Tag: salar de uyuni

Travelogue Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni, Potosí, Sucre

IMG_2445Bolivia, wedged between Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, is an amazing country of contrasts. With unmatched deposits of silver, tin, zinc, natural gas and enough lithium to power all of our modern devices for centuries, Bolivia should be a wealthy country. But is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, only slightly better off than Haiti.

Since its “discovery” by the Spanish in the 1500s until today, Bolivia has been screwed over by nearly everyone, first by Spain, then Britain, the United States, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, all in partnership with its small upper class that has exploited its natural resources a labor.  As I traveled through Bolivia over the past ten days, taking in its incredibly natural beauty, I read A Concise History of Bolivia and reread Open Veins of Latin America and began to appreciate just how unlucky the Bolivians have been.

Salar de Uyuni

I started my trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, booking the three day tour to the Salar de Uyuni. I’d done this trip before in 2011, but I still loved doing it again. You can read horror stories about this trip, but both times I’ve gone, I’ve never had a problem. This time I booked with Cordillera Traveller on the Chilean side and the accommodations were much better than with Colque Tours in 2011. We paid about $20 more than the competition but our driver seemed safer and more knowledgable.

I joined a group of 18 people in four Jeeps and we left San Pedro at 8am and made the one hour trek to the Bolivian border, where pretty much the only people who cross are tourists. We climbed from 2000 meters all the way up to 5000m (~16,000 feet) by nightfall. The scenery, along with the altitude, is (literally) breathtaking. We slept at altitude, but kept waking up every hour or so, our hearts racing and throats dry from the altitude.

Bolivia/Chile Border


The next day, we went past geysers, interesting rock formations and more colored lagoons until we reached a tiny town called Culpina K. It looked like a ghost town. Our guide, Humberto, told us that most of the people in the town either cultivate quinoa or work in the mines, so they got to bed by sundown at the latest. It was like going back in time to when most people farmed and lived in small towns.

We woke up early and drove through Uyuni, a poor, broken down town in the middle of nowhere, that wouldn’t exist without the Salar that’s just next door. At 10,000 square km, its the largest salt flat in the world and contains 50%-70% of the world’s lithium supply.It’s so different from anything I’ve ever seen and coming back a second time just brought the point home again. It’s so flat, so white and so big that you can see the curve of the earth. On cloudy days, the guides can’t go too far away from the “shore” or they risk getting disoriented and lost on the Salar. Not taking my own advice from 2011, I got burned to a crisp. Again.


We arrived back to Uyuni in the afternoon, burned, thirsty and caked in salt and went directly to the bus depot to reserve tickets to Potosí. Bolivian roads are unsafe. Drivers aren’t very experienced, road conditions vary and you have to keep your eye out for mudslides and the occasional llama darting into the road. As a rule in Bolivia, always buy the most expensive bus ticket. Our bus trundled out of Uyuni onto the brand new road that connects Uyuni-Potosí-Sucre and prepared ourselves for the four hour trip. It was the first paved road we’d seen in four days and had only been completed in the past year. The bus seemed safe enough, but it was easy to imagine the bus falling off the hairpin turns.

Getting squashed on the salar



We arrived safely into Potosí and got off at the “ex terminal”, which is really just a service station in the middle of the town and took a taxi to the Tukos Casa Real, an old building that’s been refurbished into a hotel. The room was massive, had hot water and the hotel provided a nice breakfast and only cost $40 per night for something that would cost at least $150 in the US. My heart was pounding and I was struggling to breath after walking up the three flights of stairs to get to the room. The 4060m altitude really takes it out of you. I can’t imagine playing a world cup qualifier in La Paz, Quito or even Mexico City.

Potosí was the city that drove Europe’s economy for almost three hundred years. From 1550-1783, it’s estimated that 45,000 tons of pure silver came out of Cerro Rico, one of the richest silver mines in the history of the world. The mine made people fabulously wealthy and the town grew to a peak of 200,000 people at a time when Madrid only had about 50,000. But it was all built on exploitation of natives and africans, who were used as slaves. Some people estimate that eight million people have died in Cerro Rico mining first silver, then tin and now zinc.

Cerro Rico
Cerro Rico

The mine created incredible wealth, which led to some amazing churches, cathedrals, public spaces and houses, much of which has gone into different stages disrepair after the richest minerals were extracted. Cerro Rico’s riches pushed the Spanish to create Bolivia’s first national mint, which has been preserved and converted into a beautiful museum. The original donkey powered minting machines are preserved alongside some of the original coins.

Potosí Catedral


The cathedral has been beautifully restored over the past ten year. During the war for independence, Simon Bolivar ordered the colorful cathedral to be whitewashed. People forgot and the incredible colors were rediscovered during the renovation. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, parts of colonial Potosí have been preserved, but the poverty remains.

