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The Silk Route - World Travel: South West Bolivia
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Bolivia: The South West
May 2011

Laguna Colorada

The spectacular landscapes of Bolivia drew us to travel throughout the country to vast salt flats, numberless volcanoes and multi-coloured lakes. Unforgettably spectacular.

South Western Bolivia

Bolivia wilderness

We were making our way deep into south western Bolivia with gallons of water on board just in case. Our first scheduled halt was Ollague volcano but we stopped several times before reaching it.

Bolivia wilderness

We passed through an area of sculpted stone - whether frozen lava or weathered by wind I don't know, but the intricate shapes extended over a vast area. Our guide called it a "stone army".

Bolivia wilderness

The landscape is utterly strange, the track passing through arid desert, salt flats - the Salar de Chuguana - and weird rock formations, always shadowed by huge mountains and volcanoes - none of which appeared to be active.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Yareta

 

 

Even here plants manage to survive. Lots of scrubby thorny bushes and Yareta, a plant looking like a green brain, made up of many thousands of tiny plants which spread over rocky surfaces.

 

Bolivia wilderness




Bolivia wilderness


Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
A railway track slices through this fantastic landscape.

 

Approaching the Ollague Volcano we were travelling through red desert. The volcano was visible from miles away and we circled to come to the best vantage point. Volcanoes are one of my favourite landscape features, along with deserts and winter alpine peaks.

Bolivia wilderness

 

It's an amazing sight, this smoking volcano in the midst of a vast wilderness.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

Bolivia wilderness

We were scheduled to go to Lagunas Hedionda and Canapa, where flamingos can be seen. However, our driver was keen to eat lunch at San Cristobal so our guide substituted these two lagunas, which usually have flamingos, and the Siloli desert, with its rock "tree" - a well-visited "tourist" site which we weren't so bothered about, with several more remote sites. We saw lots of flamingos elsewhere, and thanks to our guide's excellent knowledge of the region we saw some really stunning landscapes we wouldn't otherwise have seen.

Bolivia wilderness

A hidden lagoon in a deep hollow in the mountains was a beautiful, peaceful spot, we'd travelled a good distance off the main track to reach it, not seeing another soul.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

The surrounding landscape was dotted with wind-sculpted rocks and only the tough yareta and a few small thorny plants seem to grow here. The lagoon itself had very curious formations, some kind of plant or algae, perhaps even a mineral, in vast mottled grey sheets.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

I think the birds we saw here were Giant Coot - pitch black feathers with an orange and white bill and reddish legs. There were small mounds in the shallow water near the shore where the birds might have been nesting.

Then it was quite a long drive, maybe 60km, through the Altiplano Sur to San Cristobal for lunch.

San Cristobal
The colonial church of San Cristobal.



Bolivia wilderness

Bolivia wilderness

Bolivia is super-rich in minerals, not least in silver. Originally the town of San Cristobal was located a few miles away, right on a major ore deposit. The mining company paid to have the town relocated, moving the historic church and cemetery too, so that it could exploit the deposits. The church is rather picturesque - I believe it is 16th century, certainly colonial in style.

SAn Cristobal
The colonial church of San Cristobal.

The lunch was good. We were way off the usual tourist track (if there can be such a thing in this remote wilderness) and were given very curious looks as we entered the restaurant - very much frequented by working men! I was the only female in the place, felt a bit like entering "The Slaughtered Lamb" in "An American Werewolf in London"!

We soon understood why the driver was keen to eat here - having become thoroughly tired of the standard Bolivian fare on offer to us we fully appreciated the "Pique Macho"served here.

It is traditional Bolivian food, and the version here is widely renowned. It was a mixture of sliced onions, green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, tomato, strips of meat in a gravy served on a  bed of chips - very good indeed. With Huari beer on the side. After lunch we wandered down through the town and past the church with its thatched roof and tiered bell towers to where our driver met us for the drive back down the dusty road.

Bolivia wilderness

We stopped at a lovely river, winding through a plain, which was teaming with birdlife. Another (inactive) brooding volcano loomed above the landscape,capped with snow. Yet another, a little further off, may have been smoking. There were what looked like abandoned adobe houses here - only half a dozen but most without roofs.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

There were several different types of duck here and some beautiful fat white Andean Geese.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness


Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

 

We went on to the Canyon de Villa Alota - an impressive gash  in the landscape, again, not on our original itenerary - our guide certainly knew the country.

 

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

In this area there are many fields of valuable quinoa - two years harvest and the farmer can buy his vehicle! Piles of red straw are evidence of the harvest; apparently cars drive over the piles to separate out the grain.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Valley of the Rocks
Bolivia wilderness

We stopped at the Valley of the Rocks (which was on our original itinerary) but we didn't find this particularly impressive. It is a collection of weathered rock formations, clefts and natural walls, some many tens of metres high. The sky was putting on a fantastic display of whispy clouds against a deep blue backdrop though.

