If I’m going to be away from home on Thanksgiving, there better be a good reason. Two years ago, I was in Rome. That’s legit. This year, I had a ridiculous 4-day adventure in Bolivia. I think it passes the test.
On Thanksgiving morning, we woke up early and got on the bus that was going to take us over the border. A chirpy old Chilean woman (who I assume worked for the tour agency) hopped on with all the tourists. She yapped about this and that, and I don’t think ANYONE understood what she was saying, but she was absolutely hilarious. And perhaps a tad bit mentally unstable. About 30 minutes into the bus ride, she was talking at the indifferent bus driver at a rapid fire pace, and then randomly just burst in to tears. She sobbed and spoke without slowing down or taking a breath for 15 minutes. And then she was fine. hmm.
When we pulled up to Bolivan customs, I had to look twice just to make sure that I really was there. It was only a mudbrick shack the size of my freshman dorm room that said “Migracion Bolivia” on it and a Bolivian flag to make it official. Americans need visas to get into Bolivia. Not only visas, but visas that cost $135. Naturally, Jason and I didn’t have them, but the guy at the tour place said it was no big deal and we could purchase them on the third day in the town of Uyuni. No big deal to him might meant something else to us.
The border control guard confiscated our passports, wrote down our names and passport numbers and then proceeded to wrap them up in a brown paper bag. I’m having heart palpitations, and every word of Spanish I have ever learned is failing me. I tried to ask him what he was doing, but I’m pretty sure I was speaking jibberish or asked him something completely bizarre, like “how is the purple toothbrush in the swimming pool feeling today?” because we obviously did not understand eachother. He stapled the paper bag shut (oh, that’s secure) and then wrote a name on it and handed it to our driver. WHAT? It took about ten minutes, but I found out that we were not allowed to hold on to our passports until we had visas. Well, alright.
The tour we chose was a four wheel drive jeep tour. Our driver, Lucio, was very shy and quiet. Our jeep mates were an older French couple. After our backpacks were tied to the top of the jeep, we were off.
(I can’t upload my own pictures, so I’m going to use some I found from Google Image search, because I don’t trust my own descriptions to do what I saw justice.)
Our first stop was Lago Blanco, an impressive scene with flamingos scattered around. In case you didn’t know, I LOVE flamingos. They are the absolute coolest. Perhaps I can relate to their general awkwardness and goofiness, having once been compared to one. We ate breakfast here and had our first experience with the group of Koreans that would be with us the entire time.
One of the things I love about being on the road is seeing the other travelers. There are a couple of types that I find to be absolutely hysterical. The older Americans and Brits who wear all khaki. I’m talking khaki pants, khaki vests with more pockets than they could possibly ever have a use for, and khaki hats. Where exactly do they think they are? They aren’t roughing it, that’s for sure. The bus picks them up and drops them off exactly where they need to be. You are completely taken care of, and the people here bend over backwards to make sure everything is as good as it can possibly be. So dressing like you’re on a safari is kind of ironic. One of the other types is the asian tour groups. I saw Japanese girls in fancy dresses and high heels hike up Machu Picchu. Why, why, why? And, of course, the epic and inevitable peace sign in every picture.
This particular group of Koreans all wore masks. Full face masks. Hilariously gender appropriate, they were either pink or blue. They also wore gloves. It’s 80 degrees out and sunny, and nobody else is wearing masks or gloves. There is no explanation. One thing that we also noticed is that they all carried thermoses, and each time we were served tea, they would take all the hot water. A definite quirk.
Our next stop was the Lago Verde. I chose to wear a turquoise shirt that day and managed to match the lake almost perfectly. Here it is:
After a brief trip to the geysers and a a quick dip in the thermal waters, we went to the most impressive lake of them all, Lago Colorado. I’ve never seen a red lake before. This is also where most of the flamingos hang out, and, as I was later informed, it’s mating season…so there were THOUSANDS. This area of Bolivia is obviously very rich in minerals. So it was a sea of pink and green and red. It was a nice place to sit and have lunch out of the trunk of the jeeps. And guess what guys? I ate tuna fish from a can, as much as I hate it! I managed not to vomit at the smell or judge those around me. It was actually pretty satisfying. I took a million pictures of my own, and got some good shots of the flamingos in flight. When they fly, they are like pink flashes and their reflection can be seen in the water below them. You have to see it. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen so far.
We drove for hours to get to our “hotel” for the night. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, every time I would get bored, I would just remind myself that I was sitting in a jeep, touring a national park of Bolivia, and seeing the world. I also found the spirit of Thanksgiving in music. Lucio had one casette tape with him. This tape had six songs, which played over and over and over again. Four days later, I still can’t get the songs out of my head. I am thankful for American music and my iPod.
