Flamingos, Flats and salt pans

Our bus would be there at 5am. The temperature maxing out at minus three. We were sitting in the deep freeze waiting on our transport to arrive. Six flew by quicker than a shiver. When on earth was this bus going to arrive? A few others waited in the common area all feeling the same way. Finally our bus arrived closer to seven. A spacious campervan picked us up, yet there was something strange. Apart from the driver, we were the only ones in it! We hadn’t paid for a private tour, so how could this be? And how was it going to go up the Andes and across the deserts AND drive up rock faces? Surely it wasn’t equipped to do that? We threw our bags in and off we went in the direction of… the tour office. Our bus driver didn’t speak English so we struggled to understand what he was saying. Ten minutes later a pair of the brightest teeth we’ve ever laid our eyes on appeared at the door. “Hi, I’m Pedro. Nice to meet you”. At first we thought he was German but we soon learned he was a dentist from Brazil. He had travelled to South Africa and fell in love with Cape Town. Every person we’ve met on this trip has always said the same thing. Its beautiful. No place like it in the world. So much good food. Best beaches I’ve seen. The wine is delicious. The people are so friendly. It’s hard not to get a big head about the place (despite the social economic challenges it faces). Pedro seemed in total awe of the place. Best trip he had ever been on, he explained, grinning widely. Turned out he was escaping the clutches of his traditional family, hence the feeling of total freedom when he arrived in the arms of the Mother City for the first time. 

Finally we arrived at the Chilean border. Although it was shut because the border patrol only woke up at 8am. And this route was a major cocaine run to Chile, so you can imagine the security was tight… A boom with a normal run of the mill lock. But still, tour buses and locals alike had to wait until the gates of Alcatraz would open. We jumped out and had our breakii break outside in the freezing cold. Every other tour company seemed to have the same idea and set up their breakfast tables around the border fence. People gathered and ate their sandwiches and drank their cocoa tea (the leaf supposably helps with altitude sickness). The next thing a taxi came screaming down the road, and a half dressed bewildered British girl jumped out and ran toward her tour company, her boots half on and her backpack still open. Turned out she had been at one of those desert parties the night before and only got an hour sleep. We heard later that the altitude mixed with the booze turned her head into a mixed bag of emotions. She had to return to the hostel the same day. Altitude and alcohol is never a good mix…

Finally the train had started moving. The gate opened and we were on our way into the Bolivian abyss. The altitude hadn’t become apparent yet, but we had just passed by Licancabur Volcano. Our bus driver explained that we were 4600 meters above sea level and counting. The border would be a whooping 4800. Still not as bad as where we would be going next. Getting our passports stamps was a breeze (although we had to carry another piece of paper around with us, yet again. For some reason, in Chile and Bolivia they give you a receipt which you have to carry around at all times, risking losing it and potentially having to stay in the country forever). Not a happy ideal! We got our stamps and flipsy pieces of proof that we could be in Bolivia for a month, under the beady eye of Evo Morales. The first native el presidente and all round ‘do gooder’ for the country. Everywhere you look there are signs up. “vote Evo 2025”. He’s already been in the seat for 7 years, and even tried changing the constitution once to extend that mandate. But more on him in a while. Next, we threw our backpacks and ourselves into a new vehicle. A much better equipped 4X4 by far, a toyota landcruiser with jacked up suspension and tires so big you would be forgiven it were driving a tractor! Our tour guide wasn’t exactly fluent in English either. However, our Brazilian friend could converse with him on a basic level. Not that it would help. He wasn’t the most friendliest of tour guides, often just grunting or simply saying si. 

Our first stop along the trip would be Salvador Dali’s desert and stone tree. Now as the story goes, Dali never actually visited this part of the world. Instead he had a dream about it and decided to paint it. We think he painted a desert scene from thin air and by chance it happened to look like the desert scene we were looking at now. Nevertheless it was all rather serene and eerie. Like a scene straight out of Breaking Bad. The desert seemed to continue endlessly until the edge of the earth and made everything seem insignificant in its vast wake. We were mere ants on this stage we call the world. Next, we traversed onward toward some warm geezers whereby hot pools had been manufactured for tourists. The locals seemed more interested in playing football then jumping into any man made pools. A quick lunch and onward we travelled higher and higher. It was all quite interesting seeing how the landscape changed so rapidly at this altitude. Rich reds and deep oranges seemed to brighten the landscapes. Bright pink flamingos strutted their stuff in search of their next delicious morsel of algae. Strange creatures they are. 

