Salt Plains – Day One

Posted in Bolivia at 2:50 pm by Jackson Lee

10th March 2009

Take a dose of acid, remove part of your hippocampus, have a bout of multiple personality disorder or journey through south-western Bolivia’s serial landscapes and you’ll get closer with your understanding of exhilaration and awe – for me, a truly unforgettable experience

Salar Trickery


At a elevation of 2950 meters, the town of Tupiza is an ideal starting point which provides an environment substantially different from the anti-Plato which covers much of South-western Bolivia. Like many Bolivian towns, Tupiza is nestled in a valley surrounded by steep, mostly treeless, mountains and a population that doesn’t seem to realise there are much easier places to call home.

View of Tupiza

Its early morning and I watch with nervous anticipation as our backpacks are lugged onto the roof of the Toyota Landcruiser which will take us 1000 km, in 4 days, over often dangerous non-sealed roads. Havier, our driver, greets us with his special brand of infectious good vibe. Like Jamie, our chef for the tour, Havier dark skin speaks of his indigenous ancestry. Truck loaded, we set out.

Heading out from Tupiza, engine straining, we drive directly through a dry flood-valley towards the Yunga’s. The transitional area in South America, from the low lands in the east to the high altitude anti-Plato is referred to as the Yungas. Like modern city skylines, the terrain of this area often has sharp vertical landscape which provides spectacular photo opportunities.


Beside me Derek looks pleased at the prospect of an adventure worthy of his North America sense of personal challenge, while Elodie (Alu) and her college friend Mathiled (Mati) chat excitably in Swiss French – probably about such common French topics as tasty frog legs and French kissing.

The gang taking fotos

As the car leaves the flood-valley we share the terrain with a half-evident dirt road built for the mining industry, we pass a couple of large trucks and oddly, we see a few lone figures walking in the distance (Havier tells us they are either herders or solo miners). Outside, the slopes of the Quebrada de Palala range take shape, an area of red rock formations which is caused by erosion and resembles needles which reach high into the sky (4200m).


Having spent the last seven weeks on the fertile plains of Argentina this new landscape is a strong juxtaposition. At this altitude (over 3600 meters), trees don’t have much fun growing and instead cactus, tussock and low lying scrubs plot out squares of poorly oxygenated soil to eke out their existence.


Like climbing Jake´s beanstalk, the truck drives us clear into a high plateau valley. The mornings drive had taken us up 700 meters, past small herds of cows and llama’s, tiny gold (Spanish word ‘Oro’) mining operations and finally into a fertile valley where we stop for lunch. In the company of grazing llama’s, Derek and I decided to pull out the Frisbee and throw amongst a herd of grazing Llama’s – turns out our hands are slightly swollen and uncoordinated – I assume, scientifically, this is a effect of altitude.


Jamie, our resident chef, who as it turns out is a rookie and is on his third job into the Salar, puts together a simple lunch of sandwiches while Havier points north-west and recounts the story of the final steps of Bunch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. An appropriately barren and hostile place for outlaws to meet their end I feel.


Unlike rock-guitarists funerals, it doesn’t rain a lot on the anti-plateau. But when it does, the dirt roads can become bogs which even four-wheel drives can get stuck in. Tupiza tours have smart policy’s that each tour group must have at least two vehicles so if one truck has a problem the other is on hand to help out. On this expedition, our group had three trucks.


Having arrived while the other groups were finishing their lunch we were obviously moving the slowest. They took off before us – hang on, I was thinking, I though we were supposed to travel together for safety reason…. maybe the roads here aren’t so bad. An hour later, having not seen any other vehicle, this thought was proven wrong.


We were stuck in mud – badly. There was evidence all around that other vehicles had suffered this same fate. Out came the spade. We marched off to find stones, which are usually abundant but like cowards in a bullring, were nowhere in sight. Havier began digging around the wheels in what appeared to be a completely illogical method – Jamie looked on with keen interest. Is this how the movie about how we di e in the middle of nowhere begins…? Laughing hysterically seemed like a good option.


I was up for a little piece of adventure. The girls and Derek quickly tired of collecting stones and tussock but I was determined to do my part. Little did I know that heavy exhaustion intensifies altitude sickness.

The first attempt to free the truck failed and we sunk a little deeper. Three hours later, after dropping a mountain of crumbling rocks into the bog, a local ambulance truck came upon us. Neither truck, in true she’ll-be-right Bolivian style, had a towrope so our tour guides set about removing the safety belts from the car. These were rigged together and tied to each truck. Not long later – to a round of cheers and sighs – we were back on the road.


We were late, the sun was sitting and my body was beginning to feel the effects of being above 4000 meters. The coca leaf is considered a common remedy to almost every form of illness that Bolivians deal with in their 2nd/3rd world. It is a common illness for tourist in Bolivia (and Peru) – it causes headaches, tiredness, sore joints, vomiting etc (a persons physical fitness does not help). My head was killing me and Coca leafs were suggested – I was game.


The coca leafs, which can be derived into cocaine via a complex chemical process, are sucked (not chewed) in the side of the mouth (thought-out Bolivia, Bolivian men can be seen with mounds sticking out from their checks and a musty, thick herbal smell lingering around them). The general impact is many times less than class A drugs and the action is continued for 10-30 minutes, whereupon a new wad is placed into the mouth. In a few minutes, my mouth becomes slightly numb, my head clears noticeably (but not completely) and I’m wondering to myself what I’ll need to tell the media when I become president… I never inhaled just wont work.

Just before reaching our first nights’ accommodation, we pass the sight of a recent Llama tragedy. A few years ago, a severe winter storm dumped 4 meters of snow in the area. During storms, Llama’s herd together for survival, but in this case the weather won. The resulting pile of bones tell a sad tale…

Llama grave yard

The first day was over – we had reached the town of San Anotonio de Lipez. 4200 meters above sea level and inhabited by 250 hearty souls. We arrived 4 hours after the other groups in complete darkness. The temperature outside had dropped quickly as night fell and I was now wearing almost all of my clothes. Jamie cooked up a soap which tasted much like Coca-leaf to my dulled senses.

Me looking like traveller

San Anotonio de Lipez

And so began a terrible, altitude sickness effected, night’s sleep… anyone else know what it’s like to sleep in a coffin? Day two on the Salt plain trip to follow…

FYI – There are many tour groups who travel through the Salar. I thoroughly recommend using ´Tupiza Tours´. I paid US$120 for 4 days which included all meals and accommodation. We had 4 passengers in the Truck, if there are 5, the cost is US$100. Tupiza tours leaves from both Tupiza and Uyuni.


  1. sarahjane said,

    April 14, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Great, now Jackson has completed the journey I do not need to go as I definitely would not have a pug for my hair dryer. Love from Onehunga

  2. Nana said,

    April 14, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Great photos Jackson and really enjoy your newsy blogs.Nana

  3. Isabel said,

    December 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    Ooh. Hate it when you miss your transport. We only did it once. Flying home after 5 years away, all our fmaily were at Sydney waiting for us. We were in a bar on Khao San Rd toasting to an amazing honeymoon before we flew out later that night. Except the place was flying overhead at that moment without us on it. The first time we had not double checked our tickets!!

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