Bolivian Sojourn: Navigating a Coral Reef at 12,000 feet Above Sea Level

The area around the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, is an other-worldly landscape of hallucinogenic visions and poses some difficult questions. For example: How did 10 billion tons of salt get here? Why is that lake green? Why are there thousands of pink flamingos living more than two miles above sea level? Why am I looking at steaming geysers and bubbling mudpots while freezing my butt off? Why is that lake red? But the question that I’m struggling with the most is: How is it that I am navigating an island of petrified coral, covered in cactus, in the middle of a sea of salt…at 12,000 feet above sea level?

The Salar de Uyuni is the remains of prehistoric Lake Minchin, which lost all its water via absorption and evaporation over 40,000 years ago. As the water disappeared, it left a perfectly-flat layer of salt covering 4.085 square miles, roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah. As the Andean altiplano was pushed up by the forces of plate tectonics, the Salar reached its present-day elevation.

We took a 4-day jeep safari starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni, the town that shares its name with the Salar. The first day was spent riding through the Lipez, a desert-like area in the farthest southwest corner of Bolivia, that resembles many areas of the U.S. southwest. We passed silver, gold, tin and antimony mines amidst thousands of roaming llamas, alpacas and vicunas (and one Andean ostrich). We also saw an odd animal called a viscacha, a rabbit-like creature with a long curly tail. The second day we passed hundreds of pink flamingos traipsing through lakes of swampy ice and borax. Three types of flamingos are indigenous to the swamps and marshes of the altiplano: the Chilean, the James and the Andean flamingos. By late morning, we arrived at Laguna Verde, a lake sitting in the shadow of a volcano, which keeps it’s green appearance due to the high arsenic content of its waters. After lunch and a dip in some thermal hot springs, we passed more volcanoes and flamingos and arrived at Sol de Mañana, an area of intense geothermic activity with steaming geysers and bubbling holes of mud. We carefully walked around the perimeter of the area but had to quickly retreat to the jeep due to the intense wind and cold. We spent that night on the shore of Laguna Colorada, a large lake that gets its red color from the profusion of algae blooms in the water. The third day we traveled past more snow-capped volcanoes and stopped at the Stone Tree, an eroded volcanic rock in the shape of a tree 25 feet high. We spent that night in a salt hotel, an inn made primarily of blocks of salt. Our beds were platforms of salt and the dining area boasted dining tables and block seats made from salt. When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls of our room to verify their saline content (trying not to think about how many previous guests had done the same).

We woke at 6:00 am on the fourth day and drove out to the middle of the Salar to watch the sunrise. The kids and I took pictures of our extremely long shadows, which stretched hundreds of feet to the west. We ate breakfast on the “shore” of Isla Inca Huasi, also known as Fish Island for its fish-like shape. Inca Huasi is an island covered with petrified coral and cactus that was once in the middle of ancient Lake Minchin and now sits in the middle of the Salar. The cacti are relatively new; we’d heard that they grow about 2 centimeters a year, so none could be much more than 1,000 years old. We climbed to the top of the island to see white salt and blue sky in all directions.

Any land of coexisting extremes like this one -- hot, dry, swampy, steamy, salty, windy, cold -- is bound to raise questions. Our 4-day jeep safari through the Salar answered some of them for us.

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