The four of us, James, Daniel, Jaqueline and myself got on the bus to Bolivia in the nick of time. We left Salta around 7AM and arrived at the Bolivia border in the afternoon. The bus dropped us off about a mile from the border where we were left with our belongings and were directed to walk the rest of the way. It began raining and was relatively cold upon arrival. I was able to sleep on the bus from being so tired from the night before, although it certainly didn’t alleviate my desire to get to the hostel and relax. Little did I know there would be some hoops to jump through first. We began walking and were accompanied with a girl from Australia, who had been on the same bus. She mentioned she wasn’t feeling well and had a tendency to get motion sickness while riding on buses. Oh boy. While we walked to the border she must have thrown up at least a half a dozen times, and it wasn’t a little bit. It was like she had drank a gallon of milk and then just let it loose. Projectile vomit of gallons of liquid, sometimes while walking, which was pretty impressive. Lovely picture isn’t it? To her credit, she was a real trooper. She didn’t complain, or cry, or anything.
We finally got to the border and were greeted with a line of about fifty people. I got the impression from my surroundings that the Bolivian’s weren’t too concerned with productivity, or the concept of time so I was prepared to wait for awhile. As the line moved at a snails pace, we made it to the window where we filled out our customs paperwork and got our passports stamped. Well, everyone except me of course, since I’m an American. I knew beforehand I would have to pay another $135 for a visa, but I did not know that they wouldn’t accept credit cards or currencies from other countries. I had some Argentina pesos on me, but they were no good. I was told by the customs officer to cross the border and find an ATM machine and then come back and pay so I could get my passport stamped. Alright, no problem. The others were used to waiting for me and my crossing borders shenanigans, so I told them I’d be right back and they watched my bags for me.
I walked through the border and I was now in Bolivia. I could either make a run for it and create a new life, never to be seen again, or find an ATM machine. The former sounded appealing, and probably would have been easier, but I decided to go the legal route. After walking around the 3rd world town for about fifteen minutes I finally came upon a cash dispenser. Surprise, surprise it didn’t work. I walked around a little longer and finally found one that did work. After I got my money it was determined that my bladder was about to explode. Rather than introduce myself to a new country by peeing on the street somewhere, which it looked like the locals weren’t too ashamed of doing, I ran to a cardboard sign that said “Baño”. I asked the attendant if I could use the facilities and she requested the sum of one Boliviano, which equates to about 14 cents. Fortunately, she took my Argentina pesos instead. After a nice relief, I walked back to the border, paid for my visa, and once again we were all on our way.
We walked through the town and I showed everyone where to get money at an ATM machine that did work, while I asked around for prices on a taxi to take us to the town of Tupiza. We found a guy who offered to take us for about $7 a piece, which I thought was a great deal since Tupiza was over an hour away. We loaded our belongings and sat and waited for the taxi driver to fill the other two seats in his van. An older Bolivian man joined us, as well as a Bolivian woman. At this point I could see why Bolivia is notorious for vehicle fatalities. They load every car or bus up with as many people as possible, there are no seat belts, the roads are treacherous, and the drivers are inclined to drink alcohol while driving. Not the best combination of factors, but to be fair my first experience wasn’t bad as we got their safely. The drive to Tupiza was uneventful and reminded me of driving through the midwest a little. Open, flat land went on for miles and miles in every direction.
We arrived in Tupiza and were dropped off in front of our hostel that was actually pretty nice by hostel standards. It was very clean with a pool outback, even though it was too cold to go in it, and a room with two beds for me and James. After dropping off our things James, Jacqueline, Daniel and I made arrangements for a four day tour from Tupiza to another town called Uyuni. I hadn’t heard much about the tour at this point, but was really excited to explore the backcountry of Bolivia. Our guide would show up the next day around 6AM, we would load up our things and get started. Sounds great! That night we walked around Tupiza in the blistering cold wind and had some dinner at a fantastic, cheap restaurant where we gorged ourselves to our heart’s content. While walking back to the hostel after dinner, we purchased a few necessities for our trip such as toilet paper and snacks from an old man in a shop with Playboy bunnies plastered all over the walls. Doing the same were a nice English couple by the name of Chris and Ellie, who we would see a few more times throughout Bolivia.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise to gather our things and eat some breakfast before the big excursion. Our guide showed up shortly after to introduce himself and the cook who would be accompanying us. Our guide, we’ll call him “Pedro” since I can’t remember his real name, was a short, quiet Bolivian fellow and our cook, we’ll call her “Maria” was a very pleasant younger Bolivian girl. I didn’t think they were a couple, but towards the end of the trip they became very friendly with each other. Everyone packed into the awesome early 90’s Toyota Landcruiser and we were on our way. The trip would take 4 days and encompass some of Bolivia’s finest scenery.
