Tourist Police, Salt Hotels and Llama Bolognaise.

17 11 2008

The bus towards the border was a rundown rusty contraption; very different from what we had grown accustomed to during our travels around Chile and Argentina. I loved it though! For the first time this trip, it finally felt like we were getting off the beaten track and out of our comfort zones, and exploring further into the heart of South America.

The journey, whilst hot and dusty, proceeded without problems, until we finally reached the Chilean border, where we were instructed to get out and get our passports stamped for exit. However this is where the confusion started to arise; a number of “officials” were telling us that we had to turn around and head back, as having driven the 12 hours here, we could not in fact cross. There was apparently, what I could grasp with my limited Spanish, a strike amongst the personnel on the Bolivian side and their immigration office was shut… However, our bus driver assured us that it was fine and to proceed in getting stamped out of Chile.

After half an hour of asking a number of people the same question, and pooling together the different answers, we managed to work out that we could in fact head across to Bolivia, where we could get our passport stamped, however we had to walk there… the bus was not allowed to drive us the 2 mile stretch along a flat dusty road. We were in the middle of nowhere, and had little choice. Loading ourselves with our backpacks we started to walk, dust kicking up behind us. After walking for a while, we stopped to make sure that the rest of the passengers were following us. There were only 4 travellers on the bus, Claire and Myself and a two German girls. Turning around, we saw the rest of the passengers struggling with their massive loads. We thought we had it tough walking with our backpacks… the rest of the passengers had packed their livelihoods, complete with small children and the kitchen sink. We turned back to help, and I found myself swamped in bags by an old lady, who seemed only too keen that I chip in and help. I found myself with my backpack on my back, my two day backs on my front, two large hold alls in each arm and a bag the weight of small elephant on my shoulders. I looked quite a sight as I struggled slowly along the dirt road, where hopefully another bus would meet us at the border to take us on to our destination; Uyuni.

Karma was on our side, and as reward for helping with the bags, a bus was waiting when we finally made it across. The Bolivian immigration office is set in an old train cemetery. Uyuni, founded in 1890 as a Trading Post, is an important transport hub, being the location of a major railway junction. Four lines join here, respectively from La Paz (via Oruro), Calama (in Chile), Potosí, and Villazón (on the Argentinean border, where the line now ends). I’m no train enthusiast, but it was really interesting, and slightly eerie to see the large rusted steam locomotives in their final resting place, their only purpose now to serve as a place to hang some clothes to dry in the hot desert sun.

We got stamped into Bolvia with no problems, and sat and waited for the rest of the passengers to turn up, watching with slight concern as our bus driver knocked back a few beers with some of the ladies, dressed in traditional costume. There was also a lady selling a lovely chicken stew and potatoes, a bizarre sight considering we were reasonably far from any town, but business was good and not before long she had sold out. We sat in the sun and ate our first Bolivian meal, before boarding the bus and heading on the final leg into Uyuni.

Arriving in Uyuni we set about finding a cheap hostel quickly, so we could head out and start researching companies to book a tour to the nearby main attraction, the Famous Salar De Uyuni. We decided on Hostel Avenida, and signed in and dropped our bags off, before heading out into the town. Rounding the corner we bumped into Susan, who we had first met in Bariloche, and then again in Mendoza. She had just come off her salt tour, and couldn´t recommend enough that we start the tour from Tupiza (around 5 hours from Uyuni). If you start here you see the Salt Flats as the Finale on the last day, rather than first thing on the tour, which is the case if you go from Uyuni. This sounded far better, so we started looking for companies that ran from Tupiza. As luck would have it, we rounded the next corner to see a large Tupiza Tours 4×4, who were in Uyuni to drop some people off, before heading back to Tupiza to start a new tour the next day. Furthermore, they offered us a free lift if we went with them now, and could start the tour the next day. It seemed too good to be true!

We headed back to our hostel to inform them that we would not be needing the room after all, and explained the situation and that we had to leave immediately. However we were told, in rather plain words, that we had to pay for the entire night (despite it being 4 in the afternoon) as we had signed the visitor book. I proceeded to argue with the large women behind the counter, in my broken Spanish. I did understand though when she started mentioning “amigos” and “policia” and “Salir Bolivia” (leave Bolivia). Having only just arrived in the country, we were in no rush to leave just yet. We had also read a number of alarming stories about corruption in the Bolivian police force! I decided not to call her bluff, and managed to get away with only paying half the night. However, if you read this and are going to Uyuni.. DON’T stay at Hostel Avenida!

