Before the whole world went into “pause mode” because of the Coronavirus (yes, the virus and the quarantine even arrived to South America, for those who didn’t know!), we had the chance to discover the region of South Lípez and Uyuni Salt Flats, from Tupiza. I had already completed this tour one year and a half earlier but the landscapes are so fantastic that it was obvious I would accompany Ricaurte and my friend Mathilde in this adventure 😉
Stopping in Tupiza
We arrived in Tupiza from Tarija in early March and spent a day there before leaving for the tour. Mathilde did horse ride (the town of Tupiza is in the heart of big mountains and red canyons, which can be discovered on horseback as I had done the year before) while we did some good sales of our jewels.
We decided to leave with the agency of our hostel, TerrAutentica, where Cintia knew how to welcome us with a sincere smile and a very motivating dynamism. She convinced us of the professionalism of the agency and the quality of their service… so much so that we did not even try to compare with another agency!
Day 1 – From Tupiza to the Andean Wildlife Reserve Eduardo Avaroa
We all gathered at 7 am at the agency to equip the cars, meet our guide Edwin and our cook Santosa, who would take care of us for the next 4 days. We left with another group in parallel, entirely composed of girls, almost all French… 1 boy (Ricaurte) facing 8 girls, there was one quite happy (or not)!
We started to go up the Quebrada de Palala and stopped at El Sillar, a point with a perfect view over this immense canyon full of large hairy cacti.
We stopped a little further in a village (not sure you could call it a village considering the size) to have our breakfast, and then took again the road until meeting our first lamas. So irresistible but not so sociable unfortunately!
But I learnt during this trip that the llama is a faithful animal, which only follows its master and doesn’t support any other human being. The little “earrings” they wear let you know who owns them. They are raised in this region for their wool and meat, which is best when a llama is between 7 and 10 years old. Before, the meat is too tender, after it is too hard! Finally, the gestation time of a llama is 11 months, almost a year!
The llama chapter being closed, we can resume. Unfortunately we didn’t stop at Ciudad del Encanto, a place that I loved so much the last time. Indeed this place is not accessible during the rainy season, as the road is not passable.
So we stopped for lunch in a village a bit further, then continued towards Pueblo Fantasma. These ruins located at 4,690 m above sea level used to be a centre of slavery (the Spanish colonists exploited the natives to extract gold, silver, copper and other local underground riches), until a strange epidemic decimated the entire village without even giving the inhabitants time to bury their dead (I know, it’s a bit odd to tell these stories during this period). Legends say that it is dangerous to go to this village at night, because there live ghosts and other strange phenomena…
We then passed by a viewpoint at an altitude of 4,800 m, overlooking the Laguna Morejón under a threatening sky and a very cold wind. There was still the last step before reaching our hostel, during which we witnessed a blazing sunset, offering magnificent contrasts with the snowy surroundings.
We paid the entrance to the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (which we would visit the next day) and finally arrived in our accommodation. The first day is always the most demanding in terms of distance, offering relatively few breaks and many kilometres to cover. We had a tea, played some music, had dinner and all went to rest with pleasure.
Day 2 – Llamas in heat, thermal baths, flamingos and geysers
We woke up early, had our breakfast and then loaded the cars, before leaving under a bright sun and blue sky. We stopped shortly after at a farm where the llamas were still locked up (their masters bring them in for the night and let them graze freely during the day). Laughing session, photo session… everyone was completely in love and we could have spent the day listening to their hilarious squeaks, watching their funny way of eating (on one side then the other) and studying their strange sexual mores (they were in heat at this time of the year and we saw several copulating, up to two at once on the same female!).
We left reluctantly when Edwin called us to return to the car. But we still had a long program for the day, and so many beautiful places to discover! Our next stop was Laguna Hedionda, taking its name from its smell of sulphur (“hedionda” means “stinky” in Spanish), where we saw a few flamingos in the distance. We also saw vicuñas (which live in freedom and are not domesticated, contrary to the llamas), which we would see on numerous occasions during the following days.
We saw many more flamingos at the next stop at Laguna Kollpa. This white-tinted lagoon is used for borax, a substance used in the creation of cosmetic products.
We then passed by the Salar de Chalviri (whose salt is no longer exploited noaways) before going to the Desierto de Dali, named after the famous painter for his landscapes reminding of some of his paintings. Then came the long-awaited break: the thermal baths! A bath at 38 ° C with breath-taking views of the volcanoes around…
After this great moment of relaxation, we had lunch and then left for the Geysers Sol de Mañana, located at 4,900 m above sea level. A striking place with clouds of smoke escaping continuously and with bubbling holes, where everyone can get up close (at their own risk).
We finally finished with the Laguna Colorada, a place that I still remembered a very special from my first tour. And the magic worked once again: a flaming red lagoon, at the foot of a perfectly shaped volcano, and populated by thousands of flamingos and hundreds of vicuñas. The climax of a day already so rich incredible discoveries and place.
