The Tupiza-Uyuni Circuit (Part 1)

The south-west corner of Bolivia is part of the Altiplano, the 4000m high plateau that forms a large bulge in the Andean chain across parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. It is an area of very low rainfall and very high solar radiation, inhospitable yet beautiful. This arid and vaste landscape is not trekking country; the best way to explore the Altiplano is by 4WD vehicle and several companies offer such tours. We opted for a 5-day trip from Tupiza to Uyuni with Tupiza Tours, as we had heard that in this direction each day gets better. While this is mainly a site devoted to descriptions of walking treks, I have in the past included canoe and kayak trips, so why not a "jeep" trip. The wonderful scenery of the Altiplano certainly deserves a place here.

Day 1 - Tupiza to San Antonio de Lipez

In the morning we met our travelling companions, Ben and Naomi, a pleasant young English couple who had arrived here via Brazil. Uruguay and Argentina, our driver-guide, Marco, and our cook, Elena. Neither Marco nor Elena spoke English; the three hard weeks of Spanish lessons in Pucon were to prove their worth. The 4WD loaded with backpacks, food and sundry equipment tied firmly to the roof, we set off, soon leaving the town behind and, passing the dark rock spires of Palala, headed up a track along a wide dry quebrada, packed with yellow-flowering wild tobacco.

Leaving the gravel river bed, we started our climb up through the arid hills of the Cordillera de Lipez on a steep, narrow and rutted track, stopping to take in the impressive landscape of La Silla, where erosion has carved a lunar landscape around the base of a deep valley. From this point we could also take one final look back toward the coloured hills of Tupiza.

Valle de la Luna

A last look back towards the hills of Tupiza

The route up from Tupiza

The climb continued up to 4400m, and we soon appreciated the driving skills of Marco as he navigated the ruts, corrugations, washouts and various obstacles that regularly cropped up on this winding track. The landscape became increasingly arid, vegetated by low shrubs and small tussock grasses, with llareta, the hard bright green cushion plants, adding a dash of colour. We saw our first llama - Marco and Elena were amused at our enthusiasm for this encounter. As they knew and we would find out, it was one of many thousands of llamas that we would see on this trip.

The dryness of the landscape

Our first llamas

A pair of burros with a herd of llamas

Lunch with the llamas

The road meandered and undulated through this hilly landscape, passing several isolated adobe huts and herds of llamas, before gradually descending to a long plain surrounded by low hills at 4000m. It was time for lunch with the llamas.

On the road again

The puna - tussock plains of the Altiplano

An adobe church

From the lunch spot, we descended alongside a barely flowing creek before climbing once again to reach the Altiplano proper.

We were driving along a high plain covered with large expanses of yellow paja ichu (tussock grasses) on pink-tinted soil, surrounded by low rounded bare hills with the more distant higher mountains on the horizon. The going was slow to avoid the many washouts (it rains rarely but when it does the run-off carves its way through the soft soils).

Puna (tussock grasslands) of the Altiplano

We passed small villages in the middle of the empty plain, isolated llama herders huts with their herds of llamas, the odd person walking along in the middle of nowhere - the people who live here are hardy souls. A meandering salt-encrusted stream bed led us gently down, followed by a climb over one more lot of arid hills to reach the village of San Pablo on the river of the same name.

View of the road ahead

Shallow river meandering through the Altiplano

View across the San Pablo River

Heading towards Cerro San Antonio (5100m)

Finally, one last steady climb toward Cerro San Antonio, in the brilliant late afternoon light with the yellow tussocks and purple mountains, brought us to the village of San Antonio de Lipez (4200m) and our rooms for the night in a comfortable adobe refugio. We were well fed, the full moon shone brightly and the stars twinkled.

All would have been well except for the headache and nausea that we four gringos suffered to varying degrees. We had climbed 1200m in a day and at this height there is a price to pay for such quick gain in altitude.

Village of San Antonio de Lipez

Day 2 - San Antonio de Lipez to Quetana Chico

We woke to a sunny, but icy morning. Outside it was -10ºC, but inside we were relatively warm and appreciated the insulating properties of adobe bricks. The fair Nello and I were still feeling the altitude somewhat, but felt better after breakfast with a bit of food in our stomachs.

We were off on the road again by 8.30, following the river bed down along the broad tussock covered valley floor, bright yellow in the early morning sun. The ice crunched in the frozen stream as we crossed it.

