The Tupiza-Uyuni Circuit (Part 2)

Day 4 - Lago Colorado to Salar Uyuni

It was the coldest morning of the trip and we had not slept well - not because of the cold - the adobe bricks insulated well against that, but not against the piercing voices of drunken partiers (no more whinging I promise). Still, Elena's breakfast warmed the spirits and we set off across the stony flats to the west of Lago Colorado. We quickly found ourselves amongst the flat rich tan gravel of the Desierto Silosi, best known for its curiously eroded rock formations. The desert was framed on either side by mountains, those on the west rich on ochre colours - the most ornate being Cerro de Siete Colores. For a brief period we could admire the rock formations on our own, but the area soon became crowded as several other jeeps arrived. It was time to leave to keep ahead of the pack.

The curiously shaped Arbol de Piedra

In the Desierto Silosi

Cerro de Siete Colores

Climbing gently out of the desert, we soon descended again via narrow dry gulch. To the north the landscape was looking much more mountainous, but as we emerged from the gulch, the landscape opened up into a broad gently descending gravel plain, lined with many 4WD tracks. Another vehicle emerged onto a parallel track and, for a few kilometres, we raced side by side through the gravel, leaving long plumes of dust in our wakes.

Race across the dusty desert

The ice-covered surface of Laguna Honda

The end of the gravel plain brought us to the region of the lakes, past the dry salt bed of Laguna Ramaditas, then over a ridge to take in the beautiful view of Laguna Honda. Its pale coffee-coloured waters, framed by purple mountains, were still covered by a thin sheet of ice late in the morning.

A slow wander around Laaguna Honda

Laguna Charcot

Grass-lined shore of Laguna Hedionda


Heading on, we passed small salt-covered Laguna Charcota to reach Laguna Hedionda, just one further ridge away. Again, the lake lay in a superb setting with the surrounding mountains reflected in its salt rimmed surface, while flocks of flamingos dabbled for algae in the water channels that formed between the beds of salt.


Flamingo on Laguna Hedionda

Panorama of Laguna Hedionda

The mountainous setting of Laguna Cañapa

The next and last of this string of lakes was Laguna Cañapa, directly in front of a volcano and home to yet more flamingos, their delicate forms reflected in the still waters between the salt deposits and the shore.

Flamingos feeding in the still waters of Laguna Cañapa

Leaving the lakes, we crossed over a stony pass, Pasito Tuntun (bump bump by name and by nature) to travel briefly along a dirt highway that links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Ahead lay the impressive profile of 5865m Volcan Ollague, smoke drifting out of a side vent on its western flank. It was time for lunch and, as usual, Marco had the perfect location; the strangely eroded pink and cream rocks of an old volcanic flow with more impressive views of smoking Volcan Ollague.

Volcano, plain and the rocky ridge of Pasito Tuntun

Pacific-Atlantic Highway heading towards 5865m Volcan Ollague

Watching smoke drift lazily from a side vent of Volcan Ollague

Curiously eroded rock formations

Leaving the highway and the desert, we passed into an area where the hillsides were green and yellow with stunted shrubs and tussock grasses, and where small herds of skittish vicuña bolted as the 4WD passed.

Alone in the desert

A 2m wide llareta (cushion plant)

Descending to the long salt bed of Salar de Chiguana, we were treated to a smooth drive along its bed to reach the small town of San Juan de Rosario. We were now in a flat landscape of dry fields, where reddish sheaves of harvested quinoa were waiting to be winnowed.

Crossing the Salar de Chiguani

Tussock covered countryside bordering Salar de Chiguani

Blue-shaded mountains west of the Salar de Chiguani

A tiny Bolivian field mouse

Finally to the north, a whitish line appeared on the horizon; we had reached the immense salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni. Skirting the southern edge of this huge dry lake, we reached the curious Olivos Salt Hotel, built entirely of blocks of salt cut from the bed of the Salar. Looking out from the hotel in the fading light, we could see the dark shapes of the islands and the distant blue mountains across the vast white bed of salt.

Our appetites for tomorrow's travels were well and truly whet and, after a feast of llama on a bed of quinoa at our salt block table and on our salt block chairs, we retired to the comfortable mattress on our salt block bed base for the best night's sleep on the trip - we were now only at 3650m, an altitude that seemed almost normal.

