Bolivia's Southern Altiplano: Uyuni salt flats and colonial cities
This itinerary is a journey into the lavish past of the Spanish Crown, when silver was send by the boatload from the New World.
Originally named La Plata, then renamed Chuquisaca under Spanish rule until the independence of Bolivia, the city of Sucre is by itself a résumé of the colonial history of the country. “The White City” today resembles a quiet provincial town. Its architectural wealth is relatively untouched, and bears witness to a time when the mine owners of Potosi enjoyed its pleasant climate.
Let’s not forget that the wealth of the Empire was provided by Potosi. Millions of Indians, working as slaves, extracted the mineral from the famous Cerro Rico. It is estimated that 8 million Indians died there in horrifying conditions!
At its peak, Potosi was more populated than London or Paris. The city counted thirty-six churches of inestimable wealth, theatres and numerous bourgeois palaces. Potosi, an industrial mining town with harsh climate, boasts therefore an incredibly rich patrimony.
Finally, we finish our trip by passing through Uyuni or Tupiza, both gateways to the desolated areas of Lipez.
PROGRAMME DAY TO DAY
Uyuni - Villamar
We begin today our journey across the Sur Lipez area, elevated region of colorful landscapes and lagoons, rock formations and volcanoes. We will start the day at 09:30 am with the visit of the train cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni. Here a collection of old rusted train engines remind the glorious mining past of the region.
We will then ride south and make different stops on the road to visit villages, in particular the model urbanization of Culpina K. Here the population has decided to waive working in mines and organized to ensure that the whole community can live from the culture of quinoa and from community based tourism.
We will have lunch in the village of San Cristobal, where we can visit a beautiful colonial church if we are lucky (it is not always open). We will then cross the region of Rio Grande to reach the village of Villamar (4022 m.a.s.l.) at the end of the afternoon.
Distance covered today in our private jeep: 190 km.
Night at Las Piedritas hostel* (basic comfort).
Villamar - Laguna Colorada
During our second day in the Sur Lipez we will discover the most famous highlights of the region. We start the day with the Laguna Colorada (el. 4278 m.a.s.l.). This immense lake of pinkish water owes its name to the presence in its waters of light sensitive phytoplankton, which also attracts thousands of flamingo part of the year.
We will then visit the geysers Sol de Mañana (el. 4850 m.a.s.l.), a volcanic crater with sulphur springs and boiling mud. Next stop: the Polques thermal springs. You are almost 4200 m.a.s.l. but get ready to jump into hot water (86°F/30°C), surrounded by an amazing frozen landscape.
We will then jump back into the jeeps and ride along the Laguna Salada and the Dali Desert (el. 4750 m.a.s.l.). Here the strong wind has created surprising rock formations that reminds the work of the Spanish master.
Short before midday we will reach the Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (el. 4350 m.a.s.l.), at the foot of volcanoes Juriques and Licancabur (el. 5704 and 5960 m.a.s.l.). After having driven around 170 km we are here at the very south of Bolivia, close to the border with Chile.
From here we will drive 90 km back to the Laguna Colorada, where we will spend the night.
Night in Latitudes hostel (basic confort).
Laguna Colorada - San Juan
This morning we head north to the Siloli Desert (el. 4700 m.a.s.l.) and its famous “Stone Tree”. Keep your eyes wide open: it is not unusual to spot some viscachas (Andean rabbits) in this area. We will then ride along the Chilean border on the scenic “Route of the Jewels”, which owes its name to all the lagoons along its way: Honda, Ch’arkota, Hedionda, Cañapa.
These lagoons are home to three species of flamingoes. We will stop at the view point of volcano Ollagüe (el. 5868 m.a.s.l.). This volcano is still active and shelters one of the world’s highest open pit copper mines and then cross the small Salar de Chiguana located at the foot of volcano Tomasamil (el. 5900 m.a.s.l.). After a 230 km ride we will reach the village of San Juan (el. 3600 m.a.s.l.), where we will spend the night. This small village is famous for its surprising mummies of the “Lipez Lords” (1200 after J.C) and its interesting small museum.
Night at La Cabaña de Sal hostel* (basic comfort).
San Juan - Uyuni
Today we leave the Sur Lipez and go for a unique moment: driving across the world’s largest salt flat! After a two hour ride we will reach the famous Salar de Uyuni (el. 3650 m.a.s.l.).
We will then ride half an hour on the salt desert (34 km) to reach the Island of Incahuasi. This surprising island lost in the middle of the Salar offers an incredible view over the Salar and the several volcanos that surround it. Of volcanic origin, it is covered with stromatolites and giant cacti (stromatolites are fossilized bacterial colonies, first traces of life on earth).
In the afternoon, we continue loosing ourselves on the white desert during an hour and a half more (73 km) until arriving to the city of Uyuni. Just before leaving the Salar, we will stop in the village of Colchani to visit its salt exploitation and salt hotel (closed since 2001).
Night at the Tambo Aymara hotel***.
Uyuni - Potosi
We will leave Uyuni in a private car at 08:30 am and cross the Cordillera de los Frailes to reach Potosí (el. 3900 m.a.s.l.). The so-called “Imperial City” had a time of international glory in the 16th and 17th century when it sheltered the world’s largest silver mine. Nowadays the Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”) is still exploited but the glory is memory.
On the way, we will stop in Pulacayo, village that sheltered the second largest silver mine in South America in the 17th and 18th century. It is now almost a ghost town but the museum relates its glorious past. We will arrive in Potosí after 3 to 4 hours on the road (205 km).
Our guide will pick us up at 2:00 pm to visit the Casa de la Moneda, one of the most important historical buildings of the city - one of those which owed the city to be listed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
Until the 19th century the coins of the Spanish crown were minted here. This beautiful colonial house is now an important historical museum.
NOTE: The Casa de la Moneda is closed on Sunday afternoon and Mondays.
Potosi - Sucre
This morning we will get to know the mines of the “Rich Hill”. Our guide will pick us up at 9 am at the hotel lobby and we will go to the Cerro Rico to visit the mine and see the miners at work.
This encounter can be overwhelming since the miners (of all ages) work in very hard conditions.
NOTE: It is possible to visit the mine everyday but the miners do not work on Sundays and the activity is greatly reduced on Saturdays and Mondays.
We will leave Potosí in a private car to reach the nice small colonial city of Sucre (el. 2810 m.a.s.l.) at the end of the afternoon. We will leave behind the Altiplano and descend to the Chuquisaca Valley.
Here we will cross the Pilcomayo River on the Sucre Bridge; an interesting structure that looks like a medieval construction, even if built in the 19th century. We will arrive in Sucre after around 3 hours on the road (160 km).
Today we spend the day in the beautiful “white city” of Sucre. Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the constitutional capital of Bolivia is famous for its flair of quietness, its beautiful colonial architecture and its numerous churches.
Our guide will pick us up at 9 am in the lobby of the hotel to guide us through the most famous buildings and museums of the city. We will start with the Convento de la Recoleta, monastery of the Franciscan order built in 1601. We will then learn more about the culture of the region and the country in the Museum of Indigenous Art (ASUR) and about the Bolivian history in The Casa de la Libertad, where the Independence Act was signed in 1825.
We will end the day visiting the Monastery of San Felipe Nery, enjoying a beautiful view over the city from its terrace.
NOTE: Museums are closed as following: Convento de la Recoleta, ASUR and Monastery of San Felipe Nery on Sundays, Casa de la Libertad on Mondays.