Having had an early breakfast at the hotel we hopped into the cars and hit the road for a jam packed day exploring the Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. Straight away we could see that the scenery had changed; you are hit by views of the mountains imposing in the background whilst hordes of llamas run in front of you on the roads.
We popped into the cutest little roadside shop in the little town of San Juan to pick up some supplies before well and truly heading out on our way.
Our first stop off was at another salt flat; Chiguana. This is very different however from the salt flats visited the previous day. Mount Chiwana (meaning ”where the birds mate”) looms in the background whilst a single railway line cuts through the scenery. Laura explained the train comes through once a day from Abaroa station to the town of Uyuni. Luckily it wasn’t scheduled to pass whilst we visited which afforded us a bit of time to clamber across the tracks.
Having survived the tracks we hopped back in the car and made our way across to our second stop; their Ollague Volcano
This active volcano is a mind boggling age of between 420,000 and 680,000 years and straddles the border between Bolivia and Chile. No historical eruptions have been confirmed from Ollagüe, but there is intense fumarolic activity and a persistent steam plume emanates from a fumarole on the south side of the summit dome which you can watch smoking in the distance as a reminder of its bubbling underground.
We clambered around the rocks, admiring the smoking volcano in the distance. The lure of food was too much for some who decided to test out the llama sausages being freshly griddled at a little food stand. Not being a particular fan of llama I passed it up this time, but everyone did say they were super delicious.
We wandered through the sandy outcrop a little further where Laura pointed out a curious stone covered in what looked like some type of green algae. In fact its actually a plant – in Spanish it’s called ‘llareta’, and it’s a member of the Apiaceae family, which makes it a cousin to parsley, carrots and fennel!
Being a desert plant, high up in dry planes which resemble something close to how i imagine Mars to look; the llareta grows very, very slowly — a little over a centimeter a year.
Think about that. If you asked one of these plants, “What did you do during the 20th century?” it would answer, “I grew a meter bigger.” At that rate, plants rising to shoulder height (covering yards of ground, lump after lump) must be really, really old. In fact, some of them are older than the Giant Sequoias of California, older than towering coast redwoods. In Chile, many of them go back 3,000 years — well before the Golden Age of Greece! So incredible.
They look like green gift-wrapping. One imagines that they are mold-like, wrapping themselves around boulders. But that’s wrong. The truth is much weirder. That hard surface is actually a dense collection of tens of thousands of flowering buds at the ends of long stems, so densely packed, they create a compact surface. The plant is very, very dry, and makes for great kindling.
Laura explained that llareta is such good fuel that, even though it’s very ancient, people regularly use it to start campfires. Llareta has a really distinctive smell to it; almost like pine. It’s actually super nice!
Having undertaken some sort of, erm, ritual, around the llareta, we headed back to the car, admiring some of the rock formations on the way – does this one remind anyone else of the dad from the Lion King? Just me…
Having driven even further though the national park (listening to the ‘my favourite murder’ podcast the entire time) we stopped off at one of the most exiting sights; Lagoon Cañapa, where we we treated to our first glimpse of the famous flamingos!
The flamingos living on this lake are called ‘James’ flamingos; and are the rarest flamingos in the world. Incredibly, up until 1950 it was thought that the James flamingos were in fact extinct! A small community of them was discovered well and living in a remote location.
The James’s flamingo is hard to tell from its Andean counterparts, because of its similar coloration and size, and these flamingos are often mistaken with immature Andeans. They are often a lighter pink than the other flamingo families, except for the line of deeper crimson that runs along their necks. They stand about three-feet tall, enough to stand above the waters where they feed, and weigh a little over four pounds. The neck of the James’s flamingo is long and angular, giving them a large range of motion from their heads and necks. The ankle joint is further up the leg, to allow for graceful movement while walking in the water, and bending down to scoop up their major food sources.
