Finally, a tour that didn’t leave traumatically early. I wasn’t brutally forced from my bed at some god awful hour usually reserved for staying up until, not getting up at. The sun had risen, my basic motor functions had kicked in, the drooling had ceased and I was capable of forming vaguely coherent sentences by the time I got to the Tupiza Tour office. There’d be eight of us in total in two 4WDs; Me and three Aussie blokes, John, Dom and James in one, and Melissa and Paul with a Swiss couple in the other. The bags were loaded onto the roofs, the tourists were loaded into the Landrovers then we were off on the four day adventure around Bolivia’s legendary South West Circuit tour from Tupiza to Uyuni. Slightly less legendary than the Uyuni to Tupiza tour but by no means less awesome.
But before we begin this adventure, allow me to digress a little. Just a little. It’ll fit seamlessly into the rest of the post and I promise it won’t mention bowel movements or anything to do with menstruation. So, I have a theory that if you stare at a backpack long enough it’ll pack itself and if something doesn’t work when you want it to, if staring doesn’t work then implement the Kicking And Swearing technique. That’ll learn it.
I also believe that if you ignore a problem for long enough, eventually it’ll go away. This applies to everything in life, from that stain on the sofa, to illness, to any kind of mechanical failure. Car making a noise you don’t like? Turn the radio up because if you can’t hear it it’s not there. True story.
It seems I’m not the only one to employ these tactics. It’s somewhat disconcerting when your guides find it necessary to check under the bonnet of your car at every photo stop. My Spanish is piss poor but I know that when there’s more than one man stood in front of a vehicle with the bonnet up, staring at the engine whilst scratching their chins, shit’s happening. This transcends any language barrier. After the Staring technique failed they proceeded to ignore the problem until about three hours into the drive when, after some more staring, the vehicle was declared in technical terms, utterly fucked and a replacement car was sent for. Well staring didn’t fix this bad boy did it? I don’t think it was really their fault though, I’m pretty convinced that in order for Mechanical Staring to work correctly each man has to have a beer in one hand, a spanner in the other and a complete difference in opinion to his mates as to what the issue is.
As we settled in for the epic wait we wished they’re sent for a replacement vehicle when we first stopped half an hour into the journey as opposed to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where the only sign of life was sheep and llamas. What, we couldn’t have broken down at one of the pretty places we’d passed before? Or before we left Tupiza? At least there was beer in Tupiza. But anyway, gotta make the best of a bad situation and here’s a fun fact; just because a specific kind of alcohol tastes fabulous when you’re smashed and, in fact, your taste buds have disintegrated, it doesn’t mean it’ll taste so hot when you haven’t just worked your way through the cocktail menu.
Introducing Singani, Bolivia’s answer to evil in a bottle. Well what else are you gonna so for three hours whilst you wait for a new 4WD? I brought out the bottle and our cook and guides laughed and told me it was muy fuerte. Very strong. Erm, yeah, I know, that’s why I got it. Duh. So yeah, imagine if the devil himself spunked into a bottle. It’s one of those shots that you can NOT do without pulling the I Just Did A Shot face. You know the one, where you try not to pull a face but the taste is so foul that your gums try and draw back over your teeth and your entire mouth wishes you dead. Your face goes into convulsions and by the time your tongue forgives you enough to allow speech all you can manage is, “Holy FUCK!” Only ever consume this liquid if you weren’t using all of those brain cells anyway.
The first part of the wait was ok, there was food and drink and conversation. Then there was wandering and sleep. Then the aforementioned sheep got spooked by something and that’s when it started, they wouldn’t shut up from then on in and let me tell you, 90 minutes of constant bleating from about 200 sheep could turn even the most dedicated animal loving, tree hugging, patchouli incense stick scented vegetarian with a penchant for hemp socks into a psychotic, axe wielding nutter hell bent on the absolute destruction of every single ovine on the planet. I’m not even shitting you. 90 fucking minutes. Just as I was contemplating the world’s biggest sheep casserole, the replacement vehicle rolled up. Oh sweet joy of joys. We were out of there and on to our first stop for the night, San Antonio de Lipez where beer was purchased and drank over dinner before we piled into our beds where I proceeded to don all my clothes and fashion a nest out of alpaca blankets. Ah the joys of altitude, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is it’s always going to be cold enough at night to make your nipples sit up and take notice.
