From the Atacama Desert to Uyuni: One of the Toughest Journeys in the World

by KNYCX Journeying
December 9, 2021 | 9 min read

From the Atacama Desert to Uyuni: One of the Toughest Journeys in the World

The isolated Atacama to Uyuni is one of the toughest journeys of my life. in fact, the toughest part is what lied in between. I visited the salt flat from Chile and the entire tour took 4 days. Somehow, I joined a Spanish speaking tour and luckily, I met a group of amazing people that helped me get through the trip 4800-meter above sea level.

0 Chile-Bolivia 4
Combat high altitude sickness: Coca Tea

0 Chile-Bolivia 1
For days, that we are driving with no roads, following the tire tracks left by the former travelers

You simply must visit Isla Incahusi, Salar de Uyuni, the cemetery of trains, and stay in a salt hotel in Bolivia; see beautiful geysers, lagoons, and out-of-this-world Moon Valley, and stargaze in the Atacama Desert. In between these two places, it’s all about lagoons and flamingos. Pedro de Atacama is close to the Chile-Bolivia border and the two countries are connected by the rugged mountains of the Andes 3000 to 5000-meter above sea level. We ascended to the passport control that I would describe is a hut with a Bolivian flag at the entrance, and all travelers lined up to get the passport checked before we had breakfast by the coach bus and the, found ourselves with a jeep in a group of six.

We had quite a group that day; About 6-7 jeeps with a driver/tour guide were waiting for us after breakfast. We randomly grouped ourselves and each group would be traveling basically the same route – we saw a lot of each other quite often at the inns in the next few days.

As we moved on, we headed deeper into a completely remote region in the Andes, where I could simply turn my iPhone to airplane mode for the next couple of days.

While I say “remote” – it’s truly isolated. There wasn’t even a paved road – no signs, no lights, no markers; the only trace of human is the tire tracks remained on the sand. I was amazed at how the tour guides managed to find their directions and arrived exactly where we needed to be. At first, all I could think of was one of the favorite movies: Mad Max Fury Road, while Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy were driving through the desert with their rig. I sat at the front of the jeep and I saw the mirage that my iPhone couldn’t quite capture faithfully.

The west of Bolivia has a rugged mountainous scene. We climbed up to the height of 4,990-meter once we entered the country. Our jeep followed the trails of the previous travelers as there were no roads, no signs, and no lights. It was my toughest expedition so far as I had to combat jet lag, high altitude, zero humidity, lost in translation, and complete remoteness…

Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve

1 The Chilean, Andean, and James’s Flamingo 2

A highlight of the journey is driving through the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, where we observed three endemic species of flamingos in their natural habitat embraced by volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lagoons, fumaroles, and more. The national reserve is located at an altitude between 4,200m and 5,400m – that’s why we finished our entire trip with our hearts pounding not only because of our reactions to the high altitude but also the distinct beauty of the landscape. The remote area in Sur Lipez is home to more than 30,000 flamingos and three out of the six flamingo species in the world could be seen here: the Chilean, Andean, and James’s Flamingo.

Can you tell which kind of flamingo is in the photos? What is their difference?

Andean, Chilean, and James’s Flamingo

One way to distinguish these flamingos is by observing their beaks, color of their legs, eyes, and also the feather of their tails. Andean flamingo is the largest among all, and they are called chururu locally. Their eyes are pale red, and their head, neck, and chest are in light rosy pink. They could be found in Salty Altiplano lakes, in southwest Bolivia and north Chile (which is most commonly seen in the region); Chilean flamingos, on the other hand, are commonly seen in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru. One feature that set them different from the other two, is that their eyes are yellow, and their feather is in a darker salmon color.  James’s flamingos are the smallest among all three; they are called Jututu locally, and the tail of their body is black. They could be found in Central and Southern puna of Bolivia, North of Chile, southeast of Peru, and north of Argentina.

There are plenty of lagoons in the highlands. They provide an abundant supply of plankton that draws these fascinating birds to the water; Most of our sightings happened around the lagoons. If you are lucky, you may get to see all three species in a day. Since these birds could only be found in such high Andean plateaus, they were thought to be extinct until they are spotted again in the 1950s. An interesting fact: flamingos are actually white. They look pink only because their feathers were stained by the red algae in the water. The best time to view the birds is between December to April, the rain will fill the lagoons and more flamingos could be seen.

Lagoons, Lagoons, and Lagoons; The remote areas in Sur Lipez is also a national reserve home to more than 30,000 flamingos, while 3 out of the 6 flamingo species in the world could be seen. I could see an amazing reflection from the lake already.

