This is the second post in a four-part series about our eight-day trip through Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit. Part I of our trip covered Tupiza, a hiking and red-rock mecca, and the southern gateway to Bolivia’s southwest. In this second post, we begin a four day guided Bolivian jeep tour into the remote southwest corner of Bolivia, a place so different it might as well be on another planet. It is volcanic and teaming with wildlife – I think of it as “South America’s Yellowstone”.
Bolivia’s southwest is easily the most popular tourist route in the country, attracting hordes of tourists from Europe (these days, primarily France) and from China. Our family of four started and ended our week-long trip in our small Bolivian pueblo, Villa Abecia, where we are living for a year. The entire trip, including the four day jeep tour, 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.
Here’s the route we took for the entire week. This post covers just the dark green line on the map below, which is the first day of our four-day Bolivian jeep tour:
Arranging A Bolivian Jeep Tour
From Tupiza, we arranged a three-night, four day guided jeep tour into Bolivia’s remote Southwest. We paid BO 5,000 (about $US 725) for the tour, which included a private car with a driver and a cook, food, accommodation in some basic hostels with beds and shared bathrooms, and four rented sleeping bags for extra warmth. On top of that, we had to pay about $US 50 in various fees (national park entrance fees, highway tolls, etc), making the price of the entire four-day jeep tour about $US 775, or $US 48 per person per day, all included – pretty cheap!
There are dozens of tour agencies in Tupiza, all offering the same basic tour. You can easily arrange a tour at an agency in town just one or two days before you want to leave. We decided to go with one of the larger tour companies, with plenty of good reviews (Tupiza Tours). There are some alternative routes that can add a fifth day to the tour to see even more sights, but we felt four days was plenty, so we took the “standard” four-day jeep tour.
Most tourists who go on a Bolivian jeep tour start from the town of Uyuni, rather than Tupiza, because Uyuni is closer to Bolivia’s capital city La Paz. But Tupiza is definitely a better option. It is a beautiful town with good weather (while Uyuni is ugly and cold). That makes Tupiza a better place to hang out for a couple of days before your tour. But also the tours from Tupiza see more stuff, and they do it on a different time schedule with fewer crowds.
Day 1: The Tour Begins
We started at 7:00am on the first day. Our vehicle was loaded with all the food, water, and gasoline we would need for the entire trip. Our route would take us into some very remote areas, so our tour agency arranged to caravan with another vehicle. Two cars are safer than one.
Some of the roads we drove on hardly could be considered a “road” at all. For the first few hours, we drove directly up a river canyon:
Eventually, we reached the top of a canyon onto a jeep track:
From the time we left Tupiza in the morning until lunch, we didn’t see a single other car, and I think we saw only three people on foot – two llama herders and a guy walking with some cows. We asked directions from all three of them. Here is one of their llamas:
By noon, we reached a remote mining town where we ate lunch:
High Altitude Driving
After lunch, things got really high and really remote (but at least we had a “road”):
We started to gain a lot of altitude. Once we got over about 13,000 feet, the drivers stopped to let air out of the tires to prevent blowouts:
In the photo above, you can also see an extra air-intake sticking up from the side of the car. That helps the engine get more oxygen in the thin air. Cars can’t run well at high altitude, because there is not enough oxygen for the internal combustion process. But with the extra air intake, this car can keep going, even at 17,000 feet.
As you can imagine, the drivers on a Bolivian jeep tour need to be fully sufficient mechanics too. A mechanical breakdown out here could mean trouble. During the tour, my passenger side automatic window stopped working because it got clogged with dust. The driver fixed it overnight by completely disassembling the door and cleaning it out.
But, as remote as this place was, there is always time for SHOPPING! We passed a small pueblo where the locals were selling handmade alpaca and llama products to the tourists in little stone shelters. They probably just get a handful of visitors each day. The kids got some warm gloves:
Other than a few scattered towns, there weren’t many signs of humans at all – just wide open terrain, blue skies, lots of llamas, and the occasional vicuña (a wild version of the llama).
We also saw some wild Rheas, which is a lot like an Ostrich:
San Antonio de Lipez Ghost Town
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the San Antonio de Lipez Ghost Town. This was a Spanish colonial mining town for two hundred years. It was the largest town in the area during it’s day, mostly populated with African slaves who worked in the mines. The town sits at over 15,000 feet on the side of a volcano, making it quite cold and windy.
The town was abandoned when the mines ran dry in the late 1700s. It’s been empty and decaying now for over 200 years. There was a local guide who took the time to explain about the history of the town and the conditions in the mines. I’m sure glad I didn’t have to live or work there!
The buildings today are all ruins:
It was fun to learn about the town’s history and explore the ruins by ourselves. It was a welcomed break from the long hours in the car.
A Cold Night
At high altitude, when the sun goes down, the wind picks up and the temperature drops like a bomb to well below freezing. So, you really want to be in a warm shelter before it gets dark. Unfortunately, we were a bit behind schedule. Then we got a flat tire at the worst time, just as the sun was setting and the wind was blowing like a hell bat:
Fortunately, our driver had seen a few flats in his day. It took him about 15 minutes to change the tire, and we were off again. We made it to our shelter not long after dark. The other vehicle in our caravan was waiting for us, and the cook already had a hot dinner ready!
Here’s where we stayed the first night. It was a basic hostel in a small town called Quetena Chico.
The hostel had electricity just for a couple of hours (just enough to charge my phone), before it was shut off. We had our own room with four beds, and we shared a bathroom with the folks from the other car. There was no hot water, and no showers. It was cold at night. The beds had plenty of blankets, but we were happy to supplement them with our rented sleeping bags.
In my next post, Day 2 of our Bolivian jeep tour, we go through the looking-glass into some truly surreal places. There’s even a place called “Dali’s Desert”. Stay tuned.