I guess you’ve seen them already. The pictures. Blinding white landscapes as far as the eye can reach. Octangular shapes, endlessly repeated until they disappear in the horizon. A dinosaur chasing 4 terrified people. Some warmly clad humans entering a packet of chips. The Salt flats in Uyuni have been the adult playground of travelers and backpackers since year and day. It won’t surprise you then to say some places can be quite ‘busy’. Hurdes of tours groups doing the same route, day in day out, and hey, why not? It’s worth the view after all. Not only to take those funny riding-a-giant-llama photos or carry yourself to the top of Insla Incahuasi to be the first to see the sunrise over that huge sea of salt. Actually, it’s the road towards the world’s most famous Salt Flats that let me fall completely and hopelessly in love with Bolivia.
Most tours – Yep, you need to take a tour. High altitude and no real ‘villages’ with a constant food and water supply means it is not recommended to DIY in the area. You’ll probably get lost too. – start in Uyuni, let you discover the Salt Flats on the first day and continue the next day and a half through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – quite the mouthfull – with hot springs, geysers, lakes at high altitude and tons of flamingos. All tours will stop at the same points, which means that the chances on having a bit of alone time with Mother Nature will be close to zero. Yes, I know, Bolivia is a country not yet on the masstourism radar, but places like this are well known and, well, basically everybody visiting Bolivia wants to go and see the Salt Flats in Uyuni. Bummer. Or not?
WILD WILD WEST VIBES IN TUPIZA
Doing my research, I stumbled upon an alternative. The city of Tupiza, a.k.a. The Wild Wild West of Bolivia, is another startpoint for tours to the Salt Flats. Even more, they have an extra day included in the tour, making it a 3 nights 4 days instead of the standard 2 nights 3 days trips leaving from Uyuni. The tour itself is a bit more expensive, since you pay for one day extra driving, the guide, food and a night extra. You’ll visit a part of Los Lipez and the Pueblo Fantasma – a deserted mine village at 4690m altitude – which is not included in the tours running from Uyuni. The biggest advantage for me, however, is the route: you visit the most famous sites on different times than the fleet of 4X4’s coming from the opposite direction. Less people is always the better option in my opinion, one of the main reasons why I decided to start the tour in Tupiza.
When in Tupiza, Lorena – the awesomest Colombian travelpartner, I met her in Sucre and we travelled together for about 2,5 weeks – and I went ‘tour-shopping’: we literally checked every tour agency in the area, asking the prices for the 4-day tour to Uyuni and what would be included. Be ready to negotiate, especially if you’re a bigger group and willing to book another tour: you might be able to get more bang for your bucks. In the end we got a nice deal at a small, independent tour operator: for 1275 BOB we had the 4day/3night tour from Tupiza to Uyuni and a 4×4 and Mountainbike tour through the beautiful red rock landscape surrounding Tupiza. If you know that every tour operator offered us the 4day/3night tour for at least 1200 BOB, we did get a nice offer. 1200 BOB is about 150€, knowing that one of the girls on our tour paid 200$/175€ only for the 4-day tour – which she booked online and took together with us – we knew we did the right thing.
First: our cycling adventure through the dusty red landscapes of Tupiza – only the second day we would be making our way to the world’s most famous Salt Flats -. Names as El Puente del Diablo. Valle de los Machos. Cañón del Inca. El Sillar. Places that don’t say much to you now, but watch the pictures and you’ll see the typical landscapes of Tupiza: dusty roads, dry red rocks, cacti all over and just. So. Many. Incredible. Views. We had a lot of fun taking pictures, mountainbiking down from El Sillar back to Tupiza – Of course, I was the slowest…didn’t like going too fast with the option making a free fall if I would miss one of the curves. Lorena however is a monster on the bike, she loved speeding down. –
Anyway, there are no reasons not to stay in Tupiza for a while, before you hop in the jeep to do your tour. There are plenty of things to do, sights to see and Tupiza town is way prettier than Uyuni itself!
