Bolivia’s Salt Flats: One Wild Ride The Wrong Way Round (Part 1)

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We spent four days in a jeep driving through the wildest, most remote and stunning scenery we have ever experienced. We passed blue, green, red and white mineral lakes; multi-hued volcanoes; vast desert; llamas, vicuñas, and flamingos; and of course the famous, immense Salar de Uyuni: the world’s largest salt flats. All of this was in a harsh, almost uninhabited environment at altitudes of between 4000 and 5000 metres (13,000 – 16,000 feet).

The Salt Flats tour is one of the most popular attractions in Bolivia but most people just do a two or three day tour from Uyuni. We had many recommendations of a quieter alternative: a four day, 1000km trip from Tupiza to Uyuni. During this Southwest Circuit you get an extra day of beautiful scenery, avoid the crowds for most of the way and the Tupiza tour operators are much more reputable.

The journey isn’t easy – temperatures drop below freezing and you stay in very basic accommodation without heating or showers. You spend up to 11 hours a day in the jeep along bumpy, rocky, rough roads. It’s absolutely worth it though for the opportunity to see such an incredible landscape. The Salt Flats themselves are actually just one part of the tour, visited on the last day, but the rest of the journey is just as beautiful and very diverse.

Here’s what you can expect from the four day tour.

DAY 1: Tupiza – San Antonio de Lipez 9am – 4.30pm.

Canyon scenery outside of Tupiza

As soon as we left Tupiza the incredible scenery began – this is Wild West country and we passed impressive red rock formations. The jeep stopped often to let us soak up the views and take photos. Often our guide would let us walk ahead and meet us further along. A sandwich lunch was eaten in a field of llamas.

Eating lunch in a field of llamas

In the afternoon the landscape became bleaker and wilder – only shrubs and brown hills broke up the desolate desert. Someone said it reminded them of Mongolia. We stopped at a remote village of mud huts, but there were very few people or vehicles around, except for the four jeeps that left from Tupiza for the tour.

We stayed the night at the tiny village of San Antonio de Lipez, at 4200 metres. The dormitory style accommodation was basic as expected, and I was cold despite wearing all my clothes. The vegetable soup and pasta for dinner helped to warm us up, but we were in bed at 8.30pm before the electricity went out. In a sleeping bag and under thick blankets the cold was bearable, but the altitude took its toll– I found it hard to breathe and difficult to sleep.

Basic accommodation on 1st night.

DAY 2: San Antonio de Lipez – Huayllajara 6am – 5pm

Being woken at 5.30am in the dark and cold after a restless night wasn’t fun. We ate a simple breakfast by candlelight (the power wasn’t on yet) and hit the road. The first stop of the day was at the Puebla Fantasma – a ghost village that was occupied by miners in the 17th century until the gold ran out and the miners disappeared. People later tried to settle in the village but were scared away by the ghosts. We wandered around the ruins as the sun rose, and didn’t come across any ghosts but we were happy to see visachas, an endangered rabbit-like animal related to the chinchilla.

A visacha in Puebla Fantasma, Bolivia

The rest of the day was spent in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa passing multi-coloured mineral lakes, and volcanoes in watercolour shades. We reached the Termas de Polques by lunchtime and the brave took a dip in the hot springs. The setting amongst the bubbling geothermal lake is stunning, but I couldn’t face removing my seven layers of clothes. Simon was hardier and enjoyed a relaxing warm soak, and apparently it wasn’t that bad when he got out in the chilly wind.

Simon soaking in hot springs

This was the first time we came across lots of other jeeps as we crossed paths with the tours from Uyuni. The hot springs have a restaurant where the cooks for each group rustle up a hot lunch – pasta, boiled vegetables, salad, fritatta and fried aubergine for us. We always had far too much food, and it was supplemented by chocolate bars and lollipops during the day.

After a leisurely lunch we continued towards the Chilean border past the Desierto de Dali – random piles of rocks in a sandy desert backed by red mountains, and Laguna Blanca (White Lake) to Laguna Verde (Green Lake). The turquoise blue lake is coloured by poisonous arsenic, and situated underneath the perfectly shaped volcano Licancabur. There was an icy wind at 4400m so our stop was short.

Laguna Verde

Most of the day was at very high altitude – the highest being the bubbling geysers of Sol de Mañana at 5000m. All day we passed unbelievably wild, bleak landscapes – some were lunar-like, all were other-worldly. It’s a long and tiring day but an amazing experience.

We spent the night at Huayllajara, a small settlement purely for tourists in this inhabitable desert at 4300m. Again, the accommodation is very cold and basic, and we were huddled in bed not long after dinner.  Another difficult night at altitude – even turning over in bed made me breathless and when sleep did come it was filled with crazy dreams.

Continue reading about Days 3 & 4 of our Southwest Circuit Tour, including the big attraction the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats).

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