Our Epic Journey
Due to Nae’s time limit, we were keen to reach Bolivia as quickly as possible, so we set off from Buenos Aires very early one morning, on a 24 hour train which would cross the country and bring us closer to the border, and which cost us approximately £2.50. There was, of course, a reason it was costing us about 10p an hour. The carriages were fitted out in the 70s from the look of the laminated wood interior, and the seats were simply benches covered in faux brown leather. The toilets were metal rooms with two footprints on the floor to show you where to squat.
We were the only gringoes, as non-Spanish speakers are affectionately referred to as in South America, in our carriage. Seeing as our Spanish is not very advanced yet, when the train made sudden stops in the middle of the countryside, nowhere near a station, for long stretches of time, we had no clue what was going on. This factor, combined with the excruciatingly slow speed when the train was actually in motion, meant that our 24 hour journey became 30 hours, and we therefore crossed the 1200km distance to the city Tucuman at a rate of 40kmph; often coaches driving on roads parallel to the train kept up with us.
The countryside slowly changed from green ranchland to dustier, reddish expanses peppered with cacti. When we arrived in Tucuman mid-afternoon of the following day, and with less than two hours sporadic and fitful sleep under our belt, we headed straight for the bus terminal and caught the next bus to the border, a much more luxurious, semi-reclining affair, but for the far more princely sum of £17.
We arrived in the border town of La Quiaca just as the sun rose, and once through immigration and across the no man’s land bridge we were in the equivalent town on the other side, Villazón, and finally in Bolivia.
The last stretch was by far the favourite journey of my whole trip so far. We were on a local Bolivian coach for 10 hours, with just as many locals as gringoes, and no air conditioning to ruin my throat. The bright red and blue material of the dusty seats, the yellow curtains and the multi-coloured loomcloth the local women use to carry bundles or babies on their backs merged into my fitful sleep to give me colourful dreams. The landscape was absolutely stunning. We began by going through a mountain pass, with coloured layers in the rock faces which would have driven geologists crazy with excitement. These craggy shapes flattened out into rolling white sand dunes, then into flat, dusty expanses with herds of llamas grazing, some with bright pink tassels affixed to each ear so they were easier to spot, I assume.
Eventually, 60 hours after we left Buenos Aires, after 50 hours of travelling, less than 6 hours of broken sleep and 1945kms covered, we arrived, with backache, painful knees and hip pain, in the town of Uyuni.
Into the White
We spent a day recovering from our long journey, to let the aches subside, catch up on sleep, wander the market and make plans. The next day we then set off on a three day tour into the salt flats and south-west region of Bolivia.
We were picked up in a land cruiser by Edwin, our driver, and Huaskar, our guide, and once we had driven out of town found ourselves on the edge of a dessert landscape, fringed in the far distance by mountains. We stopped by what I can only describe as a locomotive playground: huge, rusty steam carriages which had become useless had been left sprawled in the dust beside the still-in-use railway tracks.
We briefly looked around a salt-processing plant, which is a grand way of describing a building made out of salt blocks, inside which a man sat by a gas canister and sealed packets of salt which had been dried out on iron surfaces next to him. As Huaskar said, there may be 10,000 million kilograms of salt on the flats, but they only have rusty tools at their disposal.
The landscape had become pure white from horizon to horizon by now. We stopped in a spot where tourists from various nationalities had pitched flags (no Union flag), then shortly afterwards came to Incahuasi Island. It has been surmised that it was originally an oasis, because a large mountainous ‘island’ rises from the middle of the whiteness surrounding it, covered in sometimes metres-high cacti, which apparently grow at a rate of 1cm per year, so some of the specimens were clearly centuries old. We climbed half an hour to the top for a stunning view, then once back at the bottom had fun messing around taking perspective photos on the flats, including what I shall name The Giant Series.
The sun set as we drove across the salt flats and arrived in our lodgings for the night: a salt hotel, a building constructed, as the name suggests, entirely from blocks of salt.
The Giant Series
Our second day began with a long drive until we arrived in a section of sand formations, where Nae and I enjoyed a scenic, outdoor pee on a well chosen ledge, with a view of the volcano nearby which had one, half-hearted plume of smoke rising from its crater.
The rest of the day was spent visiting various Andean lagoons, beginning with a vast one which was blue-black in colour at the edges due to the poo of vicuña, a type of cameloid related to Alpaca, and dotted with flocks of flamingos. Interesting fact: in Quechan, the local language, animals are often named onomatopoeically, so the three species of flamingo present in the area all have different names based on their calls: chururu, jututu and toko toko. Next we stopped by what Huaskar referred to as the ‘stinky lagoon’, with a strong stench of sulphur in the air, and finally Colorado Lagoon, reddish in colour due to the keratin produced by the algae when the sun shone.
Our final stop was a quick one — the sun had almost set and the temperature had dropped dramatically — but one of my favourites. We came to a crater, with bubbling mud pools and steam billowing from the earth.
Our lodgings were more basic on this night, a shelter on the mountainside. The major bonus was a pool constructed from stones around a natural hot spring right next to the shelter, so our tour group spent the evening under the stars enjoying the 40°C heat of the water, which left me glowing from the inside as I fell asleep.
We drove through the mountainous landscape until we came to a green lagoon, overlooked by the nearly 6000m tall Licancabur Volcano which straddled the border of Bolivia and Chile. After a lunch stop in a local village with suspiciously few men (apparently it was notorious for smuggling cocaine into Chile, so many of the men and boys have been jailed) we came to our last stop, Rock Valley, strewn with beautiful formations, one of which I climbed partway, until I got breathless from the altitude.
The triumph of the day was yet to come, however. On our last leg-stretching stop before we arrived back at Uyuni, the Grand Extraction of Pedro occurred. I should explain: Vicky, an English gringo in our jeep who we had become great friends with over the three days, had been travelling through Belize four weeks previously and some kind of larvae had managed to get into an infected mosquito bite on her arm. Covered with a plaster to deprive it of air, we had seen it pop its head out a few times when the plaster was pulled away and affectionately named it Pedro, and on this last stop Zara, another friend from our jeep, managed to grab it with tweezers and pull it out, barbs and blood-filled body and all. A great end to a spectacular tour.
The Highest Town in the World
A short bus ride and we arrived in the town of Potosi, the highest in the world at 4040m. We both thought little of this information until we started noticing symptoms, and I was struck by altitude sickness for the first time ever: headrushes when sitting down, waves of nausea, and almost constant shakiness.
We managed a couple of outings. An ex-miner took us into the mineral mines which Potosi is famous for, and which have been mined since the 16th century. We followed the tunnels and wagon rails deep into the mountain, pausing to chat with miners we met along the way, ranging from the age of 15 to 57, and marvelling at the bright red, blue and green of the minerals and chemical deposits dripping from the tunnel ceilings. We came to a clay figure of one of the miners’ gods, Tios, his hands wide open to accept gifts of tobacco, coca leaves and alcohol, and sporting a gigantic member, held up by empty plastic bottles and, unsurprisingly, symbolising fertility.
We also went on a tour of the first mint in the world: the abundance of silver made Potosi the perfect location for coin production. We were shown the techniques for melting silver with mercury from the Colonial times, as well as various presses; mules-turned, locomotive and electric. The most interesting fact we learnt: because there were various mints across South and Central America, coins made for the Spanish Empire were stamped with the mark of the mint in which they were made. Potosi’s mark was the letters P, T, S and I overlaid, which developed into the dollar sign we now use across the world.
The altitude still affecting us, we gladly left Potosi, and yesterday arrived in the beautiful city of Sucre. In the evening there was a joyous reunion with Deetz and Carl, seeing as it’s already been a month since we parted at the border of Brazil and Argentina, and we enjoyed an evening meal accompanied by ten folklore dances from various regions across the country, complete with colourful, traditional costumes and energetic dancing.
Which brings us full circle to today, a chilling out day, and I shall take the time to apologise: a lack of wifi and the sudden bout of altitude sickness have prevented the blog being updated as soon as I would have liked. But I am feeling much better and looking forward to experiencing the Easter weekend here.