Salt Flats – Bolivia – Part 1 – Finding A Tour

Tupiza-Casa-Baron-Frontage-2

NOVEMBER 2018:


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OVERVIEW:

PLEASE NOTE: The currency in Bolivia is the Bolivianos (BOB). I will refer to them as ‘B$s’. At the time of writing, US$1 = B$6.9.

I was making my way from Villazon to Copacabana.South West Bolivia Map

Part 1 focuses on getting to Tupiza and finding a Uyuni Salt Flats Tour …


GETTING THERE:

I crossed the border at La Quiaca, Argentina into Villazon, Bolivia. This border crossing has many bad write-ups with many people saying that they suffered hours of delays. I had a good experience and got through in 5 minutes.

Anyway, in Villazon, I walked to the Minivan Terminal near Plaza 6 De Agosto (starred as ‘Villazon’ on the map). I arrived at 9:30am.La Quiaca - Villazon Map

These Minivans leave when they are full. They need 7 people. I was number 5. Within minutes we had 7. We departed at 9:35am (B$20). The trip was comfortable and uneventful. We arrived at the Tupiza Minibus Terminal at 10:55am. The Minibus Terminal is located next to the Main Bus Terminal at the south end of town.Tupiza-Photos-10

My hotel was over 1km away. Before my arrival I asked my hotel how much I should pay for a taxi. They said B$4-$5. I flagged down a Tuk Tuk (I am used to them from my time in S.E.Asia) he quoted B$2. We were at my hotel in a matter of minutes.


ABOUT TUPIZA:

Tupiza is 2,850 metres above sea level. The population is about 26,000 (2012 estimate). The surrounding geography is characterised by dramatic red escarpments.Tupiza-Suburbs

Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end at the hands of the Bolivian army near Tupiza, concluding their notorious string of bank robbery raids.Tupiza-Valle-Hormoso-Surroundings-Map

Nowadays, Tupiza is known as, probably, the best starting point for multi-day tours into south west Bolivia and the famous Salt Flats.

Salt Flat Tours from Tupiza cover longer distances than those from Uyuni so they require an extra day. This puts the total price up but the cost per day is less.

It is said that one of the main advantages of starting your tour in Tupiza over Uyuni is that fewer people start here, you get to the sites at different times of day and, as a result, meet fewer crowds on the way.


PHOTO GALLERY:

Our walk starts at my hotel on the north east side of town (on the other side of Route 14 and the river).Tupiza-Photos-1

There is a small footbridge across Route 14 that takes you into town. From this footbridge we get a view back at the north east side of town.Tupiza-Photos-2

And a view south east. This is where you find the Butch Cassidy Hotel.Tupiza-Photos-3

The main part of town is over the river.Tupiza-Photos-4

The roads into town are rustic.Tupiza-Photos-5 Tupiza-Photos-6

We arrive at the roundabout that marks the northern end of the main street.Tupiza-Photos-7

As we walk south, to our left the waterfront road sports market stalls.Tupiza-Photos-8

We follow the stalls and emerge from them about 100 metres later. Here, the waterfront road opens up. It is along this strip of road that we find most of the Tour Agents.Tupiza-Photos-9

After another 200 metres we reach the main Bus Terminal.Tupiza-Photos-11 Tupiza-Photos-12

We turn around and head back north 1 road further inland from the river. Along this road you find a couple of small cafes selling Almuerzos (set Lunches) for under B$13.Tupiza-Photos-13Tupiza-Photos-14

Some of the ‘budget’ hotels listed online are found down the side streets. Tupiza-Photos-15 Tupiza-Photos-16

We pass another couple of Tour Agents and turn west to Plaza de la Independencia.Tupiza-Photos-17

Here you find the only 2 ATMs in town.Tupiza-ATMs

We cut back east to the main street to find flower stalls.Tupiza-Photos-18

Then head further east past the Indoor Market to get a final view of the north end of town.

Tupiza-Photos-19That’s Tupiza.


ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS:

This is what you can expect online 1 week before your arrival.

BOOKING.COM:

Tupiza-Booking-1 Tupiza - Booking 2

PLEASE NOTE: BOOKING displays prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. Taxes are 13% but, surprisingly, only Bolivians pay this tax. Tourists are exempt.

AIRBnB:

Tupiza - AirBnB

PLEASE NOTE: AirBnB displays prices INCLUSIVE of taxes but EXCLUSIVE of ‘Service Fees’ (which can add as much as 16%) and ‘Cleaning Fees’ (some places charge 1 day’s rent!).

