Why we're not going into Bolivia from Atacama

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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Hostal Solor

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jeff here............While in Salta, Argentina we went through the relatively easy process of obtaining a Bolivian visa - knowing it was very popular for tourists to go from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile into southwestern Bolivia to see (among other places) the very popular Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest in the world.  We had done some research, but not nearly enough.
When we got to Atacama, they had a pretty decent tourist office (for a very small desert town that has no traffic lights and most roads are still dirt!) that contains a 'fancy' 3-ring binder of travellers comments about tours and tour companies.  We were in search of the "best" company to use for crossing the Andes and around the volcanos into Bolivia.
The results were not at all unanimous, but they were quite scary.  Some said some generally positive things about the respective tours reviewed - but there were not too many that were beyond the middle of 2009, with most even older.  Not really that long ago, but its much more palatable when something is a bit more current in this regard.
Bluntly, the most terrifying comments of several survivors of the three day adventure had to do with five things;
1.  The very high altitude for the prolonged 3-4 days.
2.  The provided food is apparently terrible!
3.  The accomodations are even worse.
4.  The seemingly high rate of vehicle breakdowns.
5.  Last but #1 on our list - the drunk Bolivian tour drivers!

Added to our list of reviews was this story in an Argentian travel magazine called Northwest Nomad News;

Managing Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
South West Bolivia is becoming one of the places to do along the Latin America trail, mostly heading South from La Paz or Potosi but increasingly crossing the border from Jujuy or Chile.
It ain’t a place for the faint-hearted however! Bolivia is not the easiest place to travel and the South West, although well-touristed, remains under-serviced to say the least. For some this is part of the appeal, for others it’s tears at bedtime (literally).

Starting with the jumping-of point at Uyuni, a cold cement block town where the train or bus always arrives in the middle of the night and the hostels all batten down the hatches at 11pm. It means walking around in the cold dark buzzing on doors until someone gives in. Solution – make sure you arrive in daytime. Booking a tour – there are literally hundreds of tour agencies changing all the time so it’s really difficult to be sure of quality because the Ranking Bolivia site is gone and the tour companies will promise anything. It is toughest as a single because no matter what they promise, the tour company will commission you off to another one with space where you may well end up as the ugly duckling who has expanded a group of six into a crush of seven. SIX is maximum in the landcruiser – five if there’s a cook. If you can – get a group in the hostel together or be brazen and ask to join on with others – it will work best for them too.

Speaking of cook – another contentious point. When the tour company says there’s a cook what they may mean is that the driver will throw something together or that there’s a cook in another vehicle that you will inevitably lose once out in the desert. In my group there were three vegetarians and one coeliac, who had been guaranteed suitable food. Perhaps it was because our driver was too busy stopping off around town kissing his various baby-clutching concubines good-bye and handing over our food money to them that we ended up living on a diet of massive pots of soggy pasta and one tin of cat food-ish tuna between six. He had loaded a tray of three dozen eggs under his seat which we never saw and the request for something other than hard hamburger buns for breakfast was met with swearing. A request for salad for dinner was responded to with a bowl of grated raw cabbage – not to be eaten when sharing two filthy toilets between fifty people. We decided to write a book called ‘The Uyuni Diet’ – guaranteed to lose ten pounds in four days.

Four days? Isn’t the tour three days?

Supposed to be but the terrain is like Basra – there are breakdowns! The moral of this is DO NOT GO IF THE CAR IS AN OLD BANGER. Our car could not keep up with the others and no one will stop to help you in the desert – altruism is not an option around here. When the rear wheels of our landcruiser sank into mud, we were stranded in the elements for six hours because the front 4x4 wasn’t functioning. It meant a two hour walk back to the salt hostel through blazing desert sun and high altitude winds. We arrived suffering from exposure and the hotel employee informed us that it wasn’t her problem, the driver (who had remained with the car) would need to come back and pay her, no she had no tea and she had to get back to her clothes washing.

