I Went On a Street Journey From Chile’s Atacama Desert to Bolivia’s Salt Flats — Right here’s How You Can, Too

I caught my breath because the flamingos immediately set flight over Laguna Colorada, a rust-colored salt lake in southern Bolivia. All afternoon the uncommon birds had been standing, rump-up, head down, busy consuming the algae that turns their our bodies pink. Then, disturbed by a grazing vicuña, the flamboyance, as a flock of flamingos is thought, took off.

A whole lot, if not hundreds, of the birds soared, low and heavy, over the water, which stretched out in entrance of me like a pool of molten brick, and careened onward towards distant, snow-speckled hills. As much as 40,000 James’s flamingos — roughly half of the species’ total inhabitants — can collect round this shallow salt lake on Bolivia’s Altiplano, additionally known as the Andean Plateau.

Apart from my information, David Torres, I used to be the one human round to witness this extraordinary spectacle. Strolling this a part of the Andean Plateau with Torres felt like exploring the floor of some international planet the place the bottom is white and the water is purple. As I stood 14,000 ft above sea degree, feeling the warmth of aggressive sunbeams on my cheeks, I felt so near the sky it was like I’d left Earth fully.

In actuality, I used to be starting a weeklong journey alongside a portion of the Qhapaq Ñan, a street system of the traditional Incan Empire that extends greater than 18,600 miles throughout six international locations. Torres was to usher me on a travesía, the Spanish phrase for a protracted crossing or journey via a large expanse of terrain, that might cowl 300 miles of the route. Caravans used to observe this path via Bolivia and Chile, their llamas carrying navy provides, treasured metals, cocoa, and textiles; vacationers would change languages and cultures alongside the best way. The purpose of the travesía was partially to shine a lightweight on the community of paths that, together with the tradition of the Andean Aymara llama herders who nonetheless use them, is fading from existence.

The journey-hotel model Explora launched this travesía, which might take us via one of many planet’s most austere landscapes, in September. It goals to make the famously spectacular (and notoriously uncomfortable) backpacker circuit between Chile’s Atacama Desert and Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat extra snug than it has ever been. Company are conveyed over all-dirt roads in latest-model Land Cruisers with padded leather-based seats and keep at a collection of soft lodges fitted with Wi-Fi, 24-hour electrical energy, and sizzling showers — all beforehand unparalleled at these altitudes.

However, I knew that the journey could possibly be bodily grueling. There can be slap-you-in-the-face winds, zap-you-dry sunrays, freeze-your-teeth temperature drops, and clouds that might swirl like cartoon mud devils. The logistics can be equally wild: meals can be introduced in from Uyuni, in Bolivia, and we’d carry 4 drums of gasoline on the Land Cruiser’s roof as a result of there can be no fuel stations for per week. Even intrepid backpackers usually linger not more than an evening or two on this space, however I’d be spending six nights above 12,000 ft, touring slowly, using an ethereal Andean excessive.

The Atacama isn’t the colourful American desert of cowboys and tumbleweeds; to me it felt emptier, extra wild. However there are oases, just like the Chilean city of San Pedro de Atacama, which are startlingly inexperienced, populated by wayward llamas and yatiri (conventional Atacameño healers who, legend has it, acquired their powers after being struck by lightning).

San Pedro de Atacama is taken into account a gateway to this desert and the Altiplano, and that’s the place my altitude acclimation started. Base camp was Explora Atacama, a 50-room lodge with an observatory, two saunas, and 4 lap swimming pools half-hidden amid swaying pampas grass. The restaurant serves dishes like crisp pan-fried trout and octopus in olive sauce paired with grassy Sauvignon Blancs from Chile’s San Antonio Valley or peppery Carmenères, the nation’s widespread purple wine. Amid all this consolation, the one draw back was that Explora Atacama is positioned at simply 8,000 ft above sea degree, which meant I needed to spend a number of time away from my plush room — styled in cool, pure tones and heat Andean textiles — and as an alternative exit mountaineering to arrange for the upper altitudes we’d quickly encounter.

For my first tour, Torres led me as much as 14,000 ft to view the Tatio Geysers, the very best geothermal advanced on this planet (and the biggest within the Southern Hemisphere). The five-mile trek started at an apacheta, a sort of stone tower distinctive to the Andes the place, Torres advised me, vacationers historically make choices of coca leaves for protected passage. Then we descended to the salty Río Blanco and adopted its path previous spurting geysers and pits of burping mud pirouetting towards the sky. A faint scent of sulfur crammed the air. In some components, the river had veins of brick-red micro organism snaking alongside its floor like licks of fireside.

“This one appears to be like like a portal to the underworld,” Torres mentioned casually, stepping round a steamy cauldron. Having guided guests throughout all corners of the Andes for greater than a decade, there was an ease about him that soothed me. He appeared to thrive on this advanced, uncomfortable panorama, telling me anecdotes and people tales about what makes it so outstanding.

Torres and I woke early the following morning — he, bright-eyed; me, a bit slow-moving after my first encounter with the altitude the day earlier than. We traveled east into Bolivia on the Hito Cajón Go, turned north from there to ogle the flamingos at Laguna Colorada, then accomplished the 146-mile drive previous the puffing Putana Volcano to Explora’s new Ramaditas Mountain Lodge, a four-room eco-shelter at 13,370 ft.