This one one of a series of travel emails I sent to friends and family who wished to follow my travels through Latin America in the first half of 2007
Climate change. Those two words seem to be the words-of-the-moment at the moment. But what I’m talking about isn’t the climate change that almost-president Al Gore was talking about in his film An Inconvenient Truth. No. I’m talking about the climate change that occurred in ancient times which I have conveniently used as a scapegoat for the downfall of many an ancient civilisation when archaeology essay deadlines approached more quickly than I knew how to suitably deal with. Some time ago, between about 40,000BC and the present (very specific, I know), a change in climate caused a very large inland salt lake to dry up leaving, surprise surprise, a great deal of salt.
I had just spent a few days lazing around in Copacabana (Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, not the beach in Rio) and La Paz to catch my breath (at altitude, there’s thinking ahead Daniel!) and recover from hiking some 80km to Machu Picchu. Next on my list were the expansive salt flats in South-West Bolivia. I was looking to take a tour, get driven around in a four-wheel-drive and generally not have to do much. My quest to generally have an easy time of this portion of my trip seemed to begin quite well – my 10 hour bus trip from La Paz to the small town of Uyuni, on the edge of the salt flats, was in luxurious comfort in a heated bus which did a royal job of insulating its passengers from the outside world.
When I arrived in Uyuni at 7am, I learned the first important lesson of high-altitude salt flats – it is very cold at night. Though the sun had risen a fair way above the horizon at this point, it was still quite cold. The tour operator in Uyuni took advantage of my dazzled half-dead state and sold me a cheap bus ride from Uyuni to Potosi which included a tour of the mines there and one night’s accommodation. I struggled to keep my eyes open as she explained slowly and carefully the various details of my itinerary including, importantly, the 7pm departure time from Uyuni, a full two hours after the tour of the salt flats was scheduled to finish. This was to prove an important detail.
There were seven of us on the tour. An Australian, a Norwegian, a Bolivian, two Brazilians and two Uruguayans. In addition, there was our driver and his assistant. Between the two of them, they would collectively be our “guide”. We strapped our packs and various supplies including gas cans and stoves to the roof of our vehicle and we were off. Well, almost… our car had a little trouble starting, but nothing that a little fiddling under the bonnet by our driver couldn’t fix. Over the next three days, we drove over desolate and spectacularly beautiful terrain. Terrain so spectacular and so beautiful that words, especially my words, could never do it justice (I encourage readers to check out my photos). In general, my plan for just being a lazy passenger on a tour where I didn’t have to actually do very much was going very well. That is, until the last night…
The night began well enough. It turns out that we weren’t the only seven people who were touring the salt flats at that time and we met up with some people from other groups and ate dinner together on the second and final night of the tour. At some point during the night a drink was passed around which was manufactured through the mixing of some horrendously cheap vodka and cocoa leaves. Alarm bells should’ve started to sound in my head. Come to think of it, they probably did, but their sound was drowned out by the guitar and improvised didgeridoo jam which occurred over the next few hours. “What time do we need to get up tomorrow?”, “oh, about 4:30am”. Perhaps the late-night sing-along wasn’t such a great idea. A bit later in the night, our driver/guide stumbled into the dining room blind drunk. Oh dear. After a fair degree of effort, during which our driver attempted to urinate on some of us, we finally managed to get him to go to bed.
When 4:30 came around, it was still quite dark. Hardly anyone actually slept well because, not only was it freezing (it was technically below freezing) but we were also at an altitude of some 4300m. I slept surprisingly well despite my rented sleeping bag being quite useless. I awoke to find that my feet had been kept warm during the night by the local cat who, for some inexplicable reason, decided that curling up around my feet was the best place to fall asleep. I wasn’t about to complain. Our driver seemed surprisingly ok, all things considered. We somehow managed to load everything onto our vehicle and, although we were the last to leave, it wasn’t by a great margin.
