Altiplano is the natural jewel of Bolivia. Traversing the high plateau are long-legged llamas, cuddly alpacas, and gentle vicuñas. Snow covers the grand mountain ranges like icing. Geysers sizzle up out of the ground as rainbow-colored clouds pass overhead. Pink flamingos dwell in lagoons that change their color with the wind. But what sounds like a fairy tale is still not the climax of the trip. There’s no doubt that the crowning glory of it all is the vast white salt flat—the Salar de Uyuni.
How We Organized Our Trip
There are several tour operators on the Internet, but not all sites have up-to-date information. Some tours may no longer be available, or prices may have changed. In any case, you should contact the agency. That way, you can clear up any questions and also see how quickly the provider responds. A lot of them prefer to communicate by email and will answer within a matter of hours.
We booked our 3-day tour on site through a local agency (Salar Uyuni Tours) five days ahead of time. Communications went well, and the tour would be taking place with a group of six and an English-speaking guide. The cost was $180 USD, including overnight lodging and board.
An alternative would have been a private tour with our own vehicle, driver, and better lodgings as well as a more flexible route. Depending on the agency, this option would have cost $3000 USD for two people. But we figured that this tour should be more about nature and not about hotels, so the cheaper option made more sense.
We were wrong! The night before the tour, we learned that there would be no English-speaking guide and that we’d be paying less as a result. OK, well, a $20 discount per person is nice, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that we don’t speak Spanish and were dependent the whole time on the limited English of our Spanish-speaking fellow travelers. Luckily, the people in our group were nice and kept informing us about why we had stopped here or there and how long we were allowed to wander around.
But the real fly in the ointment was the accommodations. July is a winter month in South America, and at night in particular it gets very cold (-10 Celsius, or 14 Fahrenheit), especially at that altitude. Even in the daytime, it’s a good idea to wear a warm jacket. As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature falls drastically—all you want is a hot bath and a warm bed. But the lodgings, which are billed as “basic,” don’t totally include this. For one thing, they’re simple stone structures with holes in every corner and no insulation. Hot water is more a matter of luck, and there can be power outages. For example, we had to wait for our dinner by candlelight.
Incidentally, the food for the entire three days was brought along by Uyuni and cooked on site. Luckily, we were able to buy beer, which was always nice and cool because of the sub-zero temperatures.
Of course, we tried to keep a sense of humor about the situation and make the best of it, but I’d rather not have to repeat the experience of freezing in a sleeping bag beneath several blankets. The basic lodgings are also all comparable for different tours, so whoever wants to put themselves through this should request a detailed description of the tour with the names of the accommodations, in addition to doing a Google search for reviews and pictures.
But even if the hotel management was a disaster, but the nature was magnificent!
Salar de Uyuni—The Salt Flat
What Machu Picchu is to Peru, Salar de Uyuni is to Bolivia—a natural wonder, an endless white plain where the salt of the earth literally lies beneath your feet. During the rainy season, the salt flat is covered by a layer of water that mirrors the sky, a source of unbelievable, stunning photos. During this time, jeeps are unable to cross the flat and have to remain at the edge. In the dry season, on the other hand, there are tours with jeeps, ATVs, and motorcycles. Driving creates the illusion of flying over the white surface. But that’s not the only illusion: Salar de Uyuni also plays with size and distance. Faraway objects seem much smaller compared with closer ones, which is how the optical illusions come about. This phenomenon became a favorite activity among tourists, and there are lots of funny pictures about it on the web and on Instagram.
Laguna Colorada – Home of the Flamingos
Further to the south, we passed wondrous rock formations, encountered llamas, and crossed half-frozen rivers. The high point of the day was our arrival at the Laguna Colorada, famous not just for its red color but also because it’s home to three types of flamingos. And you actually could see a lot of birds from a distance. Unfortunately, you can’t approach the bank, so it helps to bring along some binoculars.
Geysers at 4800 Meters (15,750 Feet)
As far as the altitude profile goes, the geysers at 4800 meters above sea level were the high point of the trip. Steam and water shoot straight out of the ground, creating a true natural spectacle. Do you know how it feels to stand inside a cloud like that? It’s warm, but the water droplets immediately freeze on your jacket, and two days later, you still can’t get the stench of rotten eggs out of your clothes. The bravest adventurers can go swimming in the nearby natural pools. The water itself is very warm, but you have to undress and get dressed again outside in the freezing cold. No one in our group felt the urge to go swimming. Then again, the pool was already full of other tourists.
Laguna Verde—Green with the Wind
At the end of the tour, we arrived at Laguna Verde, so named for its light-green luminescent color that only appears with the wind. During our visit, the wind was unfortunately still, and the lagoon had its usual lake color. On the other hand, the surrounding snow-covered mountains were very impressive, and the rainbow-colored clouds, which I experienced for the first time, also proved to be a highlight for me.
The Laguna Verde is very close to Chile, and some of our tour companions traveled on across the border at that point. We set off on an eight-hour return drive to Uyuni and caught the night bus to La Paz at the terminal.
La Paz—Bolivia’s Major City
Culturally, Bolivia is divided into two parts. The highlands and the lowlands have different beliefs, customs, food, and lifestyles. The region around La Paz is similar to Peru, but La Paz definitely has its own face. Nestled in a giant basin with two hills in the middle, it’s scenically the most thrilling city I’ve ever seen. Just like the valley floor, the steep slopes of the “basin” are densely built up. In the evenings when the lights go on, a beautiful picture emerges of twinkling slopes surrounding the city center.
Mi Teleferico—La Paz’s Cable Railway
Tripadvisor knows this, and now we can confirm it: the best view of the town is from the city’s cable railway. There are three lines—yellow, green, and red—that run across the city. We rode on the yellow one. For just 3 BOB one way, it’s a great, inexpensive experience and a definite must since the cable railway goes right above the roofs of not quite finished houses, affording a glimpse into local domestic life. By the way, there are lots of unfinished houses. The reason is that the tax on completed homes is much higher, so the people there prefer to spend their lives in unfinished but cheaper houses.
The Witches’ Market—The Place for Every Remedy
If you’re in need of a llama fetus, this market is the perfect source. Witches’ shops are lined up on two cross streets in the middle of La Paz and offer any and all magical cures you can imagine. Small vials, salves, and powders fill the dusty shelves—Harry Potter would have surely found his supplies here. But it’s not a tourist attraction. The locals really do use it for their needs.It’s customary to go to the Witches’ Market and order a “palette” of magical cures, prepared by the shopkeeper according to the customer’s requirements. Are you suffering from lovesickness, money problems, or just in need of a change? At the Witches’ Market, there’s a remedy for everything—fortunately not to be swallowed but burned. As you watch the llama fetuses and Amazonian herbs smoldering away, you sit and drink a beer.
Gustu Restaurant—Probably the Best Local Restaurant
We ate at the famous Gustu Restaurant, which has already managed to garner worldwide attention. While tourists like us delight in the finest creations from Bolivian products, to natives the restaurant is a place where their own cuisine takes on new meaning. The site features a school where they can learn culinary skills, a shop for buying local products—and behind it all, a major logistical organization. The food is very good: you can either choose from the menu or let yourself be surprised by a five- or seven-course meal. The founder, originally from Denmark, will personally come to your table to introduce you to some of the menu items.
Bolivia is definitely worth a trip. But if you’re coming from Peru, aside from the currency, you won’t observe a lot of differences in La Paz and the Uyuni region.