Uncharted Bolivia: Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve

At certain times after 15 months as family nomads, we have occasionally come across places of such great beauty it is hard to imagine how they are so undiscovered. Even remote places are reachable by the most passionate of travelers, yet often it is these hard to reach destinations that are forgotten.  Visiting the Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve felt like unwrapping a precious gift to remind us once again of why we do what we do. Travel.

After hours of dusty, grinding roads the mountains finally surrendered their ashy tones to the golden hues of autumn. The yellows, oranges, and rusty colors that represent the dry season of the high desert. The hues trickle in to replace the bland mountainside with intricately woven landscapes. The contrast lures our eyes and our wheels through the desolate, winding roads of a peaceful countryside that brushes past tiny villages of stone-built house and hand-pressed clay abodes.

We dip below the mountain horizons and pass the valleys that roll out into the plains. The late morning sun catches the edges of glistening lakes that sparkle with all hues of blue. It is as though the mountains arms have reached over the coastal countries and dipped their hands into the sea. Springing back their wrists in joy, the land-locked Bolivian mountains sprinkle gems of sapphire and tourmaline across the dunes.

With the first glimpses of the Cordillera de Sama Ecological Reserve, we are smitten. We suspected all along that southern Bolivia held the scenic gems we seek, but this far exceeded our expectations. Our eyes dart in every direction, desperate to grab up every inch of this place for safe keeping in our memory palace. This is a place worth remembering.

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We speak of accommodations and I am sure there are none. But, Carlos quickly reminds me of his arrangments at a mysterious place called The Albergue. Not a hotel, a hostel, or a homestay…an albergue. This is new to me, both the word and the type of place. I roll the syllables around my tongue while images of expectation conjure in my mind. An albergue is a resting place provided by native communities, often in rural places without establishments to support tourism. The simple accommodations offer sleeping quarters and meals, where otherwise there would be none available. Nothing fancy but sufficient, a way to bring tourists in and a way to supplement the economy of the community.

As fascinating as the arrangments are, the sweet dark-haired girl at check-in can’t compete with the paintings of nature’s scenery beyond the window frames. Golden strands of paramo grass wave their tips in the air, beckoning us with the same delicate fingertips that stole the drops of sea and hid them in the desert. We tumble through the doorways and down the hill that cascades into the closest lake.

 

As peculiar as the autumn grasses and the sapphire pool are the unlikely inhabits wading through the shallow water. Large, fuzzy cows standing in the middle of the lagoon and colorless flamingoes on the shores, pecking their heads under the water. Flamingos missing their pink, fishing in the Andean desert seem as misplaced as the cows careening through the water from one shore to the other. Both seem startled by our presence and prove impossible to photograph.

We stand for a while at a distance, balking at the strange companions, and surrendering our spirits to the simple awes of nature. These are some of the greatest moments I cherish. When the kids are clearly absorbing every ounce of an experience. In this big open space full of opportunity to run and scream, they too, fall silent. It is an impressive testimony to this little thing called nature. And it happens every single time we find a place as special as The Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve.

It takes a few moments to settle into nature, to shake off the paved-streets and noise pollution of the last cities. The wind twirls our hair and nips our noses, and realigns our heads with our hearts and our toes. Suddenly we become parallel with the planet again and our urge to explore bubbles over. We race for the car to the be the first to list the wonders we saw on the way in. Roads with no endings, cyan lakes with white shores, buttery sand dunes, and meadows full of fluffy lambs.

We careen through the dusty roads of nature made dot-to-dot puzzle, connecting lake after lake in the unexpected high-altitude oasis. The maze that winds us through La Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve is almost too stunning to believe. The prettiest pool sparkles turquoise with chalky white fringes and golden mountains in the backdrop. Ducks splash and call across the water, inviting us to come play.

We hop around, skip some rocks, and even pose the car in the idyllic scenery. The warm tones of the landscapes are as soothing as the seaside and we can’t help but feel giddy. Our shoes crinkle through the crunchy salt-laden shores as we lured to the site of a shipwreck. The lake in the mountains and the boat in the desert seem surreal and far too pretty not to photograph.

We dance around in the remote abyss, playing next to the salty lakes and exploring this true wonder of southern Bolivia. It’s hard to believe we almost missed it, not knowing of its existence until barely a week before. Prior to this exploration, we had diverted to the city of Tarija, as an unplanned escape to pause and unwind in the only place we could find warmth. Carlos (my husband) had noticed the reserve on the map while planning our path to the Uyuni Salt Flats.

We read about the lakes, birds, and dunes…deciding that another diversion was in order. The journey took us a few hours south, smack in between Tarija and the border of Argentina. The Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve turned out to be much more than we bargained for and it’s hard to understand why it remains a lesser known destination in Bolivia.

After several hours of basking in the afternoon sun, we retreated to our albergue before the chill of the desert nights could set in. We were grateful for a warm meal, a pretty sunset, and wool blankets to snuggle into. And we vowed to get up early, eager to see as much as we could before heading out again on a long and difficult drive towards Tupiza.

We woke up shortly after the sun to scarf down hot coffee and cold bread, before going in search of gasoline. Without any city infrastructure within notable distance, we were reminded that there are no stores or gas stations in the area. To be able to make it up the long, steep mountain road we would need to find a local to buy gas from.

Finding the right path to nearest so-called town deemed more complicated than expected. We took a wrong turn or two in the spectacular landscape before spotting a small huddle of homes and a dozen people mingling in the center. We asked for gasoline and waited while the message was passed down from person to person. Finally, we saw a nod and someone pointed toward the dusty house on the corner.

The lady sold us the gas at a fair price from clear, soda bottles filled with the fuel we needed. Carlos topped off the tank and added a few liters to one of the gas cans. With a honk and a wave, we were off again to explore the last of the Cordillera de Sama Reserve. We followed the road past the largest of the lakes, appropriately names Laguna Grande.

Halfway around the shining “sea”, we came to the sand dunes that border the water from the opposite side of the mountains. Amidst the mix of rocky and grassy terrain, the smooth mounds of multi-toned sand make no geographical sense. As astounding as the salt lake themselves, I imagined currents of wind scooping up handfuls of sand and carrying them here, all the way from the ocean.. nearly two countries away.

We all lept from the car once again, eager to recall the feeling of sand beneath our feet. We haven’t seen the beach since Christmas, 8 months ago. In 15 months of travel, that is a long time. The morning was still cool, so we ran for the dunes in our heavy coats and shoes…knowing full well that we’ll find traces of the sand in the car for the next month or two.

Our feet skipped across the crest of the sandy waves and our bums slid down the drifts into the ripples of the plateaus. The kids called out echoes into the wild wilderness, more than pleased to start the morning connected with nature. Before we took to the road again, we turned our faces to the sun in a moment of thanks for days just like this.

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