We had only planned for Tupiza to be a brief stop-off to help us recover from a pretty long day crossing the border and several sweaty bus rides. We had read that it might be a good, alternative jumping off point for a multi-day Salt Flats tour but, other than that, it was not going to form a significant part of our Bolivia itinerary.
However, after basic digs had been found and our bags dumped off, a late afternoon stroll through the market and on to the pretty little plaza made us reconsider; filled with families sharing ice-cream, giggling gold-toothed cholitas and old men sharing the day's news whilst the sun faded behind them, it looked like a place to savour.
The last weeks of Argentina had seen us cover great distances and struggle on our £30 daily budget; staying in Tupiza for a few more nights than planned would at least allow us to regroup, enjoy being able to make our money go further in a small laid-back town and, maybe, just maybe, start a love affair with Bolivia.
We walked the streets, seeking out cheap haircuts and photo opportunities. We bought our food fresh from the market. We did some treks and walks in the stifling and sticky summer heat through the dusty dry red rock landscapes full of quebradas y cañones.. We watched children hustle each other at the outdoor pool tables. We avoided groups of Argentinians conquering our hostel and we sipped cold, surprisingly expensive beer from over-sized bottles in bars where locals stuffed their cheeks with coca leaves at the plastic tables and got roaring drunk on cheap spirit. We planned our route in Bolivia. We practised our Spanish with welcoming and friendly residents. We acclimatised to the jump in altitude. We enjoyed ourselves.
So, if you are reading this and planning on simply passing through Tupiza, maybe it's time to reconsider. It's not the liveliest, most interesting place in South America, but it's certainly somewhere that merits more than just a one-night stop-over.
Here's what we recommend you do in and around town.
walk to cerro de la cruz
This is a manageable walk/hike which will take up a few hours of your day and afford you some lovely views over the city, the desert and the striking rock formations which encircle it.
How to get there: Ask your hostel which direction for 'cerro de la cruz' and follow the road until you pass a small stadium and arrive at a short bridge (every local will be able to point to 'el cerro' if you get lost). Cross the bridge and go left. Ahead of you, you'll see the hill with a small cross atop. Keep walking towards this and keep on this road as it goes to the left around the hill.
Eventually - when you think you've probably missed it - you'll see a brown sign and very small church on the right hand side; this marks the start of the ascent up the hill on roughly carved-out steps. It's steep and, given the altitude, you're likely to need a few pit-stops. Along the route, you will see little white crossed painted on to the rock - these mark the correct path to follow up the hill, so keep an eye out for them as it's not always immediately obvious which direction to go in.
Important information: Take plenty water, wear good shoes (there are some slippy parts) and cover yourself in sunscreen. Attempt this in the early morning or late afternoon when the climate is at its most agreeable - there is very little shade on this route and you will feel the effects of the sun.
We felt safe walking the route and up the hill, but do be aware that this is a poor country and you're walking outside of the main town. Use common sense, tell your hostel where you're going and don't take too many valuables.
visit the marketplace
The benefit of Tupiza is that it encapsulates typical aspects of Bolivian culture, but in a small and manageable format. For example, the market in the centre of town is photogenic, atmospheric and thriving, but is not so large or chaotic that you feel unsafe or out of place.
We loved visiting there in the morning - as the stalls and vendors were getting ready and little old ladies were coming to get the essentials for all the family - and it's the sort of place we could just wander around for hours.
Some sights will turn the stomach - entrails, pig heads or freshly killed carcasses being hauled out the back of a non-refrigerated van - but it's the perfect opportunity for you to converse with locals and immerse yourself. There is also a street market (electronics, knock-off DVDs, clothes etc) twice a week.
When we got to Sucre, we discovered that we had been ripped off pretty much across the board in Tupiza market (except from the lady who sold us avocadoes), so don't be at all surprised if this happens to you too!.
Explore la Cordillera de Chicas
The impressive red-rock landscapes around Tupiza are collectively known as the Cordillera de Chicas, and there are various ways to discover them. Some will opt for horseback, others for a guided jeep tour, whilst a combination of public transport and walking will serve others very well.
As there are over a dozen named formations scattered quite disparately, travellers visiting for only a few days won't be able to see them all. Out of those which could be reached easily on foot, we plumped to head for Valle de los Machos, Puerta del Diablo and Cañon del Inca (all in the same area) and we'd highly recommend that day-trip to other visitors. You will find yourself wandering through the arid desert expanse amongst several unique rock formations, some which are of a notoriously, er, phallic nature. It's the proper Wild West in South America.
