Easter Island, a tiny speck in the vast Pacific Ocean, is the most remote inhabited island on earth. It is a place shrouded in mystery. In 1888, when it was annexed by Chile, only 111 inhabitants and few trees remained. Yet, at its peak, several hundred years earlier, it had been a lush tropical paradise with a population of 9000 people who carved and mounted enormous statues (known as “moai”) to venerate their ancestors. What explains the sudden collapse of this once thriving society?
For years, the consensus view held that the residents of the island greedily cut down all of the trees in order to transport the moai statues. In his best-selling book Collapse, Jared Diamond cites Easter Island as the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” However, recent research, outlined by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in The Statues that Walked, points to a new equally intriguing theory: the Polynesians who settled Easter Island brought with them a rat that upset the island’s fragile ecosystem and caused the destruction of the trees. If this sounds far-fetched, note that a similar phenomenon occurred in Hawaii, where up to 90% of the native lowland forest was destroyed by the same Polynesian rat.
Whatever the true cause of the island’s collapse, Easter Island is an intriguing place to visit. The entire island functions as a large outdoor museum with archeological ruins to discover and examine at every turn. In addition to the moai statues, the island contains the remains of past villages and two rock quarries heaping with half-built moai still frozen in the moment construction of the statues suddenly stopped. It also exhibits natural beauty beyond what would imagine on an island that lost all of its trees. Lush green craters and volcanoes rise from the island’s interior while shimmering patches of turquoise water lie just beyond the coast. Despite the island’s famed losses, paradise has not been entirely lost.
No trip to the Salar de Uyuni is complete without a detour to the desert in the extreme south of Bolivia, bordering Chile. This region centers around the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, a wildlife reserve founded to protect endemic species, including the vicuña and several varieties of flamingos. The landscape is hypnotic, gentler than the Argentine Puna to the south, with softer colors and more ethereal light. Majestic snow covered volcanoes give way to rolling sands that turn deep yellow at sunset.
It is also surreal. The only sources of water are toxic, brightly colored lagoons, which contain key ingredients for beauty products and cleaning supplies, like borax and beta carotene. Pink flamingos equipped with a special mechanism for filtering out these toxins populate all of the lagoons, except for the shimmering green waters of the Laguna Verde, which is laden with arsenic and is thus too poisonous even for the flamingos.
Equally strange are the rock formations, like those found at the Arbol de Piedra and the aptly named Valle de Dali, which appear eerily similar to the works of surrealist painters. Smoky geysers and warm hot springs add to the bizarreness of this place, as do the hoardes of backpackers that descend on this otherwise desolate terrain.
Outside the dusty, bitterly cold town of Uyuni in the high desert of southern Bolivia lies the largest salt flat on earth, the Salar de Uyuni. At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, the Salar is immense, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see. In the dry season, from April through November, a layer of sediment forms a hexagon pattern across the surface. In the rainy season, from December through March, water floods the Salar, resulting in a perfect mirror image of the sky and clouds above.
Millions of years ago, a sea covered this region of Bolivia. With the uplifting of the Andes mountain range, the sea shrunk into smaller lakes and eventually dissolved entirely. The salt that remained coalesced on the surface, creating salt flats high in the mountains, the largest of which is the Salar de Uyuni. In addition to salt, the Salar is rich in minerals and includes the largest deposits of lithium in the world.
The remnants of once active volcanoes float upon the surface of the Salar like misplaced rocky islands. These islands have developed fragile ecosystems, consisting of towering cacti blooming with flowers and small rodents known as vizcachas. The sight of the cacti against the backdrop of the gleaming sea of salt is surreal, as is the entire Salar.
Crossing the border from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazón, Bolivia, the differences between the two countries are immediately apparent. Though both sides of the border display a heavy indigenous influence, the Bolivian side is poorer and more chaotic. The streets throng with litter, mud and market stalls packed with pirated goods. Women on sidewalks stoop over steaming skillets or sit idly by mounds of spices, coca leaves and vegetables. People talk in hushed tones and switch to indigenous languages in front of tourists.
Upon first entering Bolivia, I longed for Argentina, with its homemade cakes and alfajores served with the afternoon teatime ritual known as merienda, the flowing wine, the gregarious and friendly people. However, as we traveled along the Bolivian Altiplano from Villazón to Uyuni, our principal destination, my initial discomfort evolved into utter fascination.
The Bolivian Altiplano, a high desert similar to the Argentine Puna to the south, is home to many deserted mining towns and discarded trains, a testament to the region’s long and troubled relationship with the mining sector that rocketed Bolivia to riches during the Spanish colonial era. Indigenous women donning English top hats, long braids and layered skirts present another constant and ubiquitous reminder of the country’s origins.
And yet, beside these reminders of the past, there are also conspicuous signs of the excesses of the modern world. Luxury vehicles, Range Rovers and Lexus SUVs, are everywhere. Many of them are said to be stolen, brought into the country illegally through the porous border with Chile. Floods of ecstatic backpackers and Japanese tourists also run rampant. Tourist agencies and hostels call to them with glaring posters, wedged between discreet handwritten signs advertising the small hole-in-the-wall businesses frequented by locals. This constant juxtaposition between old and new, between tradition and disorder make Bolivia fascinating.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a narrow, arid ravine 155 km long in the extreme northwest of Argentina, bordering Bolivia. It follows the course of a dried out river, the Rio Grande, and is flanked on either side by villages and churches from the colonial era and vibrant mountains with multicolored rock faces. There are also pervasive signs of the area’s indigenous past–ancient hilltop forts and rock fences for growing quinoa and potatoes, as well as the Inca Royal Road, a reminder of the Incas’ 60 year reign over northwest Argentina.
Jorge and I spent the last three days exploring the main towns of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Purmamarca, a picturesque village famous for the Cerro de Siete Colores (translates to “Hill of Seven Colors,” pictured above) and Tilcara, a bohemian enclave with lively restaurants, museums and local music joints known as peñas. We also ventured into the mountains above Tilcara and stayed on an immense estate owned by one of the direct descendants of Colonel Manuel Alvarez Prado, remembered as a hero in Tilcara for helping to secure gaucho control over the Quebrada (http://www.casacolorada.com.ar). Next stop: Bolivia!
The Puna of northwestern Argentina is an ancient plateau of hard crystalline rock more than three thousand meters above sea level. It comprises the lesser known corner of the Atacama Desert, which is shared by northern Chile and southern Bolivia and Peru. The driest place on Earth, it is one of the few spots on our planet to contain regions devoid of any life form.
During my five day journey through the Argentine Puna, I was stunned by the eerie, otherworldly quality of my surroundings: red, silver and purple mountains, volcanoes so black they appear to be permanently shaded by clouds, dazzling white salt flats, vast fields strewn with lava or bits of gray rubble. And yet, within this arid, inhospitable land, life manages to sprout to the surface: oases of leafy green trees, yellow straw-like grasses, pink flamencos, furry llamas and graceful vicuñas. It is no wonder scientists come here to study how life might have formed on Mars.