Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

This trip started out with the sole intention of visiting Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Located in central Bolivia, it is not an easy place to reach, but that's to be expected when the extraordinary landscape resembles nothing of this world.

Initially, I had planned on flying into and out of La Paz. From there, I would make my way down to Uyuni, the main jump-off point for visiting the Bolivian Altiplano. With most tours lasting only three days, however, I found myself researching additional points of interest around the region. I realized that I had the option of ending the tour in San Pedro de Atacama, so I began looking into additional places to see in Northern Chile. Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia was high on my list as well, having read about its history and beauty all the way back in high school Spanish class, not to mention this little gem from Animaniacs.

I decided on using AAdvantage miles to book my flights since it would be more economical than using Avios. In addition, OneWorld Alliance has access to LAN, the largest airline in South America. After a bit of trial and error, I found out that it cost fewer miles to fly into Peru versus flying into Bolivia since AA categorizes Bolivia as South America Zone 2, while Peru is categorized as South America Zone 1. Oddly enough, AA forbids the transiting of Zone 1 to get to Zone 2 (unless you want to pay for two separate awards), even though it may be the most logical and direct route.

Yes, AA does have a direct flight to La Paz from Miami (via Santa Cruz), but that would still cost more miles than flying into Zone 1. Hence, I decided to start and end my itinerary in Southern Peru, and do the border crossings using local transport. Choosing this option allowed me to book SFO-LIM-JUL on one ticket using LAN. For the return flight, I decided to cross the border from Chile back into Peru, and bus it all the way to Arequipa, a charming city I've wanted to see for some time now. From there, I could do AQP-LIM-SFO also on LAN.

Like virtually all of my award flights, I booked my tickets many months in advance. Unfortunately, booking so early has its drawbacks. Around December of last year, I noticed a modification to my itinerary on After calling in, I realized that LAN had changed the departure times on all of its SFO-bound flights from 1:15 am to 9:00 am. Since I didn't want an almost ten-hour overnight layover in LIM, I decided to take the next best option: routing to SFO via DFW on AA.

A lot of research was required for this trip since much of the transportation was by local buses. In addition, I had to find out logistics for crossing the land borders between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. It's always a little stressful finding your way from one town to the next in foreign countries, so I wanted to minimize the chances of getting lost, stranded, or ripped off. Luckily, the Altiplano circuit has gotten more popular within the past few years, and there is quite a bit of information out there as long as you take the time to search for it.

Very few of the places I visited on this trip had large international hotels, so I focused mainly on local hotels, hostels, and backpackers lodges with the best reviews on TripAdvisor. Finding the right tour company for the Salar de Uyuni tour was probably the biggest headache of all, since very little up-to-date and accurate information exists online. Ultimately, we decided to go with Red Planet Expeditions, and I will lay out the detailed reasons why in a subsequent post.

In all, the flights to and from South America cost a total of $79.93 including taxes and fees, plus 35,000 miles. Since I carry the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa Signature card, I received a 10% mileage rebate on AA award redemptions, bringing the total to 31,500 miles. To get from La Paz to Uyuni, we decided to take the short 45-minute flight on Línea Aérea Amaszonas instead of roughing it on a 12-15-hour overnight bus ride. That was the best $126.68 I'd ever spent. Plus I got to try out a relatively new and seldom-reviewed airline.

I must say, the scenery I witnessed on this trip far surpasses anything I had ever seen before in terms of sheer outlandishness. Your eyes may very well register the landscape, but your mind will not believe what you are seeing. It is all at once fantastic, bizarre, and majestic.

Salar de Uyuni - March 28, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment