I have to admit that I opted to skip over the Atacama Desert by flying from Santiago to La Paz. I had deliberated greatly back in Mexico, and my calculus lead me to the decision that I’d be ready for a break from buses by then, plus what appears to be the cheapest way often comes with hidden costs that make it a wash if not more expensive. Also, having grown up with agua dulce (fresh water) and forests, I’m not a desert lover generally. (Sorry Owen.)
I bought my ticket without factoring in the sudden and substantial altitude change, however. By the time I left Santiago, I had started to worry about it, and with good reason, it turns out. I think, in reality, very few newcomers escape the physiological effects of altitude, though some experience it much worse than others. For me, it manifested in a persistent shortness of breath and a dull headache that came and went. But it wasn’t completely debilitating, and no one likes a complainer, least of all me. Onward.
The winding descent into La Paz on the ride from the airport is breathtaking and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The geology is reminiscent of sandcastles, stuffed in between, the steep, densely populated neighborhoods seem precarious, yet persistent, and the people, goods and interchanges along the streets seem raw, unfiltered.
I checked into a cheap hostel, dumped my stuff, spent a few minutes with a map of La Paz and ventured back out to find a group of friends I grew up with who had coincidentally flown in the day before. They planned to make the trip to see the salt flats the following day. Although the salt flats were not initially at the top of my list, I decided it was something I could really only do in a group and might as well do. I was tired from the day of travel, but knew the coordinating needed to happen that night, so I willed myself to keep going.
The group worked me into their already arranged plan through a local tour company without fuss. I paid up and we decompressed at the bar. The next day we caught our breath, I jumped through the many hoops to get a Bolivian cell phone, and that night we caught a bus to Uyuni, the jumping off point for 4-Runner tours of the Salar (salt flats).
This would turn out to be one of the more unpleasant busrides I’ve been on in South America. Long, bumpy, overbooked and without the promised bathroom. One person in our group was so disgruntled about the lack of seats and baños that he insisted that he be allowed to sit in front, where the right hand man to the driver usually is. At one point, we piled off in a mud pit of a town around Oruro to pee, suck in some fresh air and stretch our legs. Then back onto our stuffy box of a bus. To its credit the bus rumbled down dirt roads most of the way, sometimes even just tracks out into the altiplano, and piloted us safely enough to Uyuni. But by the end we were as grumpy as dwarfs who had been stuffed into barrels.
Uyuni is a bigger town than you’d expect to find in this part of Bolivia, but salt flats tourism has created a boom of development, which is apparent all around the dusty town in various stages. Piles of construction supplies are everywhere, as are signs advertising tour companies. Local restaurants offer not only bathrooms but also showers. We arrived at the tour company our tour company in La Paz has set us up with, who welcome us and inform us that we’re one person short of the number of people needed to run our own tour. A snafu with the bus schedule is cited inexplicably as the cause of the problem. We talked our way out of it. Among the five of us, two speak functional Spanish. This was the first of many times during the trip when we would get fed up with the number of middle men who passed us back and forth without ever giving us all the info. Next, we were passed to local guide Juan Jose, who would shepard us for the next three days. The tour operator warned that he is quiet, so we will need to ask him when we want to know something.
Juan Jose lived up to his name as a man of few words, but a wealth of local knowledge. When I asked how he knew which way to go over the vast, seemingly brittle salt crusts, he said he learned from his dad as a kid to orient using the surrounding mountains. At first our 4-Runner passed several road paving projects, then we splashed out into a few feet of water where heaps of salt were spaced at intervals above the water where people had extracted it for hauling and processing. Next we passed through a small town where the salt processing happens, though few people make a living this way as the prices for salt are just a few bolivianos per kilo, so its not a very lucrative business.