The last day was particularly rewarding because it included a stop to some hot springs in which we were able to bathe and warm ourselves up prior to breakfast. Our routine of get in the car, drive for a while, get out, look around, take some photos, get back in the car before we freeze to death, was starting to tire some of us out although the incredible scenery somehow managed to keep us (mostly) awake for the whole day. We drove as far south as the Chilean border to drop off some of our group (the tour has the option of finishing at the Chilean border for those wanting to go onto Chile) and on our way back to Uyuni, we managed that most amateur of mistakes, to run out of petrol. This wasn’t a huge problem, as we had substantial reserves strapped to the roof of our vehicle, but it was terribly embarrassing all the same.
On and on we went, and by lunchtime we had seen all the sights which were on the itinerary so we began to make our way back to Uynui to complete our 1000km loop. I managed to fall asleep on the very bumpy “road” and was woken with a tap on the shoulder and a “hey Dan, the driver wants you to look out the window the check if everything is ok”. What in the world? I wound down the window and had a look around. Roof rack, check, front wheel, check, rear wheel… oh. The right rear tyre was quite flat, darn. We stopped and went for a wander into the nothingness while our driver changed the tyre. After a short while, we were on our way again. Due to our guide’s hangover, we were running a little behind schedule.
About one hour away from Uyuni, it finally happened. The car stopped. After fiddling around under the bonnet for a little while our driver couldn’t get it to start. He waved down another car going in the same direction as we were and negotiated a lift for me into town so that I wouldn’t miss my bus to Potosi. Ok, everything was under control… or so I thought. About twenty minutes further down the road, the car that I had hitched a ride with ran out of petrol. Twice in one day, what are the chances? After waving down yet another car, I finally made it back to Uyuni and literally got out of the car I was in, walked across the road, then boarded my bus to Potosi which had just started its engine.
Potosi is something of a ghost town. Once one of the world’s richest silver mines, its once nationally-owned mining operations are now run by collectives of what miners remain from the glory days. I had originally not planned on doing anything in Potosi, but since my onward bus to Santa Cruz de la Sierra didn’t leave until 8pm that night, (and since my inbound bus arrived at 2am) I decided that I may as well. My tour group was a small one consisting of me and one other person – a Japanese fellow who had arrived from Japan by plane several hours before I arrived by bus to Potosi.
The mines aren’t what one traditionally thinks of as mines. Actually, they are what people think of when they think of mines from medieval times. I happened to visit on a Sunday so there were very few people actually working in the mines, but it was easy to see that working conditions weren’t great. There was nothing of modern machinery to speak of and even the methods used to ensure “safety” when explosives were being used would never cut the mustard in super bureaucratically-safe Australia. After touring the mines (during which skills that I had learned during my brief dip in the sport of indoor rock climbing came in very handy) we played with some dynamite on the surface. Later that night, I boarded a bus for the 48-hour odyssey which would eventually finish in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Prior to the start of this trip, I was labouring under the mistaken belief that I only needed visas for two countries – Brazil and Cuba. Apparently, Australian passport holders need a visa to enter Paraguay as well. I found this out at the border checkpoint in Paraguay (which was, curiously, almost 100km from the actual border). The immigration official in charge of the rubber stamp was not very pleased with me and expressed a determined intention to deport me for my trespass. I was, fortunately, a little more determined than he was and managed to “negotiate” for myself a 24-hour transit visa. Now 24 hours is hardly enough time to really see Paraguay, so for the princely sum of 50 USD, I *cough* extended *cough* my visa to 72-hours. Enough time to have a look around Asuncion then get myself to the border at Ciudad del Este and onto Iguazu falls on the Argentina-Brazil border.
Endnote: Asuncion is a lovely city, if slightly lacking in character. The Brazilian consulate (from which I must extract a visa before the Paraguayan secret police come to deport me) are terribly slack, with their visa department opening for business at 10am and closing at 2pm. This wouldn’t be quite so inconvenient if someone had actually told me about this *before* 2pm. Consequently, I’ve had to rearrange my plans somewhat. I am now taking the overnight bus (urgh!) from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este then immediately crossing the border before my 72 hours runs out into Brazil and Argentina to get a tour of the falls. After this, I will hang out in Rio and Sao Paulo for a week or two before moving south through Uruguay, onto Buenos Aires, Argentina, down further south to the Lake district and Patagonia, as far south as I dare to go with winter approaching… crossing over to Chile, seeing some glaciers (hopefully) and finishing with Valparaiso and Santiago.