The south of Bolivia is a visual feast for the landscape-loving traveller, but it is not the easiest destination to reach or travel in.
In other words, you can’t do it on your own, and the conditions can be harsh. There are no roads or signs – it is a vast space of beautiful, high-altitude scenery that only experienced guides can take you through.
The first thing to note when signing up for a Salar de Uyuni tour is that you’ll only see the salt flats on one of the days. The rest of the days you’ll see volcanoes, lakes and red Mars-like earth.
Saving the best till last is a treat so I recommend commencing the tour in Tupiza and working your way up, finishing in Uyuni.
Doing it this way means that you are able to enjoy the Uyuni salt flats when they’re at their most splendid – at sunrise on the final morning of your tour. It also leaves you in a good position to get to La Paz and continue onward to Peru, if you are heading up South America rather than down.
There are numerous companies that offer tours and for an all-inclusive price you get a driver, a cook, transport in a 4x4 and all your food and accommodation. The small entrance fee to the area (which is classified as a national park) is not usually included but is instead payable in cash during the journey. When booking, take into consideration that the cheapest tour will probably have the least quality food, and a tour like this is not the ideal place to come down with a stomach bug. It pays to spend a little extra, and also pack Imodium just in case.
Accommodation is very basic and very cold, and you'll be sleeping in the same room as a few others. We hired sleeping bags and wore our warmest clothes during the night. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be able to have a hot shower every day. Most places only have cold ones or are only able to heat a small quantity of water. The night stops are also the only times you’ll have a proper toilet to use – during the day you’ll become accustomed to squatting behind large rocks.
Because of the distances that need to be covered, you will be up early and in the car for most of the day. The roads are bumpy at times and it can be cramped in the back seat of the Landcruisers, but the sights are worth it. Tours are cheaper the greater the number of travellers, but I recommend no more than four if you want to be comfortable (the driver and cook will sit in the front, two travellers in the middle and two in the back). The travellers can swap seats each day to be more fair too.
The high altitudes can be a problem for some people, but as long as you give yourself some time to acclimatize and take things slowly, the worst you’ll have is shortness of breath and a headache.
All of these things might make you reconsider a trip to the south of Bolivia – but don’t let them!
The landscapes are utterly unbelievable!
The beauty that this part of the world holds is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Here are some tips that will help you be more prepared and enjoy your trip:
- Take your camera charger AND a spare battery – it may not be possible to charge your camera during the trip as power is limited.
- Take lots of warm clothes – temperatures can drop to zero degrees or below during night night.
- Take a few days beforehand to acclimatize to the high altitude and drink lots of water and eat small, light meals.
- Take cash out/change foreign currency before the journey because there are no ATMs during the tour and very few in Tupiza and Uyuni.
- Keep only a small backpack with your daily essentials (sunblock, camera, warm clothes, hand sanitizer, sunglasses) with you in the car to save space. Larger pieces of luggage will be placed on top of the vehicle and covered with tarpaulin.
- Tip your guide and cook.
- We used Grano de Oro tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they were excellent. Sylvia, the owner can understand English and is very friendly. We paid USD180 each (in 2010) and considering that this includes all your meals, water, petrol and accommodation for 4 days and 3 nights, it’s a pretty good deal!
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions on this – I’m more than happy to help.
Written and contributed by SolangeF