Salt Flats, Desert, Volcanoes, Lagoons…

…all in one little country! After being in Peru, worried almost constantly about the food and water and feeling like it was dirty no matter where we went, I did not have high expectations for Bolivia and was just looking to “get through it” and move on. I knew there was no way that we could (or should) skip it but I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it.

I wrote this blog post back in March, which feels like a lifetime ago now. We were in Bolivia Feb 29 – Mar 3 and I’m only now getting around to posting this to the blog. We have a little catching up to do, which we will try to get to over the next few weeks.

We started with just one day in La Paz upon arriving in Bolivia. La Paz is an interesting place and Robin and I both wish we had taken another day or 2 to more fully explore. I would have loved to have more time to ride around on the cable cars and even complete the whole circuit of all 10 lines. It’s amazing to me that the Teleferico is both an amazing tourist attraction but also just regular public transit for Bolivians living in La Paz! This was #50 on top 100 List of Activities. After riding the Teleferico up the mountain to the top and back down again (on the yellow line), we walked down to the neighbourhood of Sopocachi to find a spot to have some dinner. We didn’t have a plan and I was still pretty anxious about eating and drinking but as we stood in the central plaza looking around, we noticed a little cafe that appeared to have a magical theme…We walked over to El Caldero Chorreante to discover that it is indeed a Harry Potter themed cafe!!! It was so much fun and the food was good, the boys enjoyed Butter Beers and Robin and I shared a cauldron of some concoction that we had to “brew” ourselves and serve up with a ladle. With our bellies full we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel to rest for the night before catching an early flight in the morning to Uyuni.

NB: If you are visiting Bolivia and have not just come from another high altitude city (like Cusco), you will need to spend more than a day in La Paz to acclimatize to the altitude before moving on.

From Uyuni we planned to find a 3-day tour of the salt flats, hoping to leave the same afternoon so that we did not have to stay a night in Uyuni (there’s not much to do there). Being the last weekend of Carnaval, many of the tour operators were closed and not running tours! While I sat with the boys and all our luggage, Robin tried tour company after tour company, discovering that all were either full or closed. He was given a recommendation to try Tupiza Tours and landed on a winner. I did some quick google searching to find that they had largely very good reviews and from the sounds of what they were offering, it was comparable to all the other operators. The other big advantage was that there was only one other person signed up for this tour so we would be 5 people, instead of the standard 6. Kate from Montreal joined us on our 3 day adventure and she was a lovely young lady, traveling on her own, who seemed to not mind being stuffed in a car us, including 2 very chatty boys. Along with our tour guide Oscar and our driver Wilmer, we set out on an adventure of a lifetime.

Our first stop was to a train grave yard – this is more interesting historically than anything else but the boys enjoyed climbing around on the abandoned trains and taking pictures.

From there we had some administrative errands to accomplish – buying tourist tickets, picking up food for the next 3 days, etc. Once all of that was out of the way we paid a quick visit to a little town that has a bunch of vendor stalls where you can buy…just about anything. I picked up a little pair of alpaca wool socks and I was very glad later to have them! Right after the little town, we headed out to the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, located amidst the Andes in southwest Bolivia. It is a desert-like landscape of bright white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands that cover nearly 20,000 square kilometers and is #7 on our list of Top 100 Sights. We entered the salt flat and got our first look at the vast expanse of salt, with many parts covered at this time of year with a layer of shallow water, creating a mirror-like illusion. I wondered how we could possibly spend a whole day exploring a giant field of salt…but it’s possible. And super fun!

