Bolivia & the High Desert, part 2

By Last Chance Traveler | Mar 2015


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In the middle of the mountains and the desert, we approached a line in the sand between… literally, a line in the sand that separated Chile and Bolivia. Definitely the most unique border crossing I have been to. The tour operators will not tell you about this but Americans must pay a $135 tourist VISA in order to enter the country.

Lake in Bolivia Atacama
After customs we headed into Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna and soon began to realize we were in the middle of nowhere. The first stop was a frozen white-colored lake that had a strong chemical odor. The guide informed me that the majority of the lakes in the region are filled with many types of minerals such as borax, arsenic, copper, etc.

As our vehicle passed the white lake, we set our sights on Laguna Verde, which is fed by the first lake. The name comes from the green color emitted when the water surface is disturbed by the wind. It’s composed of different layer of minerals including arsenic and copper. When the wind starts to create ripples in the water, the top layer of arsenic is disrupted, the copper below reveals itself and the entire lake turns a beautiful shade of green.

We headed higher into the mountains and reached what was supposed to be the highest point of the trip, over 16,000 feet. I was amazed to see mountain bikers wearing GoPro’s, who had flagged us down asking for directions to the Chilean border. The next highlight was passing through the Salvadore Dali Desert, named after the artist because of the landscape, which looks a lot like his paintings. In the distance there was another lake with a nice hot spring, termas de polques, where tourists hang out to warm up. The next stop was a short distance off the Borax mining road to a cluster of active geysers. Some of the geysers were pretty big and bubbled aggressively, but nothing like the ones in Yellowstone where they shoot up into the air. Nevertheless, it was a pretty cool site.

Our next site was Laguna Colorado. Arriving at the lake I was blown away by the solid red color, something I had never seen before in a lake. The red color was speckled with pink from thousands of flamingos scattered throughout the lake. Further along the road we saw the popular “Tree of Stone,” a volcanic projectile rock that had been carved out by the wind over many years to look like a tree. There were two other vehicles at this site, which was the most crowded I felt the entire day. There was a mix up with the reservations and the hotel we thought we were going to was booked. The next hotel was two hours away.

To avoid driven a few extra hours, we took a “shortcut” across the desert where no other vehicle tracks were present. Along the way, we were passing over a small hill as I spotted to the right, a stampeding heard of guanacos or vicuñas. This small event made me realize I was somewhere special and it is something I will never forget. This spot also marked the highest point of the trip and highest elevation I had ever been. It was just less than 17,000 feet above sea level, (+5180m).

We eventually made it back to the rough roads, which were being flooded by small streams heading to the lake off in the distance. This road is mainly used by the borax mining trucks and the lake I had seen was actually one of the main areas for borax mining in the area. We looped around the lake and began driving up towards the mountains again as dusk started settling in. The driver made a quick stop and I was able to see the sunset along the mountains exposing rich purple and deep blue colors, cascading across the mountain ranges ahead.

Bolivia Altiplano Sunset

Eventually we moved along towards a gorge as the sun was almost completely gone. I’m not going to lie, it was a bit nerve wrecking and I could tell the driver really wanted to get to the hotel before it was too late. He knew the headlights didn’t work and the night drive along cliff edges and winding roads might make the tourists uneasy… it worked. About an hour into the night drive, without lights, we approached a small village. Finally making it to the hotel, Mallku Villamar, I was relieved to find it to be amazing. Turned out that we were the only guests there that night and the hotel keepers were so excited to see us.


Bolivia Day 2

On day two I awoke to some llama just outside the window. The itinerary was now out the window but the guide assured that the day would be much better than what we had planned. We traveled for a little ways until we seen a rock formation that 70kms stretched into the distance.
After leaving the Lost Italy (the name of the rock formation), we approached a lagoon, the Black Lagoon, or sometimes referred to as Laughing Lagoon, (based on the birds that laugh hysterically and sound just like humans). This was more than amusing.

After lunch, we left a small village, drove through some quinoa farms, llama pastures and through a canyon. As the vehicle hugged a cliff wall, we climbed up into and through a mountain pass. From here we passed through another small village known for their giant red quinoa and crossed a salt flat scattered with ancient coral formations. The guide brought us to another coral formation area called Soldiers of Stone, where the vast coral formations look like an army of soldiers casted in stone.

The hotel for the evening, Tayka-Hotel de Piedra, was made out of stone. It had a rustic feel but the food again was fantastic. Not to mention the view of the stars from the room was amazing.


Bolivia Day 3

Cacti on Isla de PescadoThe day started out pulling up to what looked like a giant rock in the ground. It was actually a very unique cave and a pre-Incan culture burial ground. The cave, Cueva Galaxia, has a unique appearance resembling bone-web-like patterns or deteriorated tree leaves.
Around mid-day we entered the Uyuni Salt Flats from the South. The first mile was very wet and our vehicle, a few times, almost got stuck. We crossed over Isla de Pescado, which had monster cacti on it that were hundreds of years old. We drove for another half hour or so and approached the edge of the flats where we entered a town at the base of Volcano Tunupa.

Salt Flats at dusk Tahua

After lunch we climbed up to a vantage point, halfway up the volcano where the true splendor and magnitude of the flats were revealed.The evening ended with yet another spectacular sunset that lit up the white colored flats and resembled and ocean. The hotel, Hotel Tayka de Sal, was located in Tahua and was made entirely from blocks of salt, which is a very nice hotel in the area.

Bolivia Day 4

The fourth day was spent mostly on the flats. We stopped at a museum just off the main road that contained a collection of ancient artifacts collected from Tunupa throughout the years by a farmer who lived in the foothills below.
One of the most interesting artifacts was a 3 foot long ayahuasca pipe that was hundreds of years old and was transported hundreds of miles away from the jungle, all the way up to this volcano. The pipe was carved to look like a monkey that was pouring the brew out of its mouth, into a zigzag canal down into the mouthpiece. Afterwards we made a direct b-line to Isla Incahuasi, an “island” in the middle of the salt flat covered with cacti. We toured the island for a bit before we started heading towards Uyuni and the end of our tour. We also stopped in the salt processing fields on the way out.

Uyuni salt processing fields

On the way to Uyuni we passed through a small town on the edge of the salt flats, which was the starting point for many tourists. Our final stop was the train graveyard located on the outskirts of Uyuni. The afternoon was spent in a bus station waiting for the overnight bus trip from Uyuni to La Paz.


La Paz to Cusco

Cusco Parade
 About 9 hours later I arrived at the La Paz bus station. If you ever find yourself needing a bus from La Paz to Cusco, there are plenty of nice buses that leave throughout the day. Remember this, it only costs $5 more to upgrade to the lower level - It is well worth it! I made the choice to sit up top, as I did when I traveled from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama earlier this trip. The views of Lake Titicaca were amazing and lasted for two to three hours.

We arrived in Cusco at 10pm, checked into the hotel and ended the evening with a stop to LIMO, one of my favorite restaurants in Cusco. The trip ended with a couple days in Cusco. The first night had a celebration in the streets and people were dancing, carrying large costumes and playing festive music. The next day the streets were filled with protestors, who met their match and quickly were surrounded by the police. The final full day was spent watching the morning parade, touring the city & Saqsaywaman ruins and eating my first guinea pig.



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