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Bolivia's Amazing Salt Flats

A Trip through Tupiza and Salar de Uyuni

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As an update to our last posting, we were having trouble getting out of Salta, Argentina because of snow blocking the road to Chile. Our travel goal was to get to a town in or near Bolivia where we could pick up a tour of Bolivia’s famous salt flats (preferably, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile). We were told by our bus company in Salta that it would likely be another five days until we’d be able to cross into Chile. As a result, given out limited remaining time left in South America, we made a game time decision and took a 12:30am bus to La Quiaca, Argentina. La Quiaca is an Argentinean border town with Bolivia (for some unknown reason, you cannot take a bus from Argentina into Bolivia). After getting off the overnight bus at 6:30 am, we painfully made our way through the Argentina and Bolivia border crossings in sub-freezing temperatures.
As soon as we crossed into to Villazon, Bolivia, we noted immediate differences. For example, the people in Bolivia are much more ethnic looking and the dress is unmistakably Bolivian. The older women wear traditional skirts, stockings, ponchos, and these fantastic hats. A lot of them carry babies, children and goods for sale on their backs in a sling. They are some very hearty looking folks.
After picking up a bus in Villazon, we travelled on dirt roads to Tupiza, Bolivia, which sits at an altitude of approximately 10,000 feet. While we were in Tupiza mainly to catch a tour to the salt flats, the town itself boasts some amazing scenery and was apparently the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their makers. We met up with two backpackers who were also looking for a tour to the flats and decided to make a group of four in order to get a better deal. Stephanie, from Australia, and Laura, from France, became our extended family for the next four days. That night, we made our way up to a lookout point, Cerro Corazon de Jesus, to view the sunset over Tupiza - very pretty.
IMG_1619.jpg Sunset from Tupiza

Day 1:
We set out for our tour of the salt flats and the surrounding area the next morning with our group. Our driver, Raoul, and cook, Emma, did not speak any English. Fortunately for us, however, Laura was fluent in Spanish and translated for us. Our SUV was aptly named “Gringo Feliz” (Happy Gringo). On our first day, our SUV climbed up mountainous terrain resembling the American southwest, red rock canyons and cacti. On our way up the bumpy, narrow roads, we spotted packs of llamas and small homes where their herders lived. The scenery was gorgeous. We were warned that the accommodations on our tour were “rustic”, no heat or showers (with one six minute exception on the third night). So when we got to our hostel we were prepared with sleeping bags and put on almost every article of clothing we had.
Day 2:
We awoke to below freezing temperatures and after a struggle to get out of our sleeping bags, we piled back in the SUV for our second day. We started off visiting the ruins of San Antonio, an abandoned town at 15,000 feet which was founded by the Spanish to house natives who worked as slaves in nearby mines. It was partially inhabited until about 30 years ago. We then stopped for a dip in the Termas de Polques (elevation roughly 14,000 feet). Since it was so cold outside, the hot springs felt amazing at 86 degrees. After lunch, we made our way to the Sol de Manana where we precariously walked amongst geysers. In the US you’d never be allowed to get so close to geysers (probably for good reasons). We finished off the day at Laguna Colorado which is known for its red color and hosting migrating flamingos. After dinner, we played poker and listened to 80’s music until we became so cold that we had to get into our sleeping bags.
IMG_1848.jpg Relaxing in the Hot Springs
IMG_1863.jpg Geysers
IMG_1894.jpg Laguna Colorado
Day 3:
We all slept atrociously due to the freezing temperatures, but the next morning we were lulled from our sleeping bags by warm pancakes :) On day three, we passed through the Desert of Siloli where we saw famous “Stone Trees” - volcanic rocks carved down into amazing shapes by wind carrying sand. We passed several lagunas (some frozen solid) and even spotted a vicuna, a desert rabbit that apparently likes pancakes. We passed by the Ollague Volcano, an active volcano which spews smoke, but has not erupted for hundreds to thousands of year (no one quite knows). On our third night, we slept at a hostel made entirely of salt, even the floor was loose salt. Jeff managed to turn our group into a bunch of card sharks playing poker, Bull, and 21 until the electricity was turned off. We also got a hot shower for 10 Bolivianos (bobs, as most call them), which was most welcome after two days without.
IMG_1910.jpg Jeff in front of the Stone Tree
IMG_1912.jpg Just to give some scale..the black dot on the left is a car
IMG_1959.jpg Volcano Ollague
IMG_1983.jpg Our "salt" room, the whole structure including the floor is salt

Day 4:
The day most of us were waiting for, our trek out to the famous salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. The salt flat is a prehistoric lake (Lago Minchin) that dried up ages ago leaving behind salt beds as far as the eye can see. We left our hostel by 5:30 am to make it to Isla del Pescado (a dried up coral reef in the middle of the salt flat) to watch the sunrise. It was well below freezing, but still amazing. After sunrise, we explored the island and took photos of the salt flat. The island is peppered with cacti and there is still evidence of the coral that existed thousands of years ago. Once the temperature warmed up a bit, we made our way onto the middle of the salt flat. It was blinding white in all directions and it looked like snow. We took a lot of pictures, most of them goofy. The Salar de Unyui was unlike anything I’ve ever seen…it was as close to being on another planet as I could imagine. After stopping at Colchani, a salt extraction town, we made our way to Uyuni which concluded our tour. There we parted ways with Raoul, Emma, Laura and Stephanie, and caught an overnight bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia…we’ll catch up soon!
IMG_2004.jpg Salar de Uyuni at Sunrise
IMG_2052.jpg Isla de Pescado
IMG_2089.jpg Our travel group including Raoul and Emma
IMG_2145.jpg Busy guy...
IMG_2155.jpg I don't know my own strength
IMG_2191.jpg Salt Mining

Posted by geldere 10:19 Archived in Bolivia Tagged mountains de bolivia salt flats uyuni salar tupiza

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