It is generally accepted that being awake is not a task to be undertaken before 9am. Fact. Why tours never adhere to this I do not know. More often than not you find yourself staring at the sink with a toothbrush sticking out of your gob at 5.30 in the morning, trying to ignore your bed softly calling your name, hoping your digestive system starts functioning before you attempt to fill it with the obligatory South American tour breakfast of bread and spread, and coca de mate. I was so glad I’d gone to bed in all my clothes thus eradicating the inconvenience of actually having to get dressed. It’s awesome, it’s like taking a tedious morning ritual and making it better; Instead of getting up and applying layers, I wake up fully clothed and simply shed items as the day heats up. Much more convenient. Saves time, thus allowing you an extra 3 minutes sleep, and conserves the energy needed for lifting a mug in order to get the caffeine to your mouth.
Aaaanyway, onward to the colonial ruins of San Antonio, also known by the infinitely more awesome name of Pueblo Fantasma, which I believe means ghost town. We were dropped off at one end and shuffled through on account of the fact it was still too early to create any kind of momentum that would resemble proper walking, meeting the vehicles again at the other end.
Next stop was a lookout over Laguna Morejón at 4855 masl. Fuck me, we were high up. It was blowing a gale an’ all, so bitterly cold but so fucking stunning. I braced myself against the cold for as many photos as I could take until I couldn’t feel my fingers any more before retreating back to the 4WD. And here’s a fun fact; Peeing behind a vehicle at temperatures fitting of 4855 m.a.s.l. is probably one of the least pleasant things to do with your trousers round your ankles. True story.
Now for some reason I always had the impression that flamingos were tropical birds. I haven’t got a clue where I got this idea from, I don’t recall any situation or event that would cause me to draw this conclusion, but I’ve just always associated flamingos with relaxing on a sun bed on the beach, sipping a piña colada from half a coconut shell whilst topless women fan me with palm leaves.Yeah well there wasn’t a palm tree to be seen when we rocked up to a random expanse of white stuff which was dotted with the lanky pink birds, never mind a beach or a cocktail bar and no one in their right mind would strip down their bare essentials unless they wanted their nipples to be seen from space. There’s been a couple of nipple references in this South West Circuit post. Hmm.
Something that my nipples and, in fact, the rest of my body enjoys is a nice hot spring. Bolivia delivers in the form of the hot pool at Chalviri. We pulled up next to the plethora of other 4WDs and made our way down to the pool with instructions not to spend more than 15 minutes in it. We chilled out for a bit before the point came when we had to get out. Oh fuck. It’s one of those things where you exit as quickly as you can, sprint towards your towel and pile of clothes and proceed to get your togs off, get dry and dressed as quickly as possible in a race against hypothermia and all whilst trying to maintain some semblance of dignity and balance as you hop from foot to foot with an awkward one handed grasp on a sarong wrapped around your waist, hiking your knickers up your still damp legs with the other. Yep, travel is sexy and don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Well this is why we got up early then, when you have about 74 attractions to fit into one day an early start is definitely warranted. Next stop was Laguna Verde which apparently looks more green when it’s not windy as all hell. But it was windy as all hell, which called for a 14 second photo shoot before legging it back to the shelter of the car. It’s all so beautiful, but Bolivia, why are you so fucking cold??
Clearly though, 4855 masl isn’t high enough. 4855 masl is for pussies. Yep. We carried on climbing (and by climbing of course I mean we sat in the car which did all the climbing for us) across the surreal Deserto De Dalí to 5000 masl to gawp at the geothermal activity at Sol de Mañana. Rotorua, eat your smelly little heart out. Huge vats of boiling mud greet you as you make your way between the steaming hot pools. In NZ, these pools would be fenced off to stop people from falling in, every effort would be made to protect the fragile tourist from their own stupidity and themselves from law suits. Here in Bolivia, if you fall into the boiling water then what the fuck were you doing so close to it in the first place? I love it, there’s nothing more liberating than throwing off the cotton wool Kiwi or British society wraps you in and being responsible for your own damn safety thankyouverymuch.
There was a bit more driving and a few more photo ops, mainly of epic stretches of dirt road and mountains, before we reached our second night’s accommodation at Huaylljara. The stunning Laguna Colorada, a highlight of this trip, was tantalisingly close, you could see it from the front door. We hung out for a few hours for a few drinkies before the ridiculously early start and the Singani got the better of me and I slunk off to our room to unpack my entire wardrobe to use as that night’s sleep attire.
There are definitely worse places to wake up than a stone’s throw from Laguna Colorada, regardless of the obscene hour in the morning or temperatures that make you look like you’re smuggling tic tacs. This gorgeous, red lake is one of those places that you photograph about 400 times from every angle and leave still convinced that you missed one. I have no idea how people coped before digital photography. Remember the days of an hours anxious pacing outside the Kodak shop before you could shuffle through the photos in order to remember what the fuck happened the previous night? Photos were hilarious back then (feels age), with no chance to delete a bad one because you closed your eyes or your third chin decided to get in on the action, or because your mate got hold of the camera whilst you were off in the toilets for a tactical vom and filled your film with close ups of his cock. I digress. Ha, so what’s new? But I can’t imagine rocking up to a place like this with only 36 exposures per film, not knowing if they’d come back with the patronising little stickers Boots liked to put all over your fuzzy, out of focus snaps, most of which had your finger edging into the corner.
There was hardly any wind today so the water was still, reflecting the mountains behind perfectly and mirroring the flamingos that stood ankle deep in the tranquil pool. It’s a place where you could quite happily lose yourself for a while, gazing out over the striking red of the laguna broken only by the white borax islands, the only movement being the flamingos in flight, gliding close to the surface on their journey to who knows where. Probably just another part of the lake but hey, just let me have this moment of romanticism ok?
They’re not the most graceful of creatures are they though, bless them. In flight they look fabulous but taking off? Not so hot. They look about as good as me trying to dance; more like flailing than actual dancing, generally I’m lucky if no one calls an ambulance for the chick on the dance floor having a seizure. Flamingos take an awkward run up with their ridiculously long legs before flapping like a drag queen having a tantrum to get airborne. They’re camp and I love them but after flamingo number 45675 one does tend to get a bit bored.
So onwards through the Desierto De Siloli to check out the Arbol de Piedra which means stone tree. It’s worth noting that although it’s most definitely made of stone, it looks fuck all like a tree. To be honest, I’m sure the rock they showed wasn’t even THE oft photographed stone tree. It might just have been a stone. It looked nothing like the promotional pictures of this random attraction, but whatever, tell a tourist that nothing is something and they’ll still take photos. And take photos we did before continuing our travels, stopping at several lakes. The first lake was cool. The second lake was ok. By the third it was a case of for fucks sake enough of the random bodies of water already!
One that’s worth a mention though is Laguna Hedionda but only because it had little skull and crossbones signs around the edge on account of it being epically poisonous and dangerous if you smoke next to it. That didn’t stop the flamingos from strutting their stuff though. They might not look out of place with a feather boa and sequin encrusted hot pants but really, they’re proper hard bastards and they laugh in the face of your so-called poisonous lake.
Another animal you can see quite a bit of at this altitude are vicuñas which are the llama’s cuter cousin. Unlike the llama they can’t be domesticated, they’re smaller than alpacas and their wool is even more prized making them a target for poachers. They can only be shorn every three years so to deter the bastards that’ll kill them just to get their fur, every year they round them up and if their fur is more than a certain length, they shear them there and then, making them useless to the poaching cunts.
We had one more quick stop at a lookout for Volcán Ollague before we eventually made it to Chuvica where we’d be spending the night in a salt hotel which was just like our previous basic accommodation apart from the fact it was made entirely of salt. Fucking cool. We were warned not to lick the walls on account of the fact they were feral and filthy and who knows how many people had licked them before. But after three beers, come on, like I wasn’t gonna lick the walls. Everything was salt apart from the things that couldn’t feasibly be made of condiment such as the showers or the mattresses, although the bed stands were big salt blocks. The bricks were salt and the floor was salt. I never knew salt could be so useful beyond sprinkling on your egg and chips.
So yeah, our last night of the tour after another awesome day, apart from being massively suspicious of the stone tree effort. Hmm. Not that the real Arbol de Piedra looks anything like a tree either. But still. Tomorrow would be the main event, the salt flats we’d come all this way to see. Excited much? Not so excited as to leave snail trails across the shiny salt floors or anything, but I was definitely looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.
The epically early starts of the last two days were veritable lie-ins compared to today’s start. I say today’s, I’m not sure it could legally be classed as daytime. It was still last night as far as I was concerned when we were woken up and waking me up without a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich is an extreme sport at the best of times. I had my best scowl on as we were bundled, bleary eyed, into the vehicles and driven for about an hour to watch the sun rise over Salar de Uyuni which, at 10500 square kilometres, can only be described as a fuck off great big expanse of salt. The largest fuck off great big expanse of salt in the world, in fact. There’s epic amounts of salt in them there flats and it’s just incredible to see, a blinding span of white that you needed sunnies for just so you could stand and gaze out in awe over the weirdly flat plain. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more surreal? Bring on Isla de Pescada; Fish Island, a random cactus covered rock slap bang in the middle of the salt flats. Our guides parked up next to several other 4WDs from various companies and we made our way up the small hill to the top of the island.
