Journey to the Uyuni Salar
São Pedro do Atacama, north of Chile, receives us to enter the desert. Former stopping point for routes from Argentina and Bolivia, an oasis welcomes this city of just under 10,000 inhabitants at an altitude of 2,500 meters.
Narrow channels alternate the irrigation of the small properties of old Atacameños in the day and hour previously scheduled, in sparse lapses of time, giving life to alfalfa beds that feed few heads of cattle and horses. Some lost trees defend themselves with thorns and give us a little shade to withstand the hot hours of the afternoon. It was November and the warmth was just beginning, so we didn't experience the most intense heat.
The constructions made of sandy and adobe-shaped earth mimic the colors of the floor. And the walls made of that same earth receive garlands with small triangles, which pay tribute to the Licancabur volcano, majestically ever present wherever you want to look, at the top of its almost 6 thousand meters.
Immersion is immediate and unforgiving, with no time for adaptations. The driest and highest desert in the world spreads its dryness for a thousand kilometers, with a color palette from violets to browns, immensity of sand and salt in earthy tones, surrounded by steep reliefs, in sharp shapes, and an almost always very clear and blue sky that, when night comes, makes the joy of star watchers. Under this vastness, a gigantic deposit of valuable minerals. The sea currents blocked by the Andes prevent the possibility of rain and make water the most precious asset of this place. There is a belief in this place that from the water one uses always some should be given to Pachamama, Mother Earth, as a form of reverence.
A vast and harsh place offers us pure beauty. Emerald-colored lagoons filled with salt, so much to make us float, suddenly appear as jewels of true greatness and invade us with joy for living this moment. Rivers of golden grass run in the valleys where the water path once was. Hot water spring in the form of small mirrors of water. Valleys and plains hold water, in the soaked wetlands, which are formed by the melting snow of the surrounding peaks, receive the llamas decorated with colored strips indicating their property, and mix with the alpacas, guanacos, vicunas, besides many birds, transforming these areas in living pockets. In the time of acclimatization necessary to live in the extreme altitudes of our destination, the Salar de Uyuni takes us to contemplate each day a silent and complete landscape that makes us gradually go silent until we are mute, protecting ourselves from so much beauty. Here it is clear that the beautiful is not subjective, it simply is. The most beautiful landscapes have an effect of revealing ourselves. “The mystique of Nature that invades us with positive experiences of harmony”, in the words of Patrick Corneau, in The islands of Jean Granier preface.
The crossing of the Bolivian Altiplano places us in the deep desert, with anxiety and fear, enhanced by the physical discomfort caused by the lack of oxygen. In its time, this unusual and thought-provoking place rewards us with its treasures set in the lunar landscape. It offers us more lagoons of all colors that will be presented to us along our route, such as the Green Lagoon, so beautiful and so inhospitable, dyed by arsenic and copper, and just ahead the Colorada lagoon, pigmented by algae that produce carotene, exhaling its coral color, with its 60 square kilometers surrounded by borax white embroidery. Flamingos, tone-on-tone, develop an intoxicating set design, dancing for hours while enjoying the food of these toxic waters, except for them, and a few other birds.
Along the way, inhabitants of some small villages, resistant and complacent, plant quinoa with the melting water from the top of the volcanoes, which are always threatening to revive. With their clothes woven of colored threads and heads always protected by black hats, they shelter themselves from the sun and the low temperatures of the night.
The arrival at Salar de Uyuni is a disconcerting experience. A white infinite, the tone of emptiness, a tormenting and fascinating emptiness, takes over all points of our vision, until everything becomes nothing putting us in the right size of our smallness, within this exuberant magnitude. A strange sensation of deep filling and at the same time of emptiness. The sky, which is usually blue, was this day the color of salt, leaving any reference to the monochromatic landscape and announcing a very unlikely rain at this time of year. The enormous desire to run into this scene of the infinite accompanies a despair of lack of self-awareness in this place, and the fulfilled desire of throwing ourselves into this salt floor, over a thickness of 70 m of lithium, and recharging life with all this energy. A hexagonal web, like giant salt particles in relief, draws the floor creating a geometry of light and shadow that dissipates in the distance. This sea of salt surrounds some inexplicable small islands mixing with the mirages, with a huge variety of minerals, such as potassium, boron and magnesium, and a forest of beautiful cacti up to 5 meters high, showing off their verticality and white flowers. On the way to Tagua, in the camp to spend the night, the announced rain arrives and the sun appears next to set, staging all its nuances on a gigantic and thin mirror of water created by the rain on the salt plate. All the beauty that was far from little is mirrored in front of us.
The next morning, we are presented with the sight of the snow covered Tunupa volcano. The water had already disappeared over the salar, turning the desert whiter, and the salt crystals were shining like thousands of stars, carpeting our passage. It is impossible not to cry with joy at the emotion of the experiencing brought by so much beauty revealed to us.
writing Isabel Duprat
photography Isabel Duprat and Manoel Leão