Many months ago before we had even started on this trip, doing a tour of the salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia was one of the top things on our list stuff to see and do. Our initial plan was to do a 3 day tour of the salt flats starting in Uyuni. Getting to Uyuni from La Paz was the first obstacle. We read multiple articles about terrible roads, unreliable buses and even more unreliable drivers (sometimes intoxicated). We decided the best option would be to spend a little extra money and fly from La Paz to Uyuni… a 45 minute flight for 300+ dollars. Ugh.
While staying in La Paz and searching for the best tour companies and tour options, Lynn came across Banjo Tours. They offered different options apart from the usual 3 day tour of the salt flats that everyone else offered. One of those options was a 7 day tour that started in La Paz, stopped in Sajama National Park, then went south to the Uyuni Salt Flats, and finally ended at the border of Chile. We tried to join another jeep tour that we saw on the Banjo website, but found out that wasn’t possible so we would have to pay more for our own jeep unless we found 2 others to join us. In the end Banjo found 2 people to join the second part of our trip which reduced our price, so decided we would pay the extra to experience more of Bolivia.
During our 7 day trip we had some really high points and some low points. As it turned out, the first half of our trip was well planned out, while the second half lacked some attention to detail… among other things. As a whole, everything that we saw on the trip was pretty amazing, but it was the lack of communication that left us feeling frustrated at times.
On the first day of our trip we were told that we would be picked up at our hotel at 8am. We thought that we would be traveling alone, but found out that the group we had originally tried to join would also be traveling with us. When our guide, Ben, showed up at our hotel he informed us that we would all be in 1 jeep for a short period of time as our jeep was currently be serviced after the previous trip and we would meet up with it on our way out of the city.
Since we had officially signed up just the night before, we understood that things were not completely ready for our jeep tour. We all crammed into the jeep with our stuff and made our way out of La Paz. Along the way we stopped at a lookout point above the city to take some pictures and stretch our legs. La Paz sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, so the higher you are the better the views.
Even though we were told that we would be meeting up with the other jeep in just a few minutes, we drove for quite a while after that. A couple hours after leaving the hotel we stopped at a local market to wait for our jeep to meet up with us. While waiting for our jeep we picked up some water, which we annoyingly got gringo priced for (although not nearly as bad as later during the trip).
Our jeep finally did arrive and around 11:30am we were finally on our way. We just hoped that our delay that morning would not mean that we would be rushed or miss something that we should have seen. If we did miss something that day, we were not aware of it as we still did plenty that first day.
After leaving La Paz we stopped along a wide open stretch of land. Along the road were groups of locals marching their way towards La Paz. Our guide, Ben, told us that they were marching in order to let the government know that they need the roads paved into their towns. Some of the towns march from up to 100km (62 miles) away during the multi-day trek.
Comanche Mining Town
Our next stop was in the old mining town of Comanche, which was once a big stone mining town. The mountain that sits behind the town is where the majority of the stones that make up the cobblestone roads in La Paz were mined. The mountain is also one of the only places that a rare type of cactus grows in Bolivia.
Lunch & Animals
As we were all getting hungry we made our next stop along some open flat lands where there were a bunch of llamas and sheep grazing and some flamingos at a small lagoon off in the distance. As we walked around trying to get pictures of all the animals, the crew prepared lunch for us. Even though we planned to have a nice picnic and eat lunch outside, that didn’t quite happen. As we walked back to the jeeps for lunch, we could see dark clouds rolling in and the wind had picked up quite a bit. We sat in the jeep eating our lunch as the strong winds blew dust all around us.
Eagle Men Ruins
The dark clouds were still rolling in as we made it to our next stop, the Eagle Men Ruins, which sits on top of a large plateau. There was a short hike involved to get to the top, but we ignored the dark clouds and made our way up. The rain waited until exactly the moment we made it to the top. Lynn and I hid behind a large rock with our small umbrella trying to keep dry as the wind, rain, and then snow pelted us from the side. It was cold and we weren’t really prepared for it, but the rain did slow down and then stop eventually. We all walked around the ruins and saw the many chullpas (or tombs) which look like little huts. Amazingly, some of the chullpas still had bones in them, which was very strange considering they were hundreds of years old.
The ruins are actually known as the Eagle Men because the area has an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding area. Once the weather cleared a little we were able to see some of the great views in all directions.
