The Badlands. I had heard the term hundreds of times, but it was only when I started venturing out in the world that I appreciated the remarkable place where I was born – Drumheller, Alberta.
Canada’s Drumheller Valley looks like a layer cake – sedimentary layers of red shale, grey bentonite and black coal stacked prettily, one on top of the other, with dinosaurs squished in between.
“This place is one-of-a-kind! The most beautiful scenery in the world!”, my dad would boast. And I believed him, because daddies are always right.
Then I went to Bolivia.
My goal was to see Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. A mass of white that touched the horizon and hung off the edge, like you had reached the end of the earth.
So, I got on a plane to go see myself some salt.
The drive to Uyuni was long. I marvelled at clusters of dust devils swirling a hundred feet in the air, vicuñas prancing across the road with their sweet faces and fluffy bottoms, and prairie-like expanses bookended by sedimentary hills.
Uyuni feels like a town that bylaw forgot. The streets are lined with Lexus 4×4’s waiting to take people on excursions. There is a definite ‘safari-like’ feel to the town and the streets are a-buzz with people and the smell of llama and chorizo cooking on outdoor grills. At night, the town becomes eerily quiet. I came to realize it was because all the drivers and visitors hit the hay early – the Bolivian outback is not for folks short on sleep.
I was beyond excited to head to the Salar. We packed into our 4×4 with Johnny, our driver, who stood about 5-feet tall and spoke not a word of English. But, in my backpack, I had the “international language” of chocolate and coca candies, so we got on famously.
On the way, we stopped by the Train Graveyard, stretches of railway with abandoned trains. The barren landscape and rusted metal was a cross between the set of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes.
The trains stopped running in the 1940s, and that’s where they stayed, slowly being buried by the literal sands of time. This made me emotional, as any expression of neglect does, and I found myself kicking away the sand engulfing the wheel of a locomotive, in a futile attempt to turn back time.
I listened to the emptiness.
“Take me to the salt, Johnny!”, I said, feeling like a pirate sailing uncharted waters. He nodded, snuffed out his cigarette and simply said, “Vamos!”
What a wonder our world is. The Salar is a honeycomb of crystals that crunch beneath your feet. Standing in the middle of 10 billion tons of white salt at an altitude of 3700M made me very aware of how hot the sun can get. But we were entirely distracted, busy playing with the Salar’s stark backdrop to create perspective-bending masterpieces of photographic hilarity.
“What — the heck — is that?”, I said to Johnny as we approached a bizarre island in the middle of the salt flat. “Incahausi!”, he said, amused that I obviously hadn’t read my itinerary.
The island was entirely covered by tall cacti. It was such a dichotomy to its surroundings. The salt flats are void, dead, barren and Incahausi was full of life. We hiked to the top of the island, scrambling across fun, grippy rocks and enjoyed the view. The cacti were old and grow at a rate of 1 cm per year, which meant that the oldest cactus on the island was 906 years old. I gave it a long, concerted stare. This living thing had been growing and thriving on my planet for almost 1000 years.
If only cacti could talk.
Our accommodation for the night was a crazy salt hotel in San Juan. The entire floor was salt, like a beach. The tables, stools and beds were made of salt blocks! Even the walls were salt. I, ever the skeptic, couldn’t quite believe that a hotel could be built from salt. I stood looking at the bricks with a fellow traveller.
“Lick the brick,” I said to Paul, “see if it’s really salt.”
“I’m not licking the wall!”, he said. But I could tell that he really wanted to lick the wall. So we did. Salt. Definitely salt.
When you live in salt, sleep on salt, eat salt and breathe salt in a place were there is 0% humidity, you wake up to chapped lips and itchy eyes. Every ounce of moisture in me had evaporated by morning. I was downing glasses of Chocolike and having an obsessive love affair with my lip balm.
The road was rougher this day. Dusty and rocky with deep ruts and wash-board sections. Johnny was singing Adele at the top of his lungs and expertly picking around the biggest obstacles to keep the jarring to a minimum.
As God as my witness, I had no idea there were flamingos in Bolivia. Laguna Colorada messes with one’s sense of reality. I had never seen anything like it. Johnny was getting very pleased with himself as I was entirely gobsmacked around every corner of the Altiplano. I could tell he was seeing himself as personally responsible for the existence of the lake.
Take navy blue swatches of water, sliced by white borax and topped with a red algae bloom. Pepper this with pink Andean and James flamingos and rim it with dry, yellow shrubs against a volcanic landscape and you have something only Mother Nature could conceptualize. If I painted this and said it was an exact likeness, people would never believe it.
Bolivia has a trick around every corner.
Ok Bolivia, you win. You literally have killed me with a topography of legendary proportions. I can’t take another…
“Johnny! Are you kidding me?”, I smacked him on the shoulder as I stared out the frosty windshield. It was 5:00 a.m. and we were heading to see some geysers before looping back to Uyuni. The sun was rising somewhere off stage, and it cast a pale blue light on the horizon. Orion stood on his head in the sky and the black outline of mountains in the distance looked like the hips of giants.
There are days in our lives where we can recall precisely how we felt. The sun had not yet cracked the horizon when we arrived at the geysers. Steaming, swirling, bubbling pools of hissing mud spit at my ankles.
My Badlands have a sister. She lives in Bolivia.
Ready to take on Bolivia with Intrepid Travel? Check out our range of small group tours.
To enjoy the trip that this writer went on, check out our 25-day ‘Explore Peru & Bolivia’ tour.
(All images c/o Carla Powell.)