The main house contains an open kitchen and dining room, the stone walls insulated but the ceiling constructed in the traditional fashion, with cactus wood beams lashed together with leather. It's a cozy space for sipping tea and dining on surprisingly great food prepared by chef Hortensia — the wife of our driver Felix. The duo oversees the rest of the staff and keeps everything running smoothly in an environment where planning ahead is essential. There's no Super Wal–mart around the bend. Despite the remote location, we're dining on quinoa soup, fresh salad, and lamb.
After dinner we look up at the sky and marvel at the constellations, so easy to find here with no light pollution dulling the intensity. With a laser pointer Luis identifies out all the signs of the zodiac and other constellations I've never seen before with such clarity — or from this Southern Hemisphere angle.
Walking with Llamas
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we visit a cave filled with mummified bodies. They were trapped inside when the Tanupa Volcano dominating the landscape last erupted, somewhere around 1,800 years ago. Luis and one of the women in our group take off to climb the colorful peak, reaching more than 17,000 feet, while the rest of us decide to heed the altitude and take a leisurely stroll along the edge of the salt flat, hundreds of llamas and a few flamingos as our companions.
A local villager from Coquesa accompanies us. I ask him how he marks his llamas in order to know which ones are his. He laughs and says he just knows by the look of them and starts pointing. "That one's mine, those two are mine, this one is mine, a new baby there." As with most of the towns in this region, the young people have left to earn more money (and perhaps find more excitement) elsewhere. "There are 18 families in our village," he says, "We know our llamas."
Afterward I stroll to the town square, where there is not another two–legged creature around and the city government office has two broken out windows. It seems appropriate to keep going to the cemetery on a nearby hillside, where above–ground graves are adorned by iron crosses decorated with black and purple garlands.
As the sun starts going down, we pile into the van and head out to the salt flat again, finding a table set up with olives and cheese. Luis pops open a bottle of sparkling wine and we toast the salt horizon as the suns bathes us in yellow and then orange. As soon as the sun disappears, the wind picks up and the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees. We don't linger long.
An Island in the Salt
In the morning we pack up and leave our "shelter" to explore a museum and whimsical sculpture garden in the town of San Pedro de Quemes. Apparently the owner of the museum and garden needed a hobby: we're told the town has eight permanent residents. With panoramic views over the white salt flats though and a steady stream of travelers needing supplies, it seems like they have it pretty good here.
We then venture back out to the salt flat and our own version of solitude. We go for a hike on cactus–covered Bird Island, huffing and puffing up the mountainside and taking in the 360–degree view from the top. The visual dissonance hits again as it looks like the Arctic, but we're peeling off layers to cool off next to cacti twice as tall as us.
When we depart the island, Felix drops us off in the middle of nowhere and drives on. If we were truly alone in the middle of the salt plain, we'd need some serious survival skills and a whole lot of water. Instead the purpose is just to feel what it's like to be surrounded by quiet nothingness, whiteness in every direction. In the distance the van stops. By the time we walk there, lunch is laid out on a table, director's chairs at the ready.
As we get on our way again, we leave the white and head into the brown, dust upon dirt upon dry earth. We get to our next overnight stop by way of a cave containing strange geological formations that look like lace and webbing, the signs and garbage cans outside made of cactus wood.