Homestay in Rosario
Our first night was a homestay in Ben’s family’s hometown of Rosario, Bolivia. Ben did not grow up there, but he spent many summers as a kid visiting his grandparents. Now his Aunt and Uncle own the property, so they were our hosts for the night.
The homestay was probably our most basic accommodations of the trip, but we were prepared for it. Our room was actually a decent size and had a couple beds in it. Per the usual, we put our bags on the twin bed and slept in the other larger bed. We had electricity (which we didn’t expect), but we had no heat. This was fine though because we had 6 thick blankets on our bed. Even though the bed was’t the most comfortable bed we’ve slept on, we were both warm enough through the night.
The bathroom was an outhouse that we shared with everyone. It was literally just a small shed with a toilet in it. Of course it didn’t actually flush, so you had to carry a bucket of water with you to the toilet, which you had to fill at a small well by the main house. After you were done going to the bathroom you would pour the water into the toilet and that would manually flush the toilet. After hearing about the toilet, I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know that there was no shower during our homestay.
That night we had dinner and then sat around a small fire chatting with everyone. It was actually a nice night for star gazing as well, and I felt like we saw some stars in the sky that we normally don’t see in the US.
It was cold waking up that next morning and getting out of bed. Even if there was a shower, I’m not sure I would have been able to get in with how cold the air was. It didn’t matter though, because we both took a baby wipe “shower” before getting changed and heading to breakfast. Then after breakfast we were off to start our second day.
We were told that we could help one of the locals by herding their alpacas over to a small hill away from town. That is where they would be grazing for the day. We did our best to keep them in a group, but it didn’t seem to really matter. We were pretty sure that they already knew were they were going and we were just walking along with them. It was fun to pretend we were being helpful though and we even saw a couple young ones in the group that I know Lynn enjoyed.
Llamas at the City of Stone
Ben told us that we would be doing another hike, but before we could start on the hike we had to get permission from the chief of the town to hike on their land. While Ben left to talk to the chief, we walked over to a small enclosure filled with Llamas. We were having fun just taking pictures and watching them. As we were doing that a woman walked over and started to herd them out of the enclosure. We got to stand there as all of the llamas walked through the gate and out into the fields to graze.
City of Stone Hike
We received permission from the chief and we were again back in the jeeps for a quick ride along the river to get closer to where we would be hiking from. We passed through a couple “gates” which actually had to be taken apart by hand by our guides and drivers before we could pass through, and then we parked the jeeps in order to walk the rest of the way.
Our hike started with a quick hike along a river to another grouping of chullpas which again still had bones in them. It’s so weird to just look into these huts (tombs) and see actual human bones in them.
From that point, there was only really one way to go and that was up. Unlike the day before, there was no set path to get to the top of surrounding mountains. Our guides did the best they could to choose the safest and easiest path to the top of the rocky cliffs. It didn’t seem like we were hiking for that long, but looking down to the chullpas we were at previously made us realize how high up we had hiked.
From the top there were panoramic views of the surrounding area. The city of stone stretches in all directions for hundreds of miles. In the distance we could see Sajama Mountain, where we would be staying that night. We spent some time up there taking pictures and then made our way back down to the jeeps to eat lunch.
Long Drive to Sajama
After lunch we got ready and prepared ourselves for the long drive to Sajama. It was five hours over very rough roads, stopping every once in a while to open property gates in order to pass through. This was something that our other guide, Chelo, had to get out and do each time we came to a gate that was closed.
Along the way we saw a lot more llamas and alpacas, some that didn’t seem to care that they were standing in the middle of the road. A few honks of the horn and they would run for the hills. Most would just stand on the side of the road and stare at us like we were crazy to be driving out in the middle of nowhere… maybe we were.
The road we took is also known as the smuggler’s road. Apparently there is a large tax on most goods imported into Bolivia… as high as 40% for some items like cars and clothing. In order to not pay taxes on some goods, Bolivians will get stuff in Chile and try to smuggle it in on small roads across the border. The road we were on was one of those roads, but we didn’t see any smugglers, as we were told that they travel mainly at night.
Sunset at Sajama
We arrived in Sajama right around sunset, so before we continued on to our hostel we stopped to watch the sun set. It wasn’t the most exciting sunset, but behind us dark clouds rolled in, and as it started to rain a little we were able to witness a full arching rainbow.
