Laguna Colorada
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Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

Also known as: Lago Colorado, Red Lake, Red Lagoon

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One of the world's most unique lakes, Laguna Colorada occupies an unusual ecological niche in southwestern Bolivia. The nearly 15,000-acre salt lake is less than three feet deep and a brilliant red color due to the variety of algae that proliferates in its briny waters. The unusual lake lies within the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and is under the joint protection of The Nature Conservancy and the Bolivian National Protected Areas Service. Although remote and in an area with few accommodations, the Reserve is receiving more visitors each year. One of the highlights of every foray into the Reserve is a stop to view the stunning red lake with its many white salt islands and the endangered James flamingos that thrive on the plankton in the waters. The flamingos gain their pink coloring from the red micro-organisms that constitute much of their diet.

The majority of the landscape around Laguna Colorada is desert rocks and salt deposits. Nearby is the geothermal area where the geysers of Sol de Manana eject their waters toward the cloudless blue sky. Smoking craters send up clouds of steam above a landscape that is nothing like anything else seen on earth. At an altitude of about 14,000 feet, the air temperature is often below freezing at dawn but warms decently during the summer months to make excursions into the Reserve decidedly pleasant. Most visitors arrive via 4-wheeled-drive vehicles owned by one of several tourism companies; the road is too rough for buses. Established in 1953, the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve covers 1,766,170 acres and is a part of the larger Los Lipez Ramsar site.

Laguna Colorada is the only large red lagoon in the Reserve, but the other large lagoons are also known for their brilliant colors due to the minerals in their waters. Laguna Verde is known for its remarkable emerald-green waters against a backdrop of the Licancabur volcano rising to 19,741 feet above sea level. Licancabur volcano actually holds a small lake in its crater. Licancabur Lake at 19,400 feet is considered one of the world's highest lakes and remains liquid because of geothermal activity. Only part of the volcano's slope is in Bolivia: the peak is actually in Chile.

The Reserve around Laguna Colorada protects a wide variety of indigenous birds and animals that amazingly thrive in the hostile landscape. Three of the world's six flamingo species- Chilean, Andean and James flamingoes- inhabit the freshwater lakes and saltwater lagoons of the Reserve. About 80 bird species make the Reserve their home, including several endangered and threatened species. Mammals include pumas, Andean foxes and cats, and domesticated llamas and alpacas. The Reserve also provides habitat for reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Also under the protection of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve is part of the Central Andean dry puna ecoregion with geological attractions such as erupting volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, lakes, fumaroles and mountains. Some areas are noted for odd rock formations that erosion has shaped to resemble trees. Visitors often enjoy bathing in some of the safer hot springs, but it is always wise to ask an experienced guide before venturing into either hot springs or onto salt flats; some salt flats can give way into deep holes beneath them. Laguna Colorada is the location of the only organized lodging within the Reserve. The small 'camp' has been upgraded with generator power until 9 PM, with some food available for purchase, and rough but passable housing. Overnight visitors should be aware that central heating is not part of the facilities, and nights here can get very cold.

The Reserve is rich in natural resources including lead, zinc and silver. As a result, 60+ mining concessions are located in the park. Also extracted are its nonmetallic mineral resources like sulfur and ulexite. Ulexite is converted to boric acid and is exported to the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. Bolivia is an under-developed country rich in resources that its leadership is determined to protect from unfair exploitation. The country has little infrastructure away from the cities, and electrical power is needed to improve the living conditions of the many indigenous people who live a traditional lifestyle in the harsh environment. One of the projects which will soon begin construction is a large geothermal generating plant to access the underground steam resources via deep wells in the area of Laguna Colorada. Care will be taken not to interfere with the the views or the wildlife that inhabit the region.

Most visitors arrange tour accommodations from La Paz and can plan on spending a couple of days just getting to Laguna Colorada. Nearly all of them plan a day exploring the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt desert in the world. One highlight of the trip is the several 'salt hotels' used for accommodations. The salt hotels are constructed almost completely of salt blocks and very picturesque. Some are also quite comfortable, with plentiful hot water and luxury bedding. Most tours are at least four days. The leisurely pace is quickly appreciated as the altitude can be quite debilitating until visitors acclimate the the thin atmosphere. A trip to Laguna Colorada is once-in-a-lifetime adventure that must be seen to be believed. If South American travel is on your 'bucket-list', Laguna Colorada should register near the top.

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