How to get there: Find the old rail tracks heading out of town, heading south (double check with someone you're off in the right direction!) and follow these for 10-15 minutes until you see a big building on the right hand side which operates as a gym/swimming pool/leisure centre. Just after this, you need to take a right down a slight incline. It's not sign-posted and isn't immediately clear if you've taken the correct turn-off, so if you see someone, do ask them. Otherwise, if there's horse-poop or hoof marks on the track, then you're probably in the right place!
Follow this dirt road, which has a few homes on either side, until it leads into a more barren expanse, and walk towards the large rock formations. Once you enter the valley, there are signposts for some of the best-known formations and it's a pretty easy route to navigate, with a well-trodden path leading the way amongst the cacti. Expect to spend 60-90 minutes walking amongst and climbing the formations, before starting the walk back to town.
Note that it also possible to take one of the little collectivo buses to/from the turn-off (2B per person) but we'd recommend at least walking there as that was a big part of the experience. During your walk amongst the formations, you're likely to come across small tours groups on horseback - if you'd prefer to take that option, then enquire at your hostel or at one of the tour agencies. Thankfully, all the horses we saw were healthy and looked well looked-after but please do check their condition before agreeing to use them and make sure they are not mistreated.
Important information: The walk to, from and amongst the quebradas is simple enough and won't take a toll physically. However, there are dogs along the route which you will definitely have to keep an eye out for. None of them attacked us, but we gave them a very wide berth and tried not to disturb them (a local had warned us about them in advance), as well as carrying a stick and rocks just in case. You don't want to get a dog bite here, so please do be careful.
Also, be sure to bring plenty of water, wear suncream and try not to undertake this at peak sunlight hours.
Follow in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy
According to legend, and every tour company in town, Tupiza was the place where Butch and the Sundance kid had their last stand (yep, we had no idea either!) There are a few hints to this in the graffiti and names of restaurants around town and, if you're a fan of the American Wild West bank robbing anti-heroes, then you can follow in their (supposed) footsteps.
Check out this Time article for more information on the experience.
a word on the salt flats tours
Anyone travelling to Bolivia is, for good reason, going to make a bee-line for the iconic Salt Flats. After reading that tours could be started in Tupiza, we decided to investigate our options the day after we arrived.
There are no shortage of tour agencies around town, all of which will have up whiteboards stating 'tour leaving tomorrow' or something along those lines. They offer four-day trips, taking the 1000kms South West circuit - it's much quieter than the Uyuni route, adds in an extra day of scenery and, the biggest plus point, is that it leaves the highlight of the trip until your last day (if you start in Uyuni, then it's on the first day).
We were still unsure at that moment if we wanted to do a multi-day tour of the Flats and the tour companies all priced themselves out of the reckoning by charging quite a bit more for a 3 or 4 day tour than we knew was possible in Uyuni. When we factored in that taking the rickety six-hour bus ride to Uyuni only cost 50B (£5/$8), and, that we'd have more tour options available there, then it became a no-brainer for us.
However, not everyone's budget will be as tight as ours and, if your heart is set on a multi-day tour, then Tupiza may be perfect for you (just bear in mind that tours shorter than four days aren't possible). Never Ending Voyage have written a comprehensive overview of the Salt Flat experience from Tupiza and, if you'd like to get a guide on prices before arriving, a number of Tupiza's tour companies are online and very responsive to tour pricing requests via e-mail.
things to know before you go
- There are a number of ATMs in town.
- The bus terminal is a ten minute walk from the central plaza. If you are taking the bus to Uyuni, then we'd advise purchasing your ticket the day before or early in the morning of travel as it's a popular route and seats do sell out. It's a hot, dusty and unpleasant journey with no paved roads for the majority of the six hours - we were lucky to have a sensible driver who was much better than the standard throughout the rest of the country. Note also that this route is closed in the rainy season.
From the terminal, you can also reach Villazon (15B, 2 hours) for the border crossing with Argentina, Potosi (50B, 7 hours) and La Paz (we didn't check the prices I'm afraid!).
If you'd prefer the experience of Bolivian train, then you can reach Villazon (but seriously, just take the bus!) or Uyuni that way. There are only a few departures each week, so check the schedules carefully - this site gives an overview of the services and timetable but we can't confirm their accuracy.
- For a small town which isn't that touristy, there are actually quite a few gringo-centric restaurants scattered around the centre - lots of pizza and pasta options in particular. For hostel cooking, your best bet is the market and the small shops outside it.
- We stayed at Hostal Cnl. Pedro Arraya, which was a very basic family-run place, but it had a small kitchen and basic wi-fi (both of which aren't easy to find in Bolivia's hostels). We paid 80B for a private double (toilet paper not included!). It's on Avenida Pedro Arraya, which is only a few minutes from the bus station (out the exit and turn right) and is on the same street as a few other hostels, including the Lonely Planet pick. There are plenty other hostels around the town, but we didn't check them out.