11.12.2013 - 18.12.2013
We arrived in Uyuni on board our smelly bus (no one even tucked us in….there weren’t even ANY BLANKETS ON BOARD!) and were followed by a strange Canadian girl who had latched onto our trio and found a hostel…$5 night for a private triple room. I was already in love with Bolivia!
We arranged our tour to Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats for the following day and I´m sure most of you will be shocked to hear we chose a tour that was almost twice the cost of most! We decided this because we had heard so many horror stories of salt flat tours-gone-wrong. Drivers getting so drunk the tour group found them 10km away passed out with pooped pants. Guests who had to drive the 4wd back to Uyuni themselves as the driver was so wasted. Guides and drivers who at all of the guests food such as eggs and meat and served them up a small portion of rice each or a slice of bread. Tours which crossed the border into Chile and the guides trying to set up the guests at the border and tell the police they have stuff on them so they would get searched, in the hope they would find something and they would be rewarded. This and many reports of people who paid for English tours and did not get it made us very bit wary but when we were in the Red Planet office another group returned and were raving about it and hugging the guide Juan and driver Jose. We asked if we could get those 2 but they couldn´t guarantee it, but were so happy to arrive the next morning and find that Juan and Jose would in fact be our guide and driver.
Bolivian Spanish is so much easier to understand than Chilean. We have since heard from Spanish speakers that even they have trouble understanding Chileans. On top of this, Bolivians are sooo nice and friends and patient and helpful. We were all instantly in love.
Our tour started at the Uyuni ´Railway Graveyard´ which was a good site for photos. Fossilised coral can be found all over the ground, which seemed strange at 3600m asl. We stopped in another town for lunch – heaps of food, we were happy to see it hadn’t been stolen – and to shop at the markets for souveneirs where at $3 for a beanie, haggling seems rude! Here the traditional dress of Indigenous Bolivians lives on, the women wear long pigtail plaits, multi-layers puffy skirts, an apron like top over their shirts, and everyone is tiny. All throughout Bolivia any ´average height´ or taller person is guaranteed to hit their head on a market tent/tarp or some other structure at least once. Hailey, at 5ft, has not had this problem.
We then ventured on until everntually we entered the salt flats. The first several hundred metres were a bit wet as the rainy season had just begun and this is where the salt was starting o be harvested and piles – abandoned and also those awaiting collection - could be seen all around as well as trucks shoveling the salt into the trays like snow. After a photo stop and realized Juan and Jose loooove taking photos for us (woohoo) we separated from the many other tour vehicles and continued to the REAL salt flats, where the dry plains start and appear to carry on endlessly in each direction (size of Northern Ireland). The cracked pattern left on the ground is beautiful and we stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere for more photos. Juan was lying on the ground to get our hilarious photos where we would appear to be eating each other, holding miniature versions of the others in our hands etc. but photos really can’t capture the spectacular landscape. Note to future visitors...the salt flats are reeeeally white! Wear sunscreen!!!!! Swollen, burnt face is not a good look on anyone.
We drove through some areas covered with a thin layer of water which combined with the salt made the entire earth glitter as if covered in millions of diamonds. The sky and distant mountains reflected perfectly onto the ground. We stopped at Inkahuasi Island, one of the many cactus islands of the Tunupa salt flats. These cactuses grow 1cm a year and some are about 10m – 1000 years old! We had a couple of hours to walk up the jagged rocky stairs to the top and around the island, passing the 2 embarrassed looking llamas dressed up in ribbons and other decorations. The views up there are ridiculous! 360° view of the salt flats, white, glary sprawling flatlands, distant islands and mountains. Absolutely spectacular…and verrrry windy!
We then drove on to our lovely salt hotel for the night, tables, walls, beds (minus the mattress) all made of salt. Funnily enough salt is not served with any of the meals. But you can scrape some off the wall if you really need it. Pique Macho for dinner, the traditional Bolivian food of hot chips topped with beef, few veggies, egg and chorizo. By now we were good friends with the other couple on our tour, and the 3 of us had added working or studying a TEFL course in Costa Rica to our travel plans. Goodbye near-future education.
The following day began with a drive through quinoa fields and eventually up to the tops of mountains which were amazing colours due to the minerals and were patterned in reds, browns, greens and white. We stopped in a beautiful little spot amongst rock formations for lunch, and as we drove down U2´s Beautiful Day came on and it really fit the moment. We were joined at lunch by a few Viscacha, also known as Sqrabbits as they look like a rabbit with a squirrel´s tail. We then drove on past amazing rock formations and active volcanoes to a huge salt lake edged by beautiful mountains and dotted with pink flamingoes. Again, driving down to this view and having ´We live in a beautiful world´ play made us all grab each other as if it was the perfect moment. We ranged from 3600m-5000m asl this day at the highest point driving through the Silolli desert, also known as the Dali desert as artist Salvador Dali (who apparently I SHOULD know) painted this often. Stopped at ´stone tree´, a stone in the shape of….a tree…. And then the Musical Mujers (what we have called ourselves as we often break out in song) made their debut performance to Mariah Carey.
