A Journey to the End of the Earth: Exploring Bolivia’s Salt Flats (part one)

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Exploring Bolivia's Salt Flats

I fully intended to finish the chronological coverage of the five months I spent in Peru and Bolivia last year before I wrote about any other destinations I visited after my return.  In fact my original intention was to have completed this chronological coverage before this year even began.

Yet here I am in the final month of 2015, and one of my most incredible and unforgettable experiences in Bolivia remains untold.  I’ve written about my recent return to the beautiful Spanish city of Granada, my road trip through Andalusia’s pueblos blancos, my city break in Cologne, my birthday trip to the incredible clifftop monasteries of Meteora, and my long weekend uncovering the crumbling charms of ancient Porto, but my adventures through the awe-inspiring landscapes of Bolivia’s Salt Flats are nothing more than a jumble of quickly scribbled notes and unedited photographs.

To be completely honest, the concept of writing about the Salar de Uyuni scared me.  How could I ever do justice to somewhere so amazing?  How could my words ever portray the real beauty and enormity of a part of the world so unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited?

There was also the fact that, in between my full-time day job, and writing assignments for the two other companies I currently work for, I was struggling to keep to my once a week posting schedule on my own website.  What I needed were a number of short (it’s all relative; I struggle to write posts under 1000 words) articles that I could write over two to three evenings, which would then eventually free up enough time for me to write a longer, more in-depth and engaging post about my 4-day tour through Bolivia’s Salt Flats.

But then the festive season happened and my social calendar started filling up, which in turn meant that the hours available for me to dedicate to writing went down.

You’d have thought that after two years of blogging and working full-time, I would have figured out an effective way of managing the two, but unfortunately I haven’t and it is a constant (albeit enjoyable!) struggle for me.

So, whilst at this stage I’m not sure how well this post is going to turn out, I’d rather have it written than unwritten, so here goes….

Salt Flats

Unlike many travellers, we’d made the decision to start our Salt Flats tour in Tupiza rather than Uyuni.  It was a longer journey from Potosí but meant that our tour would culminate, rather than begin with, our arrival at the Salt Flats.

Tupiza is a strange little town.  Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end at the hands of the Bolivian army near Tupiza, and travel agents advertise horseback tours to the exact location of their demise, yet when we enquired about the possibility of going on one (I liked the idea of playing cowboy for a day), this opportunity strangely became unavailable.

“There’s not much to see at the site”, we were told by Tupiza Tours.

“But can you take us?”, I enquired.

The lady shook her head.  “It’s not so popular, we have not enough people wanting to go.”

And so the two days we had to kill in Tupiza, in order to wait for an English-speaking guide to accompany us on our Salt Flats tour, were spent searching for ATMs that would dispense enough money to cover the cost of our trip (tip: choose Spanish language rather than English and you’ll have access to a larger amount of cash), attempting to find a cafe that actually served “café” (coffee) and avoiding the local  madman, who drove around in his wheelchair with a pet monkey on his lap, shouting obscenities at passersby.  The restaurant owners even locked their doors when they spotted him nearby.

We did however manage to make the short hike up to Cerro Corazón de Jesús, to gaze across at the fiery red rocks of the surrounding countryside.

Tupiza

I’ll be honest, the tour didn’t get off to a great start.  We were kept waiting, moved from jeep to jeep, asked to load and unload our backpacks multiple times, and all without a word of communication from Tupiza Tours.  It turns out that a couple who were booked on to the trip, and who were supposed to be travelling in the jeep in front of the one we were eventually settled in, had not showed up.  This resulted in the two solo travellers in the other jeep having to pay an extra B200 (approximately £20) in order for the tour to actually go ahead.  Consequently we left an hour later than everyone else.

And then we had the slowest driver in the world.

Salt FlatsSalt Flats

To add insult to injury, my dietary request for a non-meat option was completely ignored (or misunderstood, who knows!) at lunchtime, which meant that whilst everyone else was tucking into a nice warm beef goulash, I was expected to dine on a dish of cold rice and tinned tuna.

Fortunately, after that point we left the bad luck (and incompetent management) behind us, and I really started to enjoy the beauty of the spectacular landscapes we were driving through.

Salt FlatsSalt FlatsSalt Flats

We stopped regularly in order to stretch our legs, photograph cacti, and remind ourselves just how deceptive that rich blue sky could be.  It was freakin’ cold outside!

