~By: Amanda, Anna and Julie
Nobody likes early mornings, but at least with this tour you awake at 0 Dark 30 to a glorious breakfast prepared for you. We were on the road by 7:30 am. Besides being friendly, our favorite thing about Miguel was that he kept us on a good schedule. We were always the first group to arrive at many of the stopping points along the way. On our way out of town we hit up a convenience store, where we grabbed a few Coronas, because what’s vacation in the middle of nowhere without breakfast beers?
Our first stop of the day would be a hidden gem in the middle of the desert, where hundreds of boulders are stacked on each other. The scenery was breathtaking and we were able to take more unforgettable pictures…noticing a pattern?
Pulling up to Laguna Canapa, we spotted several black specs sprinkled thoughout the water. As we neared the shore, we realized these were the promised pink flamingos. The real thing, not the tacky plastic decorations that Floridians like to use as lawn decor. Miguel let us off on the far shore to enjoy the birds while he prepared lunch. Getting close to these creatures was tricky. They are quite docile animals and there is a parameter set up around the lake to keep visitors from getting too close. Our picnic lunch was set up next to a hotel on little tables covered with thatched straw roofs. The adjacent hotel promised wifi for a small fee, however it was in-operative. In actuality, most of us were happy to stay in our little bubble off the grid.
As we set off, our surroundings transformed into a red rock desert. There was no road, only rows of tire tracks etched in the sand. Miguel knew the way, as he has driven the route hundreds of times; he’s probably able to trace the path in his sleep. Based on our GPS, we realized the line of mountains skimming by our right side window was the border to Chile. This is where we get diabolical. Miguel knows Julie grew up in Chile, having immediately peppered her with questions upon learning this gringa spoke perfect Spanish. We asked hopefully, “Can we go to the border?” After a moment of consideration he mentally made a couple small adjustments to the itinerary and determined it was possible. He also made the recommendation that for the equivalent of 5 dollars more we could stay in a better hotel that evening, which would also make more efficient use of our time. We immediately agreed.
Today we got as high as 15,650 feet elevation! We had kind of became obsessed with checking our elevation. Snapchat and the iPhone Compass app both show accurate elevation, even when your phone is in airplane mode. At one point Miguel stopped the car to hand over a bag of coca leaves. We all took a few even though we felt fine, determining do as the natives. This was the highest point of elevation any of us had ever achieved outside of an airplane. We used to see lots of alpaca herds when at lower elevations, where there was an abundance of more greenery. The natives live off the alpaca herds for everything. But up here we are in complete desert; we we keep describing it as being on Mars, because of the red color and all the martian rocks scattered over the landscape. We really haven’t seen any wildlife other than a few odd looking ducks and a few wild alpaca. They look almost like antelope, they are very thin and lanky and only white and cream colored. Miguel called them cuña. Who knows what they survive on because there is very little vegetation.
After cruising along the endless red sand for hours, we entered the national park, which costs an additional 150BOB. Be careful! One of the sneaky officials attempted to keep 50BOB in change he owed me, when I handed over 200BOBs. Once again thankful for Julie’s Spanish, I walked back out with my cash… my beer money for the evening.
Just past the park office is the Laguna Colorada, an amazing red colored lake home to more flamingos. We learned the lake receives its color from mineral deposits which generate a red hue. This is also how the pink flamingos are so uniquely colored, as their primary food source also contains these same red minerals. Sitting on the rocks overlooking the laguna, we all had pensive solo moments. When your eyes capture something this beautiful, silence takes over….
Our final stop for the day was the geysers. We parked first at the smaller of the two, a small plume of white smoke jetting out from the tiny hole in the earth’s surface. You are actually able to touch the vapors evacuating from this small geyser and we all took turns jumping thought the warm vapors. Two minutes further down the road, a larger geyser gushed searing hot steam from the vent in the rocks. We were careful to steer clear of the mist as it was hot enough to cause serious burns.
Exhausted, we arrived at our accommodations for the evening. We played cards as we waited for our afternoon tea and those amazing cookies. Dinner was served with a complimentary bottle of wine and the food was as equally delicious as the night before. It was all clean, wonderful and locally grown. This is where we made our mistake. We had originally planned to visit the hot springs adjacent to the hotel after dinner. However, we all developed food comas, and coupled with the long day and the freezing temperatures outside, no one could muster putting on a bathing suit. Instead we quietly returned to our room and snuggled under our warm blankets.
Our final morning started with pancakes! What better way to start a morning then pancakes? — is Anna’s philosophy on life. Our first stop was the Laguna Verde, but to be quite honest it was not too exciting. Later we googled it and found pictures online with much more intense colorization, so perhaps we arrived during the wrong season. We started debating the difference between lagoons and lakes– no cell service for three days brings on some strange conversations. We concluded, thanks to Anna, lakes have to have a fresh water source. Finally on to Chile…
I have never been to Chile…based on a group consensus we determined if you make a memory in that country you can claim it. Figure out a better way than to grab hands with one of your favorite people and illegally run across a border, likely no! I also did a cartwheel, just in case. So in my mind it counts and I guess that is all that really matters, country number 60!
The rest of the day was mostly spent in the car, we made a few stops including the Desert of Dali, which was named after a Salvador Dali painting. We keep spotting small herds of the Alpaca-Antelope far across the empty fields. Every time a big huge truck passed us going in the opposite direction, we held our breaths going through the large dust clouds, generated as they speed down the road. We hoped those big trucks were carrying road paving supplies.
Our final stop before Uyuni was San Cristobal. Historically this town laid further to the west, however when an Australian mine company wanted to drill the mineral rich land; the town was re-located to its current location. The caveat was the beautiful church must be moved stone by stone and precisely re-erected. San Cristobal also has an amazing market, of course we found a stall with a working refrigerator and grabbed a couple of beers for our ride back to Uyuni.
We rode into Uyuni on a dust cloud and Miguel dropped us off at the bus station to drop our bags. We said a remorseful goodbye to Miguel. We will never see him again, but will never forget the magic he showed us in this beautiful and often forgotten part of the world. We settled down for dinner of pizza and beer before heading back to La Paz. We are so predictable! Coming back into “civilization” and having cell phone signal was not even all that grand. I called my mom, assured her of proof of life, shared a couple photos and resigned to not really caring about being reconnected with the world.
This was by far one of the most incredible trips we have ever taken. Absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of experience; I can’t believe we only paid $130 each. Still, we rather roughed it. We learned that electricity, running water and flushing toilets are luxuries in many parts of the world. We toured across the country in a Nissan Prado through salt flats, shallow lakes, heavy mud, creeks, prairie, roads of solid boulders, mountain tops and desolate dry desert. Arriving back in Uyuni completely covered in dirt, having lived and learned a little more, experiencing an amazing new culture and with fuller souls.
See part one of our adventure: Bolivia-The “road” less traveled and our other Bolivia blogs