We finally ended our day at a hostel in a small village in the seemingly the middle of nowhere. The altitude meter now read 5400 meters above sea level. We definitely felt it. Loss of appetite and raging headaches were the first signs that our bodies were missing our precious O2 . We popped some headache pills which seemed to mitigate the problems a tad bit. Being in the car the whole day meant we were all yearning for a bit of a gander about town. We were the only ones staying at the backpackers so we set out to find some others to mingle with. A local kid decided he wanted to join us, with his football in tow. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any other backpackers, despite seeing a few other 4x4s parked out front of various places. We did, however, find an immaculate soccer field which Dylan, the kid, was delighted to show us. Suppose it couldn’t hurt to kick a ball about? About 30 seconds into this excruciating exercise we were on the floor exhausted. Turns out you do need air, who knew. We settled on a few kicks here there and everywhere, and kept running at a bare minimum. No need to overexert overselves. Even this seemingly mundane and idle activity left us breathless. Luckily a llama was in our midst to distract us. Being the first time we had seen such a beast up close, we ran over to snap some photos. Next thing it raised back its head, gurgled something nasty in his mouth and threatened to shoot the contents of which directly at us. We backed off and it slowly trotted off. First lesson learned with sassy llamas: they spit and aren’t the friendliest of pet animals to have about the place. We scampered home, looking for some grub. The place was quickly freezing over. Must have been about -5 in the house. And all we had were our jeans and puffer jackets. We quickly jumped into bed with about 10 layers of blankets on top. Yet, we were barely warmer than a pig in poop on a cool autumn day. Probably the worst nights sleep we’ve both ever had. Oh well it’s what we signed up for, knowing full well it was on the edge of winter. Besides we could nap in the car tomorrow, chilled. 

The next day wasn’t really much to write home about. We were taken to some more rock formations, and some more geezers. The black lake was a beautiful oasis with life teeming out of every corner. Some strange rabbit type gerbils hopped about, while llamas and guanacos merely ate away around us. Delightful but not awe inspiring like the Torres or El Calafate. To be honest since leaving Patagonia its been difficult to find landscapes that compare to those moments. We’ve come to appreciate our surroundings but never like we did there. 

Next day we ventured out early, to the Uyuni salt flats. Salar de Uyuni lay before us like one giant salt shaker. We had enough salt here for every bowl of popcorn ever made! The surface of the Uyuni Salt Flats is roughly 10.000 km2, averaging about 2-5 met I watched a really interesting documentary about this place recently. The salt from these plains are swept across the Amazonian forest which in turn creates oxygen we all breathe. It’s all in symbiosis with each other. Wonderful this mother earth isn’t it? Sadly though, the Bolivians have sold parts of the desert to the Chinese to produce lithium batteries, which charge all of our phones, our computers and in the future our electric vehicles. Still, the shelf life of an average lithium battery is much greater than the average gas guzzling petrol engine. So best of two evils I guess. Our first stop was the Inca cactus island. A rocky outcrop smack bang in the middle of the plains. Nothing for miles around us yet here these cacti grew with vigorous pace, some being the length of 10 meters. We had some cacti at home in Amsterdam, never did we think they would grow into such monsters. Despite their prickly presence, people seemed to give them hugs as if they were long lost pals. The views across the desert was spectacular. The sun, slowly rising in the east, shot its rays across the glistening salt hitting us directly in the face. How we had missed you! 

After many a photo was taken, and many a slice of cake eaten (yes – Bolivians like cake for breakfast), we mounted up and headed toward further nothingness. It was time to take some perspective shots. As this part of the world is the flattest area on planet earth (won’t the flat earthers be delighted) it provides the perfect scene to take some rather hilarious photos. Most purchase a toy dinosaur and pretend like they’re being eaten but we opted for the hipster option of dancing out of a can of pringles, jumping on my Moai head I bought on Easter Island and taking loads of photos of Pedro kicking his ‘giant toothbrush’ for his Instagram (because nothing says kicking plaques ass like a dentist kicking a toothbrush in a salt desert…). We tried to take some photos of our legos eating us, but according to our driver some things just don’t work. I think with more time we would have been able to get it but alas we had to settle on Fem hoisting me up to give me a fat smooch. 

Our time in the national park was drawing to a close. We visited the salt hotel (which was entirely made of salt, and used to host people – now however it’s just a lame museum) and the train graveyard. Literally hundreds of old rusty trains lay strewn about forgotten in the sands of time. This part of the world used to be a hub of activity, transporting goods from Chile to Bolivia. However, since then new roads and faster technology have made this route completely redundant. We did hear trains in the middle of the night but Uyuni was their final destination. After heading to the graveyard we made our way into the centre of town, a rather run down and dingy place with exposed brick everywhere. We were told that most of Bolivia looked like this because according to the tax revenue services, if you don’t have a lick of paint on the house it must be unfinished and therefore you don’t need to pay tax. But still, people moved into them nonetheless. At least our hostel made for some coziness!

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