Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
May 282011
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.

We woke up at some crazy hour again on the fourth day of the tour so that we could see the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni.  You can read all about the Salar over at Wikipedia but the basic idea is that it is huge plane of salt (4000 mi²) that is incredibly flat (less than 1m elevation difference across its entire area).  During the wet season the Salar is flooded with a few inches of water.  This was the case when we visited and I have to say that driving out on a mirror-like plane of water at dawn was pretty cool.

We first drove to a salt hotel out on the Salar where we could mill about and take in the sunrise.  It was cold, below freezing without a doubt.  While we were waiting for the cook to prepare breakfast, we enjoyed watching the sunrise and started to take some crazy photos the Salar is known for.  The lack of recognizable objects (trees, cars, etc) in the photos allows you to play all sorts of fun perspective tricks with the camera.

After breakfast, we drove further out on the Salar to get away from other tour groups.  Our guide then helped us take all sorts of fun photos.  Some of the more ambitious backpackers had brought props all the way from home for the occasion but we had to make do with what was on hand.  Fortunately, the guide had some good ideas!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more.

A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.

Two hours into our ”fotos locas” shoot, we packed up and headed for a couple of other sights around the flats.  We stopped in one area where salt miners were working away to harvest salt and in another area where some of the Salar’s trapped brine bubbles to the surface (the Ojos del Salar).  Finally the tour wrapped up with a quick visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery where dozens of turn-of-the-century steam trains have found their final resting place.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time on the four day tour of Bolivia’s southwest.  Our traveling companions were great, the guide was excellent, the driving was responsible, and the food was delicious.  At only $160 per person it was an absolute bargain and we would strongly recommend Tupiza Tours to others!  Next up on the blog, the cities of Potosí and Sucre.

Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Southwest Circuit Day 4
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
A salt condor!
A salt condor!
A duel
A duel
Amy having some mate
Amy having some mate
A Pez dispenser
A Pez dispenser
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The evolution of man.
The evolution of man.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Ojos del Salar
Ojos del Salar
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Our final meal on the tour.
Our final meal on the tour.


May 262011
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada

Day 3 started with a visit to Laguna Colorada a short 10km from where we stayed the night before.  The laguna is one of the largest flamingo habitats in the world and three of the six species of flamingos feed here.  Like just about everything else on this tour, the lake sits at high altitude (4,270m).

James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos

We spent about an hour marveling at the flamingos and the nonstop chatter with one another.  There are three distinct species that live in this lake but they can be tricky to tell them apart.  To be honest, I am not really sure which of the three we saw.  One group was definitely the James’s Flamingo but who knows about the other two types (Chilean and Andean).

After Laguna Colorada we drove to the overly famous Arbol de Piedra.  It’s a big rock that has been eroded away at the bottom and looks vague (very vaguely) like a tree.  Like all the other tourists, we stopped and took photos wherein we pretend that it is about to fall on us.

Driving northward from the Arbol de Piedra, we passed a string of five high-altitude lagunas.  I tried to take panoramic photos of them but only three of them worked out.  By the fifth lagoon everyone in the jeep had that “oh boy, another laguna…” sarcasm about them but, in retrospect, they were all incredibly spectacular.  One tends to lose track of how incredible the landscape really is when faced with it day in and day out.

Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa

Our lunch stop was in another rock-littered valley, conveniently named the Valle de las Rocas, that was also home to a bunch of viscacha.  Chasing them about to get good photos proved to be quite a challenge.

Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!

A couple hours after lunch we rolled into the town of San Cristóbal.  We stopped right in the center and had a brief walk around.  My first impression of the place was “Civilization!  My money is actually good here…I could BUY something if I wanted to.”  I guess that is pretty normal after three days out in the middle of nowhere.  San Cristóbal is a mining town and is home to Bolivia’s largest mine.  Workers at the mine work 12 hour shifts for three months straight (no weekends off) and then get two weeks of leave.  A hard life that must be.

Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.

