Published: July 17th 2010June 6th 2010
Train graveyard at Avaroa
After leaving the Salar, we drove parallel to the train tracks until we reached Uyuni...and what a shock to the system after the beauty of the Altiplano. Uyuni was once Bolivia’s gateway to the outside world and an industrial, modern town. Now however, it’s dirty, depressing and shabby and it’s only due to its proximity to the Salar that it hasn’t turned into a ghost town. We said our goodbyes to the girls and Alberto and Lucy and made sure to give them a nice, fat tip for having looked after us so well. The three of us then got dropped off by the train station in Uyuni so we could try and figure out the mystery of the Bolivia - Chile train. We’d heard about a 23-hour train journey that takes you across the border and thought it sounded like a welcome respite from all the buses we’d taken. Unfortunately, as it was a Sunday, the ticket office was closed and there didn’t appear to be anywhere else to find out information. So we gave up on that idea and reluctantly went in search of the bus terminal...which is basically just a crossroads in the middle of the town. We
eventually found one company that crosses the border and discovered that the only bus leaves at 3.30am. Another brutal wake up for us then!
We took our stuff to the Hotel Avenida that Alberto had recommended, and then headed off to check out the town, use the Internet and have a few beers. Then another cold shower before dinner at Arco Iris and pizza and beer all round. It was then back to bed to repack again, ready for a rude awakening. At 2.30am, Eoghan came and knocked on our door to say farewell as he went off in the hope of finding a train to Tupiza. We dragged ourselves out of comfy beds and warmth, quickly brushed our teeth and tramped out into the cold streets of Uyuni. We got to the bus terminal/crossroad and it was like we’d walked into the middle of the day. There were so many people waiting for buses - why they don’t put buses on at normal times I don't know???? We were surrounded by smelly, old, coca-chewing grannies again with no respect for anyone around them and so we just went straight back to sleep again until about 8am, when we
arrived at Avaroa, the border town and where we would cross over into Chile. Another bleak and desolate place where you wouldn’t want to grow up, full of stray dogs and a train graveyard. At this point all the grannies got off the bus and set up food stalls which everyone thronged around, fighting for a hearty breakfast to keep them warm in the bitter cold. This must be a daily thing, these crazy ladies travelling for 5 hours, carrying their food, ready to serve up massive dishes of food to help stave off the cold. And we were there for quite a while as border control didn’t even open until 9am so why we had to set off so early, who knows? Just another great bit of South American logic I guess!
We waited around in the cold and got chatting to a French girl and a Chilean guy who were heading for San Pedro, before we finally got our passports stamped. But the Bolivian side was only the beginning as we now had to tackle the Chilean side. The process for crossing the border is the strangest one I’ve experienced so far - the bus drives you
half way across No Man’s Land, and then dumps everyone and all their luggage midway, where you then wait for a bus from the Chilean side to come get you. There are a few monuments stating where you are and which way Chile and Bolivia lies, as well as a random football pitch slap bang in the middle, for some guard games we guessed. The most amusing part of it for us was that the Chilean side’s goal is completely intact and pretty new looking, while the Bolivian side’s is in absolute tatters - a symbol of the country’s differing attitudes to life, as well as being representative of their economic states perhaps? A bus finally came to pick us up, we got in our seats and headed for the Chilean border control, got stamped again and then had to get our bags off to be checked (for what I don’t know as there were sniffer dogs snuffling around). There were a couple of poor Colombians not allowed through border control and I have no idea what happened to them...There were also some little kids causing havoc whilst we waited in another queue for the guards to check our bags
Our bus from the Bolivian side
again more thoroughly. It was my first experience of Chilean Spanish and the difference was already apparent as they used a word for shoes I’d never heard of. Then back on the bus which for some unknown reason ended up driving around and around in circles for about 20 minutes before finally deciding it was time to go. Result? A 4-hour debacle just to cross the border.
More desert and rock greeted us on the drive down to Calama and it was bloody boiling with the sun bursting through the window and Lisa still with about 5 layers of clothing on and so not a very happy bunny. 12 hours later we made it to Calama, where we said farewell to Frenchie and Chilean and scoped out information for onward buses before deciding on the best course of action. Having got some advice from the Chilean guy, we decided on a 16-hour jaunt to La Serena - why not eh? What’s another 16 hours on top of the 12 we’d already done?? With time to waste until the bus left, we wandered up the road, where we found a yummy chicken shop, with possibly the best chicken and chips
we’d ever had. There was the ubiquitous protest going on across the street, something to do with jobs, but friendly peeps everywhere and we took a bit of a liking to what little we saw of Calama, even though it had been described as nothing more than a transport hub. More time wasting using the Internet back at the terminal and then back on a bus, which thankfully was a semi-cama, where the seats recline, you get a foot rest, snacks and movies. It was soooooooooooo much comfier and cleaner than the Bolivian buses, as there was also a toilet and no smelly people either being rude, loud or unsociable (or all 3), so we settled down to watch a film and slept soundly for 10 hours, until we were woken by the police and sniffer dogs checking everything out on the bus. But apart from that the best night’s sleep in a while. We must either have been completely shattered or just comfy and warm for the first time in a while.
There are more photos below