My 10-Day Bolivia Expedition Through Salt Flats, Ancient Cities, and High Mountain Deserts

Gopal, a photographer hailing from Bombay, found his passion for driving expeditions with Nomadic Road after his initial journey at Lake Baikal, Siberia, in 2022. Determined to make it an annual tradition, he joined our Bolivia expedition in September’23. In this account, he unfolds his adventure—driving on the world’s largest salt flat, encountering new landscapes, and residing in some of the highest hotels in the world.

Words and Photos by Gopal

When Nomadic Road announced their Bolivia adventure trip, I thought, "Why not?" The idea of driving outside India always excites me, and hitting the South American roads was cherry on the cake.

The journey was to start in Santa Cruz. Although there were quite a few options to fly into Santa Cruz, I chose Ethiopian Airlines, following a route from Mumbai to Addis Ababa, then Buenos Aires, where I had an overnight stopover. Following the lengthy journey, I finally reached Santa Cruz—our gateway for the Bolivia expedition.

Luckily, it was a comfortable flight. I needed to get as much rest as possible for the days to come.

Santa Cruz has this small-town vibe with colonial buildings and a relaxed tropical atmosphere. It oozes modernity, yet oddly clings stubbornly to tradition.

Day 2 marked the official start of our expedition. The vehicles, thoroughly inspected the day before, were all set to go. Our ride for the journey was the Nissan Patrol with a manual transmission! Setting out southwest, our destination was Amboró National Park, situated at the elbow of the Andes.

Noted for its rugged and varied topography, Amboró National Park spans three distinct ecosystems: the foothills of the Andes, the northern Chaco and the Amazon Basin. Nowhere else in the world do these three diverse environments blend so well. It's a place where the majesty of the Andes meets the biodiversity of the Amazon.

Our stay for the night was at Refugio Los Volcanes—absolutely amazing! It was nestled in a valley surrounded by rocky titans, tropical rainforests, and crystalline rivers. This place is the perfect oasis of tranquillity, offering an ideal setting to connect with nature. It was a perfect day to unwind and relax in the midst of green pastures.

Day 3 of the Bolivia expedition began with a sumptuous breakfast. We then set out from the national park, driving east through tropical forests, orchards, and small settlements towards the lush village of Samaipata. This village is part of the Old Trade Route, once the most crucial road connecting Sucre (the old capital of Bolivia), Santa Cruz, and the Amazon jungle. The road winds through a narrow valley, steadily gaining altitude.

Samaipata, nestled in the undulating lowlands of the Andes, is an intriguing place. Thanks to its weather conditions, it happens to be ideal for Viti viniculture, and it's renowned for its special Java variety of coffee beans.

Continuing our journey, we headed south along the Ruta del Che (Che Trail), embarking on a rugged yet spectacular adventure. The landscape transformed from rolling green hills and fields to more arid topography as the altitude steadily rose. Our destination was La Higuera, the small town where Che Guevara's dream of leading a continent-wide revolution met its end in defeat and death.

For the night, we settled into a simple accommodation—not exactly contemporary or lavish, but it added to the authenticity of the experience. Walking around the town was a wonderful experience, and we even had the opportunity to visit the site where Che Guevara met his fate. The dinner served that day was nothing short of outstanding.

Day 4 commenced with a slight delay due to a car issue. Setting out at 7:45 am, we traversed fabulous dirt roads with stunning valley views, winding through mountain contours. The journey included a captivating ascent on paved roads, leading us to Sucre – a UNESCO World Heritage site and Bolivia's former capital. It is nestled in a valley surrounded by low mountains at an agreeable altitude of 2,800 meters (9,186 feet) and enjoys a much milder and comfortable climate.

Sucre offers a plethora of cultural attractions, including the Cathedral, the second oldest university in South America, and the authentic Tarabuco Market, making it a delightful town to explore.

Day 5 turned out to be a day filled with a fair share of driving; fortunately, most of it was on tarmac roads. After navigating through mountains, along scenic and winding roads, and through the highlands of Bolivia, we finally arrived at Potosi, standing at an impressive altitude of 4,090 meters. Potosi, one of the biggest and richest cities in the world at its prime, held a status rivalling that of Paris and New York. This esteemed position was attributed to the silver mine, "Cerro Rico" (Rich Mountain), located next to the city.

The tales of Potosi's wealth are intertwined with the history of the Spanish conquistadores, who had slaves extract silver from this mountain and transport it back to Spain. The legacy of Cerro Rico stands as a testament to the city's once-grand stature.

Following a brief lunch stop at a hacienda, our journey continued. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we were treated to the sight of llamas and vicuñas grazing along the roadside. It was beautiful to witness the gradual transformation of the landscape and the evolving colours of the mountains. We crossed a few more high-altitude passes before reaching the town of Uyuni, just a short distance east of the renowned salt flats. Our night stay at Jardines De Uyuni promised comfort with amenities like a sauna, swimming pool, and a delectable dinner spread awaiting our arrival.

