It’s no secret I consider Bolivia one of the most beautiful, breathtaking countries there is. Just look at Lake Titicaca. Or Sucre. Or even La Paz, for all its hustle. However, some of the most memorable days of my Bolivia-trip came when I took a four-day tour from Tupiza to Uyuni, exploring the South-Western part of the country, close to the Chilean border, with all its incredible nature, mountain panoramas, lagoons, and, of course, the famous Uyuni salt flats.
I took the tour with a company called Tupiza Tours. There were two reasons I chose them over any of the other tour operators offering similar itineraries. One, they came recommended by a fellow traveller I had met in Santiago. Two, they offered the option of going back to Tupiza at the end of the tour rather than ending in Uyuni. I was headed to Argentina next and Tupiza is much closer to the border, so I preferred ending the tour there. After travelling with them, I can safely say, no regrets here. They were amazing!
So, let’s head into a detailed account of those three-and-a-half days cruising through Bolivia’s mountains and deserts. Because yes, they deserve that much attention!
Day One: Meeting fellow adventurers and making new friends
The first day started at the tour company’s office in Tupiza at 8 am. Besides the guide/driver Dieter and the cook Marisol, there were three other travellers on the trip. Nicolas, Justine and Margot were from Belgium and travelled together. I was a bit wary at first about the three of them already knowing each other and me joining as an outsider, but it didn’t take too long until we started to connect. Soon, we all got along just great – despite the existing language barrier. Their native language was French, and while they spoke Spanish quite well, they only knew very little English. I, on the other hand, speak French about as badly as I speak Spanish. Still, somehow we managed to communicate by wildly mixing all languages together and throwing in a bit of each until we reached some kind of common ground.
By the way, I did love the fact that groups are this small on the trip. It allowed us to get very close very quickly and really become a team. Besides, it meant rather than in a bus, as on most group tours I’ve been on, we cruised around in a jeep. So much cooler! Our luggage was strapped to the roof. The Belgians soon became the masters of music in the car thanks to their huge song collection. Marisol made sure we always had enough to snack on, and Dieter drove us around the stunning landscapes of Southern Bolivia. While I got to ride shotgun and just enjoy life at its best!
Getting a first taste of the landscape – and the wildlife
Our first stop after leaving Tupiza was a lookout in the mountains that begin just behind town. Driving on from there, we soon encountered quite a big group of free-ranging lamas and stopped in the middle of the road to get out and take pictures. This gives a good indication of what this trip was like. Due to the small group size, we could just shout out whenever we saw something we’d like to take pictures of. Dieter simply stopped at the site of the road and gave us all the time we needed. As most of the roads were unpaved tracks with no one but some other tourists around, stopping anywhere was never a problem.
This first day, we eventually reached the ruins of the colonial town San Antonio de Lipez. While walking around here we spotted a few wachakas, rabbit-like animals living in the Andes. They are adorable!
The accommodations on this trip were extremely basic. The four of us always shared a room together, bundled up in warm clothes and lots of blankets, because there’s no heating. The first two nights there was no hot water either, so it was having either a cold shower (not gonna happen!) or none at all. Needless to say, we all went with the latter option. You don’t smell it if everyone stinks, right?
Anyway, as basic as the hostels may have been, the food was amazing! Marisol cooked freshly for us each day. She also set us up with tea, coffee and biscuits right after arrival, to last us until dinner was done. We devoured everything.
Without any other means of entertaining ourselves, we spent our evenings with cards and conversation, then going to bed early. Which was just as well, as we always started out again early in the morning.
Day two: More lamas. And the first of many lagoons!
Breakfast was at 6.30 am. Way too early if you ask me, but at least we got fresh pancakes! One hour later, we were back on the road.
First off, we visited a so-called llama-dormitorio. Basically, it’s just a pen, in which they keep the lamas overnight. Later in the day, they will be let out again to roam the landscape. But you get to see all the assembled cuteness.
Next up were a couple of lagoons. Lagoons were something we would get to see plenty off on this trip. This day it was Laguna El Hedionda and Laguna Kollpa. The latter is home to plenty of flamingoes. At each place, we got the opportunity to stroll around for a bit.
After this, we headed to the Thermes de Polques for a swim. They are hot pools, the only kind of water you want to enter at these temperatures. I did the tour in April and while it wasn’t freezing, it was certainly cold enough to be grateful for hot water. Especially as we didn’t have any of that in our accommodation. But probably you shouldn’t think about all those unshowered people for too long while you’re in there…
More lagoons… I told you so!
The afternoon was packed to the brim with, you guessed it, lagoon after lagoon. Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca were where we stopped for lunch, which was served out of the back of the van. We found seats among the rocks and looked upon the lagoon while eating. Seriously, this is how life should be.
Usually, Dieter told us everything we needed to know about our next destination in the car and then gave us time to wander around by ourselves, so we could take everything in at our own pace and, of course, take plenty of pictures. With so much time spent among the four of us, photographing each other soon became second nature and you didn’t even have to ask anymore. One more thing I appreciate about group tours.
Another highlight of the day was the Desierto Salvador Dali. We drove through it and stopped at a lookout point for photos. After that came the Geysers. They’re not as impressive as the ones in the Atacama, but still fun to walk around.
