A little bit drunk, and nearly stoned

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, September 24, 2004

I think I must have been the only person in La Paz not to know that September 21st was the first day of spring. Certainly the hundreds and hundreds of schoolkids did, dressed as bees and flowers parading down the main road which otherwise would have been full of eager taxis willing to rip me off. After pushing my way through a marching band - I missed the first panpiper but I managed to clip the second with my backpack, knocking her to the ground with a split lip that only a couple of stitches would fix - I managed to find a cab up a side street which took me to the bus station in time for my 10am bus to Oruro.

Having travelled with three weeks with Tim and Pat it has been strange going it alone again. Getting into a taxi always makes me a little nervous as I've heard many bad stories of gringos being hijacked, or of the cars driving off before you get a chance to get your bag out. Unfortunately that's all part of the adventure, and it's nearly as scary as not knowing who the hell you'll be sitting next to on a bus. This time it turned out to be a 6 foot 5" German dude who happened to be doing the same trip across the salt flats as I was (and who the night before was unfortunate enough to get in one of those dodgy cabs where he was relieved of all his cash and a bag of clean laundry).

The bus was full of gringos, climbing out of La Paz through numerous security (i.e. drug) checkpoints on its way to Oruro where we'd catch the twice-weekly train to Uyuni. I ran into two people I spoke English with during a break at Spanish school in Cusco, and it was good to know that their Spanish is just as bad as mine. The 6.5 hour train ride was actually quite impressive, probably because I expected so much less. The movies were bad, but the selection of Boney M videos was most entertaining. Ten minutes out of dry and dusty Oruro we were scattering feeding flamingoes as we clanked over a lake. The subsequent sunset over distant volcanoes was wonderful, but I missed most of it as I was singing 'Ra-Ra-Rasputin' (Russia's greatest love machine).

We pulled in to Uyuni at 10:30pm, and with Claus the German found a rather drab hostel. A working toilet would have been nice, but at least the alpaca wool blankets were warm and didn't smell too much, but then again I wasn't expecting much for GBP1.40 (I think Bolivia is comfortably - or rather, uncomfortably - the cheapest country I've been to). The next morning (Happy 42nd Anniversary, Mum and Dad!) I joined 35 or so other people at the tour office where we were split into six jeeps. Claus the uber-sized German was in another group so at least we didn't have to deal with his lanky frame. I was with a 6 foot 3" Austrian instead, along with a Swiss couple and two doctors travelling together, one English and the other Irish. With the latest Team Gringo (numero tres) suitably assembled it was off to the 12,000 sq km salt flats, with the obligatory bloody panpipes blearing as went went.

First stop was a slightly interesting salt mine/souvenir village on the edge of the Salar, before we headed into the vast white expanse of salt. It was blindingly bright with not a cloud to be seen, only the vague outlines of volcanoes floating on the horizon. Lunch was spent at the amazing Isla Pescado, where the guides set up tables and we munched on llama steaks and salad. The island itself is covered in giant cacti hundreds of years old, so we spent an hour or so clambering breathlessly in the thin air, admiring the stunning views.

Back in the jeep we drove for a couple of hours passing the odd mad cyclist - probably Belgian - until we came to the edge of the Salar and onto a dirt road. The tour company has their own hostel in a village where we were supposed to spend the night, but when we approached the road was blocked with a Bolivian flag and lots of shouting villagers. Some other cars had stopped, but our driver drove through what apparently were fields and came into the village from the other direction.

This is where the fun began. Old women saw us drive around the blockade and started running to cut us off (I say running, but these were old dears wearing many layers of clothes and old sandals). I saw that some of them had bent down to pick up rocks and stones and were trying to throw them at the car (I say throw, but these were old dears wearing many layers of clothes, and they were women - Bolivian women). The car remained unscathed and we got into the hostel, but the women came barging in as well, shouting and screaming at our driver and two other guys that were there. Obviously we weren't welcome, and one old girl managed to get hold of a broom and started smacking our driver with it (I think all the blokes were still at the roadblock). It was actually quite funny and I wanted to take photos but didn't dare. Eventually we left and found a (much worse) place to stay an hour down the 'road'. It turns out that our tour company (Colque Tours if anybody reading this is planning on going) hasn't paid the water bill to the village, water that rich gringos use to shower and flush toilets with rather than water the impoverished villagers use to grow crops - and survive. There was supposed to be a meeting the day before but Seņor Greedy Tour Owner didn't show up, hence the blockade.

Instead we stayed at the village of San Juan, along with other tour groups. We walked around the dusty town for about ten minutes, watching a soccer game as the sun went down and the stars went up. One thing San Juan did have was a 'diskoteque' so a few of us followed the sound of Robbie Williams blasting over the quiet village and had a cervesa or two, but at this altitude it didn't take long for them to kick in. Electricity went off at 9pm in our doss house, so we wandered back by moonlight, using the baņo natural on the way as ones inside were minging.

The next couple of days was spent driving through the windswept barren altiplano, reaching heights of well over 16,000 feet. The last night we spent at the impressive Laguna Colorada. Well, the Laguna was impressive but where we were staying was awful. Freezing cold (as soon as the sun goes down the mercury plummets), rooms stinking of diesel, no running water, and probably the creakiest, most uncomfortable bed I've ever slept on. But then again I was in the middle of nowhere. The lake starts off in the morning the usual boring blue colour, but throughout the day sunlight embarrasses photosensitive algae and it turns redder and redder. I think even the flamingoes were impressed.

On the final day the docs and I left the jeep after some hotsprings and geysers (and my last - legal - cup of coca tea) for a bus trip (on a paved road, with roadsigns and everything!) over the border and to the small village of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. After a day there nursing a bit of food poisoning and drinking flat Coke prescribed by the docs, it was time to get on the bus down to Santiago!
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