Bolivia wilderness

Bolivia wilderness
Entrance to the Lost City of the Lagoon.
Bolivia wilderness

The final stop of the day, however, was much more impressive. Towering rocks rising from flat ground in a beautiful evening light.

This was the so-called "Lost City of the Lagoon" - at least by our guide - another place we hadn't been scheduled to visit! He had created a whole fantasy scenario for the canyons and amphitheatres of soaring, glowing rock and we were again treated to a magnificent landscape thanks to his knowledge. We were able to climb up one of the outcrops quite safely.

Bolivia wilderness
Lost City of the Lagoon
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

Bolivia wilderness

An added bonus was the Mountain (Southern) Viscacha that we saw, crouched high on a rock watching us intently. Looking a bit like a huge rabbit but with a long tail, these rodents can grow upto 3kg in weight and 50cm long - the one we saw was fairly hefty!

Bolivia wilderness
Mountain (Southern) Viscacha

That night we stayed at the Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva in Villa Mar - one night too many! A terrible place: freezing cold, awful cold food and insecure rooms. The less said the better!

Bolivia wilderness

The following morning we left on our final day in Bolivia, we were to cross into Chile later in the afternoon. However, Bolivia wasn't letting us go without a few more stunning landscapes to see us on our way!

We passed the aeroplane on top of a rock in Villa Mar, a gruesome relic of a crash, before starting to climb even higher. It was very cold - a river, with very little water, had ice floating in it! This morning we were to reach the highest point of our journey.

The landscape became increasingly desolate until we were once more passing through desert, the only life forms to be seen were small clumps of tough grass.

Bolivia wilderness
Salar Capina

We came upon a vast borax-laden lake, the Salar Capina, looking very other-worldly, the colours are just amazing. All around were volcanoes, and still we were climbing.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness


Bolivia wilderness




Bolivia wilderness

Laguna Colorada was one of the highlights of our trip. This most amazing red lake with its hundreds of flamingos and surrounded by volcanoes is one of the most stunning landscapes we've seen. The amazing red colour is from algae.

Bolivia wilderness


Bolivia wilderness
laguna colorada flamingos

We were now at 4278m.

The flamingos seemed to be all James's flamingos, with a good proportion of yellow to their bills. Very beautiful but rather wary so we didn't go too close.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness
A packet of dried cranberries inflated due to the pressure difference between here and Switzerland where they were bought.

We spent some time here just taking in the fantastic scenery and enjoying watching the fabulous flamingos. Then we climbed to the highest point of our travels, 4923m, before dropping slightly to the Sol de Manana geothermal field of sulphurous fumaroles and mud pots.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

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Over about 50 square km the ground is littered with craters belching sulphurous fumes and boiling, bubbling mud.

Bolivia wilderness

 

 

Between the mud pots the earth is coloured red and yellow - there must be high mineral content here.

 

Bolivia wilderness


Bolivia wilderness

 

Bolivia wilderness
Laguna Salada

Lunch, made by our guide and driver, was at Laguna Salada. They did well to provide a baked stuffed chicken - prepared yesterday - and cold vegetables, potato and pasta, with Huari beer for us.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

The laguna is another colourful place: blue skies, green algae, white salt flats, pink snow-capped mountains, though quite cold as it's at an altitude of 4400m. There are hot springs here which intrepid travellers can bathe in. Birdlife was limited to gulls.

Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

Facilities here are extremely basic but I'd rather that than a hotel in the middle of the wilderness. We'd burst a tyre on the way here so the driver changed that before we set off once more.



Bolivia wilderness
Bolivia wilderness

 

We continued to pass through stunning landscape, mostly desert edged with brooding volcanoes, stopping to take photographs.

 

Bolivia wilderness
Laguna Blanca

 

 

We were en route to Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde which lie side by side at the foot of the 5920m Licancabur Volcano. We'd been travelling through wilderness all day but out here the road was nothing more than twin tyre tracks over the desert - sometimes not even that - as we approached the lagunas.

Both lagunas get their colours from minerals in the water. Laguna Blanca looked virtually dry.

 

Bolivia wilderness
Laguna Verde and Licancabur Volcano

 

 

 

Laguna Verde was a beautiful bright turquoise green, deep green where there was no cloud reflection. Apparently Laguna Verde is lifeless as it is full of arsenic.

 

Bolivia wilderness

 

 

And so to the Chilean border post -  a couple of Bolivian border guards in a hut. We were on time but our Chilean transport was over an hour late - the driver said he'd had car trouble but we think he forgot about the time difference! While waiting a number of Andean foxes made an appearance, no doubt looking for food!