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Bolivia’s Enchanting Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

By Martin Li

Visitors to southwestern Bolivia often visit the Salar de Uyuni and travel no further south. That's a mistake. While the Salar is undoubtedly worth the trip, for me, heading from there to the beautiful and isolated southwestern lakes is even more rewarding.

Organized trips to the southwestern lakes invariably start from the town of Uyuni and take the form of jeep tours, traversing the Salar de Uyuni en route. If traveling to Uyuni overnight from the capital, you get an early warning of how cold the salt flats are when you board the bus in La Paz. You're advised to take your sleeping bag onto the bus with you and, judging by the amount of ice on the bus windows when we arrived in Uyuni early the next morning, that is very useful advice.

Our tour company had three jeeps of tourists that August 6 holiday weekend. In my vehicle were five other tourists, our driver Walter and our cook Rosemary. All of our personal traveling gear, our food, water and cooking fuel, had to be carried atop the jeep from Uyuni, from where our group of Toyota Land Cruisers set off on a bright Saturday morning.

After a few turns around the dusty, low-lying and inexplicably wide streets of Uyuni, we were onto desert sands with pale, hazy mountains in the distance. A little further and the landscape began to turn white as we approached the great salt plain. By the end of the first day we had crossed the Salar and had reached the more rugged terrain beyond.

We spent the first night in the small village of San Juan. It was an uneventful experience except for an exhausting game of high altitude football played in the fading gloom of the altiplano evening. When it got too cold, we retired to our cozy, gas-lit dining room for a warming meal of soup and pasta.

The second morning we headed southwest across a harsh desert landscape towards the distant lakes. Stopping the vehicle to photograph a herd of llamas, we struck what was to be the first of several technical problems: a punctured left rear tire. Walter replaced the wheel and we moved on relatively quickly, although a short time afterwards, while passing the elegant smoking cone of Volcán Ollague, we had to stop again. Walter had decided that the new tire (actually a very old replacement with hardly any tread) was no good, and decided to repair the punctured one.

Strangely, it was during these two tire-changing stops that I first realized we were experiencing something quite special. Quite a few jeeps were traveling on the same
schedule as ours that holiday weekend, but the enforced stops put us behind most of the rest on the second day. Here we were on a high, remote plain, where the altiplano meets the Andes, next to an active volcano, surrounded by pink-brown mountains set off dramatically against a deep blue sky, with a herd of llamas grazing quietly in the distance. Briefly there were no other jeeps or tourists in sight, and we had all that beautiful wilderness to ourselves.

The lack of isolation that came from traveling with a constant fleet of other jeeps was
perhaps the only disappointment of the trip. With all that wild terrain to explore, it
seemed impossibly poor planning that so many jeeps would invariably arrive at the same place at the same time, with many tell-tale dust plumes not far off in the distance. Admittedly, this was a holiday weekend in high tourist season, but it seems the tour companies could plan together to vary their itineraries, or at least stagger their schedules, by just the small amount that would make all the difference.

Between taking photographs, smoking a few cigarettes and eating snacks, we took turns helping Walter pump up the repaired tire, and we eventually got on our way again. Not far from our second stop, we came across a stricken sister jeep on the track. Walter, with forty years of mechanical experience behind him, was soon in his overalls again and poking around the engine's electrics. There is a camaraderie among drivers in Uyuni. We slowed to make sure other stopped drivers were alright, and they did likewise when we had stopped. In such remote and hostile parts, it's not exaggeration to say survival could depend on it.

We bumped along for several more hours through marvelous landscapes of more pink-brown mountains, some snow-capped, others streaked with patches of ice and snow, and isolated, serene lakes. We climbed to higher and wilder terrain. As dusk was beginning to envelop all, we arrived at the bleak shores of the incredibly red-colored Laguna Colorada, sitting at 4,278m above sea level. Ice lined much of the lake’s shores and the surface was partially frozen. The lake's coloration is caused by microorganisms and a high ocher level. Like several other lakes in the area, Laguna Colorada is populated by several species of hardy flamingos.

