GUEST ARTICLE: Windswept blood-red plains of volcanic rock, ash and acidic lakes that support no life – sounds more like an alien landscape than the middle of a continent home to the Amazon basin but this is southern Bolivia. I don’t know how this place missed out on everyday discussion about Top Ten Places to See Before You’re Too Old, but it should be up there!
A four-day off-road tour is the best way to catch a glimpse of this expansive landscape that until recently was never inhabited by people. I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.
Getting There and Booking
Our adventure through the Potosi region began with 6 hour train ride from the Bolivian/Argentine border town of Villazon.
There are half a dozen places you can book a tour in Tupiza, every one of which will have walls covered with positive reviews from happy customers. In most cases, almost everyone we spoke with during our time in Bolivia were happy with their tours through Potosi but it pays to check Tripadvisor.com for any warnings on operators to avoid.
Be sure to be clear that you don’t want your driver to drink during the journey – believe it or not, we were told many times by locals and travellers that drinking and driving in Bolivia is not illegal and quite common.
We booked a four-day 4×4 drive and set off not really knowing what to expect from a region you don’t really hear much about. As we climbed very basic roads lined with huge caverns, cliffs and the occasional group of llamas, the sense of true wilderness and isolation grew.
It eventually hits you when you cross hundreds of kilometers from dawn ‘til dusk and the only sign of human habitation is the occasional hamlet style accommodation sitting amongst the dusty wilderness.
Once on the road – or loose tracks that act more as a guide for drivers – you’re taken to higher altitudes by the hour. At the same time, the landscape becomes recognisably starker, you spot less settlements in the distance, and the air become thinner and a lot colder.
The first night is spent resting up in a very basic mud-brick hamlet home to a couple of families. The second night is much the same and neither have hot water. Electricity is only on for a couple of hours each night so be prepared for basic accommodation, freezing nights and no shower for three days – unless you can stand the freezing water at dawn or dusk.
Altitude & Your Body
A true sense of wilderness is definitely amplified by the dizzying effects of the altitude – at times reaching 5,000 metres (16400 feet) above sea level. In the face of popular belief, chewing the (legal in Bolivia) coca leaf narcotic only offers a faint temporary relief from altitude sickness and you’d be advised to be well stocked with pain killers if you’re prone to headaches at heights.
I personally didn’t experience many headaches but did feel a shortness of breath that does tend to inhibit your energy levels at times. As result of the altitude you won’t see many travellers walking or hiking in the distance, most settle for a short stroll from the Toyota Landcruiser at each regular stop throughout the day.
Start from Tupiza
Whether you’re heading south to Potosi from La Paz or north from the border of Argentina (like we did), I highly recommend starting the journey from Tupiza. Starting from the south allows the journey to gradually build from grassy highland plains, through red deserts and volcanoes to an climatic end at the Salar de Uyuni and its world famous salt hotels.
Made entirely of solid salt bricks, the salt hotels are surprisingly warm and comfortable compared the mud-brick accommodation that houses tourists over the rest of the tour.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt lake. At 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) it stretches to the horizon and is dotted with dozens of islands that rise out of the white like huge single rocks. We make a stop at one of these islands, Incahuasi, after a magnificent sunrise over the Salar which visitors can climb for a phenomenal view.
This rocky outcrop lying on a totally flat salt plane supports 1,000 year-old cacti, a few strands of grass and a single ostrich – we weren’t told how it got there but it was friendly enough. Incahuasi island is the last staging point before you’re taken far out onto the white expanse of the Salar for photos and lunch. After a day on the Salar, you are dropped at Salar township.
To book a 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser over the four day journey, expect to pay a total of $AUD803.00 / $USD720.00. If this sounds steep, the operators are well practised at pairing groups with each other.
We were paired with a lovely French couple with whom we shared the experience and paid $200.00/$USD180 per person. This includes everything you need for the tour around Potosi including accommodation, cooked meals and a tour guide/driver.
- We were thoroughly happy with our tour operator, Grano de Oro. If you’re there, drop by to see if they have openings. If they do, go with them!
- Bolivia is a developing country. Be patient when things don’t happen as you’d expect it to in your own country.
- Accommodation is very basic and freezing at night.
- Bring lots of layers and your own sleeping bag liner – you can rent a sleeping bag for a little extra cost if you are not traveling with one.
- Bring hand steriliser and wet wipes – there are no showers for days.
- Bring sunblock, hat, scarf and gloves. You’ll need to cover up due to the extremes in temperatures and lashings from the sun and dust.
- Bring a first-aid kit with all you need in case of food poisoning. We were fine but as you’re days from any doctor, it pays to be prepared.
- Bring plenty of Bolivianos and US dollars before leaving arriving in Tupiza. There are no cash machines there!
Mining on the Salar
Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni contains the world’s largest deposits of lithium. There has been passionate political debates and controversy in Bolivia and South America as to if (and how) it should be mined.
On the one hand, the lithium could potentially pump billions into the struggling Bolivian economy, while on the other, many locals saw it as threat to their rapidly growing tourism trade and the environment. The Salar is also considered sacred by locals. Australia’s ABC TV Channel recently ran a segment on the debate around lithium mining on the Salar.
While we were leaving Potosi to bus back to La Paz, our convoy had to leave the main road on a detour which took a couple hours. The reason for this was there were worker strikes in some of the mining towns. Since then, there have been reports of further protests, some of them violent.
While tourists and travellers are generally left alone in these cases, there were reports of a recent group that had to stay on in Uyuni to wait for the protests to calm. At no time did we feel under any threat while we were travelling in Bolivia.
This travel diary has been written by my friend Nick Healy. Nick works in the field of online and digital public relations for Technology companies, but lives to explore and photograph places less travelled around the world by planes, buses and even ocean going yachts.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution