Into the Abyss

Published: June 13th 2012
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Standing on the precipice of what looks and feels like an alien world is undoubtedly one of the most surreal experiences of our journey thus far, perhaps ‘the’ most. Yet here we are, at the Bolivian ‘border,’ a comically unintimidating adobe hut in the centre of an immense open range of nothingness. A single distinguishable landmark can be seen for miles around in any direction; the dominating figure of Licancabur whose beautifully symmetrical peak soars 5,940m above sea level. Despite the fact Licancabur has not erupted for over 1,000 years, it ominously looms over much of the Salar de Atacama, beautiful and sinister. After our star gazing exploits out in the desert of San Pedro de Atacama, our ‘Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ style week continued into this strange, vast, desolate part of the world. There are of course many adjectives one could utilise to describe the two-hundred or so kilometres that lie between San Pedro and Uyuni in Bolivia, but even now, standing here with all of Bolivia before us, words fail me. With our passports stamped, a hurriedly prepared breakfast eaten with equal haste, Amy and I, together with three other companions for our journey hopped inside a 4x4 and proceeded into the abyss...

Driving across the vacant terrain, it seems as though we are on another world – so much about this place flies in the face of what we know about and have come to expect our planet to look like. Sceptics of space expeditions such as the lunar landing in 1969 would surely come away from this place certain that images of Mars transmitted by the Voyager-2 explorer were faked from this exact location. There are no roads; all we can follow for our path are the varying tyre tracks left in the fine grains of sand and rock imprinted by other vehicles. These grains of rock, particles of past magnificence have over time been worn away by the power of nature; the winds which caress the landscape eroded once grand mountains into nothing more than unimposing mounds, each one seemingly indistinguishable from the next, insignificant ripples on an infinite horizon.

There is no other way to describe this place but starkly beautiful but impossibly, amid the void, there are spectacular sights here. A while into Bolivia, we came across two lagoons, sitting calmly next to one another in the shadow of Licancabur. Laguna Verde (4,300m above sea level), its shores rescinding due to the heat and lack of renewed moisture, serenely reflects a beautiful image of the towering volcano to the south. Laguna Blanca meanwhile, a completely different colour as the name would suggest, is larger and a little further away from our path through the centre of the two lagoons.

Our route away from these lagoons took us through yet more vacant scenery. The Martian comparison never seemed so apt, given the dearth of water in such a vast space, save for a few small lagoons. We came across steaming geysers in the middle of nowhere, reemphasising the inhospitable nature of this terrain. We could smell the sulphur of the geysers before we could see them, a truly foul smell that for some reason we decided to brave for pictures in the escaping steam. These geysers were unlike those we had seen at the Geysers del Tatio, which had produced water rather than the bubbling cauldron of mud we saw here. However, similarities remained in the beautiful coloured mineral deposits left by the escaping, scorching heat.

Incredibly, life does exist in such a place. Wild Vicunas dig and claw their way through the rock and shale for whatever food or moisture they can find. A few hours away from the unforgiving geysers, we arrived at the large Laguna Colorada (4,278m), a striking deep blue set against a mountain backdrop and filled with huge numbers of James’s Flamingos awkwardly stepping amongst the shallows, searching for food. We stepped from our 4x4 and approached the shores of this beautiful gathering of water to observe these peculiar creatures closer. Despite the abundance of life at Laguna Colorada, we were given constant reminders of the ruthlessness of the desert, passing numerous Flamingo carcasses, decaying amongst what little greenery exists close to the edges of the water, a poignant sight in of itself – what little lush land exists in such a barren place is still not all it seems.

From Laguna Colorada, we headed back in the direction we had came, again following no road but some faded tyre tracks back to a secluded building sheltered from any winds by a decent sized hill. It was here that we would call home for the night at a little under 4,300m elevation, which of course made for an eventful evening. Throughout the day, Amy and I had made a conscious effort to take in as much water as we possibly could in order to avoid the effects of the altitude but it did little to help. Amy’s headache began at Laguna Colorada and quickly progressed into a full migraine by the time we had reached our evening’s accommodation. Mine came a little later after dinner, a dense throbbing in my temples which seemed to indicate a sleepless night was to follow. Before heading off to bed, I wandered outside into the desert darkness to take in yet another amazing night sky – this one not quite so impressive as two nights previous in San Pedro, owing more to the fact that the moon was three quarters full, thus illuminating much of the sky and the desert valley before me.

Following a frigid night where I had cocooned myself in my sleeping bag with barely a discernible air hole, we awoke to reports of how our group had endured through a long night of altitude sickness. Most had headaches and insomnia, the former of which had continued into our second day for all but myself. After my headache the night before, I had slept reasonably well and awoke the following morning to no symptoms at all. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the others including Amy, who although noticeably better than the previous evening, still had significant head pain. Ironically, one of our group celebrated her birthday that morning with symptoms not unlike those experienced after a birthday night of reverie. But, in such places where is there to go but forwards and in this case thankfully downwards, as our second day would see us descend in altitude, hopefully relieving some of these symptoms.

Through more desolation, more sand and wind stripped rock. Our first stop of the day came at the Árbol de Piedra or ‘Stone Tree,’ an unusually shaped rock protruding out of the altiplano sand dunes and one of a random collection found where else but in the middle of nowhere. We can debate the merits of whether the rock itself resembles more a tree or profile of a bird but what is unmistakable is the evident power of the winds, which have over time stripped away layer upon layer of exposed rock, like everything in this abyss. Standing here I couldn’t help but think that if not for the active volcanoes still present in these parts, given enough time this landscape would be rendered utterly featureless by the power of the winds.

