Bolivia – Butch Cassidy, Pique Macho and Some Salt

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?

Spectacular Views from the bus in Bolivia

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.

Cramped seats on the bus. The marker for the seat numbers is a nice touch
Ben can sleep anywhere
The bag of potato chips as we get higher in elevation

 

Amazing colours and views

The Border

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….

Villazon, Bolivia

Taxi Ride

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.

Tupiza

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.

Our digs for the next two days, Tupiza, Bolivia
Our first dinner in Bolivia
Incredible view in Tupiza, Bolivia
Downtown, Tupiza, Bolivia
Pique Macho – A Bolivian dish with steak, eggs, French fries, peppers and chilies – poutine on steroids …

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.

Within 10 minutes of leaving Tupiza we encounter these wonderful rock formations
The views keep getting better as we move into the Mountains
Oh Shit – We forgot Ben …

 

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.

I think that is Mt Doom in the distance …
Great vista, glad I am not Frodo
Two steps closer to the ledge and I would be falling a couple hundred meters
Great views
The girls in the mountains
The mountains of Bolivia

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.

Amazing rock formation with the Bolivian flag on the top
The wind howls through the caverns
Something out of a science fiction novel
According to Picente, our driver, no indigenous people ever lived here.
It looks like streams of dried mud
Emma poses by a rock face
A vague reminder of Cappacdocia in Turkey
A nice place to sit and enjoy the view
A close up of the rocks
An alien land
Feels like an away mission from Star Trek
Local resident

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.

Stopping for lunch
Rudimentary buildings in the middle of a desert expanse
One of the mining offices

Pueblo Fantasma

“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.

The area is being developed and a fee is collected at San Antonio de Lipez. 15BOB for each adult or 60BOB for 4 of us which is $11CAD  (Ben is free!)
Colleen and Hannah stop for a quick photo with the mountain in the background
Walking trail down to the ruined city with a stop at the entrance to the mine

 

The church and other buildings
A rabbit makes a brief appearance

 

Reaching one of the highest points on our trip

 

Quetena Chico

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.

All five of us share the same room
The main hallway to the building with shared rooms for other guests and a common eating area
The view of our “home for the night” from the outside

Laguna Hedionda

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.

In search of breakfast
About thirty or forty flamingos hunt for food along the water

Llamas and Desert

Driving through the countryside
Llamas roam free everywhere. The longer haired ones are domestic and have pompoms or tags in their ears

Laguna Kollpa

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.

Emma walking out into the lagoon on built up paths
More flamingos searching for food
Ben pauses for a photo

Headed South

Our route took us further south close to the border of Argentina and Chile.  The views of the mountains and the landscape are incredible.

Void of human habitation except for llama farmers and tourists
Stopped to photograph a wild llama called a Guanaco
Hannah poses for a quick photo
The Guanaco is a wild llama – easy to identify with the shorter hair and tan colouring to blend in with the surroundings
Domestic llamas are everywhere and mix with the quanaco
Ostriches? These are actually a distant cousin to the ostrich called ‘rhea’ and are native to South America
Spectacular view as we climb back into the mountains
A view of Quetena Grande – a larger village to Quetena Chico where we slept the night before
Riding across the Salar de Chalvri
The Salar de Chalviri is a smaller salt flats area
The mountains make a stunning backdrop
Desert with a bit of brush – The locals use the scrub brush as a source of fuel for fires
Hazards of rough long distance jeep travel – breakdown – good thing we travel in pairs

 

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 …

The colouring and elements look like the persistence of time which was based on Dali’s home in the Catalan hills

View of the mountains from Desierto de Dali
Baby – Guanaco (Wild Llama)
Beautiful colours
Another view of the mountains
Can’t get enough of the mountains

 

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.

On the shores of the Aguas Termales (hot springs)
For 6BOB each ($1CAD) we were able to go for a swim in the hot springs
The hot springs was warm but the air was freezing – oh and we didn’t pack towels so it was a brisk drying off period

 

Emma takes the plunge in pool number 2

Los Geiseres

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.

Geysers
Super hot and icky
Constant stream of hot air (like some staff officers I know ….)
Spray of hot steam

Laguna Colorada

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.

Laguna Colorado
The wind is fierce and holds Emma up as we walk
The view of the Lagoon
View from the hill looking down to the lagoon
Colours of the lagoon emerge
A barren wasteland
An away mission – Rigel XII perhaps?
Patterns in the lagoon from the flamingos
The colonized lagoon

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.

Five to a room in the hostel at Huaylla Jara
Spoiler alert: the sheets were not changed after the previous guest – eewwwhh!

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.

Rock formations
Emma – rock formations
The famous Arbal de Piedra (Stone Tree)
Colleen takes the high road
Hannah takes the low road
Emma meets them in the middle
Right out of another Star Trek episode – Hannah searches for the Gorn
It is below freezing in the shadows with frost on the ground
Hannah changes her view and goes for the high road
Travelling across the desert
Beautiful view

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.

Laguna Hondas
Windy and cold …
Emma at the lagoon
Ben huddles in his jacket
Hannah out for a stroll
Emma, Colleen and Ben at the lagoon
Signage on what to do and not to do at the lagoon
Close up of the flamingo
Apparently you are either not allowed to kill flamingos or ride them?

Volcan Ollague

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.

Volcano Ollague which straddles the border of Chile and Argentina
Close up of volcano – it is active

Laguna Negra

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.

Emma peers down into the Laguna Negra

 

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.

Cool rock formations
Looks like a dinosaur to me
Enjoying the view

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.

Stopped to fix the lead vehicle

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.

Isla Incahuasi

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.

Waiting for the sun

Sunrise
Huddling for warmth we enjoy the sunrise
Full moon
Longest sunrise we have ever witnessed – because it was so damn cold …
Hannah and the salt flats
View of the salt flats
Breakfast being set up – reminiscent of eating a haybox meal on winter exercise
Cacti on the island

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.

Salt flats – dry and cold
A loving teenager
How to deal with a teenager
Ben is taken prisoner
In the palm of my hand
Dance ….
Time for a kiss
Family in Salar di Uyuni
I can lift a car – don’t mess with me
All this Karate paid off for balance
I’ll just move the jeep a little
Little brothers
Outside the first salt hotel
A unique effect is parts of the Salt Flats have about an inch of water and reflect the surroundings
Victory – we made it!
Reflections

Uyuni

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
http://www.latorretours-tupiza.com/tupiza.html

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.

The intrepid travellers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Replies to “Bolivia – Butch Cassidy, Pique Macho and Some Salt”

  1. Beautiful! My lord what a trip! That was definitely something to see. I imagine it was cold and dirty sheets..Yikes!) but overall that is one hell of an adventure. The beauty of the landscape reminds of some the scenery I saw in the High Artic: remote, colourful lonely, and Alien!
    Well done on the pics. Please keep them coming. Oh, Ben: I like the colourful words for without them how else could we express ourselves properly.

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