South Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni

South Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni

After 10 great days in hot Argentina, we are leaving its wineyards and good vibe for an adventure in south Bolivia, more specifically the salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt lake in the world.

Our original plan was to start the tour in San Pedro the Atacama in Chile. Unfortunately, the prices for buses and the accommodation were really too high as well as the tours to go to Uyuni. We are in the highest season right now in Chile and prices double, sometimes triples.

The alternative has been to start the tour for Uyuni from Tupiza, a town in south Bolivia, 8 hours away from Salta. Crossing the border between Argentina and Bolivia has been quite a easy but a bit long. We had first to take a bus from Salta to La Quiaca, walk to the border, wait in line for maybe an hour or so and then walk to the “bus terminal” which is a bit of joke. We finally took another bus for 3 hours to go to Tupiza. The one thing to be careful at the border, is to make sure to visit both windows as no one in the Bolivian border is checking to see if your passport has been well stamped to enter the country.

Once in Tupiza, we stayed at the Hotel Mitru, the most recommended hotel in the town. It’s cheap, clean, has a great breakfast and even a pool. Definitely worth the money. Another great thing staying there is that there is a travel agency called Tupiza Tours at the bottom of the hotel which was also the most recommended one. There are tons of tour companies around but with a lot of issues and hard to trust.
The agency has 3 or 4 day tours with 4×4 cars. The most common is the 3 nights, 4 days tour with a lot to see on the way. We actually were better off by starting in Tupiza instead of San Pedro as the prices with Tupiza Tours were cheaper and the content of the tour much better in term of scenery and visits. So the program looked indeed exciting as we were going to see volcanoes, lagoons, a lot of wild life, typical villages, geysers, the Salar the Uyuni and more ! 🙂

Day one: rain, sun and mug

The tour started promptly at 8 AM. We were paired with another couple from Australia who were super nice and enjoyable to spend the time with in the car. Well installed in our 4×4 with cameras ready, the course of the trip for this first day has been actually very intense and also very remote. The first hours we mainly went through valleys and never ending fields full of cute lamas :-).
We made a first stop for lunch in the nowhere along with another 4×4. For security reason and in case of issues, the 4×4 must drive in pairs. In the other truck, there was a family from Denmark who were extremely nice and happy all of the time. Such long tours are definitely more enjoyable when surrounded by great people!
In our car we had also a cook that would prepare our breakfast, lunch and dinners. In 4 days, we have eaten incredible food prepared with few material. We had almost the impression that she had magical powers. Well, anyway our cook has been great, and her food delicious 🙂

So during this first long day (almost 11 hours of travel), we visited some beautiful valleys with colorful rocks called Palala or el Sillar, a couple of small towns including a ghost town and its ruins, a lagoon, to finally arrive at our basic accommodation in Quetana Chico. In those 11 hours, we experienced all types of weather, from sun to rain, then hail, snow and sun again. The weather was the most unpredictable we have ever experienced, which made the trip more adventurous, as our driver and guide Idel said. Luckily our driver was very experienced and went through deep mud quite easily. All of the roads are actually dirt roads which with rain and snow, make muddy puddles and slippery roads. This is the reason why an experienced driver and a 4×4 is required.
Another tricky part for us, at the beginning, was the altitude.. In just 1 day we went up to 4,300 meters high, which gets harder to breathe and give some headaches. Good thing in Bolivia, Coca leaves are grown and are the best medicine for the altitude. Our driver would eat them all day long by placing one leave at the time on one side of the cheek, and he would then suck the juices of the leaves. We tried it and it was not that bad and kind of helpful to fight the altitude. After a long day, we were happy to get to our basic accommodation. Basic because there is no shower, and not much running water but tired as we were, it has been quite easily to fall asleep. 🙂

