Published: December 20th 2010December 10th 2010
It turned out that they weren't lying or overexagerrating when the tour agency had casually told us: 'There's no road for the last five hours of the journey'. That, we were soon to realise, was why our bus had wheels suitable for a juggernaut battling through a Russian winter. At around 2am we shifted from tarmac roads to dirt tracks, our new road formed with rocks easily the size of footballs. And unfortunately for the passengers, our driver insisted on tackling them front on- testing the suspension as regularly as possible. The bus was jumping around and bouncing everywhere, it was impossible to sleep or talk, and made for an extremely interesting toilet experience thats for sure.
This wasn't however the first disruption to our night's sleep. Earlier on when we had left La Paz (after the rudimentary stops to the out of city vendors for the usual snacks and TD and Hs) we hit some really bizarre weather conditions- and for the second time we had found ourselves amidst a torrential ice storm in South America. It sounded like the bus was going through a food blender and even all of the locals were rusting around and sticking their
necks out to see what was up. It was impossible to see out of the front of the bus- we were impressed with our driver who managed to keep us on the road. Eventually the ice subdued and we were driving through a beautiful snow storm, which was interrupted every so often by a purple blanket of lightning shocking the sky.
Anyway, after an eventful night with barely any sleep we arrived in Uyuni around 6.30am. A woman from another tour agency was hanging around, and asked us who we were looking for. We told her our tour agency was Turnupa Tours, and she made a quick call to her mate to inform her that we had arrived. Who knows what we would have done otherwise. Five minutes later our ride arrived, on foot. We were not that impressed to have to walk to the tour office with our bags but beggars can't be choosers and all that. Anyway, we were just excited to reach the oficina where the promise of a shower and something to eat awaited. Ha yeh right, we would have got more blood out of a stone. Apparently there was no toilet in the office.
Now we're not that stupid; we knew this was a lie. So we'd deduced that the lady in Turnupa Tours was in on a quick buck with her mate who runs the banos publicos. Well that was ok, so long as we could get a wash before our trip.
She pointed us in the direction of two different banos publicos, both of which which were shut. Something was starting to smell funny in this town and we didn't like it. Luke was busting for a wee, so we decided to head to a hostel which we thought may be a little understanding if we flashed the cash. Oh how wrong could we be. We were faced with a fat ruddy faced man who looked like we'd jusy woken him from his own funeral. Despite our kindly offer, he spat at us: 'This is youth hostel; NOT banos publico'. Ok so that was a dead end- we headed back to the office of Turnupa Tours more than a little pissed off that the woman was being a skank with her toilet, and had sent us on a wild goose chase. Considering they were making a lot of money from us
in Bolivian terms, they were beling less than accomodating. With sunken hearts we returned in the knowledge that our trip might sadly be going from bad to worse, and it hadn't yet begun.
'Fortunately' the woman in Turnupa Tours had a friend in the hotel across the road who would let us shower there for 10 bolivianos each- together nearly half the price of a room for the night. Fair deal huh? Luke was on the brink of wetting himself, and he didn't have that many spare pants so we had no other option as there seemed to be no other bathroom available. We did not like the fact that we were at the mercy of their small town cartels. We were given a hotel room to go and shower which we made full use of and was actually quite good as it had hot water (a real big deal in Bolivia!) Everywhere advertises having it, but then there doesn't ever seem to be any. This seemed to be the same in Peru, with the only hot shower we had being that one sacred night in Lima. Sometimes the showers in Mancora actually had no water in them at
Showered and fresh, we headed to another tourist trap restaurant for breakfast. Before continuing, perhaps we should explain that Uyuni used to be (and still is for the most part) a very small town in the south of Bolivia. It doesn't even have an ATM. So when the salt flats became a must-see on every travelers' itinerary, the town hit pot luck, being the major gateway to Salar de Uyuni. The town is now choca with tourist agencies and shops and restaurants and hotels to serve/fleece the travellers. So in the restaurant we ordered breakfast which was more expensive than we had been paying back in the capital. The waitress seemed to not notice we were there and served two tables who came in after us. A gruff 'disculpe' sorted that out but she wasn't impressed and we think this was reflected in our portion sizes. Another disculpe later and Katie had another slice of cheese for her gypsy breakfast.
We returned to our tour office where the rest of the tourist group had still yet to arrive. We were in for a long wait -we were eventually ready to leave around 11. There were about 30
people piled into the tour agency before we left. We were told that we would be travelling in groups of 6, and that we would be sharing every living breathing moment with them until the end of the trip. It was a good job we were with really cool people including another fellow Brit Victoria, who had been living in the Amazonas for the past year and a half implementing HIV awareness, a Polish couple Tomazs and Ana who were both surgeons and told us many terrifying stories, and a Brazilian called Manasses.
