WARNING: THIS IS OUR LONGEST BLOG YET. SO…. IF YOU CANNOT SLEEP AT NIGHT AND DON’T WANT TO TAKE SLEEPING PILLS, READ IT AS IT’S A GUARANTEED SURE FIRE WAY OF FALLING ASLEEP FAST!
MARK: Less than three weeks to go on our epic MASTERS20152016 Round the World Trip. The reality of normality now very much just around the corner! The EU debate, queues of traffic on the M25, the start of the cricket season and hopefully, confirmation that Middlesbrough FC make it back to the Premiership after a nine year absence. So many things to look forward to. And ooooh yes, we will see our little Joey when we get back at 1300 on Tuesday May 10, @T5 London Heathrow Airport. Bunting out in Regent Way Frimley, I can see it now.
We’re still living in the moment and my goodness me, what a few moments we’ve had in Bolivia over the past few days! It’s been full on ever since we left the capital La Paz – a fairly interesting, if somewhat boring place. The highlight for us of this administrative capital was quite literally the fantastic cable car system which transports upwards of 70,000 people a day across the city, at heights of up to 4,000m.
We left La Paz after a couple of days at 9.00pm at night, from a dirty smelly street, half a mile from our hotel, on yet another overnight bus. There was no tread on the tyres. The bus itself looked 20 years old. And when you got inside, you wondered how you would survive the ten hour, 500km ride to the deep south. Worse was to follow. The on-board information leaflet confirmed that 185km would be on “dirt roads”. Deep joy! The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that we were heading to another Geographical Wonder of the World, namely the Bolivian Salt flats!
Sarah was not happy – her knee was still hurting. Mark was not happy – his shoulder was still hurting. The bus trundled relentlessly on occasionally hitting an incredibly high top speed of 80kph (49.7mph)! At 1.00am we shuddered to a halt in some deserted back street. “Banos” was the cry from the driver. Fellow travellers rushed out obviously feeling the effects of the in-bus served fried cheese balls, rice, cold carrots and beans. We were hanging on with no ill-effects. Eight months travelling and no need for Imodium. Is that a record?? I suppose 28 years of Sarah’s cooking had helped prepare my stomach for this RTW eating extravaganza….
At 0300 the bumping, shaking, rattling and bouncing started. A glance through the window behind the dirty orange bus curtain, revealed a lunar landscape lit coincidentally by a full moon. We were in the Bolivian desert and boy did our poor bodies know it. We had reached the end of the metaled road and the bus’s shock absorbers simply could not cope. But as in all cases, there was light at the end of this mammoth trip when at about 6.00am, rays of blue/orange light pierced the mountains in the distance to reveal a stunning backdrop of nothingness. We were in an amazing wilderness, with the occasional tuft of tumbleweed blowing through small green bushes that managed to survive in what was a harsh high landscape at an altitude of 3,700m.
After a delicious (NOT) on-board breakfast of biscuits, cake and yoghurt we arrived in Uyuni, a two-horse town at the head of the Salt Flats. Miraculously our bags on the public bus had not been stolen thanks to our metal chains and two combination locks, so we disembarked, jumped into a taxi complete with furry dashboard and were transported five minutes later through deserted streets to our hotel. It was Sunday morning. Nobody was up except for a scraggy looking black cat that had obviously returned late from a heavy night out on the tiles.
Not expecting much, we were amazed that we had arrived at a reasonable hotel in this Bolivian back water. We made full use of the warm shower and greedily helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, sugar puffs, vanilla yoghurt and a bread roll. Yum!
A short time later we were told to be in the hotel reception ready to leave on our three day, 4 Wheel Drive (4WD) trip to the Salt Flats. Just before we left, a short itinerary was thrust into our hands and it soon became clear that our 4WD adventure was going to be just that, a hard core trip into the unknown. Both of us had not really studied the main itinerary. We knew when we booked our trip 18 months ago that we would be in the Bolivian outback but little more than that. So glancing at the A4 sheets we were surprised and delighted to see that we would be visiting a cemetery for trains, the oldest cemetery in South America (1200AD) for humans, as well as staying in an Eco-hotel made out of salt bricks. Add on a drive through the mountains visiting geysers and the chance to spot flamingos and there you had it, an action packed 60 hour voyage of discovery.