Not everyone suffers like this but we all had to stay in a filthy freezing hostel at Laguna Colorado with no running water. Getting up at 4.30am in minus 17C to the smell of two unflushable toilets takes some strength. We slept in every piece of clothing we owned, sat in the jeep in our sleeping bags and told ourselves it was worse up Everest. (We soon had the black crusty lips of exposure to prove it). Difference is, Everest has a trophy. The consensus was that the scenery wasn’t sufficiently spectacular to warrant the suffering. The salar is huge but there is one in Jujuy and a few further out into the wilds of Salta and there are high lagunas on the way to Chile over Paso de Jama.

Way to go without stress?
Get it written down on the receipt (which you will have to demand) if you need special food or even if not I would get noted your typical meals
Get out of the car and demand your money back if they squash you in with too many people or use a banger.
Choose your companions. You will be sleeping all together the second night and will need to hang in all the time.
Spend a tad more and go with a company that doesn’t stay at the hostel on Laguna Colorado on the second night and that avoids the convoy that rides through the salar making it impossible to get a photo without people tramping through.

Current Worst Tour Feedback – Estrella del Sur
Current Positive Feedback – Cordillera, Tonito tours

This article did not mention the (potential) drunk drivers, but several of the local reviews we read did mention it - emphatically.  Then we found a review online (another traveller's blog) that had the same life-frightening experience described above, along with the drunk drivers.  They lived to write about it, but we traded emails with them, and they also used the above mentioned "worst" feedback company.  Oh joy, we had read they were the "best".  We wrote to the bloggers that had just done the trek last month (finally a current review) and asked them directly about their experience.  They said the scenery was spectacular, but their driver was drunk, scared them to death and they would not recommend the tour.

Sooooooo, we have our Bolivian visa ($135/each), were just about to book the tour and hope for the best (adventure???) but have decided not to use it from here.  Tamara's blog title is No Fear, thanks to the book from our friend Thom Rutledge ("Embracing Fear") - but the "no fear" does not include the clear potential for physical danger.  As a result, we are leaving Atacama tomorrow and heading northwest to the Chile/Peru border town of Arica on the coast.  From there we may use these Bolivian visas to go see Lake Titicaca, which we've also heard is spectacular.

Yesterday was our two month anniversary on the road.  We still have eight more months to go and have plenty of other sights to see along the way, without the need to lose sleep before we even get in the truck!  Instead of digging out the cold weather gear and altitude pills and drinking lots of water - we just ate a delicious pizza and will now wash that down with another great bottle of "local" wine!  Cheers to all!  -Jeff
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KO on

Now..THAT's what I'm talking about! You are not completely vacating good sense!

Just be aware of your surroundings. You are targets for neanderthals, and only say trust your instincts. Berlin was fabulous, but was amazed at the locals ability to point out pick pockets from eastern europe...scoping out the tourists.

I also recall doing Europe with a crowd that couldn't agree on accommodations while spending a few days in Munich. The last night was spent on the hard/cold marble floor of the train station....never again!!!

I did just read a story about the effect of the earthquakes in Chile and the observatories in the high chilean desert plains. Could be cool if there's something for the touristas...


Have fun, be safe, not stupid!

love yall!


Hair on Fire on

It sounds like all those years of travel experience has kept you on track and listening to your intution! Who needs a miserable and potentially deadly adventure when there are so many other great choices? :-)

shamalama on

I'm so glad you are still using your instincts - pretty good so far. Looking forward to the next posting.

Page on

Sounds like you made the right decision. Plenty of other sights to see I'm sure. Besides, who knows what you might see in a place called Titicaca!

mackie on

missed you tonight for my birthday in Bedias! Bo and Tracie made corned beef and cabbage and green potatoes for St. Pat's Day :-) Gorgeous here today. Simply gorgeous. You two be careful. Much love, mackie

Nancy Cook on

WOW..traveling is fun! Give me the Ritz PLEEEZE! When you return you will be
ready to do a reality show...Jeff and Tamara survive their romantic ? tour of the world...you are so brave...but I am glad you are wise tooo....good choice not to do the last tour. God Bless...Nancy

Dad Plaster on

I cannot wait for you to get out of those HellHoles. Thank goodness you at least speak the language. you have said enough that i can guarantee you "This" old man will never set foot in any of those places.
Love you guys...continue to be observant and cautious...and SAFE...oh yea, have a good time.

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