Surreal LandscapesChris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Expert
A countdown of the weird and wonderful, drawn from Latin America’s larger than life geography.
Cast your mind back to the Uyuni salt flats:
So, you’ve crossed a desert of salt and spent the night in a hotel constructed entirely from the white stuff… but don’t bank on normality returning any time soon. As you continue on towards Chile the next day, you’ll pass the aptly named ‘Rocks of Salvador Dali’ and a profusion of brightly coloured, flamingo-filled lakes in hues of blue, red and green. Once over the border, you’ll wake early to stumble upon volcanic hot springs and enormous geysers bellowing steam, all before reaching your final destination of San Pedro de Atacama, in the far north of Chile. Here the wind has sculpted enormous surrealist monuments into the desert rocks, creating a lunar landscape that comes into its own in the fire of an Atacama sunset.
It’s easy to see why the Gran Sabana, a region of table mountains, jasper riverbeds and kilometre-high waterfalls, inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’. Dotted with huge table mountains called tepuis that rise like stone behemoths from the grassy plateau, it is a landscape that cannot fail to fire the imagination. The largest of these rugged monoliths is Mount Roraima, which can be ascended on an extremely rewarding 5-day trek. At the top lies a well and truly otherworldly landscape of knobbly limestone, inhabited by an ecosystem that is unique to the summit – similarly to the creatures of the Galápagos, Roraima’s endemic flora and fauna evolved in isolation from their lowland counterparts.
3. Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
The national park of Lençois Maranhenses in northeastern Brazil shelters a peculiar landscape of dunes and lagoons. Despite their Saharan appearance, the sands are just outside the Amazon basin and, unlike deserts, have a rainy season, when the curves and valleys of the sand dunes fill with water. The unusual panorama that results makes for a very surreal day trip, complete with memorable stops to bathe in the rainwater lagoons: visit on a jeep tour from the gateway town of Barreirinhas.
Cuba is a surreal enough place as it is: as though suspended in a time warp, it seems barely touched by the modern world. But head west of Havana and things really take a turn for the bizarre. The Sierra de los Órganos is a national park of enormous boulder-like hills known as mogotes, which transform the bucolic Cuban interior into a natural wonderland. Base yourself in the charming town of Viñales to explore the fairytale landscape.
Occupying over 10,000 square kilometres, the vast Salar de Uyuni is a naturally occurring salt desert that provides the setting for one of South America’s most awe-inspiring journeys. Several features conspire to astound and disorientate the visitor from the very beginning – the rusting locomotive carcasses of the train cemetery just outside of Uyuni are the first sign of absurdity, giving way to miniature white hills as the salt pans begin and civilisation ends. It’s possible to drive on for hours on end without seeing anything but the endless flat white expanse of the salar – and the occasional island of cacti.
Visit in the wet season in the early part of the year and things get even odder: a shallow layer of water forms over the salty ground, reflecting the sky and blurring the horizon. This creates the impression of flying as your 4×4 glides through featureless blue terrain (bar a ‘floating’ rock here and there). As if all this wasn’t surreal enough, when you finally touch down on Planet Earth again, you’ll spend the night in a hotel made out of salt.