Colchani, a small town with about 500 people, was our resting place for the third night.  The town is located on the shore of the Salar de Uyuni and seems to eek out its existence on tourist dollars and salt production.  Our accommodations for the night were in a lodge made almost entirely out of salt.  The walls were salt, the floor was salt, and the beds were salt.  Pretty weird.  The main downside was that there was no running water which meant we were on our way to our fouth showerless day!

Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Southwest Circuit Day 3
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo footprints
Flamingo footprints
James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa
Valle de las Rocas
Valle de las Rocas
Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!
This is the “condor rock.”  I like the real ones better.
This is the “condor rock.” I like the real ones better.
A brief stop in a real town!  San Cristobal
A brief stop in a real town! San Cristobal
Lots of salt in these parts
Lots of salt in these parts
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Our room at the salt lodge.  Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.
Our room at the salt lodge. Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.

Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali

Day 2 started off nice an early.  4:30 or thereabouts, definitely within what is called the “madrugada” in Spanish.  None of us slept well that night thanks to the well-below-freezing temperatures and the 4,200m of altitude.  I slept in long-johns, a tshirt, a long-sleeve shirt, my fleece inside of a sleeping bag under three heavy wool blankets and I was still pretty cold.  Our driver loaded our stuff on top of the jeep while we chowed down on some breakfast.

We pulled out of San Antonio de Lipez around 5AM and headed for the ruins of a deserted town.  Along the way we had to forge a number of frozen-over streams.  The old mining town was one of the many places where the Spanish forced the Incans to dig for silver.  The story has it that the town is now haunted.  Visiting the town in the pre-dawn twilight gave it an even creepier feel.  The only remaining resident is this nice fluffy viscacha.

A viscacha!
A viscacha!

We pressed on through a 4,855m mountain pass with a great view of Lago Morejon and Volcano Uturuncu (6,0008m).  Frost on covered the ground that was shadowed from the sun by the small hearty shrubs that manage to flourish at this altitude.  Walking just a few yards on level ground proved to be enough to make us winded.

We descended from the pass and crossed a few more rivers – one of them was quite deep and I was happy that the door seals on our Toyota were in good shape!  Temperatures remained quite low but the intense sunshine made being outside much more bearable.  We visited another high-altitude lake where borax mining was underway.

Passing by the settlements of Quetena Chico and Quetena Grande, we entered the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna.  The  lunch stop was at some hot springs at the aptly named Aguas Calientes.  We could bathe if we wanted although I just put my feet in the water.   Once lunch was finished we crossed the Desierto de Dali and reached the shore of Laguna Verde.  The lake is free of wildlife because of the naturally-occuring arsenic in its waters.  The element gives the lake its color.  The stop at Laguna Verde was the southernmost point on our tour and we were just a short distance from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile where we had traveled a few days prior.

Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind

Heading back north we made a stop at Geisers Sol de Mañana, a geyser field just below 5000m altitude.  Most of the activity is steam vents but there are also a few boiling mud pots to be seen (if you dare go close enough).  The highest point on the tour was just a little further ahead at 5,000m (16,400ft) and we got there just in time to see another tour jeep broken down on the road.  Despite the fact that it was a competing company, we stopped (along with seven others) to lend a hand.  These guys definitely work together when things go wrong!

We made it to the village of Huaylljara just before sunset and prepared for another cold night.  Dinner was pique macho, a traditional french-fries-covered-in-everything-unhealthy dish that hit the spot.  Afterwards, we all competed around the camp’s single wood stove while we learned a new card game from our Dutch friends.  And that was that, another great day in Bolivia.

Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Southwest Circuit Day 2
Incan ruins
Incan ruins
A viscacha!
A viscacha!
Morning frost
Morning frost
Forging rivers
Forging rivers
Middle of nowhere
Middle of nowhere
Hot springs
Hot springs
Lunch at the hot springs.  Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Lunch at the hot springs. Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs).  There was veggie pique for Amy as well!
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs). There was veggie pique for Amy as well!

May 222011
Loading up in Tupiza.  There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
Loading up in Tupiza. There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.

