South America Photo Essay: Southwest Bolivia

In 2011, I spent 5 months traveling around South America. I started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and ended in Quito, Ecuador.

It was epic. 

I took thousands of pictures, and I wrote a few stories about the trip via my past blog site, Sam in South America. Now I’ve decided to start a South America photo essay series for this blog.

Simply because putting together photo essays is super fun :)

The photo essays won’t go in any particular order either. Gasp! What did I just write? No order?!? Normally, it’s in my nature to put everything in chronological order, but why not shake things up a bit?

For example, this first photo essay comes to you from the four day 4×4 jeep tour of southwestern Bolivia that I went on while I was a little more than half-way through my journey (in early April).

A little backstory: I was making my way north from Argentina to Bolivia and I knew I wanted to include a stop at the famous salt flats near Uyuni, Bolivia. Then at least a few times along the backpacker trail, I heard that the 4 day jeep tour from Tupiza to Uyuni was well worth the journey and practically a must-see for the otherworldly landscapes which culminate in the salt flats on the last day. After the overwhelming experience that is finding a reputable tour company that doesn’t hassle you too much for your business while in the dusty town of Tupiza, I was on my way to this other world with a British woman around my age, two young Danish girls in their early 20s, our Bolivian cook who was also a grandmother, and our hilarious driver/guide who liked to dance in his seat while blasting dance music.

This is the first stop out of Tupiza (land of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid):

After climbing steadily on dirt roads, we arrived at a plateau of sorts with a huge field where the llamas (or were they alpacas? I never remember how to differentiate) were happily munching away on the grass.

Our first night was in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any other sign of civilization. The village was a collection of shacks, a church, and a school with a soccer field. Our basic shelter for the night had this amazing view to the right. We feasted on quinoa soup and had plenty of blankets to keep us warm during chilly night. The Bolivian altiplano is stark and stunning and vast. Snow-capped mountains seem to rise out of nowhere.

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The next day, we awoke early for the long day of driving down lonesome roads ahead:

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We came upon one of our highest points of the trip: 4,855 meters or 15,928 feet. That’s higher than Mt. Whitney! I easily felt the effects of the altitude with each breath.

The Land Cruiser!

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As part of jam-packed day, we see our first wildlife: pink flamingos! They thrive here in the caustic lakes formed by mineral runoff from the nearby mountains. The flamingos feed on pink brine shrimp in the lakes which gives them their pink color! I didn’t know that before this trip!

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This part of the earth is a hotbed (literally) of volcanic and seismic activity. Lucky for us, that means hot springs!

Speaking of volcanoes, next up was Laguna Verde at the base of Vulcan Lincacabur:

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View from the Land Cruiser:

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Onto the geyers. And no, there weren’t any railings, warning signs, or boardwalks. It’s just you and the geyers at your own risk!

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The last stop of the day was at Laguna Colorada (AKA the red lake). It was freezing in the late afternoon. Those pink dots are more flamingos.

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The next morning, the reflection of the clouds on the lake with the sunrise provided quite an unexpected surprise:

In the middle of the desert, out pops this incredible naturally sculptured rock. Arbol de Piedra:

We drive through more desert, more Mars-like landscapes, and come upon this lake with hundreds of pink flamingos. Wishing I had better zoom on my camera:

Our final stop of the tour before reaching the grand finale of the Salt Flats is the Valley of Rocks (Valle de Rocas). It was a fun time scrambling around on the rocks:

We stayed in Uyuni that night waking up very early the next morning in order to arrive at the salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) in time for sunrise, which we totally accomplished. It was totally worth the early morning alarm. Totally.

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The salt flats were an unending expanse of white salt. It was partially flooded when we were there so we saw the wet version instead of the dried hexagonal pattern version. Hard to believe this is all salt, that I’m standing on SALT!

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Part of the fun (and a bit of hype) around visiting the salt flats is the ability to take funny staged pictures using the depth perception provided by this great expanse of white:

After the fun picture shoot was over, it was time to head back. Along the way, we passed by mounds of salt with men visibly digging with shovels nearby, a somber reminder of the back-breaking work that takes place here, to transform one of earth’s natural resources into the table-side version of our most common food additive world-wide.

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Once back in Uyuni, we wandered around a bit, but Uyuni is not a town for aimless wandering. It is a rather depressing town, trash strewn everywhere, and tour companies competing for your business quite aggressively around every corner. At first, I was super glad to be departing town that same night on an overnight bus to La Paz. But that bus ride soon turned out to be one of the scariest bus rides of my life. I didn’t sleep at all, and was fairly paralyzed with fear that we were going to drop off the side of a cliff at any moment. The way the bus lurched and sped up and then slowed down, I felt every bump and every tight corner, and well, I just about peed in my pants because I was that scared. I needed a full day in a hotel room to myself in La Paz to recover from it. If you’re traveling from Uyuni to La Paz, I highly recommend that you not take an overnight bus.

The 4 day Southwest Circuit jeep tour from Tupiza to Uyuni was totally worth it. It’s definitely a must-see if you’re in this part of the world. I went with La Torre Tours and was super happy with the overall experience.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Sam this looks amazing!! You pictures are gorgeous. I hope our car makes it there next year!!

  2. […] pictures, the word on the street, etc…). For example, how could I not have visited the beautiful Southwest desert of Bolivia after hearing about it from fellow travelers?? It wasn’t even on my radar before hearing about it […]

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