It was 4:45am as we waited in the dirt street outside our hostel door in San Pedro. The only other sign of life was the extended van that drove by full of other tourists. Finally, ours arrived. Out of the plethora of tour companies that offer the dusty and cold journey across the border and through the Bolivian desert, we chose Estrella del Sur, on recommendation from the Tourist Information office in San Pedro. Although we had been warned by fellow travelers as well as agents that we would be cold, we believed the 4×4 to be the best way to get into Bolivia from Chile. We still believe that.
We were the first ones in the van to start the 3 day trip and for some reason we had special treatment; everyone else on our trip was waiting at a common pick up spot and piled in together. We skidded out of town as we watched the sun rise over the volcano, and within 5 minutes we were already exiting Chile. After our formal exit from Chile was complete, our drivers and guide left us at the border, without saying a word, with the van unattended for close to an hour before we entered the no man’s land between where Chile stops and Bolivia begins. Not a great start… Slightly annoyed, we asked ourselves: Why did I get up at 3:45am just to wait at the border doing nothing?
As we progressed towards Bolivia, Lincancabur Volcano grew bigger and bigger, until we drove past it just prior to the Bolivia border post. Bolivia sure knows how to make a first impression. This was by far the most rudimentary border crossing in South America. The small mud and concrete building, flying the country’s green, yellow and red flag, was surrounded by distant mountains and blending shades of beige and light beige desert as far as the eye could see. The chilled wind whipped through without hesitation, adding discomfort to the sunny day at 3500m. By now, we were used to South America’s interpretation of breakfast, and after we stamped into Bolivia, we got just that. White buns with jam, cold butter, processed cheese and ham, along with Nescafe. Hmmmm, the fresh bananas that our guide came back with from that long pause at the border must be for something else.
I had the pleasure of using the area behind a rusted old school bus which had been designated as the toilet. I’ve certainly had more pleasurable experiences in my life. I don’t usually have a problem with a natural toilet, but the high winds made this one a special challenge. As a female, using the ground as a toilet is a highly skilled task. We don’t have the aim that guys do. One slight weight-shift or misplaced squat will give you sprayed ankles or leave your feet in a warm puddle. I’d like to think I have enough practice to avoid a self-dousing. But with the help of the aggressive wind, I snuck out from behind that old bus with my pants looking like I’d been up to my ankles. Luckily, that same wind dried my cotton trousers in a matter of minutes.
Again, we waited. This time it was over an hour before our 4×4 jeep arrived. We were excited to see a Lexus SUV pick us up, and a young driver come out to greet us. We thought for sure this was a winning combination – a luxury ride and a young (in our minds this meant fun and friendly) driver. Wishful thinking. The SUV was circa 1980 with uneven seats, no air conditioning or heat and a tape deck that blasted the same 2 mixed tapes so much that, after three days, Shakira sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher after 3 days. Our driver didn’t speak. At all. Of course, of the six of us (we were accompanied by a Korean couple and two sisters from Holland) Dale and I understood the most Spanish, but our driver didn’t even try. He only spoke if I asked him a direct question, and even then he answered by guessing or saying “No Se” (which means “I don’t know”). Luckily, on day one, we made some interesting stops to break up the long day.
Laguna Verde, at an elevation of 4350m, is one of the highest altitude lake in the world. I’d bet it’s also one of the coldest. After a few hours of freezing in the tin box with wheels, we welcomed the stop at the hot springs. With only open air changing rooms (translation: stand beside the hotsprings and change your clothes), we got into our swimsuits while managing not to reveal what God gave us and quickly entered the bath. Although it was much smaller than the brochure let on, it was warm. It was a good thing we negotiated with our driver to stay longer than his initial “10 minute visit”. Thirty minutes later, we were back in the jeep and we were hungry. Mid day had come and long gone when we finally asked when we would have lunch (in Spanish). We were relieved when our driver told us it would only be another hour. An hour later, we stopped at Sol de Manana (sulfur mud geysers), which was a trip for the senses. Very cool to see, but an egg balm of smell to for the nostrils. The sulfur gas was surging out from craters in the ground, as a result of volcanic activity. I’m sure it was really healthy to inhale that much.
Three hours later, we arrived at our “hotel” where cold lunch of hot dogs, lettuce, tomato and coke were waiting. It had been sitting there a while, and no vegetarian selection (although it was promised when we purchased the tour) was present. Luckily, the cook lived there and made us some eggs. Someone messed up that day… we ate that lunch at 4pm (breakfast had been at 9am), tea at 5:30 and dinner at 7. Strangely, we were served red wine with dinner, which is a good contributor to altitude sickness. One glass and a beautiful sunset over the surrounding mountains and we were all exhausted. By 8:30, the generator turned off and we were left in black.
