We left San Pedro de Atacama in Chile early one morning, to embark on a very rich three-day adventure in Bolivia, in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Natural Reserve, in the state of Potosi. An adventure that would take us to one of the highlights of our trip: the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia.
A 3-DAY ADVENTURE 4000 METERS ABOVE SEA LEVEL
We would spend the next three days at more than 4 000 meters above sea level, in the middle of the desert, and each one of these days would be filled with incredible discoveries: colorful lagoons, hot springs, geysers, strange rocky formations, volcanoes, salt flats, flamingos (lots of flamingos!), cactus, etc. The landscapes would constantly be changing.
BOLIVIA: A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, DIFFICULT CONDITIONS
Bolivia was the rough part of the trip. But we knew it from the beginning and it was not harder than what we had expected.
When we booked this tour in San Pedro, I asked the lady from the travel agency about the accommodation facilities and she warned us: “Im not gonna lie to you. Bolivia is very basic. There is nothing.” I can still hear her voice. At least we knew what we were in for!
We quickly found out how basic it was indeed. But we were so captivated by the magical landscapes that we did not care about being cold, tired, about the altitude, the basic accommodation conditions. We were enchanted. And it was not THAT hard either. In the end, we spent a lot of time in the jeep and it was not like trekking through the Himalaya…
The days following this tour proved to be harder, but we will get there…
CROSSING THE CHILE – BOLIVIA BORDER
So after four comfortable days in our cozy room in San Pedro de Atacama, we left Chile. We were first driven to the Chilean border to have our passports stamped and then, about half an hour later, we reached the Bolivian border to have our passports stamped again (I never really understood why the two borders were half an hour away from one another, but never mind…).
AND THEN WE MET EDGAR
Edgar would mean everything to us during the next three days. He would be our driver, guide, cook, photographer, he would make sure we were safe: he would be like a parent looking after us. What’s more, Edgar was not a talker and had very particular musical tastes. We liked Edgar. He had been crossing the desert over and over again for twenty years and he knew this route like his pocket. We were so grateful to have such an experienced driver. We would later meet people who did not have that chance!
So we embarked in his jeep. There were six of us: a French Swiss couple, a German Swiss couple, my favorite Mexican travel companion and the little Frenchie.
This is what our first day looked like. I still can’t believe that we saw all these places in only one day… Here we go.
LA LAGUNA BLANCA: OUR FIRST PICTURE OF BOLIVIA
Right after crossing the Bolivian border, we arrived to this enchanting place: the White Lagoon, located at an altitude of 4 350 meters. Edgar told us that the white color of the water was caused by the high concentration of minerals suspended in it.
I had rarely seen anything that beautiful. It was still very cold and part of the lagoon was frozen. The warm sun lights were working on melting it. The cutest little birds were walking on the ice. The mountains were reflecting in the water. There was not a single cloud in the sky.
This was our first image of Bolivia and the rest of the trip would prove to be a succession of amazing landscapes.
WONDERING WHAT COLOR THE LAGUNA VERDE REALLY IS
Edgar then took us to the “Green” Lagoon, which obviously was not green that day, but more blue. We learnt that the color of the lagoon came from the minerals contained in the water and that it could vary from turquoise to dark emerald depending on the wind.
Whatever the color was, it was beautiful. In the background, we recognized the gorgeous Licancabur Volcanoe and its perfect cone, which we had seen from our hotel in San Pedro in Chile. Now we were standing on its other side.
These strange little rock towers are said to be offerings to the gods.
ADMIRING THE SEVEN-COLOR MOUNTAIN
On our way to our the Polques hot spring, we could not help but ask Edgar to pull over so that we could take a few pictures. We felt cut off from the world and miles away from our everyday lives. We were in this little jeep, in the middle of the desert, staring at a constantly changing landscape via the windows, like little kids in a toy store.
There was no road of course and we were following some dusty tracks. Edgar knew perfectly well where he had to go.
I had never been in a desert before and one thing that I had not anticipated was dust! Each time we were passing by another jeep, we were passing through a thick cloud of dust! Had the windows not been shut, we would have eaten dust!
