Awesome sceneries abound in Bolivia. Perhaps none more so than on this four-day road trip from Tupiza to Uyuni salt flats in the country’s wild west. Sometimes a journey is as much of an experience as the destination.
I thought I had seen it all until I gazed out on the never-ending panorama of Uyuni’s salt flats. Miles and miles of thick salt crust crisscrossed with a jagged pattern of intersections. If you looked hard enough, you could see the faint tyre marks of the 4×4 that had brought us out to the middle of the plains.
Journey Across the Bolivian Altiplano
Over the last four days, we had seen red lakes, green lakes, white lakes, jagged valleys, sulphuric springs, small Andean communities and llamas and alpacas galore. Still, nothing had prepared me for this. As the sun rose, the intersections between the interconnecting pieces of salt glowed orange. Gradually the light brightened, until our guide, Jose, warned us to put on our sunglasses to avoid snow blindness.
Looking for more Bolivian travel inspiration? Here’s our pick of the most amazing things to do in Bolivia.
It was the perfect end to a four-day tour that had taken us from Tupiza, a town in Bolivia’s Wild West, to our final destination of the Salar de Uyuni as it is called in Spanish. We’d all faced the gruelling demands of the altitude (at the highest point in the trip, we reached 5,200 metres), along with which came the freezing nights that made you hurry for your sleeping bag as soon as the sun set.
Although arranging a Bolivian salt flats tour is easily done from Uyuni itself, someone had tipped me off that the trip from Tupiza to Uyuni was much better as you got to see more of the area’s natural scenery and attractions. Getting to Tupiza is a little more difficult than going direct to Uyuni, and generally involves an uncomfortable bus journey from one of the major cities.
Starting Out on the Tupiza to Uyuni Tour
The adventure on our Tupiza to Uyuni tour began as soon as we left the town. Within a few minutes we were climbing up a steep road with a sheer drop, and a stunning landscape on one side. The first stop was at a wide gorge dotted with unnatural-looking precipices. Jagged triangular cliffs soared up at awkward angles below.
“This is the Quebrada de Palala,” said our driver, Jose. On the other side of the road lay an equally impressive valley, where the mountains and hills varied in hues from blue to bright orange. “The area is very rich in minerals,” he continued. “Each mineral makes the earth a different colour, which is why you have so many different colours in that valley.”
The Bolivian Lakes
These minerals have played a major part in Bolivia’s history and present, but they are most immediately tangible in the landscapes. On the second day of our Bolivian salt flats tour, we visited the Laguna Colorada, a lake of a bright red colour; caused by the high concentration of micro organisms in its waters. Dotted by thousands of pink flamingos, the effect is a rare one — the red of the lake and the pink of the birds stretching out for miles.
The Red Lake also features in our article on the best Bolivian landscapes that aren’t the Salar de Uyuni. Check it out.
In one day we passed the Laguna Verde, a green lake, and Laguna Blanca, a white lake, both of which were surrounded by a thick crust of salt, just a taste of what we were to see at the Salar de Uyuni on the final day of our Tupiza to Uyuni tour.
Driving along the roads, we saw locals warmly wrapped up in fleeces and clothes made out of precious llama wool. As each day passed and we reached higher altitudes, the temperature continually dropped.
The Hot Springs
It wasn’t all about the jumpers, scarves and the elaborately patterned woolly hats favoured by locals and ‘gringos’ alike. On the third day, we pulled up at one of the much-welcomed highlights; the natural hot springs. We quickly donned our swimwear, plunged into the pools and were welcomed by the warm water and a view of the adjoining lake.
One of the beauties of the trip from Tupiza to Uyuni is the sheer variety of things to see. Bumping along the rather rough road, we’d turn a corner and be confronted by a desert plain dotted with weird rock formations, or a large lake bubbling with grey sulphuric mud springs. Salt plays such an important part in the landscape and could be seen almost everywhere.
We stopped in each place and take time to explore, climbing the rocks and run around to keep warm in the chilly wind.
The Final Destination on Our Bolivian Salt Flats Tour
On the final day, we grumbled as our 4am wake-up call sounded. We piled into the Jeep and peered anxiously for a glimpse of the Salar de Uyuni — the reason for the whole Tupiza salt flat tour. As the sun began to rise, we realised that we were already driving along it! The Salar’s crust is thick enough to support the weight of a car and is up to eight metres deep in places. Throughout most of the year it is uncovered, but for two months in summer it’s covered by a thin layer of water, making it perfectly reflective and an equally impressive sight.
We stopped for the sunrise. After that, most of the day was spent exploring different areas.
The Salar de Uyuni
The Salar covers a total area of 10,582 km — it’s the largest salt flat in the world. The salt flats also are dotted with several different islands of land, some of which can be navigated on foot and offer great views of the salt plains from above. We roamed across the flats, stopping to reapply sun cream and pull our hats down low. Exploring the salt flats was completely surreal.
The large scale and uniformity of the landscape also mean that the Salar de Uyuni is a great place to take cool photos where you play with perspective. Fancy holding a friend in the palm of your hand? Done. Being squashed under a boot? Not so much.
We entertained ourselves for a few hours taking silly pictures and generally celebrating reaching our destination. Finally, exhausted, we piled into the car and drove to the rather worn town of Uyuni, which was our final destination of the four days — many pictures and unforgettable memories later.
Fly to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, and catch a bus to Oruro and then a train to Tupiza.
Alternatively, fly to Salta in Argentina (via Buenos Aires), get a bus to the Bolivian Border at La Quiaca/ Villazon (six hours) and then catch a bus to Tupiza (three hours).
Travelling more in the area? We’d recommend Road Tripping in the Atacama Desert: A Once in a Lifetime over the border in Chile. Awesome landscapes guaranteed.
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