The Salar Series: Lagoons and Geysers

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Most tours of Salar de Uyuni have you choose one of two different expeditions: the first and most obvious takes you to the salt flats themselves, the other takes you to see the many lakes, geysers, hot springs and ancient rock formations in the southern tip of Bolivia — in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, and its surrounding areas.  Typically, you can’t see both on one trip.  We did.

Driving close to the Chilean border, and the Argentinean one at one point, we skirted around the salt flats and drove south on the third day of our Salar safari.  The salt was gone somewhere behind us, and before us stretched an endless plain of desert valley between snow dusted mountains boasting an array of colors due to the high mineral count in the dirt, the rocky valley dotted with tufts of brittle brush.  If we had thought we were in the middle of nowhere yesterday, the feeling was even more intensified on this leg of our trip as the land unfurling before us showed no signs of habitation by any creature, with only the mountains to keep us company.

Coming around the base of one of these mountains, we were greeting by a lovely view of the Laguna Canapa, the mountains in the background reflected its still waters, a flock of flamingos bathing in the lake.  Yep, you read that correctly: flamingos.  On the list of the many things to see in this region south of the salt flats are the pink flamingoes.  How these tropical birds came to live at such a high altitude is unknown, but you can see them dotting many of the lakes in this region.  Their pale pink color comes from the minerals they eat in the water.  We came across a lot more of these creatures at the next stop at another lake.

High altitude flamingos!

Getting back into the car, we headed toward one of the highlights of this region: Laguna Colorada.  The terrain gradually became more and more desert-like and we were soon surrounded by sand dunes, the car slipping in the loose sand as we headed toward one of the most beautiful mountain vistas I’ve ever seen.  It was a painter’s palette of greens, oranges, yellows, browns, blues and white swirling up the side of the mountain.

After a quick stop to see a group of ancient rocks and a fossilized tree in the middle of the sand dunes, we finally made it to the Laguna Colorada: a shallow salt lake died completely red by minerals and algae.

Fossilized tree

Blasted by the ferocious wind that seemed to greet us everywhere we went, we stood on the bluff over looking the lake before walking down to its shores.  We were stunned by its intense redness, surrounded by mountains and sand.  It must be heated by the underground hot springs in the area: you could see steam swirling off the surface.  Little islands of white dotted the surface in stunning contrast to the redness of the water, while pale pink flamingos flounced around at one end.  Laguna Colorada is on its way to becoming one of the Natural Wonders of the World, as we saw on signs later on in our journey.  Official or not, the Laguna Colorada is naturally wondrous in my book.

Laguna Colorada

Getting out of the car at the next stop, we were greeting not only by the wind, but also the heavy smell of sulphur that could only mean one thing: geysers!  We could see plumes of steam rising from the ground as we made our way over to the geysers.  Unlike in the United States in places like Yellowstone, where the geysers are roped off and you can only go as close as the wooden footbridge will let you, here you can walk freely in between the holes in the ground, some as deep as 15 feet with steam gushing out of the earth, some with mud bubbling and frothing like a witch’s cauldron.

Geyser

There were other tour groups along with ours, walking in between the holes and taking pictures next to steam spouts.  One guy even fell into one of the geysers!  Luckily it wasn’t one of the more active ones; he landed on a bed of dirt and was eventually pulled up by a rope to cheers and embraces by the rest of his group.

Getting back in the car to go see the Laguna Verde, we stopped at a group of buildings next to yet another lake to have lunch.

Bathing in the hot spring!

There was a little pool next to the lake with steam coming off the surface and a couple bathing in its waters.  Gonzalo informed us that this was a hot spring, his swim trunks and towel already in hand, and made his way over to the pool as the rest of us mentally reviewed the clothing we had brought, hoping we had something, anything, we could wear into the spring.  No one told us we’d be going to a hot spring!  The guys had it easy — boxers look like bathing suits, right? — while I ended up going in a t-shirt and my underwear, to the shock of a group of French tourists who conveniently arrived right after I had stripped.  Of course.  But it was totally worth it: while the air outside was cold and windy, the waters of the hot spring were perfectly warm and relaxing.  It took a lot of mental effort to remove ourselves from the warm waters to towel off in the windy air!

Lake next to the hot spring

Our final stop was the Laguna Verde.  As the name suggests, it’s a green lake, as opposed to the red lake we had seen before.  It was very green, and very cold outside, so we didn’t stay long: we got out of the car, snapped a few pictures, and got back into the car to drive back to the hot spring for a dinner of, yep you guessed it, llama, rice and potatoes, seeing a beautiful sunset along the way.

Laguna Verde

Beautiful Sunset

And so ends the Salar Series.  We found a hostel for the night, with those same thick wool blankets, and dropped our guide, Ronald, off at Uyuni the next day before heading on the most direct route back to La Paz — we had to catch a bus to Cochabamba that night and we had 8 hours of driving to do.  We all cheered when we got back onto paved roads again — we had forgotten how smooth they were!  Making it into La Paz at around 7 pm, we had plenty of time to get ourselves together for the overnight into Cochabamba leaving at 11.  We even got to eat dinner, which thankfully was not llama, or rice, or potatoes.

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