There were still a lot of kilometers to travel to reach our accommodation, so we hit the road around 4:30 p.m. We arrived at the end of the day at Villa Mar, an amazing village at the foot of large orange cliffs. Our hostel itself was built on the rock, which formed part of its walls! We all had some rest, our dinner and went to bed.
Day 3 – Fantastic rocks at the Salar de Uyuni
We woke up once again under a bright sun and after some far too delicious pancakes, went for a walk in the village while Edwin was getting the car ready. We first climbed this cliff located just above the hostel, from where we had a beautiful view of the surroundings. Some children were going up at the same time, heading towards their school located further on the cliff… we definitely don’t have the same childhood in the four corners of the world!
We then descended to a small river, which flows through the village, surrounded by a green bed. This quiet little village is most charming and we wouldn’t have minded to stay longer. Edwin soon picked us up, and we set off to discover some amazing rock formations nearby. First the World Cup, then the camel, and Ciudad Italia Perdida (named after an Italian got lost there), some large cliffs that we were able to climb and explore for a while.
Once back in the car, we went to Laguna Negra, a dark lagoon surrounded by high rocks, and populated by many species of birds, vizcaches (similar to a hare) and llamas. We played some music there, enjoying the beautiful acoustics of the place.
We then passed briefly through the Cañon de l’Anaconda, a dizzying canyon so named for the shape of the river that flows through it. The road then passed along whole fields of quinoa in bloom, absolutely magnificent (red, yellow or green colours).
We had lunch in a small village, crossed another beautiful canyon and stopped at the village of Julaca. Like the year before, this stop was not my favourite. This semi-ghost village keeps the remains of its old train station (located on the railway line transporting borax between Chile and Uyuni) and has several shops offering over-expensive craft beers (coca, honey, quinoa…), served with reggaeton music out loud. We took a beer but had it it as far as possible from this unbearable “music”.
We still had the last part of the journey to reach Puerto Chuvica, the village at the entrance of the Salar. We let our bags in our salt hostel (from the walls to the beds and tables, everything is made of salt), had a break and then left to watch the sunset from the salt flats. A sublime moment, whose photos will transcribe our emotion much better than any word…
Once the sun was down, we returned to the car and had the surprise to be greeted by a small cocktail in the colours of Bolivia, prepared by the good care of Edwin. We shared it with joy and surprise, and then returned to the hostel, where a bottle of wine and some delicious vegetarian lasagna were waiting for us.
As there was the birthday of two girls from the other group accompanying us, the evening ended with a surprise cake and cocktail. We then started to play some music with Ricaurte, and soon started a great party! We have never had such an enthusiastic audience to dance and the evening went on… I gave up at one in the morning but others went to bed at 3 am… knowing that we had to get up at 4 am to watch the sunrise!
Day 4 – Sunrise and music at the Salar
We all left with swollen eyes and some heads a little heavy. Warmly dressed, we started to wait for the sunrise. We could not attend it from Incahuasi Island as it usually is the case, as it can be more difficult to access the island during the rainy season. Once the sun had risen, however, we finally left for the island as the salar was not so flooded this day (but it can only take 30 minutes of rain for the salar to be submerged and impassable by 4×4).
This island is populated by millennial and gigantic cacti (they grow one centimetre per year), and offers magnificent views of the salt desert (2,500 km2 in total). We explored it while Santosa was preparing our breakfast, which we ate with appetite and joy once back to the cars.
Then came the time that everyone was waiting for: perspective photos in the desert! It’s not as easy as it looks like but it’s worth the effort. We also played a few songs; what could be a better place than a salt desert to play music?
We finally finished with a brief stop by the first salt hostel built at the gates of the salar, then a souvenir break by a small tourist village, lunch … and it was time to go! Mathilde left for Potosi and Sucre, while Ricaurte and I returned with Edwin, Santosa and Sabrina (with whom we shared the whole trip) to Tupiza.
I then met Mathilde a few days later in Sucre, before her return to France… which she never had, for the situation you all know today. She therefore left for Peru, while Ricaurte and I remain in Tupiza until further notice.
To be continued…
Hostal Valle Hermoso 1: 50 BOB per person in dormitory or double room, breakfast included, price negotiable if staying longer. Hostel located 5 minutes from the bus terminal, with kitchen, sun terrace, bathrooms on all floors (and very hot water), and above all, the most welcoming staff who make you feel at home.
4D / 3N tour from Tupiza to Uyuni, passing through the South Lípez region, with TerrAutentica Agency (agency of the Valle Hermoso 1 hostel): Price negotiated at 1100 BOB per person, for 4 people in the car. Included all meals (delicious): breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner (all with vegetarian option), water and soda, aperitif and wine on the last evening. Excellent guide, always smiling and attentive. Rustic accommodation with a paying shower (10 BOB) but pleasant.
I had already done it this way last year but it is really better to leave from Tupiza than from Uyuni: fewer people, fewer and more reliable agencies, tour that ends with the best with the salar for the end… highly recommendable! The agency is very serious, and our guide Edwin and our cook Santosa very attentive.
The price does not include the entrances to the places visited, ranging from 10 to 150 BOB depending on the places. Prices may change over time, check with the agency before leaving.