We piled our belongings onto the roof of our our 4X4 (some more than others, but we'll get to that) then headed off to our first stop, the train graveyard. Our guide was a little less than informative as he only spoke in Spanish, and provided perhaps a sentence of information for each travel destination. But then we should just have been glad that our provided information sheet assured us that we would 'not be stolen' during our trip. We never did find out the name of our guide throughout the full three days, which became a bit embarrassing, especially when our group was approached and
asked who we belonged to. We just looked at each other with confused faces.
Anyway, we arrived to the train graveyard and were a little surprised to see there were about 40 other 4x4s parked up there, and aproximately 200 tourists. It seemed that everyone takes the same route for the trips. We were able to see the remains of the trains that used to transport minerals between Chile and Bolivia in the olden days. It was quite creepy seeing all the old frames of the trains that had been de-railed. Some were in really good condition, and it was great fun to be able to climb and look inside, and lie on the train tracks.
The next destination of our trip according to the information sheet was the salt museum where apparently we would have a chance to purchase salt handicrafts. That sounded fun- almost like the floating islands with the forced purchasing. Anyway we arrived and it was a little less intense than that. There was a museum boasting to hold the biggest llama you'd ever see. Can't really say it was a llama- it looked more like a cross between a chac mool and a
shpinx. Either way, we sat on it's back to take the obligatory photos, then mooched around the craft stalls. We decided we definitely didn't want a salt crafted sounvenir- imagine trying to get that through customs- but did each buy a Snickers for about 80p per bar. Our Polish friend who we were soon to discover was somewhat of an impulse buyer, and nearing the end of his trip, had a million souvenirs which became the victims of our humour over the next few days. At this little market he could not resist purchasing a questionable alpaca hat with a tail- we thought it was dog. He bought a variety of other trinkets including nativity scenes inside plaster of paris fruit shaped things, and another tassled hat. He told us that he had bought over 20 hats so far on their trip. We had a great laugh as they had been carting round with them two giant sized paintings in frames that they had bought on the first day of travelling. Amidst this conversation our Brazilian friend Manasses chimes in that he has in fact purchased THREE separate chess boards. He opens his travellers' alpaca knapsack to reveal he is
telling the solid truth, and also has other paraphenalia such as a set of windpipes in a special windpipe bag, a variety of hats, and some other nativity stuff. Honestly, before this enlightening trip we had wondered who bought this kind of junk. It was hilarious the Polish couple had bought 30 finger puppets- each, they had a table cloth, six alpaca jumpers, alpaca scarves, a jigsaw that had broke, wooden little things and wrapped parcels that they couldn't even remember what was inside. Our purchases amounted to a cap for Luke and some South American flag sew-on badges. We were not entertaining. Nor were we the butt of our own jokes.
After the museum we entered Salar de Uyuni- the salt flats. Basically if you have seen Top Gear then you will know what the salt flats are- a vast flat landscape where the ground is made from salt. How they were formed or why they are there we cannot tell you- courtesy of our guide. However, the landscale is beautiful and really once in a lifetime stuff. We were not at the flats long enough to get bored. We spent most of the time there trying to
produce the coolest possible photos which became increasingly agitating in the hot sun. We managed to get a few clever ones including some good group shots which we were pleased with. Some of the groups were going way over the top with props however- we even heard the rumour of a hairdrier being whipped out of one van (..to look as if they were being blown away by it).
At aroung midday we parked up at one of many islands on the salt flats, which is home to humongous cacti. Here our guide prepared for us a lunch which included a portion of questionable meat, quinoa (a strange salty rice similar to couscous) and a bit of salad. It took Katie back to her last trip to the desert. It was no surprise at all that the guide had not been informed that there was a vegetarian on our trip- and when he did find out he just pointed at the salad. Talk about accomodating. We saw he had a variety of other foods in his boot as well.
After the flats we drove to our hotel for the night which was made from salt, and situated at the
edge of the salt flats past the parts where the salts turn to brown sludge and in the back of beyond. The buidling itself was not as impressive as it sounds because salt actually forms quite hard blocks which can be used to build. They were used to form the tables, chairs and beds, which unsurprisingly were not that comfortable. Electricity at our hotel was provided in the form of a generator strictly between the hours of 7-10pm. So after that if you wanted a wee it was a nice walk to the bathroom with a torch. It was a bit difficult to sleep as the roof was nothing more than a corrugated plasic sheet tacked on. The winds in these parts are mighty strong- they must have to replace that roof once a month. The evening was fun though as we played UNO strictly with our group of 6- even though other groups were staying at the hotel oddly no one seemed to mix outside of theor car groups. We had roast chicken and veg for dinner, and were glad of the alcohol we had brought along. The six of us shared a dorm with floor made of a
delectable sandy stone material- in the UK possibly would be used to litter a driveway.
The following morning we were up bright and early for our showers at 10 bolivianos each again. We were getting used to this- add-ons everywhere you go. We had breakfast read bread and jam, then were on our way to the first of many lagoons.