Potosí Catedral
Potosí Catedral

Today, it’s a loud, bustling city filled with diesel busses that come directly from China after they’ve been banned for expelling too much pollution, broken down cars honking at every intersection and people everywhere. I only saw a few non-natives during my three days in Potosí. Even today, an estimated 25% of Bolivians aren’t fluent in Spanish and many people are still bilingual Quechua or Ayamar speakers, including a taxi I got into.

You can see the grinding poverty: Potosí is now one of Bolivia’s poorest areas. There’s hardly any industry, other than mining, and the occasional tourist, so locals, mostly indigenous people, are forced into the mines. The miners forced out the government’s nationalization attempt because of rampant corruption, so now the miners have an elaborate series of cooperatives where you work for yourself. If you strike it rich, you can be a millionaire. If not, you may starve to death or be relegated to extreme poverty.



Because life expectancy is so short and families are large, Bolivia is an incredibly young country, with an average age of 22, compared to 33 in Chile and 36 in the US. It’s noticeable. There are school aged kids everywhere, decked out in formal school uniforms. After school, the kids held massive water balloon and squirt gun fights on the main roads and plazas. I got caught in the crossfire a few times.

The food reflects the local conditions, making the most out of less expensive ingredients to provide the highest level of nutrition possible. There’s lots of potatoes, quinoa, corn and vegetables. Meat is a luxury. Llama features on many menus. Coca Cola is ubiquitous, but I didn’t see many international chain fast food restaurants.



We tried to go to Doña Eugenia, a restaurant specializing in local food, but it was closed. We ended up at a tiny restaurant nearby where I tried Kalapulca, a corn based soup with bits of meat and potatoes that’s served with two superhot rocks that creates a volcano like soup. Another good option was Koala Cafe, which has cheap fixed price menus and featured an awesome quinoa soup.

We did a mine tour with Big Deal Tours, the best company in town. Founded and run by ex-miners, the guides take you on a 3km walk underground through the mine. I felt a bit conflicted about doing a mine tour to basically gawk at people who were working in terrible conditions, but after talking to the miners at the tour agency, I decided to do it. I’m glad I did. It was a sobering tour.



Miners still work nearly the same as they did in the 1500s. Most don’t have electricity, so they use pickaxes, hammers and dynamite to bust open the rocks. They carry out the ore on their backs in 40-50kg loads or in wheeled carts weighing between one and two tons. If they slip, they get crushed. Life expectancy for miners is between 40 and 50.

It’s dark, dank and filled with ankle deep water. Particles hang in the air, invading your lungs. Miners chew massive amounts of coca leaves to suppress hunger, fatigue and keep them energized, just like the slaves and exploited indigenous did in the colonial era. They drink 96% pure alcohol that costs the same as a beer to dull the pain and for luck to get “pure” veins of minerals and make sacrifices to “El Tio” the God who has domain of the mountain.



We started at the miners’ market where we purchased gifts for the miners: coca leaves, juice and dynamite. A full dynamite kit (detonator, accelerant and stick) cost $3. As we walked through the mine, crouching down to try to avoid smashing our heads, and not doing so very well, we ran into miner after miner. They all looked similar. Dirty, old clothes. A huge wad of coca leaves. Many missing teeth. Upbeat. Happy to chat with us.

“How old are you?” asked our group to a miner who looked at least 35.

“Twenty-five,” he replied.

“How much do you make per week?” we asked.

“About 1000 Bolivianos per week,” he replied, which is about $140 per week.

“And how long have you been working in the mine?” we all wanted to know.

“Fifteen years,” he said.

His story is fairly typical. There are so few jobs and money is so tight that fathers bring their sons to the mine starting at as young as ten. Or if the father dies and there’s many kids, the oldest kids have to go into the mine to support the family.

$3 dynamite


After a three hour tour or just walking through the mine I was exhausted. The 4400m altitude didn’t help, but the crouching, the head smashing and shuffling through water sapped my energy. I can’t imaging having to hammer all day, run away from dynamite explosions and having to push 1-2 tons carts manually out of the mine for long shifts, with hunger pangs that are only dulled by coca leaves and alcohol.

I’m really glad I got to see Potosí, but it was incredibly sad to see a place that had such natural wealth that has been exploited and squandered to the point where its inhabitants live such a hard life.

Miner pulling 1-2 tons (with help)
Miner pulling 1-2 tons (with help)


We decided to leave Potosí via the new bus terminal, which is located about twenty minutes from the town center. It’s brand new and clearly is an investment from the central government, as the location clearly wasn’t chosen for business reasons. We got out of the taxi and immediately felt like we were in a zombie movie. There were ticket sellers bleating like sheep, but there weren’t any customers. The zombies activated and attacked from all sides, trying to get the commission on the $4 bus tickets. Check out the video.

