An Altiplano Adventure: Sajama to the Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia is one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth, a land of contrasts and extremes. You can travel by boat deep into the Amazon basin (see previous posts) or you can climb high into the Andes north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real (see more previous posts). In between these two extremes lie dozens of different eco-zones as well as indigenous peoples and cultures.

If there is one landscape above all others that Bolivia is famous for, it is the Altiplano. A vast swath of breathtaking high plateau (up to 4500m in altitude) that extends from northern Argentina and Chile across the whole of Bolivia and into southern Peru, the Altiplano defines people’s perceptions of Bolivia. It is a seemingly barren and inhospitable place, but on closer inspection it is home to many animal and plant species and some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.

Typical Altiplano scenery, Sajama National Park, Bolivia
Alpacas being herded, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Travelling south from Sajama National Park close to the border with northern Chile, it is possible to drive on dirt tracks that run parallel to the border, and which follow a beautiful chain of volcanos (some still active) that stretch 4000km south to Tierra del Fuego. Eventually you’ll reach the south-western tip of Bolivia where it borders Chile and Argentina, from where you can head into either of those two countries at remote boarder posts.

It is an incredible journey into some of the wildest places in Bolivia, a journey that has few rivals in Latin America. The route passes through remote communities of Aymara llama and alpaca herders; past abandoned villages and beautiful adobe churches; along the shores of brightly coloured lakes that are home to hundreds of flamingos; bubbling geysers and hot springs and the enormous salt flats of Coipasa and Uyuni (so huge they can be seen from space) also await exploration.

Altiplano geyser, Sajama National Park, Bolivia
Navigating the car down a riverbed, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Starting the journey in Sajama National Park in the north west of Bolivia you drive through a vast landscape and under near-permanently cloudless skies. At times the sense of isolation is overwhelming. We spent a night at the lovely community run Albergue Ecoturistico Tomarapi in the small settlement of Tomarapi, about 10km from Sajama village, where we were lucky enough to witness a sunset that seemed to set the sky on fire.

Sunset strikes Vulcan Sajama, Sajama National Park, Bolivia
Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The following day we headed south on bumpy dirt roads, past several high altitude lakes with flamingos and a number of small villages en route to the Salar de Coipasa.

Adobe church at Tomarapi, Vulcan Sajama in the background, Bolivia
A flamingo takes flight, Sajama National Park, Bolivia
Abandoned village near the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Emerging out of this arid landscape the sheer brilliance of the Salar de Coipasa is a shock to the system – dazzlingly white under the intense altiplano sun. Once a large lake that fed Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Coipasa is now a huge salt flat covered in a salt crust made up of hexagonal shapes that seems to stretch to the horizon.

Smaller, less well known and with only a fraction of the tourists who visit the nearby Salar de Uyuni, Coipasa is none-the-less an amazing place where you can stand in absolute silence and not see another soul.

The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia
The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia
Car on the salar, Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Heading south again we made for the small village of Tahua, which nestles under Volcano Thunupa, where the lovely Tayka Hotel de Sal ( awaited our arrival. The Tayka chain of hotels are run on sustainable principles and are located in some of the most dramatic places you’re likely to ever find a hotel. They are probably the most luxurious accommodations in the region, which comes at a price but one worth paying.

The Hotel de Sal is located just on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni and we arrived just in time to watch the sun set with a cold beer in hand…of which more later.

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