From Salta Argentina it is a seven and a half hour drive north to the border town of La Quiaca where we would dismount, walk across the border and voila we would be in Villazon, Bolivia. What could go wrong?
Early Morning Bus
Having experienced and enjoyed the luxury of Argentine Cama buses, we left Salta on the Balut Semi-Cama bus which was the only option available with one day advance booking. The seven and a half hour bus journey set us back 390ARS ($25CAD) per person. Knowing we were leaving Argentina, we strategically used up the last of our pesos to buy snacks and essentials (overpriced tooth paste, shampoo etc). We shopped so well, we walked out of the supermarket with just 14ARS.
Turns out we needed a bit more to get out of Argentina. The Salta to La Quiaca bus route has a baggage racket that we didn’t know about. Mandatory tips for the privilege of loading your bags onto the bus. Technically we still had enough to get us across the border. We watched the passengers in front of us each hand over 2ARS. Two times five bags, 10 ARS, phew! Colleen passes over 14ARS to get rid of it all. Except the baggage guy demands 20ARS for our bags or “no get on the bus, Gringo”. We end up handing over our last $1 USD bill with 10ARS before we can hop on for the ride.
The bus was old and dingy with cramped half-recline seats. The baño was disgusting and the door didn’t close properly, let alone lock. The service was non-existent. But the views along the way were breath-taking.
So if you pay to put your bags on it only stands to reason that you have to pay to get them off. I was getting the bags when the baggage guy held back the last one and said “money”.
Well, Houston we have a problem. I told him to hang on as my wife has the money. Fortunately, Colleen had a wad of bills ready to hand over. I get the last hostage bag and the bag guy is pretty pleased with the small wad.
Colleen is impatient to get going. She says, “get the bags and let’s go”.
Turns out Colleen rifled through everything looking for some small USD bills. She found a Canadian $5. But who wants that.
Fearing for our back packs and not wanting to ‘tip’ a large USD bill for undeserving bad service, Colleen made a command decision and folded a 2,000 Cambodian Khmer Riel bill into the couple of two peso bills we had left. Though the same colour as a 200ARS note, it was more than prudent to briskly walk away lest he see it was the wrong currency.
We don’t feel bad. Even though the whopping 2,000 Cambodian Khmer Riels note is worthless (60 cents Canadian), we would have had enough pesos to settle the ‘tip’ at both ends if we hadn’t been charged double in the first place.
Finding Bolivian Customs
We walked the short distance from the bus station to the border. We exited Argentina with a stamp and a shuffle. Oh, and a white receipt stamped by the Argentine Customs official.
Thinking the adjacent building was Bolivian Customs (we read blog posts about ‘how to’ this land border crossing), we loitered at the window waiting for someone to help us. We needed an immigration stamp into Bolivia.
Three different immigration officials at three different locations waived us through – no need for a stamp… okay! Let’s see if this works when we try to leave….
So, standing in Villazon it turns out the bus station has moved and is about 4km away. Again, contrary to all these recent blog posts we read in preparation.
After weighing our new options, we decided that a taxi was the quickest and easiest way to Tupiza, about 90km north. The first taxi driver is a non-starter because we can’t understand him. So we flag down a couple of options with no bargaining success.
Finally we settle on the fourth guy who is willing to make the trip for the same 200BOB ($37.43 CAD) as the first three guys. He was a refreshingly sensible driver The only nerve wracking part was approaching the Bolivian Army check point – but they waived us through with no problem.
We arrived in Tupiza and checked into the very classy Butch Cassidy Hostal. There really isn’t much choice in Tupiza, or that said in most of Bolivia.
In all honesty, it was clean, we had private bathrooms, the staff was friendly, and it had a decent breakfast. The coffee was better than most of the hotels in South America – and it was instant!!
The real Butch Cassidy escaped the US law and headed for Bolivia to rob mines and trains (just like in the movie). He and his partner, the Sundance Kid, were buried in the town of San Vincente about 100km away from Tupiza.
The Salt Flats Tour – Tupiza to Salar di Uyuni
To drive into the Salar di Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni) you need to take a tour and most operators depart from the town of Uyuni. Our research suggested that the better tour companies are in Tupiza. We also read that the itinerary and accommodations were essentially identical regardless of which company you choose.
So we looked at just two tour companies that had the best Tripadvisor reviews. Based on price, we selected Torres Tours. They provided excellent service. And our driver and shared cook were pretty awesome.
