Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni *4-Day Primitive Extravaganza*

On May 3rd we started our 4-day primitive extravaganza to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Yes, this is salt, not snow. Pinch me!


Perhaps the most sought-after Bolivian experience by backpackers and travelers alike is spending three or four days in a jeep traversing the incredible landscape of southwestern Bolivia. The main attraction is the salar, nearly 7,000 square miles of bright white landscape dotted with cactus and rock formations.

What Do I Mean By “Primitive”?

We drove 500 miles in four days all on unpaved surfaces. In fact, there were many times that we weren’t even driving on a road at all. We were literally in the middle of nowhere for days on end. There were a few pueblos located in strategic places along the route with the sole purpose of supporting this popular tourist trek. These pueblos provided basic nighttime accommodations for tour groups like ours, and our cook – along with the other cooks – used the kitchens to prepare our food for each day.

At night the electricity turned off at 9:00 pm and it never came on in the morning. We bunked in rooms with at least four people and shared one bathroom for up to 13 people. We didn’t have any heat and trust me, it was cold! The temps got down to freezing two of the nights. Forget about showering. We were lucky if the toilets flushed.

While the accommodations were bare-bones, the tour, the people and the scenery more than made up for the saggy mattresses, frigid temperatures and long bathroom lines.

Our International Peeps

There were 13 of us in three jeeps. Lilia (our Canadian friend), Harry and I were in one jeep with Laurie, a Chinese woman living in Paris. Our driver was a 24 year-old Bolivian named Antonio who has been working the circuit for five years. The cook also rode in our jeep with us. There were two British backpackers and one German in another jeep, and the third jeep was filled with a French family — mom, dad, two young kids, grandma and grandpa. The family of four is traveling around the world for one year! We had fun playing card games with them at night and being goofy with them during the day.

Day #1

We drove up and out of Tupiza and immediately felt worlds away from the small western town. Our wildlife safari began almost immediately when we saw five condors flying above the edge of the canyon. Antonio actually pulled over and jumped out to take a picture, making us realize what a special occurrence it was. (Credit to Lilia for the condor photo). Everyday we saw countless numbers of alpaca and their vicuna cousins roaming on the varied terrain.


We saw sand dunes one minute and high mountain, snow-covered peaks the next.


This massive peak was in our sites for quite a while and it was fun to watch it get bigger and bigger the closer we got. We stopped to walk around the ruins and we were quickly out of breath due to the high altitude. I’d never been at 13,000 feet before! For reference, Mt Hood in Oregon is 11,200 feet. Our hearts worked overtime to pump oxygen into our bodies and we were all a little dizzy.


Shortly after the ruins we reached our high point of the trip at just over 15,000 feet. Woohoo!


It was cold sleeping at 14,000 feet! I went to bed wearing most of my clothes and slept inside my sleeping bag, under the covers. The weight of the several heavy wool army blankets made turning over a real challenge.

IMG_8024KR Sleeping

 Day #2

Damn, it was hard to get out of our sleeping bags because it was so cold! Luckily we had each other to cuddle with in the jeep, because wouldn’t you know it — there wasn’t heat in there, either. Our first stop of the day was the Llama Hotel.

IMG_8030 IMG_8041IMG_8061IMG_8057

Later that day we had our first glimpse of a salt field, a sign of things to come. We just couldn’t get over how quickly the landscape changed.


We visited an area of impressive geothermal activity and felt like we were on the moon.


The minerals in Bolivia’s soil are rich and varied, turning the lakes different colors. This lagoon was literally red. And yes, those are pink flamingos!

IMG_8227Red Flamingo

We played card games in the evening before the lights went out, and it should be noted that some of us got a little competitive. It’s no wonder that the young French kids stuck to playing UNO with their grandparents.


Day #3

We saw a petrified tree and played on some big boulders. Behind Harry is the semi-active Ollague volcano, which sits on the border of Chile and Bolivia. Unfortunately you can’t see the smoke spewing out of it’s top. We visited another lake with more flamingos, had a picnic from the back of the jeeps, and marveled at the hard, rough green lichen growing on the rocks.


We spent our last night at the Salt Hotel, and guess what? The bricks for the walls, beds, tables and chairs were all made out of salt! I felt like a princess in a palace…. we all know how much I love salt. And no, I didn’t try to lick the walls. I was happy to discover that salt bricks have an insulating factor which meant that it wasn’t ridiculously cold inside.


Day #4

We left the Salt Hotel at 5:00 am and drove an hour to catch the sunrise from the top of a coral island. On the way there we officially drove onto the salar. Antonio turned off the headlights for 10 minutes and drove in the dark using the light from the moon reflecting on the salar to guide him.

Bundled up (but still freezing cold) we watched the sunrise. What a spectacular, special experience.


We hiked back down for breakfast and hot tea. To warm ourselves up we played soccer on the salar as the sun rose in the sky. Two of my favorite things: soccer and salt! That’s when things started to get a little surreal.


We were chased by a red dinosaur and Harry and I had to personally put him in his place. But then I made up with him because he sure was cute – and just a little misunderstood. 


