Into the wild of the E. Avaroa National Reserve and Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)

I visited the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (also written “Abaroa”) and the area of Salar de Uyuni in August 2012, during my 4 months of lonely tour of southern South America. I was at less than half of my travel, but what I admired in Bolivia were some of the best landscapes I ever seen in my life and, to be honest, still they are, even after 5 years plenty of trips and adventures around the world.

To reach the wild south-west side of Bolivia was not easy at all.

Ladies passing the border from Argentina
Ladies passing the border from Argentina

I entered in Bolivia in Villazón, at about 3,400 m of altitude, coming from the Jujuy province of Argentina.


I had spent before about a week never staying lower than 2,500 m, so I was already rather acclimatized: the lack of oxigen in the Andes can be problematic for many people, but I had good adaptation skills and I managed to reach easily the highest places without any medicine or coca.

The two towns where you could get organized tours to the Avaroa National Reserve are Tupiza and Uyuni, on the two ends of the usual trip of 4-5 days that pass through the park. Without a rented car like me, there weren’t other chances. Anyway, I found this solution not so restrictive, because I had the luck to have a an helpful driver, Victor (strictly Spanish speaking) and just two other young car-mates, Matt and Skye, particularly friendly and enthusiast about nature and landscapes.

Tupiza is a small typically Bolivian town of 43,000 people that lies at about 2,800 m.

Tupiza: city center
Tupiza: city center

I had an afternoon there to go birding and I walked along the riverbed.

Here I observed: 25-30 Puna Ibis (Plegadis ridgwayi), 5 Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), some Andean Lapwing (Vanellus resplendens) and Andean Gulls (Chroicocephalus serranus), some Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata) and Picui Ground Dove (Columbina picui), few Andean Swifts (Aeronautes andecolus), 2 Rufous Horneros (Furnarius rufus) and few Pampa Finch (Embernagra platensis),

Pampa Finch (Embernagra platensis)
Pampa Finch (Embernagra platensis)

To reach the border of Avaroa National Reserve you should cross gorgeous desert lanscapes first, with funny eroded hills and cacti…


…arid puna, the type of grassland of the high Andes…


…high altitude semi-deserts with salty lakes…




…and small bogs and wetlands.


Scattered small villages lied in the nothing, often almost disapearing in the environment, being mainly built on mud or clay bricks.


The church was usually the only characteristic building, with a thick bell tower and bright colours.


Most of the roads were without signs of life during the mid hours of the day…


Women stayed in the shade, while men were probably around, taking care to the herds of Llamas.


Llamas were the main source for this people and were usually marked with nice colourful ear tufts.

In the past, there were many more unhabitants living in this desolate side of Bolivia: hundreds of them use to live at about 4,600 m in San Antonio de Lípez, where there use to be some silver mines.


Among the ruins, I observed a couple of funny Southern Viscachas (Lagidium viscacia): it’s a strange species of mountain rodent, with a long furry tail, rabbit ears and a funny way of walk, with jumps like kangaroos from a rock to the other.

Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia)
Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia)

These boundless habitats hosted few species of birds, but many of them were rather special. I spotted: some Darwin’s Rheas (Rhea pennata),…

Darwin's Rhea (Rhea pennata)
Darwin’s Rhea (Rhea pennata)

…3 Puna Tinamous (Tinamotis pentlandii)…

Puna Tinamou (Tinamotis pentlandii)
Puna Tinamou (Tinamotis pentlandii)

…some Crested Ducks (Lophonetta specularioides) and Andean Geese (Neochen melanoptera)…

 Andean Goose (Neochen melanoptera)
Andean Goose (Neochen melanoptera)

…20 Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes (Attagis gayi), few Puna Miners (Geositta punensis) and Ash-breasted Sierra-finches (Phrygilus plebejus), 1 Black-hooded Sierra-finch (Phrygilus atriceps), 1 Plumbeous Sierra-finch (Phrygilus unicolor), some tens of Bright-rumped Yellowfinches (Sicalis uropygialis) and 1 Greenish Yellowfinch (Sicalis olivascens).

Greenish Yellowfinch (Sicalis olivascens)
Greenish Yellowfinch (Sicalis olivascens)

Being almost in Austral winter, the flora was not so attractive, but I coudn’t ignore the bright green patches of Yareta (Azorella compacta)…

…and the funny circular shape of some grasses, with in behind the stunning background of snowy volcanoes above the 5,000 m.


After the last high altitude pass, at about 4,855 m above the sea level, I finally entered in the National Reserve E. Avaroa at Quetena Chico, the lowest side of the park, at “only” 4,100 m!


