A tale of the journey into the Bolivian wilderness
Marion suggested a while back that we visit one of the small villages on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. We could walk around the Salt flats while watching the sun go down and then when it was dark we could witness together the awesome stars of the night sky. It sounded like a great idea. She told me “it would be an adventure”, I was excited.
I have learnt since this experience, that when a Bolivian says ‘it will be an adventure’ it will be an adventure in every sense of the word and you should be a little worried what is to come. I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the events that would follow. Sometimes painful and frustrating, but now, having time to reflect in the luxurious comfort of Sucre, I can say it was a hell of an experience and a true adventure. The things that only travelling to a country like Bolivia can reward you with.
After a pretty crazy night in Florin celebrating the Dutch orange party, Marion and myself were feeling quite hung over. Luckily for us our bus to Uyuni wasn’t until 7pm so we had plenty of time to recover. Joining us would be Marion’s youngest brother Joaquin and my friend Scott. Scott had been ‘stuck’ in Sucre for the last 6 weeks and had become my latest drinking buddy. He had finally decided it was time to leave Sucre and Bolivia and was heading to Chile. He would join us for our mini adventure and get a transfer from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Or so he thought!!
Scott and I arranged to meet Marion and Joaquin at the bus terminal. I only had my day pack and decided to carry my fleece jacket instead of wearing it. This is where my Bolivian Adventure truly started. Not realizing until it was way too late, I left my fleece on the back seat of the taxi. It wasn’t until I saw Joaquin with his jacket on the horror came to light. there was nothing I could do, the taxi was long gone. Now I faced the bitter cold temperatures of the Salar with only a long sleeve base layer shirt and a tracksuit top.
The bus set of on time and we steadily plodded our way out of Sucre. The journey was going smoothly until about 2 hours in when we stopped for a ‘short’ break at some desolate village for a good 30 minutes. Once the driver had filled his belly on the usual Bolivian dish of rice and potatoes we set off again. These ‘short’ breaks would become a regular theme on our journey, stopping every couple of hours or so. The temperature was getting colder and colder too as we gained altitude. We were due to arrive in Uyuni at 2am, we actually arrived at 4am.
Once off the bus the true bitterness of the Bolivian Altiplanic night hit us. The temperature was below freezing and we had to dodge the iced over puddles as we searched for a place to stay for a few hours. The first hostel we went to had a big sign saying 24 hours. Obviously there was no reply. The next few we tried were all the same. It turned out that yesterday was a public holiday and last night a big party, so we guessed everyone was still drunkenly unconscious. Luckily we did find a place which had 1 room and 3 beds and quickly snuggled in to the highly statically charged blankets.
Breakfast time came way too soon, but I made sure to fill up on probably the last half decent food for a day or 2. After breakfast Marion went to buy our bus tickets to the small village of Coquesa. She returned 20 minutes later empty handed. The bus was full. But we had another option. As with most local buses in Bolivia you can also pay the driver to stand up in the aisle for the journey. So this is what we would do.
Once the bus arrived, I can only best describe it as a bus similar to those that transport convicts to their incarceration. So we named it the prison bus. The first thing I noticed was the sheer ridiculous amount of possessions the locals had and wanted to transport on our journey. They had everything. The were bags stuffed with biscuits and crisps, crates of eggs and coca cola, bags of clothes and coca leafs, boxes of toilet paper, gas bottles and more worryingly gasoline! We were going to be travelling in a potential fire bomb.
It took at least 30 minutes to load the merchandise but this wasn’t the end to all the hassle. Getting on to the actual bus was another story. Because we didn’t have seats we would have to stand for the duration of the journey. The problem was that the people that had seats, decided constantly they needed to get on and off of the bus before we departed. This meant the people standing in the aisle were constantly pushed and squashed as they tried to maneuver past us. Finally everyone settled and we plodded out of Uyuni on the bumpy dust road.
It wasn’t long before we were whizzing across the blindingly white salt flat. The memorizing views were only interrupted briefly by a small dog running up and down the aisle, sniffing out discarded food scraps from our Bolivian companions.
After 2 hours we finally reached our destination of the village of Coquesa at around 3pm. Coquesa is a tiny charming kind of village with the towering Tunupa Volcano (5432m) standing menacing in the back ground. I got the urge to climb it. But sadly the trek to the summit was some 8 hours of strenuous walking over rough terrain, time we didn’t have.
Marion found us a quaint little hostel by the name of Maya hostal de sal with good views over the Salar. This hostel was made of salt, even the floors were salt. Thankfully each bed had 3 blankets, something we would be extremely grateful for later that night.
We dumped our bags and set off to explore the salt flats. At the edge of the village there were a group of extremely nervous Llamas grazing on the near dust bowl of a football pitch. I wondered if they invaded the pitch during match day? The sun was relentlessly strong and the glare from the pure white salt was immense. Definitely not a place to be wearing fake South American Ray Ban’s! We walked out for a good 20 minutes until the Llamas were tiny dots. The volcano looked spectacular against the beaming white of the salt and the piercing blue sky above. Now it was time to experiment with the crazy and sometimes stupid salt flat perspective photos, that are famous world wide. We discovered it’s not as easy as it looks and takes a lot of patience. After an hour or so of precise inch by inch manoeuvring we got some satisfactory shots. It was all good practice for when I return to do the 3 day salt flat tour next month.
