With a Pinch of Salt - Part One

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Tupiza
September 29th 2011
Published: October 2nd 2011
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Rob Writes

We made it to La Quiaca at the Argentina/Bolivia boarder at about 7am and it was damn cold. Although we had read the boarder was only a fifteen minute walk away we hailed a cab anyway, which cost us about eight pesos, or just over a pound, for three of us I might add. To be on the safe side we hooked up with four other travellers going the same way as us and shared two cabs.

We were much calmer about crossing this border seeing as it was no longer our first and knew what to expect, but kept wary of the scammers we had heard about who apparently like to hang around border crossings. I think it was too early/cold for them though because we were the only ones there almost.

So the crossing was again no problem and when we got across the border we went in search of a money exchange before getting a bus to Tupiza from the Bolivian town of Villazon. The bus cost us twenty boliviano (£2) which isn’t too bad for about 60km I dare say! Although it did take about 3 hours. I was aware there weren’t many concrete roads in Bolivia but that didn’t prepare me for the ridiculously bumpy dirt track we were about to take. I will never complain when I hit a pothole in the UK again because this was something else, we have it bloody good.

The hostel in Tupiza we had booked prior to arriving was called Hostal Los Salares and was costing us a hundred boliviano a night (£10) and this was the next shock. Baring in mind Bolivia was quite a poor country I wasn’t expecting much but this was the best hostel we had stayed in so far. It looked and felt practically brand new, it was spotless! The room was fantastic and more importantly the bed was nice and soft. The only thing this hostel didn’t have when we were there was WIFI, but internet access was still available through the owners Dongle (no laughing), which was almost useless if you didn’t have a few hours to kill. The hostel does now have WIFI, it was installed a few days after we left. Typical! While I’m on the subject of things typical, I’ll add that you get to stay the night free if it’s your birthday, which it was... mine... two days before we arrived! Tina and I agreed that the chap that runs this place – Santos - is without a doubt the nicest bloke we have met. Santos and his wife make you so very welcome. He also insists you speak English to him because he wants to learn, which was perfect for us.

The reason we were in Tupiza was for the tour of the Salt Flats, a four day tour which takes you around the sparse south west region of Bolivia, which turned out to be quite a hostile place, or at least the most hostile we have been to. Santos also owned his own tour company, which is who we went with, and who our driver was. It couldn’t be more perfect, we had got to know him a few days prior and he spoke fairly good English.

The tour cost us 2300 Boliviano (£215) for the both of us, for four days, three meals a day (including snacks) and three nights in hostels. The price was based on four people, which brings me onto Lucy, who was from Holland and Ida from Sweden who we spent the next 4 days with. We also had a cook on board, Lupi, who was always laughing but spoke no English so we never knew what she was laughing at and the food she cooked was delicious.

On the 27th we all jumped into a fairly cramped Toyota Land Cruiser and headed off into the hills. Seemingly every man and his dog own a Land Cruiser here, all of them at least 10 years old and running well. The abuse they have to deal with is unbelievable, a vast contrast to both driving and the attitudes towards it we have in the UK.

I don’t know what to start writing about in regards to the tour itself as a new story came with every hour of the day. The whole experience was breathtaking, literally. We spent the first day driving ascending into the mountains. The pictures will have to do the talking here as the views were more amazing then I can put into words. About four hours in we stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere. I can only describe the set up here as a sort of tail-gate buffet. The tail-gate of the Land Cruiser was dropped, lined with a table cloth and upon it Lupi had placed bowls of cooked chicken, salad, rice and potatoes for us to help ourselves to. It was excellent! It felt as though we were the only people within hundreds of miles. I took my first injury of the trip here. After loading up my plate full of food I had scouted what appeared to be a nice flat rock lined with soft moss. The perfect place to sit and enjoy the view and tuck into my dinner. It wasn’t a rock, it was a cactus, which I realised when I sat down. It fucking hurt. Not as much as when I put my hand right on the cacti’s pal next door to get myself back up. So there I was the laughing stock of the group, jumping around with thorns in my arse and hand trying my hardest not to drop the plate full of food in the other. After dinner everyone needed the loo. No squatting behind a bush for me, which there were very few bushes. Oh the joys of being a man in the great outdoors. Tina was jealous and wishes she had brought a She-Wee.

After another four hours of glorious views we arrived at our hostel for the night situated in a small village. We were quite high up, roughly 4000 meters above sea level and we were feeling the effects of the altitude. Headaches seemed to be the theme of the evening amongst us all. I had suffered a very bad headache the night before inTupiza, almost as painful as a migraine. I couldn’t open my eyes and any sound was intolerable. I realise now that this must have been the altitude at Tupiza, which was 3500m. That night was very cold. We went to our bed with four very heavy wool blankets, a sleeping bag and fully clothed in jumpers and still didn’t sweat a drop. The whole group couldn’t sleep either. Everyone said the same thing in the morning, that their eyes were tired but their brain too awake. Seemingly this is another effect that altitude has. Shortness of breath is another. Every twenty minutes or so I found myself gasping for air like I had stopped breathing and if you even attempted anything like a jog you really feel it. I was a bit concerned as were due to see heights of 5000m plus.

