Bolivia - Lake Titicaca to Salar de Uyuni

Finally, a new country: Bolivia. From Copacabana at Lake Titicaca thru the highland, passing La Paz and Oruro to reach Uyuni. Then a tour of 3 days to visit the salt flats and the desert towards the border with Chile.

Copacabana 2 Uyuni

Copacabana, 9th October

Yesterday we’ve crossed the border to Bolivia. Ready for a new country – and ready to spend quite some time in the cold at 3800 – 4000m altitude. Hopefully.

We’re in Copacabana. Definitely not at Copacabana Beach in Rio – the place everybody knows. No much better Copacabana at Lago Titicaca. Sea, sun’n’beach at 4000m altitude.

It’s the all-preferred weekend destination for well-heeled La Pazianos. To enjoy all these attractions business-minded Copacabanies offer them. 

For us, it’s rather the opportunity to visit Isla de Sol. Said to be the most beautiful place at Lago Titicaca. Especially, as we can again go to the northern, more interesting part of the island. It has been closed for a pretty long time due to bloody conflicts between the villages about their profit from poor tourists.

There are regular boats to the islands. As it’s a weekend – quite crowded. About 2h to drive. A ride along the desert-like coastline, in the background often some of Bolivia’s snow-covered mountains.

Arriving at the tiny village of Challapampa we need to hike to the island’s northernmost point. About 1 1/2h to sneak until we reach the Inca ruins there.

Then we’re on our way back. Just in time before the boat leaves. 

On the way a short stop in Yumani at the island’s southern end. A pretty busy place as there are a number of muncheries and some places to sleep. Apart from that not too much to see.


A final, and unexpected stop at a place they call Floating Island. Of course, it has nothing to do with these floating islands they misuse for touristic visits near Puno in Perú. Here it’s just a Disneyland-like floating restaurant serving a kind of trout fast food. Organized to serve 100s of customers per hour. You queue up for payment, they get the trout out of the water, gut them in front of you, and deep-fry them until they resemble a piece of wood. Definitely, not everybody’s taste. But the Bolivies love them.

Late afternoon we’re finally back. In the urgent need to warm up immediately.

La Paz, 10th October

We’re on the way to La Paz, Bolivia’s proud co-capital – shared with Sucre further to the south. Some 150km, roughly 3h. The landscape: the few km to the archaic ferry on hills with nice views of Lago Titicaca …

… then dry’n’flat Altiplano – not really inspiring.

Finally, we arrive at El Alto. A suburb just a few km above La Paz center. By now nothing works anymore. Some unruly girls occupy the toll booths of the highway leading to town. Whatever, after an hour or so the problem gets solved and we’re back on our way.

Quickly we find a sleepery right in the town center. Even parking for Prado. True the area is pretty animated. Or chaotic as Monika thinks. We’re in the middle of La Paz’ famous markets. Still, somehow, we can’t consider the area too interesting and worth an extended visit. A quick look at the famous Witch Market – nowadays largely converted into a place to sell these ever-same souvenirs – and a tourist trap. 

In the evening we’re on a pretty extended search for a restaurant selling other stuff than greasy fast-food. Definitely not an easy task in this area.

Oruro, 11th October

The next morning, we decide not to give Bolivia’s proud capital a 2nd chance. But to move on to Oruro on our way to the famous Salar de Uyuni in the south of the country. Some 200km, mostly on a double-lined highway on the Altiplano.

Oruro a rather pleasant surprise. A mining town with a nice colonial center – and visibly an investor who thought he was engaged in a middle-eastern kitsch construction for a hotel.

Of course, there’s more to see than just these buildings and animated street life. You simply need to visit Oruro’s market. The fetish section. Not comparable with La Paz’s tourist infested souvenir market called Witch Market

In Oruro it’s full of fetuses of Llamas, dried birds, combined packs of whatever you cannot imagine. All to be sacrificed to Pachamama – Mother Earth: if you’re building a house in Bolivia, or somewhere else it goes without saying that you can only start construction after having buried 1 of these Llama fetuses in its foundation wall.

Uyuni, 16th October

Next morning. we’re ready to drive on to Uyuni. Just Oruro is a pretty cold place at an altitude of 3700m. Thus, we have to leave Prado for quite a while in the sun to warm up  its diesel engine. A ritual getting more’n’more common on Bolivia’s Altiplano as anti-gels for diesel are quite unknown in South America.

Finally, Prado is ready to leave. Just in the meantime, Oruro’s main square is blocked by protesters. The girls call for an indefinite strike for whatever it may be. Fortunately, Prado is parked a few blocks away. So, we can carry our luggage there. And don’t need to wait until the protesting girls are getting tired or hungry.

