Road Trip through Southern Bolivia

Nate and I just returned from a three day, two night road trip through Southern Bolivia.

Billed as a “Salt Flats Tour,” this was so much more.  

All of these tours leave from Uyuni, south of La Paz where we’d been staying, so we needed to head that way.  We found out that we could take a night bus 10 hours or a bus to a train.  Most of the route down is on unsealed roads, which we thought would mean a VERY bumpy bus ride, so we opted for the train.  

We started with a four-hour bus ride from La Paz down to a tiny town called Oruro.  There we got a bite to eat and killed a few hours until we boarded our train at 7 p.m.  

The train was nice!  Our seats reclined, and they played the Revenant in Spanish, so that was fun.  We spent some time playing cards and drinking beers in the dining car with our friends, Isabel and Kari, who we’d met in Ecuador and were traveling with for this leg.

 

We slept from about 10 p.m. to our stop at a very early 2:30 a.m.  Luckily, we’d booked a hostel for $30 for that night, so we stumbled down the street to check in and sleep the early morning hours away there.  We ate a big breakfast and then headed to the tour operator’s office.  

Our cars had limited storage space for the tour, so we had to pack everything into one small bag between the two of us.  

From Uyuni, we headed off around 11 a.m. to get started.  We visited a train cemetery first, which looked like the set of Mad Max.  Very cool.

The rest of the day was spent at the salt flats, a massive expanse of over 12,400 square kilometers of salt desert.  The salt is packed tight creating a hard surface.  In places, it’s 120 meters deep, and our guide said that this area of Bolivia could meet the world’s demand for table salt for the next 50 years.  

From there we made our way across the country stopping at amazing view points and this crazy oasis island area in the middle of the salt flats that housed cacti, some of which were nearly 1,000 years old.

The first night we slept in a hotel made entirely of salt.  Like salt floors, salt bed, salt bedside table.  Luckily the toilet was just, you know… and normal toilet.

We settled in and re-joined the group for hot drinks and more cards before eating dinner, veggie soup and a tomato/potato/beef dish.  Luckily the hotel had hot water, so we grabbed showers while we could, knowing the next stop would not have them.

That night we slept like babies and woke up at 5:30 a.m. the following morning for breakfast.  We packed back up and headed out so see a number of amazing lagoons, flamingos (yes, flamingos at nearly 20,000 feet) and active volcanos.

We drove throughout the day right along the Chilean/Argentina border.  As we climbed higher, it got significantly colder.  We ended the day at our highest altitude, 20,000 ft, where we saw natural geysers bubbling up from the earth.  Despite the definite sulphur (read fart) smell, they were amazing to see.  

From there, we drove another half hour to our hostel, a very basic building with dorms and electricity that ran off a few generators for just a few hours.

We again had hot drinks, ate dinner and then had the option to take a dip in natural hot springs on the property.  At this point it was pitch dark, in the 40’s outside and VERY cold.  

But none the less, we grabbed our suits and ran down in jackets and snow caps.  We changed in little changing rooms (more like out houses) by the hot springs and jumped in.  The hot water felt AMAZING, and it was so dark that we could see stars in the sky.  It was the most I’d ever seen.  The milky way was clearly visible across the sky, and our guide pointed out other constellations like the souther cross.  Our group passed around a bottle of red wine that everyone took sips out of and we watched for shooting stars and talked about our travels.  It was amazing.

Again we slept hard in our dorm beds despite the high altitude and most of us feeling dehydrated.  We woke up at 5:45 a.m. to pack back up and eat breakfast.  The hostel didn’t have electricity in the morning or running water for our entire visit, so we just got dressed and headed out.

We spent the morning visiting interesting rock formations and more lagoons, seeing flamencos and a pool filled with natural arsenic.  Needless to say, we did not go much closer than the cliff above it.

The third day was full of driving and napping in the car.  We made a few short stops and had a picnic lunch, arriving back in Uyuni at 3 p.m.

Napping in the back of the car!

Napping in the back of the car!

All in all, I really enjoyed our tour despite it being physically challenging.  By that I just mean that it was a lot of time in a car on unsealed and bumpy roads, combined with nearly constant social time.  As extroverted as I am, even I need some alone time sometimes.  Also the accommodations were rustic, which meant we were very ready for a hot shower and nice hostel/hotel by the time we ended.

I was shocked at how stunningly beautiful Bolivia was.  Honestly, I knew very little about this country aside from the fact that it is one of the poorest in South America.  We hadn’t planned to spend any time here, but when Nate found business class flights from La Paz to Cape Town for just $160 plus miles, we figured it was worth the short bus trip.  

Now I’m so glad we made the extra leg down south.  So many times over the past three days we just shook our heads in disbelief that those places exist.  We felt like we were on Mars.  If you’re able to make the trek down and don’t mind roughing it for a few days, I highly recommend a trip out to the salt flats and surrounding areas of southern Bolivia!