We got to our next accommodation in the afternoon – which was even more basic than the night before and only had electricity for two hours in the evening – and quickly dropped off our stuff to hop back in the car and visit our last destination of the day: the Laguna Colorada. It’s usually referred to as red lagoon, but really, pink is more appropriate. I’ve heard it compared with the Red Lagoon in Chile, but they’re actually very different. The Laguna Roja is of a much deeper red than this one; however, the Laguna Colorada is bigger, and it has flamingoes. You decide what you think is cooler, I’m horrible at picking favourites.
Day 3: Up close with the wildlife
The third day started the same time as the previous one. The program still included plenty of lagoons – a good thing they’re all so pretty, you never get tired of visiting them – but also offered some diversity throughout the day as we made our way through new parts of the Andes. It’s actually incredible how the mountains looked completely different everywhere we went, even though the places were hardly far apart.
First off today were the Arboles Piedras, the fossilized trees in the Desierto de Siloli. From here, we also had a great view of some of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. After this, we came to a canyon that we drove through for quite some time. As it was such a beautiful place, Dieter let us get out of the car and walk for a bit, while he drove on to wait for us further down. Quite a lot further down, as it turned out. When we finally reached the car, Marisol handed out some snacks and we ate them outside, curiously watched by some wild wachakas hoping for scraps. They actually came almost all the way up and tried to steal food!
The daily dose of lagoons took place around midday. After seeing Laguna Honda and Laguna Chiar Kkota, we arrived at Laguna Cañapa where we had our lunch break. Of course, there was still plenty of time to explore before and after the meal. Besides lots of flamingoes, we also spotted many vicuñas around.
The afternoon was spent at a lookout to see the Ollague-Volcano and driving through the Salar de Chiguana. It’s another big salt flat, though not as large or famous as the Salar de Uyuni. The long drive was interrupted by photo stops, including one at the old railway crossing the Salar.
Our final accommodation on this tour was situated at the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, of which we already got some glimpses during the drive. However, we wouldn’t enter it until tomorrow. Until then, we enjoyed the comfort of the salt hotel we were staying in, which did not only look way nicer than any of the previous places, it actually had hot showers!
Day 4: Salar de Uyuni
This last morning saw us getting up way earlier than the other days. In order to see the sunrise in the salt flats, we needed to be on the road by 5 am. The one-hour drive through the Salar was quite atmospheric. A lot of it was flooded, but you could only guess at the extent of it in the darkness. I have no idea how Dieter even knew where to go, but somehow he seemed to manage just fine. The first strands of light started to appear on the horizon while we were still on the way. It was just beautiful.
We reached the Isla de Incahuasi shortly before the sun actually came up. Thus, we got to watch this spectacle from the top of the island, between its many cacti. We could overlook the vast salt flats around us while they slowly light up. Only once the sun was up, and we had all taken our share of sunrise pictures, we returned to the car. Breakfast was waiting!
The mandatory Salar photo shoot
Thus strengthened, we headed out into the salt flats to do what every visitor here does: take funny pics playing with the perspective. For that, we simply stopped somewhere in the middle of the Salar, out of sight of any other car, and started our photo shoot. There was no time limit other than using up all our creative ideas. While we hadn’t brought any specific props with us, anything that could be turned into a funny motive on the spot was used – from books to bottles, to shoes. I can still see us all hopping around the Salar in our socks.
Unfortunately, I committed one big mistake during this photo shoot. Or two, depending on how you look at it. A lot of the pics, especially the group photos, were taken on Nicolas’ camera. And while he promised to send them to me, that never happened. I don’t know if I gave him a wrong number, or if there was another reason, but either way, the result is I only have a small number of the pictures taken that day. Which upsets me all over again everytime I think about this.
So, Nicolas, Justine and Margot, for the unlikely case that you are reading this (or anyone who knows you), please please please get in contact. I’d really love those pics. For all you others (and myself, from now on), remember to make absolutely and entirely sure you give out and receive the correct contact information if someone else takes a picture of you. Double and triple check. You’ll just beat yourself up afterwards if you don’t. Trust me, I know.
Wrapping up the day and the tour
When we had finally taken all the pictures we could possibly think off, we stopped by a few other attractions within the Salar de Uyuni. Namely the first ever Hotel de Sal now turned into a museum and the Flags of many Nations and Monument al Dakar that are both next to it.
After that, it was time to say goodbye to the Salar and head into the town of Uyuni. Here, we had one last stop at the Cementerio de Trens, or Railroad Museum, that exhibits old trains. Quite frankly, after the sights of the last three-and-a-half-days, it didn’t impress any of us much. Neither did the town itself where we had one last lunch together. Maybe it was just the knowledge that now we would have to part and finally leave these great days behind us.
Nicolas, Justine and Margot ended the tour in Uyuni. I drove back to Tupiza with Dieter and Marisol, this time on the direct route that only takes a couple of hours. It gave me a chance to mentally unwind after all these adventures. But frankly, I could have toured on much longer!
Have you toured Southern Bolivia? What were your highlights? Care to share your silliest Uyuni picture? Or, if you haven’t visited yet, what would you most look forward to? Share in the comments!