14 Days in Bolivia's Altiplano
The Andes Altiplano Tour
Photo tour led by Sergio Ballivian
The Altiplano is an amazing landscape and offers surprises to new and frequent visitors alike. These places will leave you breathless – not only due to the beauty, but the altitude as well. This adventurous 4×4 overland photo workshop is designed to get into the heart and soul of the Bolivian Altiplano, focusing on the wild south-western corner. We will spend most of our time within the regions of the Salar de Uyuni and the Laguna Colorada, where we have often experienced the most amazing sunsets. Then we head south, deep in the Sud Lipez region and afterwards east towards the badlands of Tupiza.
August 2 • Arrival in Jakarta and flight to Padang (Sumatra)
The Altiplano is a high, cold and dry region most of the year so prepare for cold temperatures at night and comfortable to chilly temperatures during the day. The landscapes are so spectacular you will focus on making amazing photos of an awe-inspiring landscape that promises to deliver beautiful light, convoluted and rugged landforms, glacier-covered volcanoes and shimmering multi-colored lagoons full of pink flamingos.
The prime season is from early April to mid November (our dry season) when the roads are in good shape for travel after the rainy season (December-March). The months between May and August are cold as it is winter (with very rare snow) but offer the best climatic and travel conditions.
In order to acclimatize properly we will make our way south, gaining altitude slowly, while visiting surreal locations. The plan is to be at the places that are most spectacular during the best times of day for photographing the grand landscape and wildlife of this region.
Day 1 • Arrival in La Paz, Bolivia – City Tour
Arrive in La Paz early in the AM. The altitude at El Alto International Airport is 13,200 ft and is on the Altiplano, so it’s common to feel symptoms of light-headedness, shortness of breath and slight nausea upon arrival. After doing immigration and customs you’ll be met by us at the general passenger meeting point where you will board our private vehicle and head down into La Paz, loosing altitude quickly, and likely feeling much better. We suggest you have a basic photo kit easily accessible so you can take photos along the way. The hotel is located in the Valley of the Moon sector at the lowest level of La Paz (approximately around 10,500’) where you will check in and rest, relax or sleep for the rest of the morning. Lunch at the hotel. At 2 PM we begin a 3-hour city tour of this fascinating city deep in the heart of the Andes; visiting the busy downtown, the open air markets, and the colonial neighborhoods with great views of the city. Dinner is on your own tonight and we recommend a light dinner at the hotel. Avoid alcohol and caffeine tonight and drink plenty of water and mate de coca during the day.
Day 2 • La Paz – Tiwanaku & Lake Titicaca – La Paz
To continue the acclimatization process and still see amazing things we head to Tiwanaku and Lake Titicaca on a day trip today. We depart to Tiwanaku after breakfast for an in-depth tour of this pre-Inca port city with a professional bi-lingual guide who will explain the history of Tiwanaku, the Incas and the ties with modern Bolivian society. Lunch in Tiwanaku. A short drive puts us on the shores of Lake Titicaca to see it’s beautiful blue waters, the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 ft asl. We begin our journey back to La Paz in the afternoon crossing the Andes once again and be back at the hotel in the late afternoon.
Day 3 • La Paz – Oruro - Uyuni
Our destination today is Uyuni, the gateway city to the Salar de Uyuni. After climbing out of the canyon of La Paz we head south on the paved road towards Oruro (a mining city and famous Carnaval venue) in order to gas up and have lunch. We continue south (in between Lake Poopo to the west and the Andes mountains to the east) along the Altiplano with ever-changing interesting vistas until the paved road ends. From here a few more hours on challenging dirt roads will get us to Colchani, the entryway to the Salar de Uyuni, and 30 more minutes puts us in Uyuni for the night. After a refresh and rest we head out for dinner in Uyuni. O
Day 4 • Uyuni – Salar de Uyuni – Tahua
We begin the day with a visit to the train graveyard, just outside of Uyuni where locomotives of the steam engine era lie and rust away with the ages. We return north to Colchani to see the salt miners gathering salt and get a sense of the manual labor required to mine tons of salt on a yearly basis, all of it done by hand with picks and shovels. We enter the Uyuni Salt Flats and fly directly west to the center and Incahuasi Island where we will have time for a walk to the top of the island before having lunch. Afterwards, we head north towards Thunupa Volcano – the looming matriarch rising above everything else in the area to the north. We exit via the village of Jirira which sits below Thunupa Volcano and then west on a rough dirt to Coquesa where we’ll visit mummies in a cave on the flanks of this dormant volcano. We finish the day in the village of Tahua where we will check into the salt hotel in time for dinner.
Day 5 • Tahua – Salar de Uyuni – San Pedro de Quemez
Our destination is the heart of the Sud Lipez region today. Re-entering the salar from the north, we drive over the flat, hard-packed salt flat to one of a few southern entry/exit points below scarred volcanoes and meandering lava flows. The further south we go, the Altiplano gains height although you will not notice it, until you try to walk or run when we stop for breaks along the way. After crossing the muddy remnants of a salar we end up in the village of San Pedro de Quemez, surrounded by lava flows and imposing volcanoes on all sides. After check-in there is time to enjoy some rest or go for a walk in the village to see what the locals are doing.
Day 6 • San Pedro de Quemez – Ojo de Perdiz
Crossing the Salar de Chiguana south of San Pedro you will feel like you were transported to the moon. Gaining height as we head ever closer to Eduardo Avaroa National Wildlife Reserve in the extreme southwestern corner of Bolivia you’ll wonder how do people actually live here? Today we will have plenty of time to stop and take pictures along the way of volcanoes and vast landscapes and have lunch en route. We should arrive at Ojo de Perdiz in the late afternoon, a location that is surrounded by a painted high-altitude desert of red, beige and rust colors surrounded by the rugged, crumbling Andes mountains. Dinner and rest.
Day 7 • Ojo de Perdiz – Laguna Colorada
We continue south along multi-colored high-altitude deserts surrounded by volcanoes, salt flats, lava flows and herds of wild vicuna. Before arriving in Laguna Colorada we pass next to the stone tree, a remnant of a lava flow that has been eroded over eons into a sculpture that resembles an acacia tree with the crown on top. We will arrive in Laguna Colorada in the late morning and head to the peninsula where the best viewing options are for pink flamingos (three species) which live, breed and call this red lagoon home. The red lagoon is one of the prime locations for photography of the vast high-altitude deserts and wildlife so we will maximize our time here as much as possible. We will check into our basic accommodations for the night before heading out in time for sunset at the lagoon.
Day 8 • Laguna Colorada – Laguna Verde – Quetena Chico
We depart early after breakfast and head south to Laguna Verde that lies below Llicancabur Volcano (19,600’/5,960m) that stradles the Bolivia-Chile border. Along the way there will be innumerable opportunities to photograph moon-like landscapes of volcanoes, multi-colored deserts, eroding lava flows, sandy washes and schizophrenic rock outcrops as well as wildlife. You will have an opportunity to soak in Chalviri hot springs after visiting the Sol de Manana geyser field. Make sure you have your bathing suit and a towel handy. Lunch en route. The journey is an incredible one that covers the highlights of the Sud Lipez region surrounded by 18-20 thousand ft volcanoes! This is a high-altitude region (average road height is about 14,000 ft, with passes over 16,000 ft!) and tends to be cold and windy so be prepared for those conditions. We head northeast to the town of Quetena Chico and arrive around sunset.
Day 9 • Quetena Chico – San Pablo de Lipez
Today is a long day so we will need to depart soon after an early breakfast. You will see more of the spectacular landscape found in the Sud Lipez region full of multi-colored lagoons, salt flats, lava flows, andean puna marshes, rocky canyons and sandy desert landscapes – always changing, never the same. Lunch en route. The canyons offer a never-ending kaleidoscope of colors and geographic wonders around every corner. Continuing northeast to San Pablo de Lipez, we will cross a series of rivers before arriving in a perfect location for sunsets as the pampas, and rocky mountains catch the setting suns’ full effect. After a rest and shower we’ll meet for dinner at the hotel.
