Published: March 3rd 2011March 2nd 2011
Here´s a quick blog entry to update on our eventful first couple of weeks in Bolivia. Its a harrowing tale of frustration, misery, illness, coldness and pain, sprinkled with a wee bit of happiness. Here goes...
JOURNEY TO UYUNI
We set off from Salta in high spirits, well prepared for the long journey to Uyuni in Bolivia. We had Mike in tow, a good guy we met in Salta and we took the 5.30am bus, destined for the border town of La Quiaca, the most northerly town in Argentina. All was plain sailing until about 20km away from La Quiaca when the bus came to a halt in a tiny village. Fine, we thought, it´s just a quick stop to let people off or let the driver have a cigarette. 20 minutes later we started to wonder if it might be a delay of a more serious nature so we got off the bus. The queue of traffic stretched in both directions for as far as the eye could see and a quick walk up the road showed us that the reason was a road blockade being held by protesters over something to do with education. Nobody could tell
us what was going on so we waited it out for about three hours, hoping that the riot police might step in at some point with their friendly tasers and batons. Finally our driver was kind enough to tell us that actually all we needed to do was grab our bags and walk past the protesters to the other side and there would be another bus waiting to take us to the border. So, slightly disgruntled that he hadn´t bothered to tell us sooner, we set off past the grim picket line, only a little worried that we might be linched by the mob, just in time to see the replacement bus set off without us. Never fear, there was a friendly opportunistic taxi driver hanging about so we had no choice but to hop in.
After all this we could only wonder what the actual border crossing might entail but it turned out to be easy, with the authorities nice and relaxed about letting us through.
We were supposed to catch a train to Uyuni once we got into Bolivia but the blockade had put paid to that plan, so we headed to the bus station on
the off chance that there might be an alternative route by road. As it turned out there were plenty of buses, so much so that we were practically mugged by the ticket sellers and swiftly bundled onto a bus bound for Uynui. At first it was quite nice, a quaint old bus bouncing along on the dirt roads, and us relieved to be back on track with our journey. At one point the bus stopped because a rope had been stretched across the road, blocking its path. Immediately five women piled onto the bus and started barking at the passengers to buy their nasty cold hamburgers and stale crisps. We had effectively been hijacked by vendors- pretty funny. As the hours wore on and darkness fell, things became less enjoyable. The rain came on and the temperature dropped, meaning that we soon became extremely cold and wet since the bus had no heating and leaky windows. We had had nothing to eat apart from some popcorn and a cold nasty hamburger courtesy of the lady hijackers for Donny and were informed by one of the bus staff that we would be arriving in Uyuni at 1.00am as opposed to 10pm
as previously told. By the time we finally did arrive at our destination we were understandably miserable and Sandy, who had been becoming increasingly unwell on the bus, was promptly sick. First impressions of Uyuni were not good since it was freezing cold, hammering with rain, and the streets were absolutely covered in litter. It was strangely reminiscent of the aftermath of a big music festival, without the fun.
At least we had booked accomodation and we headed straight for the hostel, only to find the doors firmly locked. Polite knocking turned into heavy hammering and it was only after Mike nearly broke his hand on the door that the woman opened up, looking angry and pointing to the miniscule bell which was completely invisible in the darkness. Reluctantly, she let us in and our ordeal was finally over.
SALAR DE UYUNI
Uyuni is the main starting point for the salt flats tour which gets rave reviews by all travellers to these parts so we were keen to take the tour and find out what all the fuss was about. There are about 80 different tour operators of varying levels of quality so we decided to go
with the Lonely Planet recommended option, Estrella del Sur, in the hope of getting a decent experience. Well Lonely Planet, once again you have excelled yourself in your mission to provide the worst possible information to your readers. Our guide was a surly non- English speaker by the name of Gilbert who picked us up an hour late and proceeded to trawl round the town picking up others from other agencies until his 4x4 was full: it turns out that it doesn´t matter which agency you go with or how much you pay, the drivers seem to be independent from the bookers. Anyway our group seemed to be pretty cool, consisting of us, our mate Mike, a couple from Brazil and a Peruvian guy, and eventually we were on our way.
We headed straight for the highlight of the tour, the Salar de Uyuni, an incredible piece of nothingness. It is the remains of a prehistoric salt lake which once covered a huge part of southern Bolivia and it is now a perfectly flat, white expanse stretching to the horizon. The occasional mountain in the distance is perfectly reflected by the thin layer of warm water which covers the
flats at this time of year. The photos hopefully give an impression of how weird the place is and we had fun with the camera doing different tricks with perspective with nothing much in the background.
The rest of our first day consisted entirely of driving in the 4x4 over the rough terrain. It was fun at first but was pretty boring and uncomfortable after several hours. This large amount of driving was to be a big part of the whole tour which we hadn´t really prepared ourselves for. We spent the night in a frankly terrible "hostel" with one bathroom between about 30 people and incredibly uncomfortable beds. Food was also disappointing with our driver rustling up a dodgy frankfurter and rice combo.
If all of this sounds like unnecessary moaning, it is only to set the scene for the horrors of days two and three. We woke up having had a terrible night´s sleep feeling decidedly dodgy. And once we set off it became apparent that things were going to get worse, not better. A few hours in, Donny had to get Gilbert to stop the car so that he could be violently sick by the
side of the road. The altitude had taken its toll, or perhaps it was the dreadful food, but whatever the reason, Donny spent the rest of the day puking, and other stuff. It was so bad that when we visited the thermal pools and geysers, two things which would normally have Donny sprinting to look at them/jump into them, he stayed in the car. Sandy didn´t fare much better: even though she wasn´t actually puking (that would come later) she had the migrane from hell and couldn´t even open her eyes to look at the sights.
By day three, although Donny was feeling better, Sandy was starting to get sick and we both, frankly wanted it to be over. The sights on the tour are pretty spectacular, as hopefully the pictures show, but they are all too fleeting given the didtances between them. We both agree that we wouldn´t have taken the three day tour in hindsight, but instead would just go for the day to the Salar.
After the trauma of the tour we took a day or two before heading to the next stop, Sucre, but the bus journey was still difficult as Sandy
wasn´t over the illness yet. Still, we made it and were pleasantly surprised by our new location. We had expected most towns in Bolivia to be like Uyuni, rough, dirty and largely unpleasant, but Sucre is completely different. It is clean, the buildings are beautiful and very well kept, the people are very friendly and the place feels sophisticated and modern, while still retaining a traditional feel. We could tell that this was a place we could stay for a while and so we signed up for our second week of Spanish language school at the Escuela Boliviana Español. It was a really good school with great staff and we both feel that our Spanish has progressed well. We spent the rest of the time studying and exploring the town which has lots of great places to eat and drink, and lots of sights to see. We don´t have any tall tales to tell about Sucre since we were just trying to combine working hard at the language with chilling out but it was definitely one of our favourite towns of the trip so far.
We are now in Cochabamba, another surprisingly nice city, and we have been up
to see our second giant statue of Jesus, as well as going to the cinema and bowling (no apologies for being gringos and doing gringo things). We´re about to head off to volunteer for a month at Parque Machia, an animal sanctuary where Sandy hopes to be a "monkey mummy", and Donny hopes to avoid being killed by pumas.....
Pics to follow soon...currently having problems upoading.
There are more photos below