Sunday, 27 July 2014

Uyuni - Salt Flats

So much is said about the journey from La Paz to Uyuni - the buses are terrible, it takes forever, it will be sooo uncomfortable, etc etc. We'd been recommended that the "best" way was to bus to Oruro and then take a train, but since that only goes twice a week and will likely involve an overnight stay in Oruro... that doesn't sound like the best way to do anything! There's 3 companies that do direct overnight buses, scheduled to connect with the tours that start each morning, so why mess about?

We've picked Todo Turismo (which happened to be the most expensive but also the most recommended on LP), mainly because it leaves La Paz later than the others, and weren't sure when we would be arriving back in La Paz after our death road efforts. Its a semi-cama bus (seats that recline to almost flat) which were is comfortable enough, although the choice of film is something awful by Adam Sandler which is arguably worse than the Spanish dubbed stuff we've become accustomed to. There's a hot meal served on board, a chocolate bar is handed out for desert, and blankets and pillows are included. But really despite all the up and down reviews online, all the buses will get you there. Sure, it's a bumpy road, but this is Bolivia!

There's a stop just after midnight while the FELCN (Bolivian drug squad) check out the luggage area, and one officer tooled up for a war walks the aisle of the bus. The FELCN decide against a full cavity search and we're on our way, although we later find out there were ID checks on the other Todo bus. CP slept through the whole thing and was none the wiser.

After arriving a little after 7:30am, we figure that we have plenty of time to identify and negotiate a tour and the game starts as soon as we set foot off the bus! There are dozens and dozens of tour operators all offering pretty much exactly the same same tour, so armed with our list of questions acquired from other peoples blogs (will you include a sleeping bag and hot water bottle? Is wine included? Is your jeep heated? How many people do you have booked already? Have you had any problems with drunk drivers recently?). We were soon to become acquainted with at least a dozen of these operators and all gave us much the same responses to our questions. Eventually, we ran out of steam and patience, and went with Betto tours, not least because they agreed to 700 bolivianos each ($100 which for a three day tour, is just nuts) and, more relevantly, there were. already a couple of Brits signed up - the opportunity to be able to communicate effectively in English was attractive because we are going to be sharing the same confined space for 3 days.

Day 1 of our tour begins with us looking for somewhere that has both wifi and breakfast, so that we can reassure our parentals that even though there will be radio silence for a number of days, we are just fine. This combo doesn't exist, although many places advertise it, so we concede defeat and settle for just breakfast (coffee and bread). Not really that fuelled up, but it's time to begin our tour!

We head back to the Betto office to meet our driver and guide - a portly gent named Franco, who apparently hasn't showered for the occasion... or this month. Personal hygiene doesn't seem to be high on Francos list of priorities, as CP notes that aside from being generally filthy, his fly is undone. We follow him out the door and down the street to his wagon which will be our transport for the next 3 days. On the way we spot some salteñas for sale (CP's new favourite food), and decide they are a necessary supplement to our earlier breakfast - we're still feeling good about the tour so ask Franco if he wants one - and he excitedly responds yes. 

In to the car we go, and roll down the street to pick up the other passengers - 2 Brits and a girl from Chile, as per the list we signed up to. When they appear, there is some confusion. There are 4 of them, none of them British, all of them speaking Portuguese, as they are Brazilian. Maybe we're just picking everyone up on our way to a central meeting point where we will be divided accordingly. Is there un otro tour Franco? No...

Ok... so we have nothing against the 4 people who we are now share a car with, but it would be nice if we would be able to converse with our new companions during what will be 3 long days of driving, living, and eating together.

When we stop at a checkpoint Franco jumps out with the passenger list to get it approved by the tourist police - and asks one of the Brazilians if they have the coinage required for this task. It's not much, but everyone has paid $100 each for this and you don't have the couple of bolivianos needed to get us started? Hmmm...

With the list stamped and approved, I ask if I can see it (as I managed to secure the front seat as CP had read to avoid the back seats if possible and we had directed one of the Brazilian couples there accordingly...) and yes it's the same list we signed up to, there's 5 people on it, none of whom are Brazilian... what is going on?

Moving on... first stop is the train graveyard, an obvious name when you see the pictures.

Train #66 was the one held up by Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid - we can't find it, but apparently it's here somewhere.

We take the chance to give a call back to the office, still blindly thinking that maybe there's a 2nd Betto Tours car out there that we can rendezvous with shortly. Oh so naive... "yes, they called in sick, just before you left..." - really? All 3 of them? And luckily you had this other Brazilian crew just waiting on standby? We've been duped!

As we leave this photo stop, Franco passes his hitherto untouched salteña (as gifted by us) out the window to someone he informs me is his little brother. Then he spots, a non-dead train rolling past: "A train.. choo-choo". Get fked, Franco. We are not in a good mood at this point, being lied to does not set a good precedent and we are concerned about what is now to come as we are wondering if we've managed to sign up to one of the dodgy operators that we've been warned against so much.

At the next stop (best described as shitty market stalls selling trinkets made of salt), we bump into an Aussie couple we'd met on Death Road. As we recount our tale of woe to them, and hear their own story and a few others, it begins to dawn on us that whole tour operator game in Uyuni is just a giant tourist trap. It doesn't matter which company you book with as they're all in cahoots with each other, the tours are all going to the same places along the way so you won't miss out on anything unless you're really unlucky. They'll promise you everything and tell you everyone else is lying, even people in the same car will have paid wildly different amounts (including ours, although happily we had paid the least!), and you're all staying in pretty much the same places, and eating pretty much the same food anyway.

The only difference is that some might pay B650, some will pay B1,000. The tours that are more than that (some go for B1,400+, like Red Planet who we had thought about signing up with), might have a slightly less shit car (ours is far from the best but equally far from the worst we'll see in the next 3 days), but ultimately it's still the same tour. No drivers / guides are expected to speak any English, unless you're really paying top dollar - and even then it's hit and miss. Although some drivers might have at least seen a shower in recent times, but there's no guarantee.

What we should have done was grab a few friendly randoms from the bus to form a group, but the tour operators employ a divide and conquer strategy to fill the remaining seats in their cars. Whatevs, we're on the tour, the Brazilians are a friendly bunch, and speak Spanish as they've been living in Bolivia for 5 years, so we have a common language of sorts.

There's an unscheduled stop, but we're not getting out - it's just for Franco to pick up a giant bag of coca leaves to chew on. He tells me that he hasn't slept for 2 days, which is just what I want to hear as we barrel off into the desert for three days. The coca leaves don't have quite the desired effect though, and Franco is caught snoozing on various occasions whilst driving before lunch. The saving grace is that we're on the salt flats now which stretch far and wide that it would be almost impossible to crash into anything, plus he wakes himself up when he snores anyway...

There's a few cool photo ops along the way...

... before we stop for lunch at a giant rock called Isla de Pescado (fish island?), and we have a chance to meander around taking the obligatory pics, and walking over the rock which we thought resembled what the moon would look like but then later discover is actually coral. There's a claim that this was once part of Lake Titikaka, but as that's 500m higher than us and about 16 hours away we're not sure how that's possible...

I like this shot as you can see a glimpse of the many p, many cars that are on the tour trail, but also the vastness stretching out into the distance...:

Franco has done well with the lunch although we all try to ignore his hygiene issues - we're probably due another bout of sickness anyway, although the Brazilians err on the side of caution by declining the salad that has been cut (and washed? Probably not!) by Franco's fair hands.

We see some epic countryside, but most of the first day feels like we are tourists ticking off boxes, so whilst beautiful, and not to miss, it lacks a certain something that came afterwards. We do bump into another friend from Death Road, a very likeable Dutch guy called Jirrian, who has lucked into one of the well recommended tour companies despite paying the lowest price of all... He's having his own issues though - the back seat of his car is occupied by a couple, who spend the first 3 hours of the tour chewing face, loudly, right beside his ear. Having put up with the slurping noises for longer than any reasonable person could, he finally says something... and they respond by telling him that he probably needs to see someone, professionally. Hahahahaha! (Sorry Jirrian, but just thinking about this still brings a smile to my face!)

Anyway, more salty pics from the afternoon!

The only thing that our tour is missing is the cool photos that mess with distance and perspective. We've seen some where the entire tour group appears to be walking out of a wine bottle, or a coke can, and despite the initial assurances from Betto, Franco is not an expert photographer, and has no interest in setting up these pics. We try a few, but we're not very good - there won't be any of me as the ones that CP took were so very very bad...

As we roll up to our lodgings for the night, a salt hostel (which are strongly recommended against by wiki travel for sustainability and ethical reasons, but seems to be the only type of hotel on offer) and from the outside, it does not look good. Thankfully once inside it clearly is a salt hotel, and somehow Franco has even bagged us the "matrimonial suite" that had been promised but not expected (that's fancy talk for a double room).

We bond with our Brazilian comrades by teaching them how to play shithead, taking the piss out of their 7-1 thrashing by Germany, then step outside to take some epic sunset pics. Every time we take one, look away, and look back it seems to have got even better. We've climbed up a massive rock to get a better view and we're later joined by the Aussie couple - who of course are staying right next door. The sunset is truly spectacular:

More bonding over dinner, helped by some wine, then early to bed as Franco has scheduled breakfast for 6am....

Day 2 begins ominously with a stop after 100m to bash one of the battery cables back on, something we repeat several times before lunch.

There's more cool stuff along the way, train tracks, mountains, a view into Chile, flamingos, (partly frozen) lakes, it's all good stuff:

Lodgings tonight are basic but perfectly adequate dorms, and there's more bonding over cards with our Brazilian crew before dinner, although I excuse myself soon after as my sinuses now feel like my whole face is bursting open and the drugs do nothing... CP manages a couple more games before leaving them out there to finish off their magnum of wine... which they do with admirable gusto!

Day 3 - I'm awake from about 3am, so Franco being 10 minutes earlier than his planned alarm call of 530am is no concern to me. I bag up our kit and wake CP up and then we head to out to inspect the breakfast offerings, and they've excelled themselves - granola with yogurt, and fresh pancakes. Except that the bag emblazoned with the words "HEALTHY GRANOLA" actually contains sugar puffs. Either way it's gratefully received, although we're not quite in tune with the eating habits here yet, as when we ask about plates or bowls Franco demonstrates that the yogurt and sugar puffs are to be eaten from what we had assumed to be the water glass, and the pancakes can be rested on the table while we spoon (as no knifes are available) marmalade and/or caramel on to them. Until South America, this type of caramel has only ever made our acquaintance as a key ingredient in banoffee pie but as it is now served up with breakfast instead of Nutella, we jump on board...when in Rome and all that...

I've helpfully rolled and packed our sleeping bags, but Franco tells me that isn't necessary - we'll be needing those in the car as it is mucho frio! We think back to all those pointless questions we'd asked while shopping around for tour operators a couple of days ago - is there heating in the car? "Si, si, of course!". Of course... not? 

As we drive up (and up), the sun is starting to rise and makes for another spectacular view. We stop off at some geysers, and another set which come complete with boiling mud.

The last major stop is at the thermal springs. Here you have the opportunity to swim (or at least sit) in a natural hot water bath - the hardest part is getting undressed in the first place to then run in, but it's soooo worth it. It's the closest we've come to getting clean in 3 days - but then you remember that the same applies to pretty much everyone else that's ever been in it, so best not to think about that too much, just enjoy the warmth and the view.

We continue driving until we stop in what is clearly a small village, but looks to be completely deserted. We're given "free time" to wonder around for 20 minutes and it takes us until 30 minutes has passed that we realise that Franco is inside preparing lunch. By this point, we've pretty much run out of things to talk about with the Brazilians, and the effort required to translate small talk into Spanish, combined with my tiredness and general feeling of malaise means that we've all but stopped conversing within the group.

