17th of June 2011
After a night spent at a basic, cheap hotel in Patacamaya, we went to catch a bus south to the city of Oruro, from where we would go further south to Uyuni where we planned to take a tour.
We spent at least an hour trying to catch a bus in Patacamaya - there was absolutely no organisation. Just dozens of buses, mini vans and taxis lining both sides of the main street/highway. Every bus/van we asked was either not going to Oruro or already too full. Eventually we saw a couple of locals trying to flag down a bus going in the direction we wanted to go, so we caught up to them and asked where they were travelling to (our Spanish is improving!). They too were going to Oruro so we stuck nearby to them and eventually got some standing room on a bus headed to Oruro (around 2 hours)
Oruro was quite an ugly, dirty city with not much to offer tourists. We found out the train to Uyuni didn´t leave til 2 days after we arrived, so we ended up staying 2 nights but didn´t mind too much as we thought Phill had better have a break and try to get over his cold.
We checked into a $10 hotel room recommended by the Lonely Planet, but after a terrible nights sleep on the world´s noisiest spring bed, with a concave mattress, and a tiny bathroom with a seat-less toilet (that I ended up dropping my tooth brush into by accident) we decided to check out the next morning and went across the road where we splurged on a room in quite a fancy hotel for $26. It was especially nice to have a heater and TV!
While in Oruro, we visited a mining museum that was underground in an old mining shaft. It was still interesting to see what it was like but we spent the whole time hoping there wouldn´t be an earthquake while we were down there!
We got on the train for Uyuni at 3.30pm for a 7 hour trip. It was all fine until the sun went down and we realised the lights on the train weren´t working! Really wished we´d packed the torch as we couldn´t even read a book! We met an Irish guy sitting in front of us, but for some reason he decided it was a good idea to get drunk on the train - there didn´t seem to be a moment when he wasn´t drinking beer or straight whisky.
Going to the toilet proved pretty hazardous for all of us - once when Phill went, the train decided to do an emergency stop while he was in the cubicle. Later when I went, I somehow managed to pee on my pants thanks to it being pitch black in there. And later the Irishman came back from the toilet and leant over the seat pointing his bleeding finger at me that he´d gotten squashed in the door. I put a couple of bandaids on it and he quietened down after that.
The bumpy train finally pulled into freezing cold Uyuni and we found a hotel to check in to. It was midnight by the time we got into the room, and when we turned on the light I realised that my jacket was covered in splotches of blood from the Irishman´s finger. I was NOT a happy camper by now!!!
Our purpose of staying in Uyuni was to find a company to book a 4WD tour of the south west circuit which includes the Salar de Uyuni - the largest salt flat in the world at 10,500 square kilometres.
We shopped around at several different tour agencies but found that the basic standard tour seemed to be exactly the same everywhere and the same price. So we went with one company that had fairly good reviews and booked a 3 day tour for $80 each.
We got picked up in the Landcruiser in the morning and realised that they had placed us with another tour company since the one we´d booked hadn´t managed to get enough people. We didn´t mind too much but were disapointed that the car didn´t have seat belts, which we had been told it would (and we´d heard quite a few horror stories to do with car problems and accidents). There were 8 of us in total in the car - the driver, the tour guide, 3 Americans, a Scottish girl and us.
The first stop was to the Train Cemetery, which is a collection of abandoned rusted steam trains not far from town. After that we went and saw how they process the salt from the salt flats. It was all very primitive. We saw a man packing salt into small plastic packets to be sold as Table salt. We learned that for every 50kg of packets of salt he earns 12 Bolivianos - that´s less than $2 AUD.
After that we drove across the salt flat which was spectacular. We went past the workers collecting salt - again a very basic process of raking the salt into hundreds of piles, letting it dry out and then shovelling it by hand onto old trucks. They could have really done with a bobcat or excavator to get the job done a lot faster.
In the middle of the salt flat was Isla de Pescado, or Fish Island, which was a mountain covered with huge cacti about 10metres tall. Many were more than 1000 years old. There were good views from the top, but the island/mountain was pretty crowded with lots of other tourists (as were most of the points of interest along the way).
The first night of the tour we spent the night in a hotel that was almost completely made of salt - salt bricks, salt tables and chairs, salt beds (not the mattresses!) and even the floor was completely covered in loose salt.
The 2nd day of the tour we mostly travelled through the desert and saw lots of nice scenery including volcanoes and lakes. We spent the second night near Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon) which is a big lake that is coloured red from a type of algae in it. There were lots of flamingoes in it. It was very cold there as the elevation was 4300 metres, but we were quite warm at night as all 6 of us slept in a very tiny room with no windows - I lost more sleep worrying about lack of oxygen!
We got up at 5am the next morning and went and saw a collection of steaming geysers at 5000m elevation. After that we went to Lago Verde (Green Lake) which is meant to have green water from the particles of copper in it, but for us it was completely frozen. Still pretty though.
After this our other 4 companions, who were doing a 1 way trip, got dropped off at the border where they were continuing into Chile. Phill and I stayed on for the long drive back to Uyuni (about 6 hours). We made a couple of stops along the way though at some interesting rock formations, and had a picnic lunch. We had some great chats with Israel the guide. He was 23 years old, in his 3rd year of a Geology degree, and as well as Spanish and English, he also spoke Aymara (an Indigenous language) and quite a bit of German. He was a really nice guy and we learnt so much from him about everything to do with Bolivia.
Phill and I were overwhelmed with the quality of the tour - it seemed much better than what we had paid for and expected. For starters, it had an English speaking guide, while we had paid for a Spanish speaking guide since other travellers we had come across previously had said it wasn´t worth paying extra for English speaking since all the sites are fairly self explanatory. But Israel was an absolute wealth of knowledge. And the food on the tour was also really good - the best we´d had in Bolivia (we´re not really fans of Bolivian/Peruvian food and are getting sick to death of soup, rice and potatoes which come with every single meal!).
On the way back to Uyuni, Israel told us that we may have noticed the tour had a few extra touches that we wouldn´t have been expecting. It turns out that we had been teamed up with a more fancier tour which the others had each paid about $150 for!! So it really worked out well for us!
When we got back to Uyuni we wandered around until we found a hotel that let us pay to have a shower (since we couldn´t have any on the tour). Then that night we caught the train from Uyuni south to Tupiza. Fortunately this train trip was fairly uneventful - just cold! We got into Tupiza at 4am and were expecting to stay huddled in the train station until day light. But fortunately we came across a tout from a guesthouse looking to rack up some business. So we walked to the accommodation with her and managed to get a few extra hours sleep that morning. The woman was certainly very keen to be waiting at the train station at 4am as the room was only $8 a night including breakfast (we were the only ones staying there).
That day we checked out the town of Tupiza - it is by far the nicest town we´ve come across in Bolivia (but still pretty ordinary by Australian standards!). It is situated in Wild West type country, surrounded by big red hills and of course lots of cacti and llamas. Tupiza is best known for being in the region where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their last days. There are tours you can do that go to places where they travelled and where the movie was filmed. We weren´t too familiar with Butch and Sundance though so didn´t do one. Might have to watch the movie when we get back!
We booked a 3 hour horse riding tour that afternoon for $10. There were 2 Dutch people who went also. None of us had much horse riding experience but after being offered a hat (not a helmet) and given the instructions of Left, Right and Stop, we were away! The horses were very docile and were so used to the circuit that they seemed to know when to trot and canter. It was really fun. We went to a small canyon and on the way back rode through part of town which was a bit nerve wracking with passing cars and barking dogs, but we all made it back in one piece :)
And then today we went on a walk out of town for a few hours to see some more of the surrounding country side. It was more of the same, but nice. We would have liked to have done more horseriding but if only it was a bit safer!
Tomorrow morning we have yet another early start - catching a 4am bus to take us a couple hours to the border where we will cross back into Argentina. From there it is a 7 or 8 hour bus ride to the city of Salta where we will spend 2 nights before heading back to Buenos Aires.
Time for the homeward bound!