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Flamingoes and Amigos in the Bolivia Altiplano

In doing our research, we were prepared for a rough three days in the Bolivian Andes Plains. The websites warn against expecting much more than the basics. There are no luxury accommodations, the food is simple, and the transportation is often cramped and overcrowded. The hostels are located at high altitude, in remote wilderness, and in Indigenous communities. There are no private rooms and meals are served family style.

Some blogs told of people going hungry for three days. A few people were unbearably cold. Hot showers and electricity are luxuries in the high plains.

Ol and I were mentally prepared but we were hedging our bets. I picked a company that had five stars and positive reviews. The tour company, Red Planet, also had disclaimers regarding the level of service. We were told not to expect a lot of amenities or private accommodations. However, an English guide and safety were their top priorities. Our concerns were misplaced. Our meals, transportation, and accommodations were all above expectations.

At the end of the first day of touring the Uyuni salt flats we pulled into the courtyard of a small compound. We got out of the truck and unloaded our backpack which had been strapped to the roof. We piled into the entry of the hostel that was operated by an indigenous family and Louis assigned us our rooms. Ol and I were given a room to ourselves with twin beds. I was thrilled. It was clean and we weren’t sleeping with strangers.

After some hot tea and cookies we had time for showers before dinner. Our Aussie friends, Jess and Adam, had a large room with a private bath. They offered to let me use their shower so that I wouldn’t have to use the communal shower.

Dinner was a simple affair served family style. The meal was simple, but warm and nourishing. Louis took the opportunity to brief us on our itinerary for the following day. We then retired to our rooms for the evening.

We awoke the next morning to a typical South American breakfast of bread, tea, eggs, ham, and cheese. I tried the orange juice mixed with soy but I was not a fan.

After breakfast we loaded ourselves back into the truck for another full day of touring the remote Bolivian Plains. The day was magical as we were treated to extraordinary landscapes and beautiful scenery. It was a day that will always be etched in my memory thanks to Louis's surreal mixtape of Johnny Cash, American 80's pop, and Bolivian Techno music.

Our drive continued through the high altiplano. We stopped to admire the amazing rock formations and the Bolivian wildlife of Vicuna and llama’s. However, the animal stars of the day were the flamingoes. At Lago Colorado I finally saw a seas of flamingoes. The pink birds and the red water stood in stark contrast to the blue sky and white clouds. Backpackers hike for days at a time in the US to see mountain lakes and passes like this, and we were able to drive right to the lake.

When we signed up for the the three day tour, I was excited to see the famous red Lago Colorado. I had expected a sea of red, but I wasn’t prepared for the clear springs that fed the lake. I was captivated by the amazing hues of colors at the lake's edge, which was set off by the contrast with the deep blue sky. The stunning colors from minerals, the white borax, and the pink and black from the thousands of flamingoes was simply stunning.

Seeing thousands of flamingoes gathered at this beautiful lake was my favorite animal sighting in all of my travels.

We stopped at an overlook where tourists had spelled the names of their countries in rocks, for all to see. Our Aussie friends were too lazy to spell out their country's name, so they rearranged the letters in "USA" to spell "AUS". "What do you expect from a former penal colony?" they asked.

Our last stop of the day was at the high altitude thermal springs. It was like visiting another planet. Due to the intense volcanic activity in the areas these geothermal sulfur springs are on a fault line which connect the thermals in Chile. These are the highest geothermals in the world at 5,000 meters or 16,400 feet. I was disappointed when we didn’t get to visit the thermal springs in Chile when we were in San Pedro de Atacama. This more than made up for it.

We all carefully, maneuvered through the boiling, steaming, mud pits after hearing the story of a Japanese tourist who fell into the a mud pit two years ago and didn’t survive. The bubbling pools spit boiling mud and sometimes lava that is heated to a searing 90 degrees Celsius or 194 degrees Fahrenheit. I was surprised that we could walk along the collapsing soil of the dangerous pits of noxious gases. In the U.S. this area would have been blocked off.

We then arrived at our hostel as the sun was beginning to set. The hostel was just up the road from a natural hot springs. Louis again assigned rooms to our group. Due to limited space there was only one private room. Everyone else would have to share rooms. We were assigned to a four person room. Our bunkmates would be our fellow Americans, the two girls from Puerto Rico. We had another simple but delicious dinner and then Louis said that we would not want to miss the stargazing at the hot springs.

At this altitude the outside temperatures were on the cold side. Louis offered to drive us the one kilometer to the springs. It sure beat walking in the cold and the dark. When we walked outside and saw the stars, my breath was again taken away.

I have never seen so many stars, so clear, so close, or so bright. We could easily see the Milky Way in it’s glory. We could see shooting stars and a cloudy nebula.

Louis is a teacher by profession, but on this trip he was a historian, ecologist, geologist, and my favorite an astronomer. He is by far one of the best and most knowledgeable tour guides that I have ever had.

The night was one that would be hard to forget. We were sitting in a beautiful spring fed pool, heated to a wonderful 90 degrees by Patchamama, (Mother Earth) at the top of the Andes mountains. Just when I didn’t think our day could get any better, Louis pulled out a green laser pointer and spent the next thirty minutes educating us on the stars, constellations, and galaxies found in the southern sky. It was a night so mesmorizing that it will forever be etched in my mind.

After a couple of hours relaxing in the warm waters, we all piled back into Louis truck for the short drive back to our lodge.

The next morning we awoke to the alarms set by our roommates. I would have liked to sleep for a few more minutes. It wasn’t even 6 a.m. Ol and I decided to skip breakfast.

We loaded into Louis' truck for a drive to the Chile border. Some members of our group were going to San Pedro de Atacama. The rest of us had a long drive through the remainder of the National park on our way back to Uyuni.

It was interesting to see the backsides to some of the large volcanoes that we had seen when we visited this area in Chile. We spent the rest of the day driving through gorgeous landscapes and visiting lakes of all colors dotted with flamingoes and llamas.

When we arrived back in Uyuni we said goodbye to our tour mates and headed out to get a pizza. Louis told us that the best pizza in Uyuni was Minuteman Pizza. Of course it was owned and operated by an expat American from Boston. It was one of the best pizzas we had in South America.

We then hopped in a taxi for a short ride to the bus station. Our three days in Uyuni had come to and end. Ol and I needed to get some sleep on the overnight ride to La Paz, because as soon as we arrive back in La Paz we have a scheduled tour to Lake Titicaca. So much for limiting our time on Bolivian busses!

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