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Bolivia’s Wild Wild West: Part IV – Salar de Uyuni

This is the final post in a four-part series about our week-long 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.   Part II covered the start of our Bolivian jeep tour from Tupiza.  In Part III, we went through the looking glass into Bolivia’s altiplano lakes region, South America’s Yellowstone.  In this final post, we finish our jeep tour on the fabulous Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world.  But the Salar is about much more than just salt.  It is the crown jewel of the Southwest Circuit, and many tourists come here only to see the Salar.


Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit 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 trip in our small Bolivian pueblo, Villa Abecia, where we are living for a year.  The entire trip took just over a week, and cost a total of $1,158.  This included a four day all-inclusive guided jeep tour with a driver and a private cook for $775 (about $48 per person, per day).  We certainly 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 will cover the last two days of our guided jeep tour, plus our return to our house in Villa Abecia – the sections in orange and yellow in the map below:

 

A Rocky Day

On our third day of our jeep tour, we moved North from Bolivia’s altiplano lakes region.  Our road still was hardly a road at all.

The main "road" heading north to the Salar de Uyuni

The main “road” heading north to the Salar de Uyuni

On our first stop in the morning, we thought we were in the middle of a Star Wars movie set.  (Doesn’t this remind you of the pod races in Episode I?):

Seems like the scene of pod races, Atacama desert Bolivia

And also this is a real thing:

The Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree)

The Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree)

Then, further down the “road”, we saw a bunch of rocks that looked like petrified waves.  Here we are taking shelter in one:

A petrified wave

We were driving on the Bolivian side of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world.  We saw entire valleys with hardly a single plant in them.  The Earth is quite beautiful, even when there are no plants:The Atacama desert in Bolivia

But, there was one REALLY cool plant that the kids loved.  We called it the “bubbly” plant.  It looks like some kind of toxic sludge thing that is oozing out of rocks on its way to take over the world:

Altiplano "bubbly" plant - oozing toxic sludge

You wouldn’t guess it, but the plant is as hard as a rock – and it doesn’t really move either.

 

More Lakes and Flamingos

As we kept driving, we saw more altiplano lakes, and more Andean flamingos, like these:

Andean flamingos

And these:Andean flamingos

And these flamingos, who apparently did not read this sign:

No flamingos Allowed

No flamingos allowed?

Crowds

The Salar de Uyuni is the crown jewel of Bolivia’s Soutwestern Circuit.  It gets a lot of visitors.  The closer we drove to the Salar de Uyuni, the more we ran into other tourists – crowds even.  At times, it felt like some of the sights were being overrun.

Crowds on Bolivia's Southwest Circuit

And this:

Crowds on Bolivia's Southwest Circuit

This is why we are really glad we took our Bolivian jeep tour from Tupiza.  We really didn’t run into crowds like this until the last two days of our tour.

 

On our third day, we came way down in elevation to “only” about 11,000 ft.  After spending most of two days above 14,000 ft, we felt like we could almost eat the air, it was so full of oxygen! We spent our third night at a salt hotel on the shores of the Salar de Uyuni.  For the first time in three days, we had hot water, showers, and electricity all night long (yay!). Here’s the hostel:

a salt hotel

Here’s what it looked like in the lobby.  Yes, those are salt bricks, a salt table, and salt chairs.

Inside the salt hotel

Inside the salt hotel

Bolivian food is notoriously salty.  One of our running jokes in the family is that the food is so salty because, with the largest salt flats in the world in Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni), they have to find something to do with all that salt….  but I suppose they can build hotels and furniture out of it too.

 

The Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni is the big attraction of this area.  Personally, I don’t think it is quite as amazing as Bolivia’s altiplano lakes region to the south, but it is definitely eye-opening, surreal, and beautiful in its own way.  We got up on the final day of our jeep tour at 4am to drive out onto the Salar to see the sunrise. After an hour drive, we arrived at Incahausi, one of the many “islands” in the Salar.  We hiked to the top of the island for the view of the sunrise:

Watching the sunrise on Incahuasi island in the Salar de Uyuni

Watching the sunrise on Incahuasi island in the Salar de Uyuni

As the sun rose, we saw pretty much every color of the rainbow reflected in the enormous sea of salt stretching before us:

The Salar de Uyuni from Incahuasi Island at sunrise

My daughter on Incahuasi island at Salar de Uyuni

 

The Salar de Uyuni from Incahuasi Island

The Salar de Uyuni from Incahuasi Island

 

Salar de Uyuni Photos

After breakfast on the island, we drove out into the middle of the Salar, where you could hardly see the shores.  Here’s what it looks like:

The Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni

People have gotten lost out there.  It is absolutely enormous.

 

The big trend in the last decade or so with the Salar de Uyuni is to take crazy perspective photos. Were certainly not about to break a trend.  So, here’s my daughter riding her favorite llama:

My daughter riding her llama The Salar de Uyuni

My daughter riding her llama

And me having a meal:

A meal in The Salar de Uyuni

It’s not easy taking these pictures.  They’re fun, but tedious.  Here’s my boy and I fighting like Street Fighter:

Street Fighting in The Salar de Uyuni

And the llama eating some soup:
Lllama in The Salar de Uyuni

And of course:

The Salar de Uyuni

 

 

The Train Cemetary

After a quick lunch, the final stop on our four day tour was the Train Cemetary in Uyuni, where train engines have gone to die for decades.  The kids had fun climbing all over these rusty old steam engines for an hour:

Train Cemetary in Uyuni

And working out at the local gym:

Train Cemetary in Uyuni

 

Sadly, our tour of Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit was ending.  Our driver dropped us off in Uyuni, where we caught a bus to Potosi and then a taxi back home to our small pueblo Villa Abecia, Bolivia.  The Salar de Uyuni and the altiplano lakes region are by far the biggest tourist draws in Bolivia.  Even thought they sometimes feels like they are being overrun by tourists, there are actually hardly any tourists here when compared to major national parks in the United States.  It is really remote, strange, and surreal country.  Everyone in the family loved the trip.  It was something we will all remember for the rest of our lives.

 

Cheers,

Jojo Bobo

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