Is this Mars or Bolivia? Exploring Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit
The three things we seem to consistently hear about the southern lakes circuit of Bolivia was that the elevation is extremely high, the temperatures are extremely low (specially at night), and there is virtually nobody around. With this in mind we had been trying to get some exposure to elevation for the few weeks prior to heading into Bolivia. Unfortunately, no matter where we went and how high we got, we didn’t stick around long enough to acclimate. That and the road heading into bolivia from San Pedro Atacama, literally goes up 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in less than a half hour driving time. I don’t think there was really any way to prepare for that.
When we arrived at the border station entering Bolivia, my head was spinning and it was really hard to think straight. Luckily for us the customs agent who issued our “visa” was really nice. He even changed our remaining Chilean Pesos for us at a rate I found out later was better than we had received in town (I found out later because my head was spinning too hard to even try to think about the exchange. I simply handed over the pesos and said thank you to the wad of Bolivianos without counting). A few miles up the dirt road from the border we arrived at Laguna Verde and the entrance to the Reserva Nacional Eduardo Abaroa.
Sitting at elevations between 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) and 5,400 meters (17,700 feet), the park and surrounding area inhabits a spectacular landscape of brown and reddish colored gravelly hills covered with the occasional bunch grass, the only vegetation able to survive the inhospitable climate, and bright green and rich chocolatey brown lakes with flamingos and llamas grazing the shores. It is a landscape that I think is the closest I will ever come to being on Mars. In fact, a stop off at a geyser area within the park and you probably could convince your friends that you had in fact been to Mars. Interspersed in this amazing landscape are the tracks of the Toyota 4×4’s that make their way through daily carrying tourists back and forth (I say Toyota because the tour operators use Landcruisers almost exclusively). These tracks are really the only life line to getting in and out of the park, there are no signs and very few inhabitants. In short it is a barren, desolate and absolutely stunning landscape.
We headed into Bolivia with our friend Max who is traveling South America by motorcycle. The first night we stopped at some hot springs at the edge of a marsh just off the road where we camped and Max wisely got a room inside. We enjoyed the evening sitting in the hot water and the amazing views until dark. When we got out of the water we found out how true the second most heard of item about this area is: It is freezing! Literally! In the time between changing out of our bathing suits and walking back to the truck our suits had frozen completely solid. Poor Luis had ice crystals in his beard (beardcicles?). Nevertheless our fearless chef (Luis) rallied to the cause and managed to cook us dinner in below zero temperatures, before we promptly retired to bed and our warm sleeping bag. The next morning we found our completely full 5 gallon water jerry can frozen solid. Now that is cold. We were also treated to the view of at least 20 Landcruisers full of tourists surrounding the hot springs. Wow! Glad we got our peaceful soaking in the night before.
The next day, on our way to Laguna Colorado we stopped off at the customs office to get our truck paperwork taken care of. It is a little weird that the customs office is 80 kms from the border and we were a little worried that we had already been in the country for a day but the guy didn’t seem to mind. The customs office is located at a boric acid mine and has got to be one of the highest customs office in the world at 5,020 meters (16,469 feet). Wowzers!
On the way up to the customs office, we stopped off at some geysers nearby. Ummm, Mars anybody?
Laguna Colorado is probably the most visited site in the park and for good reason. It is a shallow salt lake with rich red colored water which contrasts with the white salt islands in the middle. The lake is an important habitat and breeding area for the numerous flamingos hanging out around its shores. The bright red water, the flamingos, the occasional llama grazing along the shores with the reddish brown hills in the background make it a very picturesque place.
After checking out Laguna Colorado, we found a nice place to camp for the night inside a side canyon off the road. We quickly realized we had to think strategically when picking out a campsite here. Not only is some protection from the freezing wind that blows in the evenings desirable, but we needed to park the Landcruiser so that it got the rising sun first thing in the morning on the engine. The weather was so cold and the elevation so high, we had to wait until the sun had heat up the engine a while before attempting to start it, and even then it was a challenge.
After Laguna Colorado, we drove out of the park and continued north through more desolate landscape, passing more green lakes and flamingos. It was slow going on the sandy sometimes washboard tracks, but we were in no hurry and were enjoying the scenery. In the afternoon, while looking for a campsite for the night we took a little traveled road up the mountain. After clearing debris from the trail and holding our breath a few times around some narrow hairpin turns we arrived at an abandoned mine at close to 5,000 meters. We quickly realized that the elevation was too much to try to camp, but the view was stunning. We ended up heading back down and making camp at another abandoned mine nearby. This one was a sulfur mine. The camp site was perfect except for the sulfur covering the ground which ended up covering everything we owned as well. The Landcruiser smelled like sulfur for a week afterward.
The next afternoon we cruised into the little town of Uyuni happy to see some sign of civilization, if you could call it that, and looking forward to a shower. That night over excellent pizza and beer we agreed that in just the first few days we spent in Bolivia, it was already worth the 135 bucks a piece it cost to enter the country.