*If the weather held up, we should be done with our trek and chilling out in Jomsom. We might even be on our way back to Kathmandu!*
For a country that is quite small in comparison to some of its neighbors, Bolivia has a lot to offer in terms of travel possibilities. There are mountains, volcanoes, jungles, lakes and deserts, and it’s relatively easy to move from one place to another. We were intrigued by the possibilities and one of the major ‘must see’ items on our list was the famous salt flat near Uyuni. There are a myriad of ways to visit this area, but since we were making our way up from Argentina, we chose to do a 4 day jeep tour that began in Tupiza, and ended in Uyuni.
We’d already been travelling with our friends Kristin and Bryan from Happy To Be Homeless and were planning on meeting up with another friend, Eric from Ric and Roll, in Tupiza. It’s easy enough to cruise into town, especially with a ready-made group of 4-5 people, and book a trip leaving within a day or two. We set out early in the morning, our packs strapped to the top of our Landcruiser, ready to see some of Bolivia’s highest lakes and desert formations.
Over the next few days we drove hundreds of kilometers on roads that often weren’t really roads at all, sometimes on ledges that were terrifying, or through dry riverbeds dotted with massive rocks. We spotted small villages, huge lakes, towering volcanoes and tons of flamingos. That’s right, flamingos. As it turns out, something about the altitude and composition of the mineral lakes (some of which are poisonous to humans) makes a perfect habitat for flamingos, of which there are thousands. It was fascinating to see the bright bursts of pink these birds provided in the otherwise stark landscapes.
One stop had us soaking in a hot spring, which was especially nice after being quite cold for most of the trip.
One of the most surprising sights was the huge amount of quinoa that dotted the landscape. It’s a colorful crop and farming it is one of the major sources of income for locals in this area.The other common income source is raising llamas, which were also quite abundant. Many of the animals have “pierced” ears, with different color poms that serve to identify them as they wander around the plains.
At our highest point, over 5,000 meters, there were amazing sulfurous hot mud pits that boiled and gurgled like a horrible stew. It was both terribly smelly and oddly fascinating.
As we neared the end of the trip we wandered among huge rock formations that seemed to come out of nowhere.
When we finally arrived in Uyuni we took some time to visit the train cemetery before tucking in for the night since we had to wake up before dawn to make it to the salt flats before sunrise. This was much more interesting than we anticipated, with all kinds of old trains abandoned and sunk into the ground. Some clever folks even created playground equipment, including see-saws and a swing, from old train parts.
The salt flats were just as incredible as we had imagined, and we couldn’t have asked for a better sunrise.
After driving far out onto the flats to have space all to ourselves, we spent hours, literally, taking fun optical illusion photos with the expansive white background.
For more photos, check out the slideshow below. Click to expand it to full-screen in flickr, or to see the individual photos.
Word On The Street
There are loads of different ways to organize a trip to Southwest Bolivia and the salt flats. It’s a huge tourist draw, so there are literally dozens of companies clamoring for your dollars, which is all the more reason to be really clear about what you expect from a trip. You can do the four-day trip that we did from Tupiza, but you can also go from Uyuni and do it in the opposite direction. We used La Torre Tours and were really happy with them. Tupiza Tours is another company we looked at that gets good reviews from travelers.
With our group of 5 we paid about $150 per person for the whole trip, excluding the park entry fees and tips for the driver and cook. Our driver was excellent, and though he spoke no English, he made a serious effort to communicate with basic Spanish and to speak slowly for us. We were able to understand him most of the time and if you have a basic level of Spanish you should be fine. If not, you can pay more for an English-speaking guide. Our cook was very sweet, and the meals were basic, but plentiful.
If you arrive on your own, you can either meet up with other travelers and form a group, or shop around and get a space in a partially filled jeep. Tours leaving from Tupiza usually have 4 people per jeep, while those leaving from Uyuni tend to cram 6 people in.
If you can’t, or aren’t interested in a 4-day tour, you can go for shorter routes from either Tupiza or Uyuni. If you are really short on time, just head into Uyuni and sign up for a one day tour of the salt flats, it should be cheap, and totally worth it.