Why you should visit Bolivia’s Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve
When people imagine Bolivia, their minds are likely to go to the vast, awe-inspiring Uyuni salt flats, the largest in the world. However, Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, which lies further south, straddling the northern corners of Chile and Argentina, is equally spectacular.
Founded in 1973, this 7,150sq-km area – roughly 4,750m above sea level – is home to vibrant lagoons, hot springs, crazy rock formations, active volcanoes and high-plain deserts.
This reserve is remote, which is why it’s so little visited, despite being described by many as ‘the most beautiful place in Latin America’. There are a few ways to get here and all are a wonderful adventure. If coming from within Bolivia, you can fly to Uyuni Airport and travel by road about eight hours south-west via the incredible salt flats on the way. Alternatively, fly into Calama in northern Chile and enjoy the Atacama Desert for a few days to acclimatise to the altitude. From there, it’s just an hour by car from San Pedro to the Bolivian border and into the park.
In Eduardo Avaroa, the scenery is ever-changing, with multicoloured mountains turning into rolling orange dunes. It is very Mars-like and something about being the only people in such a colossal, wide-open space makes you feel very free. Staring at the horizon for extended periods releases endorphins in your brain and an amazing sense of peace rolls over you as you gaze out of the window here.
In a comfortable 4WD, guests will drive through jaw-dropping scenery beneath big skies to lagoons of white, green, red and blue, all coloured by different minerals. Close up, the water looked quite clear and was still frozen in places from the cool night. Depending on the conditions, normally every pool here is dotted – or sometimes packed – with flamingos. The beauty was astounding. On my recent visit, we learnt that the green lagoon is only green when it’s windy. Luckily, there was a powerful breeze so the whole lake had turned emerald.
Journeying on through one of the many valleys, surrounded by volcanoes and dodging massive rock formations of petrified lava, makes you feel as if you are on another planet. The vista across the huge, barren landscapes is only occasionally disturbed by herds of vicuÃ±a, a wild South American camelid or flocks of ostriches. This protected area is full of unique Andean flora and fauna as well as 80 species of bird, including three types of flamingo out of only six on the planet.
Continuing onwards, you will visit the inside of an active volcanic crater, where you can walk amidst simmering pools of mud, geysers erupting and clouds of sulphurous smoke. It was dangerously exhilarating to be among all this boiling, bubbling nature, alone in the middle of a gigantic, empty land.
In the park, there are no roads, only tracks, so you have to know your way around. However, our knowledgeable private guide and driver seemed to find landmarks and managed not to accidentally veer into Chile! The flexibility this brings meant, on my trip, they could take me to a specific place to see a little mammal I had expressed an interest in: the viscacha. We fed them bits of apple and watched them hop around just a few feet from us making very endearing noises.
Nearing sunset, we finally arrived at our home for the night at 4,300m above sea level – a cosy little hotel in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of a lagoon absolutely heaving with the pinkest flamingos I have ever seen. The rooms look out onto the lake, so waking up in the morning gives you a picturesque view of these vibrant birds on the water.
We then suggest travelling north towards the salt flats. The drop in altitude means you can spot llamas who can’t survive as high as the vicuÃ±as. You will drive through more breathtaking landscapes – snow-capped peaks, huge boulders and exposed volcanic craters. Keep your eyes peeled for a puma.
Heading towards the city of Uyuni for lunch, you will finally come across an actual road, which meanders straight through the middle of a ginormous lava field. On my trip, we stopped to climb on some of the house-sized formations. From the top, all we could see for miles around was lava, giving a final sense of the magnitude of the area before we headed into civilisation.
Anyone looking for a complete escape in an unutterably beautiful place that is truly off the beaten track will love this relatively unexplored wilderness.