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 1
Eight o’clock in the morning: our backpacks ready on the roof of our jeep, the bananas for breakfast still being chewed in our mouths and we had a small bag filled to the brim with food and snacks to for the four days inside our 4X4. We were more than ready to leave, only needed to wait for the cook and our two fellow travelers to arrive. Which they – obviously – did, one by one, on foot, with a backpack, as ready as Lorena and me where. Day 1 is the day with most of the driving: past the famous view of El Sillar, which we visited the day before with the bike, higher and higher up, until you might be happy to chew on a couple of coca leaves offered by your guide. The altiplano, vast and wide planes at high altitudes, llama’s and vicuñas chewing intensely at the side of the road. Lunch at a tiny village, almost solely catering to people on their way to Uyuni.
After noon, the landscapes became even more wild, more mountaineous, while we drove higher and higher, until we reached the ‘Pueblo Fantasma’ – the Ghost Village – in the Los Lipez area. The village is an old miner town, once used by the first Spanish settlers in colonial times to suppres the local community and exploit them working in the mines. At the height of 4690m altitude, only the walk to the village can leave you gasping for air. Imagine doing extremely heavy work, as a slave, in those circumstances… . Now long deserted, it became a rather eerie place. A real Ghost village. To shake away the negative spirits, we drove further, until we reached the highest point on our trip: Laguna Morijon, a stunning 4855m high. If I’ll need to write one thing: the landscapes are just incredible. I have no words to describe them, but I can still see them vividly when I close my eyes.
The day finished in Quetena Chico, a tiny village within the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, West Bolivia, close to the border with Chile. The guest house were we’d spend the night had three other groups located in there, all as tired and famished as us. After dinner, the whole lot went to bed as soon as possible, too tired of the past day.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 2
Our guide warned us the next day that we would be the first ones to leave Quetena Chico, so at 6h30 in the morning our Jeep was already on its way to our first stop: Laguna Hedionda. This day is by far my favorite, I still can’t get over the fact you can see that many breathtaking views in one single day.
Laguna Hedionda is a huge lake, consisting of Borax and different other minerals that give it a typical white with pink colour…imagine this in the soft morning light with a bunch of flamingos sleeping standing in the water. Magical views. As the other jeeps left later than us, we were completely alone and could enjoy our small walk around the lake to the fullest.
Stop number two and three were another lake filled with Borax and the Salar de Chalviri, a small salt flat, much less famous than the one we would see two days later. We passed Laguna Chalviri, were we would return to after the next stop.
Laguna Verde. According to our guide, the lake changes into the most intense green around 11 o’clock in the morning and no way we wanted to miss that. Incredibly beautiful, with the volcano Licancabur in the background and right at the frontier with Chile. Honestly, I can’t say anything else besides the landscapes seemingly being from another planet.
After a small stop in the desierto de Dali – Dali’s desert, only named because the landscape looks a lot like it could be painted by the famous artist…not that he ever visited the place. – we drove back to Laguna Chalviri, to warm up inside the hotsprings bordering the lake. With views on a bunch of wild vicuñas roaming the waterside. Could it get any better?
Apparently, yes. After lunch at the hotsprings, one stunning view after the other got followed by a visit to the badly reeking but fascinating Geotermas Sol de Mañana, geysers that left your clothes smelling like sulfur. Last highlight of the day, however, was the Laguna Colorada. You would say, after seeing that many lakes in one day, the last one wouldn’t really impress me anymore? Wrong at that. The lake is gigantic, with almost all colours of the rainbow, tons of flamingos living on the water and llama’s roaming the sides to get their daily amount of grass chewed away. Stunning. Breathtaking. Magical. I guess my English vocabulary isn’t enough to describe the natural beauty I’ve seen that day. For this Natural Reserve alone I would already take the tour again.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 3
After hot showers and a breakfast, the whole Jeep was ready to start part 3 of our trip. We left the Reserva and had again, another type of landscapes ahead of us. Volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes, llama’s and ostriches all over the place and a guide that liked to take all the pictures. I’m not really the one for posing too much, so I left my group and went to walk around a bit by myself, to join them later on when Lorena convinced me to take pictures at some natural windows in the rocks. With plenty of chinchilla’s, jumping fast when they saw us approaching. The whole day was lighthearted, with less dramatic landscapes and more laughs of having fun outside. Laguna Negro – another lake, yes, still different – surrounded by another canyon, proved nice to have a walk to the lake and try to count how many chinchilla’s were hidden on the rocks. We lost count. The Anaconda Canyon, with the river coiling like a snake through the landscape. A lovely pick nick outside.