We stopped at what was once the original salt hotel, but is now a museum of sorts, for lunch where we ate the food that was prepared in advance for us at a table made of salt, sitting on stools made of salt. But you can’t eat that salt (seems obvious but some of us inquired if it was possible). After lunch we carried on across the salt flat, driving for 30-45 minutes towards a group of mountains that appeared to be both very close and very far away at the same time. The sensation was unnerving and lead to much discussion among the youngest minds in the car about perspective. We arrived in an area of the salt flat away from everyone else to take some fun pictures that would capture the perspective (or lack thereof) we were experiencing. There were lots of other trucks with other groups of tourists around but our driver and guide managed to find a spot where we couldn’t see another soul. Armed with sunblock, hats and sunglasses (“white” and “bright” just do not adequately convey the effect of the sun reflecting off the salt) we spent the next hour or so playing around with our cameras to capture some photos that will help us cherish the memory of this spectacular experience for many years.

We were still scheduled to stop and visit a spot where the water covered the salt flat to allow us to capture some of the incredible reflection pictures you sometimes see from people who have visited during the rainy season. It had not rained in 2 weeks so it took some time to find a good spot, but eventually Oscar and Wilmer found it and we got some great shots of the mountains reflected in the water, some neat pictures of us, and finally, the most amazing sunset – times two 😉

We stayed that night in a salt hotel. Do not underestimate the definition of “salt hotel” (like I did). The walls were made of salt bricks, the tables and stools were all made of salt, the mattresses rested on salt slabs beside salt bedside tables and the floors were covered in, yep, salt (the toilet, thankfully, was standard porcelain). It was weird. And fun and probably the most unique hotel experience we will ever have.

The next day we left the salt flats and headed into the desert. I didn’t really know anything about this part of the tour in advance and don’t those usually turn out to be the most fulfilling experiences in life? The ones you didn’t have any expectations for? When I go see a movie that I don’t know anything about, it almost always turns out to be the best movie I’ve seen in a while. This day was like that. No expectations, huge reward. The Altiplano region in Bolivia and the Atacama desert are incredible. We stopped at lagoons – so many lagoons! First a black lagoon, then a lagoon that was filled with hundreds of flamingos, a red lagoon, a white lagoon and a green lagoon. There were so, so many flamingos. There’s not a lot of wildlife in these areas but we saw enough flamingos for a lifetime and I had no idea there were so many types of flamingos!! There were lots of llamas and vicunas too. It was on this portion of the tour that Robin was able to console himself over missing out on #97 from our Top 100 Sights list…we (or rather he and Kieran) had planned to visit Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, in Cusco but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, they had to abandon their plans. Little did we know that we would have the opportunity to see so many rainbow mountains in Bolivia! And they are spectacular. As much as we were in and out of the truck all day and bouncing around on dirt “roads” in the desert for 10 straight hours we were continually beguiled by the ever changing and surprising landscape as we marveled at Wilmer’s ability to navigate, what seemed to us, a vast maze of dirt tracks in the desert. We arrived at our hostel for the night tired and hungry and very, very happy.

We popped outside after dinner in search of quinoa beer (yes, it’s a thing and gluten free!). We found no quinoa beer but did find a great view of the milky way in the night sky! Robin and Caleb also did an astronomical tour in the Atacama desert in San Pedro but his camera was not cooperating so you’re going to have to trust us on experiencing #48 from our Top 100 Activities list: Capture the Milky Way through the Clearest Sky on Earth, Atacama Desert, Chile. I did manage to capture a picture from outside our hostel in Bolivia using Night Sight on my Pixel 4. 

On the morning of the third day of our tour we had to wake up shortly after 4:00 to be ready to depart at 5:00. We headed in the dark back into the desert where I really wondered how on earth our driver knew where to turn left or right or go straight and we arrived at the geysers in time for sunrise. We had a few stops to make and lots of desert to cover before arriving at the Bolivia-Chile border to catch our bus at 9:00 am. It was very cold at 5000 m above sea level in the desert before the sun came up to warm the air a little and we were reminded of a very brisk fall morning at home. In a way. The border crossing was a little weird and they charged us a fee illegally to leave Bolivia, but there’s nothing you can do except smile and say thank you as you hand over your 15 BS per person. We boarded the bus that would take us across the border and into Chile and said goodbye to what has probably been our favourite South American country so far.

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