Our family of four just finished a week-long trip through Bolivia’s “Southwest Circuit”. It is the most popular tourist route in Bolivia, attracting throngs of visitors from Europe and China. This is the first in a series of four posts detailing our trip. This first post is about our experience traveling with kids to Tupiza, Bolivia’s wild, wild west.
Here’s the route we took for the entire week.
We started and ended in our small Bolivian pueblo, Villa Abecia, where we are living for a year. The entire trip took just over a week, and cost $1,158. No, we aren’t travelling on a shoestring. Thanks to FX magic, it’s just this cheap in Bolivia.
Our trip included a four day guided tour in a private car with a driver and a cook, plus food, transportation, and hotels for four people for seven nights, including one hotel in Tupiza (the Hotel Mitru) with easily the best shower I’ve had since we’ve been in Bolivia. In fact, that shower was SO GOOD, I even considered retiring from showering – because I can’t possibly ever top it. 😉
Tarija to Tupiza
Our first stop was the regional city of Tarija, just a few hours from our town. We go to Tarija at least a couple of times every month, so there wasn’t much new for us to see or do there. In Tarija, we hired a taxi to take us over the mountains to the town of Tupiza. Tupiza is the southern gateway to Bolivia’s “Southwest Circuit”, which I like to think of as South America’s Yellowstone. Tupiza is a wild west town full of history, red rocks, and a relaxing vibe.
It is normally a seven hour trip from Tarija to Tupiza if you take a bus. The buses go overnight, and the road is horrible – one of the few remaining unpaved highways in Bolivia. So, we opted to hire a taxi instead, which got the entire family there in about five hours for the low, low price of $87.
Here’s our taxi loading up:
The taxi took us on a remote road, high up over mountain precipices like this:
Traveling with Kids
Traveling with kids in Bolivia is generally very safe. If you have a family or a group, we’ve found that hiring taxis makes it a much better option than taking a bus. When you have four or five people, a taxi is not much more than the cost of a bus, and it’s much faster and more convenient.
We knew we made the right decision in hiring a taxi when we saw this bus stuck at about 13,000 feet up in the mountains:
Transportation is never easy in Bolivia, especially on the few remaining roads that are not paved. You can easily be stuck for hours due to mechanical breakdowns, landslides, and swollen rivers. Years ago, hardly any of the principal highways were paved, and this kind of thing was to be expected on any trip. Today, most of the roads are paved, and let me just say that paved roads are pure AWESOME-sauce.
Tupiza, the Wild Wild West
Just before nightfall, we arrived in Tupiza, a town of 35,000 people. Tupiza is a big tourist town. Tourists are attracted by the good weather, the laid-back lifestyle, the hiking, and the beautiful red rocks. The area around Tupiza is full of exotic rock formations, such as spires, hoodoos, fins, and canyons. It is Bolivia’s version of Moab, Utah. Here’s a view over town:
And here are some of the fins and canyons:
As a history buff, I find Tupiza fascinating. It was founded in the 1540s by Spanish Conquistadores, only about ten years after the fall of the Inca Empire. It was the first Spanish town founded in what is today Bolivia. For hundreds of years, it was an important stop on the road to the mines at Potosi. More recently, in 1908, it was the sight of the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last bank robbery before they were caught and killed by the Bolivian army. It really is Bolivia’s wild west!
Tupiza in Protest!
Tupiza wouldn’t be Bolivia’s wild west without a good protest. When we arrived, the locals had decided to shut the whole town down for three days to protest the Mayor’s decision not to fund a major municipal water project. Streets were blocked off with rocks:
And with cars:
The folks organizing the protest really didn’t want the city functioning at all. We had to walk the last two miles into town to our hotel, like these folks:
People in Tupiza really take their protests seriously. Groups of enforcers walked around making sure traffic was halted and businesses were closed. They even punctured the tires of any cars caught driving. Here are the mob enforcers:
I hate to see this kind of thing. I’m more of a “live-and-let-live” kind if guy. You know, individual freedom, and all that kind of stuff. I’ve never really been into protests at all. And in a town that lives on tourism, this type of mob intimidation struck me as a fantastically dumb way to deal with a local political issue.
A Refuge for Tourists
But, nevertheless, we made the best of it. And we never once felt unsafe, even for a second. The protesters really try not to disturb the tourists. For us, it was not much more than a minor inconvenience that we had to walk everywhere around town. With no traffic, the city was quite peaceful.
Plus, we stayed at an awesome hotel with a fabulous pool, and super fabulous showers, the Hotel Mitru:
When the whole town is in protest mode, and you’ve got a pool like this, what else are you going to do? The kids especially were missing summer pool days back in California, so they were happy to jump in. My wife and I really enjoyed the chance to sit next to the pool with a beer – not a common experience after living in Bolivia for the last five months.
Most of the businesses in Tupiza were closed due to the protests, but many of the places that cater to tourists were open, sometimes discretely. We ate lunch at this place. They kept their sign post hidden inside the door, somewhat discretely announcing that they were open, despite the city-wide shutdown:
Things to Do in Tupiza
Tourists go to Tupiza for its hiking and horseback riding among its red rock canyons. There are dozens of tour agencies that arrange outdoor tours, from half-day to multiple days. None of us had ever ridden a horse before, so we opted for some short self-guided hikes and strolling around town instead.
With no traffic in the streets, it was quite nice to walk around a strangely quite town. Here’s the beautiful plaza, with kids playing games in the streets:
At the end of the day, Tupiza is very similar to our own town, Villa Abecia. They both have beautiful weather, red rocks, and hiking. We felt like Tupiza was just a larger, touristy version of our own town. For someone who has not visited the red-rock country of Southwestern Bolivia, Tupiza is a really nice, peaceful place to stay for a few days (with or without protests). But, we found we were constantly comparing it to our own town.
We enjoyed a couple of nights in Tupiza, with the pool and some good restaurants. Then we were ready to start the next leg of our trip: a four day guided jeep tour into the remote corners of Bolivia’s wild Southwest. It is a region filled with volcanoes and strange landscapes, and it is teeming with wildlife. There was so much to see and experience, that I couldn’t possibly fit it all into one post. Our trip into what I consider “South America’s Yellowstone” will be the subject of my next two posts. Stay tuned.