Most tourists to Bolivia come to see the enormous Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.  Many of my friends who have visited have told stories about excellent “multi day Salar tours” that let you experience the flats and the surrounding landscape.  What neither of us realized is that these tours are mostly about the surrounding landscape and you really only spend one day on the Salar (though it is the highlight).

There are loads of companies offering tours of the Salar and you can start these tours from any number of places in Chile and Bolivia (the flats are near the border).  We had heard mixed things from other travelers about the quality of these tours and we quickly arrived at the conclusion that paying a little extra was well worthwhile.  Tupiza Tours and La Torre Tours quickly surfaced as the leaders for tours originating in Tupiza, Bolivia.  We ended up booking the 4 day, 3 night tour with Tupiza Tours for about $160 per person (included transport, food and accommodation).

Vicuñas
Vicuñas

Logistics for the tour was as follows.   We traveled in a group of four plus a driver/guide and a cook.  In our case, the driver and cook were a very pleasant husband and wife team.  We opted for a Spanish tour, though English ones were available for an extra fee.  The company paired us up with a couple from Holland, also in their late 20′s, and we turned out to be a great match.  Transportation was in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a third row of seats and our backpacks were loaded with the cooking gear and extra gasoline on the roof.  Accommodations, though rustic, were completely adequate.  We stayed in small villages along the way where they had beds, electricity, and shelter (though not always running water).  Total driving distance for the four-day trip was about a thousand kilometers and 90% of that is off-road.

Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The first day of our tour took us from Tupiza to San Antonia de Lipez.  Shortly after we left Tupiza we checked out some nice read rock formations (iron content, I think they said) and then started our climb into the mountains.  The average altitude on the four-day tour was 4,200m (13,800ft) and it wasn’t long before we were cruising away at altitude.

Shortly after we got up into the mountains we spotted a group of a dozen condors.  As it turned out, they were all feasting away on a vicuña carcass!  We stopped for a while and watched them watch us.  After the condors we found a nice place for our lunch in the middle of a large dry riverbed.  The highlight of the meal for me was some llama tamales.  At the first meal the cook seemed a bit surprised that Amy was a vegetarian despite the fact that we had explicitly told the office where we booked.  Apparently they neglected to relay this on to the cook!  Fortunately, our cook was able to adapt to this request and later meals in the tour were more vegetarian-friendly.

San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night.  (4,200m)
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night. (4,200m)

In the afternoon we stopped in to visit the village of San Pablo de Lipez as well as a few nice mountain vistas along the way to San Antonio de Lipez, our stopping point for the day.  We had an afternoon tea/coffee/mate break when we arrived and finished just in time to see the first snowfall of the year.  An excellent dinner was served a short while later we called it an early night (8PM!) due to the altitude and having to get up at some crazy time the next morning.

Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Southwest Circuit Day 1
Loading up in Tupiza.  There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
Loading up in Tupiza. There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
The rock formations of Palala just outside of Tupiza
The rock formations of Palala just outside of Tupiza
Lllamas
Lllamas
Vicuñas
Vicuñas
A lizard!
A lizard!
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Tamales with llama meat.  Tasty!
Tamales with llama meat. Tasty!
It was a bit windy on this ridgeline.  I think they called it the Paso de Diablo.
It was a bit windy on this ridgeline. I think they called it the Paso de Diablo.
We interrupted lunch (a vicuña carcass) for a group of a dozen condors.
We interrupted lunch (a vicuña carcass) for a group of a dozen condors.
The village of San Pablo de Lipez
The village of San Pablo de Lipez
Vicuñas
Vicuñas
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night.  (4,200m)
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night. (4,200m)
A storm was rolling in when we arrived.
A storm was rolling in when we arrived.
The first snow of the year in San Antonio de Lipez
The first snow of the year in San Antonio de Lipez
Drying adobe bricks
Drying adobe bricks
Afternoon tea just after arrival.
Afternoon tea just after arrival.
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Not a bad spread for a tour out to the middle of nowhere!
Not a bad spread for a tour out to the middle of nowhere!

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