The last week has been a whirlwind of spectacular landscapes, salt hotels, sh…crummy food, scrambles at borders, saltines, and sitting in vehicles.
About a week ago, we left La Paz for the Bolivian salt flats, expecting to show up in the morning in Uyuni, Bolivia, and pick up a tour with one of the companies we researched ahead of time. People say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but those people cannot have been Bolivian or they would have left out the “paved” part. Our trip started inauspiciously when we headed to the bus station only to find out that all the busses to Uyuni from La Paz were booked for the evening (there are only night busses available for this 10-12 hour trip) because of a big meeting for something called Dakkar. From some Europeans who were incredulous that we had never heard of it, we later learned that this is a bike/car/whatever race that apparently takes place annually, this year at least partially in Bolivia. We still don’t care.
Anyway, we booked a bus for the next night, killed a few litres of Cordillera beer at a fun English pub in La Paz, and readied ourselves for the trip the next day. It turns out we didn’t need to. After we boarded the bus at 9 p.m. we were told that we might be taking one route that would get us to Uyuni at 9 a.m. or earlier or we might have to take another route that would get us there around 11 a.m. and that we would make the decision at the half-way point depending on road conditions. The road conditions were dependent on how much rain there was that night because, as it happens, they weren’t roads at all, but just hard dirt and rock. We ended up splitting the difference and arriving around 10 a.m., which was a large problem for us because we were expecting to book a tour that morning, as many people had advised us to do in order to save money. Since we arrived late, everyone was full, and we had to spend a boring night in the crummy town that is Uyuni. We would post a photo here, but just imagining a tumbleweed rolling down a dusty alley between pizza joints and tour company storefronts is enough.
Game Day…with Another False Start
So, two days later than we hoped, we finally were heading out with a company that we had properly vetted ahead of time. Except that we weren’t. Our company, Quechua Connections, informed us an hour ahead of departure that because four Australians decided to go with another company that morning they had already dumped us on another company. For this they offered no apology, but did give us back 100 Bolivianos each because the other company was cheaper. As far as I know, this conversation marked the first two times I have been flat-out lied to in Spanish. (It is not, however, the only two times, as you will see below). We are pretty sure that “4 Australians” is to Bolivian tourism scapegoats what “2 armed black men” is to American crime scapegoats. We also found out that they lied about the price difference, but we ended up getting that money back after the trip after calling them out on that lie.
First Quarter: Fun Photos in the Salar de Uyuni
Can you tell that we miss American sports yet? Well, we do. Although our salt flat tour was only 3 days, the total journey was 4, and there really isn’t that much to write about the salt flat or our tour. We ended up in a group of orphans jettisoned from their tour company families and thrown together with our driver Javier. Here is our motley crew of people from France, Germany, New Zealand, Belgium, and the U.S:
Or first stop was at a train graveyard featuring graffiti-riddled rusting trains for us to play on! Only in Bolivia. Sadly, I immediately thought of the liability issues with this place before I thought of the great photo ops. You can take the lawyer out of the U.S., but you can’t take the U.S. out of the lawyer…or something like that. The photos are better than my jokes:
After the train graveyard, we headed to the Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia very close to its border with Chile. For those who don’t know, and we sure didn’t, this is the world’s largest salt flat (nearly 4100 sq. miles) sitting at about 12,000 feet above sea level, and containing an absurd percentage of the world’s lithium supplies (between 50-70%). The lithium is a big deal for Bolivia, as the world needs lithium for its batteries and Bolivia needs money in a big way (it’s the poorest country in South America). It is also incredibly flat, which allowed us to take some very fun pictures:
We spent basically the entire day on the Salar before heading to our Salt Hostel, which was allegedly made our of…you guessed it, salt! Definitely unique and actually much more comfortable than we expected. We won’t harp on it much, but the food was disgusting – even failing to reach our incredibly low standards. I (Mike) got food poisoning from one of the meals, although I can’t figure out which one. Anyway, photos of our salt hotel:
I still don’t know what is going on in that last photo.
Second Quarter: Driving to Pretty Things
They should really rename this tour the “Southwestern Bolivia Tour” instead of the “Salt Flats Tour” because only about 6 hours of the tour is actually on the salt flats. On Day Two we visited some landscapes that seemed more appropriate for Mars or the moon than Earth. In some ways, this was even more spectacular than the Salar, which was spectacular in its own right. Outside of getting in and out of the Jeep and taking photos, nothing much happened on Day 2.
Oh, and we saw flamingos!
As you can see, it was very cold in our hostel that second night. (Pictured: What Anna actually wore to sleep in a bed with 7 fleece blankets).
Third Quarter: Sitting in Moving Things
We started the last day of our tour at 4 a.m. to visit some geysers and a natural hot spring before dropping one of our fellow orphans off at the Chilean border and starting the 9-hour drive back to Uyuni.
As you can see from our not-at-all-sarcastic smiles, we were having the time of our lives. Once we got back to Uyuni, we had just enough time to take quick cold showers, stuff some food in our mouths, and board our 8 p.m. bus from Uyuni to Villazon, the border town between Bolivia and Argentina. Nothing much to report about today – sitting around for this long is incredibly boring.
Fourth Quarter: Bus and Border Follies
We arrived in Villazon very early at 4 a.m., which would normally be a good thing except we had nowhere to go until the bus stations and/or cafés opened. As we got off the bus, a couple of touts came over to pitch their bus service to Salta with a company that Anna had researched and found reputable. They also offered us a place to sit for a few hours, so we listened to their pitch and followed them to their office. We were joined by a honeymooning Australian-New Zealand couple and a Colombian man also heading to Salta. All of us would be taken for a ride. We were told that the bus would pick us up and take us to the border (lie), that the bus served breakfast (lie) and lunch (lie), that there was plenty of coffee on these bus (true, but it was pre-sweetened), and that the bus would pick us up across the border after we went through the checkpoint (lie).
We realized we were in trouble when we were told to head to the border on foot and that it would be only 3 blocks (lie). We all hoofed it to the border just in time to get into an hour-and-a-half line. We cleared the Bolivian checkpoint with no problems, but with only about 30 minutes until our bus left. With no bus in sight, we knew we would have to take a taxi to the bus station and none of us had any idea how long that would take, so we started to get increasingly nervous. At the Argentinian checkpoint, we hit a bit of a snag, as the Australian/New Zealand couple in front of us were asked for printed proof of their reservation in Salta. We had no such reservation and certainly didn’t have anything printed to show them (this is not a stated requirement for entry). But the other couple did. So when we got to the counter, we just told them we were staying at the same hostel, made a couple of lame jokes in Spanish that got them to smile, showed them proof that we had each paid the absurd $160 each just to enter the country (thanks, reciprocal American policy!), and they let us pass. Our new Colombian friend wasn’t so lucky, as an Argentinian border agent picked him out of nowhere after he cleared migration and demanded he, too, show printed proof of his reservation. He begged us to ask the bus to wait, but we were already running to a taxi as we had only 3 minutes until our bus left.
We begged our driver to drive as fast as possible, but still only made it to the station in time to see our bus pull out. Anna raced to stop the bus, but the driver just ignored her and raced away. We ran to the office and begged them to tell our driver to wait for us to catch up in a taxi, and much to our amazement they actually called and he actually waited! About 20 minutes later, our taxi caught up with the bus, we ran to board it, kicked out two Argentinian ladies our of our seats which they had stolen, plopped down and 8ish hours later arrived in Salta. We then proceeded to sleep for a long, long time.