The Other Kind of Salt and Sand

I’m simply not going to be able to talk about everything I did in Atacama and Bolivia over the past week. I did and saw so much that giving you every detail would take forever. Also, while each and every sunset and lagoon I saw was breathtaking, writing about the beauty of each one might get a bit repetitive. So, I’m giving you the highlights of a trip too wonderful to even begin to describe properly. It was a stark contrast to the charming, artsy streets and restaurants of Santiago and Valparaiso. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the entire world and we were surrounded by very extreme landscapes.

Similar to Salta, the only way to really visit the area surrounding our base, San Pedro de Atacama, is by tour. Izzi and I found a company with a good price on a four-day tour package, so they day after we arrived we went out to see Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. Valle de la Muerte, or Valley of Death, was given hat name because traders from various indigenous villages used to have to cross it on their way to other towns and often didn’t make it.

Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all?
Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all? That’s Licancabur in the background! 

There is absolutely no life in that part of the desert – no plants, no animals, just sand and rocks. From one point, called Roca del Cayote, we could look down on the oasis where there waslife and had an amazing view of the surrounding volcanos. It was the first time I really looked at Licancabur, a volcano I would see and recognize every day I was in Atacama and grow quite attached to. At the end of the day we went to Valle de la Luna. It got its name because people say it looks like the moon, but to me it looks much more like how I would picture Mars. When we got there we went on a little hike through the red and chocolate coloured dunes up to the crest of one of the peaks. From there we stared at the marvellous mountains above and below us and waited for the sun to set. Since the sun fell past view so quickly, the sky wasn’t the best part. What was amazing was turning around and seeing the light of the sunset reflect off of the mountains behind us. They turned such a brilliant pink before slipping into shadow.

Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna
Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna

The next day was the first of many very early mornings. At 4:45 we were up and ready to be taken to see the geysers at Parque Geyser del Tatio. The sun was just rising when we got there and the moon was still out. It was an absolutely perfect crescent that looked like the Cheshire Cat’s smile and was  even more special because I was looking at it through the steam of dozens of geysers. Tatio is the third largest geyser park in the world, behind Yosemite and another one in Russia, and all around me enormous towers of steam were shooting up into the sky.

Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio
Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio

I loved it when spurts of water would shoot out along with the steam. The drops evaporated in the freezing air and looked like the marks lift over in the sky by fireworks. Of course, we weren’t able to get too close since the water inside was so hot. One of the geysers was called “El Asisino” because it had killed three people. The geniuses had decided it would be a good idea to jump from one end to the other, but with all the steam they were unable to measure the distance and fell in, boiling to death. There was one that was safe to walk through, which was a lot of fun. Jumping through the steam I felt like a bird in the clouds. I was also very interested in the deposits of colour that surrounded some of the geysers. The guide told me they were bacteria colonies. To me the oranges and pinks looked like the sunrise. it was as if the bacteria had watched the sunrise there every morning and decided that was what they wanted to be.

That day I also saw the first of the many vicuña I would see on this trip. Vicuña are animals in the same family as llamas and alpacas but they’re much smaller, have longer necks, and run much faster.

One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip
One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip.

They’re also wild, while llamas and alpacas are farmed. Unfortunately, while they’re protected, vicuña are poached for their very soft hair. Unlike alpaca fur you have to skin vicuñas for their hair and a scarf made from it can sell for up to $8000 in Europe. They were adorable, and seeing them made me feel a little guilty about trying llama meat later in the day. It was good though; it’s flavour is hard to describe. It was a bit like beef but a little gamier and something about the taste was just… different. It simply tasted like llama.

The day after we climbed up and up and up in the mountains to get to Aguas Calientes. We were so high up that Agua Calientes was frozen (oh, the irony) and there was snow on the ground. Being in the snow in the desert was fascinating to me. I loved the way the powdery snow looked on the sand – like being on a New England beach in the middle of winter.

The colourful Piedras Rojas
The colourful Piedras Rojas
Snow on desert sand
Snow on desert sand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way down we stopped at a place called Piedras Rojas and I realized what a difference altitude makes in terms of landscape. Down there the red clay ground and the little yellow plants the vicuña feed on were so colourful compared to the iciness of Aguas Calientes.

After that day, Izzi’s friends Louis and Pierre joined us. Although I had never met Pierre, and Louis only briefly, it was so much fun to add new people to our adventures. Our first tour all together was to Laguna Cejar. It was a beautiful, warm day and we were told the lagoon was swimmable, so we brought our bathing suites. It wasn’t nearly as warm when we got up to where the lagoon was, but it was too beautiful a place not to go in. It was surrounded by gorgeous mountains, including Lucancabur, and layers of salt encircled the water. The lagoon itself was quite cool. On the inside there was a ledge that made a sort of shallow end, then it dropped down into a deep, dark hole.

