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.

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