Kimberly Collins | Feb 25, 2019
All up and down western South America run the Andes Mountains. These are the mountains that boast wonders from Machu Picchu to Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia. Within the Andes, nestled between its eastern and western ranges, lies the altiplano, the high plateau. Its base elevation is 3800 meters (12,500 feet) – and the mountains rise from there, many to well over 6000 meters. For perspective, the tallest mountain in the continental US reaches 4400 meters (14,500 feet). In other words, most of the altiplano starts at an elevation where many other mountains end (outside of the Himalayas at least). It’s the most extensive high plateau on earth outside of Tibet, and covers an area from southern Peru to northern Chile and Argentina.
Which means that the bulk of it lies, of course, in Bolivia. Which brings us back to the Salvador Dalí landscapes. And how one day I found myself in the middle of them, lips cracked from the desert winds, absentmindedly sucking on a large wad of anti-altitude sickness coca leaves, wondering to myself, “how did I get here again?”
Here’s the thing: it gets weird that high up in the air. Before this trip, I had been to 12,000+ feet elevations — but only for a few hours at a time. You hike up, hang out at the top enough time to eat a snack and snap some pictures, and then you go back down to sanity.
A little lick of heaven sprouting up at 4000m in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world, Isla del Sol looks like some resplendent cross of Ireland and Bali. It straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, on the northern end of the altiplano. As legend goes, the Inca considered this place the center of the cosmos and the origin of their civilization. The sun, moon, and stars were fashioned from islands in the lake, and this particular island was the birthplace of the sun god himself.
Looking at the views, I can’t say it’s impossible.
To get here, we took a three day/two night trip with Salty Desert, one of the many available tour agencies. Going with a group is somewhat unavoidable as the altiplano is quite remote and harsh. Even the groups travel in caravans of three jeeps in case of flat tires or disorientation in a remarkably vast and often featureless landscape.
This was our last stop in Bolivia before continuing into the Chilean portion of the altiplano. We spent two days driving through endless desert and its otherworldly sights, our bodies feeling properly dwarfed by mother earth and as accustomed to 5000 meter altitude as they will likely ever be in our lifetimes. Here are some highlights:
Volcanic rocks spewed out thousands of years ago and slowly carved by howling desert winds. That black stick speck in the middle there is a human.
Natural thermal pools, delightful 30 degree C waters.
This reserve extends to the Chilean border and the edge of the Atacama Desert. Here, you can choose to return to Uyuni or continue south to San Pedro de Atacama. I recommend the latter! Not to mention Chile has its own wealth of stunning landscapes filled with harsh deserts, lush vineyards, active volcanoes, and endless stretches of coast – but we’ll leave all that for another story.
Raised in Indianapolis, Kimberly now writes and travels from Montevideo, Uruguay. After studying global politics, she worked for a small tech company until a 2016 Fulbright grant plopped her in Uruguay. She’s since finished the grant but opted to stay abroad, continuing to advance her Spanish, bop around South America, and soak up all the learning and dancing she can.