Bolivia - Crossing into, and the Salar De Uyuni Tour, days 1 & 2

Published: May 5th 2013
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Crossing into Bolivia, & the first 2 days of the tour

We depart Salta on the Saturday catching a bus at 7am to get to the border town of La Quiaca from where we hope to cross into Bolivia. It is a 7.5 hour ride, initially through the area that we did a tour a few days ago, and then further into really arid and harsh landscapes. We have the two front seats on the top level of the bus, and it provides a great view, but also means copping a pounding from the sun as it rises from its slumber into full force.

La Quiaca is small dusty town, that really only seems to exist as a border control point with Bolivia. It is a 20 minute walk to the border, and after getting some directions from an old Bolivian lady we successfully locate it. We had read that the border control can be tedious and long, but leaving Argentina they simply stamped our passport, and entering Bolivia we filled in our visa forms and were in. No queues, no bag searches, no sniffer dogs. I think the crossing from Bolivia back into Argentina may be the more rigorous one. We met a Singaporean couple a few days later who crossed the border the same day as us after 7pm, and had to bribe their border patrol to open and let them through, even though it is supposed to be open till 11pm...

Villazon is the border town on the Bolivian side, and the streets are filled with money exchanges, and a huge variety of electronic shops. It is not what we were expecting, as it appears that you can buy anything you want here. I exchange some Argentinian pesos, and am ripped off by $20 by an old Bolivian lady working in a money exchange. She seemed innocent enough, but as i made a mistake with my maths converting between three currencies, she won. She at least gave us directions to the bus terminal, and we trundle up the hill for another 15 minutes. As we get close to the terminal there are lots of people on the street hassling us to buy bus tickets, constantly yelling out Tupiza, Tupiza (the name of our next destination). We sidestep the sellers and head inside to the terminal where we find numerous bus companies, and pick the one that looks the least dodgiest (it is well known that Pan America is not reliable), and is also leaving in 20minutes. We also figure out that we need to move our clocks back as there is a 1hr time difference.

The bus arrives and leaves a bit late, but it is comfortable enough. The ride is slow as the buses here don't have much oomph, and they have to navigate their way up mountain passes at altitude. About 30min after leaving Villazon we drive past a borken down Pan American bus that left 15min before us...

The drive to Tupiza is stunningly beautiful, weaving our way up and down mountains and through canyons that are a dark metal red. This is the area where Butch Casidy and the Sundance kid met their demise. We are the only gringos on the bus, with the rest made up of old Bolivian ladies dressed up in their traditional clothing of brightly covered shawls and bowler hats , and old men sitting at the back smoking.

The ride is just over two hours and we pull into Tupiza as the sun is setting behind the mountains that surround the valley village. Although there are no street signs, our hand drawn map is good enough to get us to our hotel, La Torre, who we have also booked in to do our tour of the Altiplano and Salt Flats with, starting the next day. The hotel has been converted from an old colonial house, and is a nice place to spend our first night in Bolivia.

The town of Tupiza is nice, but the landscape and scenery surrounding the town is beautiful, and i wish that we had arranged it so that we could have spent some more time here. It is 2950m above sea level, and as the sun shrinks, so does the temperature. We had already paid a 50% deposit for the tour, but when we go to pay the rest, the credit card machine at the hotel is stuffed. So we venture out to the ATM in town to withdraw enough money to pay the bill and to survive on for a while, which is a decent amount of Boliviano's. And wouldn't you know it the ATM will only let me take out 500 Boliviano's at a time, around $70.... So i have to do 5 transactions to take out the required dosh, god knows how much i will be charged in ATM fee's for that...

Walking back from the ATM, we run into Too, a malaysian chap we met at our last hostel and who was also on the Humuaca tour. He informs me that there is another ATM further away that allows you to take out 2500 Boliviano's at a time, @#$%^&*^^@!!!!! Too is travelling with a friend, Dorothy who is back at the hotel, and we agree to go out for a meal together that night. There are numerous restaurants, but they all sell pizza and pasta, we were hoping for something different after seeing that all over Argentina... However, we end up having a nice meal at a restaurant that is popular with the backpackers and i soon realise that Bolivians like their chilli, so i am a happy man.

The four of us get along well, and decide to see if we can arrange it so that we are in the same jeep for the tour, as there are two jeeps leaving in the morning. After picking up supplies of toilet paper, water and baby wipes we get back to the hotel to find out that we are already in the same jeep.

The tour that we are doing is a 980km 4x4 tour of the Altiplano and finishing off in the Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats. It is 4 days, staying in homestays for the first two nights, and a salt hotel on the last. The salt hotel is also the only place where a hot shower will be, and nature will be our toilet, called natural bano here.