Several salt lakes and many more flamingoes later I became the stinky girl of the truck when I got carried away taking photos and sunk knee deep into sulfur smelling muck at the edge of one of the lakes. We saw a very cute Andean fox being attacked by birds, then carried on to Re Lagoon which is a truly beautiful sight and well named. Partially salted over we could see salty ´dust storms´ at the other side. The lake is so colourful and the surrounding mountains again make the scene even more beautiful with their vivid colours and shapes.
The second night was at a very basic hostel, one where you chose to go to the loo in public rather than in the actual toilets. We met many friends this way. But it is built a couple of hundred metres from more hot springs, this time averaging about 38° and although I tried to resist, knowing the experience of getting out in again verrry cold temps would be horrific (not being dramatic) Juan guaranteed us all it would be worth it and it was, especially when we got some bottles of wine to enjoy in the water and watch the distant lightning.
We started the next day with a visit to Sol de Mañana geysers, just over the mountain from the Chilean ones and even higher at 4900m asl. We weren’t as excited driving towards them as they at first don’t seem as impressive but they ended up being equally as awesome just in a different way. These were more deep holes in the ground with bubbling and spitting cement-looking substance (is this sulfur) and as we are now in Bolivia, there were no paths so we followed Juan vvvveeerrryyy closely as you can hear the bubbling liquids below the ground you are walking on, and it sounds pretty close to the surface! But wow the smell here definitely beat El tatio! It was difficult to breath because of it. After more rock formations we were back to Uyuni for our wet wipe shower in the Red Planet office and then our overnight bus to La Paz! We chose the local bus instead of the ´tourist bus´, against the agents advice as she really made it sound like ´you will definitely wake up with no bags´ and it will take many hours more but we didn’t and it didn’t and al was fine. We thought La Paz would be an overnight stopover on the way to other places in Bolvia…until we checked in at Loki hostel. Oh my.
The drive in to La Paz is one we have now done MANY times and one that is never any less jaw-dropping. Another place you cannot capture in photos. La Paz is a big city located in the middle of a valley of mountains. It´s slopes covered in houses, built where you would think should be left bare, terrible traffic and fumes (more so on cloudy days), constant noise, no road rules, car alarms obnoxiously ringing 24/7 (anyone How I Met your Mother fans will know this tune from the wedding dress episode), constant protests, dodgy police, stinky drains, the sounds of firecrackers from the protests ring throughout the day and into the night when you can´t be sure that is what the cracking noises are any more, poverty, wealth, the question of who walking around is on a day outing from San Pedro prison, muddy sidewalks, street food, markets, and all of these things and more have made me fall in love with it.
Our first stop was for a Salteña across the road from the hostel, and this place has set the standard for all of Bolivia as we have never found one quite as perfect. A slightly sweet pastry crust filled with juice chicken or meat and egg. Heaven! But warning – it is not served with a bowl of green capsicum. It is chillis. And they are HHOOOOTTT so unfortunately I could only actually taste half of my salteña. I couldn’t feel half my face for hours. We wandered up and down the hills of La Paz for a while until it started raining and ducked into The English Pub. After the flow of free shots, this began our first big night in La Paz (what it is known for) out for Indian dinner which ended in hugs & kisses from the staff, then carried on back at the hostel and to the clubs afterwards. Renee and I secured jobs at the hostel (which we did not follow through with…this time).
We did not check out the next day as planned. I bought a book to learn Spanish from a proper school of which I am up to page 9, over 3 months later…sadly some of those pages are the index. Another crazy night in La Paz BEGAN with Hailey telling people it was my birthday and my receiving a lap dance and strip tease from, of course, an Aussie guy (who we would come to know as Marky Mark and know very well) which ended in nudity which my sober eyes were not prepared for. Sadly the video of this is on Hailey´s stolen phone. On the way to the club that night some guys tried to rip off Renee and I and jump out without paying so we got to put our very first rude phrase to good use which translates to ´your whore mother who birthed you´. Thanks Juan. It is not fun being hung over in La Paz. The altitude and the hills and stairs you must tackle to get anywhere, then the fumes and noise, really don´t make it enjoyable.
