After 2,5 year of Amazon tropics Coen and I are happy to have returned to the colder and drier climate of the Andes Mountains. During these past 10 years I have never written, “Boy are we glad to be back in the tropics so we can wear shorts and bathing suits again,” yet I have expressed that, “It feels great to wear socks and sweaters again and to sleep under our down blanket.”
We’re cold-weather people.
That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the heat. We can. One of the great pleasures of traveling in the Andes Mountains is soaking in hot springs, which we found in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. In most cases we wild camped at the remotest places where we were all by ourselves and felt incredibly rich for being there and strongly connected with our surroundings. Here are South America’s hot springs we enjoyed most.
1. Laguna Verde in Southwest Bolivia
The landscape is empty, barren, windy and cold. We’re at 4,500 meters: The Altiplano (high plains) of southwest Bolivia, a region called Sud Lipez. Wildlife consists of vicuñas, three types of flamingos and a number of small animals. This part of the world is largely void of human civilization.
Thanks to the large number of volcanoes, southwest Bolivia has various hot springs, or thermal baths if you like. One lies next to Laguna Verde. We stretch out on a flat rock right underneath the water surface. Hot water flows over our bodies, the sun warms our heads which are exposed to a fierce wind, and we doze. Fabulous. Because of the fierce, cold wind we are unaware how strong the sun is burning.
We are severely punished for this reckless behavior: that night Coen’s front is bright red and I can hardly sit anymore on my severely burned butt and back of my legs. You could fry an egg on those body parts, so hot as they are! Contrary to what we had intended we leave the other hot springs in the vicinity to other travelers and find our pleasure in driving and camping in this vast emptiness. Nevertheless, this laguna will remain one of our favorite hot springs in South America.
In San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and Uyuni (Bolivia) you can organize multiple-day tours to Salar de Uyuni and the Lagunas Coloradas (as the region of Sud Lipez is called). Expect roughing it in terms of basic accommodation as well as spending many hours crammed in the car on potholed roads. In return you will see a fantastic part of the world: Volcanoes, hot geysers, colored lakes, hot springs, sightings of vicuñas and flamingos.
Exploring this part of the world independently demands preparation as there are no facilities whatsoever. Make sure to bring enough water, food and fuel. The region is at 3,800- 5,000 meters, which can cause altitude sickness (drink lots of water). Make sure to slather yourself in sunscreen and bring warm clothes for the cold or freezing nights. Car rental is possible in Uyuni (Bolivia). Note that – as far as I know – you can’t cross borders with a car rented in Chile. Here you can find GPS waypoints to, among other places, Salar de Uyuni and the Colored Lakes.
2. Potosí in Bolivia – Hot Springs of Tarapaya
It’s late when we arrive in Potosí and are in need of a place to sleep. The town itself doesn’t appeal to spend the night and we search in its surroundings. A local points out a camping spot on top of a hill, some 20 kms north of town. We check it out.
It’s cloudy, gray and damp. At the top of the hill (3500 meters) we are exposed to a fierce wind and the place wouldn’t have been a success without this hot pool, which dates back to Inca times. Quickly we undress, run to the pool and descend into the steaming water, which is claimed to have curative powers. Our muscles and skin need a bit of time to adjust to the major difference in temperature but little by little we start to feel warm and cozy again.
Around the pool you can pitch your tent for a few bolivianos or stay at the hostel of Balneario Paraíso or Balneario de Tarapaya. There are camiones (local bus) plying between Potosí (Plaza Chuquimia) and Tarapaya. Ask the driver to stop at the turn to the balnearios from where it’s a short walk up.
3. Puchuldiza Geysers in North Chile
The geysers of Puchuldiza, east of Iquique, lie at 4200 meters and are part of Isluga Volcano National Park. The daily afternoon wind of the Altiplano comes howling across the plain. The thermal bath mainly feels warm because my head sticking out above the edge of the bath almost freezes with cold. Not much is needed to get an ear infection here.
