THE LAGUNA ROUTE
THE LAGUNA ROUTE
Did the car-blessing in Copacabana not help? Or were we bewitched by the shamans in La Paz? First, we have to run from the turmoil around the presidential election in Bolivia, then we’re welcomed by unrests in Chile and now this… The day before we want to leave for the laguna route, we turn the key in the ignition and nothing happens… ☹ It’s the Mexican starter batteries – we need a quick replacement! Fortunately, we find it in the mining town “Calama”, just 100 kilometers away. We are actually glad that we notice the battery issue in “San Pedro de Atacama” and not in the middle of nowhere. Once again, we change the planned route and our travel friends Marianne and Reinhold are flexible enough and join in! So we drive to «Calama», change the starter batteries and from there we want to continue over the little-known «Ollagüe Pass» to Bolivia to visit the salt lake of «Uyuni» first. The situation a few days after the presidential election in Bolivia is still not good and there are riots and roadblocks because of the electoral fraud by the current president Evo Morales, but these are apparently limited to the larger cities. The remote, southern part of the country doesn’t seem to be affected and so we head towards the Bolivian border.
CHILEN DREAM LANDSCAPE
We slowly drive higher and higher into the Altiplano. The landscape is still very dry, as in «San Pedro de Atacama». We have not even reached the border, when the first lagunas appear on the left and right of the road. Totally surprised we stop again and again to take pictures and we can’t get enough of these colours in the Andean world. There are hardly any people up here. During the day there is often a strong wind and the nights are cool. But this inhospitable area is home to hundreds of flamingos and vicuñas. The flamingos sift tiny crabs with their beaks from the extremely salty water and for the vicuñas, the dry and prickly Spinifex grass seem to be enough for survival. We are already excited and look forward to the Andean adventure along further lagoons in Bolivia.
A SALT SEA
The border formalities at the “Ollagüe Pass” are straightforward and the friendly officials give us a last update on the road conditions. Then we rumble in a convoy over the more than bad gravel road to the “Salar de Uyuni”, the largest salt pan on earth. It was a prehistoric lake once that dried up and left behind a desert-like area of almost 11’000 square kilometers. The landscape is characterized by snow-white salt, some rock formations and cactus-covered islands. It’s definitely another highlight of our trip as we race at 90 kilometers per hour over the rock-hard, dry salt crust to the cactus island «Incahuasi». We are surrounded by absolute white and from the highest point of the island we glance over the unreal lunar landscape around us. The area seems boundless and without GPS navigation we would be disoriented and lost. But we want to go a little further, so we get back in our cars and just drive straight ahead until finally another, smaller island appears out of nowhere on the horizon. Here we spend two nights on the shores of the salt lake, no it’s rather a salt ocean and explore the bizarre world of salt during the day.
THE FAMOUS LAGUNA ROUTE
Back with real soil under our wheels, we wash our vehicles in “Uyuni” thoroughly with high pressure because the drive over the Salar covered the underbody with a white salt crust. Afterwards we fill up our supplies and water tanks and continue on to the laguna route which will ultimately bring us back to “San Pedro de Atacama” in Chile. When we leave the main road in the late afternoon and drive with 4×4 engaged on the really bumpy and stony track to the first lagoon, it’s cloudy and it rains in this otherwise rather dry area. The peaks of the volcanoes are wrapped in black clouds. But we’re lucky! After we set up our night camp, the sun breaks through and we have a view of the freshly snow-covered volcanos which reflect in the lagoon in the golden light of the setting sun. What a splendor! After sunset, it quickly gets bitterly cold. We are at over 4’000 meters above sea level and the nights are windy and the thermometer sinks below freezing. We heard from other travelers that the cold at night caused the diesel to flocculate and they had to wait a few hours in the morning until the sun warmed the vehicle up enough so they could start the engine again… Therefore, we park our home-on-wheels with caution with the nose facing the rising sun. Fortunately, our engine starts up in the morning as usual. Either it wasn’t that cold or parking in the sun helped.
The next day we set out to explore the world of lagoons and flamingos. The landscapes we drive through are out of this world, have sounding names like “Dalí Desert” and “Stone Tree” and even our meanwhile spoiled eyes can hardly get enough of them. Only the bad tracks shake us back into reality again and again. The corrugated tracks feel more like small mountain chains when we drive on them an if there are none for a change, then the path is paved with pointed stones and we worry about our tires. There are often several routes running in parallel and we have to choose one on good luck. Many a path then gets lost in the nowhere and only the GPS signal tells us that we are still on the right way. However, we always find our way back to the main route and advance slowly towards the famous “Laguna Colorado”. When we arrive at this red lagoon with its huge flocks of flamingos, the cold and strong wind is almost unbearable and we postpone an exploration walk until later. The next morning the wind died down and we can explore the lagoon with its unique red color. It’s a special type of algae and a particularly high mineral content which are responsible for the red color and give the lake its special appearance.
As awesome as the landscape is, it doesn’t necessarily invite to linger for a long time and so our journey continues to the next attraction. It’s the steaming and bubbling mud holes of a geothermal spring. The wind blows mercilessly again and the temperatures here at 5’000 meters are cool even during the day so, we are glad to have our down jackets. We are also glad that with the geysers we have reached the highest point of the laguna route and that it’s going downhill only from now on. The last night of our tour we still spend at 4’000 meters but next to a hot infinity pool in the middle of nowhere. We enjoy the 40 degrees warm water and the amazing view and splash in the warmth until the stars start to shine in the sky above us and our skin is all wrinkled
BACK TO CIVILIZATION
On the fourth and last day of our laguna tour, we drive along the “Laguna Verde” and “Laguna Blanca” back to “San Pedro de Atacama”. Exactly until the border from Chile, the track remains really bad and we are extremely happy when after leaving Bolivia and even before the Chilean border post the tarmac road appears in front of us. ? After all the border crossings we are meanwhile very skilled and so the formalities are settled quickly and after an inspection of our mobile by three customs officers we’re good to go. We roll on the smooth asphalt pavement like on clouds into the 2’000 meters lower situated “San Pedro de Atacama” and are happy about the summer temperatures and the more oxygen. We stay here for a few days and recover from our adventurous laguna tour. During the day we discover the surroundings and, in the evening, we sit together with other travelers over a glass of wine and exchange experiences.