A Travellerspoint blog

More than a pinch of salt

The differences between Bolivia and Argentina were immediately apparent upon crossing the border at La Quica/Villazon, even at the border itself. Leaving Argentina involved the standard procedures of beng directed by the guard to get our passports stamped in the immigration office before leaving the country. On the Bolivian side, it wasn’ t even apparent we were at a border. No guard was there to direct us, and the view ahead was that of a normal street with shops, markets, and people going about their day. I happended to cross the border with two Argentine girls who didn’t need to get their passports stamped, as they were only in Boliviua for a day, and as a result I completely forgot I had to do this and just walked straight on through. Unfortunately, the immigration officals, who I tried explaining this to days later, did not see my act as harmless as I did, and hit me with a whopping fine. The fact that it took me 12 days to present to them didn’t help convince them of my innocence either, nor did my explanation that I was too busy to come sooner because I was organising my Spanish course, since, as they informed me, it is illegal to study in Bolivia on a tourist visa. And although I know I should have presented to immigration earlier, I am not exaggerating when I say that basic things take a long time to get done in Bolivia. The fact that it took the immigration office three days, one trip to the bank involving a half hour wait, three trips to the photocopiers, and twice being told to come back the next day, to process my fine is a prime example.

My first stop in Bolivia was Tupiza, a small town surrounded by beautiful mountainous countryside. Though scenic in itself, my main reason for going there was to do a tour of the salt lakes, something I had heard was amazing and a real highlight of travelling in Bolivia. The tour I did went for 4 days and 3 nights. In the group was myself, 3 Irish girls, a Dutch girl, our male Bolivian guide and a female Bolivian cook. We set off early in the morning in a 4 wheel drive jeep. Before departing we stopped at the markets to pick up a bag of coca leaves that the driver ensured us was very important for the trip. He then proceeded to start chewing them one by one, and didn’t stop chewing them the entire length of the trip. I was surprised that one bag was sufficient but it seemed to last the distance.

The first day of the tour was spent doing a lot of driving through quite barren countryside. We stopped for lunch to view some llamas and use the ‘natural bathroom’ as it was referred to throughout the trip. For lunch, I got to try a tradtional Bolivian food called ‘tomales’, which was meat encased in maize flour with spices, wrapped in corn leaves. It was delicious. In the afternoon we passed through a small village and got to walk around and play with the children there. They were adorable. We passed through many villages on the tour that were incredibly remote, hours and hours from any major city or town. Some villages had electricty and running water and others didn’t. Our guide explained that often the mothers went off to work in the cities for days on end, and the children often stayed in the villages with their fathers. They lived off llamas, maize and potatoes.

One of the villages we passed through

One of the villages we passed through

The first night of the tour we spent in one of these villages. The accommodation was very basic but we were comfortable enough. We had heard horror stories of how cold it was on the tour at night, and how people had found it impossible to sleep, even with several sleeping bags and all their clothes on. So I was delighted to find that once in bed, I was warm and managed to have a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we set off at 5am. But since we had gone to sleep at 9pm the night before, this was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. We drove for hours without stopping, with the scenery becoming increasingly interesting as we went along. We entered a national park and suddently found ourselves in the desert. In the afternoon we stopped at a hot spring and braved the freezing cold wind to jump in and out. We had a delicious lunch with what we had now started to refer to as ‘the family’, and we bragged about how our chef was the best and how the other groups were surely not getting the same quality of food that we were. I later realised that all the tours do things exactly the same, even down to the type of table cloth they use, however, we still prefered to think that ours was the best.

The family

The family

After lunch we went to see some sort of thermal mini-blowholes things (I believe that was their official title), that spluttered out some sulphur-like mineral and lots of misty white steam. They created a very surreal looking landscape, which almost felt like we were on a film set of a movie about life on another planet. That night we stayed in another village in a slightly bigger and more comfortable house that accommodated several other groups as well. After another delicious meal and lots of spying on the other groups’ food, we ended the night with a glass of wine by the small fire place. Expecting this night to be the coldest of all, we again found that we were warm in bed and slept well.

On the thrid day we vistited several beautiful lagoons and this time got to do a bit more walking around. The scenery was beautiful and like nothing I had ever seen before. One of the deserts was called ‘Dali’s Desert’ and I could clearly see why. It felt exactly like we were driving through one of his paintings. We saw small pink flamingos, colourful mountains, randomly situated rocks, and miles and miles of sandy desert. Since we were travelling such massive distances and there was very little of anything in the forground, it was impossble to maintain an accurate sense of depth percecption, which resulted in a sensation of driving toward the horizon, but not feeling like we were going anywhere.

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By the third day, we had really started feeling like a proper family, with our parents in the front of the jeep and all us 5 daughters in the back, going on one long family vacation. We even started referring to our guides as Mum and Dad. Along the way, Mum would pass us back little snacks like chocolate milk and lolly pops, and Dad controlled when we stopped the car, the music, and the opening and closing of windows. This surreal vision seemed only to match the surreal scenery that we were passing, making the whole experience feel like a fun, absurd, dream.

Our final night was spent near the salt flats in a hostel made of... wait for it... salt! Hard to imagaine, I know, but literally everything including the walls, floor, tables, and chairs were made of salt. It was comfy and warm, and after a hot shower, so was I. That night I enjoyed another good sleep, even overheating through the night.

One of the Salt Hotels

One of the Salt Hotels

We woke early again the next morning in order to have enough time to see the sunrise over the salt lakes. Making it there just in time, we witnessed this magical part of the day and saw for the first time the endless, flat, salt covered lakes. Originally, the area of the salt lakes was covered with sea water. But thousands of years ago, the area somehow became landlocked and over time the water evaporated and left behind 100’s of metres of salt covering the earth.

Driving across the salt lakes was again a bizzare experience. It felt like we were in a film studio pretending to be driving in the wilderness, but really not moving at all and surrounded by big white screens, with the landscape to be implanted into the movie at a later date. We drove for miles and miles, for what felt like an eternity, with just flat, white earth all around us. Somewhere in the middle of the lakes was an island covered in cactuses. The earth of the island was poorous, like coral, providing proof that the ocean had once surrounded it. We wandered around the island, while Mum and Dad prepared breakfast. Mum had baked a cake the night before, so we all had a delicious slice of sponge and a warm tea to enjoy in the sunshine of the early morning.

We then set off to do some of the much awaited ‘trick’ photography. Losing all perception of depth due to the endless white surrounds, it was possible to take photos that looked like people were jumping out of pringle boxes and standing on each other’s hands. Having witnessed this time and again I’m sure, Dad made use of the time by having a shave in the car, and Mum leant elegantly against the car enjoying the sunshine and our silly antics. After a final lunch and a spot of shopping at the local tourist markets, we arrived into Hyuni just in time to catch the Chile vs Spain World Cup match on TV.

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All in all, the tour had been great. The girls had been good company and our guides were fantastic. It had been a good introduction to Bolivia and I felt ready for more. That night, I left the family behind and caught an overnight bus to Sucre. The journey didn’t feel as safe and cosy as our time with Mum and Dad had been, and the reality of travelling in Bolivia started to set in. After witnessing some heated arguments over seats on the bus that had been double booked, and then having the woman beside me place her legs diagonally across me and lean her body onto mine as she slept, and then having my ipod run out of battery, I sat uncomfortably and wide awake staring desperately at the full moon, as if in some strange way it may be able to help salvage my situation, which got worse after I realised the bus wasn’t heading directly to Sucre, but was stopping in another town where in the middle of the freezing cold night we would have to wait 2 hours for another connection.

Yes, I soon realised that travelling in Bolivia was going to be very different to travelling in Argentina, and I prepared myself for a rough and bumpy ride.

Posted by Tracy Chap 13:15 Archived in Bolivia

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