Week 32 - Salta to Uyuni

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 7th - Cachi tour

Early 7am start for the Cachi tour this morning. The bus was full of Argentinean couples and only Spanish was spoken (good for my Spanish anyway). The views were beautiful but it seems I picked the wrong day for this tour...total cloud cover).

Stopped off at a few viewing points, including an endless field of cacti. The village of Cachi was nice and saw a few Gaucho's trotting around on their horses. A lot of indigenous folk selling sachets of all sorts of herbal goodness picked from local bushes; Coca leaf, Manu Manu
(no...not a Manu United herb but in fact a natural erm...Viagra) and all sorts of others.

Reached the heady heights of 3,300 and boy it was cold up there. Slept most of the way back. Back at the hostel made plans to leave this wonderful country that is Argentina. Have to catch a bus north to the Bolivian border tomorrow. The two northern monkeys decided not to stay the extra day here and instead will join me for the trip north. They're both good lads and the next few weeks promise to be a good laugh (Bolivia promises to have the biggest salt lake in the world, mines where I tip the miners in dynamite and Coca, a road to cycle down called Death Road (because of its numerous deaths off the sheer cliffs), the highest city in the world and tons of
indigenous goodness...oh, and Bolivia is wonderfully cheap (God Bless your cotton socks Bolivia).

One of the only souvenirs I've bought myself on these travels is a Mate set (cup, straw and a pack of Mate) which I'll be trying to post home tomorrow. When and if I get back to Blighty I'll make it a tradition to drink using the shared Mate tradition...friends and family beware.

March 8th - Argentina to La Quaca (Bolivia)

Did a few early morning chores but my main one of sending the Mate set home failed (shit...forgot it was Saturday). Then it was time for me, Ivan and Chris to head to the bus terminal. Unfortunately (or stupidly you could say) we got the bus times mixed up (even though we had a sheet of paper with the times on it). So instead of catching an 11am bus we had to wait for 3.30pm. So off we went into town for a whirlwind tour of town centre.

Lunch was at a recommended restaurant and consisted of a huge plate of mixed meats to share. It was all good until we reached the middle parts which had cow intestines, stomach lining and God knows what other treats (not pleasant to eat).

Another short wander around town and then a hop onto the bus heading to Bolivia.

It was a good trip all round and some wonderful sights as the landscape got rockier and more mountainous. Arrived in La Quaca at 10pm and an executive decision was made to cross the border tonight rather than cross in the morning.

The crossings on both the Argentinean and Bolivian sides was easy and noticed the border guards sitting at their desks preparing and chewing on masses of Coca leaves. Asking at a police box for directions I was greeted by more Coca munching.

So now me and the two lads headed through the deserted streets of Villazon (Bolivia) and eventually found a half decent hotel, dumped our bags and went out for a food hunt. The only decent meal to be found was a beef and potato stew served on a bed of corn mash (20c of stewy goodness) served by an old indigenous lady.

Sat there for a while and chatted with her and passing locals. So, time to wash down the tasty
stew with a beer down at the local (one of only three in town). It was well quiet in there until midnight when hoards of locals came in, including two lashed up local fellas who decided we were going to be their talking targets for the night. After half an hour of listening to their nonsense and having our beer and fags siphoned off we headed off back to the hotel. This is when the dizziness and headache it me (I was to feel the full force of it in the morning).

March 9th - Tapiza

Woke up feeling as if I was dying; severe headache, nausea and loss of breath. Yep, the altitude was hitting me hard. I nearly didn't make it out of bed but was forced to by my two waiting fellow English.

The walk to the bus terminal was hell but on arriving got a bus straight away. A mere 40c to Tapiza.

The landscape during the 3 hour bus ride was amazing with colourful eroded mountains and giant cacti all over. Arrived at 2pm and immediately checked on getting a bus or even better a train to Uyuni (this is where I plan to do a 3 day Salt Lake and surrounding areas tour).

All three of us were also on emergency cash (no ATM's in town) and it being Sunday there were no buses or trains out of here. Resigned to the fact we had to stay a night in this sleepy place the hunt for cheap food was on (stray dogs were starting to look appetising and plans were made for a barbecue). Saving myself from eating dog we found a local shop that also made cheap burgers (what a result). We ate like kings.

Back at the hostel me, Ivan and Chris chilled on the roof terrace munching on Coca leaves (I felt a lot better by now...fully adjusted for the altitude). Met a cool new age Aussie couple. He was a great guitarist and she a great singer. After a rousing rendition of Wonderwall we headed out for some cheap dinner (by this time we managed to rustle up some stray dollars and get them changed.

Walking around and watching the people it feels and looks so different to Argentina. The
people, and especially the older woman all wear traditional clothes; black leather sandals, wide dresses, stockings, white blouse...and of course black bowler hats (with upturned rims). They are also a lot darker than their Argentinean cousins.

Hoping to get up early tomorrow to see if there's a train running.

March 10th - Tapiza to Uyuni

There was a whisper that there may be a train to Uyuni at 8am this morning (promising to be a very scenic ride) but sadly when I got to the station I was told the next train was a 6.30pm'er. Plan B was a bus at 10am.

At the bus terminal waiting for the bus I tried to get a few sneaky shots of traditionally dressed women but they were having none of it (I think they have some form of photo sixth sense) and would move out of the way just at the right moment.

