Getting up before dawn, and with hot cups of tea barely able to hold the fantastically cold morning at bay, we were treated to a ringside seat of the sunrise over the Siloli Desert. As the colours of the mountains sprang back to life and some of the sun’s warmth finally penetrated the four layers of clothing I was wearing, we clambered back into the car and headed towards the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and the border with Chile.
First stop in this bewildering landscape was the wind sculpted Arbol de Piedra, the Stone Tree, a huge lump of rock that over millennia has been carved by wind and sand into its current tree-like shape. That would be reason enough to stop and marvel at it, but it also stands in a vast desert plain surrounded by mountains streaked with colour making it one of the most surreal sights of our trip. Our early start was rewarded with having the whole desert to ourselves.
Even with the sun rising in the sky, at this time of day and at this altitude the temperatures were freezing and it was impossible to stand still for long without the cold piercing through clothing and footwear. It truly is an inhospitable place, but one an estimated 50,000+ tourists travel through every year.
A short journey to the south of the Arbol de Piedra lies one of the wonders of the whole region, Laguna Colorada, whose striking red waters contrasted against the deep blue sky are an extraordinary sight to behold. Although it looks like the scene of a toxic spill, the red colour is the result of algae in the water – the main source of food for the flamingos that thrive in the region, including the rare James flamingo which breeds in Laguna Colorada.
It’s a little like “Ten Amazing Things to Do Before Breakfast”, but climbing in altitude to a whopping 5000m we drove on towards the hellish looking and smelling Sol de Manana geyser. As you approach these boiling pools of mud and steaming fumaroles the nauseating stench of sulphur is overwhelming, but even that can’t take away from the wonder of the volcanic activity that is all around.
The first thing you see when you arrive is a jet of highly pressurised steam shooting out of the brown earth and making a screaming noise not dissimilar to the sound of a steam train whistle. The jet is probably about 15 metres high and the steam is hot!
Walking around the site is a bit like doing a day-trip to Hell and you have to be careful, the cracked earth can give way and collapse into bubbling mud underneath – as the sign says it’s Peligro. And did I mention the smell? Awful.
Leaving the fire and brimstone behind we set off for the furthest reaches of Bolivia to where the Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur nestle on the border with Chile. The drive passes a stretch of barren landscape that suddenly takes on the look of a sculpture park combined with a Japanese garden. Known as the Rocas de Dali, it is a peculiar sight.
I must confess that the one thing I’d really been looking forward to seeing was the last thing we’d see on the Bolivian side of the border – Laguna Verde. I’d seen photos of the stunning green water – created by chemical reaction – with the backdrop of the towering Volcan Licancabur and was excited to be finally able to see it in person.
As with much of life, it was something of a disappointment. There was little water and the green colour was, at best, subdued. Still you can’t hold that against the Bolivian Southwest, it is a privilege to spend time there. Next stop Chile.