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Mission to Mars: Southwest Bolivia

After the incredibly beautiful moonscape that was the Salar de Uyuni, we were off to our next destination (or planet) depending on how you viewed the landscape – the Lagunas Route through the Eduardo Avaroa Preserva. The next several days were for me (as was the Salar) a highly anticipated mini adventure. During the years leading up to our 2014 departure from Marin, I read many blogs and lived vicariously through those travellers. I would follow their travels and make notes on what I wanted to see and where we would drive. The Lagunas Route was one of those places that I had bookmarked in my brain. This was to be a wild, otherworldly landscape with the right amount remoteness and raw natural beauty that would allow me to feel the vastness and ferocity of PachaMama. (I am serious, but chuckling at the drama I just conjured….)

So, after we left Uyuni and camped for our second night at the train cemetery (but with our bigger group this time), we set out on what would be about 250+ miles of dirt roads until we crossed into Chile. There were four rigs total, ours plus 3 vans. (The vans would later be known as ‘the ducklings’). We planned to spend four nights driving through the park with an option for a fifth depending on provisions and the weather. Due to the altitude, driving conditions, and lack of gas stations on the route, we filled every jerry can we had and bought an extra just in case. LoJo doesn’t get very good gas mileage so we were overly cautious and brought an extra 17.5 gallons. (In the end, we didn’t need that much, but felt better having it with). We also had full water tanks, easy to prepare meals, snacks and absolutely no booze. (I don’t do well with altitude and booze).

Soon after we were underway, the road conditions deteriorated and we needed to air down the tires. This would make the next 245 miles infinitely more bearable. I don’t think we ever needed 4WD on these roads, but they would become quite rough and the washboarding effect can be jarring without airing down. As we continued down the blue line of our GPS device we watched the landscape change -the colors, the rock formations, the flora and fauna – finally, now, after reading the accounts of others we were on the Lagunas Route.

(many thanks to Janice for the convoy photos!)

LoJo and the Ducklings

Airing down - tires this big take a while.

For me, anticipation and the formulation of expectations is an interesting dynamic. My mother thought that the best part of holiday travel was the weeks or months leading up to a trip. For her, it was the anticipation – and I suspect the daydreaming of what was to come – that was as much fun for her as the actual trip. During our work lives, Paula would start planning the following year’s holiday almost immediately after completing our last. For her, it was the idea of having something to look forward to while grinding out another year of work. During my career I didn’t have much time (or take the time) to contemplate our next vacation. It seemed that I would work straight up until I boarded a plane, have a couple of drinks and a bit of Ambien on the flight, and then wake up in a new exotic locale with a different culture and a language I didn’t understand. I always felt that my time/space continuum when I went on vacation was similar to a time traveler. I walked into a tube, went to sleep, woke up in another dimension.

The anticipation of the odyssey that we are currently on was surreal for me. This time, I did a massive amount of planning and research. I had seen pictures and videos and read the descriptions of places where we would drive. We took Spanish classes before we left, and read about the customs and cultures of the different countries we would visit. This process of planning and anticipation leads to expectations. And, when the actual experience, or the landscape (or the internet speed) differ from the expectations that you yourself have extrapolated from your research or biases, there is the possibility of a positive or negative reaction.

The first day’s drive through streams and into boulder fields was incredible. We camped behind a large outcropping of rocks that was sufficient to break the incessant wind. We arrived a bit before the golden hour of daylight would start which gave us the opportunity to hike around, climb the massive rocks and just sit and observe our surroundings. Off in the distance was a rock formation that I had never seen before. I am not very good at descriptive writing, but I will say that the formation reminded me of a glacier field that was creeping down a mountain to a point where there was an invisible line and they just stopped. Had it been a glacier, this is where it would calve into some body of water. The glacier like formation was miles across and probably over 100 feet high - it was massive.

Our first night's camp, trying to hide from the wind.

Paula walking among the giant rocks

Ben on a rock, looking out on the rock glacier

Tanya and Philip - our Mitsubishi Ducklings.

The next day we drove through four distinctive landscapes, another altiplano followed by a dry, dusty salt lake and then another grassy altiplano followed by the large lake basin of Laguna Colorado. Each day felt like its own journey as everything through the windshield continued to change. The only one constant was the weather – windy and cold – VERY WINDY AND VERY COLD. I guess this may have been one of the disconnects between my expectations of the Lagunas Route and all of its visual riches and the actual journey through it. I won’t go as far as to say this was a negative emotion as we were driving through the highlands of Bolivia (14,000-16,500ft elev.) in their WINTER – what else could I possibly expect? Well, candidly, my research was not complete as I failed to look closely or at least register the time of year that other travelers had driven this route.

We stopped for lunch along the road, under the watchful eyes of a pack llamas grazing beside a partially frozen stream.

Finally - Laguna Colorado came into view.

A quick look, and then back in the rigs. We didn't spend too much time on this end of the lake.

On this night we found a canyon that, from the air, would look like a small fissure in the earth leading away from the lake and into the mountains. It was a suitable windbreak for camping and hunkering down for the night. This was a theme for our Lagunas Route – we would drive to different areas of the park, do some very short exploring out of our rigs, and then get quickly get back inside. We didn’t have many communal experiences, as it was so bloody cold. When we would finally make camp, we all scampered back to our respective rigs, make some dinner and try to stay warm. The temps by day were in the 30s with an occasional dip into the 20s, and down into the low teens at night. We wore the same clothes to bed that we normally ski in, our water hose for our sink froze, and we had to thaw our olive oil before we could cook with it. Cold, cold livin'.