We head off early in fairly new landcruiser with our guide Raul, and chef Melanie, a german girl who has just started working with the company. Both are friendly and good natured, which is comforting as the 6 of us will be cooped up in the 4x4 for long periods. Shortly after leaving Tupiza we are climbing up a mountain pass with incredible views over crazy landscapes that have been carved over millions of years of varying sea levels and harsh weather. We keep going up and up, well over 4000metres, driving through small towns of a few hundred people who make their living from farming llama's and quinoa, or mining. It is a very harsh and basic existence, but the people live here as they do not have to pay taxes or bills.

Within the first 3 hours Raul has already stopped to help 4x4's from other companies to fix a flat tyre, and then a differential. We are very glad that we have chosen a reputable company. It seems that Raul is the elder statesmen of the touring scene, and we later find out that he has done many trips with national geographic and scientists taking them across the altiplano for weeks at a time. The GPS is in his head, and he knows the area from memory, which is impressive as it is all desert with no definitive roads, just tracks weaving their way through the sand and rocks, using landmarks as guide points.

After stopping for lunch in a valley full of 1000's of Llama's, we cross through the towns of Cerrillos, Poulos, San Pablo, San Antonio de Lipez before stopping for the night in Quetena Chico, at 4260 metres. It has been a long days drive, but we knew it would be as we had to get close to the national parks entrance from where all it really begins. We are in a homestay, which is basic but comfortable. It is very cold though, around -5, but not so cold that we can't watch the amazing stars for 30 minutes. They are incredible, with the the whole sky from horizon to horizon sparkling, and the gasses and colours of the milky way snaking its way through the middle. Mojo, Too and Dot are suffering a bit from altitude sickness, with not even coca leaves helping, luckily i am unscathed. We bed down for a restless night.

The next morning we are up at a very frosty 5.30, leaving at 6.30 just as the sun is rising. We cross a myriad of frozen creeks and bogs with the ice up to 5cm thick in places that shatters like glass as the landcruiser passes over the top. Soon we arrive in a ghost town that has been untouched in 100's of years. It was a mining town that was plundered by the spanish, and then savaged by leprosy. It is now only home to chinchilla's, a funny looking creature that looks like the end product of a rabbit and bandicoot shagging. It has the face of a hare, but short front arms and a long tail.

Soon after, we arrive at the entrance to the national park, and after paying a fairly hefty entrance fee we head off. There are numerous ice covered volcanoes dotting the horizon with nothing but desert in between. It warms slightly as the sun rises, but is still below zero, and we are getting higher as well, crossing mountains at 4855 metres and visiting flamingo laden lagoons. We stop for lunch at one sulphur and borax lagoon where there are hundreds of flamingos chowing down on the algae that breeds in these mineral heavy waters that are only 30-50cm deep.

After lunch we had the option of either visiting Laguna Verde or spending more time at the thermal springs and geysers. Laguna Verde is supposed to be a magnificently green coloured lagoon, but late last year an under ground volcanic eruption had occurred and caused the lagoon to spoiled with brown mud. So we opted out of the 3hr return trip to the lagoon, and boy are we glad. Instead of 15minutes in the thermal springs we got 50 minutes of soak time in 39 degree water at 4600m, with views over volcanoes. The temperature was perfect, and it was a good way to get rid of the dust that had covered every pore.

Sadly we had to leave the springs, but soon found ourselves at 5000m and marvelling at a series of geysers bubbling away and spraying hot steam into the air. It was pretty surreal, but very smelly and bloody cold. Shortly after we reached Laguna Colorada (the red lagoon), and it did not disappoint. It is ridiculously red, like water that has had rusty iron decay in it. Once again, it is filled with flamingos and as the sun sets it makes a wonderful spectacul.

Huayllaja, the town we are staying in for the night, is close by, and after some nervous moments trying to find somewhere to stay, we are soon indoors warming up over some tea and hot chocolate. Mojo and Dot are better today with the altitude, we are at 4280m, but poor Too is still suffering, as are some others from another group. It is again an early start tomorrow, so not long after dinner we are in bed, for another restless night.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Lunch spot day 2Lunch spot day 2
Lunch spot day 2

100's of flamingos @ 4600m
Old volcan that blew its top many years agoOld volcan that blew its top many years ago
Old volcan that blew its top many years ago

to create the Desierto de Dali
Kung Fu masters??Kung Fu masters??
Kung Fu masters??

hard work at 4600m
Laguna ColoradaLaguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada

Amazingly red

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