Day Two: A day full of color

We woke up early and were on the road by 7:30 AM. Even though we complained of how early we had to get up, we were happy at the end because we could beat the crowd and enjoy more of the trip.
This second day was particularly our favorite one as we were able to visit some aguas calientes or “hot springs”.Once in the car, well seated with our Australian friends telling us stories about their life, we went off to visit some interesting lagoons. One of them, lagoon Hedionda Sur, was unique as it has some mineral compounds that is used as natural detergent. From washing clothes, to washing the hair, this natural detergent was great for many uses. We visited other lagoons with flamingos in it, surrounded by the volcano Ulturuncu . The pictures can only describe the beauty of the place. It was simply incredible.
After another 20 minutes ride, we ended up at the hot springs. What a great time, the water was warm enough to relax completely. We were only allowed to spend no more than 20 minutes in it as it has high contents of different minerals which can drain your energy and give you headaches. After 15 minutes, we definitely felt the effect of that so we quickly got out.
The views around the hot springs were, again, incredible to say the least. We could observe some more flamingos around and the volcano Licancabur in the far distance.
After a good lunch, the driver took us to see Laguna Verde or green lagoon and Laguna Blanca or white lagoon. They are unique lagoons for the different minerals they contain. The sun and the wind makes them even more colorful.
A couple of pictures later and a big “wow” effect, we headed over the Deli desert, where we drove by to get to the Geisers Sol de Mañana. This area is characterized by intense volcanic activity and sulfur springs fields, dull of muddy lakes and steam pools with boiling mud. The high content of sulfur doesn’t make it the most enjoyable air to breathe but amaze by the smoke and boiling water in the holes. The temperatures reach 80 to 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 Fahrenheit). We were super excited to see a natural phenomena right in front of us. It was simply breathtaking.
After such an experience, we went to drop off our bags in the hostel in Huaylljara to then drive to Laguna Colorada.
This colorful lagoon has been also one of the highlight of the trip. We could observe a pink lake which is the habitat for thousands of flamingos. But why pink?
The lake contains some borax, whose white color contrasts with the reddish color of the water, which is caused by red sediments and pigmentation of some algae. Three different types of flamingos live there, and they enjoy very much eating those algae. We spent a good hour going around and enjoying the beautiful views on the lake and flamingos flying by, eating and resting. We simply felt a huge peace inside of us being there. The place must be the best place for meditation due this peacefulness and quietness.
A second day full of magic and incredible scenery. We cannot believe that Bolivia has such hidden gem inside its valleys and remote area.
After a great day, we rested at our basic hostel along with the Australian couple and the Danish family, Martin, Martha and Oskar. We played a little game of soccer which lasted 5 minutes as the altitude of over 4,300 meters high wouldn’t let us breathe. 😉

Day Three: Finally getting closed to the Salar 🙂

Another resting but short night. After a good breakfast, we were all ready to go visit 5 different lagoons ! 
We stopped by the 3 largest lagoons which were all beautiful. Colors change with the wind. Also the numerous flamingos make the scenery even nicer. We could also observe lamas and vicuñas, all so cute that we could have brought one with us !
On the way to another lagoon, we stopped by giant rocks with one having the shape of a tree and a turtle. It is quite impressive and fun to climb all these rocks up. We also got together with other cars belonging to Tupiza tours and chatted a bit with the people. The weather was nice and warm, it was really a good morning.
We had lunch not too far from those rocks to then keep driving towards Uyuni town. The standard schedule is actually to drive through the Salar but at this period of the year it was not possible. The Salar has too much water that didn’t allowed for the 4×4 to pass by.
We did a small detour to visit the village of San Cristobal. The nearby mines are extracting silver, lead and zinc. The mines allow to produce approximately 1,300 metric tons of zinc and silver which give work to a large group of Bolivians. Bolivia is known to be the world’s sixth-largest producer of zinc and third-largest producer of silver with Potosi an other cities. (Source: Wikipedia)
We finally got to Uyuni in late afternoon after having visited its antique train cemetery. It is nowadays not used anymore but the trains served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific ocean ports.
After couple of cool pictures, we took possession of our room in a hotel made out of salt ! Really. It was the first time that we slept in a place with only salt around us. Well. We didn’t stay up long as the day after was the big day: the visit of the Salar and the sunrise at 05:30. Good night !

4th and last day: The giant and beautiful Salar de Uyuni

We must say that we have a small broken hearth knowing it is the last day of the tour. We bonded very well with the group and felt like a big family at the end.
Well, it is actually the good time to take pictures as memories as the Salar give an impressive view and perspective.
We entered the Salar at around 05:15 in the morning to wait for the sun to come up. Unfortunately, it was a bit rainy and could not see the sun rising. Waiting for the rain to end, we had breakfast right inside a salt hotel that is not in used anymore but practical for picnics. Our cook was again the best comparing with the breakfasts from other companies as we had cereals, yogurt and a homemade cake ! 🙂 We are really going to miss her wonderful dishes..!
After an hour, the sun came out miraculously letting place to a majestic scenery. We could observe the Salar giving different shades of colors.
The Salar was actually formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The large area and the exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for amazing pictures and special effects.

We ended this trip happy and full of memories. It is really a thing to see once in a life time. We could have never imagined to have seen such beautiful scenery in a such short period of time. Bolivia surprised us considerably and we will stick in the country for some more time for sure. We left our dear Australian couple and Danish family for more adventure towards Potosi, the highest city in the world as well as Sucre, one of the most beautiful cities in Bolivia.

Hasta pronto amigos !

Useful information:

Tour around Uyuni and the salar: Tupiza tours, starting in Tupiza, $180 dollars for 4 days, all included

Equipment to take for the tour: Sleeping bag, warm jacket, wolly hat, trekking shoes and pants, toilet paper, money in cash, good camera and a lot of sun cream.