After watching the sunset, we moved on as we were all excited to get to our hostel, eat dinner, and take a hot shower since we didn’t have that luxury the night before.
We had a busy day ahead of us, so we were up early to eat breakfast and get started on our day. That morning there were clear skies with only a few clouds to be seen in the sky. As the guides and drivers were preparing the jeeps, we took a walk into the town square and took some pictures from the top of the church tower. There were great views of the twin mountains to the west and of Sajama mountain sitting just to the east of the small village.
As we left the town that morning we had to pay our park fee of 100 Bolivianos, or $15 each for Sajama National Park. We technically stayed inside Sajama National Park the night before, but were not able to pay because of the timing of when we arrived. We paid our fee and then we were off on our adventures for the day.
Reflection Lagoon & Sajama Mountain
Ben told us that he was taking us some place special that morning before we left for our hike in the mountains. As we drove a short distance on a paved road (one of only two we saw during our 7 days), they pulled the jeeps over on the side of the road.
We got out of the jeeps, crossed the road and walked down a small slope to see a large lagoon. The setting was perfect… for a few reasons:
- The lagoon sat just at the base of Sajama mountain
- The sky was bright blue with only a few small wispy clouds
- There was no wind, so the lagoon was perfectly still and gave the most amazing reflection of the sky and the mountains
We stayed there for about 10 minutes and I took about 400 versions of the same photo. The view seemed like something you would see on a postcard, but would never actually be able to capture yourself. Luckily, we captured it and it’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Seriously.
Acotango Volcano Hike
The previous night, Ben told us that he would be taking us on a volcano hike that he had never taken any other group on before. He decided to take our group because we were all acclimated to the altitude (after staying in La Paz) and decently fit. Even though we would be hiking part of the volcano, the majority of the climb would be done in the jeeps. This was a relief, because it probably would have taken us days to hike the entire thing on foot.
It was quite a long ride up in the jeeps, winding back and forth until we reached a point where the dirt road ended. The road up there is actually a mining road used by trucks to transport minerals out of the mines in the mountains.
It was a lot cooler up there, so we bundled up and took our water and camera gear with us for the hike. This was the highest altitude we both have ever been to on foot. We were starting our hike at about 5,500 meters (18,000 feet), so with every 20-30 steps we were feeling how thin the air was.
Our group took our time hiking across the ridge of the volcano, making our way to a point where we could see hundreds of miles in all directions. We crossed over rocks, sand, and even some snow covered areas to get to our final lookout point. Acotango Volcano sits right on the Chilean border, so we had views of both Bolivia and Chile. Just west of us on the Chilean side was a snow capped volcano that had a small billow of smoke coming out of the top.
At the top we had to rest for a while and catch our breath. At that point we were at 5,900 meters, or 19,350 feet above sea level, which is higher than Mount Everest base camp. After we caught our breath, we were able to spend some more energy to take some jumping photos and numerous panoramic shots of our surroundings.
After about 30 minutes at the top, we made the trek back down to the jeeps. The trip down was definitely a lot easier, but it’s possible that I was motivated to get back to the jeep for a snack since we hadn’t taken any snacks to the top with us.
After lunch at our hostel we got back in the jeeps again for a quick ride to some local geysers near the town of Sajama. The geysers were different from most of the geysers I’ve seen in the US, because they were not sulphureous. It was actually more pleasant walking around to look at the geysers without the smell of rotten eggs in the air. Most of the geysers were just pools of hot water, but some were boiling pretty well.
We learned that the geysers that we saw just a few minutes previously end up mixing with the cool mountain streams and make the perfect temperature for natural hot springs. We drove from the geysers to a small natural hot spring in the area.
This was the first time I had ever been to a natural hot spring, so I was interested to see what it would be like. There was a small “changing room” at the hot spring, which was basically just a stone wall about waist high that you could change behind. Luckily, we had all changed into our bathing suits before we left the hostel.
I’m not a big fan of algae, mainly because I hate the slimy feeling of it. Lynn got in first and said, “Andy, you are not going to like this.” All of the rocks within the hot spring were covered in a thick slimy algae, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. The algae felt so weird though and had air bubbles inside it. Every time you touched some it would release the air and bubble to the top of the water. All of us spent the majority of the time scooping pieces of algae out of the water and throwing it into the surrounding grass. The water was very warm though and Lynn and I were only able to stay in for short periods of time, having to stand up and cool off from time to time. We saw storm clouds rolling in, so we decided to get out, change and start heading back to the jeeps. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any pictures at the hot springs because we were worried about our camera getting ruined. We did take some pictures of another rainbow that formed when we got to the jeeps though.
We spent a second night at our Sajama hostel and woke up early again prepared for a long day of driving south to the Uyuni salt flats. It wasn’t all driving though as we were able to make a few stops along the way and see some different sights.
Rio Lauca Circuit
Along the route there is a circuit of lagoons and ruins that you need to pass through in order to make your way to Uyuni. Normally there is a fee of 80 Bolivianos ($11.50) each, but since we would only be passing through and stopping to see some of the circuit, we paid 25B ($3.60) each.
Our first stop was at a lagoon with some nice views and quite a few flamingos. We walked around and tried to get some photos of the flamingos, but they were shy and always flew away when ever we got within a few hundred feet of them.
The Pukara chullpas are some of the best maintained chullpas in all of Bolivia. These chullpas also still had bones within them, but Ben told us that like many of the other chullpas, people had taken most of the ancient pottery that was left in the tombs. The government had removed most of the human remains in order to study them.
Mirador & Laguna Macaya
We parked a little ways away from a lagoon that Ben told us was a large lagoon where many flamingos come to eat. If we were quiet enough we could sneak in behind and view some of the flamingos from a lookout point. Unfortunately, we weren’t quiet enough and the closest group of flamingos heard us and took off flying.
As we made it to the top of the lookout point, most of the flamingos were staying pretty far away. After about 10 minutes a couple of the flamingos flew over a little closer and I was able to get some closer shots. Later in the trip I would learn that it didn’t really matter, because the flamingos south of Uyuni are not shy at all and you can get very close.
Small Sand Dune
To break up the long drive we made a quick stop at a small sand dune in the middle of the desert. It was definitely not anything like some of the huge sand dunes we had seen in Huacachina, Peru, but it was a nice little break as we were able to get out of the jeeps and stretch our legs.
Just a little while after the sand dunes we stopped to look at some animals. While we were stopped our driver, Rafael, looked out and noticed that his tire was low. Within a few minutes, both drivers and guides were jacking up the car and changing the tire. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a delay as we were back on the road in about 8 minutes.
Salar de Coipasa
On our way to the larger salt flats in Uyuni, we stopped at a smaller salt flats in Coipasa. Apparently, these salt flats are actually more white than the salt flats in Uyuni because there is not as much dust and dirt blowing onto the flats.
Ben told us that this was our opportunity to practice some of our creative shots so that we knew exactly what we wanted to do the next day at the Uyuni Salt Flats. We were having a hard time with the focus, which we later learned was because the DSLR is just too good when trying to take photos where everything is in focus. Even if you change the settings to focus on everything it has a hard time not blurring objects in the background if there is something directly in front of the camera. We did get a couple shots after our driver came over and helped us do a couple poses.
After our stop at the Coipasa Salt Flats we got back in the jeeps and continued on our way to the northern part of the Uyuni Salt Flats where we were staying at a hostel in Jirira. Along the way we were able to see a bunch of quinoa fields, since we drove through one of the main regions for quinoa production in Bolivia.
Goodbye to Our Guides & Driver
That evening when we arrived at our hostel in Jirira we also said goodbye to our two guides, Ben and Chelo, as well as our driver, Rafael. The next day we would be meeting up with our new guide, Pablo, a new driver, and 2 Swedish girls for the remainder of the trip.
Our day started early again and for the morning all 6 of us were in one jeep again with the other driver, Juan… who by the way, was a really fun guy with a great laugh. Later during our trip, Lynn had a great time “chatting” with him in Spanish during dinner.
Anyway, we had some activities planned for the morning and then in the late morning we would be meeting up with our new jeep, our new Swedish travel companions, and the entire groups new guide, Pablo.
Sunrise on the Uyuni Salt Flats
We all woke up super early and were out on the salt flats around 5:45 to see the sun rise over the hills behind the salt flats. We were really looking forward to this because Ben mentioned that it is one of his favorite things to do on the salt flats. Even though it was nice, it wasn’t as amazing as we thought it would be. We were glad we got up to do it though because we still had a good time. We actually thought that the Tunupa volcano behind us was more interesting, especially once the sun started to shine on it. Before the sun came up, the skies were clear and there was a full moon sitting right above the volcano.