That night was one of the coldest any of us had ever experienced, with temperatures that plummeted as fast as the setting sun and a wind that fiercely whipped up the lake’s fiery red surface. The one spectacular positive side to our location was the astonishing clarity of the night sky. Despite temperatures significantly below freezing, we were compelled more than once to venture outside our basic bunk rooms to marvel at the mesmerizing celestial show. Orion and the Plough were magnificent, the Milky Way laid its mantle across the night vista and the brightly shining moon was almost a nuisance to the star show. It took the periodic shooting stars to snap us out of our gob-smacked trances.

That same night sky, still visible early the next morning, was our reward for dragging ourselves out of our snug sleeping bags at 6am, rising to the sound of jeeps warming their engines in the bitterly cold courtyard outside. Our destination at that unearthly hour was the 4,850m Sol de Mañana geyser basin, best seen before sunrise. The towering main geyser could be seen from far off, beyond which was a smoking huddle of subsidiary vents and bubbling, spitting mud pools, densely shrouded in thick plumes of sulfur - a perfect setting for Dante's Inferno.

It was still early when we next stopped at the shores of another idyllic, partially-frozen lake with mist rolling across its surface. To the sides of the lake were several thermal pools into which some of our group submerged themselves. Most of us, too cold to contemplate taking off any layers even to climb into a hot pool, drank warm coffee around the blazing gas fire on which Rosemary was preparing us a well-earned breakfast of scrambled eggs. With breakfast and the pale morning sun finally starting to warm our frozen bodies, we set off again.

We climbed up and over a high pass and then reached another stark plain strewn with enormous, irregular rocks named the Rocas de Dali. We passed ruined stone houses long since deserted by sulfur miners, who left the desolate land when mining became uneconomic.

All the lonely lakes we'd seen thus far were perhaps only preparing us for the most sensational sight of all - Laguna Verde. Isolated in Bolivia's southwestern corner (crossing the lake and the next mountain lands you in Chile), Laguna Verde sits serenely and romantically at some 4260m, with the beautiful Volcán Licancábur rising 5960m behind its turquoise, partially frozen surface.

The amazing coloration of the lake derives from its high concentration of cobalt and other minerals, particularly visible when the frequent winds blow the surface into a froth. We were privileged to enjoy this moment in total calm, when the entire vista had an other-worldly quality that none of us who saw it will ever forget.

At this point, some jeeps headed across the frozen shores towards the Chilean border. For us, when we'd finally pulled ourselves away from the spell-binding panorama, our route would take us back north across the barren plains towards Uyuni. The return journey would be long and arduous, frequently bone-shaking and head-smacking along the dusty and bumpy terrain. But having experienced some truly magical moments in this enchanting, lonely corner of Bolivia, we didn't complain.

Travel Facts

American Airlines fly from London to La Paz, Boliva, daily. Return fares start from GBP803.20 (US$1,140) economy class and GBP4,148.20 (US$5,890) business class. Return fares from Miami start from GBP523.80 (US$733) economy class and GBP2,528.80 (US$3,591) business class. Fares include airport taxes. Reservations can be made in the UK on 08457 789 789, in the USA on 1 800 433 7300 and at www.aa.com.

Several companies in Uyuni offer tours to the Salar de Uyuni and the southwestern lakes. We traveled with Toñito Tours, Ave. Ferroviaria 152, Uyuni, Tel/Fax 00 591 693 2094. The cost of a four-day tour is US$115 per person, including food, accommodation and jeep with the services of a driver and cook. Bring a sleeping bag, warm clothes, gloves, hat and sunglasses.

Martin Li is a freelance travel and lifestyles writer based in London. Born in Hong Kong, his family moved to London when he was three. After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in physics, Martin worked initially in high level positions in financial services and capital markets.  Martin has published a number of books and articles and his topics frequent include his parchment for hideaways destinations, adventure trips, and sports travel. (More about this author).

Martin Li
19 Stephen Court, 52 Victoria Drive
London SW19 6BD, United Kingdom

Tel +44 (0)20 8780 0273
Fax +44 (0)20 8788 2802
Email martinli@mistral.co.uk 


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