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Steve & Loz’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 28 Jul 2007

Location: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

MapTouched down in La Paz and our first and only mission was to get the hell out as soon as possible. Thanks to yet another transport shortage (curse you, Red Ponchos!), we couldn't make it to our preferred destination of Sucre, so we opted to head straight to the salt flats of Uyuni instead. Getting there involved overnighting in Oruro and connecting with a southbound train. Oruro was largely forgettable unless you have a particular affinity for freezing cold weather and crap market food. We ended up venturing out to some nearby thermal baths which killed the morning waiting for the train nicely.

There were no seats left in cattle class, so we had to cough up the extra to travel first class. Not the end of the world - at least we were moving in the right direction and that is more than half the battle in Bolivia.

The train ride was surprisingly good. We rolled oh-so-slowly past some stunning lakes and wetlands that were home to many birds including a few flamboyant flocks of feeding flamingos. The train finally chugged in Uyuni after dark and we while the night away with a quiet drink at the local which quickly turned into several louder ones while playing dice games with a couple of Bolivian students.

Up bright and early to find a tour. The tour agent we chose ended up convincing us that it would be a really good idea to end our tour in San Pedro, Chile as this would be the best place to find onward transport to Argentina. We both got a good vibe from this agency, and obediently forked over our cashola and were herded into an old-school Landcruiser jeep. (We have since learned that the same agency recently had a jeep roll out in the salt flats. So much for our vibe detectors.)

From the get go it was clear that we didn't quite get what we bargained for. We were promised (as most prospective male clients probably are) that we would be in the jeep with 3 female British students. We ended up being stuck with the Swiss-family Robinson - Dad, Mum and two teenage girls. They were really nice people, but not the sort of crowd we were hoping to share the small confines of a jeep with for the next 3 days.

To top it off, it was painfully obviously that it was our guide's first day on the job. It wouldn't have surprised me if someone threw him the keys on the morning and said "you're driving today." To make matters worse, he had a shocker of a stutter, so understanding his Spanish was nigh on impossible. As a result he didn't really talk that much during the tour - only when he had to stop and ask for directions on one of numerous accidental 'detours'. Strangely enough he found his voice alright when collecting tips at the end of the tour.

Despite these setbacks, we rolled through some absolutely mind-blowing landscapes. First was through the blindingly white salt flats of Uyuni where we were all herded off the jeep for the obligatory trick photo. As we ascended higher on the altiplano, the landscape slowly changed to mountainous deserted punctuated by the occasional flamingo filled lake. We stopped in a few spots only long enough to jump out of the jeep, snap a few pics and freeze our butts off. It was so strange - the desert is THE coldest place I have been to (up around 4,800 metres), yet it is one of the driest places on earth. Weird.

Up and the crack of dawn on the final day of the tour to drive past the steaming, bubbling geysers, stop for a quick dip in the thermal pools before heading out the backdoor of Bolivia and into Chile.

So what is the final verdict on Bolivia? Hard to say. We had a very love-hate relationship. It was often an incredibly frustrating country to travel in and unfortunately the majority of the tourism is about making a quick buck rather than sustainability. It is perhaps unfair to expect more from the poorest nation in South America, but it can become a little wearing after almost a month. And I have never been so cold in my life!