Most people who visit the diverse landscapes of Bolivia end up in the Salar de Uyuni, or salt flats of Uyuni. It’s the largest salt flat in the world and provides some amazing vistas and photo opportunities. More recently, visitors have the chance to not just explore Salar de Uyuni but to also venture into the high mountain deserts around Uyuni, Bolivia to experience almost other worldly landscapes.
I started my journey to Salar de Uyuni on a 4 day tour from Tupiza in the south of Bolivia. While most tours and travelers leave from Uyuni, I found that the buildup of the tour would be much better leaving from Tupiza and also that the tour operators are generally more reputable in Tupiza. Not to mention I got to spend a couple of days in Tupiza lounging by a pool, riding horses, and mountain biking before setting out.
Day 1 of the Salar de Uyuni 4 Day Tour from Tupiza
Our first day started with some drama. My tour company had a total of 3 jeeps leaving for the 4 day tour that morning. As all the jeeps were being loaded with bags and supplies, one travelers day pack sitting in the seat of his jeep was switched with an empty backpack. Once he noticed what had happened, the whole entourage as well as a crowd from town began searching for the thief. Some locals actually found the guy and had a hold of him momentarily before he ran off in front of all of us.
I’ve never seen a town all rally around finding a criminal that way. It was almost like a posse was being let loose to find this guy. After a couple of hours of searching and talking with police it was finally decided that our caravan of jeeps should go ahead and leave while the owner of the backpack stayed behind in hopes of getting some of his possessions back. Amazingly we found out later in the evening that they had in fact caught the thief and recovered the backpack and its contents.
As we set out into the desert we climbed rapidly from already high altitude to much higher. This was probably the first time in months that I had really felt sick from the altitude and relied heavily on coca leaves to offset the headache and nausea. After a while thanks to the coca and the eventual slowed pace of our ascent I started to feel better so I could really enjoy the views.
For most of the day as we drove we chased after a grand ice capped mountain rising over the colorful hills in the distance. I haven’t seen the Swiss Alps yet but I would imagine they would look similar to this vista.
In the evening we stopped at the foot of the mountain in a small and remote village to spend the night. After a game of Frisbee with the local children and a delicious dinner we settled into bed to get ready for an early rise the next morning.
Day 2 of the Salar de Uyuni 4 Day Tour from Tupiza
Luckily Day 2 had the most beautiful scenery out of all of the days of the tour which helped to distract us from the unending jeep problems. One of our 3 jeeps in the caravan only made it moments out of the small village before it broke down. The delay gave us time to sit and enjoy the sunrise over the ice capped mountain in the distance. After some mechanical heroics by our drivers they got the jeep going again. Unfortunately it didn’t last long before it broke down again stranding the group in that car while a replacement jeep came to pick them up. We lost a couple of hours to the jeep issues that day but did get in some added hiking as we trekked up the road out of boredom.
Once we got going again, we got to enjoy some of the most amazing and diverse terrains in the world. Starting with the ruins of an abandoned mining town where we met Vizcachas and progressing through the colorful mountains the views were truly breathtaking.
One of the most unique sights for me was the natural springs rising out of the desert floor. After endless miles of rocky desert suddenly you’d come across a lush green carpet of grass dotted with llamas grazing as water springs up straight underneath them. It was a dramatic contrast and something I’d never seen before.
After a long day on the road we finally reached the hot springs, a naturally heated pool looking out onto a phenomenal view. It was a great place to relax, have some beers, and unwind from the long travel day.
Day 3 of the Salar de Uyuni 4 Day Tour from Tupiza
Our first stop of the morning was at Laguna Colorado to see an amazing red lagoon. The deep color of the lake and especially how clearly the mountains reflection was captured in it was mesmerizing. Add to that the pink flamingos dotted across sections of the lake and it was just the perfect way to kick off the day.
One of the most famous sights on the tour is in the Valle de los Rocas or Valley of the Rocks. There are some interesting rock formations one of which looks very much like a tree. The giant rock structures have been formed by the wind whittling away at their surfaces for thousands of years.
We saw a number of additional lagoons as we made our way towards the town of Uyuni. My favorite was Laguna Negro for its deep dark color and the legend the locals tell. It is said that if you enter its murky waters you will never return from it.
As we neared Uyuni, we began to see Bolivia’s most famous crop lining the roads under the mountain backdrops. Quinoa, for those not familiar with it, is similar to a rice and is used extensively in Bolivia for soups, rice, among other dishes. In recent years it has become known as a super food for its protein content and its export has radically increased. If you haven’t tried quinoa you really should.
Day 4 of the Salar de Uyuni 4 Day Tour from Tupiza
Finally the morning arrived and we were off to the crown jewel of the tour, the largest salt flats in the world. Most people arrive on the salt flats before dawn in order to watch the sunrise. We rolled onto the flats about 30 minutes before sunrise as our driver turned off the jeep lights. Even though there are no roads on the salt flats and really nothing to hit, it was still eerie to be speeding into the darkness ahead with no ability to see what’s coming.
The sunrise on the salar was definitely worth getting up early for. It was one of the best I’ve ever seen and as the sun illuminated the flats we got a gradual glimpse of the amazing landscape around us.
Since I visited in rainy season (February) a large section of the flats were closed with too much standing water but what we did explore was still absolutely amazing. The sections with water spread across the flats is completely still with an absolute refection of the sky above. Other sections are dry and printed with hexagon like shapes created as the salt freezes and thaws each day with the dramatic swings in temperatures.