The afternoon was one long ride towards our Salt Hotel at the side of our final destination, the Salar the Uyuni. One small stop at a village where the people solely lived from money made by salt extraction. With one tiny bar offering local quinoa / corn / potato beers. At 3 pm we finally reached the hotel, installed ourselves and had some time to relax after three hectic days on the road. Some of us slept a bit, some went to have a walk between the cacti and I just took some pictures and drank tea in the living room. Pure bliss for the introvert inside of me. Later on we celebrated our last evening with a huge lasagna and a bottle of wine between the four of us and our guide. Not too late however, we had to leave at 4 am in order to see the sun rise over the Salt Flats.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – THE DAY OF THE SALT FLATS – DAY 4
An early start, but what a start. We took off at 4.30 am and were affraid we would miss the sunrise: a slice of light was already visible at the horizon. A small stop in the middle of the vast Salt Flats was necessary so we could enjoy the starts before racing to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of cacti in the middle of the Salt Flats and by far the best spot to enjoy the sunrise. We arrived just on time and ran – well, the others ran a bit faster than me, I still wasn’t too good at exercising at that altitude – to the top. Besides us, another jeep with four Dutch girls arrived, so both our groups made it in time to see the sunrise. Silent. Peaceful. Until our peace got broken by another two, three groups, entering loudly and spreading out, trespassing the signs that indicated you to stay on the trail. NOT OK. – Please, if you are visiting Isla Incahuasi, stay on trail. No need to pass between the cacti, signs are there for a reason. To protect the area. Show some respect. – Gone was our peace, but still, it didn’t stop us to admire the views and enjoy the Salar de Uyuni, our final destination after spending 3 days together in a small jeep.
With the sun up and shining, the time had come to eat our breakfast and explore the Salar. We walked a good part on the salt flats until the otherside of the island, snapping pictures and enjoying to be there. In the spot. Our guide picked us up and sought a good spot for us to start taking the obligatory but not to be missed perspective pictures. Remember, the dinosaur eating humans and the four people walking into a bag of crisps? Yep, those pictures. We had so much fun, saw the sun rising higher and started shedding clothes the hotter it became. We had a blast. – Don’t forget to rub sunscreen on your face…mine got the tint of cooked lobster after two hours on the Salar. Not such a good idea… – Our time together in the jeep was slowly coming to an end. After a visit to the biggest Salt Hotel and the space where everybody planted his flag, we reached the other side of the Salt Flats, almost reaching the city of Uyuni. One more lunch break and a small visit to an arts&crafts market later, we visited the Cemeterio de Trenes. Our last stop. Which was according to Lorena and me a waste of time, with some rusty trains between a bunch of pastics of the nearby dump. We took some pictures, but were definitely underwhelmed after all the natural beauty we witnessed the past days. Bummer.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – WORTH THE EXTRA DAY / MONEY?
Hell yeah. I would do it again, in a heartbeat. Tupiza is a much nicer town to spend a couple of days in if you need to wait for people to fill up the jeep, with plenty of things to do and see. The Pueblo Fantasma is eerie, but interesting to see. The lack of other tour jeeps doing the same route – we only had three or four that we saw each day, mainly at different times and at the end of the day – garantuees you a less stressfull visit, with more time at each side and no people ruining your pictures. Overall, if you want to see the Salar de Uyuni, you have the time and you don’t want to miss out on some otherworldly landscapes on the way, take the route from Tupiza to Uyuni. You won’t regret it.