After getting past the zombies, we settled into the four hour bus ride down from 4060m to Sucre’s 2800m above sea level. Getting off the bus was like being able to drink the air. We took a taxi from the bus station to Hostal de Su Merced, a four star hotel in a refurbished building right downtown. It cost about $60 per night for a level of service that would cost $175+ in the US or Chile.

The first thing I noticed was the architecture. Everything is white. Sucre was Bolivia’s capital during colonial times until the seat of government was changed to La Paz during one of Bolivia’s many coups, dictatorships and revolutions and has preserved its historical buildings. The center is designated a UNESCO world heritage site, so there are building restrictions to keep the local character. The main square is surrounded by the cathedral, the municipality and the house where Bolivia’s declaration of independence was signed. There are a multitude of churches and church buildings, schools and universities, including South America’s first law school.


Although Sucre is a tourist city, the attractions are only open from about 10am-12pm, then again from 2pm-5pm, at most. It was frustrating, but by the second day I’d figured it out. Just like in other parts of Bolivia, the daily schedule is very different from Chile or what you might think of a Latin schedule. Shops open early and lunch ends by 1pm. Dinner is from 7-9 and most restaurants are closed by 9 or 930. People are out drinking at bars by 930pm. In Chile, people are just starting to eat dinner! It’s another example in the long list that show Latin America is not just one homogeneous cultural unit.

I really enjoyed salteñas, Bolivian empanadas, especially from El Patio Salteñaria. They have a sweet, flaky dough and have a bit of sugar on the top and are filled with meat and vegetables. The filling is similar to a Chilean empanada de pino, but the dough is completely different. People eat salteñas from breakfast until lunch and not in the afternoon, whereas in Chile empanadas are a lunch or later food. It was hard to find high quality food, but I really enjoyed Condor Cafe, Cafe Mirador, and especially Cafe El Tapado, where I tired a variety of local, quinoa heavy dishes.

Salteñaría Indoor patio
Salteñaría Indoor patio

I had an amazing time in Bolivia. The country is absolutely beautiful, the people are welcoming and warm and the country just oozes with history. I hope Bolivia has better luck and better leadership as it moves into this century, as it has all of the natural resources to be much better developed than it is today.


Travelogue: Uyuni, Bolivia

After San Pedro, I took four days to explore southwestern Bolivia.  Bolivia is the poorest country in all of Latin America and it shows.  I didn’t see a single paved road, even the roads in Uyuni that connect the city of 20,000 with both of the two capitals.  Although it’s very poor, it seemed very safe.  The overwhelmingly indigenous population seemed laid back and welcoming.  The Bolivian president Evo Morales claims to be the first indigenous president of a South American country and his picture was everywhere.

Bolivia is poor in large part to losing a huge swathe of land, including its access to the sea, to Chile in a war in the 1880s.  They also lost huge mineral deposits in the mineral rich northern part of what is now Chile.  There is still huge animosity between Chile, Bolivia and Peru, much of it stemming from this war in the 1880s.

Our four day trek took us through amazing terrain, culminating in the salar de uyuni, which is the worlds largest salt flat.  I went with five people from the San Pedro trip and  we booked our trip in city center a few days before we wanted to leave.  Our package cost $180 and included all transportation, three nights accommodation, four days of meals and a tour guide.  US Citizens have to pay $140 to enter most South American countries because we slapped a fee on South American citizens after 9/11 (really dumb), but I got away with only paying a portion of the fee at the tiny border crossing with some well placed…words.

We entered Bolivia and were immediately in the Eduardo Avaroa national park, a joint venture between the Bolivia government and the European Union.  We drove past laguna blanca, a perfectly clear lake that reflects the sky.  It was a beautiful and a great start to the trip.  We drove across bumpy dirt roads, sometimes covered with water from the melting snow on the mountains.  Our guide told us he had never seen snow on the mountains in February in his three years of guiding, so again, we were incredibly lucky.  The mountains and stark landscape were stunning.

Next, we got to a hot springs at the foot of a mountain lake.  We were at 4800m, which meant that there was only about 44% as much oxygen compared to sea level.  It made breathing difficult and we all got light headed after 20 minutes in teh hot springs.  the lake was full of colors and we could see lightning over the tops of mountains far in the distance.

After another few hour drive, we got to laguna colorada, which has blood red water.  We ate homemade soup and fresh veggies for lunch, prepared by our guide.  After lunch, we took a walk to an overlook point and watched the flamingos and the scenery.  It was incredibly windy and I was glad that I bought a wool sweater the day before.

My head hurt from the altitude, so I tried chewing some coca leaves, which is supposed to relieve your headache.  You mash 6-10 leaves in between your lip and your gum and let it sit there.  You can add bicarbonate and it releases more of the drug.  30 minutes later, I felt a little like I had ADD, but my headache was gone.  We also tried coca tea, which sort of tasted like seaweed in sushi restaurants.  Both clearly helped.

