Back to World Tour Page or Chile 4

Mon 6th - Tues 7th Mar. Eduardo Avaroa National Park, Bolivia.

To leave Chile, we have signed up for a three day tour to Uyuni in Bolivia. From San Pedro, it is an hours drive up a steep hill to the border. After collecting our passport stamps and tourist visas from the military checkpoint, we meet our charming Bolivian guides, Julia and Christobal.

There are 12 tourists in two 4WD trucks - in ours, we are joined by Lisa and Sarah from Switzerland. Yup, It's me and five women, but this is no sewing circle - these are self-proclamed hardcore travelling bitches, without a makeup bag or clean pair of pants between them.

After a further couple of hours drive, we arrive at the Sol De Maņana Geysers at 4,800 metres. Thats about three straight miles (count 'em!) above sea level. Trying to walk up a gentle slope to take some piccies of the steaming ground and boiling mudpools we pant and wheeze for breath. Other than a bit of an ache at the temples and shortness of breath, I don't get altitude sickness, while a couple of members of the group get it bad, with splitting headaches, weakness and nausea, and can't do much more than chew coca leaves (the local remedy) and try to rest. For me, coca was a bit too much like eating a hedge to be chewed with much enthusiasm...

Passing over the stoney, toughly vegetated Pampa de Chalviri at 5,000 metres, it starts to snow (note this is comfortably in the tropics) and lightning crackles to the ground.

The night is spent in a grim half-built concrete hut attached to a metrological station - the toilet sets truly world class standards of squalor. The beds (in a pattern to be repeated throughout Bolivia) are just a couple of inches shorter than your average westerner, and manage a neat trick of being firm AND saggy at the same time. They also creak loudly with the slightest movement - the dormitory sounds like a spaghetti western ghost town in a gale.

Despite the surroundings, Julia and Christobal produce a fantastic meal of hearty soup, chicken and rice.

Tues 7th Mar. Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia.

A day of driving on unmarked trails through a vast, open and unbelivably remote landscape, with red, green and turquoise lakes full of flamingoes; parched, ochre mountains and volcanoes capped with snow, and desolate valleys with piles of rock carved into fantastic shapes by the wind.

Towards the end of the day, after half an hour of slowly slithering through a muddy salt pan, the truck slides round sideways to a halt. And the 4WD won't engage. At times like this, you start to wonder exactly how many days walk it is to the nearest fresh water... Christobal gets underneath with a fistful of wrenches, and shouts instructions, via a translation courtesy of Lisa, to me as I stir the 4WD lever uselessly. Eventually we give up and have to continue to slowly make our way in 2WD, as much sideways as forwards, towards the edge. We have never been so happy to see a bumpy, rocky - but HARD - dirt track in our lives.

Later, talking to other travellers, we realise how lightly we got off on this trip. Horror stories told by other groups include spending the night in a jeep broken down in the salt pans, spending five days camping by a truck stuck fast in mud, and a driver who was forced to crash his jeep into a rock when the brakes failed half way down a steep slope.

Arriving in the tiny village of San Juan De Rosario for the night, Carnival is in full swing. Don't think Rio De Janiero, though - most of the population (of about 200) are milling around in traditional dress, wrapped in paper streamers and rolling drunk, playing a discordant, melancholy one-phrase tune over and over on wooden recorder-like instruments. An old man with one tooth (and a girlfriend with two teeth) tries to get us to join in the following water balloon fight, but we decline.

I wander round taking pictures of llamas, but get soundly told off by a formidable old woman, and apologetically flee.

Wed 8th Mar. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia.

Passing through a military checkpoint, a baby-faced guard complete with machine gun discretely asks if we have any Chilean or Argentinian money we would like to 'hand in'. We shake our heads innocently.

(Photo courtesy Sandy Hunter)

The climax of the trip - the 200km wide Salar De Uyuni, the worlds largest and highest salt pan. Even the most jaded travellers rub their eyes in disbelief as the blinding, flat, pure white mosaic-cracked surface rumbles endlessly underneath the truck, while the distant blue mountains, shimmering with mirage and heat haze, seem to sit unmoving on the horison.

