(Another pathetic attempt to catch up with my blogging. This stuff is more than a month old now).
Jay and I walked across the border from Argentina to Bolivia at the twin towns of La Quiaca (Argentina) and Villazón (Bolivia). You can’t catch buses across the border – you need to walk or go by car. The crossing is actually formed by a very small bridge over a dried river bed, the border posts at either end.
The crossing was the least painful so far – in 10 minutes or so, and without questions or bag checks, we were into Bolivia and what felt like a different world. The street immediately on the Bolivian side of the border is full of colours and smells and clothing that isn’t really seen in Argentina – it set the scene for the rest of our travels in Evo’s land.
I was sick – I hadn’t managed to shake the cough that I had followed me around for the last week, and even walking the five or six blocks from our La Quiaca hostel to the bus terminal in Villazón had me out of breath and feeling wretched.
We were lucky enough to snag a ticket on a bus leaving for Tupiza almost straight away and were glad of it (the next one was apparently not for another ten hours or so, and there is very little to do in Villazón). Our first taste of bus travel in Bolivia was fun. The bus was ricketty and aged, but appeared up tot he task. There didn’t appear to be much of a road – our driver chose dried river beds and rocky outcrops seemingly as often as the faint dust tracks of the “road”. Given that the border crossing and trip to Tupiza is a common one I was left wondering what the road situation was like in the rest of Bolivia and how the government decided where to pave roads, if at all.
Tupiza turned out to be a sweet, small town nestled in amongst wind and water eroded dirt hills. It was one of those places where there are so few foreigners that they all say hello to each other on sight; there was no ATM – only cash advances using your passport and credit card, please; and maybe 4 places to eat in town, all with similar cuisine.
We stayed at one of the local HI Hostels (there are two) and booked our tour of the Salt Flats to leave the next day (via the hostel travel service, if you were wondering). We learned there would be two or three others with us.
I think if I had more time I would have liked to stay in Tupiza a few more days – it is well known for its horse riding trails, hiking and climbing and seemed like a pleasant place to chillax for a while.
The next day we were off on our 4 day jeep ride to Uyuni via the salt flats, with our driver Emilio, our cook Dehsi and our new travel companions – three brilliant English girls who call themselves Sarah, Sophia and Anna. While I resigned myself to the fact that I was in for 4 days of “Have you been to pub X in suburb Y in London?”, “Shall I be mother?” and occasional adoration of Shane Warne from my English friends, I had to admit that we had a good group and the outlook for the trip was promising.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world – visible from space. I had been to the salt flats in Chile in the Atacama desert, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from this famous landmark. Much the same but bigger? Would it be worth the expense of the jeep ride just to see the a similar landscape?
It was worth every cent. The company was excellent, the terrain changed almost every half hour and the tiny villages we stayed in were gorgeous. I looked forward to my regular evening stroll with the others and, when we finally entered onto the salt flat itself on our last day, I was blown away by the immensity and beauty of the damn thing. It really is unbelievable.
The food on the tour was delicious (Dehsi really knows how to cook a veggie soup!), and while a few of us had a bit of a bad night at the highest point (due to perhaps pushing ourselves a bit hard on our sunset walk that afternoon) aside from shortness of breath we were generally unaffected by the altitude. The tour took us as high as 5000m above sea level.
We stayed in a salt hotel on the last night – the beds were carved from salt rock, the floor was crushed salt gravel, the walls were made of salt bricks. The moon rise over the plains that night was something of fairy tales: a large, bright silver disc hanging in that still silence, seeming to be only just out of reach of your fingertips. It threw soft light over the low hills near the hostel and disappearing out onto the edges of the flats themselves, highlighting only some small feature here and there and leaving the rest in shadow. It is not something that can be described easily, especially by someone having as limited a vocabulary as I. I hope I can at least keep that clear memory with me for some time to come.
We celebrated Jay’s birthday on our final morning, an unhealthily early start to the day in order to see the sunrise on the salt. There is an “island” in the middle of the flats, (maybe it is more like a tor?) covered in cactuses and rubble. We fought the altitude and climbed it (well, I fought more than the others, hehe) and were rewarded by a 360º view of the sea of white – Jay mentioned that apparently the salt flats could contain Wales in its entirety.
Arrival at Uyuni confirmed the rumours we had all heard. It is an unattractive, dusty town with little of interest and little to do. We didn’t want to stay any longer than we really needed. We booked a bus that night to take us to La Paz (the girls included), and killed the rest of the afternoon using the internet and drinking and discussing terrible coffee. As we killed the time, I realised with dismay that the English had managed to insert the word “fancy” into my vocabulary.