This is exasperated after lunch, when Franco (presumably realising that he has got to do something to encourage a tip) decides that now is a good time for a 20 minute rambling legend about an old man, the devil, and... that's about all I got. Bolivia is considered to be a good place to learn Spanish because of the clear accent, but the propensity of some to talk with a bundle of coca leaves in their cheek, plus Francos continuing need to cough up a lung, means that translating this goes in the "too hard basket".

There's a couple more stops along the way back to Uyuni, mostly different shaped rocks. All pretty epic to be honest, but it is a long day on the road.  The best is the Copa del Mundo (World Cup) rock, which bears some resemblance to the Jules Rimet trophy. 

CP is still loving the exploring and is clambering up and over the rocks, putting her rock climbing skills to the test and generally delaying the group by her antics, but my care factor hit rock bottom when I accidentally deleted the amazing panoramic sunrise photo I'd taken at the geysers.

A special mention for the average public toilet in Bolivia. Payment is usually always required (1-3 bolivianos) but the amount paid isn't necessarily related to the quality. After handing over your money you are given what they deem to be an appropriate amount of toilet roll, and only then do you get to see the facilities. More often than not I've paid, walked in, and walked straight back out again. At least you get to stockpile the toilet paper until your need to use the baño overrides your basic hygiene instincts.

If the toilets are plumbed in, the flush won't be - that comes in the form of a jumbo water container in the corner with a broken plastic bottle floating in it, and the intention is that each person, having done what they needed to do, will make use of this manual flush... it doesn't always happen. There might be a sink, but it definitely won't have running water - it's purely decoration.

Sometimes as you walk in you catch the eye of another tourist leaving. This look conveys an apology, and a sympathetic acceptance. We're all in the same boat here, everyone's been hanging on for the last 3 days until they can wait no more and are forced into depravity.

By the time we arrive back in Uyuni, I'm over it. There's a few more photo stops on the way, the scenery is truly stunning everywhere you look, so you can't come to Bolivia and not do the salt flats, and you can't sensibly do it all in less than 3 days. But I doubt there's a chiropractor in this country than can straighten my back out after too long a shift in the cramped backseats of this truck, although I accept that the copious amounts of driving is a necessary evil. Franco's parting gift when he drops us off is a soaking wet handshake... what is that? Actually, we don't even want to know...

[CP intervening here. Duchemin has been a massive trooper despite feeling like shite with his sinuses playing havoc and really making him feel less than human at times. It did put a bit of a dampener on things for him, but I just have to say that the trip was an adventure that I loved, with the most amazing and varied scenery that we have seen so far describing a country that is yet to be discovered in its full beauty. It really could take your breathe away and despite moments of the trip feeling like a tick box exercise (not least because of the various other 4wd's loaded with tourists doing exactly the same thing), it was a must do trip and that sunset will stay etched in my memory for a long time to come.]

So, now that we are back from our little adventure, we realise that 8 out of 10 days in Bolivia so far have been spent with "guided tours" of sorts, and we need to get out and do something "different" otherwise I'm already counting down the days until we can get out of this country and crack on with Peru. Note, CP is loving Bolivia and is in no rush to leave and tells me I need to be more positive in my blogs, instead, she decided to just add this bit instead... I'm more than aware of this, as it's just about the only reason that I'm not on my way to Peru right now!

Luckily we have a plan... :0)

Final Uyuni comment - in amongst the initial "we've been duped" feeling at the start of the tour, CP went to take a photo with her proper camera... nothing happened. The conclusion was made that it must have switched itself on in the bag and drained the battery. It wasn't until we were in a hotel back in Uyuni at the end of the trip that I looked at it, blew on the battery, and turned it on. Make that 3 trips now that CP has carried a large camera shaped paperweight around with her... smile CP!

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