Bolivia’s southern altiplano sits at an average altitude of 3700 metres above sea level.  That’s a whopping 2356 metres above the highest point in the UK.  Whilst being higher up often means that you’re above the cloud cover (hence the clear, often sunny skies), the reduction in atmospheric pressure brings the temperatures down, and although the stunning mineral-rich, geothermal landscapes will metaphorically do it for you, the lack of oxygen up here literally takes your breath away.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that a Salt Flats tour encompasses a lot more than the salt flats themselves.  Bolivia’s southwestern corner is an empty, desolate and enormous wilderness scattered with mining settlements, quinoa-producing villages, and endemic species of plants and wildlife.  Public transportation is scarce, and communication is solely by radio; there are no phones out in the Southwest circuit.

Salt Flats

It’s an environment that creates a paradox of emotions; whilst at once the enormity of your surroundings can make you feel utterly tiny and insignificant, there is also the overwhelming sensation that you are an intrinsic part of something much bigger than you’ll ever be able to comprehend.

Salt Flats

By the time we reached our ‘hostel’ – a simple brick building with concrete beds and nowhere near enough blankets to ward off the plummeting nighttime temperatures – we’d driven through all manor of stunning, other-wordly landscapes.  From vast areas of arid scrubland and towering mountain peaks, to deep river-carved valleys flanked by cacti, and endless deserts as far as the eye could see.

And day one was just the beginning.

You can read parts two, three, and four of my adventures into the Bolivian wilderness  by clicking on the appropriate links here.

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Bolivia's Salt Flats

Mentioned in this post
  1. Tupiza
    City in Bolivia

    Sud Chichas Bolivia
  2. Uyuni
    City in Bolivia

    Uyuni Bolivia
Series Navigation<< Mineral-rich Lakes, Geysers and Hot Springs: Exploring Bolivia’s Salt Flats (part two)Perspective-skewed Photographs and an Island Covered with Cactus: Exploring Bolivia’s Salt Flats (part four) >>

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6 Responses to A Journey to the End of the Earth: Exploring Bolivia’s Salt Flats (part one)

  1. Laia December 21, 2015 at 9:30 PM #

    Great post Kiara! I agree that Uyuni is an amazing place, and honestly it scares me too to write about it! I don’t know where I’ll find the words… but it’s definitely a place that cannot remain untold.

    I had a similar experience in the sense that the place was overwhelming but the tour company so-so. They came to pick me up one hour later (and I was waiting in the cold), then transferred me to another company without notice and nothing was well organized. I took a 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and I think it follows a similar route than the one you took from Tupiza because we also visited the Salt Flats on the last day. It’s good you got a tour guide in English, our guide didn’t speak English so I had to translate for the others.

    Anyway… it was all worth! 🙂
    Laia recently posted…The 10 best experiences of my round the world solo tripMy Profile

    • Kiara Gallop December 21, 2015 at 10:14 PM #

      Fortunately our tour did improve after the initial mix up, and the following three days were fun and well-organised – with the exception of mild carbon monoxide poisoning on the last day. But that’s a story for another day! Sounds like your group were incredibly lucky to have a native Spanish speaker on board 🙂

  2. Anna December 23, 2015 at 1:05 PM #

    Wow, the landscapes you drove past look stunning already! I’m looking forward to more pictures of the Salt Flats in Part 2! I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be living out there in such a desolate land… with no phones! Really looks like you’ve gone back in time a couple hundred years. And I totally know what you mean about being afraid that your writing won’t do a place justice. I feel that way a lot, and sadly, my solution is to just not write about them at all. But sometimes, I do think just sharing some pictures and writing about your experience however you can is still better than nothing at all. I love having old posts to look back on!
    Anna recently posted…Wanderful Christmastime (illustration)My Profile

    • Kiara Gallop December 25, 2015 at 10:51 PM #

      I totally agree that even sharing a few photos of somewhere amazing is better than nothing at all, and the longer you put off writing about somewhere, the more your memories fade and the harder it is to write about! I’ve discovered that about my Salt Flats experience – although I have notes, I’ve found that it’s a lot more difficult to describe how somewhere made you feel a long time after the event; you lose that emotional connection. And yes, I love re-reading old posts and re-living the memories 🙂

  3. Anje December 30, 2015 at 7:25 AM #

    These photos are stunning Kiara! It’s great that you did your trip the other way around; going against the stream adds for way more excitement and it’s almost as if you see a place in a whole new light (in my opinion).
    The landscapes look amazing, can’t wait to see and read the next post!

    • Kiara Gallop December 30, 2015 at 4:39 PM #

      Thank you Anje 🙂 and I totally agree – if we’d done it the other way around, we would have started at the Salt Flats (the main reason we all book the tour in the first place) which would have meant that the rest of the tour may have felt like a bit of an anti-climax in my opinion. The way we did it, the scenery just kept getting better and better, and watching the sun rise over the Salt Flats from Isla Incahuasi (cactus island) on the final day was a brilliant culmination of all of our experiences up until that point. The second post is up on the blog now if you want to have a read!

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