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Published: December 24th 2011
Why more people don’t go to Bolivia, I don’t know. I didn’t expect much from Bolivia but it was amazing! Besides being one of the cheapest countries in South America, the views and salt flats are breathtaking. Speaking of breathtaking, hello altitude sickness.
From Salta, Argentina I caught a bus to the border city of La Quiaca. It took ages to get through passport control into the Bolivia side, a city called Villazon. There were about ten other backpackers that crossed around the same time and we all had to race to get to the train station since there are only two trains a week that leave from there and one was in two hours and nobody knew how many seats would be left. Nicci is fast on her feet and we were the second ones there and booked our seats on a three hour train to Tupiza. We slowly started our journey into the Andes Mountains and our fight with altitude sickness. The Andes is the world’s longest continental mountain range which covers seven South American countries.
About 20 steps into Tupiza with my backpack on I noticed how out of breath I was.
Tupiza sits at an altitude of 3,160m (10,367 feet) and is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were gunned down by the Bolivian army. Checked into Hostel Los Salares and had to lay down cause a sudden headache hit. Eventually Nicci and I walked around to find something to eat and lucky for me we found a Mexican place and I had tacos (I have been on a taco frenzy as of late). The next morning I booked a four day Uyuni Salt Flats tour from a nearby hostel that leaves the next day. Suddenly, a huge thunderstorm came in quickly and we had an amazing lighting show with the surrounding mountains providing a perfect backdrop.
SALT FLATS TOUR
At 8am our jeep was outside our hostel and we were off. Our tour was with two other backpackers, Matthew from Germany and Kendra from Australia. Our guides, one driver and one cook, didn’t speak a word of English but lucky for us, Kendra spoke very good spanish. Since only 5% of the roads in Bolivia are paved, it would be a bumpy four days, even in a 4x4. Our first quick photo stop
was on top of some mountain to take pictures of a deep valley with many different color stones. On we went, up and down these crazy dirt roads inches from the edge of cliffs that would take us to our final resting place if the driver even twitched. Our altitude varied between 4,200 - 5,400m (13,800 - 17,700 feet). The day was filled with a lot of driving and amazing views all along the way. We also saw several animals which would be common sights over the next few days. Lamas, burros (donkey) and flamingos. We got to were we were going to stay earlier and decided to just get some more driving out of the way so we could sleep in a little. We crossed into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avoroa (the national park) and stayed at a very basic hostel which had a nearby school party going all night against the wall of the hostel. Didn’t sleep.
Up and driving by 6am. We stopped at an alpaca farm to take some photos up close to them. Drove over many different landscapes and saw some salt water lagoons and lakes with many more
flamingos. I guess there are six species of flamingos in the world and three of them are in this park. We got our first look at a small salt flat and took some quick pics. At one of the lakes we stacked some stones for good luck and continued to drive through a desert now. Saw some gysers and an orange lake before heading to a hot springs pool with one of the best views I have seen. That night we stayed at some hostel in the middle of nowhere with an amazing views of the stars and a huge moon. We started drinking some and Kendra showed us a new card game which she calls “Alex.” Later we took some fun night photos with Matthews camera and my head torch.
Up early again and off through another desert, I think its called Siloli. We stopped at a famous spot called Arbot de Piedra, which is an unusual rock formation formed by wind in the middle of a desert. This turned out to be awesome since we were able to climb the different formations. I broke out my Where’s Waldo costume off course. Several more lakes and
we started the drive towards the main attraction, the Uyuni Salt Flats. On the way we saw an Andean fox which our guide got out to fed and said she was a friend of the fox. On the way to lunch we got a flat tire and then we kept driving till we got to the Salt Hotel, right on the southern edge of the salt flats. The Salt Hotel is made of, you guessed it, salt. Everything, the tables, chairs, ground, walls were all made of compressed salt.
We had to get up by 4am so we could be on the salt flats before sunrise. We were told the night before we might not be able to go on the salt flats cause it had been raining the previous days and water was still covering everything. The Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) is the world’s largest salt flat. It is also one of the flattest places on earth and has no drainage points, thus the rain water has nowhere to go and forms a giant lake that is only a few inches deep. Doesn’t sound to dangerous does it? Well since the salt contains high
levels of sodium, potassium and lithium, if any of the water splashes on the trucks battery, it will eat away at it and we would be trapped out there. Since its a giant white landscape as far as the eyes can see, people get lost and stuck out there and are stuck for days before someone spots them. Well, we are one of the luckiest people to visit cause if you are able to go on it after it rains, it becomes the worlds largest mirror. The water is perfectly still since its flat and the reflection of the sky, mountains and sunrise was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. As we drove at a slow enough speed so the water doesn’t splash up, we got to see the sunrise with a perfect reflection. No pictures can give justice to what it looked like. It was phenomenal and mind-blowing. Our entire time out there, we didn’t see any other tours that were able to make the trip, how lucky we were!
In the center of the salt flat is Incahuasi Island. A rocky island with many gigantic cacti all over as well as
a tourist center. We climbed up with some other group tours that we had met the night before and took many pictures of more extraordinary views. There was a somewhat dry patch of salt at the bottom so we took advantage and took all kinds of perspective pictures. This is one of the most common tourist things to do on the flats, and after coming up with about 100 we wanted to take, the layer of water and reflection caused our time on there to be cut short and our options of pics were limited. Can’t have it all. We continued our slow drive to some shop and salt museum and gradually the salt flats started to become dryer towards the edges so we got to see what it was supposed to look like. At the edge of the salt flats near Uyuni, we hit up a market were we ate with the three other groups and said our goodbyes. This was probably the best tour I have done on my trip and I wish everyone could get to Bolivia to see it.