Onwards we drove, past a place known as the ‘Mountain of Seven Colours’ due to the fact the sand and rock which makeup its face create the effect of artists’ brush strokes, in seven different shades of earth. We made a brief stop at Laguna Honda, a beautiful patch of shrinking water whose drying bed had formed wonderful white cracks in the earth’s surface. Set against the backdrop of a few reflected snow capped mountains, this made for a great spot to take some pictures and generally marvel at the beautiful landscape. It occurred to those of us in our group, and I’m sure those on a similar path to our own, that this journey seemed to become more wondrous with each passing kilometer, each sight surpassing those previous which left us awe struck. In the jeep we spoke of how glad we were to have taken this journey from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni and not the other way around for this exact reason; and of course, the highlight still lay one day ahead.

After taking lunch at the Flamingo filled Laguna Hedionda we continued our journey towards the very edges of the Salar de Uyuni itself, first stopping at the Ollague Volcano, which in years past had spewed lava all over the desert creating picturesque rock formations, many resembling ocean waves, on which Amy demonstrated her skills! Passing the Salar de Chiguana, our driver decided it was time for a change in music from the unbelievably irritating three song playlist we had previously been subjected to, and so inserted a CD which basically sounded like the western style songs on the Kill Bill soundtrack. An odd but somehow fitting way to see in the sunset in the desert before reaching our salt hotel accommodation for the evening.

The salt hotel itself was, as the name suggests, constructed entirely from salt. However, the company we had opted to travel with, Cordillera Traveller, do not stay in the famed Salt Hotel out on the Salar de Uyuni itself, but rather stay in a supposedly more eco friendly salt hotel on the edges of the salt flats themselves. As you might imagine, the hotel is pretty cold with no real insulation and our only source of warmth whilst eating dinner was a wood fire, but in an area as sparse as the Atacama, wood is at a premium and we had just enough to get through dinner before retreating for the night, excited as to what lay ahead the following morning.

Driving out on our final day was a surreal experience. Initially, we slowly made our way along a road comprised of material not unlike snow which has begun to melt and mix with dirt to form a browning slush. However, after a mile or so into the Salar itself, we went ‘off-road’ and onto the salt flats, picking up speed all the time. Driving out onto this surface, with absolutely nothing but flat white in every direction is difficult to describe; a place where two simple colours basically comprise everything in sight, divided by the straightest of lines on the horizon, with absolutely no hills or features to break this divide between cloudless blue and impossible white.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at an unbelievable 10,500 square km. At 3,656m.a.s.l. the salt flat was formed due to geological transformations between various pre-historic lakes some 15,000 – 40,000 years ago. At one stage the lake was thought to be over 100 meters deep in some parts but what remains today is a dry and remarkably flat landscape, whose height variance above sea level over its entire body apparently never varies over one meter!

Suddenly appearing from nowhere was the Isla de Pescado, a small patch of dark on the shimmering horizon. So named due to its unusual shape and not because of its abundance of marine life, this particular island, again like most of our stops on this journey was in the middle of nowhere; it was also not on our original itinerary. We had been told back in San Pedro that the salt around the island was too soft to approach for the 4x4 vehicles, since the rainy season of 2012 had lasted two months longer than expected in the south east of Bolivia, and had thus saturated the salt around the island. Any approach risked the vehicle becoming stuck in the salt, a dim prospect given our lack of proximity to, well, anything. However, our driver had spotted what appeared to be fresh tyre tracks in the salt headed in the direction of Isla de Pescado and off we went, danger be damned.

Stopping at this bizarre ‘oasis’ of green and brown in the middle of the salt desert was an interesting experience. We were able to follow the rough trail markings to navigate our way around the craggy hills filled with cactus ranging in size (some of which soared over 10m in the air) and age – some of the cactus on the island are dated at over 200 years old. From the peak of one of the island’s many hills, we were afforded a panoramic view of the emptiness we currently found ourselves a part of, an amazing sight (and blindingly white when I removed my sunglasses for the briefest of moments!).

After the island, we once again proceeded to drive with no apparent destination in mind. It really is an unusual sight to see the front window of a vehicle with no road, sign or landmark to determine where one might be headed. As it turned out, we stopped in ‘the middle’(?) of the salt flats in order to partake in a bit of creative photography – the obligatory perspective style shots that are as much a part of the tourist attraction as the Salar itself. For the next half an hour, the five in our group plus our driver directed, positioned and snapped our new found friends in all manner of strange poses and positions. We may have looked strange to any by passers but then, any other people out on the flats were basically doing the same thing as us.

After the photographs and a lunch stop at the former salt hotel, now in use as a museum, we headed away from the Salar for the village of Uyuni itself, or rather its outskirts, where we came across the dusty and rusty Cemetery of Trains 3km outside of Uyuni. These trains once formed part of a prosperous Bolivia, exporting product and minerals west towards the Pacific Ocean for export. However, they were subsequently sabotaged by local Aymara Indian tribes who viewed the industrial progression as a threat to their lives. After, the trains were later used in the mining colonies but once resources began to dry up, the trains were left to rot and rust in the desert.

Finally, after a long and tiring but thoroughly amazing three days, we parted company with our travel companions in Uyuni. After purchasing our onwards bus tickets for Tupiza, we enjoyed a final beer in the sun in the centre of town and wished our friends luck on their journey. Exhausted, we collapsed into our bed that evening spent from three of the most incredible days in one of the world’s most impossibly wonderful places...

Additional photos below
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13th June 2012

You had me at Into the Abyss :)
Wonderful blog! I am extremely jealous and incredibly inspired - thanks!
15th June 2012

The mystery of it all.
Another great blog and photos. We are intrigued by Bolivia as it does seem like another world. We would love to check it out. Great title.

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