Floating in Laguna Cejar
Floating in Laguna Cejar
Smiling through my shivers
Smiling through my shivers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That water was damn cold and Pierre refused to go in. As soon as Izzi, Louie, and I jumped it knocked the wind right out of me. Izzi and Louie scrambled out immediately, but I stayed. I believe I have Canada to thank for that. A couple of years ago it would have just been too much for me. Eventually my body went numb and I was able to enjoy myself. It’s an extremely salty lagoon, similar to the Red Sea, and no matter what I did I floated, which was a lot of fun.

That night we experienced what was probably the highlight of Atacama for me – the star tour. We met up with a group at 11 pm and were taken out of town and away from any light pollution. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was hit by the most astounding night sky I had ever seen. I knew they were going to be amazing, Atacama is home to the ALMA observatory and is famous for its night sky, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Stars covered the sky and we could see the entire milky way stretch all the way from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. When the tour started I just stood there craning my neck upwards as the astronomer pointed out stars, planets, and constellations. I got to see Virgo which, regardless of the astronomer’s distain for astrology, felt quite special to me. He also pointed out Saturn, which was cool at the moment but would mean so much more to me later in the night. While I was watching I saw so many shooting stars I lost count. I would have made wishes, but at that moment I felt so extremely lucky to be seeing what I was seeing that making any wish at all just seemed greedy. I never wanted to look anywhere but up again, but when the astronomer was done talking we moved on to look at the stars through these amazing telescopes. They were pointed at various points in the sky, and through one I saw a constellation that looked like a butterfly. I never thought I would describe stars as cute, but that’s exactly what it was as it appeared to sparkle and flutter through the sky. I was also lucky enough to look through the biggest telescope available for public viewing in South America. Through it I saw a star cluster that blew my mind. In the centre of it there were so many stars that it just looked like one enormous ball of white. Then, as the cluster got more sparse around the edge the stars seemed to spiral out of it in a dance. As amazing as that was, though, my favourite one was Saturn. The picture was incredible. The planet was so white and clear and seeing its rings, seeing that it’s really all up there unique and beautiful, made the planets so real to me. I will never forget how beautiful Saturn was – how beautiful Saturn is. Of course spending so much time looking at space made me feel small, but it didn’t at all make me feel insignificant. In a way it made me feel so special to be able to see the stars in this way. On this tour I felt like I was really a part of it all, and I suppose I am.

Soon it was time to leave Atacama and head to Bolivia. At the Bolivian border we were picked up by our guide and the Land Rover that would pretty much be our home as we traversed the Fauna Andina Eduardo Avoroa National Park. Our group consisted of our guide, a Bolivian named Vladamire, me, Izzi, Pierre, Louie and a Canadian named Kex.

Our awesome group and our home - the Land Rover.
Our awesome group and our home – the Land Rover.

As soon as we hit the road I was amazed how well Vladamire know where he was going. There were no signs, pretty much no roads, and the only landmarks the continuous, pretty much undistinguishable, mountains. Our first day was full of lagoons. First we stopped at the frozen Laguna Blanca, then Laguna Verde. This one was supposed to be bright green because of the minerals in the water, but since there was ice it was hard to see. My favourite, though, Laguna Colorada, wasn’t frozen and so we were able to see it in all its glory. The microorganisms in the water make it pink, and I felt like I was on another planet.

The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.
The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.

I loved watching the flamingos in the water because they matched so well with their pink surroundings and I could just tell they belonged there. There weren’t many this time, but Vladi (Vladamire) told us that in September there can be up to 15,000 at a time! He also told us that they lay their eggs in the middle of the lagoon to keep them safe from predators and that at night they sleep in groups, rotating who is at the edge and who is at the middle to keep warm, just like penguins.

That day we also saw El Desierto de Dali, named that because it’s reminiscent of his surrealism. I was really struck by the complete stillness of the place. Of course rocks are always still, but the ones here were especially.

The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali
The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali

It was as if they were waiting for something, or trapped completely out of time. There were patches of snow where the rocks cast shadows which looked like the little spirit of each rock was clinging to it. We saw a lot of rocks on this trip, all of them quite cool in their own way.

The majestic Arbol de Piedra
The majestic Arbol de Piedra

The next day we saw El Arbol de Piedra, a huge chunk of rock that over thousands of years has been warn away by the wind. Izzi taught me that this process is called attrition. The more you know. According to Vladi, the stone at the bottom of this particular rock was weaker than at the top, so it had worn away faster making the shape of a tree. The other rocks around it were quite fun to climb around on, and we all felt a little like kids in a playground.

