Gasping for air in Bolivia

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department
January 26th 2007
Published: February 10th 2007
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Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and Salar de Uyuni.

It was a rather uneventful birthday, I was doing precisely what I'd proclaimed not to do... 'to spend it on a bus going into Bolivia'. Cecilia and I had boarded the bus from Humahuaca in Argentina, after an epic one week journey to a small mountain town called Iruya. On the bus were a handful of Argentine tourists, entertaining all on board with hours of uninterrupted singing. I requested my very own birthday song, sung in Spanish, which I then recorded on my MP3 player for fun.

We crossed into Bolivia for a couple of hours (without getting our passports stamped) in order to purchase our train tickets in advance. It turned out we had to wait a couple of days for the next train from the border, so we decided to make the trip to the nearby village of Yavy, a half hour drive from La Quiaca.

In Yavy we had trouble finding accommodation after dark.... I always said that interesting things happen to those who arrive after dark. Anyway, we eventually had to spend a couple of nights sleeping in a kind of barn on the floor with another 15 or so Argentine tourists, lined up as far as the eye could see.

It wasn't the cleanest of places, either, and there were lots of animals roaming around outside in the yard. One had to wonder if this shed was not their home outside of the tourist season, a bit of a worry! The buildings in Yavy are all made of mud-bricks, quite charming in their own right, although slightly tainted by a haunted house appeal, as most have been abandoned to the elements.... Most residents having escaped to the big cities, such as Buenos Aires, in search of work and a 'better´ life in the slums, where most indigenous people end up. Quite sad.... and in contradiction to the phenomenon of Argentine tourist influx into this small village, tourists searching tranquility in the summer months away from the hustle-and-bustle of the big city. If only these locals realised how much they could capitalise on the tourists, perhaps places like Yavy would not become ghost towns.

Two days later we started for the Bolivian border again. In Villazon, on the Bolivian side, Cecilia and I bought our first batch of 'Coca' leaves... As they say'When in Rome'! This came in handy on our up-and-coming trip to the Salar, where altitude kept us chewing chewing chewing. We understood how cows feel day in and day out. Coca is part of the local culture in Bolivia and you see men and women of all ages smiling with green smiles and a cheek full of leaves. It helps to ease the effects of altitude and to eleviate tension and anxiety.

We boarded the train to Tupiza, having read in the book that it's a town set in beautiful surroundings. We arrived after a pleasant 3 hour journey, gazing out the window and eating cookies, served on board (which made me feel ill). We arrived in Tupiza and were immediately unimpressed by the town, we tried to buy new tickets for the same train, but it was full, so we had to resign ourselves to a few days in the town. We went off in search of a home.
After an evening roaming the streets of Tupiza, we decided that we actually liked the place and the gloom lifted off our faces. We booked ourselves on a tour into the South-western circuit, the desert and the Salt Planes, which was to leave from Tupiza the next day. This is not the typical senario, the majority of Salar tours leave from Uyuni and return to Uyuni. It was a great decision, because we were to see a part of the desert that most tourists don't get to experience.

The next day we met Teresa from our group. She was the unfortunate soul, who lost her camera and unintentionally ruined for us all what was said to be the best part of the trip - the visit to the Laguna Verde (the Green lagoon) and the Gaisers.... After a prolonged group effort of searching for her camera in the marshes, we arrived at the Laguna too late when it no longer looked green due to the time of day and the angle of the light on its surface...... By the time we eventually made it to the Gaisers it was completely dark and we saw nothing... All of us in the group were completely shattered in spirit, noone could say anything but in the silence we all mutually agreed to disagree with our predicament.
.... But this evil was a kind of blessing in disguise!... If it hadn't been for this series of unfortunate events, Cecilia and I would probably never have decided to venture on a second trip into this amazing part of the World.

Yes, we got to do it all over again! This time, however, it was together with two crazy Israelies, Matan and Avishy, who we met in Uyuni, Joel the English guy, and their own private jeep. A much better deal. It was all the more exciting the second time round, when the 'not so glamorous' Laguna Verde actually looked green and quite glamorous indeed.... And when the gaisers bubbled and spoke their own language to us at the break of dawn. Wow!.... Though their smell should be noted as not so 'wow' and not so appetising early in the morning before breakfast. That's right, the best time to gaze at the gaisers is at sunrise.

This second trip was quite enjoyable due to a number of reasons, ... one of which was observing human behavioral patterns and social interaction, as well as the surprise ending of the expedition. But more about that later.
We also enjoyed the new freedom we gained with having a vehicle at our disposal to
Laguna Colorada, 02Laguna Colorada, 02Laguna Colorada, 02

The pink laguna with pink flamencoes patiently sifting through the sand for food.
explore the vast planes at leisure and to set up camp wherever we pleased.

Camping in the desert under the stars was really something to remember, and the cold temperatures at night difficult to forget. I'd managed to score a place inside the jeep on the first night, the coldest one at a staggering altitude.... Lucky me, as I think otherwise some toes may have dried up and dropped off from the cold.

The Israelies were great cooks, ... actually I think all Israelies I've met have been great cooks (Why is that?)... Though their demure during the endless hours of the day, spent in driving, was not the most cheerful.. They took their job way too seriously and they looked serious most of the time. In the evenings they came alive, but in the day they didn't speak much and spent most of it listening intently to every little sound the jeep made. They still managed to amuze us with their naturally quirky way.... Some fine examples of their behavior are... climbing out the front passenger window onto the bonnet, while the car was in full motion, ... just to close the bonnet; Stopping in the middle of the National Park to hunt ducks for lunch with their slingshot (don´t worry, that wasn´t a success story); Having their photos taken wearing only their birthday suits in the middle of the Salar.... and many others.

