We go from sea level in Rapa Nui to the Chilean and Bolivian highlands, first to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the highest and driest desert in the world. It also has one of the darkest night skies, ideal for viewing the stars.
We spend three days exploring this stark, unique environment with its many volcanoes, geysers, mountains, slot canyons, wetlands, and huge rock formations. We hike in three different ecological zones featuring distinctive flora and fauna, with elevations from 9,000 to 14,000 feet. One night we go star-gazing and view Saturn and Jupiter with superb clarity through a high-powered telescope. NASA tested the Mars Rover here.
Then we cross the border into Bolivia where we travel for seven days. Bolivia and Chile share many of the same volcanoes. Most are inactive. The two countries don’t have the warmest of relationships. In their war of 1879, Bolivia lost two of its departments (the equivalent of US states) to Chile including their access to the Pacific coastline, leaving the country landlocked. (Chileans may have a different perspective on this subject)
We are driven on the rockiest of dirt roads along the Cordillera de los Andes, also known as the Vulcan Arc. The light on the mountains is stunning, the sky in some places dark and menacing, in other places the bluest blue, the cloud formations so dramatic.
On our first night in Bolivia, we stay at an elevation of 13,650’, the highest we’ve ever slept. It is impossible to sleep due to the high altitude, and dry air. We awaken the next morning to an early spring snow covering the many surrounding high peaks, absolutely breathtaking.
In both countries, quinoa grown in rock terraces is the main agricultural product. There are llama, vicuña, and dazzling pink flamingos. Our hikes every day are sometimes to heights neither of us has ever reached before. It is at once exhilarating and exhausting.
In Bolivia, we visit lagoons, (some that appear white, green, or red, depending upon the minerals in the water), fumeroles, cathedrals of rock formations, and numerous salt flats. The views are astonishing everywhere we go and we seldom see another person. There are many small communities of indigenous people and we visit a few of them. In one, our very knowledgeable guide takes us to a museum where he explains in detail the history of Bolivia going back 5,000 years and the various ethnic groups that held power and when. We visit a 700 year old Necropolis where important people were buried in tufa tombs (similar to the tufa hoodoos that grow in Mono Lake in California’s eastern Sierra).
One day we have a most memorable adventure driving across the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat that is 4,085 square miles in size, the largest in the world, and looks like a blazing, endless, white ocean. We’re told that the salt layers are as deep as four hundred feet. After a rain when the salt has a thin layer of water on it, the sky and mountains are reflected, mirror-like, and the effect is magical. There are several islands amid the salt and we hike to the top of one of them, getting a 360 degree view of the scenery. We walk on the salt, have a picnic lunch on the salt, and days later, bike for miles on the salt.
On our final day in the highlands, we hike to Apu, at 15,183’ in elevation, it is an outlook to the gorgeous multi-colored Tunupa Volcano that last erupted approximately 1.2 million years ago. The crater collapsed as a result of glacial action and mineral deposits created the colors. From Apu, we also have a panoramic view of the salt flat.
One final note. Throughout our stay in the Andes, a distance of nearly a thousand miles, our drivers or guides play their lengthy rock and roll playlists from the 1960’s that make me joyful, reminding me of my teenage years.