While we are in Bolivia, the natural sceneries are truly breathtaking. Everywhere I went, the rugged mountains, rocks, lagoons, and lakes is a good picture-taking moment. In fact, there are quite a lot of things to see in a couple of days –

Aguas Termales and Geysers Sol de Mañana

There is a small hot spring pool on our way to Uyuni and there was our chance to take a bath – because many of the hostels didn’t have a shower.

Sol de Mañana is a geothermal area that extends over 10 square kilometers and characterized by intense volcanic activity. The Sulphur springs field is full of mud lakes and steam pools with boiling mud. If you walk about the pool and look closely, you could see the pools are in different colors, from maroon and milky white – depending on the composition of the pool.

Salvador Dalí Desert

3 Salvador Dalí Desert

Salvador Dalí Desert, or “Desierto de Dalí” in Spanish, is one of my favorite spots in this excursion. The area is also known as Dalí Valley because the landscape reminds the spectators very much the image of one of the most recognizable surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí – The Persistence of Memory. This is an extremely barren valley of southwestern Bolivia, in the Potosí Department.

The Persistence of Memory was created by Dalí in 1931, and it’s now on display in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The painting epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness”, which was central to his thinking at the time. The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. The painter explained that the soft watches were inspired by the surrealist perception of a Camembert melting in the sun. More, there’s a human figure in the painting that represents the painter himself – the abstract from becoming something of a self-portrait, reappearing frequently in his work. Worth mentioning though, Dali never painted this particular scene. It’s just the landscape that has such a strong resemblance to his famous works.

3 Salvador Dalí Desert The Persistence of Memory
The Persistence of Memory

Like the title of this post. My journey from Chile to Uyuni has many lagoons. This is an ideal habitat for 30,000 flamingos to look for food. Interestingly, the lagoons are in different colors according to their different composition; more, the view of the lake is absolutely stunning with the dramatic mountain in the back and the reflection of the sky.  Three lakes, in particular, are named in  colors – from white, red to green respectively.

Laguna Blanca

Laguna Blanca is a salt lake in an endorheic basin, in the Sur Lípez Province of the Potosí Department, Bolivia. It is near the Licancabur volcano.

Laguna Colorada

It’s called the “red lagoon”

Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde, (a.k.s. Green Lake) is a salt lake in an endorheic basin, in the southwestern Altiplano in Bolivia. It is close to the Chilean border, at the foot of the volcano Licancabur. In fact, the lakes were extremely windy and my selfie stick was shaking in the strong wind. I wonder how flamingo could stand in the lake with one leg~?

Árbol de Piedra (Stone Tree)

Árbol de Piedra (a.k.a. “stone tree”) is a unique rock formation in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve of Sur Lípez Province, Bolivia. Basically, it’s located in the middle of nowhere, yet it’s much-photographed and could be seen in many posters on the travel agencies. Yet when I was there, I immediately recognized the rock formation because it’s that very much alike. The rock projects out of the altiplano sand dunes of Siloli in the Potosí Department, about 18 kilometers (11 mi) north of Laguna Colorada. Known as the “Stone Tree,” it is shaped like a stunted tree about 7 m high. Its shape, particularly the thin stem, is due to strong winds carrying sand and eroding the soft sandstone.

Valle de Rocas (Valley of Rocks)

7 Valle de Rocas (Valley of Rocks) 1

Valle de Rocas (a.k.a. “Valley of Rocks”) is another impressive rock formation complex located in the natural reserve. It is located closer to the Uyuni Salt Flats, this valley is lined with unusual and captivating rocks formed as a result of volcanic activity and centuries of wind erosion. We explored the area for a while and we even saw a few bunnies and foxes kind of enjoying themselves in the wild!

7 Valle de Rocas (Valley of Rocks) 2

Volcano Tunupa & Ollagüe

Don’t forget the area is filled with volcanoes. The entire trip was over 3000 meters above sea level with my heart pounding. Like Ollagüe, it is a massive andesite stratovolcano In the Andes on the border between Bolivia and Chile, within the Antofagasta Region of Chile and the Potosi Department of Bolivia. Part of the Central Volcanic Zone of the Andes, its highest summit is 5,868 meters above sea level and features a summit crater that opens to the south. The western rim of the summit crater is formed by a compound of lava domes, the youngest of which features a vigorous fumarole that is visible from afar.

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Any thoughts, tips or questions?

Hey! I am Kenny. Since I was a kid, I was bitten by a travel bug quite seriously that I would choose a globe and atlas book for Christmas over video games. Now, the Knycx Journeying website was launched as a platform to share my passion - covering anything that interests me from history, culture, humanity, architecture, art, food, music to outdoor adventure.

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