BOLIVIA: Atacama Desert, active Volcanoes, colored Lakes and Flamingos, 2022

We did a lot in 2022 after all the lockdowns and pandemic protocols were eased. It felt so good to get back to travelling again. Being based in Barbados, we were able to visit six Caribbean Island countries, see my earlier post, Cruising the Caribbean (Barbados to Barbados) April, 2022 (St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, Grenada, St Barth’s and Antigua) We made it to Peru, Bolivia and Chile as well. This blog picks up where we left off after crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats. We spent the night at the Jukil Community Lodge in Santiago de Agencha, a small (280ppl) indigenous farming community about two hours from Uyuni. The cabins made of salt and stone were surprisingly comfortable. We were expecting dormitory style accommodations as we were basically out in the middle of nowhere, so this was a welcome sight, we even got our own private cabin. It was a cold night, but our hosts provided blankets. You could also (for a small fee) arrange for a sleeping bag.

Cabins at the Jukil Community Lodge, at one time abandoned, were renovated in a partnership with Planeterra. GAdventures and other tours direct business to these underserved communities.

There was excitement in the air as we loaded up the 4×4’s and headed off to what would become an epic adventure. The Salt Flats was truly amazing so we were keen to see what the desert would be like. We made a quick stop in the small town of San Juan which had the look of an old Western town, there we would stock up of snacks for the journey. It was quite deserted that day, only thing missing were some tumbleweeds.

Types of quinoas

On the way out of town, we spotted a herd of llama, which would be the first of many. With small indigenous communities spread throughout the desert, and llamas roaming freely to graze on anything they can find, owners mark their herd with brightly colored strands of wool.

As we drove through this other worldly landscape, the bright white salt will soon give way, to the brown, muted tones. Snowcapped mountains can be seen in the distance and we’re suddenly in an area of active volcanoes.

Driving in a 4×4 across the Atacama was bumpy and rough but a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime.

Next up, we’re in the area of Chiguana where we checked out the freight train line that runs across the Andes from Salta in Argentina to Antofagasta on the Pacific coast in Chile, a 941km (585 mile) line with a 4200m (13000+ft) high pass. This line was built to serve the copper and borax mines in the region.

I heard there’d be llama hotdogs at our next stop so I’m excited to try one. As it turns out, they taste much like any other hot dog, (must be that special spice they all use) but the casing was like plastic and not edible. I’m not much of a meat eater, but when in Rome……!

We’d seen the odd llama here, a vicuña there, even some ostriches in the distance but had no idea of the Llamapalooza that was about to unfold.

Morning llama run.

We press onward with amazement at how stunningly beautiful this place is. The first of the lakes that we would see is just minutes away. At 4134 m (13500 ft.,) the blackish blue Laguna Canapa with a partial covering of salt comes into view. With the mountains serving as a backdrop and hundreds of feeding flamingoes, this is quite a beautiful oasis.

It’s bright and sunny in the altiplano, the altitude hasn’t dipped below 4000 meters since Uyuni which is around 3650 meters. We get to go even higher before the trip is over. We’d been in South America for about two weeks at this point, and most of that time had been spent at high altitude so we’re feeling good.

A quick stop at these “pancake” rocks where we spotted some friendly chinchillas.

It’s easy to lose your orientation in this place but I think we’re heading south to Laguna Colorada. There are a lot of lakes in the region, each one as beautiful and different as the next. This salt lake with its red hue, gets its colour from the algae and other microorganisms that are present in the lake. The white mist from the lake is borax.

With a full moon in view, and rockier terrain ahead, we made our way to the small, isolated town of Quetena Chico. Even though we’re in the desert, with the wide-open space, the high altitude (over 4000 m) and the wind, it can be cold especially in the evenings. We were hoping for some warmth at our next lodging, the Uturunku Hotel which is another Gadventures, Planaterra supported hostel. Once again, considering where we were, nice accommodations, with shower, comfortable beds, power and best of all, warm!

After a well-deserved good night’s rest and a simple breakfast, we’re back in the 4×4. We were with another couple so we agreed to switch seats that way at least one of us would be able to photograph from the front. The plan today puts us close to the Chilean border. A stop for lunch and then a check of the thermal pools.

We drove through the Salvadore Dali mountains, very picturesque and having the look of an abstract painting. Dominating the landscape however was the very impressive 6000-meter Volcan Licancábur which can be hiked if you’re so inclined, it even has a crater lake. It sits on the Bolivian Chilean border. Even more impressive was the surreal looking Laguna Verde with its emerald green colour.

As we neared the Chilean border, we spotted this couple on bikes and thought, “how strange, in the middle of the desert?” We were delayed at the Bolivian passport check point, so they caught up to us and we engaged them in conversation. This couple from Spain, we found out, was travelling the length of South America all the way to Patagonia on bikes. We’ve been following them on Instagram @wheelprintstories, @eloimiquel and @soniscs

Bolivian Passport control.

Our drivers had been with us for three days and did a fantastic job. They had a long drive back to Uyuni so they would drop us off at Bolivian passport control, then leave once we got our passport stamped and were on our bus that was coming from the Chilean side. On reaching the passport control office, which was nothing more than a small shed, we gathered our gear, tipped our driver, got rid of our last Bolivianos and proceeded to the office. All of a sudden, it’s not just stamp and go, there’s a fee of 15 Bolivianos. Having gotten rid of our local currency and credit cards were not an option, we borrowed from one of our travel mates. The next issue, our bus from Chile was delayed. The actual crossing point into Chile is about a 20 minutes’ drive from Bolivia control so we’re pretty much in no man’s land. Apparently, the driver was missing one document and the Chilean authorities would not let him proceed. Our drivers were not allowed to leave us until we were safely on a bus. After a couple hours of waiting, the bus finally arrived. We said goodbye to our drivers, thanked them for taking such good care of us and we were all on our way. We proceeded to the Chilean border, covid docs checked, passport checked and was given a stamped paper, told not to lose it or it would be difficult to exit the country. Why not stamp the passport I wondered? They thoroughly checked every piece of luggage as well. We ran into our two biker friends; they didn’t look very happy. Some of their food was confiscated because it had opened and not fully consumed. We would see them on the road again from our bus as we headed to San Pedro de Atacama.

Set at 2400 meters asl (7800 ft) and averaging 27C (80F) for our November visit, San Pedro de Atacama is a rustic, bustling little town with hardly any paved roads. A trekking mecca with lots of hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops. There are plenty of adventure tour companies as this is the starting point for the Atacama Uyuni Salt flats tours if you’re doing it from the south.

As we relaxed at the Hostal Puritama, and looked back on what we’d experienced the past four days, I couldn’t help but think of all the people we’d met along the way in those small, isolated desert towns that somehow have made a life for themselves in the harshest of environments. You have my respect!

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