When you’re backpacking for months at a time, one thing you learn is that plans change. At first when I received the press trip to the Galapagos Islands, I rationed three weeks total for our travels in Ecuador. Snap a few pictures, see some wildlife, visit colonial churches back on the mainland and beeline for Machu Picchu in Peru. Well, three weeks turned into 3 months in Ecuador, mostly in the incredibly tranquil and safe hot spring town of Baños de Santa Agua, and Machu Picchu never happened. Instead, Neil and I braved the landslide-famed and switchback-glorified road to Chachapoyas, where we visited one of the most important and least touristed archaeological sites in Peru: Kuelap Fortress.
It was around this time that we started hearing about Bolivia. Bold and beautiful Bolivia. Traditional and high-flying Bolivia. Cheap as dirt Bolivia. We were intrigued with the mixed reviews. People either loved the Andean country or shivered at their recollections of it. To be fair, this country was where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid retired when the American West was just too soft. Here in the wilderness, you can experience natural wonders of the Salt Flats.
To Get to Uyuni, Take an Overnight Bus from La Paz
On a whirlwind itinerary, we spent just over 2 weeks traveling through Copacabana, La Paz, and the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia. Note: US citizens must secure and pay for a visa in order to visit Bolivia. After Carnaval in the capital and a humid hike on Isla del Sol with Neil and my brother-in-law the Freak, we booked an overnight bus out of La Paz to Uyuni for a 3-day Salt Flats Tour. Parting ways with the Freak we headed south through the Andes.
We fell asleep to a thunderstorm cutting across the Bolivian plains and woke up to wheels shuttering over unpaved road. In the bus everything shook, stagecoach style. If they weren’t secure, your bags would rattle their way right off overhead bins. Neil got slammed in the head by falling debris all night long, although at one point he was lucky enough to catch somebodies cookies. Passengers with a bit more padding on their rears fared better than skinnier peers. Roads are merciless and bus drivers carry several sets of spare tires just in case.
We rolled into Uyuni at 8am in a bus that looked tired and battered, but still the driver seemed like he was gearing up for a return trip to the capital. Insane. With just one foot off the bus, we had tour touts all over us. Groups were leaving at 10:30am and companies were eager to fill spots to capacity. At first, we felt pressured but as a group of three (traveling with our Spanish speaking buddy from Long Beach, Danny), we held tight and perused options.
Book your Salar Salt Flat Tours ASAP and Get out of Uyuni
We walked around town and immediately decided to leave on the first 4WD available. Uyuni is a town sprouted out of necessity. Tourists need a place to set down their packs and plan their adventures. Bus drivers require a bathroom. The salt manufacturers need a place to process their mounds of sal (salt). All this culminates into a dusty town with nothing to truly boast about and subpar, overpriced amenities. So, here’s a tip: arrive on the night bus, get a seat with a tour, and move out with the herd. Sure you’re dirty and tired. But this is Bolivia. Time to channel your inner Cassidy and Kid.
In La Paz, it’s cold in February. In the southwest, it’s hot. So when the tour guide looked at me and my 15 layers, he told me to get into shorts as soon as possible. With no bathrooms in sight or any privacy behind a curtain, I had no choice. Neil acted as my shield In the travel agency With proper cover, I just dropped my pants and did what I had to. And boom, my first of many firsts; standing in public in just my underwear, check.
“Me Encanta mi sucio” I love my filth…says my travel buddy.
This was pretty much a theme through the Salt Flat tours. Bathrooms are limited and the lone shower (when available) is shared between your group of 6 backpackers and up to 4 other groups, totaling a lovely line possibly 30 deep. Luckily lots of people embrace their filthy sides. One girl from our group just shrugged, saying “Me encanta mi sucio.” I’m no linguist but basically she’s fine with her own filth.
The shower was rough with a thin stream of warm water, jettisoning from a plastic nozzle. Anyone who has shared a room with me knows that I am the queen of speedy showers. I don’t like to linger. I get in, do my business and get myself out. I hold the record at 5 minutes for a shower and change under duress.
But when I showered during my first night of the tour, a guy standing there intent on enforced a four minute cap on my cleansing. He continually asked, “Are you OK”, so that I would limit my shower and conserve water. I was one of the lucky few. Third on line for the shower and two whiskey shots down to take the edge off of public showers, I had the little stall which was in decent shape when I hopped in. This would be my lone opportunity to shower for 3 days of hiking through volcanic valleys and treading barefoot through flooded salar salt flats.
As the metal gates closed around our cement compound in the Bolivian wilderness, I felt as if I was in some cult initiation. 4WD trucks filled the center courtyard, surrounded by rooms stuffed with 6 travelers apiece. A generator ran the power and two toilets serviced all guests and guides. I stepped back and laughed. I’m 33, married and still wearing the same clothes from 3 days earlier. But it’s all good. I was standing under a star-studded sky, listening to iTunes and sharing high altitude wine with recent strangers turned friends. I was about to see pink flamingos and houses made of salt and wind-eroded red rocks. Bolivia may be rough and “traditional” as some people have claimed but there are very few places left in the world so pure and, at 5500 meters, so close to heaven.