After breakfast back at the hostel, we still had some time before the other jeep arrived so we went to a nearby town called Coqueza.
Llamas & Alpacas Grazing
On the way into Coqueza there were a bunch of llamas and alpacas grazing on a grassy patch of land that was about the only green in the area right before the salt flats stretched for miles. We took some pictures, but mostly just watched the llamas and alpacas because they’re pretty funny animals.
Hike Near Tunupa Volcano
There are some hikes to do in Coqueza near the Tunupa Volcano, and we were told that it would be 60B ($8.70) per car. This worked out well for this day because all 6 of us were in the same car, so it only ended up being 10B ($1.45) per person.
There is a really long day hike that you can take all the way to the top of the volcano, but we obviously didn’t have time to do that. We chose to do one of the shorter hikes to a mirador (lookout point) just a few kilometers up. We didn’t know what the view would be like, but it was actually better than we thought it would be. We had panoramic views of the hills around us and the expansive salt flats.
After our hike up, there was a short hike to see some more chullpas (tombs in case you forgot) which had actual mummies still inside. It’s a little weird to walk into a cave and see these skeletons just sitting there, but I guess this is how the natives would honor the dead. The strangest (and saddest) thing about the tomb was that there were remains of children as well. Apparently, when the elder of the family would die, they would sometimes sacrifice the rest of the family as well. I don’t quite get it, but I guess that’s what they did.
Meeting Up with Pablo & the Swedish Girls
We made our way back to the hostel around 11AM so that we could switch over to the new jeep and start the second part of our tour. This is where things started to go downhill in terms of the quality of the tour and communication. Don’t get me wrong, we still saw some amazing things and had a great time, but there were some issues.
The Swedish girls that joined us were very nice and we had no issues with them at all. All of us agreed to swap seats during the trip because the seats in the back of the jeep had less leg room. That’s one of the things we were hoping for and it worked out well.
Pablo seemed nice enough to start, but the more time we spent with him the more we seemed to get frustrated. More on that later.
Salt “Factory” & Market
I think one of the problems was that the first part of the salt flats tour just didn’t start on the right foot. Our first stop was at what Pablo called a salt factory. He also informed us that we would need to tip the factory guide 2B (30 cents) each after the tour of the factory. Even though it wasn’t much it annoyed us initially because we were never told that we would need these additional Bolivianos.
The salt factory consisted of a hut with an older gentleman sitting next to a pile of salt which he put into small plastic bags and sealed. That’s it. That’s all it was. Oh, except for the young guy sitting behind him that was high on cocoa leaves. After the older gentleman sealed one bag he stood up, went to the door and held out a container for tips. This was just hilarious for a couple reasons:
- The older gentleman didn’t even guide a tour… he just sat there!
- We were pretty sure there was a lot more that went into the manufacturing of salt.
Luckily, we didn’t have 4B to give this “factory” guide. All we had on us was .7B (10 cents), which we were looking to get rid of anyway, so I dropped it in his stupid little tip container. We were happy we didn’t have the money or we probably would have been even more annoyed.
The market in that same area was crowded with jeeps and tourists. All of the shops sold over priced souvenirs and food items, which we were not interested in so we found some shade and waited for the rest of the group to be ready to leave.
We realized later that the guides and drivers got a kickback for bringing tourists to the factory and market. We weren’t certain, but it seemed like they received free lunch there as well because it was the one time on the trip that they did not eat lunch with us.
Our next stop was a quick stop at the non-operational salt mines. There were basically just piles of salt and cutouts of where the salt bricks are made.
One thing I didn’t know about the salt flats is that underneath the salt crust there is actually still a lake. I had just assumed that when the salt flats formed, all of the water had evaporated and left the salt, but that is not true. Anyway, there are salt springs in certain spots of the salt flats where the water is bubbling up from below the salt crust.
Unlike some of the other springs we had seen, these springs were cold, rich in minerals, and smelled like sulphur. Some other groups that were there were actually taking off their shoes and walking in the springs. I’m sure they smelled lovely when they got back into their jeeps.