In the back seat was a little cramped but rather jolly... There we were the three of us, Joel, Cecilia and I taking turns in playing music, chatting, eating, chewing Coca leaves and taking photos. We had the better part of the bargain, that's for sure. Once the Israelies even shooshed us to 'shut up' so they could listen to some new sounds coming from the engine.

Joel was not going to the end of the expedition with us. Cecilia and I planned to continue into Chile for a couple of days with the Israelies before returning to Bolivia. Joel wanted to be dropped off at the border, so he could catch a lift back. Poor Joel, little did he know. The Israelies dropped him off some 20km from the border, left him to hitchhike in the middle of the desert, all because they forgot to get the exit stamp for the car at the last check point. He stood there
Back seat of the Jeep...Back seat of the Jeep...Back seat of the Jeep...

...the things people do for a photo! It's as uncomfortable as it looks.
for 5 - 6 hours, waiting to be picked up by a passing tour group.... without much food.
In the meantime, we drove back for an hour and the Israelies dropped us off at the Thermal Baths we'd passed earlier to wait for them there. There was also the problem of the new sound coming from the engine, which they needed to investigate further, ... so they went off in search of a car-mechanic (yes, in the middle of the desert!).

Meanwhile, while I was taking my first bath in a couple of days in the hot springs, some German tourist (also soaking in the water with me) started telling me of the hitchhiker they'd passed by some distance up the road. He was expressing his concern for the guy, bewildered as to why he was hitchhiking in the desert, and also expressed his disapproval of his driver's lack of humanity for not having stopped for the 'poor' fellow. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. After hearing his story, I had to admit to him that it was us who'd dropped this hitchhiker 20km away from the border in the middle of nowhere, with no hope of scoring
Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 01Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 01Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 01

white white planes of salt
a ride.

Hours had passed when the Israelies eventually returned, understandably grumpy and tired from the heat. We told them of the predicament Joel was in. They proceded to eat lunch and then they went off to take a nice long bath in the hot springs. The most amazing or, perhaps, disturbing part of all this.... Apart from the fact that poor Joel was probably still sitting on the side of the 'road' in the middle of the desert, .... starving in anguish and dehydrated (Ok, we had left him with water), ... but the most disturbing part was seeing the two Israelies shampooing themselves in the hot springs right next to a very large sign saying 'No Detergents Permitted'. (That would have made a great picture. Damn!)

Eventually we were back on the 'road' with one less brake functioning. We caught up to Joel, who'd started the journey to the Chilean border on foot... and picked him up in the jeep. He didn't appear too distressed under the circumstances, he'd been reading for a few hours. He wasn't too damaged from the experience. In fact, after we'd dropped him off for the second time that day, this
Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 02Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 02Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni, 02

...with our first Tour group from Tupiza.
time at the border, he'd managed to get a lift with one of the border patrols brother's jeep... and they'd all boosed up the rest of the way back to Uyuni (a 7 hour drive). Joel's got a great deal of inner spirit. Cecilia and I were to meet up with him again in a few days time.

Cecilia and I had our own interesting ending with the Israelies. On the last evening, after an overnight camping trip in the Valle de la Luna on the Chilean side, we thought we'd spend another night in the desert with them before they delivered us back to the border... We'd found out there were no seats on the bus from San Pedro de Atacama back to Uyuni, so we planned to get a lift from the border like Joel. To our surprise, in the evening at about 10pm the Israelies told us that they've had a change of plans and that they're going to sleep in the car and leave for Argentina early the next morning.

With no place to stay and not much money to spend, Chile is very expensive in comparison to most places in South America, Cecilia
Breakfast at the Salt PlanesBreakfast at the Salt PlanesBreakfast at the Salt Planes

The walls of this hotel are made entirely of salt.
and I decided to buy some fine Chilean wine and sit in the plaza all night drinking instead of checking into a hostel (We'd tried one place and it was full). We'd been there an hour or so, when we saw them coming down the street (our two Israeli friends)... They came by and we offered them a drink with us, but to our surprise.... they told us they were tired and said their goodbyes. We couldn't believe it! Anyway, all was good for a while until it started to get really cold and it was too late to go knocking on the doors of hostels in search of accommodation. By this time we'd spent quite a while chatting to two 18 year old Chilenos in the plaza.... Partly because they felt sorry for us and partly because they felt admiration for us two girls, travelling the world, drinking wine in plazas at night, and partly because some drunk man made himself comfortable next to us on the park bench.... They offered to give us shelter in their family home.... We had the choice of sharing a room with their little brothers or sleeping in their car. We took the
Sunset by full moonSunset by full moonSunset by full moon

...Just as we drove up to the twin lagunas, our camping spot for the evening, we witnessed the change of sky, the moon on the horizon and the flamencoes perched on one leg in the still waters.
car, though it was so cold I didn't blink for a second while Cecilia took her beauty sleep next to me in the front passenger seat.

The next morning we went back to the Bolivian border and managed to get a lift back to Uyuni with a tour group.

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 30


Making breakfast...Making breakfast...
Making breakfast...

Avishy (left) and Joel (right)

29th April 2007

you have seen soem amazing sights Zoe, your writing style and photographic eye are gorgeous. you really do need to get them printed up. Youv'e reminded me how much i want to travel, get out there and see the world. keep beautiful sweetie
14th August 2008

you make blog visitors your fans, that really a good presentation and beyond that is your adventurous travel. But could you let me know the secret to fund your travel expenses, are you rich enough? Let me also invite you to my blog at: make sure you keep posted about all your adventures... and for now byeeeeee Wish you the sweetness of life.

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