Bolivia - amazing landscapes and proud mountain folk, part II (Tupiza and Uyuni)

Tupiza - trekking red canyons and colourful quebradas:

With another month at our disposal, we could continue the planned route. Our next stop was in Tupiza - a much more arid region of Bolivia on the border with Argentina, which is pitched by LP as a place where you just want to jump into the saddle and ride your horse through the bright red canyons and dry mountain valleys. What we felt like doing was definitely not joining all the tourists in their horse-riding spree (too touristy, over-priced and would take us only through a fraction of the route we could do on our own). So instead we opted for our preferred means of transport to explore mountains - our loyal legs.

The next day we had a beautiful day hike through two canyons - Cañon del Inca and another one we stumbled upon but don't know the name of as we never managed to get a decent map of the area (only schematic ones from tourist agencies). The former canyon is one of the main destinations of horse-back tours - that's the one at the entry to which all the tourist horse-riders turn back with a look of unsatisfied curiosity. The latter one we discovered ourselves after persistently climbing through the whole Cañon del Inca for a couple of hours, reaching a mountain top and continuing down that mountain through this other canyon till we arrived back in Tupiza. Along the way during this trek we passed through a lot of striking scenery: multi- coloured mountains, weirdly shaped formations, huge cacti and tall red walls of the narrow canyons. We also rescued a stray dog that was stuck at a point inside the canyon that was too high for it and was only able to move on together with us. It needed another bit of help at the point of the path where we reached a dam and there were just metal-frame stairs to go down - the poor thing apparently hadn't had any agility training so was very grateful when Jordi carried it all the way down. It then dedicatedly followed us for a couple of hours all the way till our hotel where we had to say a heart-breaking "bye" to it, as after we'd contemplated travelling the rest of Latin America with a dog it just didn't look possible.

Day trek through the canyons around Tupiza:

On our other day in Tupiza we made another day trek to see some other beautiful mountain ridges that they call Quebradas (our destination was Quebrada Seca) and walked all the way to the river San Juan del Oro - another place where the agencies bring tourists by jeep to get a taste of horse-riding in the surrounding green valley.

Day trek to Quebrada Seca:

Tupiza neighbourhoods performance festival:

But our most memorable experience in Tupiza was the one we never planned for, as unexpectedly we ended up in this city during the time when they held a very colourful festival in which all the multiple neighbourhoods from the villages around would participate in a carnival-like parade, showing off their folklore art (costumes, music, dancing and show) while competing with the other neighbourhoods for the trophy - a children's playground sponsored by the state.

It all started when on our way to a viewpoint we heard live music and saw a crowd following a street procession of people dressed in festival clothes and hats made of huge cacti. The procession was headed by a few strong men leading even stronger bulls, with women dancing around the men accompanied by live music played with all sorts of local instruments. We were following them along several streets for the next hour, till we finally discovered that they were heading for the city's main square which was the central point of the parade and was full of spectators, camera men and judges. We stayed on the tall stairs of the city hall watching the parade till the very last neighbourhood passed by. Cactus hats set on fire, limbs of the little goats flying around, dozens of costumes and tunes, miners' showing how to blow up mountains with dynamite, a band making a tall people pyramid with the help of their huge drums and much more - this kaleidoscope of images and sounds was filling in the square for the whole afternoon, till we got so saturated of all those colours and music that we were a little bit relieved when they announced the end... Experiences like this along our route around the world make us really grateful to our luck of being in the right place at the right time - they reinforce our feeling of synchronicity with the universe...

Tupiza Festival:

A video with some of the performances we saw at the Tupiza Festival:

Salar de Uyuni tour - the unforgettable three days of natural wonders:

Our next destination was Uyuni - the gateway city to one of the world's most striking natural wonders: Uyuni salt flats. The same evening we stepped out of the bus in Uyuni we used the advantage of our late arrival to get a really good discount for the 3-day tour that was leaving the next day (we'd join two more couples the Andrea Tours agency already had for the tour). Here's a very brief summary of what we saw during this three-days drive.

