Right next to the Bolivian salt flats lies the Atacama Desert. Located in the altiplano, the desert stretches over Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. It feels strange to see mountains right next to desert covered by sand instead of snow… But even so, its beauty is breathtaking. The mountains seem made of caramel and chocolate and they are so properly placed that they just give the impression that a famous chocolatier spent some time here experimenting with his work. We spent our second day of the tour exploring this part of Bolivia, in our comfortable jeeps that kept the dust and the wind away.
Our modest hostel for the first night had an amazing view of the sunrise. We woke up at 6 something to watch this beauty. And Lucy, our renamed hostel llama, woke up with us. The sunrise in the salt flats is just as beautiful as the sunrise. Especially when Lucy was there to pose for it.
The railway to Chile
We made a brief stop at the railway that goes from Bolivia to the Chilean shore of Pacific. The Chilean ports that Bolivia uses now used to belong to Bolivia and Peru, but they were lost a while back during a war between the three.
From here, a very beautiful view of the Volcan Ollague can be seen. This active volcano is split half and half between Chile and Bolivia. I am not sure if it’s part of the volcano Thumpa’s legend but it might as well be. Maybe it’s the missing child since it seems to be younger than the rest.
Free-run Vicuñas and Viscachas
The desert has very few animals, yet the ones living here are very valuable. Vicuñas, the wild cousins of alpacas have a great reputation for wool, as it is sold for thousands of dollars and it is one of the finest in the world. At that value, I wish I was a vicuña…
Viscachas are a sort of mix between a kangaroo, a rabbit, and a squirrel. I think this defines them enough and here’s a picture to exemplify:
I remember seeing flamingos for the fist time at the Toronto zoo and thinking that they are some pretty cool birds. What’s even cooler is seeing flamingos in their own habitat. Thousands of kilometers above sea level, these birds have found for themselves quite a great place to live in – the Atacama desert lakes. Feeding on algae from the lakes rich in borax, sodium, and lithium, these birds seem extremely content with their life. If they don’t like a lake they just move on to another.
There are quite a few lakes in the desert. From the ones we saw, Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Colorada are homes to flamingos. As bonus information, there are three types of flamingoes living in this area: Andean, James, and Chilean. The difference between them is in the colour of their legs. From all three, James is actually the rarest.
We made the stop to Laguna Colorada towards the end of the day. Below are just the pictures from Laguna Hedionda.
Chapter 5 – The chocolate and caramel mountains
These need no description. The pictures do all the talking all on their own.
Árbol de piedra
This famous rock formation is located right in the middle of the desert. As one may guess, its name comes from the fact that it looks like a tree made of rock. Although the most popular, this formation it is not alone and it is surrounded by many more larger stones which get different shapes under the shadows made by the sun.
And since I am on the topic of rocks, it is worth to mention Pachamamma, one of the ancient Andean goddess still worshiped today. Everywhere in Peru and Bolivia, small rock arrangements have been made by passers by to show their devotion towards this old goddess. Another theory given by my guide was that some people just do it for fun, but I prefer the mystical version.
The second home that flamingos have chosen received its name for the beautiful shades that the water creates under different climates. In our case it was chilly and windy so we saw its pink face. Under different weather conditions it can become orange or deep red.
Laguna Colorada is part of a national reservation called Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve in the Atacama Desert. To enter an additional fee needs to be paid. I believe it is around 200 bolivianos in addition to the tour costs. The reservation includes a few other sites which we got to see the day after.
We ended the day in another modest hostel in the middle of the desert. During this time of the year, nights can get very cold to approximately -15 degrees. Luckily we were supplied with plenty of blankets for the night and another great meal as well! The next day we continued the trip through the desert and we reached the border from where we went to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.