From here it was a succession of puna, salty lakes (lagunas), high altitude deserts and volcanoes that reached almost the 6,000 m.




When I visited the reserve, the very cold nights, with maybe -5°C or -10°C of temperature, frost the water of the lakes…


…trapping the flamingos in the ice.

James's Flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)
James’s Flamingos (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)

They had to wait the first hours of sun to break free and fly away.

James's Flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)

Three species of flamingos are represented in the Avaroa National Reserve, but I observed only two of them: the commoner James’s Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), and few Andean Flamingos (Phoenicoparrus andinus).

Andean Flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus andinus)
Andean Flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus andinus)

In the Salar de Chalviri, the volcanic activity was evident with the fumes of some hot springs…


…that were used as SPA by few brave turists in Polques.


Near the buildings, some smelly deposits of rubbish attracted few birds: Puna Miners and Red-backed Sierra Finches (Phrygilus dorsalis).

Puna Miner (Geositta punensis)
Puna Miner (Geositta punensis)
Red-backed Sierra Finch (Phrygilus dorsalis)
Red-backed Sierra Finch (Phrygilus dorsalis)

While in the main Kollpa lake I had James’s and Andean Flamingoes, Andean Goose, Crested Duck, Andean Avocet (Recurvirostra andina) and Andean Gull.

Continuing to south-west, I crossed first the “Salvador Dalì desert“, so called because of surreal shapes of volcanic dikes…


…and then other semi-deserts with reddish mountains and volcanoes, partially covered by snow.


At the end I reached the Laguna Blanca (“white lake”)



…and Laguna Verde (“green lake”), at the feet of volcano Licancabur, 5,920 m above the sea level.


The particular turquoise tinge of the Laguna Verde is due to the content of copper minerals of the water and it can change dramatically in shade if there is or not the wind, or changing position and reflections.




Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) were the only animals I spotted in the area: they seemed to frequent such inhospitable habitats that I couldn’t believe that they managed to find any plant to eat.



The area of Sol de Mañana was an active voblcanic field with a lot of interesting geological phenomenons like fumaroles…




…and amazing boiling muds.

Near the Sol de Mañana I reached the highest altitude of my life, arriving at almost 5,000 m!


Where I arrived next,  was one of the most unbelievable places I ever seen, the Laguna Colorada (“red lake”): the water of the basin was red because of mix of sediments and algae, while the shores were made white by borax.



The landscapes were made unforgetable by the contrast among the red or purple of waters side by side with the deep blue of sky, the yellow of grass, the green of algae, the background of reddish volcanoes, the white of snow on the peaks…




…but also by the presence of tens of James’s Flamingos, feeding among the fumes of warm thermal springs.



During the very cold night at about 4,300 m of altitude, I slept with just 4°C in my room in a spartan local hostel, without elettricity and hot water for the second consecutive night.


Early in the morning I decided with my car-mates to stop again on the other side of the Laguna Colorada, where I had noticed a lot of birds. It was a great decision, because all the other tourists went away, leaving us alone to enjoy an unforgetable experience.


The beauty of the lanscape was breath-taking, with the purple of water, the blue of sky, the yellow of grass, the whitish islands, the reddish of volcanoes, the pink of James’s Flamingos…


James's Flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)
James’s Flamingos (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)


A huge number of birds were attracted there by an hot spring that maintained the water free from ice: Andean Geese, Crested Ducks, Andean Avocets and Andean Gulls,  together with Llamas.



What has remained impressed more in my memory have been the mix of the peace of that place, far from people or civilization, together with the sounds of hundreds of birds and the surreal shapes of Llamas walking the mirror of water, among the thermal fumes.

Andean Gulls (Chroicocephalus serranus)
Andean Gulls (Chroicocephalus serranus)


Andean Goose (Neochen melanoptera)
Andean Geese (Neochen melanoptera)


In the few patches of dry grasses I spotted a Cream-winged Cinclodes (Cinclodes albiventris).

White-winged Cinclodes (Cinclodes atacamensis)
Cream-winged Cinclodes (Cinclodes albiventris)

But was the scenary that couldn’t stop me from take tens and tens of pictures.



Forever in my heart: the last postcard of the Laguna Colorada.


So I continued my travel to the next stop, at the Arbol de piedra, the “rocky tree”, a funny rock eroded by wind.


It was not the only interesting shaped rock in the area.

So I passed the border of the National Reserve, crossing a large desertic area, probably covered by pyroclastic sediments, in order to reach a group of wonderful small lakes: the lagunas Ramaditas, Honda, Charcota, Hedionda and de Cañapa.


First of all I visited the Laguna Ramaditas, a peaceful lake that was completely frozen.



