Chapter Twenty Three: Bolivia Pt. 2 (Santa Cruz & the Salt Flats)

Getting out of Rurranabeque was not quite as peaceful as arriving. It started with twelve hours of mini-busses across a road that appeared as though it was being made as we drove along. Really just a somewhat flattened strip of dirt with machinery dotted along the shoulders, the debris flew in the windows constantly at Jasper and I in the back seat as the windows were kept perpetually open. At dusk, dirt was replaced with large beetles that landed on and around me. Suffice it to say, it was a relief to get to Trinidad, where we would be boarding an overnight, proper, bus. However, when we arrived, we learned that all busses leaving that night were sold out (of course you can’t book online, don’t be silly!), but we were offered two unofficial “seats” in one of them by the driver, for cash. This turned out to be the nook behind where he sat, which, not only dirty and smelling heavily of body odor, was frigid cold and our bags were stowed in the back already, to which we had no access. We spent the night awake, taking turns blocking the AC vent with our bodies and shivering together.

It was our final penance, I suppose, as we spent the next five days in private-bathroom’d, air-conditioned, Wi-Fi’d bliss. There was even a pool!! Jasper has a friend who is Bolivian and had lived some time in Canada. He and his wife now live in Santa Cruz and they were amazing hosts/tour-guides for us as we took a much-needed week of normalcy in their lovely condo. They had a fantastic meal of local dishes prepared for us for lunch on arrival, and took us for afternoon ‘tea,’ where the tea is replaced by a sweet plum juice and the finger sandwiches are small empanadas and sweet bites. We were also lucky enough to arrive just in time to catch the two soccer (football) teams of Santa Cruz play one another.

Bolivia is considered the poorest country of South America and you can see this quite easily strolling through most cities or town for even a block. Not so in Santa Cruz where there is a concentration of wealthy elite a stones’s throw from the city centre. Fried chicken shops are replaced by Mercedes dealerships and sushi shops are a dime a dozen (we went, of course). However, if you wander a few ‘rings’ (think peripherique) away from the centre, the roads become dirt and the infrastructure disintegrates. The contrast of rich and poor here is striking and was eye-opening for us.

I must say, though, it was nice to have a few days of familiarity. We visited the juice bar business our friends have developed (Be Natural – fantastic product!), went out for burgers and fries and had some lounging days. We also visited the Incan ruins called El Fuerte just outside of the Alpine-inspired town (which I think had more of a Tuscan feel) of Samaipata. After five days, laundry done and feeling fresh, we were ready to hit the road again.

Our destination was Uyuni, where we would begin a tour of the salt flats, but we stopped at the capital city of Sucre for an overnight first (La Paz is the government/de facto capital). This is the nicest Bolivian city I’ve seen, in terms of aesthetic and cleanliness. It also didn’t have the same abject poverty feeling as the others we have been through. It’s known as Cuidad Blanco, ‘the white city,’ as all of the buildings are whitewashed annually by mandate. The result is a picturesque smattering of white houses with red roofs in the rolling hills. We arrived on a day that the president (up for a controversial re-election and Peruvian president were to be visiting. While we did not see the men ourselves, we did see hordes of school children lined up with flags and cheering at all cars and passersby.

Pretty but secluded, a day of wandering was enough for us. We bussed on another ten hours or so and stopped briefly at Potosi, the highest city in the world at an altitude of 4,090 m. Nauseating and bleak, we were happy not to have planned any more time there. We had lunch (fried chicken, one of the few guaranteed finds at any city, village or junction), took a few photos, and continued on to Uyuni.

The town of Uyuni is very clearly maintained solely by the recent tourism of the Salar – the salt flats. Otherwise a ghost town, the central few streets are decorated with nearly identical English-menu restaurants and shops selling alpaca gear. We had our lama steak, bought some gloves and called it a night.

The next morning we grabbed some food at the market and boarded our tour van to see the flats. Our group had six people plus a short and surly guide. The group was great, there were three Spanish-speakers from Spain and Argentina who all met in Dublin, and a quieter German girl traveling on her own. On day one we stopped at a train graveyard nearby and then went on to explore the salt flats, which are vast and incredible. Resembling a pure white desert, you can see for miles in any direction with mountains peaking up at the edges. We stopped at Incahuasi (house of the Incans) which is a cactus island in the middle of the salt dessert and where the Incans had previously settled, believing it was a holy place. Being there, you can certainly understand how they might think this. I made friends with some lamas before heading on to take the oh-so-touristic photos using the distance distortion of the white grounds. When in Rome! We spent the night in a hotel made almost entirely of salt (save the beds). Even the tables and chairs were salt (ironically, the food was a little bland). It was among the most unusual places I have ever slept.

 

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On day two, we left the salt flats and continued on through the desert, reaching an altitude of 5000 meters. I decided to skip the altitude pills this time and felt much better. We drove through reserve nacional de fauna andina Eduardo Avaroa, where we saw lagoons with anywhere from a handful to thousands of flamingos. We saw plenty of lamas and alpacas. We visited the Laguna Colorada which is a large flamingo-filled lake that is a rusty red colour. We stopped for the night at a more modest, but pleasant, hostel where we watched the sunset and then watched the stars from a hot springs basin.

The next morning, we stopped at a lake that is supposed to be emerald green, however, as the wind wasn’t cooperating, it just appeared to be an ordinary lake. We reached the end of the trip the border of Bolivia and Chile, where we had arranged through the tour operators – and paid for- a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. However, when the shuttle never arrived, our tour guide (did I mention I didn’t like him?) said it wasn’t his problem and was set to leave us there in the desert with no option onward to a town. Money aside, this was a scary and dangerous prospect and I got vocal about it. I don’t think Jasper has ever seen me yell at someone but something snapped and I lost it. Eventually, the “guide” begrudgingly arranged for us to take the last available seats on the last bus out of there for the day. It was a relief but an exhausting morning. I looked at other reviews for this trip online and found that our experience was, in fact, far from the worst. Many people mentioned that their drivers were not only rude but also drunk and some were even physically abusive.

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Bolivia – you are incredibly beautiful but you need to step up your tourist game in a big way. It’s a wonder that so many people still come through. We certainly got the impression that it is assumed tourists would come regardless, so they can both charge whatever they like and have no obligation to be friendly or helpful. And there is also the assumption that tourists have endless resources to spend on travel. Needless to say, our salt flats guide did not get a tip!

One way or another, we had made it through Bolivia and were excited to start our Chilean adventure. ❤

 

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