Stony stream bed on the Altiplano

After a short while, we turned off into the hills, climbing up through the rolling stony landscape to a reach our first pass of the day at 4710m. Just below it, in a deep cleft, lay the ruins of San Antonio de Nuevo Mundo. It was the site of a former silver mine, where the Spanish forced indigenous people to mine the precious metal for them. Once home to 5000 people, its crumbling stone buildings were now home to the ghosts of the past (even now locals will not sleep there) and a thriving colony of viscacha.

Overlooking the ghost town of San Antonio de Nuevo Mundo

The viscacha - current resident of San Antonio

The ruins of San Antonio

After a short exploration, we left the ruins to its animals and its phantoms and descended into a valley dotted with the huts of llama herders and hundreds of llama scattered on the hillsides. Climbing again to the next pass at 4820m, we saw our first herd of vicuña, their graceful tan forms blending in with the background vegetation.

Llama herder's hut and stone corral

Viscacha in buddha pose

A small herd of graceful vicuña

Puna landscape

Even the running streams were frozen
From the pass, we dropped into the valley of an ice-filled stream, to climb yet again to our high point for the day at 4910m. Here we entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a sanctuary for the many species of this desert region. On cue, a ñandu strolled casually through the tussock grass alongside the road.


This was a land of mobile vegetation, where tussock grasses move slowly across the landscape in semi-circular patches, growing out on one side as they died on the the other. The views opened up to the spectacular sight of the twin cones of 6010m Volcan Uturuncu above the salt white surface of Lago Morejon. It had last erupted four months earlier, a reminder that we were in an active volcanic area.

Close up of Lago Morejon and Volcan Uturuncu

View of salt-covered Lago Morejon and the twin cones of 6008m Volcan Uturuncu

The strange circular patterns of paja tussocks

Lunch stop in a small gorge

Passing the lake, we crossed one more saddle at 4750m to reach a low wide gorge. It provided a nice sheltered spot for lunch.

Replete after another great meal from Elena, we pushed on, climbing up to a broad flat plain covered in flaking slabs of pinkish-tan shale. As we drove around their bases, the spectacular views of Volcan Uturuncu, with its white streaks of sulphur, and a neigbouring nameless multi-coloured mountain changed continuously.

Llama madre y hijo

Panorama of a polychrome mountain sin nombre and the sulphur stained cones of Volcan Uturuncu

The flaking red shale plain

Volcan Uturuncu reflected in the waters of Laguna Negra

The main body of Laguna Celeste

Eventually we reached Laguna Negra, with its reflections of the volcano, followed by the beautiful Laguna Celeste (4560m). This lake, reknowned for the sky-blue colour of its water, was our main objective of the day and we spent some time wandering along the shores absorbing the atmosphere of this isolated spot and watching the flamingos, ducks and other waterbirds.

The shallow side arm of Laguna Celeste

Flamingos on Laguna Celeste

Doubling back to the gorge, we picked up the road again, checking in at the Fauna Reserva office and crossing the trout-filled waters of one of the larger streams tha drain this region, before continuing on to our accommodation at a hostal in the small dusty village of Quetana Chico, back at the now more normal altitude of 4160m. During the day our symptoms of altitude sickness had slowly faded away and our appetites were restored.

Late afternoon light on the Altiplano

Full moon rising over Volcan Uturuncu

It had been a spectacular day, completed by the sight of a full moon rising over the Volcan Uturuncu, as the sky changed to the grey and pink colours of an Altiplano dusk.

Day 3 - Quetana Chico to Lago Colorado

It was an early start this morning, early enough to catch the brilliant Altiplano sunrise; we left Quetana Chico, passing through Quetana Grande (strangely the smaller of the two villages) and once again followed the river flats surrounded by stony hills. A few pairs of huallata (Andean geese) were feeding on these icy flats as we passed.

Climbing over a rise, we could see in the distance Cerro Zapaleri, the triple point of the Chile - Bolivia - Argentina border.


Desert sunrise over Volcan Uturuncu

A pair of huallata Andean geese

The landscape was becoming distinctly more desert-like as we gently descend past salt-laden Laguna Hedionda and our first flock of flamingos, filtering out algae in the shallow lake waters.

We also realized that we hadn't seen any llamas for some time; this extremely arid region is the land of the vicuña, grazing the tiny grasses and herbs that grow in the desert gravels.

