TdM – Sud America – Andean Deserts – Salar Uyuni, South Lipez , Colorado Lagoon, Moon Valley

Episode 8: Andean Deserts – Salar Uyuni, South Lipez , Colorado Lagoon, Moon Valley


This 8th episode focuses on the deserts of the Andean highlands. The loop of more than 1500 km crosses 3 countries, Argentina, departure from the city of Salta, Bolivia then Chile, and return to Salta.

The 1st stage starts in Salta, guided by Chantal from the ORIGIN agency, we discover the Yungas. The Yungas are very dense forests of South America, located between 500 and 2300 meters which extend on the eastern flank of the Andes mountain range in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. The Yungas receive significant rainfall, which explains their luxuriance and significant biodiversity.

The 2nd stage was located in the Quebrada de Humahauca north of Salta. It is a valley classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a “cultural landscape”. We were welcomed there by Raoul, a guide from the rural tourism community of Ocumazo . We walked there towards the hill of 14 colors, prepared quinoa, celebrated the New Year and exchanged a lot. Many thanks to Raoul for his erudition and his kindness.

The 3rd stage took us to Bolivia under the guidance of Ruben, guide and driver. The Salar de Uyuni was our first shock, a salt desert 100 km wide and 150 km long, it is almost perfectly flat. We walked and rode there. From watchtower 2 (4430 meters) of the Tunupa volcano , the view of the Salar is spectacular. The reception by the community of Coqueza was very warm.

The 4th stage was located on the high Andean plateaus. We passed to more than 5000 meters of altitude. The volcanoes culminate beyond 6000 meters. The environment is almost exclusively mineral. However, we met vicunas there, of the same family as the llamas but not domesticated. The very elegant pink flamingos spend calm days in lagoons “out of nowhere”.

For the 5th stage we went to Chile. The Atacama Desert was a new discovery. We went up the bed of the Rio San Pedro. The famous valley of the moon amazed us, the sunset is very popular there.

Finally, we returned to Salta by bus. We patiently waited 4 hours at the border between Chile and Argentina. The very rugged road is superb.


Ahead !

As a reminder, the video is available by following this link:
or directly here (switch to full screen mode):

The interactive map of “Andean Deserts”, ZOOM IN:


Theme – Link to the land: The first peoples in the Andean deserts

The theme – connection to the land – progressed in this episode while hiking in the Atacama Desert, Chile. This desert, located at altitudes around 2000 meters, has been inhabited. During our hike in the bed of the Rio San Pedro, we detailed beautiful rock carvings . This is evidence of human presence dated to around the 1000s. Llamas predominate there in a figurative style, humans are represented in a more symbolic mode, in particular what could be a shaman. It should be noted that Chile and especially the north is reputed to be the place of the greatest concentration of geoglyphs in the world. NB: a geoglyph is a large design or pattern produced on the ground by durable elements of the landscape. (Source Wikipedia).

Let’s go back to the highlands, let it be said, in this region of southwestern Bolivia they are not inhabited and have not been. These are deserts where there is very little life, whether animal or human.

It should still be mentioned that we crossed several small groups of vicunas up to 4000 meters of altitude. Vicuñas are related to llamas, but they have never been domesticated. They are fine and elegant. They are particularly well adapted to these very harsh living conditions at high altitude. They graze on steppe grasses and have to make do with light morning dews. As a reminder, like vicunas, guanacos are not domestic, they live at lower altitudes, I have often met them in Patagonia.

Through Discovery: Community of Ocumazo

Chantal B. from the ORIGINS agency has been working with this community for about ten years with the “rural tourism” label. Raoul, who received us, is one of the pillars. About thirty families live along the Rio San Pedro and cultivate food crops there.

Raoul, like José, the gaucho of Bariloché , lives between Ocumazo and the city of Humahauca . Like José de Bariloche , he is what I call a mediator between the world of tourists and his community. The 4 of us had an excellent stay there, between preparing meals, a beautiful hike, Raul’s erudition and his ease in talking with us.

We also spent a very original and warm New Year’s Eve there.

José drove us to the border between Argentina and Bolivia where we were picked up by Ruben, a guide-driver.

Along the discovery: Uyuni Desert

Ha, the famous Uyuni desert, it was one of my must-sees of the trip. Yes, it’s quite touristy but it’s also huge. For two days, we traveled around it and its surroundings by car and on foot.

All four of us felt a great similarity with Lake Baikal in Siberia. Between the sandy desert and the ice of the frozen lake, there is a lot of resemblance: almost perfectly flat, here and there islands, there are traces of vehicles in all directions, the width of about 100 km is the same, …

I failed to integrate that it was a permanent solid space, I always felt a lake there.