It turns out most of the backpackers in the groups are heading to La
Paz so we decided to try and book our stuff together. We ended up booking an overnight bus to La Paz that left at 8pm for 90 Bolivianos. I wanted to book a train that would take us three quarters of the way, but I was out voted since the train didn’t leave till 2am. As we waited for the bus, we all got something to eat together at some restaurant in Uyuni and we taught the others how to play “Alex.” Despite being showed a picture of a nice luxury bus, our bus was far from that. And the bus ride from hell started.
***This story was only funny to me looking back at it. At the time I almost lost it since I had not slept or showered in nearly five days.***
The bus ride from hell. So as I already stated, the bus wasn’t what we were told it would be. We right away noticed that there was no bathroom on board and everyone is stuck just peeing by the side of the road (most roads are just open areas without bushes to even pee behind). Once we got on the
bus, all the seats were mis-numbered and wouldn’t you guess it I had seat 43 but the numbers only went up to 38. Nicci and I took the seats that were in the location we signed up for in the back near the 7 other backpackers from our tour. This started the domino effect even though at least five of us had seats over the number 38. More and more people kept getting on and getting confused but eventually it worked out. The bus ride was EXTREMELY bumpy since we were on rocky roads and being in the very back didn’t help. After about an hour of back pain and whiplash the bus broke down. This would become common as it broke down almost every hour. At one point it broke down for over two and a half hours on the very edge of a cliff. If that wasn’t bad enough, it then started to down pour and thunderstorm so we couldn’t even get off the bus and were afraid another car or bus would crash into us. I had to take a Valium if I wanted to get any sleep but I was so scared it took several hours
before I would even fall asleep. That didn’t last long. Suddenly I was woken up cause the panel and lights above Nicci came crashing down and nailed her on the head. She was alright but there was still a small piece up there that was holding all the wires and almost completely detached. So I was trying to hold it up but due to the constant bumps this was almost impossible. If you know anything about me you know I always have duct tape handy. It took a lot of it, but eventually it held it up long enough. The bus kept on breaking down throughout the night and when we were about 40 minutes outside of La Paz it broke down again. I went out for a smoke, thankful that I was still alive, when I noticed that all the Bolivian people started grabbing all their bags and flagging cars down. I went back on the bus to tell the others when I noticed the only ones that still remained were the seven of us tourists. Our bus was done for and wouldn’t be moving again. So we had to grab our bags and we hit the road to
hitchhike the rest of the way. After a few minutes, another passing bus stopped and were able to pick the seven of us up. When they opened the bottom to throw our bags in, suddenly a live sheep’s head pokes up as he was thrown underneath with the luggage. On the new bus some weird dude that seemed like he was one of those preachers that shouts “Your healed!” was yelling away but it turns out he just rides buses and sells stuff. We had to pay the new bus another 10 Bolivianos before we were able to get our bags. When we picked up our bags they were now covered in sheep crap. Lovely!
After finally getting into La Paz, we checked into Adventure Brew B&B with two German guys from the trip, Leo and Kai. I took a shower right away before we walked around for a bit to find something to eat. La Paz is the “Highest Capital in the World” at an altitude of roughly 3,650m or 11,975 feet. The city is on a steep hill so you are constantly walking up or down which is so tiring
at that altitude. The second we got back to the hostel we passed out for a little before eating at the hostel’s BBQ night and having some drinks.
Nicci and I met up with Leo and Kai again the next night at the bar again before going out to a smaller local bar the saw earlier in the day. Before heading out though Nicci thought she would volunteer to carry a keg up five flights of stairs in the high altitude for a free beer, which of course turned out to be me carrying it with Kai. Nicci is no longer allowed to volunteer for stuff again.
We hit up several of the markets that are scattered throughout the city. The coolest one was called the Witches Market and they had things like lama fetuses as well as the typical tourist hats and shirts there. We ended up buying some souvenirs and electronic stuff before finding another Mexican restaurant so I can get my taco fix. Another cool thing we did was the Coca Museo (Museum) and learned the history of the coca leaf, cocaine and America’s war on drugs. We found a post
office to send our last shipment of stuff home. Nicci’s went smoothly but of course with my luck it was a huge hassle and took over two hours. From there we went to San Pedro Prison which was made famous by a book called Marching Powder. Basically it’s a prison with no guards inside or formal rules. It is run by the inmates and you have to pay for everything. Cocaine is big in there and they make their money by selling it, not between themselves but to citizens and tourists. Thats right tourists. Family and tourists can walk in there at their own risk, but be warned, at least one inmate a week gets killed in there, so good luck. As we walked up to the outside, we took one picture before the security guards on the outside started yelling at us, Nicci was so scared. That night we saw the city when the Christmas lights were out. Nicci bought a small gift to donate to a charity box in our hostel, isn’t she sweet.
Instead of going into Peru like we planned, we booked a last minute flight to Medellin, Colombia. We will eventually get
to Peru but our flights home are from there so we will see it last. Wish me luck in Colombia!
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