So, these cacti. We’re not talking the tiny, cute little cacti you keep in decorated pots on your windowsill. Not that I can keep anything resembling plant life on my windowsill without killing it because I tend to forget to water them. I even killed a cactus once using this technique. True story. I killed a desert plant designed to survive without water by not watering it. It’s a gift, people. But anyway…
I have no idea what possessed a bunch of spiky green shit to take up residence on a random island in the middle of a Bolivian salt flat, but dammit they did it and they did it well, and they’ve been doing it for years. They reckon it takes these bad boys about 100 years to grow a metre and currently the tallest on the island is 9 metres, making it around 900 years old, give or take a decade or two. Really fucking old. There used to be the Cactu Milenario which was 12 metres tall, making it around 1200 years old, but since 2007 that one’s been really fucking dead. It’s still there, complete with a little sign for tourists to marvel at. Any excuse for another photo. You know you were up early when you’ve had time to walk up, and indeed back down, a hill before breakfast. By the time we made it down breakfast was ready, complete with cake. Sugar is so totally one of my favourite food groups along with vodka and noodles. Oh tour guides, I can’t stay mad at you for long.
One of the highlights of this trip for a lot of people are the perspective photos. You know the ones, where you can make it look like you’re really really tiny and an every day object such as a pan or a bottle of vodka (what? Vodka is so an every day object) is huge. The trouble is, when the only other two people interested in this are in the other car and you have no idea where the other car is, it’s really hard to motivate three Australian lads to play the game. We did find another group who were into it, so I hung out with them for a bit. But y’know, it would have been heaps cooler if Mel and Paul were there.
Next stop was the first ever salt hotel. I’m not sure but I think this is an illegal structure or something and we’re not meant to be giving them custom. They didn’t seem to be doing anyone any harm though, and by simply buying something in the shop you could gain access to the museum. A packet of Pringles AND a museum. Bargain. Illegal structure or not, I didn’t want to miss out. I hate missing out. I’ve stayed awake for 2 days straight before because I was scared of missing out on something and thus was born my slight addiction to Red Bull.
Well, let me tell you as someone who is freakishly easily impressed, I wasn’t even the slightest little bit impressed. You could quite easily miss out on this and your life would be no less richer than if you’d paid the price of a packet of mildly addictive potato chips and taken a look behind the curtain. Yeah nah, don’t even bother. Really. Just don’t. And in case you’re thinking of bothering, look, I took some photos for you. Peruse them and add this museum, and I use the term “museum” loosely, to your list of Things Not To Bother With Ever Even If You Have All The Time In The World, Are Actually Dying Of Boredom And If You Don’t Find Something To Do Soon You’ll Be Reaching For A Length Of Rope And Seeking Out A Sturdy Light Fitting. I’d say put it around number 3 or 4 on that list and highlight it in yellow.
We caught up with the other vehicle in Colchani where they process the salt and it turned out that the Swiss couple in Mel and Paul’s car were about as interested in the perspective photos as the Aussie lads in my vehicle were. We managed to convince the guides to let the three of us go back onto the flats and take more photos if we missed out on the train cemetery, and if we could get one other person to come with us to take the seat in the car whilst the others went on to Uyuni. John agreed to come with us because he’s a fucking legend! And also because he was more interested in reading War & Peace on his Kindle than looking at dead trains. After another half an hour of highlighting Salar de Uyuni’s lack of perspective, we finally headed to the town of Uyuni to eat llama, drink beer and check into a hotel or wait for our respective buses.
I gotta say, this trip was an absolute highlight. I fully intend to return to Bolivia at some point because I still have so much to see here, I just don’t have the cash to see it right now, and I would do this trip again. I’d still do it from Tupiza too, that way you save the best for last. That final early morning when you’re dragged out of bed at an hour that makes you curse the lifestyle that which you have chosen is worth every extra second you could have had in bed if you’d have slept at home that night. Days two, three and four rank as three of the best days I’ve spent in South America, I still can’t get over the fact that a place as vast and as awesome as the South West Circuit exists on this planet. The landscapes we passed through over the last four days could be described as almost alien, I don’t think I’ll ever witness a place as surreal and varied as this as long as I travel. Boiling mud, red and green lakes, endless deserts, striking rock formations and finally the vast, white salt flats themselves. If you only do one thing when you come to Bolivia, do this.
Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia
Stayed at: Various places around the South West Circuit
Activity: The South West Circuit with Tupiza Tours