Day 10 • San Pablo de Lipez – Tupiza
The drive climbs over a series of mountain ranges and goes into deep canyons before emerging into the open sky. The terrain changes all the time and we will see deep reds, yellows and greens all over the landscape as we motor east towards Tupiza, the only major town in the area. Keep an eye out for condors as they are common here. The drive will keep us high above the rugged canyons for some time until we come to the edge of a cut in the geography and below us will be the town of Tupiza, surrounded by grey and red rock canyons and eroded badlands. This truly is one of Bolivia’s most spectacular vistas and we should be arriving around sunset when these hills come alive with colors. After dropping a few thousand feet into the canyon we will enjoy Tupizas’ temperate climate. After check-in and a break we get to enjoy Tupizas’ restaurant options.
Day 11 • Tupiza – Atocha – Uyuni
We depart from the multi-layered canyons of Tupiza northwest towards Atocha and eventually to Uyuni. The route takes us over river valleys, undulating pampas covered in cactus and over passes that guard secrets to hidden valleys where farmers produce a great variety of food for the cities of Atocha, Potosi, Tupiza and Uyuni. At one point we will be able to see the city of Potosi, far off on the horizon but clearly identifiable – we will be there the next day! The scenery is quite subtle yet spectacular and we’ll have time to enjoy the details along the way when we stop for breaks. Lunch en route. We should arrive in Uyuni in the late afternoon. Time for rest and refreshments before heading out to dinner.
Day 12 • Uyuni – Potosi
Our direction today is northeast to Potosi – the sky-high imperial colonial city that made the Spanish rich. The drive is a little over 3 hours on a new paved road and very impressive. The terrain and scenery along the way encompasses river canyons, rugged mountains and mining centers, still active after centuries of exploitation. The red earth and weeping willows are a beautiful contrast to the desert-like Altiplano we just left. In the late morning we will arrive in the world’s highest major city, Potosi that sits at 3,960m/12,989′ asl. and its’ height will take your breath away. We will have lunch in Potosi upon arrival. After checking-in to our hotel we visit the Casa de la Moneda, the Spanish Mint, where we will get a lesson in the cultural complexity that is part of the Bolivian historical tapestry. Dinner at a local restaurant.
Day 13 • Potosi – Cayara
Today we get to experience what truly manual labor is all about. We are partaking of a brief visit to a mine cooperative in the heart of the Cerro Rico in the morning. The visit will put in perspective the struggle these miners have in making a living underground using antiquated methods – not an easy life. After the sobering visit, we’ll have lunch then head down and spend the night in a colonial-era hacienda called Cayara. This is a living museum and working hacienda and a great place to re-live Bolivia’s colorful history and see how life in the Spanish colonial era was like. The hacienda sits well below Potosi and is about 30-minutes away next to an idyllic village made of stone walls and multi-colored cultural plots. We freshen-up before having dinner at the hostal.
Day 14 • Cayara – Oruro – La Paz
The drive to La Paz is long but pretty spectacular because it stays high in the mountains for the first half of the trip and it’s on a paved road all the way to La Paz so, it’s fast and comfortable. Along the way you will see multi-colored valleys, high peaks, green puna with llamas and alpacas grazing. The closer we get to La Paz you will see the glacier-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real rising above the Altiplano. The scenery is truly amazing and should provide plenty of visual appeal along the entire route. We should arrive in La Paz in the early evening. Group dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate a wonderful and adventurous journey of the Bolivian highland region.
Day 15 • La Paz – Home
For those departing to the US most flights leave early in the morning. We will provide a complimentary shuttle to the airport so please coordinate with us to schedule your transfer time.
Starting before dawn we travel to a local village for a sunrise photo session of some of Sumatra's wondrous landscapes - and see the local children as they start their day. From there we head to another village for a photo session of local children playing traditional games - and the older folk enjoying cock fighting. In the afternoon we go for another landscape photo session (and yes, kids are involved too). After sunset we drive to the small town of Batu Sangkar, where we stay overnight.
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Bookings are made directly with the photographer. For more details please contact Sergio Ballivian by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Fees are exclusive of your own travel to and from La Paz.
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- US$ 500 non-refundable deposit on booking.
- 50% to be paid on confirmed booking.
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- 25% refund if made 7+ days before the tour start date.
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Irsam is a long established tour photographer and guide in Indonesia, with more than 25 years experience in the field of tourism. He has been an avid and semi-professional photographer since 2010. Irsam has frequently travelled to many regions of Indonesia and overseas as well. Recipient of the prestigious "Wonderful Indonesia" logo for promoting tourism, Irsam loves to communicate with people and learn new things.