Welcome to Bolivia!

It was an early start, everyone meeting outside the tour office before 7am. There were around 20-30 people waiting and to leave Chile and cross into Bolivia we all boarded a little coach. This took us to the Chilean border controls at the edge of town (much less officious on the way out) and about a mile up into the mountains to the tiny little Bolivian border control. It was here we all split into parties of 6 or less and met our jeep driver – Charlie Manson (or so he said). The border itself was ridiculously basic consisting of just a couple of lonely tin huts surrounded by mountains. There was none of the paranoia (otherwise known as efficiency) of the Chileans, there didn’t even seem to be the facilities to check bags even if they wanted to, so it was just a quick stamp and we were in.

Crossing into Bolivia

I was riding with the two friends I’d met up with (Kari and Laura) and three Israeli backpackers we’d met in our hostel; Asaf, Shmuel and Sharon. The company you end up keeping on this kind of trip can really make or break it, luckily for me it worked out brilliantly and the 6 of us got on really well.

We drove from about 8am till about 4pm on the first day, steadily climbing all the time. I’d acquired a bigish bag of coca leaves to chew, but don’t think I’d really got the technique down and about half way through the day the altitude started to really effect me (and a few others in our jeep). It was nothing too serious, just a constant nagging headache and a slightly nauseas feeling, but the surrounding scenery and good company was enough of a distraction to take my mind off it.

There were several stops between the Bolivian border and our overnight accommodation – the first being a lake which apparently changes colour. None of us noticed an shifting hues, but it was an impressive sight none the less. Next up about 30 minutes further in were some natural hot springs. To be honest this stop was a little underwhelming. I expected something grander and a little more… well… natural. It was basically a fairly small pool which had been built that collected the naturally hot water. There were so many of us when we arrived here that it was completely full and in the end I opted to just watch from the warmth of the sidelines. The surrounding views were pretty spectacular and Asaf – the only one of our group to bother jumping in – reported that the water was boiling hot.

Day one also saw us make stops it some geysers which were a bizarre sight (and came with a lovely stink bomb smell thanks to the sulphur), some spectacular rock formations which appeared in the middle of nowhere in a very Stonehenge like manor and a stunningly beautiful red lake (coloured by the minerals in the water) which was home to a flock of flamingos. This final stop was also home to our sleeping quarters it turned out, which were thankfully much more substantial than I’d expected.

Beautiful red lake

 

 

It was only around 4pm when we stopped for the day, but we all pretty exhausted. We’d reached just about the highest point in terms of altitude – an impressive 5000m – and we were all feeling it a bit. Somehow our jeep was the first to arrive which gave us the pick of the rooms, it was all fairly basic but this worked in our favour and by the time most of the other jeeps in our convoy arrived I was enjoying a well earned nap. The accommodation was very basic –  bare stone walls and floors, big old beds covered in dusty heavy blankets – but it was more comfortable than I’d expected and under the many layers of bed clothes, warm and comfortable, so I slept pretty well.

The food all the way through the trip was also surprisingly good. Hearty, comforting bowls of soup and pasta with plenty of vegetables kept our energy levels up, and after dinner that night the 6 of us defied the altitude sickness and drank what little alcahol we had over a game of cards. This probably wasn’t the best idea as the next morning I was sick – although I blamed the fowl smelling toilets and the amplifying effect they had on my alcohol sickness rather than Shmuel’s home made Pisco Sours.

The nice thing about day two was that we were descending the whole time, so the effects of the altitude could only ease. This, combined with the incredible view we were greeted with on leaving our little sleeping hut put us all in a pretty cheery mood. The scenery was spectacular all day and our stops included; another mind blowing lake which reminded me of the Evian logo as it reflected the snow capped mountain behind; a huge expanse of rocks in all sorts of shapes and sizes including condor rock which is shaped like a condor (funny that); more flamingos – this time of the white and black variety which I didn’t know existed. This was all before lunch – it was an amazing day. We stopped for lunch in a tiny little town which we explored a little after we’d eaten. It was a bizarre place which was home to maybe 500 people and seemed to exist to support a largeish military base at the edge of town. There was one main street and it took literally 10 minutes to walk the length of the entire town. I can’t really imagine what life must be like living there.

The rest of day two was basically just a race to Uyuni with a quick stop in the town of San Somethingorother. On arriving in Uyuni we got our first taste of a sizeable Bolivian town and after 4 months in Brazil and Argentina it was a real culture shock. The poverty was really evident and compared to Buenos Aires or even Salta it felt a little bit 3rd world. We were taken to our hotel and told we’d be eating out later that evening (included in the price of our tour). The hotel was pretty nice, very flash compared to the night before – but the dinner we were given later that night was pretty rank. It was a hamburger restaurant and will go down as the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten (or nibbled at anyway). Manky. After dinner we followed most of the rest of the newly arrived gringos to the aptly name ‘Extreme Fun Pub’. I did have fun, and it was something close to a pub… it really wasn’t what I expected in this old border town though. It was like the owners had watched Ibiza uncovered on repeat when deciding on who their target audience would be. Fortunately for them there seem to be plenty of obliging young British and Australian punters passing through and I got to witness one 18 year old English boy take on their drinking challenge. The challenge basically consisted of drinking an obscene amount of shots (including the 96% proof drain cleaner spirit the miners drink) in a time good enough to make their top ten. The prize if you do is that you don’t pay. He didn’t and so did… in more than just money I think.

The third and final day was a trip out to the world famous salt flats of Uyuni – with a stop at the railway graveyard on route. The railway graveyard is exactly as it sounds – a place where dead trains go to rest. It was pretty cool and made for some good photos, but it was just the warm up for what most people visit this part of the world to see. The salt flats themselves are pretty spectacular. A vast expanse of white in every direction with the occasional unlikely looking bus or truck flying across them. We spent about 4 hours out there looking around and trying to capture the same crazy perspective shots everyone gets. This actually proved harder than it sounds and even with a bag full of props we didn’t really get an masterpieces. It was an incredible sight though snd something you definitwely shouldn’t miss if you have the opportunity to go.

And that was it, tour done. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and certainly the most exciting border crossing. The group was great, our driver was fun and it felt like fantastic value for money. So now Bolivia… at last…

Some photos from the 3 days…


Just like the Evian bottle

Condor rock... looks a bit like a Condor

 

Jeep posse stretching our legs