The trip was 4 days and 3 nights. We opted out of the English speaking guide as it would mean losing a seat in the jeep (and being less comfortable). We shared our cook with another Land Cruiser that had two groups – two ladies from Switzerland and a couple from Buenos Aries.
The Silar (what I like to call Mordor)
A few kilometres outside of Tupiza these amazing eroded rock formations stretch hundreds of meters into the sky. They are amazing to look at.
True story – One of the problems of going with just a Spanish speaking driver…
He spoke and I thought I understood that we would get out of the Land Cruiser and take photos. Sounds good. Ben waited in the jeep…
What I didn’t understand, let alone Ben, was that he was going to drive down the road about 500m and wait for us to walk up to him so we could enjoy the view.
When we caught up to the vehicle all Ben could say was “I kept thinking oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, now what do I do”. Over and over again. Although a little rattled I think he was more excited by the opportunity to freely swear like a drunken sailor without consequences.
Ciudad del Encanto
Another unique rock formation that looks like an ‘enchanted city’. We drove by one area and turned to head towards this location which was simply amazing. The only inhabitants, aside from temporary tourists, were the rabbits.
Lunch – Rio San Pablo
We stopped for lunch at a small mining town and Porfe (our cook) dished out potato salad, pork milanese, and lots of fruit.
“Ghost Town” was a mining town built in 1640 by the Spanish to excavate for gold, platinum and silver. It sits at 4,690m above sea level.
A small town that has about 40 families that rely on mining, llamas, and the tourist industry. Our home for the night. Dinner was late in arriving as Porfe (our cook) made everything from scratch once we arrived. The meal was fantastic. We were surprised with a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate New Years Eve. Everyone was pretty tired so we had a token toast and went off to bed.
The first lagoon we visited set the stage for all the others. They are different colours largely due to the percentage of borax and other chemicals spewed out from old volcanoes. The flamingoes are unaffected by the chemicals as they search for food.
Llamas and Desert
The lagoon looks like it is covered in ice and snow but it is really just heavy concentrations of borax. Ruined buildings dot the edge of the lagoon as it was once mined for the borax.
Our route took us further south close to the border of Argentina and Chile. The views of the mountains and the landscape are incredible.
Desierto de Dali
The desert area has a very surreal feel much like the works of Salvador Dali. It is not clear whether Dali was inspired by this desert or not. You be the judge …
Aguas Termales – 4,300m Above Sea Level
We stopped at the hot springs for a much needed soak after the dust and grime of the desert (and the fact that last night’s hostel only offered cold showers). A relaxing hot plunge followed by a freezing drying off period – the temperature was about 10 degrees (celsius) so I guess you could say we were freeze-dried! Lunch was served right after – spicy hamburger patties, steamed potatoes and vegetables.
Our next stop was an area covered in murky pools of steaming liquid and blowing steam vapours. The heat was intense and welcome against the biting cold wind. There are no barriers so you can get as close as you dare to the geysers. Given the brains of some tourists this may become a problem in the future.
The last stop for the day was at our hostel for the night, Huaylla Jara, and then an excursion to the Coloured Lagoon, 4,300m above sea level. Ben and Colleen opted out so Hannah, Emma and I visited the site. It is a walking trail up a hill and around the perimeter of the lagoon. The wind was fiercely intense and we were pelted with sand as we walked along. All I could think of was the Star Trek episode when Harry Mudd is met for the first time offering wives to lithium miners on Rigel XII.
Huaylla Jara – Hostal
Similar to our first night, our second night’s accommodation was five to a room in a hostal. Everything was fine until Colleen discovered that the sheets had not been changed from the previous occupant(s). Colleen has much more to say about this… and it’s more than just ‘ick’.
This was the only down side to our Salt Flats trip.
Always a bright side – Porfe, our cook, made Pique Macho, which was a great feast.
Arbal de Piedra
The area is named after the most famous rock formation which looks like a stone tree (or arbal de piedra). There is a series of rocks in the area which rest on the desert sand.
The day of the Lagoons
Heading north we encounter five different lagoons. The water is lower than normal so the colours are not as spectacular as normal according to our driver.
Continuing north we stop to view the active volcano, Ollague, which is 5,869m above sea level. A plume of smoke (fumarole) can be seen that reaches up to 100m in the air. The last eruption was in 1903 according to wikipedia.