Something we couldn’t get a good photograph of was the sky at night. There was nothing for tens of kilometres and no light pollution. The view was unbelievable. Back home, Tina and I have spent many an hour in the summer staring at the sky at night but this was something else. You couldn’t just see millions of stars you could see the dust in space which you would usually expect to see in one of those high resolution pictures of space, taken from space. We found this out when Tina asked me to escort her to the toilet the first night as it was very dark. Loser.
We had to be up the next day at 6am and were on the road again for 7am. Way too early for having had no sleep. We had tried a few cocoa leaves the day before to help with the altitude. Tina found them to taste horrible and I felt little effect but the next I made myself a very strong coffee and filled it full as many leaves as I could anyway. Fortunately I didn’t O.D on anything and still felt like shit. Everyone swears by them, we aren’t so sure. Ibuprofen does the trick when it comes to altitude headaches we find, the other symptoms don’t nearly ruin your day as much.

So off we go, day two and it was still absolutely freezing. So cold that the battery in the Land Cruiser was not holding its charge and we had to push it to bump it every morning. I found this quite fun, certainly an experience. Nothing like pushing 2+ tonnes over sand at 6 in the morning at 4000m to wake you up.

The morning of day two was cram packed with more glorious views and we visited a few lagoons where the flamingos like to hang out. Having been to Flamingo Land I assumed I had seen it all, how wrong was I. Bolivia is one of, if not the most mineral rich country in the world, so you see some weird sights. The lagoons for example were a shade of blue as you would expect from water from the Caribbean but when the wind hits them and churns the water, in turn mixing the minerals and it turns white. Or so Tina tells me, it just looked dirty to me. Colour-blind FTL. Later we visited another lagoon which was blood red. It looked amazing and not dirty! We were in awe. I tried to run at some flamingos in the lagoon so they would take off and Tina could take a picture. It kind of worked but I collapsed in a heap afterwards. Altitude also FTL.

After lunch we had the chance to take a dip in a natural hot spring we were told was roughly 39 degrees. Stupidly we left our swimmies and towels in our packs which were secured on the top of the Land Cruiser so we just had to dip our legs in and watch Ida and Lucy. I wasn’t too disappointed.

Once we had finished there we went to see some geysers. I’m not sure what exactly they are and how they form and if I had WIFI right now I would look it up. They were small volcano like holes in the ground with steam and boiling mud spilling from them which I’m assuming heated up by the earth’s magma. I wasn’t sure about this, but then I’m usually the pessimist when it comes to anything remotely dangerous. It was amazing to see but I was hesitant to run around them like the other tourists seemed to be doing. Who knows what could happen, trip and fall in? The earth below you falls through? Tina could see this and asked me, ”Are you scared?” I replied with “Yes,” then as if on cue we hear agonising screams coming from behind us. We turn around to see a girl as fallen through the earth and her leg is covered in boiling mud. Fortunately for her it was only one of her legs and she managed to pull herself out quickly. She screamed in pain while her partner tried his hardest with his hands to scrape it off. Apparently the mud she landed in was only 50° but most are 100°. Once it had cooled down it brushed off like sand and the girl was alright. At least I didn’t look like a big girl’s blouse. We later found out that a similar thing had happened to a tourist a year ago only both his legs went in and because he couldn’t get himself out quickly he lost them both.

I think the problem here is, if such a thing existed in the UK or the majority of other developed countries in the world, it would be ring fenced with a radius of 2 miles and you wouldn’t need to think about the danger because there wouldn’t be any, so it’s easy to forget.
We happened to see this same girl a few times over the next couple of days. We witnessed her crawling under a huge rock, walking next to a lagoon which we were told to avoid because of high iodine levels and then wearing flip-flops to climb a mountain!

We then headed to our next hostel for the night.

More to come in part two.

Additional photos below
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3rd October 2011
Salt Flats Tour, Day 2 (27)

Totally Awesome!!
I'm speechless!!
4th October 2011

Fun with Perspectives!
Hi Kiddos, Your Photies are excellent but do not outshine your Blogs. You both tell a damn good tale full of honesty and fun and write so well it\'s like being there with you---Talk about vicarious thrills! Your \'rear end encounter\' with the cacti Rob, reminded me of burning my bum sitting on top of the inner cone on Mount Etna. Now that wouldn\'t happen down the Pub. Blessings, Pops.
4th October 2011

jealous with a capital J
I get so excited when u's update your blog - so Jealous of u guys! what an amazing experience! Keep safe x

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