The Southern Altiplano of Bolivia is unquestionably one of the coolest places in the world to visit. The landscapes are otherworldly and will leave your jaw on the floor of your 4×4. You can’t imagine you are on planet Earth let alone in Bolivia. The Salar de Uyuni is what brought me back to Bolivia seven years after the first time I was there. It had always eaten at me that I didn’t get to visit it the last time because I was rushed to get to Machu Picchu. However, what I discovered on my epic three day circuit tour of Southwestern Bolivia is that there is so much more to this wonderful little Andean country. The world’s largest and truly awesome salt flats are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attractions in Southern Bolivia and I cannot recommend a trip more than this. It is one of the world’s great places to visit and a mesmerizing sight to behold.
I booked my trip through the Adventure Brew Hostel in La Paz with Tunupa Tours out of Uyuni. I want to give one of my readers, Kyle, a big thanks for his recommendations as they were spot on. After a 12 hour overnight bus ride, I arrived in Uyuni which is a cool little transient town of hippies, locals and backpackers to meet my tour group (below).
My group consisted of me, an American girl, two Brazilian guys and two Aussie girls. We really had an awesome group which in these types of situations makes the experience even better. I was excited to get started and then we met our guide Juan who I quickly became great friends with. He called me Amigo Lee or DJ Lee because I always sat in the front seat in the Land Cruiser and was in charge of the iPod selections. I was also the group translator which was fun for me. The Brazilian guys spoke pretty good Spanish and I translated for the girls from them and Juan. The Brazilians, Juan and I talked soccer or football all day in the car and it was awesome. We were ready to get started.
The first stop was a train cemetery (above) which I had seen pictures of and looked pretty cool. It really was pretty cool and we had a fun time playing on the extinct, if you will, trains and jumping and playing on them. It was a fun little stop and we got some good pictures. Afterwards we hit some supply stops for food and water and of course the usual souvenir stop at some little village selling all the same crap they sell everywhere in Bolivia…and Peru for that matter!
Next we headed for the Salar de Uyuni. I could hardly contain my excitement as this was the reason I came down here in the first place. We arrived to a vast white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable. It was just you, the white ground and bluest blue sky you have ever seen at about 3700 meters. It was truly mesmerizing. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was more awesome than I could’ve imagined and the best part of the whole experience was watching everyone from all the 4×4’s get out and take their crazy photos and have a great time. It was a big party.
Brazilians were wrapping themselves in the Brazilian flag and taking wild photos, some with clothes, some without. It is important to note that crazy photos are the norm here and everyone does jumping pictures, coming out of a banana, standing on a spoon or finger, crazy sexual type poses or whatever you can think of…anything really goes. The whole thing as I said is a big party. Some of the groups get drunk all day which I think is madness because then you’ll miss a lot of good stuff or have to pee all day but nonetheless everyone has a great time!
One time, one of the Bolivian guides/drivers drove into a mud pit for no apparent reason (it is Bolivia after all). Whilst all the guides stopped the trucks to help the other guy get his car out, a total dance party erupted from the back of one Land Cruiser from an iPod playing 1960’s dance hits like Chubby Checker to Diana Ross. It was amazing to see and after a while everyone joined in. It was 8am, everyone was drinking beer, dancing and having a blast. It was a microcosm of the theme of the trip…fun!
After picture taking at the expansive salt flats you stop at the original salt hotel (above) which is completely made of salt as it sounds-you can even lick the walls which I would do later. It is now essentially a museum in the middle of the flats but serves as another great place for pictures and day trips have lunch there…just be careful where you pee (below)! Afterwards we headed for Isla Incahuasi for lunch and some of the most amazing scenery you have ever seen.
This hilly and dusty outpost is covered in trichoreus cactus (below) and surrounded by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles (below). It was once the largest oasis in the salt flats but since the advent of the salt flat tours, it has turned into tourist central, which is both good and bad. It’s bad because there are a lot of people but it’s good because it creates a very festive atmosphere and everyone is just having a great time in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
There are trails up to the top of the island and has unreal panoramic views of nothing. I mean miles and miles and miles of absolutely white nothing. Words and pictures cannot describe the immensity of the nothing (like the Neverending Story). It is something that simply needs to be seen to be believed.