Pictures on the Salt Flats
Pictures on the salt flats were what we had been looking forward to ever since we first saw pictures online. With the way things were going so far that day we assumed that we would be rushed and not able to spend a lot of time taking pictures, but we were pleasantly surprised.
We had quite a bit of time to take pictures and even though we were having the same focusing issues with our DSLR, we borrowed another woman’s camera and took some pictures. This was actually the most helpful that Pablo was during the trip. we had some ideas for pictures and spent the time to help us and take the pictures for us.
Next we were off to cactus island, or as it’s actually named, Isla Incahausi. The island sits in the middle of the salt flats and is actually made of dead coral from when the area was covered with the salt sea, thousands or maybe even millions of years ago… I’m pretty sure it was millions. Now it’s a tourist destination with a walking path that leads you up to the top and back down the other side. People call it cactus island because there are many large cactus that cover the island. Fun fact: the male cactus are straight and have no extensions (branches?) that grow off the sides… only the female cactus do.
The cost to visit the island is 30B ($4.35) each, which seemed a little expensive for what there was to do there and especially for the amount of time we spent. The only good thing about the fee for the island was that the use of the bathroom was included, which is not something you see every day in Bolivia.
Since we didn’t spend much time at cactus island we had time for one more stop before heading on to our hostel for the night. We made a quick stop at another island that had a large cave. There wasn’t much to see, but it was still pretty cool looking. The best thing was that it was free!
Thanksgiving Night at the Salt Hostel
That night we stayed at the salt hostel on the southern edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats. When we arrived we were given our room assignments and informed that showers would cost us 10B ($1.45) each. This is where we first got annoyed with Pablo and voiced our frustration. It was another cost that we were not told about and we already had no Bolivianos to spare. Pablo’s response less than helpful, mainly because it wasn’t even really a response… more of just a shoulder shrug. We were lucky, as we were able to exchange some dollars for additional Bolivianos with another traveler staying at the hostel, and we got our much needed showers.
Being that we stayed the previous night at the southern edge of the salt flats, the next day we were headed south towards the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Fuana Andina. We would end the day in the National Reserve, but along the way we had plenty of stops at lagoons and other attractions. We could tell we were still on the tourist circuit though, because every place we stopped there were other jeeps stopping and moving right along with us.
The Stone Army is a formation of coral rocks that have been eroded over the years by the wind and sand. You can see the direction of the wind by looking at the coral formations and how they all point in one direction. The area is known as the Stone Army because when the sun hits the rocks at certain times of the day the rocks look like an army of stone soldiers.
Train Tracks at Chiguana Salt Flats
The train tracks at Chiguana Salt Flats are still in use, but are only used for transporting minerals back and forth. The actual salt flats are more brown than the others as they are covered with more sand and dirt. We spent about 15 minutes here while our group and every other group took the same exact pictures standing with our heads popping up through the train tracks. See below for Lynn’s “scared” face in the picture we took.
Ollague Volcano Viewpoint
The viewpoint wasn’t overly interesting, but there were some large rock formations which we all climbed around to check out the views. Many people decided to make this a natural bathroom stop, which apparently was something that others groups did as well. It was actually pretty disgusting as you walked around you could see that some people had left used toilet paper under rocks after going to the bathroom. Why they felt the need to leave it there I will never understand, but I was happy to leave Toilet Viewpoint… I mean, the Ollague Volcano Viewpoint.
We made a few stops at different lagoons this day and Canapa Lagoon was the first. As we drove the jeep down to the lagoon there was a small fox walking around. When they stopped the jeep we thought that it would probably run away, but apparently everyone feeds the fox so it was very used to humans. We sort of wished that wasn’t the case, because the fox seemed dependent on tourists and guides giving him food.
We were told that the flamingos were less shy the further south we traveled, and that was definitely true. There were quite a few flamingos and they didn’t seemed to be bothered by us walking up and taking pictures.
At our second lagoon, Hedionda Lagoon, I was able to get some really close shots of a flamingo. After I got these photos I figured I probably didn’t need any more flamingo pictures, but still continued to take about 700 more.
At this lagoon is also where we stopped and ate lunch on a big round picnic table. After lunch as the crew was cleaning up, everyone else took a walk down to the lagoon, but I was exhausted and took a quick nap in the jeep.
This was just a quick stop and since I already had a few thousand pictures of flamingos, I only got out to take a quick panoramic shot and then we were off again.
