My crossing from Chile in Bolivia was an extraordinary one – one where you experience the largest Salt Flats in the world, emerald coloured lakes, geysers, volcanoes and much more. It was a 3 day journey, although ‘adventure’ is probably a more appropriate phrase.
Transport came in the form of the seemingly indestructible Toyota Landcruiser – these things are the car equivalent of Superman. They just don’t die. Kryptonite here however, comes in 2 forms; a bad driver and running out of fuel. With a stroke of luck, I’m happy to report that neither were the case, nor experienced on this specific trip. All in all, the 3 days consisted of cruising in a 4×4, off-roading through the desert from point A to point B. How fun.
Unfortunately for me and a word of warning for future folks, I didn’t give the altitude the respect it deserved. By now I had clocked many months at altitude in this wonderful continent, albeit not as high as this (which is between 4500-5600m at various points) so I felt relaxed about the altitude in general. I’ve never suffered with altitude sickness before, why would this time be any different? However, I spent the previous week on Easter Island – at sea level, which essentially reset my body regarding its tolerance to altitude.
Inadvertently, I had let my guard down. I remember feeling a little bit funny at around 4600m but assumed some water would do the magic. Wrong. By the time we had rose to 5000m, I had been hit by a metaphorical freight train. To be honest, It is frightening how quickly everything changes. In the twinkling of an eye, you go from feeling good to having been on the receiving end of a haymaker. Pounding headache, seeing colours, the whole 9 yards. Fear not though, as this is where Coca leaves do the business.
Coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has been used in the Andes for thousands of years to combat altitude sickness and acts as a mild stimulant. Many indigenous Bolivians consider the coca bush a sacred plant and chewing its leaves or brewing them into a tea is very popular. It is for these very reasons why the growing of coca leaves for medicinal purposes is legal and licensed in Bolivia – where-as in other countries, it is classified as a ‘Narcotic Substance’. Don’t get me wrong, the legalisation of the plant is no doubt used for Cocaine in some vicinity, but it truly works wonders for the altitude. After several teas containing large amounts of Coca and a little kip, I was spick and span in no time.
Arguably, the main spectacle for this journey cultivates on the 3rd and final day when you reach the natural phenomena of the Uyuni Salt Flats which ends with the final stop being the Uyuni train graveyard. The train station and the corresponding lines were constructed between 1888 and 1892 and were built by British engineers who were invited by the British-sponsored Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies during the mining years. For the next decades, the trains were used for carrying minerals from the Andes mountains to the Pacific Ocean ports.
For me however, it was the raw desert, scattered with Volcanic mountains that reared into the skies from out of nowhere and mysterious fluorescent lakes coloured by the nitrates, sulphurs and minerals that were the highlights. Throw into the mix the wildlife and you’re left with stunning beauty at every head turn. The desert, the mountains and the land is nirvana quiet as flamingos and llamas graze the surrounding the pockets of lakes. At all times, you could hear a pin drop such was the silence, apart from the occasional gusts and howls of wind.
Along the way, I also encountered these animals that resemble Rabbits, although they are larger in size and that I’m pretty sure carrots aren’t their favourite dish as there’s none for 1000s of miles. You never know though right? As it turns out, these creatures are known as Viscachas or vizcachas and are classed as rodents.
The Salt Flat is officially known as Salar de Uyuni – which is also known as Salar de Tunupa which can be translated from Spanish as ‘salt flat enclosure’.Salar de Uyuni is the world’s biggest salt flat with a measurement of 10,582 km squared (4,086 miles squared). Despite the fact I knew I was standing on this salt, I felt compelled to try it, which I did. ‘It looks like salt, tastes like salt… it must be salt’. One thing I had my fingers crossed for, was for nature to provide some rain as when this happens, the precipitation sits on the salt, turning the surface into essentially a large mirror which in my mind would have resembled infinity, as the sky would appear to fold on itself. Similar to that scene in Inception. It would have been cool to have seen this, but it wasn’t to be. I just felt grateful with the sight of the flats themselves. The enormity and grand scale of the flats was simply incredible. The vast, open ocean of salt has peculiar hexagon shaped tessellations which form naturally and are created by the crystalline nature of salt. Honestly, how amazing is that?