Salar de Uyuni

Trip Start Feb 07, 2006
Trip End Aug 07, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Make sure to check out Andrea's Travel Blog for more stories and photos of our trip!

Be careful what you wish for

We'd been traveling the eastern coast of South America from Brazil to southern Argentina and enjoying the easy travel for months.

The beaches of Brazil, clean and comfy busses, mostly safe cities and world-class food spoiled us.

Lately though, it seemed that something was missing. I thought back to my travels in South East Asia and India where the tougher travel conditions made you feel like you had earned your experiences.

So far in South America, first class busses, wine, steak, and relative safety at times almost seemed like we were traveling in Europe or even north America!

Being a little bit of a masochist, I was hungering a little adventure.

We were now heading to the west coast, going up to Bolivia and then north to Colombia. Not that Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile didn't have their own excitement and great adventures but I hoped that a little more off-the-beaten-path style of adventure awaited us.

... it sure did.

We started our travels to Bolivia from the southern tip of Argentina. First we took a flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires then woke up early in BA for our 29 hour overnight but to the Bolivian border.

As soon as we boarded the bus we could tell that things would be different for the rest of the trip.

The first thing I noticed was the new faces on board the bus. The facial features of the Bolivians were much different that those of east coast South America. The Bolivians had dark sun roasted skin, wide wrinkled faces and long thick braded hair.

The interior of the bus was lime green and hardly the posh first class busses of central Argentina. Tonight we would sleep in our semi-cama seats which reclined just enough to tease you into thinking you might sleep well and gave just enough leg room to get you 90% close to a fully extended leg.

The Bolivians were friendly enough and we sat back listening to 80's Bolivian pop signers belt out there tunes as the bus began its 29 hour journey north.

The occasional breakdown is understood and expected in any long distance travel but oddly, our bus seemed to make frequent stops on the gravel side of the road as the driver dove under to inspect the wheels and underbelly of the beast.

Finally, after a few inspections, we struck a flat tire and stopped to get it fixed. A few more stops were made but the driver must not have thought anything of the problem and kept on going. When we neared the border we stopped to help another bus in distress and we got the sense that this was going to be the normal run of things in Bolivia.

That night, sleep didn't come easily as me and Andrea struggled to find our comfort zone in our tiny seats.

All told, I would count maybe 4 hours of solid sleep mixed in with a handful more of tossing and turning.

When we arrived at the border, we were tired.

I took the opportunity to stop in and splash some water on my face and to brush my teeth. Looking in the mirror, I looked as though I'd been beaten up. Under my eyes were dark pouches and I had a scrape across my cheek as if someone had punched me which I'd gotten from the abrupt stop the bus had made which slammed my face into the back of the seat in front of me.

We had gone from sea level to 3000M above sea level in one day and sharp flashes of pain pounded our heads due to the lack of oxygen in the thin air.

The eastern part of Bolivia, where we were headed, was much higher than any other area in South America and was appropriately coined "the Tibet of South America". Having just arrived we could see why.

Mountains towering all around, thin oxygen, low hanging clouds and intense sun reminded me of my past ventures in Tibet a few years before.

The border town had a barren dusty feel to it which looking almost like an old frontier town from a cowboy movie.

We queued up at immigration and had our passports stamped as we entered the sixth country since we'd started traveling 3 months before.

When the bus dropped us off, we were still 10 hours away from our final destination, a town named Uyuni where vast salt flats speckled the desert and we'd planned to take a 3 day tour.

We knew there wasn't much time left before the train left for Uyuni and headed for the station with a new friend we'd met named Noami. She was from La Paz and was heading home from BA. She also had a seat reserved on the same train. A reservation wasn't something we had though. We had 1 hour to get to the station, get our tickets and head to Uyuni.

The next hour was a mad confused dash around the station to get tickets. Without any local cash, Noami helped us get everything sorted by exchanging some USD for Bolivianos and getting our tickets for the train.

When the smoke cleared and we slumped into our seats, only 10 minutes remained before the train was to leave.

We were tired. We had traveled for 29 hours, barely slept and were suffering from altitude sickness.

In the mad rush to catch the train, which didn't leave for Uyuni for another 2 days, we didn't stop to think long and hard whether our bodies could take another 10 hours journey without rest.

The first few hours were fine as we chugged and swayed side to side through the Bolivian desert landscape. Cacti peppered the desert below as the sunset. The landscape reminded me of a French cartoon I'd seen many times as a kid back home about a cowboy named "Lucky Luc".

When the sun was gone, that's when I started to get sick.

The last 5 hours were brutal and I spent a good chunk of that time in the washroom, clutching the toilet, the only place on the train which wasn't filled with desert dust, praying for the train to arrive.

I've only ever been motion sick once before. It was also when I was dead tired on another crazy mission to visit a remote beach in Myanmar (Burma).

Now it was the second time.