On top of the world!
On top of the world!

After the Arbol de Piedra we went to Laguna Negra. After seeing Laguna Colorada I thought no lagoon would ever be able to impress me again, but I was wrong. Laguna Negra was tucked perfectly into a cliff face so part of it was covered, giving it a secret, hidden kind of feel. I don’t think we would have even been able to see it if we had been looking from the other end. We first looked over at it from the top of a hill covered in those vicuña plants and right away I noticed how full of life it felt. From where we were standing I could see a type of black bird swimming around which Vladi told me were called fulicas officially or, more commonly, socas. I made my way down the hill to the edge of the lagoon to get a better look. They looked like ducks while they were swimming around in the water, but as soon as they stood up I was pleasantly surprised by their legs. They were long and bright red with enormous three-toed feet that gripped the icy parts over the water. The socas also had really interesting faces. You couldn’t really see their faces, actually. Everything was jet black so you couldn’t even see their eyes, then this big, orange and yellow beak stuck out of the darkness in a way that was quite impressive. In a (failed) attempt to get a good picture, I got quite close to the birds and they seemed completely uninterested in me at all. Their confidence made the whole lagoon feel safe, like nothing bad could happen there, either to them or me. Vladi set a picnic out for us in the rocks above the lagoon looking out over the water which was lovely, despite the wind. It was nice spending quite a bit of time in one spot instead of getting right back into the car.

And then, all of a sudden, we came to the last day of our journey and the Salar de Uyuni. At five am the next morning we headed out to be able to see the sunrise at Incahausi, the magical cactus island. Incahausi means “house of the Inca” in Mapuche and was named that because the Inca used to visit the island for ceremonial sacrifices. As I climbed the island it became obvious to me why the Inca chose that spot. As the sun rose it gleamed off of every cactus giving them a very spiritual aura.

Probably an 800 year old Cactus
Probably an 800 year old Cactus
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually I found a spot that satisfied me so I sat and watched as the sky turned a brilliant pink. I was even able to watch the exact moment the sun peeked above the horizon. It will be nice once I get back to Montreal and am in the middle of midterms and work and cleaning the bathroom to remember that in Bolivia on Incahausi cactus island, every single day starts like that. What was amazing was that once it was up I actually got a good look at where I was. I got up and left my spot to check the cacti out properly. Vladi had told us that some of them were over 800 years old, meaning that they were there long before the Inca were. They were so huge and seemed so wise as I walked among them. Even just standing in that one spot for 800 years they had seen so much. How many of us small humans had they watched marvel over the beauty of their home, from the Inca to me?

I could have walked around looking at each and every cactus forever, but I was also excited to drive out into the nothingness. The Uyuni Salt Flat is 12,000 square kilometres, but not really having any conception of what that really means I was astounded as we just kept driving and driving farther into the middle. At one point that seemed arbitrary to me, though I’m sure Vladi had his reasons, we stopped to get out of the car and take pictures. The photo possibilities in a place so strikingly flat are endless. Many people bring props to take funny photos, but that wasn’t really my group’s style and we only took a couple gimmicky ones, which were fun.

Fun with space and cameras.
Fun with space and cameras.

Really, though, I just wanted to enjoy the silence and the space around me. As a person who really enjoys my alone time, at one point I walked away from the group to take it all in. I lay down flat on the flat (ha) and just stared at what lay before me . From that angle it felt like I was on a tilt – as if I could see and feel the curve of the Earth. The honey-comb shape of the salt was even more clear from down there and it stretched on forever. Then, at the end of infinity, the mountains and the sky tilted with me. I’ve never been to a place where the ground seems to stretch farther than the wide open sky before.

This is what an infinity of salt looks like
This is what an infinity of salt looks like.

Uyuni is definitely a place I would go back to. Next time I would go in the summer time so I could see the 15,000 flamingos at Laguna Colorada. Also, in the summer time there is water on the salt flat. Since it is so still and flat and the ground under it is so white, it creates a perfect reflection of the sky. I would absolutely love to see the sky stretch forever above, below, and around me on all sides. However, I’m glad I went in the winter this time. When there’s water on the flat it’s too dangerous to drive out into it because it’s impossible to know where you are. You can look at it from near the edges, but I really liked driving out to the very centre. Also, not being able to drive out too far would mean that you wouldn’t be able to see Incahausi, which was probably my favourite part. I like when a place gives you reasons to go back.

Now I’ve returned to Buenos Aires, back to my house in Palermo and the business of this huge city, which is a bit of a shock after being in the desert for so long. It definitely felt good to take a hot shower and to sleep in a warm bed, though. I have exactly one week before I fly back home to Montreal. In that week I plan on soaking up every last drop this city can ofter me.