SWIMMING IN THE WARM WATERS OF THE POLQUES HOTSPRINGS
We then reached the Polques hot springs. Another incredible place. It was 10 a.m. We were at 4 400 meters of altitude, the temperature was below 0°C and we were invited to take an open air bath made of thermal water at 30°C.
WONDERING IF WE HAD NOT JUST LANDED ON MARS
When we reached our next stop, we had the feeling that we had just landed on Mars! The rock was pitch red and boiling mud was bubbling on the ground. There was a very strong and unpleasant Sulphur smell in the air. We had just arrived at the Geiser Sol de Mañana, at an altitude of 4 900 meters!
We had reached the highest point in altitude of our adventure, and we did not even realize it! It is only at the end of the trip that Edgar told us that we had been that high. It is better not to think too much about the altitude and then you won’t feel sick…
We walked around this geothermal field, took a few pictures and hop back into the jeep towards our final destination for this first day.
BEING AMAZED BY THE LAGUNA COLORADA
We then reached the beautiful Laguna Colorada, where we would spend the night in a mountain refuge at 4 300 meters above sea level! Once again, we had never seen anything like that before! The water of the lagoon was literally red! We learnt that this color came from the presence of red sediments and algae in the water. There were thousands of flamingos! We left our backpack in the refuge, drank a tea, and started walking around this incredible lagoon.
We went up this little “hill” to have an overview of the lagoon and we did suffer from the high altitude at that point. We had to take breaks every few steps to catch our breath!
We realized that, as the sun was going down, the color of the lagoon was changing. It went from pitch red to purple and blue and pink.
We spent some time at the top of the hill, contemplating this magical place, unable to find words to describe what we were seeing.
SPENDING THE NIGHT AT 4 300 METERS ABOVE SEA LEVEL
And then began the hard part of the day… Spending the night at an altitude of 4 300 meters… The six of us in the same room…
FACING COLD TEMPERATURES…
First of all it was cold. Very cold. As we had been warned, the facilities were indeed very “basic”. There was no heating system and the temperatures were much below 0°C (I did not dare ask exactly how cold it was…). Needless to say that there was no hot water.
The good thing is that we came prepared and we had sleeping bags for extreme temperatures. We were also provided with – smelly – alpaca blankets. So I slept in my sleeping bag, wearing all the pieces of clothes that I had brought, and covered by 5 layers of alpaca blankets. After a few minutes, it was not that bad. Only the tip of nose and my feet were freezing but the rest of my body was feeling warm.
… AND THE LACK OF OXYGEN
But then started the second problem… It was hard to breeze. I remember that I had to catch my breath after turning in my bed and that my heart was beating very fast. I tried not to move, concentrated on my respiration and managed to doze off. I learnt that when you spend a night in such high altitudes – which is not very natural for a human body – you have a rather light sleep and constantly wake up. It is like suffering from apnea.
So I don’t think I slept much that night but I tried to relax, think about the amazing places I had seen that day, keeping in mind that exploring these sites does not come easy and that the sun would shine the next day….
A few tips
Choose your travel agency carefully
For this kind of trip, it is better to choose carefully your travel agency as you will be spending three days in the middle of the desert! It is of course better to travel with an experienced driver who knows the way like his pocket and who won’t take any risks.
We have been lucky as we had not really thought about that before. We did not really think a lot about which agency to trust but in the end everything went well with Edgar.
I can therefore recommend the agency we travelled with: Expediciones Collca.
When I was planning this trip, I read a lot about altitude sickness in various blogs and websites and I was scared that this part of the trip would be hell. In the end it was not as hard as I had expected – I was mainly cold but this I can handle; only the first night was hard as you will read bellow. I realized that if you don’t think about the altitude, you are not really affected. But people seem not to be affected the same way.
Don’t forget to pack
Bring a sleeping bag for extreme temperatures if you can. I know it takes quite some space in the backpack but I was very happy to have brought one, especially for the first night. A hot-water bottle is also a great option for the first night.
Bring a deck of cards! The sun sets early and you won’t have any other distractions before going to bed.