Four 4×4 vehicles were patiently waiting just outside of the hotel. Two Toyota Land Cruisers (the oldest built in 1995) and two Nissan Patrol vehicles. Sarah and I were in the lead Land Cruiser together with a 30 year old Aussie called Dayne from Sydney and our inexperienced tour guide, a pleasant 26 year old guy called Nico, who was born in Argentina and whose Dad 25 years ago used to be Uruguay’s International Goal Keeper. We were in safe hands!
Our “caravan” of 4x4s eventually set off, with one of the vehicles looking as if it would not make the first corner of the street, never mind a 500+ mile trip through the mountains.
First stop, a visit to the “Train Cemetery” just outside of town. I was expecting a graveyard full of people who had died building the line through Bolivia to neighbouring Chile. WRONG with a capital W. This was a graveyard of old British, French and American steam trains, rusting slightly in the arid desert. Train buffs – Scott Ford, Ian Jones, James Duckworth, David Parker, Stuart Bailey, Ian Prescott – will have fond memories of Barry Island where old de-commissioned British Rail Steam Engines went to be sold or die/cut up into scrap. It was just like that, but much, much bigger, plus you could climb all over these giant iron hulks, which had been brought here after the railways closed. There was even talk that one of the engines was riddled with bullet holes as this was the area of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were eventually killed.
We discovered a 1914 engine built by Vickers and two engines built by a firm called Taylors in the mid 1950s. One even looked like part of the shell of a Mallard locomotive. Surely it can’t have been? I look forward to any comments that can help me identify the steam engines from the shots below. No prizes for guessing the name of the “old boiler”.
Our “dead good” visit to the cemetery ended all too soon…..
…and we quickly made our way along well tarmacked roads to a village called Colchani at the edge of the Salt Flats, known for making cooking salt. We were not particularly enamoured with what we saw. A small oven heated by wood collected from the local area which in turn dried the salt and hey presto, it was bagged and sold to local shops. Wow! What was though much more interesting were the strange assortment of toys and other “bric a brac” which could be purchased outside. It was just like the car boot sale held in Farnborough on a Sunday morning. Amongst the wackier items up for sale were green, red and grey dinosaurs ranging from the ferocious ‘T’ Rex to the heavy weight Diplodocus. Stranger still, our fellow traveller, Col’ Jim, our 73 year old former head of the Canadian Airborne Division in Europe purchased a green ‘T’ Rex. “You’ll see” he said with a glint in his eye….
Back on board and with thoughts of Jurassic Park flashing through my mind we soon entered a white wonderland. We were on the World famous Bolivian salt flats and as far as the eye could see stretched a dazzling white carpet of sparkling hexagonal shaped salt crystals. The only thing I’ve ever seen which remotely comes close was the frozen lake at Zell am Zee in Austria, when it had been covered in six inches of snow back in 1989. Or put it another way, the perspective views were like a TV studio with white floor and white backing curtains creating that wonderful thing called infinity.
Our 4WD caravan did not hang around. At speeds of around 100kph (62mph) we hammered across the white desert landscape.
First stop on our journey was the chance to see a former salt hotel and salt monument dedicated to the Paris-Dhakar rally.
And then, photos snapped we were back in our seats for a 30 minute drive to the centre of the Flats and a chance to take perspective photos. The Col’s Green 8 inch high ‘T’ Rex suddenly made an appearance and then it dawned on me. If you took any object (I managed to find a peanut, a bottle of Bolivian red wine and a full bottle of Sprite), you could make all sorts of weird and wonderful photos. Take a look for yourself…
We were just like kids. What a laugh. What fun!
Suddenly, the light began to fade, the temperature dropped close to zero and it was time to reach our resting place for the night, the interestingly named Ecolodge Tambo Coquesa. This quite simply was a half-finished series of bedroom units and a central “restaurant area” made from blocks of salt. Our group on arrival was split up and we shared a room with two 23 year old Belgians – Diet and El’ plus boy wonder Matt, my Inca Trail walking buddy. It was like we had three new surrogate children as we were affectionately referred to as “Mum and Dad”.
The room was very warm as the salt blocks had heated up during the day and slowly let out their warmth overnight. That was all fine, but the toilets were something else! The bowl was divided into two compartments. Compartment One at the front was for “Number One’s” whilst the hole at the back of the bowl was for “Number Two’s” which if got your aim right fell into a black hole of smelly compost type material some three metres below. Ummm. It’s really interesting from a marketing point of view what you can get away with if you include the word “Eco”…. Must remember that sometime.
