Bolivia: Changes in Attitude, Changes in Altitude
Welcome to Bolivia, where in the space of a block everything changed. Back to inefficient, inexact, unpunctual, chaotic Latin America. Northern Argentina was our training wheels, but they came off once we crossed the border and we are now back to the harshness and reality of third world Bolivia. I had to have a bit of an attitude adjustment. Argentina had spoiled me, and I need to go back to taking everything in stride.
We arrived in La Quiaca, Argentina and hoofed it across the border to Villazón, Bolivia. It was back to dirt roads and dirt cheap. We headed to the train station and bought our tickets for the 3:30 train to Uyuni. At some point I`d looked into the train schedules and for some reason had it in my head that it was a quick 2.5-3 hour trip. This I conveyed to the girls and no one questioned it. So, we got on the train with no food, no water, and no extra layers of clothing. A few minutes after pulling out of the station, I ran into a guy who I`d met back in Mendoza and he said something about settling in for the night. Um, excuse me? I asked the conductor and sure enough, the trip was not 3 hours, but 12. Goody. Even better was that we had some upset stomachs on board as the girls hadn`t meshed well with the street food we`d had for lunch. The bathrooms on the train were about as clean and luxurious as you`d imagine a Bolivian train bathroom to be. The first few hours were ok as we were able to sprawl out and play our ongoing game of Hearts (of which I am the reigning loser of), but then we got to our first stop. Lani and I were immediately flashed back to the Brazilian hammock boat. Man after woman after child streamed in loaded down with bags, boxes and babies. One little boy had a rat on his shoulder, with no cage to be seen. Lovely. The train continued to stop to pick up people until we had about 2x the capacity and the aisles had a layer 4 deep of children. At one point I woke up from a snooze to hear Laurie saying, “Katie, you need to move, you are stepping on that kid.”
It had to be close to 200 degrees on that damn train, yet somehow everyone except us 4 and another foreigner were decked out in about 6 layers of wool, topped off with blankets. The kids were all bundled up in snowsuits. Women in this region wear their traditional Chola dress, which constitutes of several layers of wool skirts with petticoats, many sweaters and vests, and a colorful cloth that they tie around their backs to carry stuff. This look is topped off with a dark bowler hat and two long braids. I get the tradition, I don`t get how they survived on this train. But, I suppose we looked equally ridiculous to them in our tank tops, flip flops and rolled up pants. In their defense, when we FINALLY arrived to our destination at 3 in the morning, it was freezing cold out. As painful as the experience was, I suspect it was just an initiation into Bolivia.
We got up about 3 minutes after we went to sleep and headed out to try and find a tour leaving the same day. The entire reason we came to Uyuni was to explore the infamous salt flats and the surrounding region. It was pretty easy to book as all there are in this town are tour agencies and tourist facilities. We went with Olivos Tours for $60 for the 3 days, all included. The salt flats were on my top 5 for my SA adventure, so I was psyched. We got paired up with 2 Canadians, assigned to a 4×4 and our driver, Octavio, and off we went.
