The most famous sight in the desert-like lands of the south of Bolivia is Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat). However, the terrain to the south of Uyuni in the province of South Lípez is equally stunning and includes the beautiful plains and volcanoes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve close to the frontiers with Chile and Argentina.
By starting the (four day) jeep tour from Tupiza, the extra day driving westwards across gradually rising land towards the lakes and volcanoes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve provided a chance to see the province of South Lípez. The increasingly arid terrain was best suited to vicuñas (imagine a cross between a llama and an antelope). Close to Tupiza the track passed by Sillar, an impressive valley filled with columns and ridges carved from the earth by rains. The start of our progress across the high plain (altiplano) was marked by Abra Pampa where yellow grasslands were set beautifully below a blue sky that was to grow in intensity the higher we climbed, becoming a personal highlight of the tour for me. It is surprising that one can be so captivated by a sky, but as I describe later in this blog, the skies above the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve are not ordinary.
Bolivia is certainly rich in mineral reserves and is scattered with mines – used and disused. We passed a derelict gold mine before the track continued to climb and one started to feel the rarefied air at altitudes in excess of 4,500 metres (14,764 feet), passing within sight of Volcán Uturuncu with snow on its uppermost southern faces.
Plains & Volcanoes
For me, the most remarkable landscapes were north of Laguna Verde and north of ´Arbol de Piedra´ (´Tree of Wood´) in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve. In these places, the desert-like foreground was ringed by barren mountains and volcanoes smeared with streaks of juxtaposing colours in lines that claw at the slopes and confuse the eye; leaving me to wonder – is this the planet I know? Oxides, reds, whites, blacks, browns and creams in luminescent shapes that pulled my eyes to the horizon where once again they were then drawn upwards into the deep, deep blue above presenting me with more questions - do skies like this really exist here on this earth, a perfect entirely uninterrupted electric blue of such depth? Skies that seem to be little more than a thin, ephemeral screen between the air in one´s lungs and the infinite vastness of outer space. As if to emphasise this, the moon never appeared to leave the sky – even in the bright sunlight of the early afternoon, hovering above the lunar landscape on which I stood, as if the lunar landscape had once fallen to earth from the moon and was now alone in a foreign land, but always watched over from above by its long-lost homeland.
|Area to the North of Laguna Verde|
|From the Arid Plain, to the Mountains to the|
Deep Deep Blue of Outer Space
|Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Rock)|
The other-worldly views were mesmerising, and while the vistas were simple in their stark nature, I never bored of them. In this respect I was fortunate to have extra time there because another jeep had broken-down north of Arbol de Piedra with a UV joint that had fallen apart, and we stopped for over two hours while our driver helped the driver of the ill-fated jeep to reassemble it. This gave me the opportunity to walk for a while in the amazing landscape and really soak up its magic, to be in awe of it. A walk to some seemingly close-by rocks showed just how easily such an environment can trick one´s eye and one´s mind, with distances entirely misleading and mirages on some horizons.
|Landscape Near to Arbol de Piedra|
|Landscape North of Arbol de Piedra|
|Earth or Another Planet?|
While none of the high altitude lagunas (lakes) in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve are likely to tempt many people to swim, as they are rather putrid and incredibly salty, they are an environment loved by flamingos and these birds abound there.
The name given to Laguna Verde (Green Lake) sitting below Volcán Licancapur says it all; however, Laguna Colorada is an entirely unexpected sight as it is completely red. This is caused by sediments and the pigmentation of some algae. Looking southwards from its northern shore, the classic cone shape of Volcán Licancabur created a wonderful backdrop to the striped colour mix of the red waters of the lake ringed by its white borders of salt and borax.
|Laguna Verde & Volcán Licancabur|
|Laguna Colorada with the Cone-Shaped|
Volcán Licancabur in the Distance
Uyuni Salt Flat
We visited Salar de Uyuni on our last day, and the night before we stayed in accommodation near the edge of the salt flat. The building is constructed entirely from blocks of salt, and uses salt mortar as well as gravel-sized salt crystals for flooring. Even the tables, chairs and beds are built from blocks of salt (though thankfully the latter have mattresses on top of the salt). Unlike culinary salt, the blocks dug from the salar are very hard and easily strong enough to support a roof.
On the majority of the surface of the salar, the salt has formed crystalline shapes in polygons, most commonly with four or five sides, affording great photographic opportunities. The rocky island of Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) in the middle of the salar is covered with cacti and was a great place from which to watch the sun rising above the horizon at daybreak.
|Walls, Floor, Tables & Chairs - All Made of Salt|
|Sunrise Above the Salar Viewed from Isla del Pescado|
|Shadow of Isla del Pescado Projected|
Onto the Salar by the Early Morning Sun
|Cacti on Isla del Pescado|
The Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) is vast. If the pull of one´s eyes towards the horizons in the desert-like landscapes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve were strong, in the salar one´s senses are launched into the ether. There is no horizon, just a visual draw to the infinite. In some directions there are no mountains in the distance and the uniformity of the entirely flat plain of salt provides no visual fix; one can only look to the horizon where distances are unintelligible – where is the horizon anyway? Indeed, this effect makes for some great trick photography, where someone simply has to walk a short distance away to appear tiny on camera. This allowed us to compose photos where, for example, someone appears to be standing in the palm of a hand.
|´Walk to Infinity´|
The Unintelligible Horizon
|Crystalline Forms & Horizons|
|Photographic Trickery: A Little Man|
|Photographic Trickery: Little People on the Jeep|
Journey by Jeep to Border with Chile
After our tour of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve and Salar de Uyuni, Vienna, Martin and I wanted to travel from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. One can do this jeep transfer, which takes a route back towards and through the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, stopping for the night there, before continuing to the frontier. As well as being the most direct route to San Pedro de Atacama, albeit on dirt roads, it also provided another chance to see some of the amazing landscapes enjoyed during the last four days. Given such amazing scenery on the way to the border, maybe it was the most dramatic of my South American frontier crossings – certainly a high altitude one.
|By Jeep to Border with Chile|
|Tight Border Security|