The 8 hour bus ride (was told 6 originally) was a damned rough one. The seats were hard and the windows didn't close (it was freezing at this altitude) but boy were the views amazing. Had a few scary moments when the bus broke down (twice) but with the aid of modern mechanical technology and skills (a hammer and chisel bashing) the driver got us on the road pretty sharpish.

The roads were scarily edgy and going round tight gravelly turns with the wheels merely inches from the 500m drop scared the BeJesus out of me.

Arrived in Uyuni at 6.30pm and we all headed straight to the haven that is the only ATM in town (great to have some money in my pocket again). Next mission was to book a tour for this landscape rich area. After 30 minutes of hard haggling I managed to get a 3 day jeep tour for $62 (all inclusive) starting tomorrow morning (Bolivia is so much cheaper for everything than all
other Latino countries I've been to...God bless Bolivia's cotton socks and it's cheap goodness).

A slap up celebratory meal was in order so me and the lads headed to a Pizza place to celebrate our new found wealth and cheap tour. Beer was pondered but the day before
yesterdays feeling on waking up was still fresh in my mind...and Uyuni is damned high up.

March 11th - Uyuni

Not much sleep last night as my two roomies Ivan and Chris were up all night vomiting and
shitting (really badly it seems). They were in a right bad state, as pale as ghosts and seriously in no fit state to go on this tour. I went to sort out all our supplies for the trip (the brave northern monkeys were still going) and then we headed to the jeep pickup place (where Chris did a streaming vomit on the main road).

On the 3 day tour was a German couple, Swedish fella (weird aggressive dude) and us three.

First stop was the Train Cemetery..a sad looking place with old train wrecks left to rust in the middle of nowhere because of a lack of coal and wood in the area (seemed quite obvious to me).

Next up was a small salt processing factory showing how it’s made into a final product (apparently you can't eat the salt straight from the ground until being processed). My two fellow Englishmen were slowly improving but still surviving only on water.

Then the place we all wanted to see the biggest salt lake. Driving across this 2,000 square km lake we arrived at a small coral island in the middle of nowhere covered in cacti. The views were staggering and sunglasses were a must because the sun reflecting off the salt flat was well bright.

The horizon was very surreal and mountains in the distance looked like they were floating in the air.

After lunch when our guide and driver ploughed straight into a lake there was horror all round but we soon realised the surface was solid salt with a thin layer of water on top. Of course I demanded a stop to do the obligatory 'I can walk on water' shot. Quite a weird feeling walking out into an open lake...but on the surface.

Finally the first nights stop was in a small village called San Juan. The two infirms went straight to bed while the rest of us went for a wander around town. Really not much to see here except an outdoor basketball pitch with a gang of Llamas in the background.

Dinner was the usual tasty stuff prepared by our driver and guide's wife. Early night tonight (not much choice really as the generator shuts off at 10pm). Tomorrow its up at the crack of dawn for a sunrise and a drive to the heady heights of 4,900m (Holy Shit...did I bring enough Coca leaves
with me?)

A word on chewing Coca leaves. It’s always worth buying the fresher leaves (softer). First thing to do is prepare roughly 7 leaves (pulling the stems out with the teeth or by hand). Roll them into a ball and place them between the side teeth and cheek. Once they are soggy pull them out and either sprinkle some Bicarb Soda or banana paste into the middle of the ball. This makes the flavour better and also the Bicarb makes the goodness get into the system quicker. Chew every few minutes and leave. After about an hour pop a top up leaf every 15 minutes.

March 12th - Uyuni

Shit its cold here. Woke up well early and caught the sunrise at 7am. It was very tranquil and
unusual to see the sun rising over a field of Llamas.

All go at 8.30am and a long...long, bumpy ride to a lake of flamingos. The altitude is starting to hit me real bad here as we slowly rise to the dizzy height of 4,900m. My head is pounding, am feeling sick most of the time and have no appetite.

Even so I still enjoyed the beautiful landscape and yes...it is amazingly Daliesque. Superb colours in distant rock formations and mountains, volcano's everywhere and strange rocks scattered all over the place.

We made a lot of stops at scenic points and then headed to our next stop for the night at 4pm. Pretty early but we had to beat all the other tour companies to the best beds for the night. At 4,900m now and its hit me real hard with the altitude. All I can do is lie in bed and try to sleep. Coca leaves, some local herbs the driver picked for me and painkillers didn't seem to work. Praying I feel better in the morning.

March 13th - Uyuni

Last day of the tour today and woke up at the shocking time of 4.30am (madness..but worth it as I was to find out later on). It was time to see the Geysers shooting sulphurous gas out of the ground. Difficult to see properly as it was still dark but still impressive (and boy did it stink).

Next was a dash to some hot springs to catch the sunrise. Got there at 6.30 just as the sun was slowly coming up. It was truly freezing now but bravely we all undressed and hopped into the hot pool. It was absolute bliss and just right at 30c. Really beautiful to there and watch the sun come up. Later on a hoard of other tourists scrambled into the pool so it was time to move on.

We dropped the Germans off at the Chilean border and then drove the 8 hours back to Uyuni.

Caught the 7pm chicken bus to Potosi which was worse for wear. There was only one headlight working, it bumpy as hell and ahead in the distance was a serious storm brewing. One benefit of catching the night bus here in Bolivia is you don't scare yourself half to death watching the buses scrape round turns with sheer drops).

The plan for the next week is to do a silver mine tour in Potosi and then slowly head towards La Paz..the highest capital in the world.

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