kilometers south of the Salar towards the Chilean and Argentinian borders. On route, one climbs over 4000 m above sea level and drives on the red and ocher volcanic ash desert of Siloli. The desolate landscape is strewn with oddly shaped rock outcrops as if tossed by surrealist artist Salvator Dali.


This region is a world of nature superlatives, volcanoes with multicolored sunken craters, geothermal springs and geysers, multicolored brine lakes and glacial salt lagoons. The stillness of this lunar landscape is only broken by the fluttering noise made by the flapping wings of the flamingos. One of the three Andean species of flamingos, the rare James flamingos nest in these lagoons. Herds of graceful vicuñas are everywhere to be seen grazing on the scarce grass.


In addition to nature lovers and young backpackers, Uyuni also attracts “Wild West” middle-aged mythology buffs. Their pilgrimage starts some 20 kilometers east of the city of Uyuni at the Pulacayo mining ghost town. From the 18th century until the mid-20th century it was one of the richest silver mines in the world. So rich that its owner built a railway line to ship the ore all the way to the Pacific port of Antofagasta. The mine may eventually resume operations as its new owner, a Canadian company has identified economic silver reserves. Nowadays the mine’s claim to fame is the display of a bullet ridden railway car which was allegedly attacked and robbed by American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid during their Bolivian exile in 1906-08.

There is credible evidence that the two robbers met their deaths in November 1908 some 100 kilometers south of Uyuni in the small mining pueblo of San Vicente. After robbing a mule train carrying the payroll of the rich Aramayo silver mine, Butch and Sundance took a rest in San Vicente. Soon they were circled by Bolivian soldiers, and after a shoot-out, two bodies were recovered. They were anonymously buried in the international section of the tiny cemetery of San Vicente between the graves of a German miner who had mishandled a stick of dynamite and that of a Swede who could not ride a mule. However reality and fiction are blurred. The outlaws’ families claimed that they moved back to the United States and died there in their beds. The DNA analysis carried out on bodies exhumed in San Vicente were inconclusive as well as those carried out in the USA. In 2011, an international film titled Blackthorn was shot around Uyuni. It tells the story of an aged Butch Cassidy living in Bolivia under an assumed name (Blackthorn) but who decides to return to the USA. The fate of the two famous outlaws will certainly continue to generate investigations and feed local business.

Lonely Planet has just issued its “top 10 best value destinations” for 2013. Surprisingly expensive Rio de Janeiro came first (the advice is go now because the city will get even more expensive after the Soccer World Cup in 2014!). Bolivia ranks fifth and the Salar de Uyuni is listed as a “must-visit”. Therefore don’t wait.