After San Pedro, I took four days to explore southwestern Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in all of Latin America and it shows. I didn’t see a single paved road, even the roads in Uyuni that connect the city of 20,000 with both of the two capitals. Although it’s very poor, it seemed very safe. The overwhelmingly indigenous population seemed laid back and welcoming. The Bolivian president Evo Morales claims to be the first indigenous president of a South American country and his picture was everywhere.
Bolivia is poor in large part to losing a huge swathe of land, including its access to the sea, to Chile in a war in the 1880s. They also lost huge mineral deposits in the mineral rich northern part of what is now Chile. There is still huge animosity between Chile, Bolivia and Peru, much of it stemming from this war in the 1880s.
Our four day trek took us through amazing terrain, culminating in the salar de uyuni, which is the worlds largest salt flat. I went with five people from the San Pedro trip and we booked our trip in city center a few days before we wanted to leave. Our package cost $180 and included all transportation, three nights accommodation, four days of meals and a tour guide. US Citizens have to pay $140 to enter most South American countries because we slapped a fee on South American citizens after 9/11 (really dumb), but I got away with only paying a portion of the fee at the tiny border crossing with some well placed…words.
We entered Bolivia and were immediately in the Eduardo Avaroa national park, a joint venture between the Bolivia government and the European Union. We drove past laguna blanca, a perfectly clear lake that reflects the sky. It was a beautiful and a great start to the trip. We drove across bumpy dirt roads, sometimes covered with water from the melting snow on the mountains. Our guide told us he had never seen snow on the mountains in February in his three years of guiding, so again, we were incredibly lucky. The mountains and stark landscape were stunning.
Next, we got to a hot springs at the foot of a mountain lake. We were at 4800m, which meant that there was only about 44% as much oxygen compared to sea level. It made breathing difficult and we all got light headed after 20 minutes in teh hot springs. the lake was full of colors and we could see lightning over the tops of mountains far in the distance.
After another few hour drive, we got to laguna colorada, which has blood red water. We ate homemade soup and fresh veggies for lunch, prepared by our guide. After lunch, we took a walk to an overlook point and watched the flamingos and the scenery. It was incredibly windy and I was glad that I bought a wool sweater the day before.
My head hurt from the altitude, so I tried chewing some coca leaves, which is supposed to relieve your headache. You mash 6-10 leaves in between your lip and your gum and let it sit there. You can add bicarbonate and it releases more of the drug. 30 minutes later, I felt a little like I had ADD, but my headache was gone. We also tried coca tea, which sort of tasted like seaweed in sushi restaurants. Both clearly helped.
We spent the night at the hostel overlooking laguna colorada. The night sky was absolutely stunning, even better than San Pedro. The stars twinkled and I think I could see more stars that I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. The combination of the altitude and lack of light pollution showed how truly small we are. A shooting star topped it off and told me it was time to go to bed.
The hostel was cold, but my sleeping bag kept me war. We had been warned not to drink alcohol or eat meat, but I had a very small glass of wine, maybe 2 oz, with dinner and woke up with a splitting headache. The thin air makes alcohol really hard on your body. The bathroom was really bad, so I just went outside when I had to go.
The next morning, we drove across the bolivian altiplano, stopping at strange, beautiful scenery every few minutes. We ate a snack at a string of lagoons that reflected the mountains perfectly and continued past landmarks that looked like Dali paintings. That afternoon we dined on llama, eggs, veggie soup in a town of 150 in the middle of nowhere. The food was fantastic, balanced and healthy. The eggs were from chickens running around the parking lot outside and tasted different than the factory eggs we get in the States.
We ended the day in Uyuni, a town of 20,000 near the Salar. We ate dinner in a massive thunder storm. I didn’t have a raincoat, so I used a trash bag, which an 8 year old Chilean on the trip thought was hilarious. I told him it was the new fashion, straight from Santiago, and he couldn’t stop laughing. The hotel was nice, with flushing toilets and a shower. We had time to check out the town, which is bustling with energy. It had rained, so there was water in some parts of the dirt roads.
Kids were having tons of fun with squirt guns and water balloons, throwing them at their friends (and random people) of the opposite sex. I got crushed twice by 6-10 year old girls yelling “get the gringo” as they were laughing and playing. I was really tempted to buy a squirt gun and join the battles, but we didn’t have time.
We went to bed early sot hat we could get to the salar the next day. We first stopped at a cemetery for trains, which has a bunch of 80-100 year old trains that used to run between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. They were cool looking and full of history and our guide told us there are plans to build a proper museum. After a bit, we finally got to the salar.
The salar is a huge salt flat that sometimes is covered by 1-3 inches of water. We were extremely lucky to visit while it was flooded. It was unbelievable. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. It went on for miles, nothingness, like a mirror. I could see the curve of the earth. You loose all perspective and it looks like people are taking their next step off the edge of the world. You can also take funny photos. The weather was hot, the water warm, the salt crystals were sharp on my feet. We ate llama chops for lunch while sitting on top of our jeep. It was truly beautiful, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was the highlight of the trip.
We started to drive back and things got a little sketchy. Our tour company didn’t have any pickups at the border scheduled for the next day, so they sold us to a different tour company. They split up our group of 6 in two two groups of three, mostly so they could fit extra paying passengers into the jeeps. They put us in separate hostels, without telling us they would and then were very light on details about what was happening with our friends. It was sketchy, but everything was completely fine and would have been fixed with a 5 minute walk+helpful two sentences from our guides.
The next morning we drove back to the Chilean border and back into San Pedro. It was an amazing trip that included things I’ve never seen before. It gave me time to recharge and think about what really matters in life. No internet, TV and other modern conveniences. It was great.
Here’s a few tips for those who would like to go in the future:
- Get a good guide. If coming from Chile, you buy your tickets in San Pedro. We used Colque Tours and I was happy about it.
- Bring a sleeping bag. The hostels can be frigid at night. I’m glad I brought mine.
- Bring lots of layers. It goes from cold in the morning to hot in the afternoon. My $12 wool sweater was a great purchase.
- Bring at least 5L of bottled water per person. We brought 7L/person and finished it all in five days.
- Bring toilet paper. The bathrooms are pretty bad in most of the hostels and usually don’t have any. I went outside and so did most of the girls.
- Bring snacks like chocolate, nuts and cookies for quick energy on the road. The altitude and wind takes it out of you.
- Chew coca leaves and try coca tea to relieve your headaches. Don’t drink alcohol until the 2nd or third day.
- Try to get a group. There were many cars that were international mixes who couldn’t communicate with the guide or each other. There was a car of 4 Koreans and 2 Hungarians, none of whom spoke Spanish or English. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun as our car that had 7 people who could communicate in English/Spanish. If you’re solo, try to join a group where you’ll be able to share a language.
- Offer your driver snacks, he’ll love you for it. Tip him at the end.
- Get Bolivianos in Chile, the exchange rate is much better and you’ll have them to use at the border if necessary.
Edit: March 2014. I went with Cordillera Traveller and was much happier than with Colque.