An Exhilarating (If Risky) Family Adventure in Bolivia

The Wall Street Journal reports:

An Exhilarating (If Risky) Family Adventure in Bolivia
The remote Salar de Uyuni salt flat is an unlikely, unnerving—and unforgettable—vacation spot

By Hilary McGregor

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.13.06 AMWE WERE HURTLING toward the edge of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat in a Toyota Land Cruiser as the sun was sinking, turning the world from pink to lavender, to a deep, cobalt blue. Our driver was picking up speed, and I could hear the whoosh of the salt crystals spewing out behind us.

The radio crackled an announcement: Another 4X4 had fallen through the crust near the edge of the flat, where the 4-foot layer of salt grows thin. Its rear tires were stuck in the mud. We sped to the scene, where our guide and driver jumped out to help push. Temperatures were falling fast and we were in the middle of nowhere.

I shot my husband, Jonathan, a look: Were we crazy to bring our boys, Theo, 12, and Benji, 10, here? To put them at risk for the sake of beauty and a thrill?

“The cavalry ain’t coming,” Jonathan said. “If another jeep gets stuck, or we do, there’s no way out of here.”

We were eight weeks into a 10-week South American odyssey. Before we left Los Angeles, everyone we turned to for advice told us we had to see Salar de Uyuni. There’s nothing else like it in the world, they promised.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.15.30 AMLocated in the southwest corner of Bolivia, near the remote and wild borderlands of Argentina and Chile, Salar de Uyuni is a desert on top of the world—more than 7,000 square miles of blinding white salt 12,000 feet above sea level. It is the largest salt flat on earth, an ancient dried-out lake bed in the southern Altiplano, or high plains, region, where the Andes are at their widest.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.17.19 AMJonathan and I knew it could be dangerous and had been told about reckless and drunken tour-vehicle drivers. “At least 21 people, including 17 tourists, have been killed in jeep accidents on the Salar de Uyuni salt plains since 2008,” our Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook warned. But the allure of the place outweighed any trepidation we felt about going.

In La Paz, I booked a three-day trip with Red Planet Expedition that starts at the salar and continues higher into the mountains, ending at a nature preserve.

After a short flight from La Paz, we landed in the town of Uyuni at sunrise. It was desolate and bone-cold, with a bitter wind blowing. The town doesn’t make a very good first impression: Dusty, dry and grim, it has a frontier feel, underscored by a cemetery of junked 19th-century railcars.

We headed to the Red Planet Expedition office, where our guide soon arrived and took charge.

“One bag, people, one bag!” Gonzalo Alcerreca shouted. “Leave everything else behind. This is camping, people. Indoor camping!” Born in Bolivia and raised in the U.S., Mr. Alcerreca had missing teeth, wild hair and a wide, contagious smile.

We climbed into our Land Cruiser and took off into the salar. The low, jagged silhouette of the Bolivian Andes floated on the horizon like a hallucination. The ground had dried into a pattern of polygons that looked like tiles laid by the gods, each big enough to curl up in. We were surrounded by a whiteness as vast as a frozen ocean.

“Can I eat it?” Benji asked, putting his hand on the cold, hard, salt after we’d climbed out of the 4×4 to take photos.

“No. No. It must be processed!” Mr. Alcerreca said.

The endless white burned my eyes, yet I couldn’t look away. Dizzy from the altitude, everything felt brighter, sharper and slightly unreal.

About 50 miles into the salar, the hilly, cactus-covered outcropping called Isla Incahuas rose out of the salt. When I saw a viscacha—a weird rodent with a rabbit body and a squirrel tail—I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. We spent 15 minutes hiking a trail to the top of the outcrop, where we sat in a silence so profound I thought I could hear the earth breathe.

After driving until dusk, we spent a frigid night in a hotel on the edge of the salar, where the walls, the tables, the chairs, even the beds were made of salt.

“This is just so cool,” Jonathan said, as he lifted the mattress on our bed to look at the platform of salt beneath.

The next morning we headed out before sunrise, leaving the salt flat and bouncing violently along a rutted road, grateful for seat belts. The salar now behind us, we would spend the next two days moving through remote wilderness.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.19.59 AMWe drove all day, past abandoned railroad tracks and rivers of ice and through fields of red, white and black quinoa. Our guide told us that the isolated towns in the area were climbing out of poverty as health-conscious westerners fuel demand for the protein-rich grain.

The wildlife grew more diverse as the road climbed higher toward snowy volcanic peaks and fields of lava. Wild ostriches sprinted at amazing speed alongside our vehicle. We stopped to run after llamas in a huge field and saw an Andean fox and a flock of wild parrots. The only vegetation was a plant called the yareta that looks like a freakishly big, boulder-size piece of green coral.

In the shadow of snow-capped volcanoes, I hiked away from everyone and stood in the nothingness. I felt tiny and the world around me felt huge. It was as if the landscape cracked something open inside me that poured out peace and gratitude and giddiness. It made Yosemite, Yellowstone and Joshua Tree feel like theme parks.

After more than 9 hours of driving and exploring, we felt as if we were crossing a marathon’s finish line when we finally reached the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a 2,700-square-mile protected area. Inside the reserve, we stopped at the broad, shallow, mineral-red Laguna Colorado, which was half-covered with ice and filled with flamingos that took flight in groups, showing off their dramatic black underwings as they rode the wind.

When we were all back in the 4X4, our driver, Pedro Caral, left the dirt road completely, tearing across the open, treeless wilderness. He was chewing madly on coca leaves, the all-purpose Bolivian pick-me-up. I looked over at my husband, jostling violently in the jeep, wondering, as I did often that day: Is this safe?

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.21.36 AMNear dusk we came to a lagoon at nearly 13,000 feet. Mr. Alcerreca had warned us at the outset that this night would be our coldest and most primitive. Our crude lodging of cinder block and stone had no electricity or heat. The inside was colder than the outside; the walls felt like ice. There’s no way out, I thought to myself.

I asked my older son if he was frightened.

“No,” he said. “It’s too amazing to think about being scared.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.22.45 AMThat night, Mr. Alcerreca, wearing a tiny swimsuit, led us to a hot spring on the edge of the lagoon. It was ringed by stones and had a soft, sandy bottom. We slipped in and stared up at the moon and the stars. It was quiet, still and wonderfully warm. Our stiff, frozen, jeep-jostled bodies softened in the heat, our bones dissolved into jelly. We soaked until we were shriveled and dizzy.

The next day we set out for the long ride home. We had survived one of the great adventures of our lives.

On the way back, Mr. Alcerreca told us that Salar de Uyuni is changing fast. With more travelers comes more development. Already the government is working to put in more infrastructure.

“It used to be just hippies who came here. People who didn’t mind sleeping in their cars, camping, going to the bathroom outside,” Mr. Alcerreca said wistfully, clearly unimpressed by my family’s intrepidness. “Gypsies we used to call them. They were real explorers.”

http://www.wsj.com/articles/an-exhilarating-if-risky-family-adventure-in-bolivia-1452186888

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