The flight feathers on the James’s flamingo are yellow, pink, and have a distinctive black line. The beak is yellow, with a slicing black line near the front of the face. The beak coloration is one of the best ways to distinguish the James’s flamingo with other similar species.
I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen flamingos in the wild before; not less James Flamingos! It’s safe to say therefore that we all just stood watching them in awe. They were so incredibly beautiful.
We couldn’t resist however taking a group flamingo shot. Tourists hey!
Hoping back in the cars we made our way to the second lake of the day; Lagoon Hedionda, where again, we were treated to more views of the flamingos. The name of the lake literally translates in Spanish to ‘stinking lake’; the closer we got to waters the edge, the reason for the name became clearer and clearer…. The lake has an extremely high sulphur level which is the reason behind the smell; I had visited similar places in New Zealand. However this is definitely a smell you really never get used to…
We stopped of a at a little hut by the side of the lake just in time for lunch. Gonzalo had prepared us another delicious meal of pasta/potatoes and vegetables.
Full up from lunch we wandered back to the cars and drive to our third lake of the day; Lagoon Honda. This lake is the deepest in the National Park and, interestingly, is shaped just like a love heart.
Having had our fill of lakes for the day, we hit the sand again and made our way across to the Siloli desert which, with its vast landscapes and bizzare looking rock formations, again makes you feel like you have landed on some type of alien planet.
We were introduced to one of the areas stranger looking inhabitants. A creature I certainly had never heard of before – a ‘Viscacha’ which is native to South America, and descends from the chinchilla family. I initially thought it looked more like a rabbit! It was incredibly tame and would pretty much come right up to you if it thought you had food!
From here we continued across the desert to the famous ‘Árbol de Piedra’ (the stone tree). Volcanic rock, now visible everywhere across the desert, was formed and polished over the course of many years by the never-ending winds. As a result of the continuous erosion, various bizarre formations such as the Stone Tree, were created in the desert. The Árbol de Piedra is about 7 meters high and seems to have the whole structure of a petrified tree – super cool!
We admired the tree for a little while before being totally distracted by a crazy guy feeding one of the wild Culpeo foxes. Also known as the Andean Fox, the Culpeo is the regions largest predator. Culpeos are opportunistic hunters, which is just as well as food can be difficult to come by in the desert. Foxes in the Atacama are largely reliant on lizards and birds as well as viscacha and will even have a nibble at plants if times are especially tough. Whilst it was cool to watch, I’m not sure you would see me getting that close!
From the stone tree, we continued in the cars until we reached our last stop of the day; the Red Lagoon – ‘Lagoon Colorada’. The Lagoon owes its bloody red colour action to the red sediments and algae in the water – although not as red as I have seen it look in photos it was a pretty cool stop off!
Having spent some time admiring the red lake, we hopped back in the car, and I will admit, we all pretty much fell asleep on the journey to our accommodation for the evening. We were all knackered after a jam packed couple of days. Elle and I set up our own little nest in the back of the car which was perfect nap territory.
We soon arrived at our accommodation for the evening. Laura had been warning us for the last couple of days that we should keep our expectations low for this place; we therefore were fully expecting a stay which would be, erm, basic.
Whilst the little hotel was basic, it had running water, toilets that weren’t holes and big shared bedrooms that were perfectly comfortable!
We all loaded into the communal room, warming up in front of the log fire and sipping on tea. It was lovely!
Dinner was soon served, and the wine bottles were soon cracked open. The evening had well and truly dragged in.
For dinner we dined on vegetable soup and fresh bread followed by chicken schnitzels, rice and salad. It was delicious! The wine wasn’t too bad either…!
We ended up having such a fun evening! We sipped on drinks, chatted, swapped stories – we even were hypnotised by our resident trained hypnotist -Jameel. It was hilarious.
We soon all decided to head to bed, having to wake up the next morning at the crazy time of 4am… We had the most amazing day exploring the National park and we couldn’t wait to check out the desert the next day. Oh Bolivia.