Awesome sceneries abound in Bolivia. Perhaps none more so than on this four-day road trip from Tupiza to the Salar de Uyuni 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.
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.
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 desination of the Salar de Uyuni as it is called in Spanish. We’d all faced the grueling 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 trips to the Salar de Uyuni are common and easily arranged from Uyuni itself, someone had tipped me off that the trip from Tupiza was much better as you got to see more of the area’s natural scenery and attractions. Getting there is a little more difficult, and generally involves an uncomfortable bus journey from one of the major cities.
Starting Out from Tupiza
The adventure 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.”
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, we visited the Lagoa 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.
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.
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.
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 this trip 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 bub-bling with grey sulphuric mud springs. We stopped in each place and take time to explore, climbing the rocks and run around to keep warm in the chilly wind.
Salar de Uyuni
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 tour. As the sun began to rise, we realised that we were al-ready 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 covers a total area of 10,582 km — and is 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. 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).