DAY 1:

The first day started with a stop at the so-called train cemetery - a collection of dozens of old rusty trains that were used to transport tons of silver and other mined minerals to Chile and other South American countries. On arrival we joined the rest of tourists in the fun activity of climbing up the trains and sticking out our heads from various holes inside those rusty coaches for photos. Luckily even with so many tourists doing the same, since there were more trains than tourists, everybody could easily have a couple of picturesque coaches all to themselves, so nobody really had to queue for photos, except at a couple of swings - those were a really nice photo set. With another brief stop at a tiny artisan market of Colchani where the mean locals seemed too bored to even try to sell anything to tourists (the only visitors at the market), we continued driving towards to star of the Uyuni tour experience - the salt flats.

Train Cemetery, Salar de Uyuni:

We could see the Salar for a long time before our jeep started driving through it - a thin stripe of shiny white stretched over kilometres. It was really weird to realize that all those crystals were salt, so I simply had to lick it when we made our first stop at the salt mines (Montones de Sal) where a few workers were busy loading salt from the neat little pyramids onto a couple of trucks. Next, we made a brief stop at the Salt Hotel, the only one inside the Salar. Then we drove for a while through a vast area of the salar covered with neat hexagonal formations till we reached our personal highlight of the tour and a definite candidate for our personal Top 10 of world's natural wonders - Isla de Incahuasi (Isla de Pescadores), or Fisherman Island. Imagine a big hill completely covered in huge, weirdly-shaped thousand-year-old cacti - like a floating isle of gentle green among sparkling white - with the bright desert sun shimmering through the silhouettes of all those huge cacti and wrapping them in surreal soft light - that's the image of the Isla de Inkawasi that pops up in my mind when I think of it. After having lunch at the entry to it and getting acquainted with our tour companions (a Belgian and an Italian couple), we had about half an hour to walk through the island, so we followed the designated path to have a closer look at all those cacti, see the view of the Salar from top and contemplate the amazing light drawing an extra halo-like silhouette around those giant cacti making the needles look velvety soft... It was fantastic!

Vicuñas, Salar de Uyuni:

Salar de Uyuni:

Montones de Sal, Salar de Uyuni:

Salt Hotel, Salar de Uyuni:

Isla de Inkawasi, or Fisherman Island, Salar de Uyuni:

After the Fisherman island we drove back through the Salar till the end of it, where we found a partially flooded area which gave us an impression of how the salt flats look during the flooded period of the year, past some more places with beautiful (although not hexagonal) formations, till we left the Salar behind and after a short while arrived at a salt hotel where we'd sleep that night. Now I owe a short explanation of what a salt hotel is to anybody who hasn't been to Uyuni - it's a hotel built entirely of salt bricks as if they were normal ones. It looks white and pretty, gets very freezing at night (luckily our agency threw in sleeping bags for us), you get a salty taste in your mouth every time you breathe in, and in the morning you can see millions of salt particles dancing in the air in the beam of light shining through the window.

Salt hotel Samarikuna, Salar de Uyuni:

DAY 2:

Our second-day drive except for one volcano was mainly about lagoons, which due to the special mineral contents of the water have different colours (blue, green, red, white). After a brief stop at San Juan village, we drove to the viewpoint of Volcan Ollague and spent the time of the stop wandering through curious sponge-like lava formations at the base of this volcano. Our next stop was the first of the lagoons - Laguna Cañapa (the blue one) where all the tourists including us ended up drowning till the ankle in thick clay-like mud in an attempt to get a closer look at the flamingoes. This time unlike on the Inca trail around Tarija, the flamingoes didn't move a bit - they knew all along that all of our attempts to get through that mud would be a fiasco. Next there was Laguna Hedionda - the green one with a distinct smell of sulphur (and the origin of its colour) and a lot of flamingoes. Then we drove past Laguna Honda (light green) and stopped at Arbol de Piedra - another natural wonder which consists of multiple sand "sculptures" designed by none less than the desert wind. Our last stop for that day was Laguna Colorada located at the beginning of a National park (with more lagoons, deserts and geysers) - this one depending on the angle looked either cherry or orange. On our walk along the shore we took photos of a volcano's reflection in the orange water of the lagoon, but also stumbled upon a few dead flamingoes (alive they look like a totally different species). Then it was time to head for the hotel.

Viewpoint for Volcano Ollague:

Laguna Cañapa:

More vicuñas:

Laguna Hedionda:

Laguna Honda:

Siloli desert:

Arbol de Piedra, Siloli desert:

Laguna Colorada, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

DAY 3:

Our last day of the tour was the one with most driving as we had to first get to the border with Chile to drop off the Belgian couple and then all the way back to Uyuni. The sight-seeing agenda was also quite busy: we first stopped at Sol de Mañana - a collection of fumaroles in the Uyuni desert, where the thinnest and highest of them all turned out to be an artificial one (the government was studying the possibility to exploit the thermal energy). The sunrise view at the fumaroles was truly stunning - there was the same kind of surreal light shining from behind those gushing clouds of smoke as the one we saw around the giant cacti of Isla de Incahuasi...

Sol de Mañana sulphur springs, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

Our next stop was also our first washing session during this tour - Aguas Termales (hot waters) at another lagoon. It did require a bit of mental effort to strip down to a swimming suit in the temperature just a bit higher than zero, but it was truly worth it as those aguas were the most perfect bath and at the most picturesque setting you could imagine. Clean and re-energized, we drove through an area that is turning into a salt flat (Salar de Chalviri), past the picture-perfect Valle de Dali, past Laguna Blanca (white because of all the salt), briefly stopped at Laguna Verde at the bottom of Volcan Licancabur, past another gorgeous lagoon with a crust of ice all over it till we finally reached the Chilean border point, where we left the Belgian guys, illegally crossed to Chile to take some photos behind the welcome board and turned around to drive back to Uyuni. Our next stop was another collection of picturesque stone formations - Valle de Rocas, in the same style like Arbol de Piedra, but with its own unique package of colours and shapes, some of which looked like giant chess figures.

Aguas Termales, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

Valle de Dali, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

Laguna Verde (the green lagoon) and Volcano Licancabur, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

A "sneak preview" of Chile:

Salar de Chalviri, Reserva de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa:

After another while of driving through the desert past more lagoons, volcanoes and mountains, all of a sudden the colours of the scenery changed from all shades of brown to all shades of green, as we descended to a much more humid belt, with the perfect climate to graze for llamas and correspondingly a suitable place to live for humans. One of our last stops was at a village with hundreds of llamas. During the short break we had after lunch we were finally able to take all the close-range photos, as well as get a much closer look at and even play with one of these timid and easily scared animals, as we found a deserted baby llama. After we cautiously approached it, it kept rubbing its cute little head against our legs while calling its mum with a very special sound (Jordi was trying to reproduce it but I don't think the mama-llama would come to check on him :-). Our final stop before Uyuni was at the village of San Cristobal where we had some time to check the small but busy market and peep at the basketball match between local kids through the gym door right next to the market (in Bolivia it seems to be a popular sport but every time we witnessed a match we were both amused and appalled by the players' level). Then we arrived at Uyuni - that was the end of this 3-day tour, which so far has been the most picturesque drive we've ever taken.

Going down to Villa Mar:

In the village of Villa Mar:

Valle de Rocas:

Jordi in Valle de Rocas (on the left) and a woman in San Cristobal (on the right):

In the village of San Cristobal:

Andean ostrich, back in Uyuni:

And here is a brief summary of our impressions from this tour: (1) it's a great way to see a lot of amazing landscapes within a short period of time; (2) some of the sights from our point of view are the world's top natural wonders; (3) there are even better ways to do this trip (we would've loved to do it by bike or motorbike, for instance) but require much more time and planning effort although considerably less money; (4) 4-day Uyuni tours are also organized from Tupiza but after checking the tour plan and fee in both cities we didn't see any valid reasons to justify the two-times higher fee from Tupiza for an almost identical tour; (5) the tour costs about 700BOB (although we had some discount for "last-minute" booking).

To be continued with the last two weeks in Bolivia...