Second night's camp. Tucked in a canyon trying to hide from the wind. Laguna Colorado in the distance.

Chit chat sessions didn't last very long out here.

Getting gas - I had to reposition the truck twice to keep the gas from blowing away.

We decided to do a bit of exploring of Laguna Colorado the next day to see the flamingos and try to find a vantage where we might witness the red waters of the lake. That was a difficult task as most of the time the wind was quite strong and the sunlight obscured so you really didn’t get to see the brilliance of the contrasting colors. That said, it was still a beautiful sight. And here is where my taking a shortcut through the sandy, dried out portion of the lake lead to Gregor and Janice’s van getting stuck and me needing to pull them out when digging didn’t work. In the end, it isn’t a mini adventure if someone doesn’t get stuck. (We would pull out Tanya and Phillip out of the snow a couple of hours later. Snow!).

Tracks out to the lake

There better be flamingos out there!

Tough little Lorenzo braving the wind.

The photos we've seen of Laguna Colorado were always blood-red in color. Ours was pink – maybe the wind whipped up the white pools caused by massive borax deposits, but ours was pink.

A rare breed of flamingo has flocked to the area for centuries. James's Flamingo, also called the puna flamingo, is native to the Andes and the Altiplano area. Although they seem plentiful on the shores of Colorada, they are very rare. How do they survive in such a harsh environment...

Scurrying back to the shelter of our rigs

With deep trenches all around the lake we searched for a way out, hoping the Ducklings could make it.

And took a track not totally suitable for all ducklings

Under the category heading, ‘Does this seem queer to you?’, we later drove to the Bolivian Aduana office that was in the middle of the park and more than a day’s drive to the often-crossed border to Chile. We needed to go here in order to have our vehicles’ TIP (Temporary Import Permit) canceled before leaving the country, Bolivia, whose border is 50 miles away! But the drive, again, was stunning. I think it was on this day where we really felt remote and as if we were driving on Mars. Oh, and did I mention the Aduana sits at 16,513 feet of elevation? In a Borax acid mine? Mars.

On our way to the Aduana. Really??

Surprised we didn't need oxygen. This is the highest we've ever been.

Strange cloud formations on Mars...

Strangest Aduana office of the trip. In the middle of no where, at 16K ft. and 80 km from the border.

The next night was camped at the shore of a salt lake called Salar de Chalviri. Here the Termas de Polques hot springs are located. It was cold and windy when we arrived, but the hot springs beckoned. It was only Ben and I who would a.) brave the cold before and after the thermal pools and b.). would defy the notion/(myth?) that the operators of the thermals cleaned the portable toilet housings in said thermals. I told Paula that my decision to warm myself to the bone in the natural pools while watching the most impressive of sunsets, discussing life and the future with my new friend Ben, was either the best or worst decision I would make on the Lagunas Route. I would only know the answer if I didn’t develop some strange rash after a couple of days. I know now that I made the right call. This is one of the rare moments on the trip that was incredibly poignant but without photographic evidence. I like that.

Camping at Salar de Chalviri next to Termas de Polques hot springs. No wind break for us this night.

This night, our third, would turn out to be our last night out here. We didn’t know that when our heads hit the pillows however. It would also turn out to be the most uncomfortable as the wind was brutal. At times in the night it felt like someone picked up our little truck and gave it a violent shake before setting it back down. Paula woke up a couple of times grabbing my arm and shouting my name. It wasn’t horrific, just less than comfortable.

The following day we did more driving and some hiking out to the Desierto de Salvador Dalí (Salvador Dalí Desert) where we checked out rock formations that seemed to be set up randomly out in a flatish desert area. I felt like the volcano that produced them just spit these piles of magma out at just the right temperature and trajectory where they would just plop straight up in the middle of nowhere and stay that way for a million or so years. It was cool and surreal to see.

Making our trek out to the strange rocks. The region is named after the Spanish surrealist painter whose work is reminiscent of such scenery

Wild Vincunas

From here we moved on toward the adjacent lakes, Lagunas Blanco and Verde, again, these were much-anticipated destinations for me. I can say that the lakes had greenish and whitish water in them respectively, but with the wind blowing a gale, they looked more like a frothy fru fru cocktail that I would soon crave. It was at the overlook where we parked when we made the call that this would be our last day visiting the Eduardo Avaroa Preserva. When Paula couldn’t push the door of the truck open we knew we were done. The thought of camping in this much wind without any protection vs. driving out of the park, down a paved road to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile - which sits at a cocktailing acceptable 7,300ft elevation - and arrive by dinner time – well, civilization won.

We had walkie talkies checking on our Ducklings the whole time. They all made it!!

Laguna Verde. More like foam green, whipped up by the wind and the white. The turquoise-green color can be attributed to arsenic, lead, copper and other minerals suspended in the water. The unique chemical composition keeps the water from freezing even with subzero temperatures.

We all drove to the border and got our passports stamped, took our photos at the Argentina/Chile sign and then coasted the 8,000 feet gloriously down the pavement to San Pedro where we set up camp in a hostel, and walk to an actual restaurant with good food, wine and beer. It was here that we all finally had our communal meal and really got to know each other.

Bolivan border

Finally in cocktail range...

I tend to think in motto’s or axioms that come to me from various experiences. ‘You have to take what it gives you’ is the one that came back to me on this little journey. I may have seen photos of calm lakes with incredible light and people wearing T-shirts during the day, but that isn’t what this episode of our trip gave us. And although the conditions were different than what I might have anticipated or expected when I was doing my research, it was still utterly incredible.

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