On day 6, the Bolivia expedition took us south toward the high mountain deserts of Siloli, nestled within the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, that straddles the northern corners of Chile and Argentina. This mystical place is often described as where Earth meets the sky, and most of the desert unfolds at an altitude of about 4,500 meters above sea level. Situated in the Andes, the desert is adorned with volcanoes along its ridges, and various types of isolated rocks punctuate the landscape.

The ascent was no easy feat, with a notorious lack of oxygen and steep inclines. The road within the desert was a blend of sand and gravel, winding through a series of rocks shaped by the strong winds that define the region. It was a true testament to the rugged beauty of the high mountain deserts.

For our stay, we found ourselves at Los Flamencos Eco Hotel. It's not only one of the most remote hotels in existence but also ranks among the highest hotels globally, perched at an approximate altitude of 4,200 meters.

Since I’ve been on several high-altitude treks before, the hotel's elevation didn't bother me. But yes, the altitude can be a trigger for altitude sickness. That said, the hotel's location is superb – a mere 10-minute walk leads you to a lake, surrounded by picturesque mountains. It's the perfect spot for watching a beautifully sunset and, of course, getting up close to hundreds of flamingos.

In the vast expanse surrounding this place, there is literally nothing for many miles, making it the sole settlement in the Siloli Desert. Now, the hotel itself is a simple eco-lodge. Electricity is limited, Wi-Fi has its own schedule, and hot water might be a luxury for some. But up at that altitude, even these basic amenities felt like a luxurious touch. Plus, a wholesome candlelight dinner was all it took to lift the convoy’s spirits even higher.

On day 7, our exploration took us to other fascinating areas within the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. The day unfolded with encounters of epic and beautiful landscapes adorned with lakes, salt pans, volcanoes, and thermal springs. One notable stop was the emerald-green Laguna Verde, a lagoon boasting an almost phosphorescent hue. This unique colour arises from its toxic and chemical composition, rendering it devoid of life.

Following this, we ventured to the renowned Laguna Colorada, distinguished by its red waters and the graceful presence of flamingos.

The lake obtains its deep orange-red hue from the proliferation of red algae and other microorganisms thriving in its waters. Surrounding the lake, vast white deposits of borax, rolling grasslands, and majestic purple mountains painted a surreal picture of nature's artistry.

After our intriguing visit to Laguna Colorado, our journey turned northward toward San Pedro De Quemes. Nestled on the southern end of the Salar de Uyuni, this town is surrounded by a landscape of majestic mountains and the vast, remote desert. It was here that we wrapped up the day, finding lodging at Hotel Taika de Piedra.

Notably, San Pedro De Quemes is renowned for its quinoa farming, adding an agricultural charm to its scenic setting.

Day 8 of the Bolivia adventure trip was the one we’d been eagerly anticipating—the historic drive across Salar De Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. We drove north from San Pedro De Quemes towards Puerto Chuvica, the gateway to the salt flat. As we entered the world's largest single salt flat, the realization struck that this vast expanse was not technically a road, making the driving experience utterly mind-blowing.

One would find it almost impossible to distinguish between the terrain of salt and fresh snow. It could only be solved, perhaps, by tasting it! The endless white desert, now beneath our wheels, unfolded into some of the most unique and breathtaking scenery on earth. Finding the words to accurately describe Salar de Uyuni is not easy. It's a truly unique and awe-inspiring part of the world that one has to see and experience to believe.

After an extraordinary driving experience on the world's largest salt flat, we made our way to Tahua, situated on the northwest bank of the Salar and at the foot of the majestic Thunupa volcano. Our accommodation for the night was the aptly named Hotel Tayka de Sal (Spanish for Salt Hotel), a structure almost entirely crafted from pure salt sourced from the Uyuni Salt Flats. Positioned strategically, the hotel offered a mind-boggling view of the surrounding landscape, truly enhancing our stay in this remarkable location.

Day 9 brought the unfortunate moment of bidding adieu to the world's largest single salt flat. Our journey continued northwest towards the second-largest, albeit lesser-known, salt flat in Bolivia—Salar de Coipasa. Driving across the expansive Coipasa Salt Flat, we entered the wild altiplano, amidst an arid landscape, flanked by volcanoes near the Chilean border.

Navigating through challenging dirt roads, we finally reached our destination for the day—Sajama National Park. On the horizon, the majestic Nevado Sajama, Bolivia's tallest mountain, loomed large, offering a perspective that put our everyday worries into a humbling perspective.

Day 10 marked the concluding chapter of our epic Bolivia adventure trip, leading us to our final destination, La Paz (3640 m), the highest capital in the world. The culmination of our adventure in this elevated city added a fitting finale to the unforgettable experiences of our Bolivia expedition.

After the Bolivia trip, I hopped over to Argentina, making it a 32-day stretch away from home. The yearning to return back home to India was strong. But at the same time, there's also this exciting anticipation brewing for my next adventure.

Visual Recollections from the Bolivia Expedition:

P.S: As a vegetarian steering clear of dairy products, food was never a challenge during my Bolivia adventure. I had the chance to savour some of the best quinoa dishes and salads. It's worth mentioning that one should not forget to try the Bolivian spicy sauces, though a word of caution—be extremely cautious! And, of course, the Bolivian wine, coffee, and chocolate were not to be missed.