We'd pushed ourselves just a little too far. Even when I was in Myanmar, we had stopped to sleep off the damage we had endured on our first day of travel, this time we were doing 2 long stretches back to back without sleep.

We arrived at 12:30am after a whopping 41 non-stop hours of travel.

Like zombies, we lugged our packs through the dark streets of Uyuni to our hotel where we collapsed on the beds after waking the attendant to let us in.

We were actually so tired that it was difficult to sleep if you can believe that. Eventually we did but it took a few days to get ourselves back to normal and to get rid of the annoying buzz of altitude headaches.

If everything worth seeing needed a little hardship to get to, then we had earned our adventures in Uyuni in spades.

The Tibet of South America

The first day, I woke up after only 6 hours of sleep around 7am with a headache and was still covered in fine red dust from the train.

Oddly, I can never sleep-in, no matter how tired I am.

While Andrea slept I went to have breakfast, get some safe drinking water and to see the town.

"What does it look like out there" Andrea asked when she woke.

"like Tibet" I replied.

On wide dusty empty streets a few dogs wandered and mud brick houses replaced the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires. Women with old style bowler hats and colorful skirts sold their wares in outdoor stalls.

Bolivia was South America's poorest country, and it showed.

This was nothing like eastern South America. For the first time in 3 months I oddly felt that we were somewhere very foreign, and I loved it.

Touring the Salar

After a few days of recovery from lack of sleep and the latitude, we booked ourselves onto a 3 day tour of the Salar de Uyuni. The salar is like another world of giant salt flats. This strange strip of high altitude land hosts some of the weirdest landscapes in the world.

On our first day, we started our tour with another Canadian, a Brazilian and two Swiss girls. Unfortunately, our cook was sick and didn't come along for the ride but not having a cook did leave some extra room in our 4x4.

The truck seemed a little beat up but we figured it would be fine.

To start the tour off we visited strange rock formations jutting out of the desert sands. Living amongst the rocks were little gray and furry Chinchillas bouncing around.

We then set off to a small village of no more than 100 people in the middle of nowhere. On the way, the bumpy roads caused our truck's side mirror to fall off and shatter and we also got our first flat tire.

That was when we started the contest.

"How many times do you think we'll break down on this trip?" someone offered.

We all picked our numbers, I choose 2 times, an optimistic choice at best.

That night we hung out with some local children and walked around as llamas were herded back to their stone built pens.

Day 2 - Breakdown #4

We woke up at an ungodly hour of 4am. It was still night and the stars were still shining brightly as we headed to the geysers, several hours away, to watch the sunrise.

We arrived slightly late but the cold morning air made the geysers gush their steam higher than in the warm afternoon creating a strange moonscape.

Several large muddy holes dotted the desert, bubbling brown mud with white steam hanging in the air all around. Walking through the steam was a surreal experience which felt like being on another planet.

We then went off to bathe in some thermal baths and eat before heading out to see the pink flamingoes which inhabited the area.

On the way, we had our 3rd breakdown.

"Is it ok?" asked Sho, in Spanish, speaking to the driver as he inspected the wheel.

"No, it's bad" the driver he replied.

Apparently the wheel was on the verge of falling off. Luckily we had caught the problem before it turned into a massive crash. For a few hours, the driver zipped off to get a new part and replaced it himself.

Not feeling 100% confident we continued with our tour. As we drove on, the driver occasionally got out of the truck and checked the tire. Most of the time reporting that it was fine. One last time, before the sunset, the truck stopped and needed some more touch ups.

It was breakdown #4, the number of breakdowns Andrea had guessed. She was in the lead.

We drove off to the get to the small city where we would sleep. Even though it didn't seem like we were driving slowly, apparently we had been. It was getting dark and we started to contemplate sleeping in the truck.

We had 3 sleeping bags, water and enough food to last the night.

We all started to visualize the wheel falling off and the truck slamming into the desert and flipping over violently. The constant joking and talking in the truck stopped and it was now dead quiet as an eerie silence filled the air.

Thanks to Andrea, we kept busy for a few hours trying to solve her riddles which distracted us from the dire situation we were in.

It was now pitch black. Luckily, our driver knew the desert like the back of his hand. We drove over mountains, through rocky hills and eventually over gleaming white salt flats with only 20 feet of visibility in front of us!

We finally made it to our very basic hotel at 9pm, 4 hours late and we were dead tired. We had been in the truck since 4am. Exhausted, we quickly ate and went to bed.

Day 3 - Home sweet home

On our last day of the tour, we finally reached the salt flats. Imagine being surrounded by endless white salt covered by a few inches of water. Without any reference points the sky meets the salt flats and creates an odd illusion that objects in the flats are flying.

I had never seen anything like it. The truck drove through the salt flats and stopped at an island full of cacti. We had lunch on a table made of a large salt tablet and eventually stopped at a hotel made completely of salt.

When we finished visiting the hotel, we were ready to head home for a shower.

We spent our last day in Uyuni getting some rest before heading off to the highest city in the world, Potosi.
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