Nothing too special here really. Just wide open desert with some mountains surrounding it. It was sort of cool to just be driving across a wide open desert with no real road, but that was also what a lot of the trip seemed like for some reason… just not always a desert landscape. That’s Bolivia for you!
Our next stop was at the Stone Tree, and was again crowded with tour jeeps. The Stone Tree is probably exactly what you would think it would be, unless you were thinking it was a tree that was petrified… because it’s not. It’s actually just a large stone that looks like a tree. It’s pretty cool looking, although one of the best angles to photograph it has all of the tour jeeps in the background. The other good angle has a metal sign in it. I did my best to crop it out, but they certainly make it hard to get a decent shot of it.
At this stop there are also a bunch of other large rock formations that you can climb around and check out. I climbed close to the top of one, but it was turning out to be a long day so we didn’t climb any other rocks after that.
The Red Lagoon was the first stop within the National Reserve and the last stop of the day before we headed to our final hostel. Before reaching the Red Lagoon we had to stop and pay the park entrance fee which was 150B ($21.75) each.
We were in Bolivia at the very beginning of what they call the rainy season, although it hardly rained at all during our trip. That also means we were at the end of the dry season, which is why there was not a lot of water in the Red Lagoon. It still was very red, but apparently at the end of the rainy season there is more water and the entire lagoon is completely red. The white of the lagoon is salt and borax, while the red is actually an algae that thrives in the mineral rich water.
Final Hostel Night
Lynn pretty much summed up this hostel nicely in her post, which she wanted to call, “The Worst Hostel Ever.” The one thing we couldn’t believe was that there was no reservation so our guide was driving us around so they could check availability at each hostel. They of course checked the two crappiest hostels first, to make sure they had a higher profit margin.
As we ate dinner that night, we found out that there was an issue with Juan’s jeep. It was leaking a lot of oil as we drove into town. They spent a little over an hour working on it and from what we were told, they had fixed the issue. It was after this that Juan came in to eat dinner with us and Lynn chatted in Spanish with him for quite a while.
Before we started our jeep tour we were given an option for the final day:
- Wake up really early, rush through a bunch of sites, possibly have to miss something, and take a shared van at the border (cheap option)
- Wake up a little later, not have to rush, see everything, and take a private van at the border (expensive option)
We decided we would spend a little extra and do the private transport so that we wouldn’t have to rush and we would see everything there was to see. One thing we didn’t know until we got on the trip was that the other group was doing a private transport as well. Why the woman we booked the tour with didn’t tell us that, we have no clue, but during the trip we had Ben set it up so that we joined the other group’s private transport in order to lower the total cost. More on this later.
We still started out the morning pretty early, but remember what I mentioned about Juan’s jeep having issues? Well, that morning we left the hostel and just a few minutes later Juan stopped because his jeep was just not running like it should. After a good 5 minute conversation, they decided that the only option was to pile everyone into our jeep and finish the final day. That meant 8 people, the driver, and Pablo in our one jeep (10 total). So, for the final 5 hours of the trip we would all be crammed in one jeep:
- 2 in the front seat… one sitting on the others lap
- 4 in the second row
- 3 in the third row
We literally left Juan in the middle of the desert with his jeep. It felt like he was sacrificing himself and we were just leaving him there to die. That wasn’t the case as he planned to turn around and head back to the town, but it still felt weird, considering that Juan was the one guide/driver left on our trip that we truly enjoyed. We really thought that Pablo was going to stay behind with Juan and allow our driver to go the border with our group, but that was not the case. We said our goodbyes to Juan and piled into the remaining jeep.
Our first stop that morning was at a large geyser field. Unlike some of the other geysers, these had a very strong sulfur smell. We were told that they were most active in the morning. The geysers were basically just a bunch of bubbling grey mud, but pretty cool to watch as they also let off a bunch of steam into the cooler morning air.
We had already done hot springs earlier in our trip, so we decided not to pay the 10B ($1.45) entry fee for each of us. The springs tend to leave a weird feeling on your skin because of the minerals in the water, so feeling gross for the rest of our transfer into Chile was enough reason not to participate… plus we hadn’t really budgeted the extra 20B. Instead of getting in the hot springs, we walked around the shore of the lagoon and waited for everyone else.