Or a lung infection, I figure while getting out of the bath and trying to get dressed, which is almost impossible because my fingers appear to be frozen. But I’m not complaining: after a day of eating dust on the off-roads meandering through the Andes Mountains, a bath – let alone a warm one – is much appreciated and the scene is extraordinary. It’s so remote and empty that the term ‘wild camping’ gets a new dimension.
Early morning the wind has subsided. We walk around across the lonely plateau. Bare mountains. A couple of grazing llamas. Spouting geysers. During winter the steam freezes, we have seen extraordinary pictures of it. Now it is summer, but still the Land Cruiser has ice on the inside of the windows. Even at such altitude, and even without a functioning heater, we slept well in our isolated home on wheels.
Don’t expect to get here by public transport. Best way to the visit the geysers is to rent a car in Iquique. Stock up on fuel, water and food. Bring enough warm clothes, sun lotion and your camera. It’s a fantastic region to explore – on foot, by car or any other vehicle – and wild camp. Meandering roads offer vast views of plains with grazing llamas and pass traditional Aymara villages.
4. Hot spring on the border Argentina – Chile
A local gave us the tip to drive from San Martín (in the Argentinean Lake District) to Chile. The border crossing includes a ferry crossing and, like most border crossings between these two countries, the landscapes and views were fantastic. Just before hitting the border we took a left turn and followed a narrow path through a forest until we hit an open space where a couple of Argentinians were camping and fishing.
Early morning we hiked for an hour or so in all quietude. Forest, a couple of birds, some insects, first rays of sun penetrating through the foliage, crisp air. Peace and quiet; a lovely walk. Between a couple of large boulders cascaded a minuscule stream over rocks. We undressed and sat right underneath one of the rocks and let the warm water stream over our shoulders. Bliss.
You’ll need your own transportation to get here. Rent a car in Bariloche and bring (rent or buy) camping gear. Stock up as there are no provisions for sale in the nearby area. Note that trucks may be too big to drive the narrow forest road with overhanging trees.
5. Susques – Sey in Argentina
West of Salta stretches the vast Altiplano all the way into Chile. Driving and camping here is one of our highlights in South America. We love the region for its intricate colors – soft tinges of red, orange, purple and yellow. There are salt lakes, deserts, volcanoes and hot springs. We encountered a thermal bath between Susques and Sey.
Local people have built a concrete construction around, which takes away the sense of awe because you don’t see your surroundings but it also pleasantly protects you against the strong, cold wind. After a freezing night it was a perfect bath to warm our bodies and get going again.
Rent a car in Salta to get there. From Quebrada de Humahuaca, north of Salta you can drive west to the Salinas (salt flats) and to Susques. Here you turn left to Sey. The road crosses the Tropic of Capricorn twice and passes through two traditional villages with adobe houses and thatched roofs where locals sell handicrafts. The thermal bath is just south of Sey.
Like the previous locations: stock up and bring camping gear if you want to spend the night, although visiting the hot spring is doable as a (long) day trip from Salta.
6. Barra do Garças in Brazil
Okay, a sixth. This thermal bath doesn’t belong in the above-mentioned selection as it is not in the Andes and it’s not in the middle of nowhere. I like to mention it nevertheless because without doubt few travelers know it and it is worth a visit when in the neighborhood, especially when traveling with kids.
This is a recreational park with hydrothermal pools right outside the town of Barra do Garças in Mato Grosso (west Brazil). By the way, the region, forested and mountainous, around Barra do Garças is worth exploring with, among other highlights, the Serra do Roncador.
Water temperatures are between 30 and 40 degrees (Celsius) and the pools are claimed to have therapeutic properties. With all its water slides and other fun attractions Parque das Aguas Quentes is perfect to visit with kids.
Barra do Garças lies 500 kms east of Cuiabá, on the state border of Mato Grosso and Goiás. Parque das Aguas Quentes is open every day and costs only a few reais. Food and drinks available within the complex.