The restaurant was a simple seating area made out of salt, with salt stools. And the floor, yes you’ve guessed it, was a carpet of crystallised rock salt. The food was sadly not much to write home about and Sarah found it mildly amusing that all the dishes served “needed some salt”!! But the bedrooms were warm and cosy as the rain came down.
Next morning, we had the chance to run down to the edge of the salt flats which were by now partly covered in water from the overnight storm. There we spotted numerous pink flamingos – officially called “James” Flamingos!! It was a chance to get some photos and admire Mother Nature yet again:
The group was due to set off at 8.00am on Day 2 and just in the nick of time I made it back to the bedroom block, quickly stuffed my back-pack with my belongings and ran to the idling Land Cruiser which was still freezing cold inside after its’ nightly sleep.
We headed back on to the Salt “Lake” and were told that in parts, the water underneath the salt crust was some 25m deep and it was not uncommon for heavily laden 4×4’s to get stuck and sink. But before that happened, we arrived at Incahausi Island a small rocky outcrop, 150m high, covered in cacti and offering a great view of the surrounding area despite the grey conditions. Back down to the salt flats and I “borrowed” what looked like a Union Jack and promptly “claimed” the island for Britain. Not sure if this jingoistic act was lost on our young Argentinian Guide!
So you can guess the next bit. Yes, back in to the vehicles. Two and a half hours later we arrived in San Juan having seen en-route what appeared to be half of the Bolivian Army training in really harsh terrain.
Tummy’s rumbling and just before lunch, we had the chance to see what was a real highlight for me, the World famous San Juan Cemetery. We walked through an area of high ground where we could see “bee-hive shaped” tombs dating back to 1200AD and made out of volcanic rock. The route through the graveyard was clearly marked by white arrows and they directed us to the first tomb which had a 1m square hole in the front. We peeked in, not quite sure what we might find and boy were we shocked! Inside was a human skeleton “sat” against the back wall still clothed! Other tombs revealed foetal positioned skeletons and bodies “stuffed” in clay pots. It was macabre, fascinating and quite unbelievable. We made our way to different tombs and were amazed at what we saw…The dry desert like conditions had preserved the mummified bodies so well that you wondered if you might have a conversation with these people from yesteryear. Take a look for yourself.
The afternoon journey through the mountains was equally interesting but this time because of the stunning scenery. The beauty was there for all to behold. Enough of my words – look at these shots….
That night we stayed in a terrible “hotel” where bread buns were rationed to one each. I could tell you a whole new story about what happened next, but perhaps that story would be best told over a pint of beer back in the UK… what stays on tour and all that.
It rained all night and the next morning we got up at 0500 in the pitch black to be greeted by now full buckets of water strategically placed along the hall way underneath the dodgy leaking roof. One bread bun later, we clambered slowly back into the lead Land Cruiser, bumped along for 15 minutes and then the lights behind us went out. We turned round and discovered one of the Nissan’s with its bonnet up. The alternator had failed.
One hour later, the only solution was to “swap out” a battery from the second Nissan – something which they had to do every couple of hours for the next two days. Not an ideal solution, but at least one that worked.
The remainder of our 4WD tour centred largely around Bolivia’s natural beauty – welcome to Day 3. To our right, about five miles away over the mountain range was Chile. To our left and 20 miles away was Argentina. We were at the southerly most point of Bolivia. We were also very high – above 5,000m and it was cold with plenty of snow.
At times we could only travel at a few miles per hour. Then suddenly we would scream along deserted volcanic plains at high speed. The rock formations were fascinating.
Lakes, like the one below had a myriad of beautiful colours.
Flamingos were everywhere.
Even geysers and hot springs made an appearance.
It was a fascinating few days and even the five hour journey back to our base hotel in Uyuni near the salt flats wasn’t too bad – just two breakdowns to contend with.
So onward now to the city where Silver is King (Potosi), then another bus to Sucre and then over the border to Brazil, Argentina and finally back in to Brazil again.
For those that are interested in reading more about what we have been up to, check out my latest TRIP ADVISOR REVIEWS by going to https://www.tripadvisor.co.nz/members/MStJB/. I am thrilled and delighted to say (sarcasm) that I am still Camberley’s Number #1 contributor a position I would gladly swap for guaranteed promotion to the Premiership.
Stay safe, see you soon and of course #UTB