Many cities in South America offer free walking tours, usually run by young uni students based on tips. We did the Blue Hat one here (a rival to the Red Hat tour) and it was fantastic. Our guide Sergio was fantastic, so sweet and interested in what we have to say, as well as passionate about La Paz so that made the day even better. We started at San Francisco church, a huge beautiful building and the area around which was at this time very decorated for Christmas. Bolivia is very extravagant with its´ Xmas decorations. Even crumbling houses have lights up. The tour was really interesting as it offered some great facts about La Paz. Here, there are shoe shiners everywhere and people are constantly getting the dirt of La Paz polished off their boots (spot the gringos by their thongs). Sergio explained why the shoe shiners mostly wear balaclavas- this is because people often associate them as thieves and it is considered the lowest job and they are ashamed to show their faces. You often see them packing up their box and heading to ATM booths for their nightly shelter. It was actually really sad and we have made an effort to acknowledge them and say hi when others just pass. Most are quite young and many have run away from home abuse and are simply trying to survive on a couple of cents per job.
The council gave them a wall to paint to display their talents and they have painted a beautiful mural of the covered faces and sad eyes you will see all over the city. On the way to the huge market – we had to make Sergio stop so we could get some food – we saw the La Paz zebras. These guys are volunteers and dress in a zebra outfit to help people cross streets, and also run courses on road safety for children. They are always happy and bouncing around and can be seen randomly throughout the city. The tour also took us to the ´old town´ of cobblestoned streets and Spanish style buildings to the haunted street where several 1800´s freedom fighters were executed. Another street is believed to be haunted by a black widow and Sergio is sure it´s not just because there is a bar up the road that serves very strong drinks.
There are many plazas around La Paz and the Bolivian and rainbow Indigenous flag frequents them, as do pigeons and people seem to really really like them! As the president is Indigenous, the culture seems really well respected in the country which is nice to see. La Paz is a blend of modern and traditional societies seemingly working together, although most of the poverty is of course seen in Indigenous society.
We saw the Presidential Palace which has been rebuilt 8 times due to the numerous uprisings in Bolivia and this is the first target, and one particular building nearby has been left unrepaired of bullet holes as a reminder of the most recent rebellion in 2003. We went by San Pedro prison (of the book ´Marching Powder´ fame) somewhere you would rather die than end up, and were strongly advised against taking anyone up on the offer of one of the unofficial tours – darn – as not long before this the 13 year old daughter of one of the prisoners was raped and they have apparently started moving out all of the families living in there with their husbands/fathers. This prison is so interesting. The book is actually banned in Bolivia, although you can secretly find some dodgy photocopied versions. Families live in there, businesses are run by prisoners, houses can be purchased, drugs are made inside and smuggled OUT. Marky Mark and his friend did the tour, organized by tall, bald English Martin on the outside and run by a prisoner who is a member of the Mexican cartel on the inside. An apparent ´untouchable´ in there. They spent the entire day in his cell doing cocaine, apparently some of the finest in the world. For the tour, you are just recommended to take plenty of money as the tour cost is separate to the cost to bribe the guards to actually let you out. The guards who do not even dare enter the prison. No. Thank. You! I will give that one a miss.
On to the witches market where baby llama fetuses hang from shop fronts and the smell of incense fills the air. We found out the llama fetuses along with other items available in the markets, are buried under the foundations of a new house as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth) and an apology for digging into her. There are rumours that some of the larger building may be built on the offering of homeless people, llama´s not seen to be a large enough offering. Rumours. Then boarding ´chicken bus ´, the too-wide-for-La Pazs´-narrow-winding-streets vintage looking bus to take us up a hill too unpleasant to walk on a tour to a lookout with 360° views of the city which was spectacular. We heard that here the rich live down low and the poor up high (with the views) and most of the houses on the hills are left the brown brick colour as once they are painted they are deemed complete and taxes increase. La Paz at night is beautiful, as the millions of lights of the hills surround the city centre.
We had one experience with a dodgy cop. Apparently the undercover cops are under strict instructions not to bother tourists, so they are no problem. It is those in a uniform to be wary of as there are many fake ones. Trying to pass a blocked road – another protest, which you are told to avoid but they were on every corner this time of year it seemed – to pick up our washing, one asked for our passports which is a big no-no for the real police. We just said we didn’t have them and walked off and on the way back to the hostel I noticed he was STILL following us. We made some wrong turns to be sure and yeup, he was. So we just ran down the street to the safety of Loki, opposite the big police station.
Everyone who had joked we would not be leaving the next day were almost right when we tried to get a taxi to the bus terminal to get to Lake Titicaca and were told by several that it was impossible to leave that day as so many streets were closed due to protests…we JUST managed by walking to the other side of the city – Naughty Natalie, my evil alter-ego, made her first appearance as my backpack is way too heavy for these hills and lack of air – and finally got a taxi as we had passed the main road blocks. Escape from La Paz and heading for Copacabana…it´s now 18th December. (oh my god a lot of reading to go!)