Dreams of Dali

January 1, 2010

There are some places on Earth so bizarre that you question whether they somehow ended up on the wrong planet. Places that will alternately take your breath away and leave you feeling cold and distant. The southwest corner of Bolivia holds an amazing diversity of these places, and is a magnet for adventurous souls from all over the world.

But no so fast; in order to reach these places, you will need a serious off-road vehicle. Be prepared to travel long distances on rough unpaved roads that turn into near rivers when it rains. A 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser will do just fine (for simplicity's sake, we'll just call it a jeep.) However, don't be surprised if it lacks normal amenities: air-conditioning, seat-belts, and a working pair of windshield wipers. Also, take it in stride when the passenger side-view mirror falls off en-route, and the truck breaks down several times in the first few hours. Your fearless driver, Fernando, can handle it, and so can you.

On the first day of your four day journey you leave from Tupiza, Bolivia, and drive for eight hours through increasingly stark landscapes. Just when it seems that no living creature exists here, a herd of llamas appear, grazing on shrubs. They are just as surprised to see you as you are to see them.

As the sun lowers on the horizon, a small refuge of civilization becomes visible in the distance. A hot tea, warm meal, overly soft mattress, and freezing cold night awaits. At an altitude of over 2 miles high, you may find it difficult to sleep. But rest all that you can because you will be on the road again immediately following an early sunrise.

Barely awake, perhaps cranky, you hop into onto a frigid car seat and the rough ride soon jolts you back to life. Although soon you wonder if you are still dreaming. The spectacular ruins of an abandoned village come into view.

As the sun continues to rise, the vast terrain surrounding you begins to glow. Golden shrubs dot rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Amazed, you motor past them, followed closely by a convoy of other vehicles.

The rest of the morning brings incredible changes of landscape; lush green oases, eerily beautiful lagoons inhabited by pink flamingos, and the peculiar sight of a snow-like salt lake being plowed in the middle of the high desert.

Natural hot springs abound in this area; taking a dip in one in this surreal landscape is an equally surreal experience.

Having drove for over six hours in the morning, it's difficult to look forward to getting back in the jeep after lunch. A sense of being overwhelmed with site-seeing starts to creep in. But onward you move, to a magnificent turquoise-green lake, and later to boiling, bubbling, malodorous geysers.

Thoroughly exhausted, its easy to arrive at the second night's accommodations and believe that you have seen the best of your trip. But that thought is quickly dispelled the next morning.

This cannot be real. Thoughts like this run through your head when you arrive at the Laguna Colorada. The famous "red lake" is so colored due to countless microorganisms that thrive in its water. Flamingos feed on these organisms, and lounge on white borax deposits amidst the lake. Watching long-necked flamingos gracefully take wing and hover over this vivid red pool, while emitting a constant trill, just might revive your belief in the supernatural. You could stay here all day and marvel at the ethereal nature of this place, but soon you're back in the jeep and barreling forward, arriving at an endless desert.

Silence. The type of silence which you may have never experienced before; a silence so enveloping that you realize that your whole life you have been surrounded by some type of noise.

After motoring through the arid wasteland, more lakes materialize, each one more picturesque than the next.
After lunch, it's back in the jeep and back to pummeling, rocky roads. Just when you begin losing the battle with motion sickness, your vehicle touches down on surface so smooth that you might well be on an airport runway.

It's tempting to assume that you are driving on a salt flat, but this is actually borax. In any case, the sensation is mesmerizing.

I'm sick of being trapped in this jeep. Although you are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this notion has completely overtaken your thinking by the end of the third day. When you finally arrive at a house made almost entirely of salt, a welcome distraction presents itself. Tonight you will walk on salt floors, eat on a salt table, and sleep on a salt bed.

At 4:30am, you're up on your feet and getting ready for the culmination of your journey; a visit to the boundless salt flats of Uyuni. Once in the jeep, the curvature of the earth becomes clear to see as the horizon stretches around you in all directions. The sun rises and an otherworldly scene unfolds.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat on Earth. It was formed as a result of transformations of several prehistoric lakes. Almost nothing lives here. But, bewilderingly, an island of cacti sits right in the middle of this nothingness. From here, your eye is tricked into viewing the surrounding salt as snow, and pictures reveal a hallucinatory juxtaposition.

The Salar feels as solid as packed dirt to walk on, and makes an ideal playing field for a soccer match.

Because the area is so flat, trick photos can be very convincing to the naked eye.

And so, having seen your fill of astonishing landscapes over four long days, your journey draws to an end. Hopefully you have gotten along with everyone in your vehicle, and maybe even made some new friends to compliment your newly overloaded camera. The memories you have made will stay with you forever, and possibly take you hours and hours to synthesize and later report on your blog. For the next few days, you may take turns reminiscing on the amazing sights you have seen, and swearing that you will never take a long jeep ride on bumpy roads again for years to come. Sleep in the following morning, and don't be alarmed if your dreams are filled with never-ending white.

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  1. Oh my god Adam, I'm blown away, what an amazing journey!! The pics are AMAZING and hysterical (I love trick pictures like these). Wish I was there!

  2. currently planning and budgeting a trip throughout south america-is there an estimate of how much your journey through Bolivia cost? I'd love to do it regardless, but just curious

  3. It all depends on how you travel. Some people can travel in Bolivia for $20 a day, by eating street food and staying in the cheapest hostels. My budget was closer to $40 a day, and I lived quite comfortably. The four day Tupiza-Uyuni safari cost $200 when i did it, and was all-inclusive. It's probably a little more expensive now, though.

  4. Your blog is incredible! I especially love how you combine practical information, crafty descriptions, and even travel ethics. I'll be traveling to Bolivia in July, and I thank you so much for the inspiration!