Tupiza to Uyuni: Highlights of Bolivia's Southwest Circuit

Tupiza to Uyuni: Highlights of Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

Last week, we went on a four day trip from Tupiza to Uyuni in southwest Bolivia. Some people call it the ‘Salt Flats Tour’, but seeing as the salt flats only featured for a few hours on the last day, I think that name sells it short.

The tour, which was by jeep in a group four, plus driver and cook, took us through some rugged, desolate and otherworldly landscapes, and up to altitudes over 4900m above sea level. Parts reminded me of western Iceland, central Mongolia and southern Jordan, but overall, it was unlike anywhere else we’d ever been.

These were some of our highlights.

La Silla, just outside Tupiza on the first day

La Silla, just outside Tupiza on the first day

As we drove out of Tupiza on the first morning of the tour, we climbed up and up, seemingly never going flat for more than a few metres. Our first stop at La Silla (The Saddle) gave us a great view of some of the terrain we’d covered.

Puebla Fantasma

Puebla Fantasma

A short time later, we stopped at this Puebla Fantasma (Ghost Town), which was built during Spanish colonial times, but then abandoned in the 1500s due to the cold and altitude (4690m). Some people tried to reinhabit the town again in the 20th century, but it was again abandoned in the 1990s for the same reasons as the first time.

at Laguna Morijón

at Laguna Morijón

After lunch, we stopped to look out at Laguna Morijón at 4855m above sea level, our highest point of the first day. Notice that we’re both wearing two hats; it was cold and windy but also very sunny! A harsh but very beautiful environment.

Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde

On the second day, after entering Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, we drove right down into Bolivia’s southwestern-most corner, by the boarder with Chile to see the Laguna Verde (Green Lake) and Volcán Licancabur which is shared between Bolivia and Chile. The wind was the most intense here, though from the picture, you’d have no idea!

Zab in the thermal baths

Zab in the thermal baths

Immediately after stopping at Laguna Verde, we drove north to Aguascalientes, where it was not nearly as windy and Zab took a dip in the thermal baths before lunch. I didn’t have anything to wear in the water, and couldn’t face the idea of taking off all my clothes, getting wet and then drying myself off in the cold, so I just sat by the side in the sun and took pictures of him. This one he deemed to be the most flattering.

us at Valle de las Rocas

us at Valle de las Rocas

On the third day, as we headed back north, we passed out of the desert and back into steppe filled with weird and wonderful rock formations. This one is supposed to look like an eagle without a head.

Volcán Ollagüe

Volcán Ollagüe

For lunch, we then stopped at Mirador Volcán Ollagüe, a semi-active volcano close to the boarder with Chile. I couldn’t get enough of this view!

Hostal de Sal, Puerto Chuvica

Hostal de Sal, Puerto Chuvica

Our third and final night was spent at this hostal made of salt in Puerto Chuvica, a small settlement on the southern edge of the salt flat. Before arriving, they told us everything there would made of salt, even the beds. I was expecting having to sleep in my rented sleeping bag directly on top of a block of salt.

Fortunately, this was not the case, as there were in fact the non-salt variety of mattress. The weirdest thing was walking on crunchy salt, which felt and looked like snow. It was certainly the most comfortable place we stayed, and the salt bricks that made up the walls provided much more insulation than the regular concrete blocks all the other buildings we slept in on the way were made of.

sunrise at Incahuasi

sunrise at Incahuasi

On the final morning of the trip, we were woken at 5.30am in order to drive out to Isla Incahuasi, a corral island covered in cacti in the middle of the salt flat to see the sunrise.

Zab at sunrise on Incahuasi

Zab at sunrise on Incahuasi

It was freezing cold, but the colours were quite lovely.

sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni

sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni

After breakfast on a bench outside our jeep along with a dozen other groups in similar jeeps, we wandered around the salt flat a little, photographing our shadows.

us jumping for joy on the Salar de Uyuni

jumping for joy on the Salar de Uyuni

Then we drove to the Ojos de Sal (Salt Eyes), where the salt has cracked into surprisingly regular hexagonal formations. Here, the ground is extremely flat and the horizon almost unbroken, so many people take the opportunity to take silly forced perspective photos. We may have tried doing one or two (mostly at Zab’s insistence), but they didn’t come out that well. Instead, we jumped around.

Sam climbing around the train cemetery

Sam climbing around the train cemetery

Our final stop on the fourth day before lunch in Uyuni and going our separate ways, was the Train Cemetery in the outskirts of the town. Several rusting train engines as well as many carriages and miscellaneous parts of trains are covered in graffiti and surrounded by rubbish, after having been abandoned in the 1940s due to the depletion of minerals in mines in the area. It was a rather sad, dirty and ugly place, and it was almost a shame to finish the trip on such a down note, but it was a powerful reminder of the region’s history.

Practicalities

Tupiza

We paid 126Bs (£11.70) for a twin room with private bathroom, wifi and breakfast at Hostal los Salares, where we stayed three nights before going on the tour. We would recommend at least one full day and two nights to acclimatise to the altitude, as Tupiza is at an altitude of 3160m.

The Tour

We booked the tour through our hostal, and it cost us 1200Bs (£111.70) each, and included all food and transport. It did not include entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, which was 150Bs (£14) each, or sleeping bag rental, for which we paid 30Bs (£2.80) each for nice, clean sleeping bags.

We can highly recommend using Hostal los Salares‘ tour operator to organise the trip, as our driver, David, was extremely competent (it took him no more than 10 minutes to fix a punctured tire) and Elvis, our cook, served us lovely, fresh, mostly vegetarian food.

Uyuni

In Uyuni, we stayed just one night at Hotel Julia just opposite the train station for 190Bs (£17.70) for a double room with private bathroom and heating(!) but no wifi. The only reason we stayed in Uyuni was to have a shower and a decent night’s sleep before travelling on to Sucre.

There really is nothing to see or do in town, and the locals were decidedly unfriendly. It is possible to travel on from Uyuni by overnight bus the evening you arrive in town from the tour, but we had previously made the decision not to take another overnight bus in Bolivia if at all possible.