Here I observed only 100 James’s Flamingoes trapped by the ice and a lonely Andean Gull.

Andean Gull (Chroicocephalus serranus)
Andean Gull (Chroicocephalus serranus)

Then,  in the arid prairies, I had some more Vicuñas: they were so tiny in the huge beauty of the landscape.


After the small lakes of Honda and Charcota…


…where I observed a Rufous-naped Ground-tyrant (Muscisaxicola rufivertex) and some more Southern Viscachas…

Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia)
Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia)

…I reached the unforgetable Hedionda lake, famous because of its approachability of James’s Flamingos, in my opinion the most beautiful of all the flamingos!






The last lake, Laguna de Cañapa, was less plenty of tourists, but maybe as much beautiful, with such a deep blue of water, reflection of the clear sky, contrasting with the white minerals of shores and the yellow of grass.




Around this lake I spotted few birds: a Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola)…

Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola)
Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola)

…an Andean Avocet…

Andean avocet (Recurvirostra andina)
Andean avocet (Recurvirostra andina)

…and again a couple of Puna Miners.

Puna Miner (Geositta punensis)
Puna Miner (Geositta punensis)

The next place I stopped was in front of a wide lava field, the lava field of the Ollagüe stratovolcano (5,868 m), which in that moment was exploding from the left side of the peak in puffs of smoke.


The lava had funny patterns…


…and shapes, with formely inflated fluid magmas, now solified…


…or jaguar-silhouetted forms.


Once again there were soft green carpets of Yareta.

Yareta (Azorella compacta)
Yareta (Azorella compacta)

Going lower in the altitude, the habitat got drier and more desertic, with few signs of life like Golden-spotted Ground Doves (Metriopelia aymara) and shy Darwin’s Rheas.

Darwin's rhea (Rhea pennata)
Darwin’s Rheas (Rhea pennata)

At the end, I reached the shore of a huge white flat, the Salar de Uyuni: it’s a boundless salt lake, usually almost all dried up, of more than 10.000 square kilometers of extension!

The plan was to spend the night in a salt built hostel, on the bank of the salar


…so I decided to utilize my last minutes of daylight walking around among the giant cacti (Echinopsis spp.).


I coudn’t see too many birds, just few Black-hooded Sierra-finches (Phrygilus atriceps) and Rufous-collared Sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis).

Black-hooded Sierra-finch (Phrygilus atriceps)
Black-hooded Sierra-finch (Phrygilus atriceps)

The day after I woke up before the dawn…


…so I arrived in the heart of the salar when the sun was rising…


…and the single grains of salt emerged from the bluish shade.


My shadow was hundreds of meter long.


Later, penetrating in the white vastness of the salt flat, also a black rocky “island” appeared, looking like mirages in the desert.


The “island”, known as Isla Incahuasi, Inkawasi or Inka Wasi, depending on the trascription of Quechua, tha language of Incas, was covered by a maquis of giant cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana)…

…the tallest of which exceeding the 9 meters with an estimated age of about 900 years.


I observed, as usual in this desolated lands, just few species of birds: Rusty-vented Canastero (Asthenes dorbignyi), Rufous-naped Ground-tyrant and Black-hooded Sierra-finch.

Rusty-vented Canastero (Asthenes dorbignyi)
Rusty-vented Canastero (Asthenes dorbignyi)
Black-hooded Sierra-finch (Phrygilus atriceps)
Black-hooded Sierra-finch (Phrygilus atriceps)

Then I left the Isla Incahuasi, crossing again the immense expanse of flat snowy salt: something surreal, sometimes drawn with weird polygonal shapes, but always strongly contrasting with the dark blue sky and separated from it by an uninterrupted flat orizon.



I “landed” again at the “Train Cemetery“, a misterious place,  lost in the nothing, with a deposit of old steam locomotives and wagons.


The birdwatching in this ghosts place produced some tens of Bright-rumped and Greenish Yellowfinches.

Bright-rumped Yellow finch (Sicalis uropygialis)
Bright-rumped Yellow Finch (Sicalis uropygialis)
Greenish Yellow Finch (Sicalis olivascens)
Greenish Yellow Finch (Sicalis olivascens)

I ended my 4 days trip along the south-western side of Bolivia in the town of Uyuni, where I left my very nice companions,  Matt and Skye.


Closing, I would like to mention Victor, the patient driver of the Land Rover during the trip who, with his mother, the “private cook” of the group, has made everything efficient and great!


* all the photos of this trip report were taken by a simple compact camera Canon Powershot SX240 hs, so I apologize if the quality of them will be not excellent like in most of the recent reports. 

Luca Boscain

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