Days 33-35: The Bolivian Salt Flats

There are bus journeys and there’s the La Paz to Uyuni bus journey. Much has been written about the latter but it really has to be experienced to be believed. Leaving La Paz at 9pm in the evening it arrives in Uyuni around 7am the next day. For £23 you get an onboard meal, pillow and blanket and a reclining seat. Good value, we hear you say. But how much would you pay to visit the dentist?

The first few hours of the journey are uneventful enough, even allowing passengers to get some much-needed shut-eye. But around 2am everyone receives the wake-up call to end all wake-up calls. A round of what can only be described as machine gun fire rings out and the bus begins to shake and rattle uncontrollably. Everyone expects this to subside after 30 seconds or so. It does not. It continues for the next five and a half hours.

It’s remarkable how resilient and adaptable the human body is. After an hour or so, most passengers return to a fitful sleep. And after a few hours it is only when the bus stops occasionally that people begin to feel sick. Eventually the bus pulls into Uyuni and everyone staggers off to find solace any which way they can. Most bus drivers count the number of passengers at each end of the journey; the La Paz-Uyuni driver counts the number of teeth.

Once in Uyuni we had a three hour wait before being picked up by our driver/guide Alejandro. After being squeezed into his 4×4 Landcruiser along with two other couples – Tom and Anna and Raul and Sylvia – we were off.

The next three days saw us drive through an incredible range of landscapes: from blinding white salt flats to marsian-red plains to honey-coloured deserts. At times it felt more like a tour of the world rather a small country in South America. En route we visited ‘islands’ peppered with cacti, volcanoes spitting sulphur and flamingo-filled lagoons of red, green, blue and white.

If the days weren’t unforgettable enough then our two nights accommodation will prove equally hard to dislodge from our memories. The first night was in a salt ‘hotel”. Yes, that’s right, an hotel made entirely by Mr Maldon. Even right down to the beds.

With only one shower between forty people and no power after 9.30pm, it could only be described as one-star accommodation. Still, we quickly developed a blitz mentality and ourselves, Tom, Anna, Raul & Sylvia laughed it off. At least it hadn’t been built of pepper.

If the first night was one-star then the second night didn’t register on any hotel ranking system. This time there was no shower, we all had to share the same room and the power lasted two hours. Never has a pack of cards been so welcome.

Spare a thought for Tom and Anna though. Recently married, they were on an eight-week honeymoon before emigrating to Melbourne. No Four Seasons hotel for them.

We can’t really complain about the sleeping arrangements though. For little over £150 we got a 10 hour bus trip to Uyuni, a three day tour of the salt flats, two nights accommodation and all meals included.

As you’d imagine, we took an enormous amount of photographs during the tour. Below is only a small selection. Once we get to a PC, we will add some more landscape shots to the blog’s headers.

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Days 31-32: La Paz

After the calm and serenity of Copacabana (apart from our stomachs), La Paz was an assault on our eyes, ears and noses. The highest capital in the world, Bolivia’s metropolitan centre hugs the inside of what looks like a lunar crater, with buildings clinging all the way up, around and over the edges. To say it’s congested is like saying Eamonn Holmes enjoys the odd pie now and again. It’s insanely busy.

In at least one respect La Paz operates counter to many other large cities: the higher your social status the lower your dwelling tends be in the city. The very poor inhabit the altiplano edges at some 4,100m up, while the rich prosper at around 3,000m in the heavier, cleaner air of the Zona Sur. Our ‘hotel’ was decidedly midtown and we were on the 9th floor – so unsure where we would stand in the La Paz-ian social hierarchy…

No doubt many before us blazed a trail of crazy nights and lazy days but our time in La Paz seemed to centre on finding a Salt Flats tour agency and getting our laundry done – rock ‘n roll! Both were ten times harder than you might expect and riddled with danger. Well, we thought so at least.

