Wednesday, October 13, 2010

With a Terrain of Salt

As long-term travellers in South America, we are spoiled with a seemingly endless supply of picturesque surroundings. So far, we have hiked through deserted jungle forests and canyons, gawked up close at towering, glacier-covered peaks and whittled away lazy days on pristine Caribbean beaches. Arriving to each of these places for the first time can feel almost spiritual, yet I am ashamed to realize that after a certain amount of time in one place (it might be hours, it might be days) I often become numb to the beauty which surrounds me. Perhaps that is why I found our jeep trip across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (the world's largest salt flat and the remnants of a prehistoric salt lake) into the Atacama Desert in Chile (the world's driest desert) so amazing. Just past the horizon or around the next corner seemingly lurked some surreal object or colour which had no apparent connection to the one previous to it. It felt like a three-day drive through a natural amusement park and it had my undivided attention throughout.

Just mentioning some of places we visited along the way (i.e. Laguna Colorada, Fish Island, Laguna Verde) is still enough to bring smiles to our faces. If I had been commissioned to paint the various landscapes we encountered (pretending for a moment that I had been blessed with any artistic ability), I would have coloured them just as they were. The blinding whiteness of the salt contrasted magically with a deep blue and nearly cloudless sky, yet wispy clouds seemed to appear just in time for sunsets and to accentuate the orange hills, pink flamingos and red lakes (yes, red lakes) that came next. Volcanos, geysers, hot springs and wildlife? Check, check, check and check. Yes, it could get very cold and, yes, it could get very windy, but it just added to the whole experience. I just don't have enough good things to say about all that we saw.

The best advice we received from other travellers before setting out on the trip - and one that I would commend to future visitors - was that we should be prepared to be astonished by the setting and hopeful that our tour operator wouldn't ruin the experience. Indeed, finding travellers willing to recommend the tour group they used is sort of like trying to find a rational Toronto Maple Leafs fan - they pretty much don't exist. I'd crudely lump the typical complaints into one of two categories: the scary (bad, careless or drunk jeep operators and jeeps in very poor mechanical condition) and the uncomfortable (over-crowded jeeps, bad food, food which might make you sick and basic accommodations). Given that our guidebook noted that a number of tourist lives are lost each year in jeep accidents, we focused on trying to find a company that offered less "scary" and crossed our fingers that we would dodge the "uncomfortable". We succeeded in accomplishing the former but couldn't pull off the latter. While I would say that we have now joined the ranks of backpackers who wouldn't recommend their agency, as hard as they tried, I'm happy to say that they were not able to ruin the experience for us.

As always, my Salt Flats experience by the numbers:

Number of times I thought I was going to die: 1 (when I realized the plate of food they put in front of me the first night was meant to be dinner for all seven of us)

Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: Zero (yeah, I know it was a jeep trip, but this is progress, people!)

Number of times I thought Kristin was going to slap our jerk driver: 5

Number of times I saw our jerk driver drinking before 8:00 a.m.: 1

Number of tourists in our "six-person jeep": 7

Number of seats that left for the cook we were promised: Zero

The rest of our pictures from the Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama are here. I think they speak for themselves and I didn't even attempt to post any funny comments to go alongside them. Okay, that's not true... the captions are my very favourite part of blogging and I couldn't resist. That said, the pictures are beautiful and I hope my words don't do them a disservice. Now on deck: Kristin, with her Bolivia wrap up.


  1. Looks like you've got a new nickname, Tinkerbell.

  2. Ouch. I've often dreamed of the day when I would earn a Disney cartoon nickname, but I had always imagined that it would be "Gaston" (whose rugged good looks so closely resemble my own). This will take some time to recover from.