Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
May 262011
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada

Day 3 started with a visit to Laguna Colorada a short 10km from where we stayed the night before.  The laguna is one of the largest flamingo habitats in the world and three of the six species of flamingos feed here.  Like just about everything else on this tour, the lake sits at high altitude (4,270m).

James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos

We spent about an hour marveling at the flamingos and the nonstop chatter with one another.  There are three distinct species that live in this lake but they can be tricky to tell them apart.  To be honest, I am not really sure which of the three we saw.  One group was definitely the James’s Flamingo but who knows about the other two types (Chilean and Andean).

After Laguna Colorada we drove to the overly famous Arbol de Piedra.  It’s a big rock that has been eroded away at the bottom and looks vague (very vaguely) like a tree.  Like all the other tourists, we stopped and took photos wherein we pretend that it is about to fall on us.

Driving northward from the Arbol de Piedra, we passed a string of five high-altitude lagunas.  I tried to take panoramic photos of them but only three of them worked out.  By the fifth lagoon everyone in the jeep had that “oh boy, another laguna…” sarcasm about them but, in retrospect, they were all incredibly spectacular.  One tends to lose track of how incredible the landscape really is when faced with it day in and day out.

Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa

Our lunch stop was in another rock-littered valley, conveniently named the Valle de las Rocas, that was also home to a bunch of viscacha.  Chasing them about to get good photos proved to be quite a challenge.

Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!

A couple hours after lunch we rolled into the town of San Cristóbal.  We stopped right in the center and had a brief walk around.  My first impression of the place was “Civilization!  My money is actually good here…I could BUY something if I wanted to.”  I guess that is pretty normal after three days out in the middle of nowhere.  San Cristóbal is a mining town and is home to Bolivia’s largest mine.  Workers at the mine work 12 hour shifts for three months straight (no weekends off) and then get two weeks of leave.  A hard life that must be.

Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.

Colchani, a small town with about 500 people, was our resting place for the third night.  The town is located on the shore of the Salar de Uyuni and seems to eek out its existence on tourist dollars and salt production.  Our accommodations for the night were in a lodge made almost entirely out of salt.  The walls were salt, the floor was salt, and the beds were salt.  Pretty weird.  The main downside was that there was no running water which meant we were on our way to our fouth showerless day!

Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Southwest Circuit Day 3
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo footprints
Flamingo footprints
James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa
Valle de las Rocas
Valle de las Rocas
Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!
This is the “condor rock.”  I like the real ones better.
This is the “condor rock.” I like the real ones better.
A brief stop in a real town!  San Cristobal
A brief stop in a real town! San Cristobal
Lots of salt in these parts
Lots of salt in these parts
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Our room at the salt lodge.  Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.
Our room at the salt lodge. Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.

May 142011

Day 3 in San Pedro was another early morning for us.  We had booked a tour to the lagunas altiplanicas and the flamingo reserve through Cosmo Andino tours.  They picked us up around 7AM and we drove about an hour to Los Flamencos National Reserve.  The reserve is divided into a number of different sections but the first encompasses Laguna Chaxa and the surrounding salt flat (Salar de Atacama).

Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world

It wasn’t long before we spotted some flamingos from a pretty long distance (good thing I had my telephoto lens).  As a Floridian, I always knew that the idea of flamingos in the tropics was pure hogwash.  That said, seeing a flock of them feeding in a lake at 7,500ft above sea level really drove the point home!  Another interesting fact about the Salar de Atacama is that it is the world’s largest reserve of lithium.  Something like 30% of the world’s supply of the metal comes from the salar so, if you are reading this blog on laptop or phone, there is a good chance your batteries have material from the salar!

Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

After a light breakfast at the reserve we headed to the village of Socaire to have a look around.  The quiet village survives on farming and has a couple of nice churches made of adobe.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques were the next stop after Socaire.  These brackish lakes lie at 4,300m (14,000ft) and have a mirror-like surface most days.  The lakes are home to a number of different bird species so it is not possible to approach the shoreline.  I was impressed by the fact that there were actually park rangers present to enforce these rules.

Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

The final laguna on the tour was the Salar de Aguas Calientes which has a nice blue lake flanked by some strange red rocks.  We had a nice lunch (vegetarian friendly as well!) at this spot and did our best to capture the other-worldly colors of the terrain.

Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at the village of Toconao.  This was a welcome stop as it took over 2 hours from our lunch stop.  The village is situated along a river which makes it the wettest place in the driest desert in the world.  There are many farms in Toconao but unfortunately we didn’t get to see much as most of them were swept away by a flood earlier in the year.

All in all, we were very happy with Cosmo Andino the operator of all three of our tours (Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna, and Lagunas Altiplánicas).  The guides were knowledgeable and spoke fluent English, the food was plentiful and the vehicles were in good condition.  We paid 67,500 CLP (about $135) per person for all three tours together.  This price was a slight discount over the posted prices because we booked all three tours at the same time.  Another tip for other travelers would be to book late in the day as the tour companies are keen to fill the remaining seats in their vehicles.

Lagunas Altiplánicas
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world
Three of the world's five species of flamingo
Three of the world’s five species of flamingo
Andean Flamingo
Andean Flamingo
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo
Buildings in Socaire
Buildings in Socaire
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
A pisco sour to end the day.
A pisco sour to end the day.

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