For hours we rolled along the surface of the salar with its stark, neverending qualities, hexagonal patterns and sandy off-white color, stopping occasionally to take in the strangely beautiful landscape. Once, Juan Jose kneeled in his blue coveralls, broke the surface of the salar as if we were about to go ice fishing, plunged his hand in and pulled out clusters of salt-crystals. They sparkled in the sunlight. We took the classic salt-flat photos. I requested a stop so we could get a closer look at the quinua plants in the fields we passed, which were almost but not quite in pinkish bloom. We learned to distinguish between lllamas, alpaca and vicunyas (a leaner versionof a llama.) We watched a deep gray rain storm gather and burst to the east.
By the time we reached quaint little San Juan, our destination that first night, we were ready to rest. Juan Jose drove us back and forth across the five or so blocks in the village seeking accomodations. Eventually, by the fifth or sixth zag over ground we’d already covered, through some persistent questioning, it came out that there was no reservation for our group, and many hospedajes in town were already full. Patience was wearing thin in our group, especially in light of the La Paz tour company’s promise that everything would be pre-arranged. Translation of our mounting discontent and negotiations over how to reach some resolution fell to me. You would think speaking Spanish when you’re mad would be easier, but for me it’s the opposite. Somehow, I managed to convey what needed to be understood, right about when we pulled up to the salt hotel where we found space.
As we climbed out of the jeep, a gentle breeze was blowing, already dissipating some of the tension we’d been carrying since the bus ride of the night before. There was a rainbow back in the direction of the salt flats, and beautiful light in the southwest, washing over everything, including a few fleecy clouds and more llamas. We started to talk about where we could find a few bottles of wine in town. We befriended the group sitting next to us at dinner (a few French people, a couple of Germans and an Argentine) and dealt them in on a game of black jack. It was a nice way to unwind and spend an evening, especially at the end of an extra-long, salty, talk-back kind of day.
In the morning I rose an hour ahead of the others and went out in the cold, scrubby tundra to do my stretching and exercise routine. When the others got up, some reported allergic reactions to sleeping in a place built entirely of salt blocks. Fortunately it was just one night.
We rolled along for hours again, stopping to explore basalt formations, sandstone canyons and other geologic formations. It was then I started joking about rock-in’Bolivia. And there were many more rocks in Bolivia to marvel at, climb, pick up and hypothesize about. Next came lagoons full of flamingos of three different species (all identified by the avid birders in our group). Some of the lagoons were a sulfurous pale green, while others were a dark blue grey. The flamingos seemed to use their beaks to burrow and feel around in the mud for food, and appeared to be completely oblivious to us gawkers on the shores. Llama steaks and salad for lunch. More lagoons, one of them red, and more flamingos.
End of day 2 on the salt flats tour. Hackey sack, bottles of Paceña (a common light Bolivian beer which I’m not a big fan of), a round of the drinking game King’s cup, live music and chatting late into the night with a group of medical students from Santa Cruz ( in Eastern Bolivia.) The way to say “cool” (bien badre, chevere, bacan) in Bolivian Spanish, they told me, was either “buen alto,” or “buenisimo.”
In the morning, we were up and out in the freezing, cold stillness to visit geysers and geothermal soaking pools. Remarkably, these hotsprings didn’t even smell like eggs, though some members of our party thought they could have been hotter. Personally, I was quite happy with their temperature, and the view of mists and more llamas out over the lagoon.
Third and final day. More rock in Bolivia. Lots more. We drove over sand dunes, through stacks of rocks, up riverbeds (I shut my eyes), across desolate expanses of brown sand. When you get to the middle of nowhere, take a left, I joked. In this case, it was as good a direction as any other. We stopped in tall, natural reddish arches, pillars, and giant slabs. It remained a mystery how Juan Jose decided which track in the sand among dozens to take, and how in changing sand tracks constantly we avoided fishtailing or break-downs of any sort. Best driver in the Altiplano we came out saying, and gave him a fat tip.
All that effort to avoid the desert and here I was in the desert after all, dried out, tired out and happy to be out in the world. On the bus ride home, we at least had the good sense to take the sleeping meds that one of us had brought along. It was a rattled, restless sleep, but much better than no sleep. Something to remember for future bus rides. Advil PM, opiate of the masses on god forsaken buses.