4 Days in the Bolivian Altiplano
4 Days in the Bolivian Altiplano
Sitting many of thousands of metres above sea level, the Bolivian altiplano is a land of pink lakes and green mountains, hot springs and salt flats and calm coves between cliffs. Departing from Tupiza, I signed up for a 4 day tour with La Torre Tours through the altiplano, ending in the tourist hotspot of Uyuni.
It’s equally possible to take tours from Uyuni, or even from La Paz. I would strongly recommend taking a 3 or 4 day tour if you plan to see the altiplano, the 1 or 2 day tours almost exclusively visit the salt flats. The salt flats are amazing, but they’re honestly not even close to being the best bit. If you’re pressed for time and want to dip a toe in, I’d recommend checking out this guide to spending just 1 day on the flats.
The perk of leaving from the sleepy town of Tupiza was that the tours were limited to 4 jeeps of 4 people, with a guide and cook included in each. I happened to be paired with 2 girls that I had met in Argentina, and with an English boy. It made for a nice social side to the trip, as well as eating and staying with the other tour groups made up of mainly French and Germans, though came with the downside that nobody in our car spoke good Spanish. I ended up translating simple conversations about our hometowns and our families, and coming up very short when trying to translate the guides explanations about rock formations. The English speaking guide does cost $100 extra though, and we were all penny pinching backpackers.
Our first day consisted of dusty paths through rocky canyons, with towering cliffs shading frozen rivers and crowds of laid back llamas. Having just finished a trip around Northern Argentina, the landscape all seemed familiar to me. This was definitely the day with the most driving, only squeezing out of the jeep a handful of times. It gave us time to get used to the rocky roads and the cosy seating arrangement, at leas
The second day was the best day of the tour, and one of the best days that I spent in South America. Spitting geysers, sunken thermal pools, expansive lakes and icy mountains cut into the other-worldly landscape. This was home to my favourite spot in Bolivia, Laguna Colorada.
Our feet sinking into muddy sands at the edges of the lake’s pink waters, we were impatient, so keen to get closer to the mountains. Perfectly reflected, tinted red and pink and gold in the hues of the water, the mountains that frame the lake stand calm and undisturbed. Flocks of flamingos gather across the face of the lagoon, occasionally taking flight tight to the surface. It was silent. All 4 jeeps were there, with all 16 tourists, and nobody spoke. We were all enraptured, we just wanted to take photos and to just stare. It was calm. The pink water barely ripped, and the clouds in the sky barely swayed. It’s like the whole place had had its breath taken away.
Laguna Verde didn’t have quite the same magic, but it was still very beautiful. The conical mountain that stands over it is a defining feature of the landscape in the Altiplano, and in the Atacama desert, a marker for the border between Bolivia and Chile. The lagoon below it is a turquoise shade, mingling somewhere between green and blue. A number of llamas hang out around the edges, posing for selfies.
The third day was warm, which came as a shock to our systems. The altiplano is cold. Really cold. At night we reached temperatures of -15 degrees Celsius, and the days so far had hovered around 0. The region ranges from 3000-5000m above sea level, which tends to bring a certain chill with it. Yet this day came with sunshine, and relative warmth. We took a short hike up to a ledge overlooking mountain lakes, filled with the sounds of unfamiliar bird songs and puffing people trying to overcome their altitude sickness. We walked on ice in half sunken plains, and waited to see who would be the first to have a foot fall through the surface. Stopping off at the side of a random highway for a roadside lunch, we settled in a scene that looked straight out of the Irish or Scottish countryside- if you replaced the Irish sheep with Bolivian llamas.
We reached the salt flats for sunset. On one side of our sundown spot the boldly gold sky was stark against the black mountain cuts. On the other, pastel pinks and blues and purples slowly folded the day into darkness, the stark white flats greying. If you’re on one of the fancy tours they give you champagne while you watch the sun go down. We got Inca cola so pretty close.
The next day we awoke slightly before the crack of dawn. We headed for an early morning hike, at 5000m above sea level, up the isle of cactuses. A random peak of rock in the midst of the miles of flat land, the island is covered in 7ft cacti, which we sat amongst to watch the sunrise. This mini-hike was actually pretty tough in the altitude, with even the fittest of our group struggling. Once again the sky blends gold and bronze, pink and purple, blue and white. It’s not just the altitude that takes your breath away.
After a speedy breakfast in the back of the jeep, we headed deeper onto the flats. Personally, I’m not super into novelty photography. I was more than happy to take a couple photos of the group at varying sizes, sitting on beer bottles, all being in a backpack, whatever other novelty shots were a bit of fun at the time. I struggled hanging around there for more than an hour while people took photos of themselves. I’m not one to bring others down though, and my travel companions were having a lot of fun. Ask your driver for tips on photos, as they have to do this pretty much every day and are pretty good at it by now.
That afternoon we headed into Uyuni, with a stop at the train graveyard. If you grew up taking trains twice a day every day, as I did, this is a brief fun novelty, playing in unused trains. For people that don’t spend much time around trains it was apparently very exciting. Again, not one to bring others down when they’re having fun.
The town of Uyuni itself isn’t remarkable. It feels like it was built exclusively for tourists. There’s a central plaza lined with tourist restaurants, serving western food. They all seemed perfectly nice, and they had wifi which was a nice novelty at this point, but didn’t offer much authentically Bolivian. Full of tourists, mainly day trippers mapping out their novelty shots, Uyuni doesn’t have a ton of its own local character.
Streets are dusty and quiet, lined with tour operators and souvenir shops. There are some very aggressive dogs that will chase you out of their territory. I watched one from my hostel window, which the locals carried rocks to ward off and the tourists simply got chased by. I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my hate for street dogs, and this place did nothing to warm me to them. There’s a street of bus operators hollering at passers-by like a street market, where you can catch an onward bus to your next destination, typically Potosí or Sucre.
The accommodation is basic, but you’re staying in villages in rural Bolivia so you can’t exactly expect them to hit 5 stars. Everywhere we stayed was perfectly comfortable, providing many layers of blankets to make up for the arctic temperatures they had at night. There’s no wifi or phone signal at any of the stops on the tour, so be sure to let anybody who may be concerned that you’ll be off the grid for a few days.
Don’t expect to shower. For 10 bolivianos (about £1), you can get a cold shower on the last night, but obviously there’s a pretty long queue of stinky travellers to wait behind. Bring wet wipes, deodorant, and embrace the French shower. There’s also very few toilets, in one case only one for the whole hostel, and you’ll need to pack your own toilet paper.
The hostel we stayed in on the last night was one of the coolest I stayed in in the region. Situated in Salar de Uyuni, the whole place is built out of salt. It’s a pretty fun novelty. We had a good meal, which I found a rarity in Bolivia, drank cachi, the local variety of moonshine, and bonded with our fellow tour mates. We attempted to go outside to watch the stars, with the flats supposedly being one of the best places in the world to see unpolluted skies. 4 of us went out, and 2 immediately cried off from the severe cold and gave up on stargazing. I stayed out with a French Canadian, a group made of sturdy stuff, and can vouch for the stars being fantastic. As they are in many places across Bolivia- getting a night bus there is actually a pleasure when you just stare at the stars out of the window the entire way.
The altiplano is one of the most beautiful parts of South America, let alone Bolivia. 4 days being humbled by the alien world of the Andes.
Read about other top spots in Bolivia here.
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