Jason and I made friends with the British kids on our tour. Rob, Rhiann and Kate graduated from college (“uni”) in May, and are on a nine month trip around the world. Awesome. They were in the states just before the election, so we had a great conversation about politics and I absolutely loved their observations. Also, they asked me if high school in America was really as fun as it seemed and told me that the thing they were most jealous of with American school kids was lockers.
Thanksgiving dinner consisted of soup with some veggies in it, spaghetti with strange sauce and a cup of tea. Not my usual Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ll take it. We also discovered one of the reasons the Koreans were hot water stealers—they like to make instant rice pudding on their travels. Not kidding.
The next day was fairly uneventful. Mostly driving and seeing more scenery. Some of it was exactly how I pictured South America. Mountains in the background, rolling hills with some greenery and rivers, and llamas. Llamas EVERYWHERE. We ate lunch in one of the most depressing places I have ever been. In the desert, and all of the buildings were the color of sand. There was no color, only monotony. It was practically a ghost town. The only sounds came from the school yard, where 15 children were having recess. Oh and here is something interesting. The top layer of brick on the walls had pieces of broken glassed pressed into it, with the sharp edges sticking up. Well, that’s one way to keep the kids in. Oh, South America.
Salar de Uyuni
Day three of the trip had what we were really waiting for–the salt flats. Remarkable. It looked and kind of felt like crunchy snow and ice under my feet. You could see nothing but miles of white all around. It was eerily beautiful. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. One of the fun things about the salt flat is that there is no depth perception in pictures. So, like the tourists we are, we took a bunch of goofy photos. Even though I was fifty feet away, I look like a miniature person sitting in Jason’s hand. We drove around and ended up at a salt hotel. The hotel, most things in it, were made completely out of hardened salt. Tables (table salt, haha), chairs, statues, everything. It was incredibly bizarre. Thank god we didn’t stay there. Salt hotels are very bad for the environment, because all the waste and trash that visitors produce ends up getting dumped on the salt flats. Here is another picture, which shows the mounds of salt. (Mallory, you would LOVE this place).
We continued to drive on our way to Uyuni, where Jason and I were getting our visas. But along the way we had some more weird stops. We stopped at a train graveyard. I’m not kidding. A bunch of old, rusty trains in the middle of a desert. This is apparently interesting to tourists. I sat in the jeep, reading my book.
The city of Uyuni is a dump. Really, nothing interesting about it. But somehow, we managed to have an interesting experience. At customs, after talking to the guys and telling them that a total of four days were going to be spent in Bolivia with absolutely NO plans to return, they decided that we didn’t have to buy the visa. Instead, they would give us a day pass. So they stamped our passports twice. Once for entering, and once for leaving. And they changed the date to the following date, so when we actually did leave it would be correct. This only costed us $50. Now you’re probably thinking it’s a little weird, and you’re right. It would never happen in the United States. In fact, it’s probably really illegal. But whatev.
We were told we had about three hours in Uyuni. With absolutely no use for the currency, Bolivianos, Jason and I spent about $30 on candy bars, postcards, and other worthless things that were just to get rid of the extra. So we show up with no money left at the time our jeep is supposed to leave for the overnight trip back to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Oh, change of plans, there was no jeep for us to leave in and we had an extra THREE HOURS in Uyuni. Now, with no money, what were we supposed to do? Typical. We did a lot of walking that day.
Our new jeep driver wasn’t nearly as friendly as Lucio. And he was a bit of a speed demon. The French woman and I would look at eachother and hold our breath as we whipped around the curves. The dirt roads were only about a lane and half wide. After we got a flat tire (thank god we had a spare), our driver decided to take it easy. The rest of the ride was lovely– a perfect sky with lightening behind the clouds in the distance. Because of all our delays, we ate dinner around 11 pm and had to wake up at 4 am and continue. But I didn’t mind, because I got to see the sunrise. It was glorious. Plus, I got to see all the lakes again, but this time in the early morning. Flamingos, flamingos, flamingos!
Of course, we had problems at the Bolivian customs shack. Apparently we didn’t have exit visas. Well, we did. They were just in Uyuni, where we had been stamped. Oh well. I managed to not stroke out the way I did last time. After all, I’m a South American visa issues pro now. Basically, you just roll with it. We managed to get back to Chile.
It really was an awesome adventure. Exactly what I wanted. And exactly what I needed. And most of the things that made it so wonderful seem trivial. Being stranded on the side of the road while we had a flat tire wasn’t great at the time, but it really added to the experience. Now, I’m back in San Pedro de Atacama. Jason and I are taking a twenty hour (yes, TWENTY hour) bus to La Serena, where we will recharge our batteries by spending a few days lying motionless on the beach. Wooooooohoooooooo! This was a really long post, sorry.