Southwest Bolivia – Salar De Uyuni and the Andean Altiplano

“Kid – the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia’,
let’s go someplace like Bolivia.”
– Butch Cassidy

Dotted with cacti and eroded rock formations, the area bears an uncanny resemblance to America’s wild west. It is therefore appropriate that it was here that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their last days and met their end.

The western landscape near Uyuni

The southwestern landscape near Uyuni

We spend an afternoon riding a couple of poorly-fed nags through the area’s canyons, and regret not examining the condition of the animals before paying our money for the horseback tour. However, we didn’t come here to retrace the footsteps of these infamous outlaws. We came to arrange a trip through the Salar de Uyuni and the Andean Altiplano of southwestern Bolivia.

Diane rides a poorly fed horse near Tupiza, Bolivia

Diane frowns at her horse’s condition

Train Graveyard near Uyuni, Bolivia

All Aboard!

We share the cost of a car, driver, cook and food with another couple, and drive the dirt tracks through the desert to Uyuni. There, following some final negotiations with the tour company and a brief visit to the locomotive graveyard, we set off for the Salar de Uyuni.

Salt Flat Hexagons at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

Salt Flat Hexagons

An overland tour truck is reflected in the flooded Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

Salt Flat Reflections

It is the beginning of the rainy season, so the salt flat offers two very different personalities. At one end the dried surface, honeycombed with hexagons, is blindingly white under the glaring sun. The other end is covered in a few inches of water, producing mirror images of the horizon and surrounding altiplano.

Salt Salt Salt

The salt is harvested and brought to nearby refineries, from where it is shipped to various parts of the continent. Our first stop is the salt refineries at Colchani where we watch the refining and packaging process. Next are the salt hotels. These buildings, made entirely of salt blocks, are no longer operational due to the pollution they create.

Trucks carry salt from the mines in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Off to the Salt Mines

The sewage from the hotels was jeopardizing this industry, and they were consequently shut down. This concept is lost on one backpacker, as he decides to relieve himself behind one of the buildings. He quickly draws the attention of an angry, stone-wielding local woman’s wrath.

Diane stands with the Bolivian Flag in Salar de Uyuni

Diane stands with the Bolivian Flag

Isla de los Pescadores in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Isla de los Pescadores flips us the bird

In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni is the cactus-studded Isla de los Pescadores. The cacti here grow about 1cm/year, and some of the plants are over ten meters tall. These are some very odd and very old plants.

Como Se Llamas?

We have lunch nearby and leave the salar for higher ground. By late afternoon, we reach San Juan where we will spend the night. Before dinner, we have an opportunity to walk among the herds of llamas and alpacas that graze on the high plateau. The looming mountains, bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, provide a stunning backdrop for these curious looking creatures.

Llamas brace against the wind on the Andes Altiplano in Bolivia

Llamas brace against the wind

A pink flamingo feeds an algae at Laguna Colorada in the Andes Altiplano of Bolivia

Come on, pelican!

The next day is flamingo day. We lunch at a lake populated by hundreds of pink flamingos and other birds feeding on the algae and various microorganisms in the water. The beauty and graceful nature of these birds is intermittently overshadowed by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the vivid colors of the lake.

Continuing through the desert, we stop to explore the various wind-carved rocks and photograph the elegant but elusive vicunas. Occasionally we see small dusty volcanic puffs rising from a mountain ridge.

Laguna Colorada in the Andes Altiplano, Bolivia

Laguna Colorada dotted with Pink Flamingos

We spend the night at a lodge on the banks of Laguna Colorada. Before dinner, we hike above and along the shore of the flamingo-speckled and rainbow-colored lake. On the opposite side of the lake stands Volcan Uturuncu, watching over the entire scene.

Cool Morning, Warm Springs

Early the next morning we set out to visit the steam geysers and bubbling mud-pits for sunrise. Unfortunately, it is overcast and the dawn sun fails to create the colorful effect it is rumored to. Nonetheless, it is an eerily beautiful setting, despite the hordes of tourists.

We have breakfast at some thermal hot springs. They are more like lukewarm springs, and since it was such a cool morning, we decide to not go for a dip in the already crowded pool.

Our last stop of our trip across the altiplano is the pristine Laguna Verde, where we pause to take some final photos. At the end, we found ourselves at the Chilean border where we transfer to a minivan that takes us to the dusty backpacker chill-out of San Pedro de Atacama.

Laguna Verde, Bolivia

Our group at Laguna Verde

Straddling the rugged Andean mountains and the desolate Atacama Desert, southwestern Bolivia affords access to a unique and diverse geography, and a rich culture. It is a highlight of any trip through South America.


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