Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
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!

Victory!
Victory!

Getting across the border into Bolivia was easy enough.  We walked to the border just after sunrise and waited around for about half an hour while the authorities on the Argentine side dealt with some families that were crossing with children.  Once we were stamped out off Argentina we walked 50 yards across the bridge and presented ourselves at Bolivian immigration.  There was no queue when we arrived and they gladly accepted our $135 visa fee and, in return, put some shiny stickers in our passports.  Nationals of most countries (including places like Yemen) don’t need to pay for visas to Bolivia, however, US policies towards tourists have led Bolivian towards a policy of reciprocity.

Our first Bolivian bus.  Villazón to Tupiza.
Our first Bolivian bus. Villazón to Tupiza.

The Bolivian border town of Villazón was not nearly as seedy as we were led to believe.  The town was actually quite clean, had a nice square and lively commercial activity.  Our first goal was to withdraw some Bolivianos from the town’s one and only ATM.  I requested 2,500 Bs from the machine (about $300) and after the usual whirling noises it dispensed my card and a receipt but no cash.  Doh!

There were some bank employees standing around waiting for the bank to open and they advised Amy that she should be able to withdraw 1,000 Bs from the machine without a problem.  There was some talk of the machine only being able to dispense ten bills at a time.  She gave it a try and the same thing played out – no cash.  By this point the bank was open so we went in and Amy spoke to the supposed manager of the bank.  In a very couldn’t-care-less manner he told her that they knew the ATM was broken yet there was no sign on the machine.  Perfect.

Tupiza's central plaza
Tupiza’s central plaza

Time for the backup plan.  Good old US dollars.  We hit up a couple of cambios (currency exchange shops) before we found one that would accept the two wrinkled $20 bills that I had handy.  They gave me a half-decent rate and we had enough money to get out of Villazón on the bus.

Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza.  Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza. Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.

The drive to Tupiza is only about 60 miles but it takes about three hours thanks to the crappy roads.  Frustratingly we drove alongside of a beautiful paved highway most of the way but none of the bridges were complete.  We are definitely in Bolivia now!  The scenery was interesting through and we made it to Tupiza on time.

The main drag of Tupiza
The main drag of Tupiza

After getting to Tupiza we spent the better part of a day working on the money situation.  The first step was to get in touch with our banks about the ATM withdrawals in Villazón.  Sure enough, both has been debted from our account so we were (and still are) around $440 in the hole.  Both of our banks have opened investigations into the matter so hopefully we will see the money back one day.

Tupiza doesn’t have a single ATM machine that accepts foreign cards.  Tourists have three options: 1) exchange dollars, 2) have a local bank pull a cash advance against your VISA or MC or 3) cash travelers checks.  We explored all three options and eventually decided on the cash advance.  Cashing the travelers checks turned out to be an incredible ripoff at 18% away from official rate.  We had plenty of US dollars but we wanted to hold those for emergencies.

Processing the cash advance also turned out to be a pain.  Despite placing travel notices on our accounts the cash advance transactions were denied at the bank.  After a handful of expensive phone calls back to the states (there are no pay phones through which you can call collect!) we had the issues sorted out with the bank.  When it was all said and done, we got some cash from bank within about 5% of the official rate including all the fees.  It took a day and a lot of running back and forth between phone centers, our hotel, and the bank but we got it all sorted out.  Not a smooth start to our time in Bolivia, fortunately things got much better.

WARNING TO OTHER TRAVELERS:  When the guidebook says to bring cash, it means it!  Brings lots of crisp and new US notes to avoid hassles at dinky border towns.

Boliviano Blues
Our first Bolivian bus.  Villazón to Tupiza.
Our first Bolivian bus. Villazón to Tupiza.
I sure hope this thing fits!
I sure hope this thing fits!
Tupiza's central plaza
Tupiza’s central plaza
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza.  Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza. Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Breakfast at Hotel Mitru
Breakfast at Hotel Mitru
The main drag of Tupiza
The main drag of Tupiza
Not a bad place to relax before the four-day trip into the wild.
Not a bad place to relax before the four-day trip into the wild.
Victory!
Victory!
My first fried chicken in Bolivia.  They love it!
My first fried chicken in Bolivia. They love it!

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