View across the plain towards Cerro Zapaleri - the meeting point of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile

Llareta - the hard green cushion plant of the Altiplano

Road down to Laguna Hedionda

Polychrome mountains above Salar de Chalviri

Not much later, we crossed over to the blindingly white bed of Laguna Kollpa, where a small enterpise harvested the salts to make shampoo. From there, we traversed a broad gravelly landscape before descending to Salar de Chalviri, framed by a range splashed in many shades of ochre colours. We crossed the salar on a borax highway, our smoothest road of the trip, before turning south to pass the Termas de Polques, hot water springs that steamed in the morning cold and sun.

We would return, but first we had a detour to cross the barren flats of the Dali Desert, surrounded by surreally coloured mountains and dotted with unusual rock pillars.

More polychrome mountains framing the Desierto de Dali

Las piedras de Dali

Vicuña grazing on desert herbs

Another jeep racing across the striated desert gravel

The strangely lined gravel of the Desierto de Dali


Even in this apparently vegetation free habitat, a herd of vicuña were eking out a living.

Climbing over another rise, we descended along a gently sloping bed of gravel, dotted with volcanic rocks, heading towards the 6000m peak of Volcan Zairecahul.

6000m Volcan Zairecahul

View over a basalt ridge to Laguna Blanco

At the end of the gravel, we veered south through a rocky area to reach Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde (4500m), seperated only by a narrow white neck of salt-covered land. Two very different lakes, one a pale coffee colour, but home to flamingos and other creatures, the other a bright blue-green colour, but completely sterile. The arsenic and magnesium salts that give its aesthetic colour ensure that nothing can survive in its waters.

The narrow neck between Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde turned opalescent green when the wind blew

Nonetheless, it was a beautiful setting, directly in front of the reddish-brown cone of 5950m Volcan Licanbur, which was reflected in the still waters of Laguna Verde. We took in this tranquil scene as we waited for the desert wind to spring up; as it rippled the surface, the lake colour changed to an opalescent green.

Reflections of 5950m Volcan Licanbur on the surface of Laguna Verde

After lunch at Laguna Verde, we doubled back to the Termas de Polques for a dip in the hot spring - out first experience of volcanic activity in the area. It was very pleasant soaking in the hot mineral-rich water in the warm afternoon sunshine. The only problem was that it was a meeting point for all the jeep tours, so many people had the same idea, which detracts somewhat from the experience. We were now on the main jeep circuit where tours originating in Uyuni and Tupiza follow the same path - La Ruta de las Joyas Altoandinas.

A dip in the hot springs at Polques

Returning across the Dali Desert

The graceful vicuña

Leaving the hot springs behind, we skirted the northern end of the Salar de Chalviri before starting a long steady climb up through the barren brown gravel of the high desert to reach the Sol de Mañana, a small area of geothermal activity much different to the hot springs below; geysers of steam roaring out of vents, sulphurous fumaroles, pools of bubbling mud in greys, pink and tan and ponds of boiling grey water in a lunar cratered landscape.

Moving on, the track crossed a gently rounded saddle on this high plateau, at 4935m according to my GPS and the highest point of our trip. Still not quite as high as the 5000m claimed by a sign next to the track. I prefer to trust my GPS, as it has never been out by more than 20m in altitude, so sadly for all those who have completed this tour feeling pleased at having been higher than the magical 5000m - maybe not!!!

Jeep and people dwarfed by the steam geysers of Sol de Mañana

Bubbling mud pools ....

... boiling grey ponds ...

... and pockmarked with craters ...

... define the landscape of Sol de Mañana

Flamingos wading in the rose-coloured water


Once over the saddle, the track followed an equally gentle descent through the barren brown rocky landscape, before dropping to the well-reknowned Laguna Colorado (4320m). We checked in at the Hostal Huayllajara, an isolated refuge in the dusty barren landscape, before heading off the the lake's edge.


The shallow pinkish water of Lago Colorado is home to large flocks of flamingos

Unlike the postcards, the water was not bright red, but more an opaque pink, fringed with the brilliant white deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax and gypsum. However, as expected, it was home to hundreds of flamingos, wading in file to feed on the algae and plankton that gives the lake its colour or flying low across the lake surface with flashes of bright rose-coloured wings. Like the penguin, the flamingo is one of those iconic birds that fascinate people. We were duly fascinated.

A different view of Lago Colorado

More flamingos feeing in the algal-rich water

Back at the hostal, many more jeeps were arriving - we would certainly not be alone that night and, if a group of noisy latenight partiers of had their way, we would not be asleep for very long either.

go to part 2 .....