That night, we were sleeping at 4600m. At that elevation, everything feels different. And at that elevation, in the desert, at night, in a concrete building, everything is freezing. As long as we stayed under the 5 layers of thick wool blankets that covered our beds, we were warm. It was getting up in the middle of the night for a much needed bathroom run (out the hall on concrete floor to a no-seat porcelain bowl), when the effects of the environment became apparent. It was winter cold. As I climbed back into bed, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was panting and my heart felt like it was going to break through my chest. All I did was pee and I was exhausted! I now know wahatsleeping at 4600m is all about… and it’s not pleasant.
Early, we woke up, pleasantly surprised by pancakes. They lacked maple syrup, or heat, or flavor of any kind, but they were an appreciated change from the usual morning routine. We spent the rest of the day in the jeep, passing by lakes, rock formations, sand, sand and more sand. By 10am, our mouths were full of grit and our lungs congested. It was nose-bleed dry. Every sip of water tasted like heaven, it’s a good thing we brought our own water as we were only served caffeine containing drinks with meals.
It was a long time sitting without stopping. Our poorly informed driver indicated that we would have a toilet stop in an hour when we asked about one. Two hours later, we were in pain and needed to stop. Lucky us, we chose the highest elevation of the whole journey to take a pee. We were at 4800m, panting as we walked 50m to squat behind rocks in the desert.
The most interesting site of the day came just before lunch – the Valley of Rocks. Looking out into the valley, we saw an endless display of unique rock formations, formed by lava foam and shaped by the wind. After that, there was no road. We were the only jeep or sign of any life for miles. It was beautiful, which made up for the less than favorable comfort of the ride.
We had been on the road nearly 8 hours when we finally arrived at Uyuni. Usually on this tour, night two is spent in a hotel on the salt flats. However, during the wet season, the roads are impassible and water in the salt flats makes getting lost in the western side nearly inevitable. Our “hotel”, which was really a hostel was a shithole. Thinking back, that, and our first night in Bolivia were, by far, the worst accommodations we had had thus far. After freezing our asses off for 2 days in the desert, all we wanted was a warm shower, which we were promised. Immediately on arrival, I scoped out the showers, and claimed my spot. I thought I couldn’t get any colder. I was wrong. I entered the concrete shower, stripped down, put my dry clothes outside the stall, and turned on the water – all the way to HOT. I dodged the initial cold spray and backed up against the concrete… YIKES! I got colder. I kept checking the water, the temperature didn’t change. I waited, and waited. Ten minutes later, the water was still cold and I was shivering. Keep in mind, there is no indoor heat in Bolivia. I decided to surrender and bird-bath the necessary areas and turn the water off. I wasn’t a happy camper. If I wanted to camp, I would have pitched a tent!
Our decision to get a bus ticket out of Uyuni after our visit to the Salt Desert the next day was an easy one. Uyuni wasn’t winning any awards.
Having come down 1000m, we slept much better that night. Our morning coffee-less pick-up came at 5:30 for our drive to Solar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats) for sunrise. We reached our spot in the road-less salt desert an hour later. Opening the door of the jeep let in an astonishingly cold air. Maybe it was the fact that it looked like it shouldbe cold out. The desert looked like a giant frozen lake. We were also still 3600m above sea level prior to the day’s sun having an opportunity to swath the air with warmth, accompanied by the blistering wind. The salt flats were colder than Antarctica. Standing still, it was impossible not to shiver – and we had on all our layers. Finally, the sun bathed us and the chilling trembles subsided.
After a tail gate breakfast and hot coffee, we had two hours to play in the desert. We were given explicit instructions (our driver pointed in a general direction) of where to meet the jeeps in two hours. People get lost in the salt desert, and every year someone gets lost indefinitely. Solar de Uyuni covers nearly 11,000 square kilometers which has an average altitude variation within one meter over the entire area, making it the largest, flattest place on earth. Its space defies the eyes. The distant mountains and volcanoes seem to float in the salt, and the clouds appear like tiny crystal lakes in the sky. Inhaling its vastness is something to put on your bucket list. This site made the grueling jeep ride worth it.
The rest of our day was filled with shopping for alpaca wool, visiting the salt museum, salt minds (really just an area of the desert that is worked by a family in the community), staring at women in traditional dress and chilling out at at the FUN bar in Uyuni awaiting our overnight bus departure for La Paz – a.k.a civilization.