Bolivia: Embracing the middle of nowhere.

~By:  Amanda, Anna and Julie

Nobody likes early mornings, but at least with this tour you awake at 0 Dark 30 to a glorious breakfast prepared for you. We were on the road by 7:30 am. Besides being friendly, our favorite thing about Miguel was that he kept us on a good schedule. We were always the first group to arrive at many of the stopping points along the way. On our way out of town we hit up a convenience store, where we grabbed a few Coronas, because what’s vacation in the middle of nowhere without breakfast beers?

Our first stop of the day would be a hidden gem in the middle of the desert, where hundreds of boulders are stacked on each other. The scenery was breathtaking and we were able to take more unforgettable pictures…noticing a pattern?

 

Pulling up to Laguna Canapa, we spotted several black specs sprinkled thoughout the water. As we neared the shore, we realized these were the promised pink flamingos. The real thing, not the tacky plastic decorations that Floridians like to use as lawn decor. Miguel let us off on the far shore to enjoy the birds while he prepared lunch. Getting close to these creatures was tricky. They are quite docile animals and there is a parameter set up around the lake to keep visitors from getting too close.  Our picnic lunch was set up next to a hotel on little tables covered with thatched straw roofs. The adjacent hotel promised wifi for a small fee, however it was in-operative. In actuality, most of us were happy to stay in our little bubble off the grid.

As we set off, our surroundings transformed into a red rock desert. There was no road, only rows of tire tracks etched in the sand. Miguel knew the way, as he has driven the route hundreds of times; he’s probably able to trace the path in his sleep. Based on our GPS, we realized the line of mountains skimming by our right side window was the border to Chile. This is where we get diabolical. Miguel knows Julie grew up in Chile, having immediately peppered her with questions upon learning this gringa spoke perfect Spanish. We asked hopefully, “Can we go to the border?” After a moment of consideration he mentally made a couple small adjustments to the itinerary and determined it was possible. He also made the recommendation that for the equivalent of 5 dollars more we could stay in a better hotel that evening, which would also make more efficient use of our time. We immediately agreed.

Today we got as high as 15,650 feet elevation! We had kind of became obsessed with checking our elevation. Snapchat and the iPhone Compass app both show accurate elevation, even when your phone is in airplane mode. At one point Miguel stopped the car to hand over a bag of coca leaves. We all took a few even though we felt fine, determining do as the natives. This was the highest point of elevation any of us had ever achieved outside of an airplane. We used to see lots of alpaca herds when at lower elevations, where there was an abundance of more greenery. The natives live off the alpaca herds for everything. But up here we are in complete desert; we we keep describing it as being on Mars, because of the red color and all the martian rocks scattered over the landscape. We really haven’t seen any wildlife other than a few odd looking ducks and a few wild alpaca. They look almost like antelope, they are very thin and lanky and only white and cream colored. Miguel called them cuña. Who knows what they survive on because there is very little vegetation. 

After cruising along the endless red sand for hours, we entered the national park, which costs an additional 150BOB. Be careful! One of the sneaky officials attempted to keep 50BOB in change he owed me, when I handed over 200BOBs. Once again thankful for Julie’s Spanish, I walked back out with my cash… my beer money for the evening.

Just past the park office is the Laguna Colorada, an amazing red colored lake home to more flamingos. We learned the lake receives its color from mineral deposits which generate a red hue. This is also how the pink flamingos are so uniquely colored, as their primary food source also contains these same red minerals. Sitting on the rocks overlooking the laguna, we all had pensive solo moments. When your eyes capture something this beautiful, silence takes over….

Our final stop for the day was the geysers. We parked first at the smaller of the two, a small plume of white smoke jetting out from the tiny hole in the earth’s surface. You are actually able to touch the vapors evacuating from this small geyser and we all took turns jumping thought the warm vapors. Two minutes further down the road, a larger geyser gushed searing hot steam from the vent in the rocks. We were careful to steer clear of the mist as it was hot enough to cause serious burns.

Exhausted, we arrived at our accommodations for the evening. We played cards as we waited for our afternoon tea and those amazing cookies. Dinner was served with a complimentary bottle of wine and the food was as equally delicious as the night before. It was all clean, wonderful and locally grown. This is where we made our mistake. We had originally planned to visit the hot springs adjacent to the hotel after dinner. However, we all developed food comas, and coupled with the long day and the freezing temperatures outside, no one could muster putting on a bathing suit. Instead we quietly returned to our room and snuggled under our warm blankets.

Our final morning started with pancakes! What better way to start a morning then pancakes? — is Anna’s philosophy on life. Our first stop was the Laguna Verde, but to be quite honest it was not too exciting. Later we googled it and found pictures online with much more intense colorization, so perhaps we arrived during the wrong season. We started debating the difference between lagoons and lakes–  no cell service for three days brings on some strange conversations. We concluded, thanks to Anna, lakes have to have a fresh water source. Finally on to Chile…

 

I have never been to Chile…based on a group consensus we determined if you make a memory in that country you can claim it. Figure out a better way than to grab hands with one of your favorite people and illegally run across a border, likely no! I also did a cartwheel, just in case. So in my mind it counts and I guess that is all that really matters, country number 60!

The rest of the day was mostly spent in the car, we made a few stops including the Desert of Dali, which was named after a Salvador Dali painting. We keep spotting small herds of the Alpaca-Antelope far across the empty fields. Every time a big huge truck passed us going in the opposite direction, we held our breaths going through the large dust clouds, generated as they speed down the road. We hoped those big trucks were carrying road paving supplies.

Our final stop before Uyuni was San Cristobal. Historically this town laid further to the west, however when an Australian mine company wanted to drill the mineral rich land; the town was re-located to its current location. The caveat was the beautiful church must be moved stone by stone and precisely re-erected. San Cristobal also has an amazing market, of course we found a stall with a working refrigerator and grabbed a couple of beers for our ride back to Uyuni.

We rode into Uyuni on a dust cloud and Miguel dropped us off at the bus station to drop our bags. We said a remorseful goodbye to Miguel. We will never see him again, but will never forget the magic he showed us in this beautiful and often forgotten part of the world. We settled down for dinner of pizza and beer before heading back to La Paz. We are so predictable! Coming back into “civilization” and having cell phone signal was not even all that grand. I called my mom, assured her of proof of life, shared a couple photos and resigned to not really caring about being reconnected with the world.

This was by far one of the most incredible trips we have ever taken. Absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of experience; I can’t believe we only paid $130 each. Still, we rather roughed it. We learned that electricity, running water and flushing toilets are luxuries in many parts of the world. We toured across the country in a Nissan Prado through salt flats, shallow lakes, heavy mud, creeks, prairie, roads of solid boulders, mountain tops and desolate dry desert. Arriving back in Uyuni completely covered in dirt, having lived and learned  a little more, experiencing an amazing new culture and with fuller souls.

See part one of our adventure: Bolivia-The “road” less traveled and our other Bolivia blogs

 

Bolivia: The “road” less traveled

~By: Amanda and Julie

When booking anything in a third world country you must take everything as “alternative facts”. Things get lost in translation, drivers veer off on personal agendas, and pictures on pamphlets rarely meet expectations. That being said, it’s almost always worth it and the experience will often exceed your expectations in ways you’d never comprehend.

A couple of weeks ago we were going through the extensive paperwork process of crossing by land from Peru to Bolivia as U.S. citizens. We booked a 3-Day Salt Flats tour from our hostel in La Paz and the only expectations we had were 3 meals a day and accommodations on the tour.  Beyond that, alimg_5217l we knew is we would see the Uyuni Salt Flats and we were promised pink flamingos.
We took an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni and arrived around 5am where a man with a sign appeared out of no where in the dark with our names, escorted us through the empty town to a tiny cafe for breakfast. It had spotty wifi but the breakfast was filling and most importantly a wall filled with outlets to charge everything we owned, since electricity would be scarce the next three days. We basked in the heat of the fire burning oven and drank copious amounts of coca tea to prepare ourselves for the journey with no seeming itinerary.

 

IMG_9714Around 10am a lady from the travel agency next door came to find us, escorted us to our 4×4 jeep and introduced us to our driver. He was less than pleased that we showed up for a three day trip with our large backpacks filled to the gills for an entire month of traveling. He had to tie our big backpacks to the top of the jeep; we hadn’t been informed to pack lightly or to leave our bigger bags behind. Julie explained to him our dilemma and after many under the breath remarks about packing gold bricks, he tied down our bags under a tarp on top of the jeep. Plan to leave your larger backpack behind, stashing everything you will need for the tour a day pack. Our simple packing list includes:

 

  • Three days worth of warm clothing, we highly suggest packing layers.
  • Comfortable running shoes or hiking boots
  • Flip flops for the salt flats, the white salty residue stains.
  • Warm clothing for sleeping, no electricity means no heat. Our accommodations did provide warm bedding.
  • Back up chargers fully charged, we did not see electricity for over 48 hours.
  • Gallons of sunscreen
  • Toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was not typical to find a bathroom with toilet paper or a sink
  • Swimsuit for the hot springs
  • Maybe some Xanax or melatonin

 

We all piled into the Nissan 4×4 with only a hint of our itinerary, we knew our first stop was the Cementerio de Trenes (the train cemetery). Expecting an hour drive, we were surprised when we pulled up 10 minutes later. Several rusting steal trains lay in the sand, like an abandoned children’s toy. Our driver warned us the structures were not exactly stable and to use caution. This did not stop us from exploding out of the jeep and running towards the trains like a bunch of 5 year olds who had just be released for recess. With a ‘Carpe Diem’ attitude we immediately threw caution to the wind and jumped on to the warm steal. Climbing the old trains was no easy task, however we were able to get several amazing pictures and laughs. Our 20 minute time allowance closed all too soon and we headed back to the jeep; next stop, the salt flats.

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A couple of years ago I found a picture online captioned “where heaven meets earth”. I immediately clicked on the link and learned it was the Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats of Uyuni) located in Bolivia. My research began here, it would be a journey, but it was promptly moved to the top of my bucket list. As we headed out of town we spied hints of our impending destination, floating mountains and mirroring pools of water in the distance. Pulling into the salt flats, my heart skipped a beat… I had made it.

We scrambled outside, excited for our first view, ready for our feet to touch the sparkling white ground. This is where I believe our driver’s feelings for our group changed from unenthusiastic to the beginnings of a new friendship. He knew we were ready to fall in love with his country and now he was excited to show it. For our tour we had selected to only use a Spanish speaking local guide, an English speaking guide would have set us back an additional $75 each, definitely not in the budget. Luckily, Julie is perfectly fluent in Spanish and was able to translate the important information and facts. If no one in your group has a decent grasp on the Spanish language, I would recommend springing for the English guide.

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Our first stop was a brief one, our guide knew we were itching to get our first experience inside the flats. He showed us where the clay underneath the salt flat was “breathing” as it bubbled up to create pools of water; it felt like we were on another planet in a far away galaxy. Our guide promised after lunch he would take us to the best locations on the flats to get those amazing pictures we had been planning for weeks, so we begrudgingly got back into the jeep.

We soon arrived at the hotel where we would have lunch, settled in the middle of the salt flats. It was an oasis surrounded by miles of white. The tour drivers bring and prepare all the food for the three day trip. So we clicked away with the Go Pro, while our new friend, Miguel, set up lunch. At this point the three year olds inside of us couldn’t help ourselves and Anna and I tried a bit of the salt; it was everything we hoped it would be. Julie still thinks we are weird. Inside we found our driver had spread out a feast, including llama steaks, a first for everyone. They are amazing and my taste buds compare it to a gamey steak.

 

Driving into the heart of the salt flats was just as it was captioned, straight into heaven. You are surrounded by pure white, the ground covered in salt which reflects off the sun like fairy dust. The entire 11,000 sq km flats is flanked by mountains which seem like a mirage in the distance. Once a prehistoric ocean which had dried up millions of years ago, the salt deposits are all that remains. During the rainy season in January enough water collects to create mirrored surface. It’s incredible the way the sun reflects off the mirror, unlike anything I had seen before.

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Moving on to the dry part of the Salt Flats, it was time to take those crazy pictures. Armed with a Go Pro and an array of props you can use the flatness of the area to create an optical illusion in depth perception. I highly recommend when you plan your trip to utilize google to gather ideas and then bring toys and props to make amazing pictures you could not re-create anywhere else. We brought mini dinosaurs, a corona bottle and a Pringles can, which we danced out of. Use your imagination and get creative. Luckily our driver Miguel knew how to line up the props to create the best photos. Leaving the salt flats with brilliant memories and a slight sun burn (SPF or cover up) my soul was happy.

After a few words in Spanish, we talked Miguel into letting us plug his aux cord into our phones and run our music for a while. Cruising through the mountains we let the breeze whip through the windows as we captured pictures of gigantic cactus as the topography gradually changed.

We pulled into our hostel in San Juan around 5pm, the accommodations were basic and traditional. The walls and beds were made from salt and the roof was covered with straw. Afternoon tea was planned for 5:30 and we settled down to refresh with tea and cookies! Afterwards we were able to pay 10 BOB ($1.45) for a hot shower.  Having not bathed since La Paz and caked in salt, the hot shower lifted our spirits after the long day. Special note if you take this tour, this is likely your last chance at a shower for the next two days. So unless you want to be responsible for the funky smell in the jeep, scrub up!

Dinner was served around 7:30 and both nights included an appetizer of the traditional Bolivian soup. I wish I could duplicate this soup at home… I love soup. The hostel sold beer and wine, which if you know anything about us, its how we start and end the day. After a couple of bottles of red and taking the opportunity to gaze at the stars uninterrupted by light pollution, it was time for sleep.

The continuation of our epic tour  Bolivia-Embracing the middle of nowhere and our other Bolivia blogs

CHECK OUT OUR VIDEO OF THE TRIP ON YOUTUBE!