Our last lagoon stop – we were on the brink of Lagoon Fatigue. This lagoon is amongst the largest and is known as the Black Lagoon. On the far side a farmer attends to his flock of llamas. We walked in-between huge rock formations.
Valle de las Rocas
We made good time following the highway from Ollague, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia. We slowed down only to visit the valley of the rocks.
Juliaca – An Anachronism for The Old West
Our last major stop for the day was in the small town of Juliaca. It is a train stop between Ollague, Chile and Uyuni, Bolivia which looks to be rarely used. We stopped at the one tienda (store) that was open and soon discovered it was so the drivers could borrow a welding kit to fix the front door of the other vehicle. The town was pretty much vacant with dust blowing through the town. I half expected to see Clint Eastwood drift on through.
Salar De Uyuni
We drove for a couple more hours to our final destination, the Hotel de Sal in Villa Candelaria. The drive included quinoa farms along the way in various stages of growth. We ended the day at a hotel made entirely of salt. This was our third and final night’s accommodation. The room, the walls, the night stand, the tables, and the chairs are all made of salt bricks. Even the bed platform. Fortunately not the mattress.
We were up and on the road at 04:30 am to see the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). The temperature was around -5 degrees so it was cold. Again, because of the lack of our Spanish we didn’t realize that we would climb up an island to view the sunrise. As a result I didn’t bring my backpack or extra warm clothes. Along with the occupants from the other vehicle we were the only witnesses to the sunrise which was amazing.
The Middle of the Salar de Uyuni
After breakfast we headed towards the centre of the Salt Flats to take some (maybe not so) unique photographs.
We finished our trip in the town of Uyuni. It is a small town with an airport to cater to the tourism of the Salt Flats and doesn’t offer much else. We said good-bye to our tour group and headed off for the next adventure …
Tupiza to Salar di Uyuni Tour – Cost & Good Things to Know
As usual, the photos don’t quite capture the stunning vistas we enjoyed. It was simply the most surreal and unique scenery we’ve seen so far and we’re happy we didn’t skip the Tupiza to Uyuni journey in Bolivia.
Aside from the questionable bedding, we thoroughly enjoyed our Tupiza tour. It was a pricey excursion for the five of us, but the per person cost doesn’t sound too bad.
We’d read that it was cheaper booking the tours on arrival in Tupiza or Uyuni rather than directly online. And we’d also read that we shouldn’t pay more than 1,100BOB per person for the three night four day Salt Flats tour from Tupiza. We had no problem booking the day before departure and negotiated the price down easily.
All the tours are similar, regardless of the company. It’s the driver, cook and most especially the vehicle that makes the trip. Oh, and the other passengers in your group of course.
We continually saw the same groups from other tour companies on our route and we all ended at the same place each night. With the same shared toilets, the same common room, the same shared rooms and the same icky bedding. Many of the other vehicles were in pretty rough shape.
There was an option to book the same tour with ‘upgraded’ 3 star accommodations in hostals. This would have cost us an extra $533USD as a group of five.
Torre Tours included sleeping bags for free just in case we got cold. Though we didn’t unwrap them (drycleaning?). Generally these are for rent.
In addition to the 1,100BOB tour fee ($250CAD) per person, all the entrance fees were extra. The 5,500BOB tour fee and all the entrance fees are cash only.
All meals and snacks were included. Very good meals.
We had to pay extra to use some baños along the way, generally 2BOB but as high as 6BOB ($.075 to $1.12CAD). Turns out one of our children can’t pee in the bushes.
Oh, and we paid 10BOB ($1.87CAD) for a hot shower.
All in, the three night four day tour set us back $1,314.14CAD for the five of us.
$263CAD per person. $213USD sounds so much better.
This accounts for all entrance fees (Ben was often free) and our currency withdrawal spread and fees, even showers and baños. And a 10% 550BOB tip for the driver and cook.
Here is a link to the company we used
One last note…
We went on this tour over New Year’s Eve, in the Bolivian summer. It was cold. And windy. And hot. Depending on where we were. Ground frost in the shade. Too hot in the sun.
High season is North American summer months in the Bolivian winter. Though we were comfortable at night inside, I wouldn’t want to do this tour in the winter. There is no heat, in the buildings or in the vehicles. No air conditioning either.
Awesome tour. Highly recommended. Despite some obvious discomfort. The Princess survived.