Monday, November 26, 2012

2012, 5th - 8th November: South Lípez, Eduardo Avaroa Reserve & Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

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.

South Lípez

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.


Abra Pampa

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.

Laguna Hedionda

Laguna Charcota

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

Laguna Colorada

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.

Walls, Floor, Tables & Chairs - All Made of Salt

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.

Sunrise Above the Salar Viewed from Isla del Pescado

Shadow of Isla del Pescado Projected
Onto the Salar by the Early Morning Sun

Crystalline Forms

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

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