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Published: December 21st 2010
FIRST STEPS INTO BOLIVIA
Our first flight took us from Asuncion to Santa Cruz, landing at 11:45pm. Despite all the forms we had to fill in on the flight and the number of guards around we passed swiftly through immigration and customs and got the last few seats to bed down for the night. After a very refreshing few hours sleep (!) and a 30 minute flight we landed in Cochabamba. We took the ‘mirco’ (bus) to the town centre and bus station to get on our 9am coach to Oruro, which left promptly and was pretty comfortable. The journey was amazing as the bus climbed through the hills on a surprisingly smooth road. We probably averaged about 40 mph the whole way but still managed to overtake a few trucks. This was far from nail biting despite some of the horror stories we had heard of Bolivian roads, but Im sure we have got that joy to come.
We arrived in Oruro and got a taxi straight to the train station to attempt to get tickets for the train that afternoon, though I was rather doubtful as there are only two trains a week. A train
journey would be a novel change and as Oruro is a rather bleak looking town we were keen to get out. After some confusion over the ticketing and waiting system, or lack of adherence to it, we were told there was only one ticket left but if we waited we might be able to get a ticket. An hour later when another ticket man arrived from somewhere two seats were available and even in the ‘executive’ carriage which we had hoped for. The ticket for the 7 hour journey in the executive carriage was 112 bolivianos, around 11 pounds, travelling here was going to be even cheaper than Paraguay, which had seemed a steal compared to Brazil. Definitely the best way round to do it, going to Brazil first.
The train was quite comfortable with ample leg room, recline-able seats, a clean toilet (which was more of a short drop onto the track but it had running water and soap), a TV which played a variety of Bolivian music videos to ‘George of the Jungle’ in Spanish finishing with an amusing prank type comedy programme and a buffet car. Arriving in Uyuni at 10:20 pm we were pretty astounded
at the ground we had covered in such a short space of time. When we were climbing the stairs to our hotel room, it was then that the altitude hit. From then on the heaviness of the lungs and breathlessness affected us both when doing any quick movements for the next few days.
UYUNI & THE SALT FLATS TOUR - DAY 1
The next morning we were in two minds about whether to spend the day chilling out in Uyuni and sorting out a tour or to just go for it and get straight on a tour. We went for the latter and by 11 am our bags were on top of a 4by4 and we were squeezed in with 4 other tourists, our cook for the next 3 days and the driver. Paying a meager 60 pounds for 3 days travel, accommodation and food.
Our first stop was at the train graveyard about a mile outside of Uyuni which is a site of homage to the trains that were used to bring back the minerals from the salt flats and also the site of the 1st locomotive in Bolivia and the train used by Butch
Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. After driving a further 30 minutes we arrived at our first salt flat plane which was rather disappointingly brown due to recent rain and winds. The whiteness did however improve as we neared the island of the fishes, so called as from a distance it looks vaguely like a fish. It was a hill in the middle of the salt plane that was covered in cactuses. It was here that we had lunch, steak and chips, which was very tasty but later we found out that it was llama steak, much to sam’s dismay. There was opportunity to climb the hill but Sam and I chilled out in the shade as we were already starting to burn and through the rushing of the morning my suncream was in my day bag which was on top of the jeep.
After a few further stops for ice pictures and one waiting for the other group (we travelled in a convoy with another 4by4 with 6 other tourists in), at which point a crazy cyclist who had just cycled over the plane in the baking sun now also covered in salt passed us! We then continued
to another outcrop in the middle of the desert which this time was the site of caves (called the cave of galaxies). It was only found 2 years ago and was a series of caves formed from a layer of fossil and then rock. The formation of the cave was explained to us with the revelation that many millions of years ago the southern altiplano was covered in a continuous stretch of water which joined up with Lake Titacaca on the Peruvian border to the west of La Paz (way up north).
Our hotel for that night was a comfortable circular building which was surprisingly warm and plenty of rooms to go around so Sam and I got one to ourselves! After a very welcome course of tea and coffee and biscuits we then waited until nearly lights out for an overcooked lasagna!
SALT FLATS TOUR - DAY 2
The next morning we were woken at 3:30am for a very light breakfast and then waited a further 2 hours for our guides to wake up again and load up the jeeps. We made our way over dirt tracks winding through the desert passing extinct volcanoes with
amazing glistening rock formations and glaziers and through the desert passing volcano Ollague (extinct) on the border with Chile, arriving 3 hours later at, a lake turned green by sulphur but which flamingoes had made their home all to the backdrop of amazing extinct volcanoes. Today we had been blessed with the discovery by our driver of an ipod cable, we had been subjected to ‘Corumba’ for the whole of the previous day which consisted of a continuous beat with seemingly no difference between each track on the 6 track cd also with minimal lyrics but occasional screams. We continued on our way towards the national park stopping at the ‘arbol de piedra’ (a rock formation in the middle of the desert that looks like a tree) at which point the tyre on our jeep was hissing away with a puncture so it was changed quite swiftly. This wasn’t really surprising as our driver seemed to always take the bumpier, more off-road route compared with the other driver and he got out every few hours to tighten the bolts on the tyres, rather disconcertedly. We continued to the national park and then on to our lodgings for the 2nd night
where we had lunch some 8 hours after we set off in the morning, though it was still only 2pm.
After lunch we got back in the jeep and went to the blue lagoon another 2 hour drive away, on the way stopping at some geisers and then back to the hot springs, which was probably the highlight of the day for everyone after being sat in a jeep for the most of it. Unlike the day before however, although the sun shone and there was clear blue sky it was very windy making it much colder in this part of the desert. This made it very difficult to make the transition into our swimming gear and into the pool, but once in the water it almost burned! We floated around admiring the landscape from the hot pool, watching the whirlwinds of dust being whipped up in front of the vast mountains and glaziers all glistening pink as the sun began to set. On return to our accommodation and after dinner, the drinks started to flow, a mixture of wine, vodka and pre-mixed Bolivian rum and coke, and more friends were made.
SALT FLATS TOUR - DAY
After being allowed to lye in the next day til 730am we didn’t leave until 9am. This gave Sam time to feed one of the roaming llamas by the dwellings an apple, which was the highlight of the tour for him. We then set off in the jeeps to make our way back through the desert via more lakes with flamingoes and some amazing rock formations, stopping for lunch at a San Cristobel, a village which had been moved in its entirety, including its stone church, due to the discovery of silver in 2002. A mine which still has one of the largest deposits of silver in the world. We arrived back at 5pm rather glad to see the back of the jeep but even so having had an amazing few days viewing some breathtaking landscapes and being in the company of some good people. We all met for dinner that night before half of the group set off back to La Paz.
We stayed in Uyuni for the night to collect our thoughts and after realizing that our desire to see some other Bolivian towns to break up the journey to La Paz
would in fact make the journey twice as long. So we settled for an overnight bus to La Paz and spent the day in Uyuni sampling the local markets and catching up with emails etc.
The overnight bus was as we had been warned very bumpy for the 1st 4 hours. Once on the paved road things improved and just as I was nodding off properly, having been woken by the ticket collector at 5am, we arrived at 6am, 2 hours early. In a quandary of where to go, as we didn’t have a reservation anywhere, we got a taxi to a hostel to try our luck. The 1st was full so as we walked to the next one, witnessing the raising of the flag in the square at 7am, with a less than perfect rendition of some song by a trumpet player who only managed a few notes. We were luckier at the next hotel, which was empty and thus renamed the haunted house, so we checked in at 8am, paying 8 pounds for the room until the next morning, and caught up on some sleep.
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