I was really disappointed when I heard that U.S. citizens were being kicked out of Bolivia. A bit later, apparently no one was being let in, not just U.S. citizens. I was glad when I heard the coast was clear. In reality, it was mostly politics. The problems were in the east, I wasn't going anywhere near them, so there was no reason not to go. Thankfully, the Bolivians saw it my way.
I entered Bolivia at the spot closest to Salta, where I had been for over a month. After crossing the border into the city of Villazón, I got a ticket straightaway for Tupiza, where my tour through the outback of Bolivia would begin.
I showed up at a hostel which had been recommended to me by Edel (an Irish gal I had met in Salta), La Torre Hotel, checked in and discussed the tour possibilities. I booked the 4-day tour which ends up in Uyuni. From there, I would go to La Paz, then continue the northward sprint.
The tour cost 1,200 Bolivianos (about $170) and consisted of 4 days and 3 nights traveling throughout the remote wilderness of southern Bolivia. Food and housing was provided.
The 4x4 picked me up at 9:00 A.M. The guide threw my bag on the roof and we proceeded to another hostel to pick up the other 3 passengers. Our vehicle contained the guide, who drove, his mother, who cooked, Sylvia and Dennis from Belgium, Wei-Li from Singapore, and yours truly. We all got along reasonably well, which increased the enjoyment of the trip. The other vehicle contained a bunch of Irish folks, and our guide's brother who acted as their driver and guide.
Dennis was a geologist, which added to our resources for information on this trip through a constantly-changing geological smorgasbord of landscapes, Sylvia was a social worker who helped foreigners find work in Belgium, and Wei-Li was a recent college graduate with a degree in Poly-Sci who had been working with an NGO in Cochabamba (150 miles east of La Paz) for the past two months with sexually abused children.
The food wasn't fancy, but it wasn't bad. I certainly wouldn't call it exotic Bolivian cuisine. Normally, we had some kind of meat, along with vegetables, bread, and Coke, juice, or water. The food generally took the form of sandwiches, salads, and soups.
I remember the first dinner.
Wei-Li: "I prefer raw sugar. It makes the tea taste better."
Jay: "What's raw sugar?"
Wei-Li: "It's unprocessed."
Jay: "How do you process sugar?"
Dennis: "When you get the juice out of the sugarcane or sugar beets and let the sediment settle, you get sugar crystals. That's raw sugar."
Wei-Li: "You see it in your supermarket. It's darker and the crystals are bigger."
Jay: "And it tastes better? I'll have to try it. Where do we get sugar in the States? Hawaii?"
Dennis: "I'm guessing Cuba."
Jay: "You're saying we have communist sugar in the United States?"
Wei-Li: "I can't believe we're still talking about raw sugar."
Jay: "We're not. We talked about something else for a while. Now we're talking about raw sugar again."
Raw sugar came up several times during the remainder of the trip and we all got a kick out of it.
Over the coming days, we saw the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), Laguna Colorada (Colored Lagoon, it was red), mountains of many colors, many salt flats, donkeys, llamas, guanacos, vicuñas, and a variety of birds and plants. We spent approximately three days passing through territory that I would have liked to have taken a month to photograph.
We passed through some small towns, including one where the guides had grown up. Their grandmother still lived there and we got to peek into her kitchen. It was an extremely small mud-brick cubicle made just for cooking. The people who lived in these villages were indigenous, and clearly hadn't had much outside influence. They lived many, many decades behind the times. I don't think most of the houses had running water or electricity. It was good to see some non-touristic places. Not all the tours take you to places like these.
We had a lot of time just to look out the windows at passing scenery in between key points. We passed the time by either napping, shooting photos out the window, or talking. One such conversation yielded a quotable quote. When I commented about llamas being wild, Wei-Li's retort was:
"If they run into a man-made enclosure when you wave a stick at them, they're not wild."
In these villages, as in La Paz, the people have a fit if you try to take their photo. At best, they demand money for a photo. This is in stark contrast to Rurrenabaque, in the north, where the people were very friendly and weren't bothered in the least by photo-snapping visitors.
Mid way through the tour, we stopped by a natural hot spring during our lunch hour. We took a dip in a really nice pool, and then had lunch. While eating, there was a small tornado out on the salt flat which stretched across a lake. It was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of the tornado at its climax. We also visited some geysers—sort of a mini Yellowstone. I have to say that the variety of landscapes we viewed on this short trip was astounding. There was something different around every corner.
On the last day, we visited the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, at over 4,000 square miles, and over 3,600 meters high, in the altiplano of the Andes mountains. It's about 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S.
We stopped in the middle of this vast, white, dried up lake for photos just prior to sunrise. We pulled off the main beaten path, and I figured I would just walk a hundred feet or so off the "road" for a clean photo of the pentagonal salt formations. Although I can't prove this, I don't believe there is a spot you can go in the salt flat where there are not vehicle tracks. Wherever a vehicle drives, it crushes the rims of these pentagons. It makes it difficult to get great photos of the area. These pentagons apparently re-form with rain, but I'm not sure how long it takes.
Bolivia is not taking care of this amazing place very well. They should define just a couple approaches to Mount Tunupa, a small mountain in the middle of the salt flat. There is a great infrastructure on the mountain and all the tour groups go there. When you hike to the top of the cactus-covered island, you see tracks approaching from every direction, and you see tracks in between the main approaches.
After visiting the salar, we went to its edge, where the salt is harvested and processed. There were three machinery doing the processing. I talked to the folks running one of them. The contraption was a 1946 truck chassis, completely stripped of the body work and accoutrements. What was left was the chassis, wheels, engine, and transmission. Attached to the transmission was a sheet metal contraption with some kind of impeller inside, driven by a belt powered off the output shaft of the transmission. One or two people shoveled salt into the top, and a finer version dropped out the bottom.
When I approached, the engine wasn't running. Liquid was pouring out the bottom. I didn't investigate closely, but something wasn't right. After some fiddling, one man turned a hand crank on the front of the engine, while another poured gasoline into the carburetor. The straight six sputtered to life and the salt processing began. They all wore ski masks to protect their faces from the bright sun reflected from the bright salt at this high altitude. They also wore sunglasses. Sunburn and snow blindness (salt blindness?) are serious risks in this environment. In return for "permitting" me to photograph their work, Max, the leader of the gang, requested a fresh drink for his posse. I thought that was pretty reasonable. I brought them back what was left of the juice we'd had for breakfast—more than a liter.
Nights were cold, and days were hot when in the sun and cold when the wind blew. Plenty of layered clothing was good to have, as was a warm hat. The temperatures were quite tolerable, even at night since we had blankets, but in the winter, I believe it is bitterly cold—this is from reports I've heard.
We spent most of the trip between 4,000 and 5,000 meters. I didn't feel the affect of the altitude until the third day. My legs hurt, I was very tired, and at lunch time, I couldn't decide if I was going to pass out or throw up. I ate very little. When we arrived at the hostel at about 5:00 P.M., I just fell into bed and slept for a couple hours. I ate a lot for dinner, and after a good night's sleep, felt like a new man.
We had our final lunch on day four in a salt building. We'd stayed in a salt hostel the night before, and we visited a salt hotel-turned-salt museum just before lunch. Other buildings in the area were also made of salt. I guess you work with whatever building material is plentiful in your location.
This is a great tour and if you're in Bolivia, don't miss it. We went with Tours el Grano de Oro. They did a good job.