IN SUMMARY:

Two GRANDPAckers should be able to find a decent Double Room for about US$25 / night including taxes and Breakfast.


MY ACCOMMODATION:

I got super lucky. I found a last minute deal for a Twin Room at The Baron’s House (Casa Baron) going for only US$10 / night for single occupancy.Tupiza-Casa-Baron-Frontage-2

I was a bit worried about it’s remote location … but later, after looking around town, I knew that I had made the right decision.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Frontage

The price was so good because they are still renovating this old villa.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Courtyard 1 Tupiza - Casa Baron - Courtyard 2

You can see that, when it is finished, it is going to be something special (and more like US$60 / night).Tupiza - Casa Baron - Breakfast Area Tupiza - Casa Baron - House

I booked a Twin Room but, as soon as they saw me, they said that I was too big for the beds … and swapped out the 2 single beds for a Double.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Room Entry

The room was a good size.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Bed

And came with Cable TV and a wardrobe. Alas the TV only had 1 English Speaking channels (if you were lucky and it was the middle of the day). Fortunately, the wifi was very good and good enough to stream video.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Furniture 2

The ensuite was a good size too.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Ensuite Entry Tupiza - Casa Baron - Toilet

And the included Buffet Breakfast was very good for the price paid: fruit juice, eggs, tomatoes, yogurt, jams, and bread. It was the first time that I had seen eggs in a Breakfast since arriving in Argentina! Alas, it was only instant coffee.Tupiza - Casa Baron - Breakfast

Later, they brought out some tasty cheese.

I have made a lot of mistakes in my hotel choices over the past 4 years … but when I sat down to work over Breakfast on my first morning with this view …Tupiza - Casa Baron - Working View

… I knew that Casa Baron was not one of them.

The only problem was that, if they didn’t have enough people to cook for, you had to walk into town to find your Dinner.


WHERE TO STAY:

You can stay anywhere in town. Town isn’t very big. But, town isn’t that great either. The only real benefit of staying in town is that you are close to the Tour Agents.

It was only a 15 minute walk to town centre from Casa Baron.


ACCOMMODATION SEARCH:

Have a look yourself:


Booking.com


EAT & DRINK:

EAT:

I got my accommodation for such a good price that I felt obliged to eat there when I could. At Casa Baron the price of the meal depends on what they cook. At the moment, they only cook Dinner for those that ask for it. Meals, typically, cost B$45-B$60. Their Trout meal was B$60 (they had the Trout send down from La Paz!):Tupiza-Casa-Baron-Trout-B60

Even in the cheaper looking restaurants around town, a normal main meal costs B$40-B$60.

As aforementioned, you can find Almuerzos in the back streets for under B$13. These tend to finish late afternoon. You can, also, get cheap meals at the Bus Terminal and at the Indoor Market. The indoor market closes at about 5-6pm.

On the street, you can get a piece of fried chicken with french fries and rice for B$10.

In a main street BBQ cafe I got a Chicken Meal for B$20. A T-Bone Steak meal costs B$60.Tupiza-Cafe-Chicken-Meal-B2

DRINK:

Again, sorry, I was back at Casa Baron early most nights so I cannot tell you much about the bars around town. A typical 1 litre local beer in a local restaurant costs about B$25.

In a store you get a 1 litre local beer for B$15 (plus a deposit on the bottle). For about B$20 you can get a bottle of local (e.g. Tarija) wine.

IN SUMMARY:

Expect to get a simple Breakfast included in your hotel rate.

Expect to pay an average of B$15 for a cheap ‘Almuerzo’ Lunch with fruit drink.

Expect to pay an average of B$60 for a cheap Dinner with a Fruit Juice / Small Beer.


TRANSPORT:

A taxi will cost you B$4-B$5 for anywhere around town.

A Tuk Tuk will cost half of that price.


BANKS / ATMs / MONEY:

The ATMs are up near Plaza de la Independencia.

There is a Money Exchange on Calle Avaroa.


INTERNET / WIFI:

Your accommodation should provide wifi but don’t expect it to be any good within our GRANDPAcker price range.

ENTEL:

I purchased an ENTEL SIMCard in Villazon (B$10) and a 1 month 2GB Data Plan (B$50). I had a 4G signal in Tupiza.


FINDING A TOUR:

Nearly everyone in Tupiza seems to have some connection with a tour operator. You can find a tour within just a few hours of your arrival and leave the next morning. Many people arrive at 5am on an overnight bus and take off on a tour at 7am! Unless you have booked your tour in advance this is, obviously, a gamble.

