We're four days into our journey and our only communication has been face-to-face with each other. What was common for travelers a few decades ago is now exceedingly rare: we are disconnected from the rest of the world. No phone, no e-mail, no status updates, and thankfully no way to post a selfie. The desert quiet has replaced the bleeping and pings. A carpet of stars overhead makes us feel connected to the cosmos instead of the network. The animals that vastly outnumber us go on with the circle of life as they have here for thousands of years.
We're traversing the vast highland desert in southern Bolivia that stretches from the world's largest salt flat to the adventure tour playground of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The Chilean tour company Explora uses a series of its own unique lodges along the route. They offer some creature comforts and a real kitchen, but preserve the feeling of exploration in an unspoiled landscape.
We leave the pollution, traffic, and noise of Potosi and go for a warm-up hike through a canyon in the Chaquilla area. After a picnic lunch with a desert view we drive on and get to the town of Uyuni, the gateway to the great salt flat. It's a dusty and haphazard frontier town, the kind of place where it wouldn't seem surprising to see two men face each other on the main street with hands on their holsters. It does have a tinge of danger to it for modern reasons: smuggling. Our guide has an official tour company permit allowing him to fill up extra gas cans for the trip across the desert to Chile. Regular drivers aren't allowed to buy extra, in order to discourage the transportation of cocaine and other drugs to a much richer Chile. The gas permits are hard to get, our driver says, because many tour companies are fake ones set up just to try to buy more fuel at this outpost.
The Bolivian salt flat is a thing of wonder. It covers more than 4,000 square miles (10,582 square kilometers). It's an expanse of blinding whiteness that tricks your senses in multiple ways. It feels like viewing a landscape of snow or ice, but in the daytime it's warm enough to be walking on the crystallized salt without a jacket. The surface is so hard that vehicles simply drive across it all year to connect to the villages on the edges of the salt. It can get cold enough for a heavy jacket at night though, at 12,000 feet above sea level and it doesn't take much effort before we feel a shortness of breath.
Our first encounter with the salt after getting out of the van is watching a man shoveling it into piles as our feet go "crunch crunch" on the rough surface. The driver then makes his way across the white plain that changes color to soft yellow then pink as the miles go on and the sun drifts lower.
When we eventually arrive in the village of Tahua on the other side it feels like a ghost town. It's well off the grid and there are no lights. We park at what looks like a collection of stone houses with thatch roofs like the others in the area, but the tour company has transformed the insides of them. This is closer to "glamping" than roughing it, with sleeping bags rated to 40 below zero on comfortable cots and alpaca blankets to add more coziness. Baths across the courtyard have hot water, gas lanterns, and upscale toiletries.
The main house contains an open kitchen and dining room, the stone walls insulated but the ceiling constructed in the traditional fashion, with cactus wood beams lashed together with leather. As we sip tea and the cook traveling with us prepares dinner, we learn that the crew is carrying nearly everything we're going to eat in the van. After this village there's a whole lot of nothing ahead. There won't even be a tienda to duck into, much less a gleaming supermarket.
After dinner we emerge into the blackness and marvel at the constellations, so easy to find here in the dark sky. We snuggle into our sleeping bags and sleep deeply, with no artificial noises or light.
In the light of a new day, the Tanupa Volcano behind the village dominates the landscape. We visit a cave filled with mummified bodies, people trapped inside when the mountain last erupted, somewhere around 1,800 years ago. We take a long stroll back to where we'll sleep again in Tahua, on a bank along the edge of the salt flat. Hundreds of llamas are grazing around us and I ask the local villager accompanying us how they mark them to know which ones belong to different farmers. He laughs and says he just knows by the look of them. "That one's mine, those two are mine, this one is mine, a new baby there," he says while pointing. "There are 18 families in our village," he says, "We know our llamas."
Late in the day we pile into the van again and head out onto the salt flat for a sundowner. There's a table set up with olives and cheese and our guide pops open a bottle of sparkling wine as the sun sets over the horizon. As soon as it goes down all the warm colors disappear and the temperature quickly drops from t-shirt weather to winter coat weather. It's time for a warm dining room and an early bedtime. With technology out of the picture, we're returning to the more natural circadian rhythm of our ancestors.
For our last day on the salt flat, we first visit a museum and sculpture garden in the town of San Pedro de Quemes. It's the personal project of a man with plenty of time on his hands. He lives, after all, in a town with eight permanent residents. The youngsters have all left to pursue more money and excitement elsewhere.
We make our way to cactus-covered Bird Island for a hike, fully winded as we climb up a trail to the top. The panoramic views are worth it, even if we can't get past the visual dissonance of an arctic view combined with cacti and a searing sun.
To give us the full experience of the vastness of this surface, the driver drops us at a random spot and drives on. He starts setting up for lunch so far away that he is just a dot on the horizon. Without the reassurance of that dot, we would be incredibly vulnerable in this unforgiving landscape, quickly running out of water. Instead we crunch across the whiteness toward our destination and then lounge in folding directors' chairs, munching on smoked meat, bread, and grilled vegetables.
Books from the Author: