Uyuni to San Pedro, Bolivia
The overnight bus from La Paz took us away from the mountains, along the alitplano and along a road so bumpy you would find yourself periodically catapulted from your seat every time you dropped off to sleep. In the morning we saw Bolivia’s arid, barren desert for the first time. The town of Uyuni was stuck there right in the middle of the desert. The wind ripped through the flat rooves it and made it freezing. Life must be hard here. I was in the internet cafe writing the diary when I suddenly realised I could hear a familiar song from behind me. I turned round and saw they were playing the film “The Sound of Music” on TV… it couldn’t have been less fitting for such a bleak place! “Pass the salt please” The next day we set off in an old Toyota Land Cruiser on a 3 day tour through the salt plains and desert to the Chilean border. The “Salar de Uyuni” is a 12000 sq km desert of salt formed from an ancient salt lake. Basically it is just a blinding white expanse of sparkling salt as far as you can see with a few mountains in the distance as the only guiding markers. The landscape looks so much like ice that you have to keep picking it up to remind yourself it´s actually salt. We stopped in a town on the edge of the Salar which, unsurprisingly, has an economy dependent on salt. Piles of white salt sat everywhere which had been manually excavated from the Salar and were ready to be either processed or made into houses, statues or even whole hotels. Gliding through the salt in the 4 wheel drive felt quite strange; there are no roads you simply drive wherever you want. We arrived at “Fish Island”, an island made out of brown, sharp coral sticking up out of the white desert. The landscape on this island and the views from the top were more than a little unusual: the island is covered with man-sized cactuses looking out over miles and miles of white nothingness. There are 2 buildings on it which even had shutters made from cactuses! Finally we approached the mountains and the white salt turned into brown desert. We spent the night in a dismal looking village where half the mud brick houses were falling down and the only residents seemed to be several mules. Desolate lives… After watching the sun rise over the Salar we drove further into the desert. The brown earth was covered in green shrubs and llamas grazing. We stopped in another tiny village of 20 people built next to some train tracks which disappeared into no-where. The town of Julaca appeared to be a cross between the Wild West and a ghost-town. Old water pumps which once fuelled the steam trains were now chillingly iced over and the whole place felt eerie. This has to be one of the most desolate places to live on earth. Bare, inhospitable desert for miles, freezing temperatures and virtually nothing to shield you from the elements (heating doesn’t exist in most of Bolivia), it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing it (which I am sure the residents didn´t). Suddenly a figure appeared from a house. A little boy of 7 who spoke barely any Spanish seemed excited to see us. Schools in the rest of South America start at 7am, but here not until 9.30am – the reason? It’s way too cold to do anything at 7am! The little boy told us his favourite subject was languages, which ones we asked, Quechua he replied, (the indigenous language) was all they learnt except for Spanish. His sister then came running out of the house shouting “Gringos Gringos!”, this, it seemed, would be the highlight of their day. The family huddled at the door of the house consisted of his mother and several other children, a look at their clothes and their house revealed a pitiful existence apparently supported by a father working down the silver mines in Chile, and mother farming Quinoa grain in the desert. I have been feeling increasingly guilty whilst in Bolivia about having given our time to the children of Galápagos, a part of South America where I now realise the children lead rich, opportunity full lives compared to parts of Peru and most of Bolivia. Our volunteer placement seems selfish when there are children here with no hope of a decent education to help them escape poverty. We had the time of our lives in Galàpagos, but the children of this village and others in Bolivian cities could have gained a lot more from us. Awake or dreaming? The landscape was ever changing. Soon the brown desert became a reddish colour and pink-ish coloured mountains rose up in the far distance. Flamingos stood in green lakes tinged with white Borax apparently oblivious to the freezing temperatures. As the desert took on a red glow it began to remind me of Australia, more so when we arrived at a heap of orange tinged layered sand rocks in the middle of the desert. We had our lunch there surrounded by animals called Viscatche which resemble a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. The scenery was most spectacular for its off-this-planet weirdness. We were at an altitude of 4500m yet miles and miles of flat altiplano stretched before us. Things got even weirder when we arrived at a red-brown coloured lake populated by very pink flamingos where we were to spend the night. The “refuge” we stayed in, one of a few stone huts by the lake, provided little shelter from the freezing temperatures. As dark drew in the wind started to whip around the building and we all put on every single item of warm clothing we owned, but still shivered as we passed the time playing “Uno”. Eskimos are warmer than this at night! At 9pm the generator ground to a halt: bedtime. That night was definitely the coldest and perhaps hardest I have ever experienced. I must have been wearing the equivalent of 3 Alpacas but even with a sleeping bag and blankets I still spent the night shivering, dozing, waking, shivering and trying to get comfortable on my wooden-plank-bed. The toilets were along a freezing corridor, the floor covered with god knows what and with no running water. We all dreaded needing to go during the night. I began to wonder why on earth we were paying for this privilege. When we prized ourselves from under the mountains of blankets at 5.30am the next day it was dark and still bitterly cold. Breakfast, as usual in Bolivia was nothing more than a piece of cardboard-never-been-bread and a scraping of jam. By now we were hanging out to get to Chile, Land of Plenty. A Few minutes drive and the landscape had changed again to lunar-like boulders on sand. We passed “Dali`s rocks” which looks like one of his paintings, and it hit me that this whole trip had been like something out of a Salvador Dali painting. Ever since we had got in that jeep it was as if we had stepped off planet earth into a unique void. It felt like a dream. We continued and reached thermal landscape where several huge geysers were steaming high into the sky. We had seen a lot of thermal stuff before but never anything on this scale. The whole ground just seemed to open up into great holes of bubbling, spitting mud and the steam could be seen for miles. In the typically South American way there were no barriers around them as there would have been anywhere else, a child could have quite easily fallen in. Half an hour later we jumped into some thermal pools – for a few minutes we remembered what it was like to feel warm..until we had to get out and stand nearly naked in the biting cold whilst we got dressed. Brrrrrrrr.. A couple of hours later and we were saying a happy goodbye to the desert. Arriving at the Chilean border and stripping off our layers was something of a joyous moment for us! Warm climate, good food, paved roads and cushy buses all awaited us. An hour later and we had descended 2000m to the town of San Pedro and the temperature had gone up 15 degrees! Although we were happy to leave the harsh conditions of the last few days, Bolivia still stole my heart in many ways. It’s the only country so far which feels like the original South America: there is little sign of the European conquistadors here and very few Latino faces. Not only that but for a tiny country it has the most amazing array of different landscapes. Tropical jungle, high mountains, flat altiplano, s
ubtropical forests, salt flats and desert, each one like a mini micro-world. To sum up… Recipe for Bolivia Take 3 heaped table spoons of the out-of-the-ordinary and sprinkle with the unexpected. Mix with a bowl of indigenous culture and poverty, watered down with a teaspoon of dignity and a healthy dose of optimism about the future. Leave for 1 hour whilst the unforeseen hitches and bureaucracy rise. Now add the sauce containing an incredible variety of landscapes and stir in a litre of exhilarating danger. Whisk for 20 mins then bake at altitude of over 4000m with extra oxygen. Freeze.