This is the third post in a four-part series about our week-long trip through Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit. Part I of our trip covered Tupiza, a hiking and red-rock mecca, and the southern gateway to Bolivia’s southwest. Part II covered the start of our Bolivian jeep tour. In this third post, we go through the looking glass into some truly surreal landscapes: the Bolivian Altiplano Lakes in the remote southwest corner of Bolivia. It is a place teaming with wildlife and volcanic activity – I think of it as “South America’s Yellowstone”.
Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit is easily the most popular tourist route in the country, attracting hordes of tourists from Europe (these days, primarily France) and from China. Our family of four started and ended our trip in our small Bolivian pueblo, Villa Abecia, where we are living for a year. The entire trip took just over a week, and cost $1,158. No, we aren’t travelling on a shoestring. Thanks to FX magic, it’s just this cheap in Bolivia.
Here’s the route we took for the entire week. This post will cover Bolivia’s altiplano lakes region, the part in dark blue below:
Eduardo Avaroa National Park
On the second day of our guided jeep tour, we entered Bolivia’s Eduardo Avaroa National Park, in the far southwest corner of Bolivia. We had to pay a park entrance fee, which wasn’t included in the price of our tour.
This park mostly attracts only foreign tourists who don’t usually travel with kids. In fact, we didn’t see any other children at all on the whole trip. When we tried to pay the entrance fee, the park ranger didn’t even know how much to charge our kids – so they got in free!
I don’t get it… I know Bolivia is not the first place people think of when they think of family vacations. But our kids absolutely loved this tour. We saw so much stuff, and so many unusual things that it kept the kids entertained and begging for more. By the end of our second day, after almost 12 hours on dirt roads, my son just wanted to keep going! Bolivia’s southwest circuit is a great place to take your kids.
But I digress… on with the tour! It was very remote country. Our first stop in the park was to see more llamas, this time in a corral. This fella posed for the camera:
Then we had a short stop at some beautiful high Andean meadows. Most of these little pools were still partially frozen from the night before. They freeze and thaw every day of the year. The kids had fun playing with the water and ice, and spotting little fish in the pools.
Bolivian Altiplano Lakes
Soon, we had our first introduction to some of the dozens of Bolivian altiplano lakes that this region is famous for. Here we are at our first lake. There’s not another sign of humans as far as we can see. Nor any trees for that matter. This one is unceremoniously called the “Stinky Lake”. It smells like sulfur.
But what’s really weird about these lakes is not the stink, the high altitude (about 15,000 ft here), the thin air, the harsh sun, or the blowing winds. It’s this:
Yup, those are flamingos. Three species of them. They like the cold, the ice, the freezing temperatures, the harsh wind. If you thought flamingos just hanged out in Florida and on the occasional green lawn, please kindly check your hat at the door. This cold, icy place is infested with thousands of squawking flamingos.
And it’s all about to get weirder. Did you check your hat yet?
These Bolivian altiplano lakes come in all sorts of different colors. Every color of the rainbow, except purple, I think. There’s a green lake (Laguna Verde – though it’s actually a bright turquoise):
A red lake (Laguna Colorada):
A yellow lake (see the yellow/light brown strip in the background):
A white lake:
There’s even a light-blue lake and a black lake, though we didn’t go there.
Jojo Vs. The Volcano
On top of the high altitude, the pink flamingos, and the rainbow colors of lakes, there’s a whole bunch of volcanic activity in the area. You may have heard that Yellowstone is a “super volcano”. Well, this whole area is too. It is one of, I believe, seven super volcanoes on the planet. So, like Yellowstone, there is a ton of geothermal activity in the Bolivian altiplano lakes region. Along with the abundant wildlife, this is why I think of this place as “South America’s Yellowstone”.
We saw several active volcanoes with visible fumaroles, like this one:
Plus, we bathed in some thermal baths just before lunch (you can’t just barely make out the flamingos in the background, squawking away).
We had to pay separately to use the thermal baths, and once again, they didn’t know how much to charge for kids, so our kids got in for free!
After a picnic lunch, we saw some geysers and boiling mud pots at about 16,500 ft elevation:
And for the coup-de-grace of surreal landscapes, we briefly stopped at this ice field, where the snow melts in vertical fins, because why not?
It made for some good photos:
Apparently, strange ice fin formations like this typically only occur at high altitude in the strong tropical sun near the equator. The air never gets above freezing, but the sun is so strong that it melts the ice anyway.
Following The Altiplano Rabbit
In addition to everything else, we saw tons of wildlife on this trip. We saw vicuñas (like a wild llama), rheas (like an ostrich), flamingos, llamas (OK, technically not wild, but still cool), and we saw these little guys. This was my kids’ favorite animal:
That’s a “vizcacha”. It’s like a wild rabbit with a curly tail – and it only lives above 12,000 ft. And they have some mad hops. You should see the way they bounce over giant boulders like they were nothing – boing, boing, boing! We have officially come through the looking glass, like Alice in Wonderland. I was half expecting this little guy to put on a hat and start talking to me.
A Night at 16,000 ft
At dinner that night (as prepared by our personal chef as part of the tour), I asked the travelers in our group what was their favorite part of the day. Everyone had a different answer. We saw so much – so many things that were new, unique, and different, and it was all just amazing. I’m really not sure how we saw so much stuff in a single day.
My favorite sight was the green lake (Laguna Verde). The pictures don’t do it justice. That lake was such a bright color of turquoise, that it didn’t seem natural. My kids liked the thermal baths and the vizcachas bouncing around the rocks. My wife liked the red lake (Laguna Colorada). On our tour, we were traveling in a caravan with another car full of Danish and Spanish travelers. They all liked something different. It was a very special day for all of us, something we will all remember for a long time.
We spent our second night of the tour at our highest point: 16,000 feet, in another small hostel with shared baths, only a few hours of electricity, and no hot water. Once the sun went down, it was too cold to go outside.
Up next, the fourth and final post about our trip: in our last two days of the jeep tour we visit the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is the largest salt flats in the world. But, it is also the best place in the world to take crazy pictures. You’ll see what I mean. Stay tuned.