Our first stop shortly after we left Tupiza, and a lengthy uphill drive, was El Sillar. The view from the top was astonishing as we looked down on the jagged canyon below and the road we had just climbed up to get there. James and I were itching to get out of the truck since we had the back bench seat with about twelve inches of legroom. Not ideal for a four day bumpy ride, but humans have an incredible ability to adapt to less than ideal circumstances.
From there we drove on to Awanapampa, a large feasting area for the local llama herds. We were once again let out of the vehicle to take pictures and stretch our legs. I walked into the field to see how close I could get to one the llamas before he scurried off. Llamas are an integral part of life in Bolivia for there use to transport goods and also for clothing and food. It was so cold and windy, I just wanted to run up and tackle one of them for warmth. I was literally wearing about 60% of all the clothes I had and we would still be climbing higher in elevation. I knew that number would be closer to 100% of my clothes before the trip was over.
We continued further on until we reached a very small town, Cerillos, where we stopped for lunch. While lunch was being prepared I walked through the empty, dusty town, without a soul in sight. Finally, as if on queue, a little girl came walking down the road in her colorful Bolivian attire. With her, other villagers began showing themselves as I walked further on. Some were working on their adobe houses, and a few kids ran around chasing each other.
I walked back to eat lunch, and to be honest the food was one of my main concerns on this trip. Bolivians aren’t exactly known for their amazing cuisine, but it was delicious. Although, in my opinion it seemed to get progressively less appetizing through the rest of the four days. After lunch we hit the road again with Pedro’s mix of 80’s rock and Bolivian polka blasting out of the speakers. The next stop was San Antonio de Viejo, an old, abandoned, mining town from the 1500’s built by the Spanish conquistadors. There were broken down stone structures all over the place and the mountain that was mined overlooked the town. The town lies at 13,380 feet above sea level and the Spanish used slaves to do the mining. The general understanding of why the town was abandoned was because of the harsh weather and extreme altitude. Pedro however, told us the “real” story. Through Jacqueline’s translation, he told us the slaves were forced to live in the mine, working brutally long hours and never saw the light of day. Thousands of people died while slaving away for the silver and gold riches found inside. Then the devil spirits came and killed the Spanish who would not leave. To this day the town is still haunted and anyone who tries to inhabit it, will surely die. Not sure if I got the story completely right, but regardless the town would make an excellent location for a backpacker horror movie.
From San Antonio de Viejo we drove higher and higher until we reached the peak of the altiplano at Laguna Morejón with the snowcapped Volcán Uturuncu in the background. The serene landscape was the highest point we would visit that day at 16,000 feet above sea level. At that point I felt like I was in a picture. Everything was so calm and looked perfectly still even though the wind was blowing fiercely. It was just a flawless painting of nature and a special place to experience.
By that time the sun was beginning to set so we drove on to another small town, San Pablo de Lipéz, where we stayed for the night. Accommodations included a bed and a toilet. There was enough electricity from the generator to produce enough light for a couple of light bulbs until around 10PM, then it was time for bed. We sat around and ate dinner while talking with other people people who were on the same tour as us, just in different vehicles. A couple of people were quite obviously feeling the effects of the altitude, but for the most part it was a pretty merry group.
The next day we woke up for the sunrise and the freezing temperatures. We ate breakfast and once again loaded up the Landcruiser for the second leg of our trip. Jacqueline and Daniel kindly let James and I sit on the middle bench seat this time and compared to the back I felt like I was in a limousine with as much legroom as I could possibly want. For much of the morning we drove southwest up higher elevations until we reached the snow covered altiplano and Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde is a salt lake located on the Chilean border and at the foot of Volcán Licancabur. It has mineral deposits of arsenic, lead, magnesium, and calcium carbonate, which give give it a turquoise color. The icy winds were slapping against our faces and I contemplated jumping in, but the water is able to reach temperatures of -65 F without freezing due to it’s chemical composition. Needless to say it was a stunning sight.
After taking in the beauty of Laguna Verde it was time for lunch. We headed to Laguna Polques where there were several structures for the tourists to eat lunch as well as a concrete basin formed into the hot springs there. Most of the backpackers took a dip while the four us decided to sit this one out. It sounded nice after not having a shower for a couple of days, but the thought of jumping out of the hot springs into freezing winds didn’t sound appealing enough for me.
