Page 2 - Disconnected in a Landscape of Sand and Salt

Disconnected in a Landscape of Sand and Salt — Page 2
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

overland Bolivia travel

As we leave the Uyuni Salt Flat and head into the high desert, the landscape turns brown and a cloud of dust kicks up behind us. We stop to explore a cave containing strange geological formations that look like lace and webbing, then go on a short hike and see viscachas—the long-tailed rabbits that are common in the deserts of South America. When we eventually pull up to where we're sleeping, the brown-on-brown stone huts that blend into the landscape don't look like much. We have feather pillows on nice cots again inside though and as night falls we're sipping some Carmenere to accompany the grilled lamb.

Bolivian flamingos

My expectation going into this trip was of a land devoid of life apart from a few slithering snakes and lizards. This desert is far from lifeless, however, especially when we get to Turquiri Lagoon, a place teeming with birds. It's surrounded by strange rock formations, a marshy area, and the llareta mossy blobs that can grow slowly over thousands of years. When we move on to two other salty lagoons, we find hundreds of pink flamingos, a sight usually associated with tropical lowlands. There are plenty of brine shrimp to eat in these salty waters though, the same kind of food that brings them to shallow sea water zones in North America.

Our last remote lodging spot is Cañapa, where Explora hauled retired shipping containers into the desert, hid them behind an outcrop, and turned them into places to stay. One contains men's and women's bathrooms, one contains the kitchen, and the rest are sleeping quarters with a killer view out the front door. We all wander our separate ways from the camp before the sun goes down, itching to explore and photograph this stunning region of mountains, lagoons, and blue skies with wispy clouds.

This is Bolivia? Why did I wait so long to come here?

explora travesia Bolivia tour

I go for a walk after dinner, my headlamp the only unnatural light for as far as I can see in any direction once our camp is hidden below me. No jets, no cars, no houses, no headlights. There are no sounds out here besides my footsteps and the wind. It's just me, the original Earth, and the stars. Even the faintest of those stars in the sky are visible here.

We joked as we pulled out of the city of Potosi days ago about whether anyone would go through withdrawal after the technology cut-off. The driver has a satellite phone if there's a true emergency, but otherwise nobody can reach us and Big Brother can't track our movements. I'm enjoying the feeling of being connected just to nature again, like I was in my childhood when we'd play in the forest or go swimming in a river for hours. We had to be home by dinnertime, but otherwise there were no obligations or check-ins. It has been too long since I felt true freedom like that.

Emerging From Isolation

We eat a hearty breakfast the next morning and then walk along a lake filled with geese in the morning, the first in a series that we'll stop by on the continuing dirt road south. I came expecting a parched desert, but found a land dotted with water and...seagulls? The pink flamingos were a surprise, but seeing gulls flying and nesting here seems even stranger, especially when we look in another direction and see running vicuñs—the smaller brown relatives of the llamas and alpacas. We pass a white lagoon, a green one, and a red one. Andean geese join an improbable collection of wildlife in a land with no trees, but plenty of color.

Bolivia Colorado lagoon

We start to see more vehicles as we get closer to the border with Chile, tourists who have just crossed the border for a day trip, staying tethered to their electronic lifeline when they return to the grid at night.

We park in an actual parking lot when we get to a geothermal plain erupting in steam and boiling mud. I get an involuntary clinching in my gut. See more people in one place than we have for the last four days combined means we're coming to the end of our isolation.

Bolivia desert landscape

There's a sense of something left behind as we clear customs at the border and roll down a perfectly paved road into Chile. It's a welcome sight to pass by the free-flowing drinks at the Explora Atacama bar as I'm led to a room with a comfy mattress. I look around though and see we've emerged back into a world where people spend as much time looking at a little rectangle in their hand as they do at each other. I'm kind of saddened as I realize only a hot shower with good water pressure has a higher priority on my re-entry into civilization than downloading the 600 e-mails that have piled up. We've gone from not being able to see another human in our whole 360-degree view to a full-blown tourist town where foreigners outnumber locals. I know the hotel will be lovely and comfortable, but there's a pang of regret as I scroll through the photos from the past five days on my recharged laptop. I'll keep looking back on the best shots and be transported to landscapes where the only tweets are the from the yellow birds perched on the cacti.

If you go:

Explora runs their Travesia tours in both directions between Explora Atacama hotel and Uyuni in southern Bolivia, but the one starting in San Pedro de Atacama loops around to finish at the coast. See the itineraries at the site. See a Travesia Bolivia video tour here.

Story and photos by editor Tim Leffel, who was hosted by Explora while researching a feature story for another publication. He is author of several books, including Travel Writing 2.0. His latest is A Better Life for Half the Price.

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Related Features:
The Trip to Bolivia I Never Took and Never Came Back From by Luke Maguire Armstrong
Life in the Past Tense: Chile's Atacama Desert by Shelly Seale
The Way to a Woman's Heart by Marie Javins
Ride of a Lifetime on the World's Most Dangerous Road by Carla Seidl

See other Travel in South America articles from the archives

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