One of the best things about South America is that you never know what to expect next. The landscapes, people, and culture are anything but monotonous. Our four-day 4WD tour from Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia was a perfect example of this. I’ve never experienced such a diversity of sights.
Bienvenido a Bolivia!
We had an extremely easy border crossing from Argentina to Villazon, Bolivia. Bolivia requires residents of the U.S. to pay $135 USD for a Visa in order to enter the country for any length of time. Even so, it was still one of the simplest and quickest border crossings we’ve experienced. We didn’t need a signed itinerary or statements of bank accounts or credit card copies like we had heard (requirements may vary depending on the border location). Our friend Justin was sick (probably from the elevation) and he didn’t even have to stand at the immigration desk.
The border crossing into Bolivia was a breeze but our cab ride from the border to Tupiza was a nightmare. We took a shared taxi for over an hour. It was a station wagon with eight people, a baby, all of our backpacks and other belongings, and a huge sack of potatoes on the roof. Our extremely rude driver kept trying to increase the price on us. While speeding down the curvy mountain roads, our driver dozed off and Justin had to wake him up. He drove on the wrong side of the road and tried various times to pass a large truck and bus on a blind curve.
Our initial Bolivia experience improved from there. This country is so inexpensive! It was a huge relief after our time in Brazil and Argentina. All five of us (we met up with Ashley & Justin’s friend Eric in Tupiza) ate large dinners, appetizers, and beers for the equivalent of $30 USD! Our hostel in Tupiza was $6 per person.
The area of Tupiza looks like the Wild West. The region is known for being the place where American Outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance kid were shot and killed. With a free evening before our Salt Flats tour, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to horseback ride. It was only about $4 USD per hour to ride. The company didn’t offer helmets (even at the request of the riders) but they did supply us with leather gaucho (cowboy) hats. We spent four hours riding through spectacular scenery such as colorful rock walls and cacti. My horse was super slow and kept stopping to eat. Bryan’s horse was stubborn, feisty, and wouldn’t stop farting. They seemed to do a good job matching the horses to the riders.
4-Days in the Bolivian Wilderness
The most popular thing to do when traveling through Bolivia is a Salt Flats Tour. There are several different options depending on which direction you want to go and the length of the tour. We chose the four day, three night tour from Tupiza to Uyuni. We heard a few horror stories from other travelers about being left by their drivers in the middle of nowhere or drivers bribing the travelers for money. Ashley did some research and we decided to go with a highly recommended agency called “Las Torres Tours.” They were even cheaper than the other agencies we looked into.
The five of us, the driver, the cook, and all of our belongings piled into a Toyota Land Cruiser. The first day was mountainous with incredible views of the desert and canyons. Bryan and I were scrunched in the very back seat and were feeling a little rough with the curvy roads and high elevation. We reached an elevation of over 14,000 feet and came to ruins from the old town of Fantasmo. It was a Bolivian gold and silver mining town from the 1600’s that was conquered by the Spanish. As we pulled up, it was snowing, hailing, thundering and lightning. There were vizcachas (closely related to chinchillas) running and jumping around the ruins. I had chinchillas as pets when I was a teenager so I’ve been waiting to see the wild chinchillas in the Andes. These vizcachas were much larger and super fast. It took Bryan awhile to get a photo of one. We passed through tiny towns with mud-brick homes. The people in the town are nearly all llama farmers. Llama wool is popular for making a variety of clothing and people eat llama meat. 🙁 There were thousands and thousands of llamas along the way. They are marked with colorful yarn and sometimes pom-poms on their ears.
I’ve always associated flamingos with warm places like Florida and the Caribbean. The second day on our tour we came across several lagoons with flocks of flamingos. It was strange to see flamingos with snow-capped mountains and volcanoes in the background. The volcanoes heat some of the nearby water so we were able to take a dip in some hot springs. The water felt awesome – like a natural hot tub in the middle of nowhere. The volcanoes also cause large sulfur geysers of bubbling mud. They smelled terrible (like rotten eggs). It probably isn’t the safest thing to let a bunch of tourists run around the geysers. We could hear where new geysers were about to break through the ground. That evening we spent the night near Lago Colorado. The enormous lagoon is bright red from the algae and filled with thousands of pink, black, and white flamingos. The red lagoon is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes. Even though the lodging was extremely basic (and when I say basic, I mean kind of gross), you couldn’t beat the view!
The third day was filled with lagoon after lagoon of various colors ranging from white to blackish. The entire way we passed rocks of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some rocks were precariously stacked on top of one another. There was a famous rock called the Arbol de Piedra that’s shaped like a tree. I’m not sure how it stays up. We ended the day in the Train Graveyard right outside of Uyuni. The old, rusty locomotives were Bolivia’s first trains. They are a popular hang out spot now, and some of the pieces have been made into playground equipment like swings and see-saws.
Our final day started with one of my favorite things – waking up at the crack of dawn. YEAH RIGHT! We woke up at 4:45 a.m. It was still dark and freezing cold. We bundled up and piled into the Land Cruiser to catch the sunrise over the Salt Flats. We had breakfast at a table of salt and sat on salt chairs in the Salt Hotel. Tours usually include a night stay in the Salt Hotel but it’s currently closed to overnight guests for ecological reasons. After breakfast, we spent hours taking pictures in the Salt Flats. We had a blast thinking of ridiculous poses. Our props came in handy, especially Roar-naldo the giant dinosaur who chased us across the Salt Flats. Our driver finally had to make us leave to go eat lunch. Make sure to wear sunscreen and sunglasses on the salt flats. The 4,086 square miles of bright white sand are blinding when the sun is shining.
It might seem boring to spend four days in a vehicle. It was anything but dull though. Thanks to our great group of traveling buddies and an extremely professional driver and cook, this tour has been one of the many highlights of our trip. We stopped several times a day and we never were quite sure what to expect. I always fall asleep in the car but even I stayed awake the whole time because I didn’t want to miss anything. Passing through the gorgeous, ever-changing landscapes and seeing the local people and animals was great entertainment. I just hope that tourists respect the land so that Bolivia remains so beautiful. It was frustrating to see toilet paper and other trash strewn all over the areas we stopped. I just don’t understand what’s wrong with some people.
Our next stop will be Potosi, Bolivia where I will be facing my fears of being in tight, dark spaces. I’m getting nervous already. Stay tuned to see whether I can stand up to the challenge!