We tried to get some sleep on the rickety locals bus, it was near impossible. The rattling of luggage was punctuated with the occasional loud bang of a pothole. At about 4,000m altitude, it was also freezing – much colder than we expected. We dragged a couple of old dusty blankets down from the overhead compartments and huddled ourselves under them. The blankets had fleas. We had stirred up a bout of asthma at the back of the bus and were now itchy, but relatively warmer. The Bolivian man across from us, his puzzled face wrapped in a knitted tassel hat, didn’t stop staring, his jaw gaping open – gathering dust. He had started staring at us since all the way back in the bus station in La Paz when we bought a one way ticket to Uyuni on the cheaper overnight bus, saving about US$10 each. We remembered seeing the other tourists getting on board the larger luxury bus. It had televisions, heating and reclining seats…at least we were saving money.
The rising sun gave us a glimpse of where we were about to go. A vast expanse of dried ocean, coloured blue in the scattered light. Uyuni appeared as a cluster of single story grid block houses, with a railway straight to it’s heart. The main economy in these areas was mining, where a man could prove he was worth his salt.
We wandered to the local tour company, which ended up being closed for several hours. At least we had pre-booked. Joining us was an American, a couple of Italians and a Polish student. The Pole recounted his harrowing experience back at the La Paz bus station. Facing the call of nature and no facilities, he joined the locals on the “pissing wall” as he called it. Several other Bolivians were lined up either side of them, all watering the foundations of the building. When he had finished his business he was stopped up by a couple of members of authority, maybe police officers, maybe security guards, who took exception to his relief. They asked him to pay a fine of US$80 on the spot. He initially protested the charge being the only foreigner, but eventually was coerced into a fee once he realised the bus was due to leave. He handed over the money. It was now the officers who were now on the back foot. They had no way of providing a receipt! Apparently after searching for scraps of paper, one went to the bus kiosk and took a roll of chit tickets. They then handed him about 40,000 Bolivianos in paper tickets, enough to take the bus ride 20 times over!
We all met our driver Waldo. Waldo was a small man in stature with weathered features and a face as cracked as his windscreen. He spoke little English, but understood us quite well. Loading us into his Pajero, we departed the town, stopping by the Train Graveyard. Here the legacy of colonial mining efforts taking rail carriages down from the Andes to the Pacific. It’s a bit like a playground for tourists now.
After the obligatory stop for cholitas peddling souvenirs, we made it out onto the salt flats. The Salar formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. The dried remnants is now covered by a few meters of flat salt crust – now used for transport, scraping salt and an salt block igloo hotel.
This was time for the postcard tourist pictures. The clear landscape allows for some amazing pictures as it can warp and bend perspectives. The white acts as a blank canvas.
Incahuasi “Island” rose out of the long flat white. Located in the centre of the flats it was a small oasis of cactus. We had time to explore the surrounds and admire the armadas of vehicles traveling across the ocean, leaving long tracks in their wake.
That night we stopped off to sleep at a small town nearby. Our accommodation was a small house in a dusty town – full of chickens and chicken wire. Dinner was almond cookies followed by a hot meal that Waldo’s sweetheart prepared. High in the Andes the temperatures again plummeted rapidly overnight, we climbed into a small bed with heavy blankets.
The following day was a long drive, climbing up into the Eduardo Avaroa Andean National Park, 5000m high in the Andes at the base of Bolivia. Here was a park that had such a diverse range of geographies from geothermal geysers, to snowy mountains, crimson algal lakes to windswept stones. We saw vicuna running wild and chinchilla hiding in the cliff faces. We chewed some coca leaves with a small amount alkaloid. The desired effect was to stave the effects of altitude sickness. Luckily we were also taking diamox for that.
Up at nearly the highest point we found Laguna Colorado, with its deep red hues dotted with thousands of flamingos. Apparently these are naturally white, but are coloured pink from the algae they eat just below the surface.
That night Mitch had trouble sleeping at altitude and in the cold – he was without his CPAP ventilator he had been using the last several months to test for aponea. He took to sneaking into the snacks after several hours tossing and turning awake. Tam, thinking some Andean rat had snuck into the Pringles quickly admonished him and for some strange reason, after this “good night”, he found it much easier to get some sleep.
Descending back down to Uyuni we stopped at several small villages, meeting with other travel groups for soup and pan (dry stale bread) while the drivers exchanged stories and cigarettes. Herds of llama roamed the streets and were chased by children. Most of the adults seemed to be out of town.
Once back, we opted for the luxury bus. Splashing out and enjoying the modern comforts of shock absorbers all the way back to La Paz. The bus even had a steward who dished out chips and cheese sandwiches. We were quickly learning how to travel.