Bolivia Destinations South America

The salt lakes of the Bolivian altiplano

Boulders, canyons, snow-capped mountains, flamingos, geysers, vicuñas, multicoloured lagoons, llamas, and the world’s largest salt flats.

In a matter of four days in Bolivia, you can see it all: the Wild West, frost-bitten plains, a moonscape, and a crystal earth. This is the Bolivian south-west circuit.

It starts in Tupiza, with a landscape straight out a a wild western movie, which seems appropriate since it is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end.

I spent a day on horseback, unable to hold back on classic cowboy lines straight out of the movies, as we crossed through a rocky, canyon landscape. But the truth is few tourists come to Tupiza, and those that do linger only long enough to arrange a tour to Bolivia’s salt flats.

Touring the Bolivian Salt Flats

These tours cover a vast expanse of barren desert landscape with snow-capped peaks puncturing the horizon. The peaks stand between 5,500 and 6,000 metres, but the high plateau, which hovers at about 5,000 metres, belies their height.

You ride in a jeep with 4-6 other backpackers. It can be pretty squishy in the back seats, but if you’ve got amiably companions, everyone knows to share the love (and food!) around.

You’ll have a set itinerary, but it’s best as well to expect the unexpected: this is South America, after all.

Mountains on the Bolivian altiplano

Day 1

The first day comprised driving through repetitive landscape to reach an isolated village for the night.

Be warned, as we were,  that the accommodation is basic. The cold was something else up here, and within minutes of leaving the jeep we had all rummaged through our backpacks to insulate ourselves with a heavy layer of clothing. There was, naturally, no central heating in the shack we stayed in, so sleeping in all our clothes was the only guarantee of keeping us even mildly warm.

The advantage of such high altitudes, small communities, and the lack of electricity is the majesty of the night sky. In those parts, you don’t just see one or two stars through polluted smog. That first night, the sky was awash with stars, planets, and swirling mists that taunted my imagination.

Day 2 and 3

Days two and three crossed through some beautiful landscape. There are numerous lagoons, where royal peaks are reflected in crystalline water while peach-coloured flamingos parade about in search of food and mates.

Several boulder-strewn valleys allow the more adventurous to stretch their legs – and arms – to climb the highest rocky outposts for the best views to the horizon.

All tours from Tupiza to the salt flats are much the same and at each destination, such as this incredible one below, you meet a cavalcade of jeeps topped with the blue canvas that covers your luggage.

Flamingos are a common sight on the Bolivian plateau.

The final night of the tour is spent in Uyuni, which, much to the dismay of my fellow travellers, did not boast the most resplendent aspects of human civilisation they now craved.

Our jeep drove through the desolate and poverty-stricken back streets to our hostel, a run-down joint without running water or electricity.

But in every supposed shithole, there’s a gem and I was so attracted by Uyuni’s central plaza and vibrant atmosphere that I chose to stay an additional two days and booked further accommodation while the other travellers raced desperately to the bus station in search of a ticket out, to La Paz.

Day 4

The final day of our tour was spent at the salt lakes.

So much has been gushed about the Salar de Uyuni, that I’m slightly ashamed to admit I was disappointed.

Perhaps it was merely that our drivers didn’t carry us far enough into the salar – the largest in the world – to show us how the saline waters were supposed to perfectly mirror the sky.

The salt flats of Bolivia are the largest in the world.

We saw instead an endless salt-white sheet of ground stretching into the distance with a backdrop of blue sky.

Sure, it was an uncommon sight in itself, but the purpose of the visit seemed solely to take size-illusion photographs instead of enjoying the natural phenomenon. Does this increase the enjoyment of the journey, or distract travellers from really noticing what they’re looking at?

But there’s a gem in every experience, and for me, it was sitting atop the roof of the jeep with the wind whipping my hair as we rode across the snow-white expanse.

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