Sunday, April 21, 2013

Four amazing days three restful nights in the Bolivian wilderness

The scenery as we left Tupiza

 Our excursion from Tupiza to Uyuni would be by jeep with two other tourists, a driver/tour guide, and a cook. Everything we read and everyone we talked to about the trip warned that the accommodations were very basic and the drive rough. But everyone and every article and every review agreed that the scenery was outstanding and the food delicious and this trip was not to be missed. We had chosen a tour company that had received good reviews so we knew we were in good hands. All that remained was to meet our travel companions, our guide and cook. We knew ahead of time that we all spoke English as we had all paid an extra levy to have a guide that spoke English.

We finished our breakfast and walked to the tour agency office at the front of the hostal. There I was greeted by a very polite and very tall Swedish young man named Bjorn, who introduced himself and shook my hand. Shortly thereafter Joachim, his travel companion (just as tall, but dark hair instead of blond), arrived and similarly introduced himself with a smile and a handshake. We soon learned that Bjorn and Joachim had known each other since elementary school and were on a 6 week trip together through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru (sound familiar?). Luckily for us, they had started their trip in the opposite direction than we did, so we were able to advise them on Peru and Bolivia and they were able to advise us on Chile and Argentina.

We soon were also introduced to our driver/guide Raoul and our cook Noemi (no I did not spell that wrong, her name was very similar to mine). We were both amazed we had almost the same name! It must be a sign!!

sand dunes ...

And snow capped mountains!

Marc and I and our Swedish travel companions were immediate friends and the first long day of driving flew by as we talked about our respective travels and exchanged tips from our experiences in each of the cities we had traveled through. Although there was a huge age difference between us, the language of travel seemed to melt the years between us away and two generations melded as one. They spoke perfect English and we really could not have asked for a more perfect group.

Soon after leaving Tupiza any semblance of paved roads were left behind. For that reason, the extraordinary care our driver Raoul took to keep us on the road safely was a good indication we were in good hands. As we watched some of the other drivers racing over gravel roads raising dust and stones in their wake, we were thankful we were in Raoul’s car and not any of the others. Noemi had the back of the jeep packed with provisions, and the top of the jeep was packed with our bags, tanks of water and a cooking stove.

room we shared with the boys!

Noemi preparing our dinner

Breakfast each day was at our hostal where we spent the night. Lunch was prepared in the morning and packed in the truck, to be unveiled in some beautiful scenic spot along the way. We marveled each day at what Noemi had prepared for us in the middle of nowhere. In addition to a full hot entre and hot side dishes, there was always a fresh salad and soft drinks as well as bottled water. Dinner was prepared in the kitchen of the hostal where we would be sleeping. Although we all asked, Noemi would not let us help with preparation or cleanup. So, although the conditions were basic, we were really being treated as royalty. Raoul also kept his jeep sparkling clean, which was a feat in itself considering we were in the desert and then driving over salt flats, intermittently driving through rivers where the road disappeared altogether.

What didn’t we see on this trip? Looking back, it is hard to believe we managed to see and do it all in just four days. The itinerary was packed with so many attractions each day, that without our photos, it really would be impossible to remember what happened when. But there was one moment of this trip that will stay with me forever. When I will think back on our trip from Tupiza to Uyuni, this experience is what will summarize the very special nature of this journey.

It is a very rare moment for us, to be in a place so magnificent that it brings tears to your eyes. Where you gaze upon the scene in front of you as if you were an explorer coming upon this turn in the road for the very first time. Here we were, the six of us, in our jeep, all alone in the wilderness between Tupiza and Uyuni. No other vehicle, no other human beings. Just a vast lagoon stretching along the horizon, as if a mirage. The surface of the lagoon, like glass, was dotted with what looked like small specs of pink reflected in the water. On second look, the specs begin to move and soon fly from the surface into the air as our vehicle approached. In disbelief we watched hundreds of pink flamingos take flight in formation and resettle far enough away from us to be safe from our intrusion.

I turned to Marc, barely able to speak. We have been travelling for almost two years. Never in all of that time, have we been able to experience this kind of wonder in such a pure way. In this vast wilderness, our jeep was also just a spec on the horizon. For the first three days of our trip, we rarely saw another human being. Just our jeep, our provisions and mother nature.

That is the essence of this trip.

Marc enjoying the thermal waters at the edge of the salt flats

The distances were far, and we were for the most part in the jeep traveling over all sorts of terrain, stopping to view flamingos, volcanic rock gardens and geysers. Each night we rested our weary bones in hostals along the way and Noemi cooked us dinner. We were all ready for bed as soon as our meal was completed. Raoul then went to work cleaning his jeep and making sure all was well for the next day’s journey.


Our jeep being packed for the journey
As we got closer to Uyuni, the illusion that we had this landscape to ourselves vanished as we began to see dozens of jeeps like ours parked at each viewpoint. There were still beautiful things to see, but they were now for the masses. Most trips to the Bolivian salar (Salt Flats) begin in Uyuni as you can make it to the salar and back in one day from there.

Our last lunch was a spectacular one with everything left in the larder. Roasted potatoes of all shapes and colors, corn on the cob, salad, cooked vegetables and roasted chicken. We managed to find a quiet place for lunch away from all of the other jeeps and crowds of tourists. Then we headed for Uyuni.

Shortly after lunch we encountered a jeep at the side of the road in need of help. The driver had a flat tire and no spare! It also looked like he was completely unprepared. Raoul of course was the opposite, so he jumped out of the jeep and got out his tools and his spare tire and helped his comrade out of quite a jam. We were all mumbling in our jeep about how ridiculous it was to be out here without a spare tire! And of course we were all very happy to have such a good and prepared driver. The ordeal took quite some time and even after the tire was replaced, it was discovered that the replacement tire was not really the right size. So the solution was to move the spare to the back wheel and the back wheel to the front. So two more tires to change. Eventually both vehicles were back on the road and in an hour or so we all made it to Uyuni.

Amazing day trip from Tupiza

By 4:00 am we were both asleep in our comfortable hostel bed and awoke a few hours later, quite refreshed in time for the breakfast promised us with our reservation. The hostel is a converted hacienda and the breakfast room was a converted dining room. Although the breakfast was very sparse and unsatisfying in itself, the surroundings somehow made up for it. And we knew we were at the beginning of a great adventure, so stale bread and jam (and almost anything else) was just fine.

We spent the morning checking out the town and doing our research to find the best tour company for our four-day three-night excursion from Tupiza to Uyuni, through the Bolivian salar (Salt Flats). Our Belgian friends Janne and Sami, that we had met in Sucre, convinced us to start our excursion in Tupiza rather than in Uyuni and we were soon to learn that his was very good advice.

Aside from having a great time on our excursions from Tupiza, we also met incredible people which I will elaborate upon shortly.

After doing our usual Broudo “shopping around”, we decided to book with the tour company associated with our hostal (La Torre). In order to get the best deal, we also booked a day trip with them to explore the geological phenomena around Tupiza which was our first taste of what was to come on the days that followed.

When we boarded our vehicle for our day trip, we found that our tour guide/driver had brought his son with him. It was a school holiday so we were happy to have him with us. This young boy (we think he was maybe 8 years old) was an absolute sweetheart. Extremely well behaved and able to keep himself entertained throughout the entire trip with out being any trouble to anyone. He was thrilled to be out in nature with his dad and was climbing rocks and trees at every opportunity. The only “toy” he had with him was a bottle of water, which he converted into a sailboat whenever there was a puddle along the way. He had obviously done this trip with his dad many times and helped us find our way. This boy was full of joy. Having him along was a real gift.

Our guide Fidel and his son did not speak a word of English, but luckily for us, our companion on the trip — Peter, a retired man from Germany, spoke Spanish and English well and was able to translate between us and our guide and the other way around. Peter had been traveling around South America as we had for several months and we had lots to discuss and many experiences to share.

Peter was also an amazing addition to our trip. Full of energy and travel stories, he reminded us of our friend Bob that we met on our India trip. Peter has been traveling extensively since retiring and is the kind of person that really “experiences” each place he travels to. He is a chef by trade and finds a way to cook for people everywhere he goes. Each story he shared with us was full of local colour and local flavours as well.

As you can see, we had great companions for our day trip and the places we visited and the sights we had a chance to experience were as remarkable as the company.

Our guide took us through amazing sandstone formations and canyons along a meandering river. A hot lunch had been prepared for us which we ate under the shade of beautiful trees in an unbelievably gorgeous spot. There were cactus gardens in bloom along the way. And endless mountain “slices” seemingly growing out of the ground. Our cameras were clicking non-stop as we traveled through the area.

Although the town of Tupiza itself had little to offer, the surrounding area was proving to be extraordinary. And our excitement was mounting for the four days still ahead of us.

We arrived back in Tupiza in the late afternoon amazed and exhilarated by the scenery we had experienced and the good company we had shared the day with.

Sage advice: When travelling by bus in Bolivia — Pee before you go

I can’t remember where I read that, but it is very good advice. We had graduated from buses with locked bathroom doors to buses without any kind of bathroom at all.

We boarded our bus in Sucre headed to Tupiza, the jumping off point for excursions to the Bolivian salar (salt flats) around 6:00 pm with a full complement of passengers ranging in age from infants suckling at their mother’s breast to grandparents dressed in indigenous garb. This includes, for the women, many skirts one on top of the other and many layers of upper garments including of course the obligatory woven blanket full of food and possibly a grandchild or two or at least a week’s worth of luggage.

We left the Sucre bus station full – but managed to stop every 10 minutes or so to pick up additional passengers until we were full to the rafters.

Now — the advice to pee before you go is all well and good, but if the bus ride is overnight and more than eight to 10 hours, all the pre-peeing in the world is not going to convince my body or the bodies of the many children and elderly on board not to need to pee! I was curious to see how this was going to play out.

After about three hours the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for a 20 minute dinner break. The restaurant was ready for us and served up heaping bowls of chicken, rice, carrots and potatoes to anyone that was willing to partake. The rest of us in more urgent need to relieve ourselves walked in the dark towards the makeshift latrine where the women in their multi-layered skirts were maneuvering in and out of a very tight space. No one was happy about his, but you gotta do what you gotta do and somehow we all managed within the 20 minutes allotted to us to pee and have a snack before reboarding the bus. The facilities from this point on only got more primitive.

Sometime past midnight we stopped in a town that could only be described as a banyo central. All you could see in all directions were hand lettered signs barely visible in the dim light saying BANYO. Under each sign were several women ready to provide you with a wad of toilet paper for a few coins. Buses of all sizes and descriptions were parked on both sides of the highway and tired, unhappy, bleary eyed passengers were making there way to one shack or another to do what needed to be done.

At 3:00 am the bus dropped us off at the bus station in Tupiza. At that hour, the town was completely quiet. I had booked a room at Hostel El Torre which was 200 meters from the bus station. We easily walked to the hotel with some directions from a cab driver or two along the way. The night receptionist welcomed us warmly and showed us to our room, which was remarkably nice considering we were in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a vast wilderness of salt flats, black, green and red lagoons filled with pink flamingoes, and volcanic rock gardens so amazing you have to pinch yourself to be sure you are not dreaming. But we had yet to experience any of the natural wonders of this very special place. We were simply happy to be off that horrible bus and in a room with an actual toilet that flushed, a bed with clean sheets, and the anticipation of the amazing adventure that awaited us.