We arrived at a little viewing point where we could see a mountain/volcano which separates Bolivia from Chile. We took a few pictures then were really on the way to the lagoons. We arrived at the firsdt lagoon about 4 hours later ready for lunch. We were able to see three different types of flamingoes co-habiting at the base of the mountains and it was really really beautiful. We hopped back in the car and rounded the other side of a mountain where our guide set us up a lunch on the side of another lagoon. Lunch was a lot better than the previous day and consisted of chicken milanesa which is deep fried chicken with breadcrumbs, plain pasta, and some potatoes with veg. After dinner Victoria and Kate went to find a toilet. They found one for 5Bs
each- about 50p. Victoria had had enough of being ripped off by these toilet urchins so asked Kate to keep look out while she peed round the back of the toilet block. The toilet woman had caught onto what was going on, and followed them round the back yelling that they had no manners (in Spanish).
After lunch we visited the famed red lagoon, where there were more flamingoes. The lagoon is in a national park which separates Bolivia from the Atacama desert in Chile- so we had to pay a large sum to get in. We visited a rock which had become shaped like a tree due to the wind. We got out of the car to see it and the wind was blowing stones around and it was really painful on the legs. After five minutes and a quick snap we all raced back to the car because the wind was so painful.
That evening we arrived at another hotel in the middle of nowhere, possibly San Juan, but we weren't provided with any information from our guide. It was worse than the previous night as the place didn't even have a shower. We sat around
palying UNO with drinks, and waited for our dinner. It was unfortunately a big disappointment- it was a very small casserole dish containing chopped up frankfurters in a red greasy sauce with a few chips dotted in. It was tiny and was meant to feed the 5 of us non-veggies after a long day. We were not impressed and Katie asked our guide for more food but he ignored her. We hungrily eyed the unfinished dinner on the tables next to us. We seemed to be the only group who hadn't had lasagne. We went to bed around 9pm absolutely shattered and in the knowledge that we would have to get up at 3.45am.
We woke to the blaring sounds of Black Eyed Peas on Tomasz's phone. It was freezing cold like serious minus figures, and we were staying in a tin shed hostel. We quickly washed in the sinks (no showers) and dressed ready for the hot springs. It was completely pitch black outside- we were in a desert type location. We all piled into the car and set off into the dark. The sun started to rise and it was really pretty over the mountains. We pulled
up to see some geisers which are naturally formed bubbling muddy lava pools in the ground. We had some fun cutting our hands across the steam that they were piping out, some of the guys were jumping over them acting like big men! The best part was when we went to see the biggest geiser one girl really wanted a photo of herself jumping over the bubbling lava. She was getting really agitated at her friend who couldn't seem to take the picture at the right moment. The girl was getting really narked and kept jumping in the air and at one point she nearly stumbled in. Luke found this hilarious.
It was completely freezing at the geisers. We were glad to get back into the car and be heading to the hot springs. The plan was to have a bathe in the hot pools before a breakfast of pancakes in a little cafe after. We pulled up and it was freezing. Lots of people were apprehensive to get in the water as it was so cold outside, but all of our group went in. We were really pleased that we did as it was a completely amazing experience.
There were flamingoes wandering around us while we were lounging in the steam baths watching the sun rise. We got so hot that the cool air was actually a welcome when we got out ready for breakfast.
Breakfast was cold pancakes with a selection of teas and coffee, and a little cereal with pourable youghurt. It was ok but not great. It was annoying that the guide had been carting a box of cereal around with him all trip, and had not once offered it us before. Later on when we returned to La Paz we met a guy who had taken a tour with the same company. He told us that on the way back from the trip the guide had stopped off at his house and dropped all of the remaining food into hs family. He said there was bacon and eggs and all sorts, yet throughout none of the trip had they been offered any of this food. We suspect this is what all the guides do, and we were not haappy about it. The only foods we were able to purchase on the trip were pringles, crackers, and oreos. These became our boring but necessary
life source. Anyway, after breakfast we continued all the way south to the Chilean border. What we didn't know about this trip was that everyone seemed to be going south to Chile. It seemed to be a trip build solely for that purpose- it was an onwards travel trip, and that the people looping back to Uyuni were just mugs. We sat in the car to drop the other four guys off to the border, then had to drive all the way back to Uyuni. This took around 8 hours in total, and we were a little annoyed we hadn't been told this was the case when we booked the trip. Saying that though, we were extremely glad that we had gone on the tour as we met some great people, and some of the sights we saw were breathtaking. Who said there are only seven wonders in the world?
We arrived back in Uyuni just before 5pm, and decided to treat ourselves to a pizza before catching our 7pm bus on to Potosi. The pizza was overpriced at £9.50 but we were desperate for a good food fix, and it did not disappoint. We headed to the bus
station where Katie was unnerved to learn our bus did not have a toilet, and was going to take over 6 hours.
There are more photos below