The one annoying thing about the hot springs was that everyone agreed to spend 45 minutes there so that we would have time to do everything else the rest of the morning. After 55 minutes, Pablo still sat in the jeep resting instead of getting everyone into the jeep to leave. At 1 hour he stood outside chatting with everyone, and then at 1 hour and 5 minutes we finally got into the jeep and left.
The Dali Desert is named after famous Spanish painter Salvador Dali. We stopped in the middle of the desert surrounded by many colorful mountains that look as if they are painted in many shades of red, orange, yellow and white. It was a quick photo stop, but I took my time because I didn’t want to be rushed after we had spent an extra 20 minutes at a place I didn’t really care to spend time at.
After we left the middle of the desert, we went up over another hill and there were some more beautiful mountains. I asked if we could stop and take some quick pictures, but Pablo told us that we would have a view of them at the next stop. This was a lie though because once we got to the next stop the mountains were no longer visible.
The Green Lagoon was one of the things that we wanted to make sure we had time to see at the end of our jeep tour. It was one of the reasons we decided to do the private transport, so we would have more time.
The Green Lagoon is a turqoise colored lagoon that sits below a large volcano. The interesting thing is that the lagoon only appears green when the wind is blowing, which is something that we didn’t have to worry about since the wind was quite strong that day. There are also no animals that drink from the lagoon because it has traces of arsenic in it.
Finally, our last stop of the trip was at the white lagoon. At this point we were pretty much “lagooned” out, so even though it was a pretty lagoon, we took some quick pictures and then we were on our way.
Border Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama
Since we had booked the private transfer we were leaving at 11am instead of the usual 9am if we had taken the shared transfer. One of the things we were told was to have an extra 15B ($2.17) each for what they called a corruption fee at the Bolivian border. This seemed completely ridiculous to me, especially since Pablo mentioned it as if it was completely normal. Luckily, we did not have to pay the corruption fee, which we were told was usually the case when there was a high ranking officer at the border.
As I mentioned earlier, we joined 4 others from our tour in a private vehicle to San Pedro de Atacama. The Swedish girls that joined half way through were heading back to Uyuni with Pablo. Unfortunately, there was no further communication as to how we would be paying for the private transfer. By us all going together we should have been lowering the cost per person, but we were also told that the vehicle would have to be bigger and therefor more expensive. The vehicle they sent was overkill… there were 6 of us, but close to 25 seats.
The one thing that was great about our transfer was that we were done with bumpy dirt roads and only had smooth, straight, paved roads going forward into Chile. We even drove the entire way to San Pedro de Atacama (50 minutes) before we were officially stamped into Chile.
Things We Would Change
Include water in the tour fee – we were given water at meals during the trip, but all other water we had to purchase ourselves. This meant we were paying Gringo prices for water throughout the trip.
There needed to be a better breakout of fees and other costs on the trip – we were told to bring 300B ($43.50) each to pay for admission fees and other stuff. We ended up having to pay a total of 412B ($59.70) each which did not even include money for water and other things like bathrooms.
Here is a breakout of the actual fees on the jeep tour (in Bolivianos):
- 100 – Sajama Park fee
- 25 – Lagoon park fee (after Sajama) – was told it could be up to 80
- 150 – National Reserve park fee
- 30 – Cactus island
- 2 – Salt factory tour
- 10 – Shower on 2nd to last night
- 10 – Hot springs (were originally told it was 6)
- 15 – Corruption tax at the border (did not have to pay but was told to have it earmarked just in case)
- 10-15 – first day at the salt flats (10 for volcano hike (assuming 6 per car) or 15 for museum)
Wow, what a trip! Seriously, we saw some of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve ever seen while traveling through Bolivia. We have things that we wish could have been done differently, but in the end we still had an amazing time. The first 4 days of the trip were exactly what we were hoping for, in that it was well planned out and it almost seemed like we were the only group of tourists in the entire region… because I’m pretty sure we were. Although the last 3 days had a lot of great things to see, it was almost spoiled by how crowded with tourists everything was.
One of the things that seemed so strange to us about the last 3 days of the tour was that every tour jeep did the same exact thing pretty much at the same exact time. We kept saying, if there was one company that chose a different schedule from everyone else it would be amazing.
In La Paz we decided to spend the extra money and take the extra time to see more of Bolivia. In the end when we looked back at our trip and asked ourselves if we made the right decision. We both agreed that yes, we did.