By noon, we’re on the way to Uyuni. Some 300km, and 4h to drive. The landscape – could be more interesting. Getting more’n’more desert-like. Sometimes along a salt lake.

On the way, we think it might be a good idea to top up some diesel. Of course, we know that 1 of these populistic decisions of a former government makes it pretty difficult to foreigners to buy fuel in Bolivia. To make happy a few Make-Bolivia-Finally-Great supporters,  foreigners can no longer buy subsidized fuel. Thus, they installed in most petrol stations a sophisticated surveillance technology to make sure that the few dozens of foreign cars – among millions of local ones – do no longer profit of Bolivy subsidies. Of course, for that, they had to install large computer systems, cameras everywhere, chips, and a complicated system allowing to identify the few foreign cars and to sell them fuel at an international price. So far, no problem. Only, it looks like they forgot to tell the fuel stations how to handle the whole issue.

Consequently, many stations just refuse to sell anything to foreigners, or they are friendly enough to cheat the system. Carefully we approach a station along the road. Ask friendly for how much the smart lady would sell us some diesel. She’s happy if we pay her some 20% more than the local price – without receipt of course. She puts in the computer whatever the system wants to know about her uncle buying fuel – and we get our 50l. Probably the cameras were too dirty to recognize a foreign number plate. Who knows. So far – getting fuel in Bolivia is not too complicated.

Late afternoon we’re in Uyuni. The town – not really an urban highlight. A jumbled bunch of houses, a railway station, a lot of tour operators, and a pedestrian zone lined by a few restaurants for poor tourists.

A settlement with a certain wild west feeling. Visibly it’s just the gateway to the famous Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia’s famous salt lake.

We quickly find a sleepery. It remains slightly more difficult to find a decent place for Prado with enough sunshine to warm it up after an ice-cold night.  

After a long reflection, we decide not to visit Salar de Uyuni in our own car. We’re simply too afraid Prado’s electric system would start to collapse after being in contact with too much salt. Thus, we have to book a tour. Very quickly it becomes visible that all offers are the same: they go for 3 days, have the same itinerary and the same conditions. The only thing you can choose is an English or Spanish-speaking driver-guide-watchdog. The latter makes the tour about 50% more expensive.

We book a Spanish-speaking tour for tomorrow.

Then a visit to today’s weekly market – a place to discover the famous ideal of beauty of the even more famous Latin machos.

Later we organize for our life as backpackies for the next 3 days.

10.30 am, the next morning. We’re perched in an old Landcruiser – could be Prado’s grandpa. 2 Bolivis, 2 Ticas, and us. 

Then we’re on our adventure trip. To start with a visit to the nearby train cemetery. A relict of the flourishing mines in Potosi. Of course, we’re not the only 1s visiting. Notwithstanding the driver finds a parking among the 50 other Landcruisers.

Dozens of engines rusting patiently in the salt of the Salar. Maybe not the most interesting part of the tour. Still an opportunity to take a few pics.

Then we’re on the road to the salt flats. As far as we understand the concept of tours it’s mandatory to visit a so-called artisan market before starting the tour properly said. Yeah, a bit of a pain in the ass. Many cars parked. Their passengers have the unique opportunity to buy all this Chinese stuff at the highest possible prices.

Well, most people just wait with their cars until this part of the tour is over after some 30′.

Then we’re really on the salt. Flat land to the horizon. Below us up to 100m of salt.

We stop at a place with some water coming up and timid volcanic activities. 

Of course, these few bubbles may not attract Instagram-addicted tourists for a long time. There must be something cool at this place, pics you can send to your ex-lover. Making him regret his choice for a new girlfriend forever.

No worries, some clever local girls discovered this urgent need visitors develop in the salt flats. So, they rent out empty beer bottles, plastic dinosaurs, or whatever you need for the very best pic of your life. For a few bucks you get the accessories you need. Then you lie on the ground with your cellphone, in front of you all this rented stuff, a little further away your new lover-boy in any pose he can imagine – and you take the perspective image of your life. Cool isn’t it? Should you not have the ultimate ideas on what is possible – click here.

Well, after this highlight our next stop is an abandoned salt hotel. It was specially built for the rally Paris-Dakar in Bolivia. Nowadays, it just serves as the place where tours feed their clients.

Outside still the monument of the rally, and some flags of the countries of the  participants.

Well, guys, that was the rather boring part of the tour during the 1st 4h. Now let’s see how it improves quickly. 

