Not only does the southwestern Altiplano in Bolivia have the world’s largest salt flats, this area also has extraordinary lakes in the most unique and surreal settings. In this land, mineral lakes filled with wading flamingos are perfectly placed under tall volcanos. It’s truly amazing that these otherworldly scenes exist at altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000 m (13,000 to 16,000 ft) elevation. The landscapes are almost too bizarre to believe.
After being bewildered by the views of Salar de Uyuni (read our post here), we were excited to see what else this strange land had to offer. We spent the next two days of our 3 day/2 night tour exploring the supernatural lakes and volcanos on the Altiplano.
Polques Hot Springs
Most 3 and 4 day tours stop at Polques Thermal Baths which are perched on the edge of Laguna Chalviri. The problem for us was that our driver took us there at 6:30 in the morning when the air temperature was around -20° C. Strong winds made it feel even colder. We enjoyed the scenery but didn’t feel the urge to dip in the natural thermal pools.
Unlike Laguna Chalviri most of the lakes in this area are better enjoyed from shore because of their high mineral content. The first of these that we visited was a small unnamed lake surrounded by desert hills. What made it special was the flock of pink flamingos wading in its waters. Even though the air temperatures are below freezing and the lakes are full of minerals, flamingos flock to this region to feast on the plankton and algae in the lakes.
The next lake we visited has a picture-perfect setting at the base of Volcan Chulluncani. There were dozens of pink flamingos wading in the shallow, murky waters of the Laguna Chulluncani. The water is filled with minerals including salt and boron. It is the minerals that give the water its cloudy appearance.
At first we thought there were chunks of ice along the shore. When we got closer we realized they were actually mineral deposits. Later we learned they were in fact piles of borax. The scene with the flamingos, the mineral lake and the volcano was almost too good to be true.
There are no actual roads beyond Laguna Chulluncani. With only the tracks of other 4WDs to follow our driver weaved between small volcanos while driving on the flat gravel terrain. In addition to Salar de Uyuni there are many other salt flats in the area. On the drive we passed a few surface mines where they were harvesting the valuable minerals.
Finally we arrived at Laguna Cache. We were told that the lake has a high content of boron so we didn’t expect to find any wildlife. Surprisingly though, walking in the boron filled lake were hundreds of pink flamingoes.
Back on the lack-of-road again, the flat terrain turned to hills. From a distance we thought the hills were sand dunes, but they turned out to be hard gravel. The 4WD drove up and down the hills with ease. The strange landscape made it feel like we were driving on the undulating ocean floor.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere we came across another unimaginable scene. Laguna Kara is a gorgeous mineral lake and like the others, was filled with flamingoes. With each lake we visited it became more and more windy, and more and more cold. We went to the top of a small hill above Laguna Kara for a gorgeous view of the lake amidst dozens of volcanos. It was too cold to stay and admire it for long though.
Laguna Colorada (Red Lake)
The splendor of Laguna Colorada is not visible on the approach. In fact we were a little disappointed when we first saw a small lake with water that could hardly be called red. Then we realized that we were only seeing a small section of the famous lake. A small pinnacle juts out into the water, almost splitting the lake into two and hides its most impressive side.
A short trail took us to the top of a hill on the pinnacle where we looked upon an inconceivable landscape. It is difficult to say which part of the scene was more spectacular; the brilliant red water that fills the large lagoon or the thousands of flamingos that waded in its depths. Adding contrast to the red lake were large areas with white borax ‘icebergs’. Topping it off, this surreal scene is located at the base of the imposing Chi’qu Volcano. This is one of the most remarkable, otherworldly sites we’ve ever seen.
The red colour comes from algae in the water, which is what the birds like to eat. There are three types of flamingoes in this area and we could see all three in this lake. The Andean, James and Chilean Flamingos each have different colourings on their beaks, wings, knees and feet. The water is only 1 meter deep so flamingos could be seen wading across the entire lake.
We saw a lot of vicunas, wild camelids, while traveling between the lakes. Most of them were very skittish and would quickly run away when we got too close. Richard learned how to be very stealthy and was able to take a few amazing pictures of the vicunas.
Laguna Verde (Green Lake)
Before reaching Laguna Verde we stopped at the large Laguna Blanca (White Lake). This lake has no outflow and therefore retains all its water. The white colour comes from a high concentration of borax.
Right beside Laguna Blanca is the colourful Laguna Verde. Its bright green water and white borax shore looks like a postcard. The lake is set below Licancabur Volcano which lies on the Bolivian – Chilean border. The green colour comes from arsenic that is in the lake. The arsenic content is also the reason that there are no flamingos or other wildlife here.
The winds at Laguna Verde were the strongest that we experienced on the tour. Maggie could barely open the car door because the wind was pushing against it so hard. Apparently strong winds will blow borax from Laguna Blanca on to Laguna Verde and affect its colour which is what happened when we were there. The lake colour can vary from emerald green to tuquoise, but no matter the shade it is a spectacular spot.
Laguna Negro (Black Lake)
Before returning to Uyuni, our guide asked if we wanted to make a small detour to visit another lake. We really knew nothing about Laguna Negro but agreed on the detour. Are we ever glad we did. After getting out of the car, we walked by a herd of grazing llamas. That alone made the stop worthwhile. Then we walked between red granite walls that concealed a hidden gem.
Behind the granite walls is a fantastic site. We found a small idyllic lake, surrounded by tall red granite cliffs. On the edge of the peaceful lake, ducks were nesting in the reeds. A large meadow on the far side of the lake was filled with hundreds of llamas. Laguna Negro was one of the prettiest spots on the whole tour. We think our guide always intended to stop but pretended that it was an extra surprise.
When to visit
Like many things it depends on what you want to see. For clear skies and dry roads the best time to visit is during dry season from May to November. Remember that from June to August it’s winter and the temperatures will be much lower. During rainy season the salt flats are covered in a thin layer of water and becomes a huge mirror. It is a popular time to visit, but the water means some of the other sites around the salt flats are inaccessible. To see the mirror effect on the salt flats visit between January and March.
Uyuni and surrounding areas are located at very high elevations. Be sure to give yourself time to acclimatize so can enjoy the landscapes without suffering from the effects of high altitude.
About the tours
In order to explore everything that Uyuni has to offer you need to take a tour. There are one-day tours to the salt flats, but you wouldn’t get to see any of the other amazing landscapes. Because of the distances between sites, two-day tours wouldn’t allow you to see much more. We took a 3 day/2 night tour and felt that was the perfect amount of time to fully explore many of the sites around Uyuni.
Many tours can be bought in advance on-line but prices for these will be higher. We booked our tour from an office in Uyuni one day before our trip and paid only 700 Bolivianos each for 3 days/2 nights, including all meals, hotels and transportation/guide.
Where to stay
The city of Uyuni is the most common starting point for tours of the salt flats and lakes. There are several basic hotels and restaurants that are fine for a night. There’s not much to do in town so don’t plan to spend more time than necessary in Uyuni.
If you’re coming from Argentina you may want to take a tour from Tupiza instead (post coming soon). The tour would go in the reverse direction of the lakes described above and end at Salar de Uyuni.
Coming Next – Bolivian Wine Country
For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
If you like what you read, please comment or share (with credit) using the links below