Mount Tunupa, Salar de Uyuni
Photographer: Roberto Moiola
Here in the heart of Bolivia, at an altitude of 3600m, we feel truly small. Before us is a seemingly infinite expanse of salt, over which the sun is slowly rising above a string of volcanoes that mark the border with Chile. If our mission had been to find where heaven and earth meet, we could have planted the flag of victory.
With me is Josef, busy as always with his camera, and Alex Teran, a La Paz local who for years has organised tours in South Lipez, the southernmost region of Bolivia. Behind us stands the dormant volcano Tunupa, the undisputed chief of the Uyuni salt flats. Legend has it that the 16th century Inca emperor Atahualpa slashed the breasts of a woman called Tunupa on the mountain’s slope, and that the milk that poured out formed the salt flats, the largest in the world. What we know for sure is that below us lies a layer of salt up to 10m thick in places, and as smooth as the sole of a shoe.
We set out along a ridge that stretches towards the summit in a daunting succession of buttresses and gullies. Soon we reach the village of Coquesa and the mummified bodies that lie unguarded in the caves nearby. Out of breath we continue uphill, the steep path now only distinguishable by sections of drywall used to pen llama and vicuna in the summer months. At 4500m I catch my first sight of the summit. Stopping on the ridge to allow Josef to catch up, my face is assaulted by a brisk and freezing wind. Days here are short in winter and the sun is already high in the sky. As others in our group turn back, Josef and I are determined to push on.
We proceed over scree, between steep exposed slopes prone dangerously to landslides and others cushioned with patches of yareta, a green Andean flower that reminds me of the moss-covered boulders found scattered throughout the Alps. By 5000m our pace has slowed significantly. Our hearts and heads are beating like drums. To not listen to your body in such situations can have dire consequences, and Josef, reluctantly, decides to turn back. I figure I still have a few hours to make it and continue on alone.
The landscape around me takes on the rusty reds of the American West. I want a souvenir and stop to examine the colourful stones, scooping some into my rucksack. It may sound bizarre, but then again, Armstrong brought back stones from the moon. One last zigzag brings me to the edge of the caldera and my imagination is sent soaring, consumed by a geological slideshow of dazzling shapes and colours. But clouds are creeping in and I begin to retrace my steps. By the time I reach the smaller peak at 5200m I’ve hit a wall of exhaustion. I descend quite quickly, or as quickly as the terrain will allow, and after an hour I catch up with Josef. The sun is now low on the horizon, casting perfect shadows on the white expanse of the salt flats below. It’s dark by the time we reach camp. I take a final glance back at the moonlit summit, turning over in my hands my prized volcanic rocks.