Rushing back to the 4×4, the driver informed that there was no rush, and we were to have some food as he had to sort a few things before we headed off. We finally headed off as the sun began to set, casting long shadows over the arid land that stretched for miles either side of the road. When the sun had finally set, and darkness had set upon us, the temperature suddenly dropped. Driving along in the back of the 4×4, we found ourselves thankful for the blankets that they kindly provided for us. We snuggled up on the back seat, and started to doze. We hoped to arrive in Tupiza just before midnight.

We were just drifting off when there was a loud groan, that appeared to come from the car, and we grinded to a halt. It was pitch black outside, but we could still make out the steam pouring from under the bonnet, thanks to the interior light! This is when things started to get bad!

The driver stepped out to see if he could see what was the matter… the only problem being is that he had no torch at all. Luckily I had packed mine in my day bag and he used that to examine under the bonnet. It was clear to nearly anybody who owns a car that the engine had seriously overheated! Steam was wafting out in great gusts into the cold desert air. All we needed to do was wait for it to cool, then hopefully we could top it up with water and make it on to Tupiza. That is, if there wasn’t already serious damage to the engine… However… we had no water either! This was supposed to be a company that specializes in 4×4 tours of the large expanse that comprises of the Salar De Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andian Eduardo Avaroa: over 16000 Square kilometers of wild landscape, ranging between 4000m and 6000m in altitude.

In the end, Claire and I had to head out with our water bottles, along with another girl in the car and siphon water from a nearby river. It was dirty, freezing cold and tenuous work. We had to make around 10 round trips to get enough water for the engine. This only got us as far as the next town, where the engine overheated again, and this time we were forced to knock on doors in the middle of the night and ask to use the locals taps. We arrived on the outskirts of Tupiza around 5:30am, and as we were pulling up into town we heard a large bang: one of the tyres had burst! We checked into the first hotel and promptly fell asleep.

When we finally awoke, we decided, unsurprisingly, to book our tour with another company. We decided on La Torres, who had been recommended to us by Susan. We were to leave early the next day, and set about getting stuff ready. Claire had just popped out to get supplies, when there was a knock at bedroom door. I opened it to find the driver from the previous night. He started by apologizing, but then went on to say that he had seen us book our tour with another company, and therefore he had talked to his boss, and demanded that we pay for the previous nights journey. They asked for the equivalent amount as to had we decided to get a taxi from Uyuni. I explained our decision to go with the other company, and reasoned that we had helped them the previous night and had played a pretty crucial role in getting us to Tupiza! He wasn’t having any of it, and said we should speak to his boss.

When Claire came back, I explained what had happened. She said that she had been accosted by the boss herself in the hotel foyer. We immediately went to see her together to sort this problem out for good. She was a sour faced, made up, middle aged lady, who pretended not to see us when we walked into the office. We started off calm, explaining about the multiple problems that befell us the night before, and how we were concerned about our safety. She said this was ridiculous, and demanded we paid. She said we were the “most disgusting tourists she had come across in 35 years in the tourist trade” This went on for a while, until for the second time in the same amount of days, we found ourselves threatened with the police. This time we didn’t give in, and when a group came in to enquire about tours, Claire told them to leave as the company clearly had no concern for safety or its reputation. We played her at her own game! We placed a token amount of money on the counter, less that a bus fare, and walked out, explaining that we would make sure that we wrote a thorough review of Tupiza Tours, and would tell everyone we met along the way how badly they had treated us. The word of mouth is the most powerful thing amongst travellers!

The next day we headed off on our 4 day tour with La Torres. We had a lovely group; there was our driver Raul and our cook Augustine, and two Irish girls, Katy and Annette! For the first part of the journey we were driving through the Reserva de Fauna, a vast wildlife reserve, which encompasses some of the most startling scenery in Bolivia. We had lunch outside a small mining community that still mined for silver and minerals. We were treated to our first taste of Llama, which is rather pleasant; slightly tough and salty but good with maize and veg! We were to spend the first night in a small town, around 4500m up. After making sure we couldn’t help Augustine with any dinner preparations, we headed out to see what the town had to offer! On the way we heard some other travellers, who had just turned up, bemoaning the fact that they were in a ´dead end town in the middle of nowhere.´ I don’t what they expected, but the town in my eyes was perfect for those very reasons.

Just down the road we came across the local sports pitch, where there was also a basketball court. After sourcing out a ball, we began a small game of 4 on 4 with some other travellers we met there. It was knackering playing at such a high altitude, something we had failed to realize until 5 minutes into the game. Unfortunately a rather lively game of football had also started with the local kids versus… not wanting to let down my country, or myself, I threw myself into it. Ignoring the rather worrying looks from the bench as I got paler and paler, I was determined I was not going to be beaten by some kids! I was though… absolutely thrashed! It was an extremely memorable moment though…sports have an amazing way of penetrating age, language and cultural barriers. Their laughter was contagious; all along side of the pitch, the younger girls and boys poked their heads through the fence to laugh at the gringo, as he had circles ran round him! It was absolutely fantastic! That night we played cards and drank rum, before heading out to stare at the night sky. There was zero light pollution, and the sky was ablaze with stars and planets!

The next morning we set off early towards the Sol de Manana Geyser. Waking up had been a struggle, as we had polished a fair amount of beers and rum the night before, made even worse at altitude. Even more confusing was the fact that Raul called us by the wrong names, whilst similar (I was called Max, something that had consequently stuck on every tour we have been on since…something in the way I say Matt… Claire became Clara, and Katy became Kacy. Meanwhile Annette was simply nodded at.), at 4am, when someone calls you by a different name, in Spanish, it can take a while for your brain to realize quite what’s going on!

The geyser itself is set at an altitude of 5000m, amid boiling pools and sulphur. It was quite a sight watching the mud bubble and spit, with great flumes spurting up in the sky. After the Geyers, we drove down to Laguna Polques, where there was a serious of hot springs. Here we sat and warmed up before tucking into yet more Llama for lunch! In the afternoon we headed onto Laguna Verde. Whilst striking, it was not nearly as impressive as the one we had seen in Chile. That night we stayed in a remote little place, far from any town. Yet again Augustine surpassed herself, with her ability to produce wonderful cuisine from nothing but the simplest ingredients and a gas stove!

The next day we headed off across the Pampa Siloli, a high altitude desert of volcanic ash and gravel scattered rock outcrops. The howling winds have sand blasted the rock into surreal shapes, notably the Arbol de Piedra. Literally meaning Stone Tree, it is a massive boulder eight metres high, that balances on a narrow stem. We stopped here for some photos and to look at a elusive Andean Fox that we luckily chanced upon. From here we headed to Ollague, Bolvia´s only active Volcano. As we got closer to Ollague, we could make out the thin plumes of smoke rising from just below its peak! Our first smoking volcano!

We constantly battled with Raul over what music was played on the stereo. He kept unplugging my ipod every time I closed my eyes for a second and insisted on playing his CDs. He had the worst choice in music ever, and played the same songs constantly on repeat! That was the only negative point about the whole tour! That night we stopped off at the best place so far, it was a hostel, made out of salt! The walls consisted of large white breeze blocks, they had salt on the floor, even the beds were made from salt! It was bizarre, but surprisingly warm and comfortable! Our beds looked straight out across the salt flats!

On the way here we also stopped off at another Laguna. This one was called Laguna Colorado, and its waters were blood red. Like with Laguna Verde, due to the mineral composite of the water, the water was a startling colour. This time the red hue gave it a morbid quality, the only life consisted off the large amount of pink flamingos as they gracefully walked along the waters edge. It was truly a sight to behold!

That night at the hostel we stayed up late playing cards and drinking yet more rum. The place was a meeting point for everyone on their salt flats tours, so there was a large number of us, anxiously waiting the next morning where we could finally head out onto the salt flat itself! The large amount of people also meant a large queue to use the electricity to charge camera batteries in preparation for the next day! The power itself was switched on for only 5 hours in the evening, so it was crucial to get in there and plug in your camera! In true Bolivian style, there must have been over 20 cameras, plugged into numerous adapters, into 2 sockets in the wall. The table was teeming with sparks! Luckily my battery charged!

The next day we were up before sunrise and headed down to the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island) Its entire surface is covered by giant cacti, some of which are over 10m tall, and thought to be over 100 years old! From here we watched as the sun rose over the salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni covers 9000 square kilometers of Altiplano, as is the largest salt lake in the world. It is not a lake in the conventional sense of the word; though below the surface it is largely saturated with water, something which we later found out when we drilled holes into it! Driving over the perfectly flat white expanse, you can see for miles and miles. It is like something from another world! It also makes for some great photo opportunities, as any visitor will tell you! It is worth planning in advance and preparing props! The sheer flatness and lack of detail allows you to play with the perspective and take some mind boggling photos! I have put some of mine on my photo section!

That afternoon we headed back to Uyuni, where we boarded a bus to Bolivia´s capital – La Paz.

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