The Salar de Uyuni is one of the largest in the world and is the highest. It stretches for miles and miles and is really one of the most mysterious, dumbfounding, and strange places I`ve ever been. Once we entered the salt, it went on as far as the eye could see. At the beginning we saw how it was gathered (see pics). Octavio tells us that this is all used as cooking and table salt and that none is currently exported. Being on the salt was blinding and sunglasses and a high SPF sunscreen were necessities. Before we left town, you could figure out who had already done the tour and who was just leaving by the presence of, or lack of, a sun glass tan. The sun just jumps off the salt and is really dangerous. Some of the areas were wet and this created mirages that made you close your eyes and look again. Mountains looked like they were floating and there were double images of everything. When it was dry our driver flew like the wind in what seemed like a high speed aimless chase. I have no idea how he knew where to go. We thought several times that this would be the perfect Toyota commercial. We stopped at the island of Incahuasi (picture) where there were tons of cacti and ancient coral, as this was all once the bottom of the ocean. From up above it almost looked like you were in a plane looking down at the clouds….just white, white, white. After lunch, we headed to our pit stop for the night – the salt hotel. The structure, tables, chairs, beds and nearly everything was made out of salt. Several groups showed up here and we all had an amazing dinner prepared by our Andean tour chefs and spent the evening chatting and playing cards. All was fine and dandy – and then the altitude sickness struck. First it was Nadia, the Canadian, who fainted in the bathroom. She was just recovering from a bout of salmanila, so we blamed it on that. After we got her to bed we all started to feel a bit lightheaded, but I just figured I was woozy from all the sun and the glass of wine with dinner. But, at 1 am I woke up with the worst headache I had EVER had. It felt like someone was chipping away at my brain with an ax. A bit later I heard Laurie rustling around in the next bed and asked her how she felt….the same. When we tried to get up, we were faint. If we tried to lay down, it got worse. It was a LONG night. In the morning, we learned that all 6 of us were in rough shape. Fortunately, for 4 of us it was cured by a gallon of water, some coca tea, and some advil. But Laurie and Lani had it bad and spent the morning vomiting. We still had to forge onwards though as we had a big day ahead, so the two poor girls had to lay down as best they could in the truck and try not to die. I give them props for not throwing in the towel and asking to turn the car around. It wore off as the day went on, and I will now give altitude the respect it deserves.
Day 2 was mostly driving through some of the most desolate land I`ve seen. The main crop in this area is quinoa, a grain similar to sorghum, and we drove through field after field of golden red quinoa with people out hand-harvesting. As we continued to climb, nothing seemed to live up here except flamingos, vicuñas, llamas and tourists. The flamingos were interesting to watch as they congregate on the edges of the salt lakes that have dried up. We drove past many volcanoes and a few tiny shack towns. Pit stop for day 2 was in a National Park on the Lago Colorada. This lake is bright red due to some kind of mineral in the water and made all the driving worthwhile. We stayed in very basic lodging again with no water or electricity but since we had a 4 am wake up call, it was no problem heading to bed early.
Day 3 we were up in the middle of the night. This allowed for us to see the beautiful stars of the Southern Hemisphere and the Milky Way. At this point we climbed up to 4870 meters and it was freezing!! Our first stop was to see some geysers and then we continued on to the thermal baths where we soaked as the sun rose. It was a bit odd to have to peel off about 6 layers of clothes, hats, scarves and gloves to get down into our bathing suits, but it was well worth it. Octavio was waiting for us with hot cocoa and tea and breakfast and then we headed to the final stop of our excursion, Laguna Verde. This lake was right at the bottom of the peak that separates Bolivia from Chile, so we realized just how far we had traveled. Apparently the lake is only green when the wind blows (?!?), which it was not, but the spectacular reflections and the towering peaks around were beautiful. It was then time for the 7 hour journey back to Uyuni. About then we started to have a string of car problems. We stopped many times that day and Octavio would hop out and tinker here and there, pull out some parts, put them back in, swap batteries with another tour truck, fix the flat tire, etc. Turns out he was a man of many skills. Towards the end the battery was having serious issues, the radio was dead, power windows weren’t working and the headlights weren’t working. This was a problem for the last 20 minutes as it was dark and I was having a bit of a nervous breakdown, but we managed to sputter into town right as the car officially kicked the bucket. Phew. We are all extremely exhausted from the jostling ride of 3 days on rough dirt roads and my eyes are burning from the strong sun and all the dust. Um, is there a visine for that? The trip was definitely a highlight of all I’ve done so far. This was the finale for the 4 of us traveling together. Tomorrow Lani heads to La Paz to meet up with her boyfriend, Katie heads back to Argentina to catch her flight home, and Laurie and I head further into the heart of Bolivia.