Once we grew bored with the silly photo shenanigans we decided to head off in the direction of the next village. We learnt the hard way that distances on the salt flats are quite deceptive. What looked like a 10 minute walk actually took us about an hour. We hoped to find a little shop in the village to get a hot coffee, but in fact the village was deserted. The only life was a couple of scrawny dogs, a herd of Llamas and farmer ploughing his arid dust bowl of a field. We were all sure that he came closer to the wall both times we walked past in order to shower us in dust with his tractor.
We were left with the unwelcome hour walk back to our hostel and the prospect of walking across the salt flats in the dark. But we were in for a treat. The setting sun went behind the mountains but the salt flats started to come alive with colour. Orange and pink filled the sky and created a surreal contrast to the white of the salt. We even got to see a loan flamingo feeding in what little water was left on the salar, and take flight after we startled it. But the real treat was after the sun had disappeared and cast us in darkness. The night sky came alive and was dotted with thousands of shining stars. Even the Milky Way made an appearance. It was peaceful, and although we were only a kilometre from Coquesa, it seemed we were the only humans around in this vast wilderness.
We finally arrived back in Coquesa at around 7pm and Marion inquired about the chance of getting some hot food and more importantly hot water for a brew. We were in luck with both. The hot water arrived first. We had each bought a pot noodle in case of an emergency that no hot food would be available. This was now to be our starter. The main course was a huge plate of rice, potato and a fried egg. All cold as it had been sitting at the table for some 5 minutes without us knowing. Still, I was so hungry I wolfed it down.
This was also the time when Marion dropped the bombshell. The woman who ran the hostel earlier informed Marion that the next bus back to Uyuni would not leave until the following Wednesday. Today was Friday, and the grim prospect of staying in this beautiful but dreadfully desolate village did not excite anyone of us. Scott was especially concerned as he hoped to be making his way to Chile the next day.
There was a glimmer of hope. The woman’s brother would be driving a bus to the city of Oruro tomorrow morning. The bus would leave at 5am! We could get off at the town called Challapata, a 7 hour drive and rough dusty roads. We could then connect with a bus to Potosi and then hopefully make the last bus back to Sucre. I had hoped to climb part of the volcano the next day, but our options were now limited and the comfort of a hot shower in Sucre was too appealing.
After dinner me and Marion walked back down to the salt flats to take in the spectacular night sky. There now seemed to be even more stars than there were earlier and the Milky Way now took centre stage illuminating a massive white band across the darkness. The temperature was well below freezing now and the monstrous volcano was hidden in the blackness.
We all settled down for bedtime. Marion decided that she would be too cold in a bed of her own and insisted on sharing my single bed. She added her own blankets to my 3 equalling a total of 6 blankets. Combined with my sleeping bag liner there was no way I would be cold tonight. I slept in my socks, base layer, tee-shirt and beloved woolly hat which was kindly donated to me by the guys at Passenger Clothing.
Sleeping wasn’t easy that night. I was safe from the cold, actually sweating at times with my insane load of blankets on top of me. But the insufficient room in my single bed and the lack of oxygen at his elevation made catching 40 winks an arduous task. Just when I felt like I was in the land of nod I was rudely awakened by what sounded like a train horn. It went again, and again until my fellow travellers came to.
The time was 4.15am. The horn was actually our bus waiting for us outside the hostel. Now this was a first for Bolivia. Not only was our bus on time, it was actually 45 minutes early. We all jumped out of bed and threw our belongings into our bags. There was no time to brush our teeth or visit the toilet. Bolivian bus drivers tend not to have much patience when it comes to waiting for passengers.
The harsh Altiplano chill was thrust upon us and the temperature was still well below freezing. Luckily we had 2 sleeping bags with us, which we shared and wrapped up warm together. This time we were fortunate enough to actually have our own seats!.
The road was rough and bumpy and I found it impossible to sleep. We stopped at every little village on the way to pick up fellow passengers and their worldly belongings, and of course the token dog. The accompanying ‘train horn’ was used generously to summon the late.
We were eventually treated to a stunning sunrise with Tunupa in the background, just a shame it wasn’t my side of the bus. At one village some of the passengers persuaded the driver to stop for a toilet break. They also must have been caught out by the rare early departure. This being Bolivia, there were no public toilets, so the locals found secluded spots behind the villagers garden walls and took a dump. I just hoped they had toilet paper and I reminded myself not to shake hands with any of them later in the journey.
After a few more hours of swaying from side to side from the bumps we finally reached an asphalt road and gained some speed. We now had 2 mutts running up and down the bus. At around midday we reached the town of Huari. I was extremely familiar with this name. Huari is the name of the beer I have been drinking for the last 5 months in Sucre and this was the town where it was all made. The excitement was brief as we passed through the unattractive town, but I did get a slight glimpse of the Huari factory.
The saga of the bus journey continued when a guy came up the bus collecting everyone’s fair money. He informed his passengers that we were nearing our final destination, the town of Challapata. This wasn’t good news for Scott, as he had hoped to go all the way to Oruro in order to catch a bus into Chile. We reached Challapata weary and hungry. The streets were alive with people. It happened to be market day and it was complete chaos. We set about the streets, dodging the masses of people and animals to search for buses to our next destination. We came across a street vendor with a cute little monkey on a lead. The monkey’s job was to pick a ‘lucky’ card from the box with an inscription on it. The customers ‘good luck’ would obviously come at a price.
We asked countless people where the buses to Oruro departed and were given conflicting information every time. I had read about how some local people in Bolivia and Peru would make up things if they didn’t know the answer to a question. This apparently was because they didn’t want to appear rude or unhelpful, so rather than say “I don’t know” they would make something up. This was quite irritating, but eventually someone pointed us in the right direction.
It turned out that were not many restaurants in Challapata. In fact we only came across one, and it was only serving Pork soup. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry. We found Scott a bus to Oruro and hastily said our good byes. I planned on catching up with him in either Argentina or Brazil in the next month or so.
We were now a threesome. Our next task was to search for our bus to Potosi. The first person we asked told us to go to the main road and wait for a bus there. This turned out to be duff advice from our ‘helpful’ friend, but luckily someone else told us that the buses for Potosi left from the other side of town. We reached the apparent bus stop and waited with a few other hopefully travellers for a bus.The minutes ticked by. Buses and taxis passed by, but no one seemed to be heading to Potosi. Things were looking grim and the potentially horrid prospect of spending a night in this hell hole was looming ever closer.
Then out of nowhere a truck pulled up with a Potosi sign in his windscreen. When I say truck I mean the type of heavy goods vehicle that is normally used to carry items such as fruit, veg and the occasional cattle.
Today his cargo was people and their recently purchased goods from the days market. Everyone piled in, I guess around 40 people made up today’s cargo. The sun was shining strong and we made for the back of the truck where there was space and shade. This we found later was a mistake.
As the cattle truck pulled away our bad luck continued. Behind us a luxurious looking double decker bus had just arrived. The destination on his sign said Potosi! “oh well” I thought, this was ‘an adventure’ after all. Twenty minutes or so into the journey we found out that our shady area was a mistake. The breeze the speeding truck created actually made things quite cold and uncomfortable. Four hours of this was going to hell, especially when the sun went down.
Thankfully two hours into the journey we stopped at a town and virtually all our travelling companions got off. This allowed us to take up seats in the sunny area and even walk about in the back of the truck. Our fellow travellers now consisted of a young family with a boy of 7 or 8, a couple and a rather dirty looking middle aged man. This strange looking chap chewed constantly on coca leaves and sipped from a bottle of clear liquid curiously branded Alcohol. He seemed to enjoy his refreshment greatly. The young boy welded a large plastic gun that fired foam balls. He thought it was quite hilarious to shoot one at me. Later, he stuck his leg out as I unexpectantly walked past causing me to tumble to the ground. When I stared at him to show my displeasure, he called me “a bad man”. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like kids.
The scenery on the other hand was spectacular as we wound through the mountains passing huge canyons and great herds of Llamas. The sun was blazing and the breeze flowing through my hair. Finally things were looking up.
We arrived in Potosi at around 5pm, right in the middle of rush hour. It took 30 minutes to traverse the hectic city and arrive at the bus station. We had a bit more luck. The next bus to Sucre left in 20 minutes. The 3 hours to Sucre passed surprisingly quick and we arrived at closed bus terminal at 9pm. I hailed a taxi and asked him to take me to Pizza Napolitana as not eating for nearly 24 hours had started to take its toll. The normally efficient pizzeria made me wait 30 minutes for my grub even though i was their only customer. In this time I had decided that once fed and showered I would go to Cafe Florin for a beer or two.
A spanner was thrown in the works though. I discovered that I had no water in my apartment and as a result no shower for me that night. After an amazingly comfortable nights sleep, I awoke eager to get a hot shower. Today there was water. But today there was no electricity. Still no shower. The electricity finally came on at around midday and I finally had my first shower in over 3 days. At last the ‘adventure’ was over!
Two weeks have passed since this experience and after countless hot showers, delicious meals and comfortable nights sleep, I can look back and be grateful for my Bolivian adventure. Travel has taught me again the value of patience and to keep an open mind, even when things don’t go so well. It has also taught me that when a Bolivian says the word adventure, be very prepared for exactly that. The various things I encountered on this particular adventure are the reasons that make travel so interesting to me and many others. Getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing new and amazing things and sometimes suffering along the way are all part of the adventure. THIS IS BOLIVIA.
Have you ever had a crazy similar adventure on your travels? If so what happened,where and when?