Southern Cross – Welcome to Bolivia

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Where I stayed
HI-Hotel Jerusalem Potosi
Read my review - 2/5 stars

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

“Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.”
John Ruskin

We finally arrived in La Paz, a chaotic and grubby city with the same road-rules as you'll find in Vietnam but without the patient drivers. It sprawls along a valley much like Quito, but smaller. The next day was a free day for us so we wandered around La Paz finding our way to the Cathedral, where an Easter mass was happening, and then onto the Congressional Palace.

At lunchtime we said goodbye to Beata, Laura and Manisha, for whom the tour had ended in La Paz and that evening we met the newbies and new tour leader. The newbies included 3 Canadians, 2 (more) Norwegians and a Manc (who thankfully supports United). A new Tour Leader, taking over from our brilliant previous leader was Vivianna, an Argentinean.

The first full day of our Boliva trip was a full day’s travelling, on an decrepit public bus (Bolivia is where buses and coaches go to die when their richer neighbours no longer want them) that swayed from side to side leavening most of us feeling fairly nauseous - and I rarely suffer travel sickness. For 3 hours we had a stop-start journey (Bolivian roads are often atrocious mainly because the country is so poor altho' Cambodia is also very poor but has better roads) thru’ an unremarkable landscape of desert and scrubland broken up only by the occasional dusty little towns with half-built little houses, stray dogs and rubbish-strewn plazas. 

After 3 hours we reached Ururo where our 7hr train journey to Uyuni awaited. There’s really not much to say about this. The train was comfortable enough and the views from the windows not especially memorable. We arrived roughly on time and after a mad scramble for our luggage we were whisked away to our nicotine-stinking hotel in a weed-filled cab with so many stickers on the window we couldn’t see where we were going.

The following morning after visiting Uyuni’s market to stock-up on water and snacks we set off for the Salt Flats (or Salar de Uyuni)

Now, somewhere in this poverty stricken country there are some very rich Toyota LandCruiser importers and dealers as almost every car that takes tourists out to the Salt Flats and beyond is an ageing LandCruiser . And these things take a battering as they criss-cross the rocky desert. Long after the wood inserts have cracked, the chrome trimmings shaken off and the leather seats have unravelled on a Range Rover these old LCs keep chugging away, spewing out soot from their partially attached exhaust pipes.

We drove to the Salt Flats via the 'Train Cemetery’. When trains are of no more use in Bolivia they are driven to sidings just outside Uyuni to be stripped bare by the people of Uyuni and the elements and the elements really do ravage the rusting hulks. The graveyard has become a bit of a tourist attraction and yet surprisingly no enterprising little stalls have opened up selling water and trinkets and other tat. That wouldn’t be the case in most parts of S.E. Asia.

The Salt Flats themselves are breathtaking. Because of recent rains there was more water around than normal for this time of year but nonetheless they are an incredible sight, looking like snow fields reaching out to the horizon and the far-away Andes. Now here’s the reality check: The salt that is scooped up from the flats isn’t fit for human consumption as it contains too many minerals from the surrounding mountains including Lithium. That’s the same Lithium that is used in batteries of all sorts, the same Lithium that is a much-sought after metal. It could make millions of dollars for this poverty-stricken country only Bolivia is too poor/corrupt/inward-looking to actually build a plant that will extract Lithium, so all that salt is used for industrial purposes and for cleaning peoples' swimming pools.

After spending a couple of hours on the Salt Flats we drove off in a cloud of fumes to our overnight accommodation. Bloody hell it was grim. Claire and I had a dbl bed which was a wafer-thin mattress over a slab of concrete and with no heating it was bitterly cold.

The next day we headed out to the areas around the Salt Flats. It’s difficult to describe the landscape as anything other than spectacular. Snow capped peaks, bleak rocky slopes, strange rock formations, lagoons, muddy, sulphuric geysers and flamingos. It was a long day as we rode in the back of our LCs being thrown from one side of the car to the other as we rattled our way across the desert from one site to another.

Eventually as the sun set we made our way to our next accommodation stop. Bolivians clearly have no real interest in creature comforts (in fairness they don’t have the money for such things) but in a hostel used by soft Westerns you’d think they’d make some concessions but no, this place was even more basic than the previous night and even colder. With loos that didn’t flush properly, beds that were so worn they could have been hammocks and bedding that was last washed when Noah was captaining a ship full of animals.

If someone were to set-up a half decent lodge with hot-water, clean, comfortable beds and some heating they’d clean up. All the group companies like GAP, Intrepid and Explore would flock to it and perhaps you’d find a Bolivian earning some decent money.

Our final day out in the desert didn’t start well. As we came shivering out of our dorms we saw our driver weighing down our luggage on the car's roof with what looked like an old exhaust pipe but as we couldn't see where the exhaust had come we didn’t worry too much about it. Ten minutes from our dorms we realised it was the exhaust from our car as the cabin filled up with toxic exhaust fumes. At first the driver wouldn’t stop or open the windows (as that would let in dust!) but after some stern words in Spanish from Claire he reluctantly stopped and we threw ourselves out of the smoke-filled LC to breathe some cold, fresh air. 

When the other car drew-up the two drivers, to their credit, managed to fashion a fix by reapplying the exhaust pipe and then used beer and coke cars to funnel the exhaust fumes from the engine into the exhaust pipe and away from the inside of the car. Amazingly this worked. More amazingly still it continued to hold-up, despite the terrain, until we returned to Uyuni
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