What a difference a day makes!

Trip Start Jul 29, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, February 16, 2014

We put in our time as best we could in Oruro but, after two weeks of waiting, we were growing weary of the mechanic's repetitious assurances that the Disco would be ready manana. A timely pick-up materialised in the form of two young Bolivian entrepreneurs who were doing business in Oruro and staying in the same hotel as we. Enquiring about our situation, Mauricio Andrade, one of the two, offered us a lift from the hotel to the mechanic’s workshop to check on progress. Mauricio’s friend, Jorge Unzueta, talked at length with the mechanic who declared the work would be completed later the same day.

Mauricio and Jorge suggested we cruise around town with them, in Mauricio’s car, while he completed some work in connection with his chemical importation business. They took us to the outskirts of Oruro where Mauricio was overseeing the delivery, to a mineral extraction plant, of several containers of chemicals from China. Jorge’s business is salmon importation. Over the course of the afternoon, we learned more about Bolivia from these two young men than we had absorbed in the previous fortnight. Mauricio and Jorge come from Cochabamba, in the very centre of the country, described in our guide book as the garden city of Bolivia. They were aghast that we had been stuck in Oruro for so long. Having spent just one evening in the city, they were champing at the bit to get home and away out of this dull, unattractive place.

A few months earlier, in Cochabamba, Mauricio’s father had met an Irish couple who were touring South America in a campervan. Pricking up our ears at this news, we asked if Mauricio knew which part of Ireland the couple were from.

"Northern Ireland," came the reply.

“Really,” we said, “do you remember their names?”

“Merv . . . ,” Mauricio started, when I shouted, “Merv and Sarah Colton! We know them; they are travelling in a Unimog!”

What a coincidence! Mauricio’s father had struck up a conversation with Merv when their paths had crossed in Cochabamba, and, while waiting for spare parts for the Unimog, Merv and Sarah had parked up for several days beside the Andrade’s house. Our meeting with Mauricio and Jorge occurred in Oruro, 180 kms from Cochabamba, and would not have happened at all had we not been staying in the same hotel!

Calling back at the hotel, later in the evening, to check out, we were thrown into despair to learn that the mechanic had phoned to say that he was having further trouble with the Disco, and it would definitely not be ready for the road that day. We had a quick conference with Mauricio and Jorge, who suggested it might now be time to give up on the mechanic in Oruro and move the Disco to Cochabamba, where we would find very experienced people and a ready supply of spare parts. They offered to accompany us back to the garage and, if we wished, to arrange to transport the Disco to Cochabamba. As darkness fell, they negotiated with a truck driver who was parked on the outskirts of the city, hoping to pick up a load for his return trip to Cochabamba. Then they discussed the situation with our mechanic, agreeing with him a price to compensate for the work he had done, while recognising that not only had he not fixed the Disco, he may well, by his incompetence, have created further problems. 

The truck was a high-sided lorry, so it was then necessary to find a ramp in order to get the Disco up onto the lorry. We found an available ramp at a transport company, loaded up the Disco and headed back into town for a bite to eat. Later, as we made the four-hour journey to Cochabamba, Jorge phoned ahead and booked us into a hotel. Next morning, after only a few hours’ sleep, he was back at the hotel to arrange delivery of the Disco to a mechanic who specialises in Land Rovers.

Mauricio was keen to try to make up, in some way, for the two frustrating weeks we had spent in Oruro, and he suggested we might be able to use the days, while waiting for the Disco, to see some of the more beautiful parts of his country. Having heard many travellers talk about the Salar de Uyuni, we were delighted when Mauricio arranged a package that would take us, not only to the Salar, but right into the remotest parts of southwest Bolivia.

A day’s journey by bus and train took us to the small town of Uyuni and next morning we set off for the Salar with our own personal driver. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. The most popular time to visit is June to September, when the dazzling sunlight, reflected off the salt is, apparently, a stunning spectacle. Arriving in the middle of the rainy season, we were wide-eyed at the sight of thousands of square kilometres of shallow water, perfectly reflecting the sky, in a landscape where the horizon disappears. Driving right into the shallow water and onto the salt flat, our guide seemed to be following a route that only he could see. In the distance, a speck which appeared suspended between water and sky, turned out to be a small hotel, constructed of salt. There we stopped for lunch and photographs of the gigantic salt sculpture constructed to commemorate the recent Dakar rally, which was routed through Bolivia for the first time this year.