Lunch (half raw eggs and bread) is on the Isla Des Pescatores, a surreal volcanic island breaking out of the surface of the Salar. Stranded Vizcachas (like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel) hop about between towering 6 metre tall (and 6,000 year old) cacti.

After a couple of hours more drive across the salt, and a visit to the famous hotel made entirely (walls, tables, chairs, beds...) from concrete hard blocks of, yes, salt, we reach the end of the tour at the town of Uyuni, and say goodbye to Julia and Christobal.

Tourist attractions in Uyuni are limited to the railway graveyard out on the edge of town, where several trains worth of old steam rolling stock has come to rust away their twilight years on the edge of the desert.

Walking back into town, the most amazing sunset shines horizontally across the salt planes, illuminating with a loving, trancendent light the drifts of rubbish encircling the town and turning the towering clouds to peach icecream.

Thur 9th Mar. Uyuni, Bolivia.

Gasp through the coldest of all cold showers, then say goodbye to Erin, Sandy and Mimi who are headed in a different direction. Not such a tearful parting - I guess we have been living a bit too much in each others pockets the last couple of days.

Spend some time walking the dirt streets of Uyuni trying to change travellers cheques. It's not possible at the bank, and besides, the queue of stern Bolivian women in vast skirts and bowler hats outside would have had even Butch and Sundance meekly taking their places. The only travellers cheque agency in town turns out to be the shoeshop. Now why didn't I try there first?

I've bought a through ticket on the bus to La Paz for tonight, but during the day I hear some horror stories about 12 hour bus journeys turning into 40 hour bus journeys in the rainy season (i.e. now), so I decide to check out the (weekly) train that is also supposed to leave tonight. The station is closed and dark, but I meet a woman who offers me her unwanted ticket. All my senses are aquiver for signs of a ripoff, but since the ticket (in lowest class) is worth the grand sum of three pounds, it doesn't really seem worth her while pulling a scam.

At the time of departure (11.30pm) there is no sign of the train. There are a couple of carriages waiting to be connected to it when it arrives, so I climb on and manage to get a couple of hours chilly nap in an unoccupied seat before the rightful owner arrives.

Fri 10th Mar. Uyuni - La Paz, Bolivia.

At 9.30 the train squeals and squeaks into the station, a modest 10 hours late. Amazingly, the carriage I have paid for actually exists. Even more amazingly, the Indian sitting in my seat moves without too much fuss when I show him my ticket. The floor of the carriage is covered in almost as much dry mud as the streets outside, but disappointingly there are no chickens. There are ALWAYS chickens on these trains in the movies.

The journey is slow, the carriage is crowded, and the seats are bum-numbing. Despite the discomfort, I'm amazed again by the ability of Bolivians - and South Americans in general - to sleep straight through entire journeys, long or short. A continual procession of women walk up and down the aisle selling homemade cheese sandwiches and pastries - They must have knocked up a batch just before they left to subsidise their ticket.

A young man sitting opposite vomits watery green bile down himself several times, but nobody seems to pay any particular attention - the guy next to me says 'eh, seņor!' in a resigned tone of voice and then goes promptly back to sleep. I doze on and off, and at one point wake to find a small girl stroking my hair. I smile at her, but she runs away.

It's 5pm when the train gets to the end of the line in Oruru. Consider spending the night, but a glimpse of the mud and piles of rubbish in the streets (I've missed a famous carnival - the Diablada, or Devil fesival, by just one day) persuades me to push on to La Paz by coach.

By the time the coach pulls through the grim El Alto satellite city suburbs of La Paz up on the flat surface of the Altiplano, it's after dark, I'm feeling faint with lack of food and sleep, and I'm dying for the loo. All in all, feeling pretty vulnerable. Then the coach gets to the rim of the steep canyon that La Paz is built in, the city glittering across the bottom, and all is forgotten.

On to Bolivia 2: La Paz and Lake Titicaca.

All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter