I took a deep breath, but I couldn’t get enough oxygen. The air was too thin. I sat down. The world shook beneath me. The only way to get better was to get down to a lower altitude. But it was already too late for that. I looked up. Endless miles of desert on the heights of the Andes in front of me. It was no turning back now. I was half way to one of the most unique places on earth.
We entered Bolivia by land. Our 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser jumped and bumped as it took us from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to the small border crossing at Hito Cajón. Situated at 4,480 metres, it’s not the most convenient way to enter the country. But with no doubt the most rewarding experience for an adventurous traveller.
Mountain sickness affects a majority of people crossing the heights of Bolivia, and it does not matter how fit you are. Needless to say, two hours later half the crew were feeling ill.
We passed the highest mountain pass at 5,000 metres before we started the long descend towards the Uyuni Salt Flats. Large plateaus of hard packed soil between snow-capped volcanos surrounded us as we stopped at the foot of the Volcano Licancabur.
The Laguna Verde glowed in the morning sun. Shifting shades of green, blue, and yellow. A couple of mountain llamas strolled by, surprisingly uninterested in the group of temporarily visitors.
We could see all the way to the Salvador Dalí Desert, the cleaned shaped landscapes that inspired the surrealist painter. And surreal it was. Not to mention the flamboyant Laguna Colorada with its thousands of pink flamingos a bit down the road.
It was early morning and still dark. The temperature had fallen during the night and the morning was freezing cold. We got in the car and set course towards Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian salt desert. We had all seen the images of possible water reflections, but had no idea what to expect. Suddenly it happened. The road transformed itself into an infinite layer of reflective ground, creating a giant mirror effect. And it didn’t take long before our eager anticipation was replaced by a jaw dropping smile of happiness.
Following rain, the Salar de Uyuni is transformed into the world’s largest mirror. Get ready to walk on water. Literally speaking.
The sun slowly rose over the horizon. The light accentuated the reflections on the layer of water around us. Not ice, but water, no more than a couple degrees celsius. Freezing cold for our summer shoes, but absolutely amazing for our minds. We were walking on water. Literally speaking. Making gestures and formations, metamorphosing ourself into mysterious silhouettes towards a dramatic sky. Like small children on Christmas Day.
Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats, is the largest salt flat in the world. Hundred times the size of the American counterpart in Utah. Ten thousand square kilometers of shining white salt, so flat it is used to calibrate satellites orbiting the earth. Created after a prehistoric lake dried up, it’s one of the most unique places you can find. And the perfect spot to play around with perspective photography and surrealistic views.
The small turboprop touched down at El Alto International Airport just after lunch. Situated at 4,058 metres above sea level, the air is so thin planes need extra long runways to take off. The one hour cruise from the airport to La Paz takes you down down to 3,640 metres, but you can still reward yourself for a visit to the highest situated capital in the world.
La Paz is the highest situated capital in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level.
Colorful houses built on the slop of a mountain passed us by on the way down. It reminded of a miniature Lego construction. We navigated through narrow streets and finally arrived at the small boutique hotel in Sopacachi. Being La Paz’ trendy bohemian neighborhood, it’s the place for upscale restaurants, cafés, bars, and nighclubs.
There is no metro in La Paz. But there is something much more exciting. An extensive cable car system connecting the city districts with each other. Super modern Swiss made cable cars flying around above your head all over town. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before we levitated into the sky and were platform jumping from sight to sight.
The picturesque Calle Jaén pulled us in for a coffee, before we headed to the Witch Market, where cultural artifacts and mysterious medicine men sneaked around us. Anything to be classified as obscure seemed to be at sale. Or how about some luck bringing llama fetuses, a couple of dried frogs, or an aphrodisiac potion?
We simply had to digest the impressions at a nearby ”coca coffee”, one of many places in La Paz white you legally can chew on coca leaves or have a dopamine boosting cup o tea.
One of the things that stick in the mind after a visit to La Paz is the bowler hat. The distinctive looking outfit, worn by local women known as cholitas, was introduced by the upper class Spanish settlers in the 19th century. Still in fashion, it has become a cultural symbol for the country.
The hat, that always seems a bit too small, is said to communicate the woman’s marital status. Perched on top of the head, it’s either tilted to one side or set to straight to signal wether the woman is married or not. Yet another small thing that makes Bolivia the most interesting country in South America.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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