I’ve got this guy in the palm of my hand…



And that, my friends, is the story of our 4-day primitive extravaganza across southern Boliva. We will always be inspired and humbled by this experience. Viva Bolivia!


Bolivia: Border Crossing + Tupiza

We took an early morning three hour bus ride north from Humahuaca to the Argentinian border town La Quiaca. We waved good-bye to Argentina and walked across the bridge into Villazon, the Bolivian border town. We read that the border crossing could possibly take hours so we were thrilled that it only took twenty minutes. We were also pleased that a bribe wasn’t required in order to obtain our passport stamp.

We walked up a busy commercial street to the bus station, overstimulated by all the merchants and street vendors. I’ve never seen so many North Face down jackets (fake, of course) in one place before. Harry was in his element, bopping into a number of currency exchange shops, looking for the best exchange rate.

Eventually we bought our tickets, paid the police officer a “tax” (bribe?) to get on the bus, and were soon on our way to Tupiza, elevation 10,000 feet. The road was equal parts steep and windy with phenomenal views as we cut through the mountains. We quickly understood that we were going to be living life quite high up while in Bolivia.


We enjoyed the few days we spent in this sweet little mountain town. Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were taken down by the Bolivian army near Tupiza, ending their notorious string of bank robberies. Several restaurants capitalized on the wild west theme which was fitting because Tupiza itself was like a western movie, Bolivia-style. We loved the colorful markets and ate local food, grateful that Bolivian cuisine has more flavor than the typically bland Argentinian fare ever did. I am a cautious eater, and a vegetarian to boot, but I love it that Harry will eat almost anything. It’s nice to have a travel buddy with adventurous taste buds and a stomach made of steel.


Taking Care of Business

Harry needed a haircut so I tagged along…. it’s not like I had anything else going on and I was curious to see what a Bolivian barbershop experience would be like. When we entered the salon it was like walking back in time. The barber was watching a game show on an old tv with rabbit ears, complete with fuzzy lines racing across the screen. I refrained from taking a picture of the poster with half-naked women on the wall circa 1975, but trust me – it was there. The barber was friendly and the three of us chatted in Spanish while he cut Harry’s hair. We obviously had a lot to talk about because we were there long enough for him to shave Harry bald. At least he won’t need a haircut for a while!


What’s the Difference? 

As I’ve mentioned before, in Argentina many businesses close between 1:00 – 5:00 PM every day for siesta (nap time). We asked our hostel owner if the same was true in Bolivia, and he rolled his eyes, saying “No, we’re not like Argentina, we don’t close for siesta! We do, however, close for lunch from 12:00-2:00”.

Friends Are Fun! 

One of the best things that happened in Tupiza was reconnecting with our Canadian friend Lilia, whom we met at Spanish school in Buenos Aires in February. We’ve kept in touch over the past few months and when we realized that we’d all be in Bolivia within days of one another we did a happy dance. It was so fun catching up with her and sharing tales of our adventures.

Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door)


Lilia and I took a break in the shade to chat while Harry forged ahead to further explore the canyon. Off in the distance we heard rustling and bleating, and before too long a bunch of goats crossed our path! In fact, 200 goats walked right by us accompanied by three herding dogs and a goat keeper. It was quite a site to see them come down one side of the mountain, traverse the flat land and cruise on up the side of the next mountain. Later we saw Harry chatting it up with the goat keeper.


Next up: Salar de Uyuni, a Primitive 4-Day Extravaganza 

One of the main reasons travelers visit Tupiza is because it’s the gateway to a multi-day tour in southern Bolivia. Culminating at the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, the journey is supposed to be epic. We coordinated our schedule with Lilia so we could all do this trip together. We were beyond excited to see what this next adventure had in store for us!

Argentina: Jujuy, Purmamarca + Humahuaca *Final Hurrah*

On April 24 we took a short two hour bus ride north from Salta to Jujuy (hoo-hooey). While we really looked forward to visiting Salta, we honestly didn’t know anything about Jujuy before our arrival. Located in the upper northwest corner of Argentina, Jujuy turned out to be a lovely surprise. Besides being along the direct route to Bolivia, Jujuy is also the start of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is a 90 mile-long gorge dotted with indigenous communities living among beautifully colored rock formations. Plus, saying the name “Jujuy” is just so much fun!


Purmamurca: Field Trip

While very touristy, this little village in the gorge is home to the Hill of Seven Colors. We took a local bus on a sunny day to explore Purmamurca and hike in the colored mountains surrounding the area.


As we walked through town to begin our hike we saw a woman struggling to push a heavy cart up a big hill on a dirt road. Harry offered to help her and without hesitation she accepted. Together they grunted their way up the dusty hill.

IMG_7483 We had an incredible hike in the colored hills.


Humahuaca: Final Stop in Argentina

The last town in the gorge, we found Humahuaca to be the most authentically indigenous community that we visited in Argentina. We enjoyed hanging out in the main plaza watching the world go by. On our last day in Argentina we made friends with a women from Buenos Aires, which seemed like an appropriate ending to our first three months.



Bolivia Bound  

We had an incredible time in Argentina and feel grateful for all that we were able to experience. Onward to Bolivia!