Bolivia's Wild Southern Deserts

Posted by Richard Leonardi 16th May 2024
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Bolivia's Wild Southern Deserts

The Atacama Desert in Chile has been growing steadily in fame over the last two decades. For good reason - not just because of claims of the driest coastal desert in the hemisphere, but for the beauty of the geology of the region. Once synonymous with death and the seeming absence of nature, deserts are gaining favor with international travelers and Atacama is high on that list for the Americas. This siren of international wilderness seekers now has a fair amount of tourism and hotels. The circuits are well marked, the guides well trained and the broad range of lodging options well booked.

Curiously just one hour from most of the hotels in San Pedro de Atacama is a total wilderness of extremely high-altitude deserts, marked only by the occasional rustic lodge and the odd army base. Bolivia's southern deserts are actually what some may come to Atacama for. There is much to be said for great lodges, world-class guides and food, but for those looking off-path, Atacama is no longer that. 

Bolivia's southern deserts are still true wilderness. Exploring them requires an expedition 4x4 with gasoline tanks and spare tyres strapped to the roof rack, a brave but equally graceful driver with one cheek full of coca leaves and a local guide at his side, to help find local wildlife like Andean foxes, viscachas, vicuñas and three of the world's six species of flamingos and to take you for a breathless hike around the shore of a remote lagoon or up some rocky pass forgotten by time. 

It is not principally a wildlife experience, despite these uniquely graceful animals, it is about leaving the modern world well behind and exploring. For many, the word desert conjures up images of monotonous landscapes, nothingness x 10. There are stretches of the southern Bolivian Deserts that fit that description, thankless landscapes that rain has forever turned its back upon. 

However, what makes this area south of the famous Uyuni Salt Flats so interesting and rewarding for a traveler is the diversity of the landscapes. Just when they look to repeat, something entirely new appears, whether it be the turquoise green waters of Laguna Verde, the sandy slopes with strange rocks known as the Salvador Dalí Desert, yellow grass framed against yellow mountains, subtle rainbow mountains, a blood red lagoon in Laguna Colorada or the lovely dark aquatic mirrors of Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Negra, a stone tree that stands alone in the desert or red rocks piled on top one of another, many resembling animals or humans. There always seems to be a visual surprise, a new landscape, a stunningly unique view. 

Most travelers to the Atacama who venture into Bolivia are keen to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats, and quickly. They look at how to make short work of this area, after all, great Instagram shots on a 10 square km white canvas await, but it is well worth the travelers time to make a couple of days of Bolivia's southern deserts, whether visiting Uyuni from Bolivian cities of La Paz, Potosí or Chile's Atacama. This unique region on the roof of the Americas, always between 3,500-5,000 meters above sea level and oft-ringed by snow-capped peaks is a place of jaw-dropping beauty, undeveloped, uncommercialized, an authentic and compelling Wild Frontier we invite you to explore.

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