But, there is nothing wrong with staying a night (or two) in Tupiza so that you can ask around …

THE BASICS:

There are about 6-7 main Tour Agents around town. They are all found in the town centre.Tupiza - Tour Agents

These Tour Agents do not run their own 4x4s. The 4x4s are operated by their individual owners. The Agents get a commission for finding the people.

If you can get someone (like your hotel) to call around for you, they will speak directly to the Owners … and, usually, get you a better price (i.e. cut out the Tour Agent’s commission).

Multi-day tours can start on any day but they, usually, need a minimum of 4 people. So, usually, you will need to ask around the Agents to find someone who needs you to ‘make up the numbers’ or put your name down with an Agent and wait for them to find more people to join you.

Tour prices are standardised:

  • B$1,250-B$1,300 for the 4D/3N tour
    • Shared accommodation with shared bathroom (Host Family Home) on nights 1 and 2 (cold water, no wifi, limited power)
    • Shared accommodation with shared bathroom in a Salt Hotel on night 3 (hot water – sometimes charged at B$10, no wifi, limited power)
    • All meals
  • Add B$221 in Mandatory additional fees to enter the parks / sites
  • Add B$50 to rent a sleeping bag (if you don’t have one)
  • Add another B$250 to make it a 5D/4N tour
  • Add some more B$s to tip the Driver/Guide and Cook
  • A couple of Tour Agents will go with fewer than 4 people as long as those fewer people pay a higher price

SECRET: If you ‘put your name down’ with a few Agents and you can go at short notice (e.g. get a call at 8pm at night and leave at 6:30am the next morning), you can get ‘last minute discounts’ … basically, if they have a firm booking with other people they need YOU to ‘make up the numbers’

THE CLASSIC TOUR:

The routes are standardised:Tupiza-Valle-Hormoso-Tour-Map

The standard or ‘Classic’ 4D/3N tour is:

  • Depart at about 7am on the first morning
  • Take the red line from Tupiza heading south
  • Stay the first night near Quetena
  • Take the red line continuing south to the San Pedro de Atacama border with Chile
  • Take the blue line back north
  • Stay the second night near Villa Mar
  • Take the blue line continuing north
  • Stay the third night near Candelaria / Chuvica
  • Take the clockwise ‘loop’ through the Salt Flats finishing in Uyuni at about 2pm

PLEASE NOTE: Some Agents allow you to vary the south-to-north leg of the trip and take the Red Line (instead of the Blue). This route takes you through a string of Volcanoes. This requires everyone in the group to agree the change of itinerary and is favoured by keen volcano climbers.

This is what Natural Adventures sent to me:Tupiza - Natural Adventure Tour Details

Here is a (typical) price list of the Mandatory and Optional fees:Tupiza-Valle-Hormoso-Extra-Costs

Most Agents say to budget B$221 for extras. If you do the 5D/4N Tour, extras may be more (depending on your itinerary).

LESS THAN 4 PEOPLE:

Only a couple of Agents offer tours with fewer than 4 people. Valle Hermoso is one of them. Here is their price list:Tupiza-Valle-Hormoso-Price-List

THE 5 DAY TOUR:

When you extend to 5 days, you (normally) get to choose 1 of 3 variations.Tupiza-Torre-Tours-5D4N-Map

  • Option 1: On day 1, detour east to Guadalupe. You spend the 1st night near Guadalupe. The rest of the trip remains the same.
  • Option 2: On day 2, double back to Volcan Uturuncu. You spend 2 nights near Quetena. On day 2, you are taken to the volcano at 5,000 metres and climb the remaining 1,000 metres to reach an ultimate height of over 6,000 metres. The rest of the trip remains the same. I would suggest that this is only for the ‘fit’ who can handle the altitude.
  • Option 3: On your last day detour north of the Salt Flats to Vulcan Tunupa. Climb to over 6,400 metres!
IN SUMMARY:

Don’t expect your driver/guide nor cook to speak English. Only Spanish.

The normal tour group has a driver, cook, and 4 passengers.

Do your research and check out up-to-date reviews of your preferred Tour Agent before you book … but, remember that they use independent Operators and which one you get can be ‘the luck of the draw’. Some Agents choose their operators more carefully than others. Ask for the name of the Driver and check out their reviews too.

Check the route carefully and ask what stops, entry fees, and food/drink is included. Make sure that you know how much water is included.