We’re driving to the center of the salt flats. To Incahausi Island. A piece of land rising some 100m above the level of the salt. A hill full of cactuses.

Arriving there, we have to pay an entrance fee. To climb the hill – and visibly to use their toilets. Not sure if this rule only applies to boys as you may deduce from the signboard. Nevertheless, it looks like they still have to fight some unruly boys trying to use the island for their call of nature.

Whatever, we’re on the way up. 

After 2h we have to drive on. To reach San Juan. The place we’ll stay overnight. Some 3h to the south. Surprisingly on this track we’re pretty alone. Just 3 or 4 other cars left. All others must have been day tours. By now driving back to Uyuni. Great.

On the way a few minutes to admire the salty sunset, …

… then we reach our sleepery. A salt hostel – most of the construction material is just salt. The hostel –  much better than expected. Then it’s time for some beers with 2 Austrian bikers on their way from Chile to Perú.

Ok, survived the 1st day of our tour. The afternoon was definitely ok.

The next morning at 8 am, after an ice-cold shower for Martin, we’re ready for our 2nd day. Leaving the salt flats, driving southwards into the desert to the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. Well, as usual with tours – a full-day program. Still, they promised a lot of stops at instagrammable spots. What else do you need?

So. the luggage is stowed on the top, the 6 passengers perched into the car – and we’re on the road again, towards new adventures.

By now the landscape is pretty dry, and the track sandy. In the background, a few volcanos, partly already on Chilean territory.

A stop at a small lake with interesting rock formations.

On to Lagunas Canapa and Hedionda to observe some flamingos. On the way a short stop to prove that Volcán Ollagüe is effectively emitting smoke’n’ashes. Visible – even if it’s pretty far away.

Then it’s time to marvel at the flamingos in the lake.

As with everybody else, our driver-guide-cook-watchdog knows that observing flamingoes may be quite boring after some time. Thus, he makes some experiments with the bearing capacity of the soil just next to the track.

It just takes seconds and he’s in the mud – down to the axle. Ok, 1/2h of digging in the mud, searching for stones, lifting the car with a jack – and we’re ready to continue.

Of course, for this kind of adventure you don’t need to book a tour. In these salty soils, it’s no problem to dig in your car. Just if not on a tour, you have to dig it out by yourself. True, there are some advantages with tours.

Whatever. The car is back on the road. Driving southwards to the next laguna

Time for lunch. You know –  this most important ritual on every tour to keep poor clients happy.

Driving further south. The track getting pretty sandy’n’salty. A few more lagunas on the way to reach the rock formation they call Arbol de Piedra – the stone tree. Maybe not the greatest sight in the world. But ok for a stop.

Then we’re finally reaching famous Laguna Colorada – the colored lake.

After that we’re on our way to the last must-have-seen-sight. At least for today. Some geysers, steaming’n’bubbling constantly.

Around 7pm we finally arrive at Agua Termales de Polques. The place to spend the night. A place with a great view over a laguna, and some lousy sleeperies.

Unfortunately, the travel agent messed up the bookings. Still, after a long discussion, and an extended search we find a room nearby. Even if it looks pretty rotten. Never mind, we have our sleeping bags with us. Especially as we are in the cold at 4500m.

Next morning. The final day of our super adventure tour.

Before breakfast a visit to the hot springs. Even if they don’t look very appetizing they’re full of people trying to wash the dust off and to warm up a little. 

Then we’re on the road again. Still southwards. To Laguna Verde. Just a few km from the Chilean border.

After that we’re on our long way back to Uyuni. Some 200km on a more direct track. Without anything interesting on the way. Maybe, just forgot – another lunch ceremony as the last essential part of the tour.

Arriving in Uyuni it’s just time for a Pale Ale. And to see if it was worth going on a tour.

True, preferably we would drive with Prado the whole circuit. To stop wherever we’d like, not to be in the masses of tourists, etc. Still, we think Prado wouldn’t have appreciated all the salt. Add to this the difficulties to find the correct track without following all tour cars – and the problems to find accommodation. Especially as we simply think it’s too cold for using a rooftop tent in the Salar

Finally, we think it was the right decision to book a tour. The guys with us were great, for us an opportunity to practice a lot of Spanish, and the driver was not too talkative. What else could you require.

So guys, enough for this post. By now you should dispose of every information necessary for your travel to Bolivia next week. Should you miss something, please don’t hesitate to contact us – we’ll do our level best not to ignore you. Promised.



Valle Sagrado'n'On to Bolivia
Thru South Bolivia to Argentina