An unusual trip around Uyuni

Published: May 16th 2014
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From San Juan, we hitchhiked to Uyuni –well, we thought we hitchhiked, until they asked us to pay when we arrived there-. The journey was however funny and I loved it! It was from San Juan, the small village, where we had spent the previous night and from there, I can tell you that they weren’t so many vehicles leaving… So, when we saw a vehicle leaving from there, we ran to it and even though there were full, we insisted so that we got a lift with them at the back of the vehicle. We were practically sitting on big bags of quinoa- the south of Bolivia is producing a lot of it- and there was a lot of soil powder entering the vehicle but I was very happy: I was getting a ride with local people and I would remember this journey for long. In front of me was a woman –called cholita here- with her traditional dress and hat. A guy from the car was also very interesting: he told us about the lack of water in the area and about the quinoa, how to prepare it correctly and his unending hope to get more water coming there.
Finally arrived at Isla del PescadoFinally arrived at Isla del PescadoFinally arrived at Isla del Pescado

Doing some tea to enjoy the place
Some encounter like that make you see how lucky you are to live in a place, where you don’t bother going to the next biggest city some hours away to get some water and some fuel! Speaking of fuel, arriving 10 km away from Uyuni, we stopped as we ran out of fuel… For some kms already, we could see that it would be very likely to happen and were just wishing it wouldn’t before arriving there. Well, it happened! The cholita thus went to pick up some fuel in Uyuni, getting a lift from another car and then came back. 30 minutes later, we were on our way again 😉 Arriving there, they asked us to pay the normal price and we negotiated to at least get a discount as we were sitting in the back, which we got 😉

For information, Uyuni is not a beautiful city and we just spent some time in the afternoon there to exchange some money and to buy food for the next days around Uyuni.

As you may have understood by now, following the touristy road and going on tours isn’t something, which I like doing. That’s why, I didn’t go to visit Salar de Uyuni with a tour and decided to try to hitchhike there.

So, after spending the cold night outside of Uyuni, nearby the road going to the Salar, we started to hitchhike early there. When I say that the night was cold there: it was very cold, there was even some ice on our tent waking up in the morning!!

Another point: as it was the case in Argentina, I couldn’t get any money from my bank account there. For that reason, I would like to say that La Banque Postale is definitely not a good bank for people travelling – I advised them before leaving that I will be on a world trip and my credit card had been preventing me from withdrawing money in half of the countries that I visited!-. I will thus transfer my accounts to another bank as soon as I come back to France!

So, to come back to hitchhiking in Uyuni, as I said we started up pretty early but not a lot of people were driving there at that time. Then, more cars drove by but it was mainly tours vehicle, so they couldn’t give us a lift with the other passengers paying for it. A lot of people were driving by us and shaking their left hand from the left to the right and we wondered what it meant. Usually, people are showing you the right, meaning they won’t get far and doing the no sign, but this hand shaking was new to us. We found out later on that it meant no in Bolivia… Anyway, after a while, we were quite desperate but a vehicle finally stopped and accepted to give us a ride to the next village! It wasn’t our plan to accept such rides before but after some time waiting, we wanted to move. And we would soon find out that it was the right decision to take! The driver told us in fact that there was a local bus going to the other side of the salar and which could drop us off at Isla Incahuasi, where we wanted to go right now. So, arriving in the next town, we ate a quick –and very oily…- local hamburger and waiting for the bus to come. The town was very small and the only part, which was animated was a fake artisanal market just made out for tourists. Even though, I prefer hitchhiking, I was happy to be taking the bus that day as I wanted to experience the local public transportation as well.

Well, the bus was very old but big, so we found seats in the rear, where we could see the salar. It was amazing how strong the sun was there with the reflection on the salt soil. It would even get stronger, once we would arrive and it would be impossible for me to be without my sunglasses and we would wait for a long time before going to walk on the salar as it was way too hot!

So, when we arrived on the island, which was full of tours vehicle and of tourists enjoying their prepared lunch, we sat at one of the salt tables there and also prepared our lunch there with our portable kitchen. Some American came to ask us how we got here and how we were thinking of going back. Well, as usual, life is unpredictable, so we didn’t know how to get back and we would wait to see what life was planning for us.