That night after several hours of driving through amazing nothing we spent the night at a salt hotel and had a great night. Groups were tabled off and we really got to know each other and hang out. Wine and beer was available and they had a pool table. The shower was another story where you had to wait in line for a slow drip from the faucet but it was worth it after a long bus ride and driving all day. The accommodations were much better than I expected and we were up at 6am to start the next day of the tour.
The second day consisted of some amazing sights. Rather than bore everyone with a detailed description of every little stop we made, the day was highlighted by stops at the arbol de piedra which was a really cool natural rock formation and the incomparable multicolored Laguna Colorada. In addition, we saw several other fantastic Lagunas, which featured a lot of natural wildlife such as llamas, alpacas and strangely flamingos (below)-three different types to be exact at about 15,000 feet.
The day ended at a small and dumpy little hostel type thing with communal dorm style sleeping but it brought together many groups from many different 4×4’s and it turned out to be an epic night of singing, chatting and making new friends. It was one of those nights where things were perfect and it is the real reason you travel. It was one of the nights you dream of when you’re sitting at work miserable and wishing you could do something fun like this. It was awesome.
The main countries represented at the hostel were Argentina and Brazil. Spanish was the language of the night and additionally there were two Danes, Myself, the two Aussies and a French girl. There was a harmonica where this really cool Argentine dude was playing duets with my Brazilian friend who was a great singer and guitarist.
As the night went on and the Bolivian wine flowed (who knew Bolivia produced wine!), we merged tables and had one giant table of about 25 people. It was suggested that everyone introduce themselves, say where they are from and then lead a song from your country. I was the second to go and as the only American and a New Yorker, I was forced to lead a rendition of New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. As the only one who actually knew the words I was the only one singing until the chorus when everyone erupted into New York, New York…it was really awesome. Another favorite that was sung was La Bamba.
It’s hard to remember and write about all the awesome things that happened that night but laughter, wine and song filled the air in the middle of nowhere. Nobody knew each other but everyone came together and it was a great International flavor. Even my two favorite dirty Aussies (dirty because they hadn’t showered in four days and were totally cool with it) had a blast and were awesome. Even if I did call one of them the equivalent of a small furry rodent that runs on a wheel and rhymes with Tamster (private joke but it was pretty funny). Then off to bed we were for a 4am wake up call.
It’s worth noting by the way, that the stars and the sky in the middle of the Bolivian nowhere is amazing. It may well be the best sky I’ve ever seen, which was previously a tie between the Aussie Outback and Kruger Park in South Africa. I was unable to pull my eyes away as I saw countless shooting stars, planets and constellations. The only problem was it was cold as all hell at night (well below zero) at 15,000 feet and the wind was at about 60mph.
Day three consisted of stops at some awesome natural geysers at about 16,000 feet (above cold as hell) then to some natural hot springs which some people actually went in at 7am. It was so cold when we arrived that only one of the Brazilian guys from our car elected to go into the springs where the only people in were Brazilians…go figure! The rest of us had some pancakes that Juan made and enjoyed the relative warmth of being dry.
The last stop was at Laguna Verde which means green lagoon as it sounds. It was really awesome and a time for me to sort of take in the magnitude of the amazing experience I just had. I sat atop the cliff overlooking the lagoon for a while (above) and just thought about how lucky I am and how much fun I just had. We then headed off to the Chilean border for my transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. After some hearty good byes, including Juan who shed a tear, I headed off to check out the Atacama Desert which is where I am now.
The Southern Altiplano is one of the world’s great road trips and a must for any traveler. All of which I just described including food, accommodation, transportation, etc cost only $100 for three days. The way I figure it, it’s the greatest travel bargain in the world. An amazing time for a cheap price…what else can you ask for? If you’ve never thought about doing this trip, think about it. If you’ve been wanting to go, then go. It is an amazing place and will leave you breathless and coming from someone that’s been nearly everywhere and seen and done nearly everything, I hope that means something for how awesome this trip was. I don’t gush about things often so check it out. I hope everyone can get there sometime, it will leave a mark.
Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano
January 17, 2011 by 11 Comments