After catching the train from Oruro to Uyuni, I arrived with my new friends Bethune and Hannah and we looked for a hostel. Bethune had caught the nasty flu that’s going around and was not terribly coherent. I found us a place to sleep near the bus terminal (really just a dusty street where the buses stopped with a couple of ticket offices). Uyuni was full to bursting with people who had left Carnaval earlier and been stuck due to the recent heavy rain. The town was previously a mining hub but is in a tourist boom these days, thanks to its proximity to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Many tours in recent days had been cancelled because roads were impassable. Our group was continuing on to Tupiza to the south where we could also take a tour, but a longer one with fewer people.
We found a bus the next morning but it didn’t leave until 8:30pm so we had a lot of time to kill. Bethune and I both felt like crap so we ended up napping on a bench while Hannah used the internet. Not the best day of my trip to be sure, and things got worse when our bus showed up. Because of the bad roads, the company was using a 4 x 4 bus and it was probably the roughest thing I have seen in five countries worth of travelling. The road itself was no better- hours of washboard before things started to improve. We were also right in the back of the bus so got the worst of the turbulence- Bethune actually threw up at one point. This being a night bus, the idea was to sleep through most of it- managed to pass out about half way through the 8 hour journey, don’t ask me how.
Finally, we arrived in Tupiza at 4 am. Absolutely nothing was open, but after knocking on the doors of a couple of hostels, we found a decent option. Later in the morning we tracked down the tour agency recommended to us by some fellow couch-surfers, La Torre Tours. We booked a trip for the next day- four days through the south-west of Bolivia, ending at the Salar de Uyuni. The two others who joined our tour were Tijs from Holland and Aimee from New York City.
So in the morning we started out in our 4×4 Land cruiser with our guide Angel, and his wife Modesta, who was also the cook. They didn’t speak English but both Hannah and Aimee were pretty fluent so we always managed to understand each other. They were old enough to be retired, but I am not sure if that is a real concept in Bolivia. They were so sweet; it was like we had a new set of Bolivian grandparents along on the tour.
After stopping for lunch, the road got a little rougher and eventually we came to a river we had to ford. Our vehicle made the crossing easily but one of the other SUVs in the caravan got seriously stuck in the mud part-way across. After breaking a tow strap and getting another vehicle stuck in the process, eventually everyone was free and across the river (3 hours later). We kept going and eventually split from the other 6 vehicles, leaving only us and one other La Torre SUV. That night we made it to a small village where we had supper and unpacked for the night. As the sun set we could see a double rainbow on one side of the horizon and the snow-capped Andes on the other, and once the sun set, the stars were absolutely insane. We climbed into our sleeping bags and passed out- it had been a long day. The second day brought us through some more barren alpine scenery and our sister vehicle got a little stuck after breaking through a layer of frozen mud. Modesta pulled out the pick-ax and got to work along with the other cook and guides. Free again we made our way toward the Chilean border with more mountains and lagoons. The best was the hot springs overlooking a shallow lake and yet more mountains – Banff, eat your heart out!
We slept in a windswept stone hostel in the middle of nowhere. I think it used to be accommodation for nearby mines, as it was a bit spartan, though we made the most of it with numerous games of Asshole and some Dutch card game I still don´t think I understand. On the third day we went to some sulphurous geysers within an old volcanic zone (at 5000 m!!!), along with some crazy rock formations and even a lagoon full of flamingos (what flamingos are doing at that altitude, I have no idea). Rather than staying at one of the expensive salt-hotels along the salar, we spent the last night in Uyuni, and made for the salt flats before dawn on the fourth day so we could watch the sunrise there. It´s wet season until the end of March so the entire expanse was covered with several centimeters of water. This made for some very surreal vistas with mirror reflections of everything- it was the strangest sunrise I have ever seen. I was the only one of the group that had waterproof boots (thank you gore-tex!) so I got to wander around the empty expanse a bit while everyone else was limited to the area around the salt hotel in the middle of the salt flat.
We made it back to Uyuni by lunch time and said farewell to Angel and Modesta. Aimee went on to Argentina from there and I was planning on going to Sucre, but Tijs, Bethune and Hannah convinced me to go to La Paz for a little fun, so we booked a night bus for the four of us. This time the bus looked slightly better than the last one I took and was a double-decker. We had seats in the front of the top, so had a great view. Too bad it was dark by the time we left at 8 pm. Things went smoothly until about 4:30 in the morning when the bus pulled off to the side of the road and stalled. I woke up briefly, but then fell back to sleep. At 7 am the bus was still parked there and as I woke again, I noticed many of the locals were abandoning ship. When I got outside, I saw that one of the wheels had been removed and there were several people hitching on the side of the highway. A quick check on my GPS told me we were still 80 km from La Paz. Hannah took some initiative and asked the driver what was going on. All he said was that there was no replacement bus coming, with no other information. Wonderful. After a few false starts, we managed to flag down a local collectivo bus, and got on. Several stops and a couple traffic jams later, we made it into La Paz, but nowhere near the bus terminal or our hostel. From where we got off we had to take a taxi and finally made it to the hostel by 11 am. Gotta love Boliva- she is always full of surprises.