Reluctantly leaving the salt flats behind, we continued south towards the desert. Passing huge fields of quinoa, we stopped for the night at a hotel, in San Pedro de Quemes. The hotel is one of four in the area owned by the community-run, sustainable tourism Tayka project. Constructed from local stone, and making use of cactus wood for doors and locally woven cloth for soft furnishings, the hotels all rely on solar power. The dry stone walls marking the boundaries of small fields in the surrounding area were evocative of the west of Ireland.

Next day we drove further into the desert. We had stunning views of Volcan Ollague, Bolivia’s only active volcano, and were thrilled to see a plume of smoke rising from below its summit. Strange landscapes of solidified lava unfolded before us and the trail wound past lakes, on the shores of which, we saw large white deposits of borax. Rising at 5.00am the following day, we visited the Geyser de Sol de Manana, a huge, noisy geyser, that was bellowing thick clouds of steam high into the cold morning air. The Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) has been sculpted by the wind and the same wind had us scurrying quickly back to the car after nipping out to take a few photos.

We had been looking forward to seeing the blood-red waters of the Laguna Colorado. Algae, living in the shallow waters of this lake, give it a peculiar red colour. The colour varies in intensity during the day, and sadly, it was barely pink when we saw it. By contrast, or perhaps to compensate for our disappointment, the Laguna Verde delivered a truly spectacular sight. On our arrival, the still waters of the lake perfectly reflected the Licancabur volcano which sits on the lake’s western shore. On the far shore we could see a thin sliver of the vivid green which gives the lake its name. The colour comes from the arsenic and other minerals that are suspended in the water of the lake. As a gentle wind blew up, the vivid green slowly spread across the surface of the water, until, after about 20 minutes, the whole lake was a vivid turquoise shade and the reflection of the volcano had completely disappeared.

A long drive across the desert, on a route discernible only to the experienced driver, took us through a colourful terrain that varied according to minerals, sunlight and the action of the wind. Close to the town of Uyuni, the driver diverted from the main road, to allow a short visit to the Train Cemetery. Here, a large collection of rusting engines from the late 19th Century, provides a fascinating picture of an age when Bolivia’s vast mineral wealth was largely exploited by individuals and foreign powers.

Our five-day break away from Disco-worries left us refreshed and ready to explore and enjoy the delights of Cochabamba. What a beautiful city it is! The widest of wide tree-lined avenues; abundant green spaces; beautifully tended public gardens and spotlessly clean streets are such a total contrast to the dusty, dingy narrow streets of Oruro, that this might as well be a different country. And Cochabambinos tell us that Santa Cruz, a few hours further east, is even more lovely.

Mauricio and Jorge have continued to help us with visits to the mechanic and progress in that regard looks promising. Mauricio has taken time out from work each day to show us different parts of the city and to sort out an extension to our Bolivian visa. We enjoyed a visit to the Palacio de los Portales, the opulent home of Simon I Patino, the tin baron of Bolivia, where we were lucky enough to walk into a free concert of operatic excerpts. Yesterday we met Mauricio’s mother, who gave us some fascinating insights into the culture and politics of Bolivia. We took a taxi to a hill above the town, on which sits the Cristo de la Concordia (Christ of the Peace) monument, which is larger and heavier than the more famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue at Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro. We strolled through the chaos of Cochabamba’s La Cancha street market, where thousands of vendors sell everything from fruit and vegetables to electronic goods, fried food, underwear and cosmetics.

Sampling, once again, Cochabamba’s amazing ice cream, we sat and watched the Precarnavalera processions of dancers and bands on the main thoroughfare close to our hotel. With only two weeks to go to Carnaval, the action is really cranking up a gear, and previews of the elaborate costumes, that will be worn on the big day, are starting to appear.

The mechanic who is working on the Disco had a motorbike accident on Friday morning, sustaining a broken collarbone. His boss assures us that he will be fit to oversee the work again by Monday and that we should be able to leave town on Tuesday. However, our new friends have taken us so much to their hearts and extended to us such generous hospitality, these past two weeks, that it will be a wrench for us when the time comes to leave.

Ciao for now

Liam and Naomi

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brigette on

love your pictures and reading your blog i skyped michael they are all looking well

Peter on

Great experiences come from adversity.

Joyce on

The photos are wonderful!

Jochen on

JaneyMac, that's some story. Your 'luck of the Irish' is still going strong ;-)

Andrea on

Top quality travelling stories. A xx

Jen on

These are my favorite so far. Keep 'em coming.

Ciaran on

Is Jorge Lorenzo working on your Disco? You know what they say about the Irish falling in a bucket of ....... Great travel writing, will reply properly soon.

Peter on

Hi there! Remember? We met in that small hotel at 4900m and had a drink together. Hope your trip is going well and your car is all fixed-up.
Big Hug, Peter (from Switzerland)

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