We spent the night at the hostel overlooking laguna colorada.  The night sky was absolutely stunning, even better than San Pedro.  The stars twinkled and I think I could see more stars that I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world.  The combination of the altitude and lack of light pollution showed how truly small we are.  A shooting star topped it off and told me it was time to go to bed.

The hostel was cold, but my sleeping bag kept me war.  We had been warned not to drink alcohol or eat meat, but I had a very small glass of wine, maybe 2 oz, with dinner and woke up with a splitting headache.  The thin air makes alcohol really hard on your body.  The bathroom was really bad, so I just went outside when I had to go.

The next morning, we drove across the bolivian altiplano, stopping at strange, beautiful scenery every few minutes.  We ate a snack at a string of lagoons that reflected the mountains perfectly and continued past landmarks that looked like Dali paintings.   That afternoon we dined on llama, eggs, veggie soup in a town of 150 in the middle of nowhere.  The food was fantastic, balanced and healthy.  The eggs were from chickens running around the parking lot outside and tasted different than the factory eggs we get in the States.

We ended the day in Uyuni, a town of 20,000 near the Salar.  We ate dinner in a massive thunder storm.  I didn’t have a raincoat, so I used a trash bag, which an 8 year old Chilean on the trip thought was hilarious.  I told him it was the new fashion, straight from Santiago, and he couldn’t stop laughing.  The hotel was nice, with flushing toilets and a shower.  We had time to check out the town, which is bustling with energy.  It had rained, so there was water in some parts of the dirt roads.

Kids were having tons of fun with squirt guns and water balloons, throwing them at their friends (and random people) of the opposite sex.  I got crushed twice by 6-10 year old girls yelling “get the gringo” as they were laughing and playing.  I was really tempted to buy a squirt gun and join the battles, but we didn’t have time.

We went to bed early sot hat we could get to the salar the next day.  We first stopped at a cemetery for trains, which has a bunch of 80-100 year old trains that used to run between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.  They were cool looking and full of history and our guide told us there are plans to build a proper museum.  After a bit, we finally got to the salar.

The salar is a huge salt flat that sometimes is covered by 1-3 inches of water.  We were extremely lucky to visit while it was flooded.  It was unbelievable.  Like nothing I’ve ever seen.  It went on for miles, nothingness, like a mirror.  I could see the curve of the earth.  You loose all perspective and it looks like people are taking their next step off the edge of the world.  You can also take funny photos.  The weather was hot, the water warm, the salt crystals were sharp on my feet.  We ate llama chops for lunch while sitting on top of our jeep.  It was truly beautiful, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  It was the highlight of the trip.

We started to drive back and things got a little sketchy.  Our tour company didn’t have any pickups at the border scheduled for the next day, so they sold us to a different tour company.  They split up our group of 6 in two two groups of three, mostly so they could fit extra paying passengers into the jeeps.  They put us in separate hostels, without telling us they would and then were very light on details about what was happening with our friends.  It was sketchy, but everything was completely fine and would have been fixed with a 5 minute walk+helpful two sentences from our guides.

The next morning we drove back to the Chilean border and back into San Pedro.  It was an amazing trip that included things I’ve never seen before.  It gave me time to recharge and think about what really matters in life.  No internet, TV and other modern conveniences.  It was great.

Here’s a few tips for those who would like to go in the future:

  1. Get a good guide.   If coming from Chile, you buy your tickets in San Pedro.  We used Colque Tours and I was happy about it.
  2. Bring a sleeping bag.  The hostels can be frigid at night.  I’m glad I brought mine.
  3. Bring lots of layers.  It goes from cold in the morning to hot in the afternoon.  My $12 wool sweater was a great purchase.
  4. Bring at least 5L of bottled water per person.  We brought 7L/person and finished it all in five days.
  5. Bring toilet paper.  The bathrooms are pretty bad in most of the hostels and usually don’t have any.  I went outside and so did most of the girls.
  6. Bring snacks like chocolate, nuts and cookies for quick energy on the road.  The altitude and wind takes it out of you.
  7. Chew coca leaves and try coca tea to relieve your headaches.  Don’t drink alcohol until the 2nd or third day.
  8. Try to get a group.  There were many cars that were international mixes who couldn’t communicate with the guide or each other.  There was a car of 4 Koreans and 2 Hungarians, none of whom spoke Spanish or English.  It wouldn’t be nearly as fun as our car that had 7 people who could communicate in English/Spanish.  If you’re solo, try to join a group where you’ll be able to share a language.
  9. Offer your driver snacks, he’ll love you for it.  Tip him at the end.
  10. Get Bolivianos in Chile, the exchange rate is much better and you’ll have them to use at the border if necessary.

Edit: March 2014. I went with Cordillera Traveller and was much happier than with Colque.