We finished off our time in La Paz in similar geriatric style with a whizz around the city in an open-top bus. These buses may well be a recent innovation in the capital as there was much pointing and laughing by the locals as we squeezed our way through the city streets. If you can ignore the public humiliation it’s actually a great way to get your head around an intoxicating city. You get to take in the commercial district, swish residential areas and even a lunar landscape.

It was certainly a bus ride far different from the overnight hell-ride we took to Uyuni that very same day. More of which later…

In the meantime, here’s a handful of shots from La Paz.

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The indigenous population of La Paz still hadn’t got used to the concept of pavements.

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Pigeons had been a problem in the capital ever since Columbus had smuggled a couple through customs.

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Kevin McCloud couldn’t lie. The pilot episode of Bolivian Grand Designs had been a disaster.

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Richard struggled to hide his disappointment at the real estate he had inherited from his late Bolivian uncle.

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I am NOT going back down those steps!

Days 28-30: Scraping a Pass to La Paz

After five extremely long days and nights in Copacabana we are just about recovered from our respective bugs, whatever they were. It has been a bit of a struggle. Being ill away from home always has its challenges. But when you combine this with altitude – we’ve been above 3,300m for over two weeks now – being surrounded only by Spanish speaking hosts, and having to tiptoe through the minefield of Bolivian cuisine with tender stomachs, then the task is that much harder. Oh, if only we could have lain on a familiar, comfortable sofa eating Heinz tomato soup and watching reruns of Columbo!

So due to our incapacitation (that surely can’t be a word?) we are abandoning plans to visit Isla Del Sol and heading straight to La Paz today, Bolivia’s capital. IDS is the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology and is well-noted for its ruins. But as we’ve seen our fair share of Inca ruins of late – and feel a bit ruined ourselves – we don’t anticipate it being a big loss.

See you all in La Paz.

Days 24-27: An Early Test

The birthday celebrations couldn’t have started any better: we had a fantastic room with a unspoilt view of Lake Titicaca.

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After lunch we ventured for a walk around Esteves island, where the hotel is situated. We spotted wild alpacas and had spectacular views of the lake.

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It was then on to the hotels spa, intense steam room, somewhat cool sauna and a bubbling jacuzzi. As we sat in our bathrobes watching the sun go down over Lake Titicaca we were fortunate enough to see a group of alpacas making there way home. Life doesn’t get much better than this, we thought. However, it was at the dinner table when things started to take a turn for the worst…

S: As I made my menu selections, I began to feel a slight dizziness in my head and that dreaded churning of the stomach. I couldn’t believe it, my birthday night in wonderful sorroundings, and I couldn’t get my food down. It was with much disappointment that we had to cut the evening short and head to our room.

Unfortunately a night’s sleep made no difference and we had to call out a doctor the following day. I was diagnosed with an infection of the intestine and given a concotion of colourful pills. Once the doctor had departed, one of the hotel staff turned up at our room with a terrifying cylinder of oxygen and insisted I lay down for 10 minutes of treatment. S

R: not to be left out, I woke up the same morning with a badly-cricked neck, but thought nothing more of it. R

At lunchtime we headed for the bus station accompanied by Antonio who owns Kuntur Inn, our accommodation during the first two nights in Puno. He couldn’t do enough for us and soon we were on the bus and after three hours on a bumpy road we were crossing the border into Bolivia. Ten minutes from there, we were in Copacabana situated on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. A short taxi ride saw us arrive at our new accomodation, the Ecolodge.

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R: our first night in Copacabana wasn’t a great one. Sophia was still unwell and I had an horrendous time with some strange fever which exacerbated the pains in my neck and all down my left side. Most peculiarly. R

Originally we only intended to stay at the Ecolodge for a couple of nights, head to Isla de Sol for an overnighter, and then on to La Paz. But we have time on our side and the Ecolodge is not a bad place to convalesce. It’s 20 minutes or so from the town, overlooks the bay and apart from a barking dog named Luna is peaceful both day and night.

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