Ask the company what restrictions they have for their drivers. Ask specific questions about your driver and vehicle. There are horror stories about drunk and reckless drivers and vehicles in poor condition that constantly break down.


MY TOUR:

I wanted a 5D/4N tour leaving on the Monday. Being alone, I was dependent on 3 other strangers wanting to do the same. I didn’t want to scale a volcano to over 6,000 metres. I wanted to include the Guadalupe ‘loop’ as my extra day.

The chances of me finding 3 other random people that wanted to do the same on the same day was slim … but I held out until the last minute in the hope of a miracle. There was no miracle.

On Friday, I found two 4D/3N options leaving on the Monday. By Saturday, that was 3. I kept these ‘in my back pocket’ as a fall-back option.

I went around each Tour Agent every afternoon to see if they had any updates. I exchanged Whatsapp with a couple of those Agents. My hotel also asked around through their contacts.

SECRET: At 8pm on Saturday night Natural Adventures sent me a Whatsapp message saying that they could give me a great price if I left at 6:30am on Sunday morning. They had 2 French people booked and needed at least 1 more person. I declined and said that I wanted to leave on Monday. They messaged back to say that the others can wait until Monday and that my price would be B$1,150 (a B$100 discount). I asked for the Driver’s name (Milton) and looked him up in reviews on the internet. Milton had excellent reviews. I accepted their offer. They asked me NOT to tell anyone else on the trip … BUT, I can tell you!


HEALTH & SAFETY:

There is no reason to feel unsafe here. As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.

The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Latin America. Don’t leave anything unattended. Lock up your hotel room. Lock up your valuables within your hotel room (single lock hotel room doors are notoriously easy to break into without a key).

If you stay in a remote location be wary of the street dogs.

I didn’t notice any mosquitos.

Don’t drink the tap water.

ALTITUDE SICKNESS:

Read up about Altitude Sickness before you arrive.

The locals take Coca leaves. Some say that it is best to chew the leaves rather than take Coca Tea (the latter being regarded as too weak and, thus, ineffective). I was told that the best place to get Coca leaves is next to the market (the Red Star). The lady who runs the shop is called Ines. You can buy a 2oz bag for B$8 but the best quality leaves are B$10.

Tupiza - Best Coca Leaves

I told him that I was going on the 4 day tour. He suggested that I buy a B$20 bag of leaves. I bought 2 bags (to save the other for Machu Picchu). He threw in a free block of mint.Tupiza - Coca Leaves B$20

The idea is that you put the leaves into your cheek and create a ‘pouch’. Do not chew them and do not swallow them. If you swallow them you will get stomach ache. Take a very small ‘nip’ of mint to improve the sour flavour … and, let your saliva do the rest.

I am also told that you can go to the pharmacy and buy Acetazolamide tablets. They don’t have the same ‘narcotic’ effect.


WHEN TO GO:

Uyuni has a Tundra climate: The mean temperature in the warmest month is below 10 °C. Uyuni Climate Chart

However, it borders on a Cold Desert climate due to low precipitation and a mean annual temperature of less than 18 °C.

  • January to March is the wet season and the best bet to see the mirror effect on the salt flats. However, the Salar de Uyuni may be too flooded during this time to go to Isla Incahuasi.
  • March and Early April may have some water left on the salt flats, yet tends to be dry enough to get to the Fish Island.
  • End of April and May brings a potential of snow, which is rare but has been known to alter travel plans and even close the border between Bolivia and Chile.
  • June through September are the coldest months and also the driest. Expect below freezing temperatures at night. Pack warmly!
  • October through December begins to warm-up. November to December tends to be warmest (although still quite chilly at high altitude at night). November is also when the rains begin, which comes to an apex in January.

CONCLUSION:

Casa Baron was a very pleasant place to stay whilst I searched for the right tour. I didn’t feel that I needed to rush. I, also, didn’t feel that I missed out on not being in town either – town really isn’t that great. Casa Baron had a nice ambience.

I didn’t need 4 days in Tupiza. I could have organised a Tour with just a 1 night stay (albeit feeling a bit rushed).

As a solo traveller, I found it almost impossible to organise a 5D/4N tour … you really need to already have a group of 4 people when you arrive.

Finding a 4D/3N tour is easy. The tours are all the same and they all follow the same route. The difference is the quality of the vehicle and driver. When you think that you have found the right Tour Agent, get the name of the driver / guide, then get online and check out their reviews before you book.

I will tell you about my trip in Part 2! …

TTFN


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