In a corner of the world where geysers bubble and spout, cactus-studded islands dot an endless sea of hardened salt, and flamingos flock to mineral-rich lagoons that change color with the slightest touch of breeze, Bolivia’s southwestern corner is the most surreal place I’ve ever been. Possessing some of the harshest, most diverse high-altitude landscapes on Earth, it looks like an entirely different planet.

Photo courtesy of Kate Leaf
Photo courtesy of Kate Leaf

I was lucky enough to receive a Sheffer Grant to study religious traditions in Potosí, Bolivia, over winter break. However, after discovering that many of the people I had intended to interview were traveling for the first couple days of January, I jumped at the chance to do a three-day circuit in the Salar de Uyuni, a major attraction in southwestern Bolivia.

In Spanish, “salar” translates to “salt flat”, and the Salar de Uuyni is the largest salt flat in the world. It is 7,440-square-miles of blindingly white nothingness. Due to its extreme isolation and barrenness, tours of the Salar require a knowledgeable guide and a sturdy 4WD jeep. So at 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of my trip, I piled into a dusty jeep with three Australian girls, two German guys, and our trusty Bolivian guide who introduced himself as Walberto.

On our first day we left behind any semblance of a road as we departed from the small town of Uyuni and began our drive across the sea of salt. Truly disorienting, the Salar is nothing but flat whiteness that stretches in every direction to the faint outlines of distant volcanoes. The highlight of the first day was a stop at Isla Incahuasi, a rocky “island” in the middle of the dried-out sea strewn with 30-foot-tall cacti. Despite the sheer number of tourists scurrying amongst the cacti, trying to snap the perfect picture, I still found this rocky outcrop to be strikingly beautiful.

We spent our first night tucked away on the outskirts of the Salar in a very basic hostel comprised entirely of neatly arranged blocks of salt taken right from the salt flat. Everything, from the walls to the picnic tables to our bed frames, was made of the hardened salt blocks, allowing the hostel to blend in with its environment.

Day two was chock-full of attractions and we set off early in the morning, driving through a myriad of landscapes and leaving the Salar behind and below as we began to ascend rocky roads. The distant volcanoes of the previous day quickly became towering giants.

As it neared noon, we pulled up to a dark lake surrounded by volcanoes, but this scene was not what amazed me. Standing delicately, almost perched, several dozen flamingos speckled the lake, their long necks stretched down to eat the brine shrimp that thrive in these mineral-rich waters.

Because this lake’s elevation approaches that of Colorado’s beloved fourteeners, I wouldn’t expect three species of flamingos to call it home. These sulfuric, salty lakes are inhabited by copious amounts of brine shrimp and plankton, which serve as the diet for these beautiful birds.

After dining on Walberto’s lunch of llama meat, quinoa, and Coca Cola, we set off again, stopping frequently throughout the next couple hours to view more colorful lagoons and their flamingo inhabitants.

We topped out at 15,400 feet in a sweeping desert surrounded by even more volcanoes that mark the border with Chile. Windswept and sandy, there was not a tree, plant, or even rock within sight. However, we kept driving and before long, came upon spurting geysers and pools of bubbling mud.

The ground surrounding the crater-like mud holes was tinted in various shades of yellow, orange, and red and as steam hissed in the wind, blurring the edges of the nearby volcanoes, I truly felt like I was on a different planet.

We spent the third day at a small, secluded hot spring, basking in the warm 15,000-foot air (and applying copious amounts of sunscreen), before piling back into the jeep for our return to Uyuni.

Salar de Uyuni was definitely the weirdest, but also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It took me three-and-a-half years, but I finally took advantage of the sheer number of grant opportunities that CC provides its students in order to return to Bolivia, where I studied abroad.

Although I had to change my initial plan due to the Bolivian holiday season, this disruption gave me the chance to visit the stunning Salar de Uyuni. So if there’s a corner of the world you’ve been dying to see, look into grants from CC. There’s plenty.

And I’d like to give a big thank you to the Sheffer Fund Committee for providing me with this opportunity.

Kate Leaf

Active Life Editor

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