Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Accomodations Will Be 'Rustic' and Other Words of Warning

Without fail, when taking a night bus somewhere, you´ll always be bombarded by hostel and tour operators, hoping to catch you at your most vulnerable. Especially in a town that people only visit to go on a tour of the Uyuni Salar (salt flat desert) and Altiplano lakes and scenery.

So it was upon arriving to Uyuni after one of the most horrendous night buses yet. The road wasn´t paved much past La Paz, and rainy season meant that there was much lurching and river crossing. As usual, we stopped at some part of the city that seemed desolate and far away from anything we wanted, and all we had was the name of the hostel we wanted to get to for a nap before worrying about setting up a tour for the next day. But a persistent woman who smartly said she would take us to the very hostel we wanted to visit AND pay for our night´s room if we went on her tour hooked us. Before we knew it, we were set up for a three day tour starting the next day with two Israeli girls and supposedly three other Brits. We were promised the usual tour, some driving on the salar, lodging the first night, lakes and lodging at a more rustic place the second night, a connection to San Pedro de Atacama Chile where we could catch a bus to Santiago and three hot meals a day.

After a quiet day in Uyuni, we prepared to set off. As we were told, we arrived at the office at 10:30. It seemed that was right around the time the tour operator decided it was time to go shopping for food for the three days and get ready to go. Finally we were on our way around 11:45 with a driver who didn´t speak any English, another mystery woman (who turned out to be our cook), the two Israeli girls (both 21 and both named Adi) and another couple, not the Brits we expected. Turned out they were a nice couple named Julia and Victor from Catalonia, one of whom (Julia) ended up serving as translator for most of the trip.

Our first stop was to go to the salt flats. In the dry season, they must looked like a big field of dried salt, but during the rainy season, they get about two inches of water covering them which leads to a surreal and magical look where the sky and clouds reflect in the water and from a distance, piles of salt and mountains appear to levitate above the surface. Unfortunately, our driver decided he didn´t want to drive across the Salar because of the water, so we had less time there than we would have hoped. Instead, we randomly stopped at a train graveyard and then a small town where there wasn´t much to see or do. When it was time to go, the Land Cruiser wouldn´t start, which didn´t seem to bode well for the remaining days. After a pushing start from another 4WD vehicle, though, we were on our way.

Now, when a tour operator suggests that your accomodations will be ¨rustic,¨ I´d recommend asking for a definition. For some reason, I thought she had promised something similar to what we stayed in Uyuni--doubles with a shared bath. Instead, in the pouring rain, our driver pulled up to a closed entryway to a house and honked for a few minutes. No answer. He pulled up into another house and honked again. This time, someone came out and shooed up away. This was when we found out that no one was actually expecting us, but we would find somewhere to stay in this town. Fortunately, the third time was the charm, and we got out to find a long, narrow room with seven twin beds in it. And an outhouse, which did--ín its defense--have toilet seats, though the flushing was by pouring a bucket of water into the toilet after you´d finished your business.

Around this time, I started wondering about Tyler and I's technique of `shopping around.' I think one of the things that makes us good travelling companions is that we both have low tolerance for shopping and going place to place. If something sounds reasonable and like what we want, we're generally pretty happy to just make a decision and go with the option in front of us rather than be like other travellers we saw, literally going from door to door of different tour operators throughout Uyuni. Oh, well. It's all part of the adventure, right? (And at the end of the tour, we found out we were better off than others with vehicles that actually did break down multiple times and drivers who had difficult personalities.)

The Adi´s, the Catalonians, Tyler and I all kind of laughed and wandered what exactly we would do with ourselves the rest of the evening in the pouring rain and no electricity in our shared dorm room. Fortunately, it was soon tea time, and we all were happy at least that even if our tour was a little questionable, that at least we all liked each other well enough. We also got to learn more about the Israeli army life and the Adi´s opinions of the Israeli-Palestinian situation over dinner. And the generator did eventually kick on for a bit of time with lights on.

Interestingly, the three 'couples' all had different foods we were avoiding to avoid illness. Tyler and I wouldn´t eat the raw cabbage/tomato salad at dinner. The Israelis would't eat the yogurt that had probably never been refrigerated, but that was all over Peru and Bolivia, and weren't sure about the eggs (also sans refrigeration). Julia wouldn´t eat ice cream in case it had water in it. And Victor, probably the most well travelled of us all, probably was the most fastidious (and possibly the smartest), though Tyler and I fared well enough.

The second day was more of what we expected from the tour, bouncing around the desert in the Land Cruiser that seemed destined to die on us, going past lakes full of flamingos, trees made of stone, and Lago Colorada.

That night we stayed in the more rustic of the two nights of accomodation, meaning that we were again in a bunk room together, but this time the toilets didn't have seats and there was no running water in the bathroom. And we had to get up at 4:30AM. But we did get to see geysers during sunrise, hot springs (Tyler and I stuck our feet in--we didn´t have on our suits and the outside air was REALLY cold) and Lago Verde.

Then we arrived at the Bolivian-Chile border to catch a ride to San Pedro de Atacama where we would part ways with our travelling companions.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the soundtrack for the entire trip was extremely bad Bolivian dance music. Extra points to anyone who can find (and listen to in its entirety, oh, maybe 12 times) a CD called Chicha Disco Boliviano.

Overall, it was a really interesting and fascinating trip, and everything I expected out of three days bouncing around in the desert. Being on the altiplano, where you´re high up, but in desert with nothing but some scrub brush and vicunas while surrounded on all sides by volcanos and mountains, is interesting. It all reminded me quite a bit of the American Southwest.

All in all, I didn´t feel like I got as much of a feel for Bolivia as I did Peru...probably because we spent so much of our time there just getting from Point A to Point B. It did definitely feel a little more challenging than Peru, with less infrastructure in general and less English. Lots more pizza and Italian food (I have no idea what Bolivian food is otherwise, except for the bit of llama steak we had with on of our tour lunches). As I think we mentioned after being on Isla del Sol, Bolivia is definitely a place I´d like to come back to, to see La Paz, Sorada and Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas.

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