Once, the sun was a bit lower, we went to walk on the Salar and to play with its immensity 😊 We had fun there and then, we went up the island to have a good 360°-view over the salar. It was amazing: the salar was all around us and on the island were a lot of huge cactus. One thing, I would have to get used to in Bolivia and later in Peru is the altitude! It’s in fact changing a lot of parameters: walking to the top of the island would have been easy in any other condition but as the salar was quite high in altitude, it was more difficult to breathe, which made it more difficult to walk up.

Coming down, we asked whether we could camp on the island for the night and they accepted as long as we were packing up before 7am, which is the time the 1st tourists arrive to look at the sunrise from up there. The tourists would indeed be pissed off to see that some people are camping on the island without even paying anything 😉

So, after enjoying a very nice sunset there, meeting a friendly group of Argentinian, Spanish and German and then enjoying a wonderful sky full of stars, we went to our tent and slept early to wake up early to pack before sunrise.

By the way, right after sunset, I saw a vehicle on its way to Uyuni far away on the Salar so I decided to run fast to it and to try our luck there. At first, the vehicle didn’t see me but then it did and turned around to ask me what I wanted. They were indeed going to Uyuni but the vehicle was already full and could at the maximum take just one of us. The sprint was however quite strong for me - as I explained earlier we are on altitude there- and everyone thought I was crazy to run like that to a vehicle so far away 😉 It was ok, I just wanted to try my luck.

The night was great in comparison with the previous night –we didn’t feel cold and slept enough hours-, so we could wake up and pack quickly while the 1st tourists were arriving on the island. Our plan was to stay on the island until the local bus come by at midday. Seeing a truck on the point of leaving, I went to ask him whether he was going to Uyuni. He told me that he wasn’t: he was going to the opposite island to get some water for the toilets here.Yes, water is a rare resource in some places, we should never forget it. I thought “why not take this opportunity and go visit the opposite island?! Ignacio agreed with me. We thus finished packing quickly, said good-bye to the group of tourists met yesterday, who slept in the refugio for the night and went on the truck. I was so happy: that’s the adventure I love. We were sharing a ride with a local guy, looking at the sunrise from a truck and sharing our tea with him. How could the day begin better?

Well, the awesome moment wasn’t going to stop there! The guy dropped us off on the other island at a crossroads and from there we walked along the road, through an abandoned village until the sun was warming us up enough to stop and have breakfast. You have to remember that we woke up at 6am, left at 6.30am and arrive on the island at 7am so it wasn’t that warm until then 😉 We stopped in one of the abandoned house to have breakfast. I literally fell in love with that place. It has such energy, with the abandoned rooms, the sun lighting down the place and the volcano in the left! Arriving there, Ignacio did some yoga exercices and I visited the house. I found the old bedroom with the beds made out of rock, the oven in the garden and some other rooms. We stayed in the garden to eat and enjoy the place. That’s why I love to hitchhike and not to go on a tour: we were alone there, having the amazing place for ourselves and an hour before, we would have never thought, we would be there!

After enjoying for a while, we continued walking and arrived to a village, which was inhabited. Well, it was inhabited by 4 families, so you can imagine how big is it 😉 I love it here as well: so traditional with the main square and its church. We visited a museum there, where I could learn a bit more about the culture there, see another mommy and some rocks, which had crazy forms.

We then walked up to the next village, where we would get a bus back to Uyuni. On the way, we saw many llamas, which were looking at us with as much curiosity as we were looking at them and we could see for the 1st time some quinoa fields (a red high plant). We also met a guy with his bicycle, who told us in 30 minutes the whole story of his life, while chewing some coca leaves. Chewing coca leaves is totally normal here and in Peru but I would never get used to the sight of it and to the odor coming from it…

Coming back to Uyuni, we got a ride in a minivan to Potosi where, we would spend the night. We went with a minivan, as we understood that hitchhiking wasn’t common in Bolivia. The ride was very bad as the guy was driving like crazy, not even stopping when a big herd of llamas was on the road or in the mountainous road turns. The journey was however nice as I met 2 nice women, with whom we exchanged about our very different life in Europe and in Bolivia.

This is how we visited Uyuni and I was very satisfied of it, although I was tired and we were happy to sleep in a hotel –even though it wasn’t a good one- to shower and rest for a while.

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