The edge of the Salar de Uyuni

Day 5 - Crossing Salar Uyuni

Dinner in the Salt Hotel

The moon setting over the Salar de Uyuni

Today we were up early - 5.30am. Along with everyone else in the Salt Hotel we were off to see the sun rise on the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni. A convoy of jeeps headed off, a string of lights in the pre-dawn darkness, back along the bumpy, dusty road for several kilometres before heading out on to the smooth surface of the lake. Salar de Uyuni is very big, over 12000 km2, and the different groups in their 4WDs soon separated out. By the time the first pink tints began to appear on the eastern horizon, we were 30 km out into the Salar and felt alone, surrounded by the vastness of the hard, tesselated salt surface in the early morning cold. To the west, the almost full moon was setting above the salt flats, tinted blue in the pale pre-dawn light.

Pre-dawn light on the salt flats

Sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni

Uyuni dawn


It was a brilliant sunrise, with scarlet clouds above the flatness of the salt, the fine tesselations on lake's surface lighting up as a spidery network when they were struck by the first rays of the sun. We left this and continued on across the smooth salt surface to Isla de los Pescadores, a hilly island surrounded by a sea of salt and populated with tall cacti, up to 12m tall and over a thousand years old.

Tesselations in the salt lit by the morning sun

Centuries old cactic on Isla de los Pescadores
We followed the well-marked trail up through the cacti, with many fascinating views across the lake to 5400m Volcan Tunupa on its northern shore, arriving at a lookout at the island's highest point.

View across the salt toward Volcan Tunupa

The blue-tinted salt surface in the diffuse early morning light

From here, it was fascinating to watch the changes in colour of the salt surface from shades of blue to brilliant white as the sun passed through a band of low diffuse cloud and eventually broke out to take the chill from the morning air.


The salt surface turning to brilliant white as the sun breaks out

Views across the cacti of Isla de los Pescadores

The vastness of the Salar de Uyuni

Playing games with the perspective of photos

Descending to the salt edge, we were greeted with a freshly baked cake courtesy of Elena and steaming hot coffee to warm us up, set out on a picnic table made from slabs of salt.

The absolute whiteness of the lake lends itself to photographic illusions due to the loss of size perspective with distance, and, during breakfast, we were amused by a group of Israelis setting up various poses, e.g a photo that would appear as a tiny person sitting on another person's hand and other such variants.

Crossing an 80 km stretch of salt highway

Breakfast over and a wander out from the island to look more closely at the hard, strangely polygon-patterned salt surface completed, we headed off again for the 80km crossing of the vast whiteness of Uyuni to the village of Colchani on its eastern shore. How Marco must have enjoyed that drive after several hundred kilometres of rough dirt roads.

On the way, we stopped to check out the Ojos de Agua, small holes in the salt surface, filled with water and large halite crystals, some tinted in greens and pinks.

Blue and white - the colours of Uyuni

Ojo de agua - the curious water-filled holes in the salt surface

Group photo on the salt flats of Uyuni

Pinkish crystals in one of the ojos de agua

Salt-harvesting near Colchani

A brief stop at Colchani, a town based on processing the salt from the salar, for one last delicious lunch, was followed by a short drive into Uyuni and the end of our trek. We were all heading in different directions - Marco and Elena back to Tupiza and the next group of aventurers, Ben and Naomi, down to Villazon and Argentina, and the fair Nello and myself on to La Paz and Lake Titicaca. Goodbyes said, it seemed strange that the trip was over - this last day on the incredible white emptiness of the Salar de Uyuni was certainly the highlight of the five day adventure.

Museum built entirely of salt blocks at Colchani

This was a circuit well worth doing and 4WD enthusiasts will like it even more. Two recommendations, however: firstly, you spend a lot of time in a vehicle and it is orth paying a bit extra to go in relaive comfort as a group of four rather than being crammed in as a group of six; secondly, it is best to do this trip from Tupiza to Uyuni (both directions are catered for) as the scenery gets better each day and your enthusiasm stays sharp. Thanks Marco, for driving up to 7 hours a day on roads that most of us wouldn't try ourselves and for sharing your knowledge of this fascinating part of Bolivia, Elena, for the varied and delicious meals that you cooked us over 5 days, and Ben and Naomi, for being such pleasant travelling companions.