Bolivia: The Western Lagunas Route from Above
South of the Salar de Uyuni is a vast, sparsely-populated region of the Andes Mountains. This is the land of the Altiplano (literally ‘high plain’) and the area is rife with active volcanoes. The climate is cold, arid, and the winds fierce. Vegetation is scant to non-existent. Elevations are monumentally high; we hit a pass that was 5033 meters above sea level (16,512 ft) during our drive south towards the Chilean border.
One only has to look at the aerial photographs from Google Maps to know this area is special. Salt lakes dot the region and their vivid colors vary drastically based on their mineral and algae content.
Unfortunately this area has suffered in recent times. Even from far above the destruction is evident: those are tire tracks hundreds of feet wide from vehicles running willy-nilly across the fragile desert ecosystem.
This is a national park that could use some beefy protection measures: a single plowed road on which all vehicles are required to drive, destination signs, and park personnel enforcing the rules. Easier said, than done, of course, especially for a country with limited resources. This reserve was created for the specific purpose of the preservation of threatened animal species that inhabit tiny, highly-specialized ecosystems. As much as I adore exploring beyond the confines of paved roads, it’s more important to preserve this special land for future generations.
This area is still stark, stunning, and gorgeous. I hope that the Bolivian government realizes that this could be a major tourist draw if they decide to preserve it in a way that provides for long-term enjoyment and habitat preservation.
Changing subjects a bit, I want to briefly discuss the route we took as it was not represented well on either Google or OpenSource (Garmin) maps. We ran parallel to the Chilean border for the duration of our journey, although as of Dec 2017 Google doesn’t have roads mapped in these areas (blue dots).
If you decide to do the route, rest assured, there IS a road and it’s used by both overlanders and the commercial 3-day tours out of San Pedro de Atacama (and Uyuni). The lack of proper (and conflicting) maps caused us significant anxiety when planning the trip but we really shouldn’t have worried: it’s hard to get lost (just look for the dozens of tire tracks heading south!).
Here is the aerial view of this same route.
We spent a night at the boulder fields a few hours south of Uyuni and then a truly delightful (but cold and windy) night at the Hidden Lagoon south of Laguna Honda. Both are on iOverlander and highly recommended.