We drove on from there for a couple of hours up through the high desert and surrounding mountains to the Sol de Mañana geysers at an elevation of 16,400 feet. The geysers expanded as long as a football field and spewed the lovely scent of sulfur through the air. It was another surreal anomaly of nature. We were able to walk through the geysers and watch the mud bubble ferociously. It was a bit bizarre being able to be so close to these death traps, as one wrong step and you could probably count on your leg being incinerated, if not worse.
After getting enough of the rotten egg smell we moved on to the place we were staying for the night. The road decreased in elevation as we watched in front of us as Laguna Colorada grew larger. It looked very pleasant from miles away, so I could only imagine how impressive it would be right in front of me. I was anxious to get there, but first we had to drop off our stuff at our lodging for the night. After lightening our load we drove down to Laguna Colorada, where Pedro gave us an hour to walk around. Also known as the Red Lagoon, it is red because of red sediment and the pigmentation of the algae. Here is where we had our first flamingo sighting and is also known as one of the only places in the world where multiple species of flamingos coexist. The James’s flamingo are most prevalent, but one can also find Andean flamingos, and Chilean flamingos there. I walked around by myself for a little while taking pictures and having what I now call a “Fitz Roy moment”. I was completely speechless and in awe of what was presented before me. It was almost overwhelming being there at that moment and witnessing one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth. We continued walking around the lake for awhile, when it was time to head back. I could have stayed there for days, but that wasn’t part of the itinerary.
We drove back to our lodging as the sun was setting. That night we had dinner again with several other groups and talked about how great the day had been. The next morning we woke up again as the sun was rising, and prepared for the day with some breakfast. That day we did the most driving by far. We stopped a couple of times in the morning to look at some very interesting rock formations, as well as another lagoon with quite a few flamingos, but not nearly as impressive as our second day. For lunch we stopped by a hill with large boulders all over it. As we pulled up, all these little furry creatures came out to great us. They are called viscacha and looked like a chinchilla bred with a rabbit. These little guys were not shy at all, probably from having an endless amount of tours giving them food.
After lunch we drove for another few hours to Puerto Chuvica, a small town on the edge of the world famous salt flats, Salar de Uyuni. Here is where we would spend our last night of the trip in a house made completely of salt blocks. The floor of the place was salt rocks, the tables and chairs were made of salt and even the beds were made of salt blocks with a mattress on top. They also claimed to have a shower here, which all of us were in dire need of since we hadn’t had one in four days. The shower was a meager trickle of luke warm water and cost around $3, but was better then have nothing at all. Al of us showered, one at a time of course, and hurried to put clothes on before frost bite set in. That night we had dinner with another group, that was made up of five french people. They were preparing all night for their perspective pictures on the salt flats using all sorts of different props. James, Jacqueline, Daniel, and I were impressed with their planning and decided to try and use our imagination as well.
We woke up the next morning well before the sun came up in order to get an early start on the salt flats. We drove for a few miles, as the sun was coming up, when we arrived at an island in the middle of the largest salt flat in the world. Isla Incahuasi is a coral island covered in cacti hundreds of years old and was where we would have breakfast and watch the sun come up.
Unfortunately, it was heavily overcast and the contrasting colors of the pure white salt flats and blue sky was not quite as prominent. After breakfast and a walk around the island we drove on until we came to Ojos de Sal, an area of the salt flats that is completely flat and has cracked into perfect hexagonal formations.
At this point the sun was beginning to burn off the cloud cover and we were able to get a few perspective pictures. It was pretty challenging lining them up right and then focusing, but I think we got a couple of winners :)
Once Pedro got tired of waiting for us to take our silly pictures we moved on to the salt hotel located on the salt flats. It was identical to the place we had stayed at the night before. Something tells me the building requirements in Bolivia are not the stringent.
The last stop on the trip was the train cemetery located outside of Uyuni. It consisted of several abandoned, rusty, old trains from the 1940’s that were used for mineral transportation. Now they laid there in the final stages of decomposition littered with graffiti and trash. It was a good photo opportunity, but at that point I think Pedro was ready for the trip to be done so we didn’t keep him too long.
Afterwards Pedro dropped us off at our hostel and we were now in Uyuni. There wasn’t much to do there and it wasn’t a very appealing town, so one night was sufficient. The four of us got some dinner, used the internet and planned for the next leg of our trip to Potosí. Even though much of the time spent on the trip was in the car driving from place to place, it was still an incredible experience and highly recommended. Here is a short video of the experience with music by Led Zeppelin. Enjoy and thanks again for following along!