This is a lengthy review, but if I'm going to rate a company in a manner that could negatively impact their business the circumstances and reasons need to be clear. To be sure, under different circumstances I might have written a glowing review such as the majority have to date, but with the glaring inadequacies we ran into, I simply cannot.
We arrived in Tupiza mid January, having travelled by bus from Salta Argentina. We immediately felt the effect of the higher elevation in Tupiza (9700 ft) vs Salta (3800). As others have already said, it is important to take a few days to adjust to the thinner air, and that was one of the reasons we chose Tupiza as the starting point for our tour rather than Uyuni (12000 ft). The other was the better reputation of Tupiza tour companies. In hindsight, after staying in both towns I would also say Tupiza has more character of the two towns and more activities.
When it came time to sign up for a tour we chose Tupiza Tours based solely on other people's reviews of the company. We chose an english speaing guide and only 4 passengers in the vehicle (4 passengers, guide/cook and driver total) so everyone would have a good view and be as comfortable as possible for the long hours on the road. As an option to the 4 day tour we paid a bit extra to take a detour to the town of San Vincente where supposedly Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid met their end.
January is the rainy season in Bolivia and while we were biding our time in Tupiza aclimatizing ourselves, we spent much time under cover as the season was living up to it's reputation. The rain played a large role in the circumstances of our tour.
We left town in the morning in our fully loaded 4X4 Toyota Landcruiser, I noticed as we headed out of town the cannibalization yard on the outskirts where dead Landcruisers were being picked apart for salvage and and a "new" one was being assembled with the fresh pieces. We traveled for a couple hours along a steadily climbing dirt track before turning onto the track to San Vincente. Several kms up we came to a large creek that with the past weeks rain was now a small river. We looked it over closely and decided that as we were by ourselves with no winch and only a short tow rope, we should turn back to the main track. Once on the main track again the scenery, what could be seen of it through the low lying clouds was spectacular. We kept climbing on the dirt track until we hit fresh snow, and were in about 6 inches of snow when our Landcruiser seized up and wouldn't go a bit further. We bailed out and stood trying to keep warm while Carlos our driver tried to figure out what was wrong. After about an hour poking around it was concluded that the transfer case had run out of oil and the bearings were seizing up. The good news was that we had a quart of engine oil that could be poured into the transfer case to get us going, the bad news was that the bearings or gears associated with the four wheel drive function were no longer working so we would have to run in two wheel drive high range only. In my view all this was part of the trip, roll with the punches, hazards of the road etc, but at the same time I fully expected the company to make good on their advertised promise of a 4 wheel drive vehicle in good condtion by sending a replacement vehicle as soon as possible seeing as we were only 4 hours from Tupiza. They did not. We continued on, and the smell of transmission oil was overwhelming and we had to keep a back window open to get some fresh air, it was that way the rest of trip.
Late in the afternoon, to reach our designated accomodation for the night, we needed to make two dicey river crossings. As I understand, during the drier season these would have been a cake walk but now after weeks of heavy rain they were a proper challenge for any fully outfitted 4 wheel drive but for our hobbled 2 wheel drive it was borderline wreckless. Somehow with much luck and Carlos's good driving we made it, but the question needs to be asked, What was the plan if we didn't? It was getting dark, it was raining hard, and the nearest dwelling was at least 10km distant. A functioning 4 wheel drive vehicle several km behind us came to the same crossings sometime after we did and excercised discretion by turning back and staying the night at a small llama farm. Again, all part of the hazards of the road, good stories and all, but was it the wise thing to do at 14000 feet with a crippled 4X4 at dusk in the rain?
Over the next several days our truck became stuck in creek and river crossings numerous times, largely if not exclusively because of our non-functioning 4X4. The ones we did make it through were largely because of Carlos's good driving. We lost enough hours each day that we had to bypass some of the scheduled stops on the tour, instead of visiting world class sites we were digging our 2 wheel drive truck out of river crossings. We were told it was exciting, not everybody got to do this, and I suppose it was. However, if all I wanted to do was dig my truck out of a mudhole I could have stayed home and done the same in my backyard.
One other significant dissapointment was on the last night when a driver from another tour vehicle, whose passengers were staying in the same hostel as us, got so drunk he couldn't back the vehicle out of the driveway the next morning. Our guide told us he was just fine but hardly were the words out of her mouth when he drove into the back of our parked truck.
To be clear, there is no question the scenery you will see on this trip is mindboggling, it's worth the trip halway around the world for that alone. Our guide put on a brave face and tried hard to make things work. Food was good. Accomodation was simple but clean. Our driver was professional and courteous. The Bolivian people we met are wonderful friendly individuals. But....
-they need to do a better job at vehicle maintenance and customer service (replacement vehicle)
-once you leave town there is no form of communication between other vehicles or the office in case of breakdown or emergency. Sat phone?
-there should be shutdown criteria in the extreme rainy season
Companies elsewhere in the world would have shut down for a few days during the extreme rains, I can only surmise that this company and the other local tour companies who took the risk of running in the heavy rains needed to keep going regardless, due to a need for cash flow. It's too bad, they have a world class attraction in their backyard, but with the dozens of tour companies trying to underbid each other it means they must cut corners to survive. It's too bad because some basic regulation and standards would make it a lot better for all. I for one would be happy to pay a few dollars more to see some improvements.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.