The immensity of the Salar Uyuni is discovered by climbing the Tunupa volcano . From mirador 2, located at 4340 meters (beautiful climb), the view is panoramic. The salar merges with the sky and mirages appear. Along the way, the visit to the mummies cave is quite special (the video might impress you). They are the ancestors of the Coqueza community , the community made the choice to open the caves to tourists.

the one night experience in a salt hotel in Atuicha . Simon spent his stay there barefoot to better enjoy the environment.

Along the discovery: South Lipez

South Lipez , is a region of Bolivia located in the extreme south-west of the country, it is a largely desert region, especially in its western part which borders the border with Chile. We took the western track which crosses deserts made of rocks, sands, volcanoes, moraines, and geysers. The landscapes vary, they become flat and smooth then unusual rocks appear, the volcanoes are numerous and give relief, the track is sandy then chaotic, monotony never sets in. We climbed to 5000 meters of altitude but by car, no merit!

Along the discovery: the lagoons

Ha the lagoons, what enchantment in this ocean of rocks, sands, gravels and volcanoes. Apart from the Laguna Verde which contains a dangerous level of arsenic, the lagoons are home to elegant pink flamingos who spend happy days there.

At each of them, a break is necessary and the steps follow one another to the rhythm of those of the pink flamingos (you will see that Lise is very well developed). The Canapa, Hedionda , Charcota and Hondas lagunas are similar in size and environment.

The Laguna Colarada is an important stage in the crossing of the Sud Lipez desert . It is located in the Reserva National Fauna _ Andina Edouard Avaroa . Its color is deep red and the colony of pink flamingos is impressive. We saw it from a first angle at the end of the day but there were quite a few tourists. On the other hand, very early in the morning, we were alone on another series of watchtowers and the observation was very pleasant. Like observing the penguins of the Strait of Magellan (see episode 3), taking the time to observe the flamingos is a treat.

Along the discovery: the geysers of the Sol de Manana

What a surprise to come face to face with a geyser around a bend. And then a whole gathering of geysers, each as talkative as the next. Simple water vapor but also intoxicating or toxic substances. And surprising colors of rocks. All in the incessant bubbling of a land that is ready to spit out its entrails.

Along the discovery: the desert of Dali

Dali’s desert is superb. Photos of the moon look a lot like it. It’s minimalist, the imagination can wander to infinity, especially when the clouds invite themselves, which was our luck. Although Dali has painting backgrounds where an infinite desert is present (see “The Persistence of Memory”), it is above all for marketing reasons that this desert was named as such (I would be tempted to write ” branded “). It seems to me that most of Dali’s work, surrealist, is more talkative. Expert opinions are of course welcome on this subject.

Along the discovery: Laguna Blanca

The Laguna Blanca closes the ball. It is milky white, no doubt due to sediments such as the lagoons of Torres del Paine Park – Chile (see episode 4). We will have the chance to see (and film) a battle between two vicuña males who covet the same harem. We will follow the loser, lonely, stunned by his cabriole.


Along the discovery: the Atacama desert and the city of San Pedro d’ Acatama

We cross the Bolivia-Chile border in a very vigilant border post on anything that could carry GMOs. Then we descend 2000 meters in less than 40 kms, it is hot down in the Atacama desert and more so in the small town of San Predro d’Atacama.

San Perdo d’Atacama and El Chalten in Argentina (see episode 5) share the fact that they are purely tourist boom towns.

To keep up the pace, a hike in the San Pedro River was a must. Forward with the walking shoes in the bed of the river in the hollow of a canyon of about fifteen meters. The current is strong, we adapt the walk to it by sticking to two or even three to find more stability. Marie, our guide, discovers this type of walk with interest. I had learned this technique with a guide from the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel during two memorable bivouacs organized by my friend François R. quicksand was just waiting to swallow us up. Standing several abreast was essential.

The Valley of the Moon is an Indian site, protected and guarded by a community. It is forbidden to deviate from the paths and paths.

The excursions are very touristy and well oiled by drivers and guides. But hey, the site is big, grandiose, the lights at the end of the day warm and advantageous and our guide had a sense of humor.

The main sunset spot is impressive with shadows that give a lot of relief. But question of tranquility, it’s grated, Thibaut and Simon evaluated a gathering of around 500 people.

Along the discovery: the road back to Salta

This return trip was done by BUS Semi-cama, that is to say with room to recline the seats widely. The road crosses the cordillera at a place chosen for its low snow cover. This is the access road to the Pacific Ocean for Bolivians who do not have direct access to the sea and also for eastern Argentines who have access to a free port in Chile.


A very big thank you to Chantal B. from the ORIGINS agency who organized this superb loop.