Bolivian Southwest: Reserva Eduardo Avaroa

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.

Heading towards the Arbol de Piedra, Reserva de Fauna Andina Avaroa, Bolivia

Arbol de Piedra, Reserva de Fauna Andina Avaroa, Bolivia

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.

Laguna Colorada, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos in Laguna Colorada, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos in the mist, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos take flight, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

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!

Steam jet at Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

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.

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

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.

Rocas de dali, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Rocas de Dali, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

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.

Laguna Verde, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

The Bolivian Southwest, into Los Lipez

Leaving the bright light of the Salar de Uyuni behind, and after a night well spent in the Tayka Hotel de Piedra (www.taykahoteles.com) in San Pedro de Quemez, we woke early for yet another dramatic drive through the stunning scenery of Bolivia’s Lipez region.

We were headed for the high altitude Siloli Desert, a sight which literally takes your breath away by its magnificence. If at times during the journey it feels like you may have inadvertently landed on the moon when not paying attention, arriving in the Siloli Desert is like being on another planet…most probably Mars. Nothing can prepare you for it and it is truly one of the most outlandish and extraordinary places on earth.

Rough dirt track into Los Lipez, Bolivia

Extinct volcano in the Lipez Region of Bolivia

For a region famed for being desolate and inhospitable, the Lipez region of Bolivia is one of the most colourful in the country. There are lakes coloured by minerals full of pink flamingos and volcanos that have exploded eons ago that sport an array of reds and purples. All the geothermal activity has given rise to an active mining industry that has been exploited for centuries and is still being exploited today.

Proof of this came when we found ourselves driving alongside a narrow gauge railway that is still used to export Bolivian minerals to the coast in Chile. Ringed by volcanic peaks, the railway cut across a vast flat plain that seemed to be comprised entirely of grey volcanic dust. A more desolate location for a railway is unimaginable and in the background, looming over everything, is the active Ollague volcano.

Railway to Chile, Lipez region, Bolivia

The still active Vulcan Ollague, Lipez region, Bolivia

Thanks to the mines it is possible to find yourself on the occasional well maintained road large enough to take trucks and buses, although there is so little traffic that when another vehicle does appear on the road you can see it from miles away thanks to the dust cloud it throws up.

Bus heading across the Lipez region of Bolivia

Eventually you leave the ‘main’ road and head back across country on rough tracks that take you to the Siloli Desert, via a string of beautiful high altitude lakes that are home to three different varieties of flamingo. Because there are only a few roads in the region, and it is popular with tourists, you tend to bump into a lot of other travellers in this area…and people attract other wildlife!

High altitude lake with flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

Bolivian fox, Lipez region, Bolivia

High altitude lake, Lipez region, Bolivia

Flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

High altitude lake with flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

After a leisurely lunch overlooking a lake full of feeding flamingos, and a quick stop to refuel the car, we were on our way to the Siloli Desert, one of the more extraordinary places anyone could find themselves.

Refuelling en route to the Siloli Desert, Lipes region, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

The desert is made up of volcanic ash and gravel that has been contoured by wind (and very occasional rains) to look like a surrealist painting; also dotted about the desert are rock outcrops that have been sculpted by centuries of wind into peculiar shapes (the most famous we’d see the following day). Perhaps the most amazing feature of the whole desert, however, is the Tayka Hotel del Desierto (www.taykahoteles.com) where we were to spend the night.

The Tayka Hotel del Desierto is one of a kind, its location in the middle of the desert is made possible only because of the Ojo del Perdiz, or Eye of the Partridge, a natural spring that provide water to the hotel. I think the photos speak for themselves, but I’d add that the night sky in the Siloli Desert is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Hotel del Desierto in the Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

Hotel del Desierto in the Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia