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October 16th, 2009

We’d heard some horror stories regarding the border crossing at La Quiaca and Villazon with some people describing how it took three hours to cross the border and a further three hours to queue for the train ticket onwards out of Villazon. With that in mind we headed to the border fairly early expecting a similar amount of pain. While we did experience some pain it was not of the same sort. I mentioned earlier that on the way in to Buenos Aires we’d had a few problems, one of them being the fact that there had been no immigration control at all. This had been playing on my mind all night and meant I’d gotten very little sleep. Unfortunately my fears came true and on showing our passports they looked for the entry stamp and obviously could not find it. Some hand waving, complete miscomprehension (our spanish not being great), a return trip to an ATM, and about an hour later we were through the Argentinian side, albeit £50 poorer. The Bolivian side, on the other hand, was easy. There was no queue, quickly filled in the form and the guy stamped our passports with barely a glance at either the forms or our, now large number of, passport stamps.

Once we were in to Villazon we quickly realised that, actually, Villazon was probably the busier of the two border towns, contrary to what the Lonely Planet had said. Anyway, I got a few Pesos changed which gave me about 360 Boliviianos and we set off towards the train station hoping to spot an ATM on the way. As others have mentioned the ATM was out of service and so, with Steve skint, we walked the 30-40 minutes to the train station and then spent 304 Bolivianos on the tickets to Uyuni; they were apparently all sold out of the second class! Having had no breakfast and with several hours until the train we decided to find somewhere to grab some food. With Steve still feeling seriously worse for wear and the temperature at least 30 degrees we were not in the mood for walking far with our backpacks. On a side note there was a sign in the station stating that white type 2 people (guess that’s us) should not stay in the sun for more than eight minutes at noon due to the high altitude and resulting lack of UV protection from the atmosphere. Anyway we managed to find a little restaurant which sold only one thing and grabbed a burger, rice and salad each with a two litre bottle of water for 40 Bolivianos, about £3.80. That left me with 16 Bolivianos left, ten of which went on a bottle of water and some biscuits, and no guarantee at all that we’d be able to get any money in Uyuni.

The train ride to Uyuni was actually a good, albeit slow, journey. While we’d been annoyed that we couldn’t get second class (as we were skint) you couldn’t really complain as we were travelling nine hours for £13. Not sure you can do that in many countries. The ticket included a meal, which was chicken with gravy and chips and a coke! The main reason for taking the train had been the fact that the buses are described as not only uncomfortable but more importantly down right dangerous. I’d also read that the train goes through some wonderful scenery but that, at night, it’s best to just shut the curtain. How wrong can you be? While the scenery during the day was indeed superb the scenery at night, once the inner lights are off (and you can see outside), is simply stunning. There’s terrific canyon landscapes, mountains, flats and at one point a very real feeling that you’re on a completely different planet. If you’ve seen Total Recall it’s very similar to the train that goes between colonies and overlooks the martian landscape. I only wish I had a camera good enough to record the views.

On arriving in to Uyuni (an hour late) we were latched on to by various locals offering us accommodation. At 1am in the morning we were not too bothered with quality and followed a local women to a twin room in a hotel and were charged 30 Bolivianos each for the privelege (about £2.80!) That morning Steve managed to get to the ATM and, having paid, we made for the tour companies office to begin our Salf Flats tour. The receipt said that the tour would start between 9 and 10 but on arrival we were told 10.30. That sat quite well as we’d had no breakfast and found a little restaurant and several eggs to eat.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at about 10,500km2
and is 3,650m above sea level. It’s the result of the evaporation of a prehistoric lake around 40,000 years ago and contains around 10 billion tons of salt. The Bolivians do not actually export any of the salt, using it solely for domestic purposes. The salt flat, however, does contain around half of the worlds lithium reserves but are not currently mined.

We booked our one day tour through Kanoo Tours mainly because they had a good looking website and so obviously put a bit of effort in. In all honesty I thoughtSalar de Uyuni they were pretty damn good. We’d been told the driver would speak English and act as a basic guide. Sadly that wasn’t really the case but he did help as much as he could. Our tour consisted of a travel agent, a Brazilian couple, a German and Argentinian couple and Me and Steve. We were packed in to a landcruiser and driven off for the day. Our first stop was the train cemetary, the remnants of the steam era and a large collection of old steam engines. After that we spent most of the day on the salt plains and looked at the Salt Hotel before going to an “island” full of cacti where we had some steak for lunch.

Due to time constraints we’d booked a bus to La Paz ahead of time to ensure that we’d get there with plenty of time to spare for the start of our GAP tour through Peru. Horror stories abound on the internet convinced us to book the “tourist” bus which turned out to be decent. Sadly even the worlds greatest suspension can not save you from the journey from Uyuni to La Paz. You’re given a warning beforehand but nothing can prepare you for the 180kms of unpaved road. It’s like receiving a massage chair from the devil and then being made to sit in it for 5 hours. Anyway, somehow we turned up an hour and a bit early so, it being early, we headed straight for the hostel to get some well needed sleep. Unforunately a lot of sunlight and multitude of alarms prevented me getting much sleep so at 9 I got up and grabbed a shower. On that note I have to recommend the hostel, Wild Rover Backpackers, as the beds are great, the bathrooms spotless and the food in the bar good.

La Paz is the economic capital of Bolivia and, I think, a pretty nice city. It’s absolutely packed with people, cars, markets but has some really gorgeous architecture and a great feel to it. The Plaza MurrielPlaza de Murriel is a favourite with some lovely buildings while the Church of San Francisco was interesting mostly due to the fact that it was holding a World Press 09 exhibition with some truly excellent photography. That first night we decided to head to a Thai restaurant, that was recommended, for dinner. However, on arrival, it didn’t really look all that special so we went in search of something else. While there’s plenty of fast food chicken joints there’s not that much in the way of “cuisine”. About an hour later, feeling slightly dejected, we started making our way back towards the Thai but managed to stumble upon an arabic restaurant serving mainly Turkish food. It was brilliant. I had a tomato soup (large), a shish kebab, some tzatsiki and a litre of coke for about £2.80. I was full.

The following day we met back up with Ravi in our hostel and watched Man Utd draw with Sunderland. After that we headed over to the hotel for our initial GAP tour meeting at 6.30. That first night we met the rest of the group, a whole other two people (Linville from England and Christian (or Indy) from Germany), and the tour leader before grabbing some food someway out of town.

The following morning we got on a bus and headed off to Lake Titikaka and the Peruvian border.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:
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