The Southwest Circuit to the Salar de Uyuni: Day One
After reading our guidebook and some blogs we concluded that the best option for us to see Bolivia’s most famous sight was to take the full four-day jeep tour of southwestern Bolivia, ending in Uyuni at the largest salt flats on the planet. We started in Tupiza, where we spent two nights before leaving on the tour. This area of the country, considered the “wild west” of Bolivia, was where the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their final gun battle–only 100km northwest of the town. It did indeed have the feel of the southwestern United States, only set back about 50 years.
Our tour left around 8:30am and as soon as we were outside Tupiza the scenery was amazing. Huge red rocks, open plains full of grazing llamas, and the snow covered peaks of the Andes towering to heights over 6,000 meters.
Our “jeep” was actually a Lexus 4×4 and we traveled with six people total: Carrie and I, a cool couple from the Netherlands, a driver/tour guide, and a cook. Two jeeps traveled together so that one could help out in case the other broke down or got stuck (this turned out to be a very good idea!). Spending almost all of four days in the car can be rough, but we had good conversations with the Dutch couple and became good friends.
Every time there was a cool sight our driver would stop for us to take some pictures. Around noon we stopped for a lunch of rice, potatoes, and beef. It was filling and we were soon on our way. We passed thousands more llamas, wild vicuñas, and a large rare bird, a suri, that is in the ostrich family.
At the start of the journey the road was in pretty good shape and we probably bragged a little too much about how awesome our vehicle was without knocking on wood. Eventually the landscape started getting more and more wet. There were many rivers across the road, some of them deep enough to make our driver a little worried, especially the couple times that we hit bottom.
The highest point on this day was a crumbling old Spanish city that sat around 4,600 meters. There were funny rabbits with long tails that were climbing all over the ruins.
This is when the weather started to turn really bad. First there was rain and the rivers started getting higher and we eventually took the wrong path, getting our truck stuck in the mud. The other driver (our driver’s brother) came with a shovel and with six of us pushing we were soon back on our way. The precipitation turned the road soft and it was hard going through deep muddy ruts. The rain quickly turned to sleet, though, and then snow. We had heard that there could be snow, but we expected more along the lines of flurries, not an all-out snowstorm. It got freezing cold and the road got worse and worse until the driver called back to town to tell them not to send any more jeep tours out for a few days. We were supposed to get into the small village where we would spend the night around 6:30, but after 7 we had the feeling that we were still a long way off. It got dark and the snow came down harder and harder, but the road got a little better once it froze over. Just as our driver told us “una hora mas” we saw the lights of the jeep behind us flashing and we stopped to wait for them to see what was wrong. They needed to refill their gas so our driver got out to help them syphon the gas from a container on their roof. As soon as he was out of the car he noticed that we had a flat tire. Great. So out came the air compressor and we sat for about 30 minutes waiting for our tire to fill up, hoping it would hold air for the rest of the journey. At this point we were all someplace between “this is awesome!” and “what did we get ourselves into!” But we had faith in our driver and the vehicles were in pretty good shape. Soon we were on our way again. After about 30 more minutes we came to the edge of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, where there was a ranger and we had to pay an entrance fee of 150 Bolivianos ($22 each). “22km mas” said our driver. Our spirits picked up and we started to actually believe that we were going to make it. The lights of the town came into view and we got excited about what we would get for dinner. The driver must have thought he was home free and stopped paying such careful attention, because just then we hit a super muddy patch and were stuck again. We looked out the window to see the mud almost up to the top of the tire. There was no getting out of this hole without some serious work. We grabbed everything we would need to make dinner and walked about 1km down the muddy road to our simple hostel in town.
The drivers did eventually get the truck out of the mud using wood that they pulled off of a house and a whole lot of digging. Around 11:30pm we finally ate dinner and got to go to sleep. What a first day! Oh Bolivia…