Last time I left I was walking into Bolivia, finally legal, and on my way to Tupiza. My initial plan was just to use this as an overnight sleeping spot before heading to Uyuni in the morning. But the way the transportation worked out, I ended up having a full day before I needed to catch the train. I took this time to ride my first ever horse. It’s weird to think I rode a donkey (as part of our annual donkey polo tournament in college) several times before I rode a horse, but it was time to change that. And like most other things in Bolivia, it was cheap (~$9/hour). I booked through my hostel, Hostel Butch Cassidy (highly recommended, great breakfast spread, including pancakes) and it ended up being just me and the guide and we went on a 3-hour journey through the canyons and valleys of Tupiza. She gave me an authentic sombrero to wear, but she didn’t account for the impressive size of my head, so it was flying in the wind most of the time. Me and my horse, ole Cara Blanca (white face), were a work in progress. She didn’t seem too upset to see me go, and I respect her more for it. Classic hard-to-get.
I went into town to grab lunch and wait for the train station ticket office to open, so I passed some time by people watching in the main plaza. Carnaval was still ongoing, and the little kids were the main stars on this day. And these 6/7/8-year-old boys were complete savages. They were armed with the same foam cans that I had in Tilcara, yet they seemed to use them much more like a weapon than I. They would wait until the innocent girls were about a foot away, then spray them straight in the face and eyes. The better part was the parents on the sidelines cheering them on. I was cracking up. When I had enough fun, I went to go get my train ticket for later that evening. There’s three options to choose from: executive, salon, and popular. They all were reasonably priced (especially from what I’m used to paying in Argentina and Chile), so I decided I’d go with the best seat they had to offer. Yet when I got to the front, the man informed me all they had left was popular, so I accepted without much of a choice, and pleased that I’d be able to take a 6-hour train ride for about $2.50. I’m not sure why that price didn’t cause me more alarm, but it very much should have. What transpired next was by far my worst transportation experience to date.
I load my bigger pack into the luggage hull and take my carry on into the popular cart to find my row and seat. Instead what I find is numbered 3-person benches facing each other. By the time the train departed 20 minutes later, our 6-person area had 5 adults and 3 kids. 15 minutes into the ride, a smelly drunk walks up, starts flirting with one of the ladies, and decides he’ll sit with us as well. Now we’re at 9 people. This cute little five-year-old kid is sitting in the legroom between the two benches, using my leg as a pillow. I couldn’t really be bothered by this – he was a cute kid and it wasn’t his fault we were in this situation. Then they pass him the 2-liter bottle of juice to pour himself a glass. Whyyyy? Of course, he spills some on me. He shoots me an apologetic look and I am quick to tell him it’s ok and forgive. But he does it again. Okay, that’s enough juice kid. Obviously with the current seating situation, any sort of iPad or laptop entertainment is out of the question, so I just try to close my eyes and sleep. A few times I wake up and look outside to see we’re not moving, but figure we’re just waiting for stations to clear. I find out later that we were waiting for them to clear the landslide over the tracks, and we didn’t move for three hours. When we stopped at a station around 1:45 AM (only 15 minutes from our original ETA), I optimistically got up and grabbed my bag. I asked a passing passenger if we were at the Uyuni station and she laughed. No, you have a long way to go. At this time, the gaggle of kids had left, but their seats had been easily filled with more Bolivians. One of them had a pretty strong funk but I couldn’t identify the guilty party. Though at this point, I was far past caring. Three restless hours later, we get to Uyuni a little after 5 and it’s time for me to find my hostel. Never will I step foot on a Bolivian train again.
The main (and really, the only) reason to come to Uyuni is to explore Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at over 4,000 square miles. There are a few tour options, but I opted for the one day tour of the flats that returns you to Uyuni the same day. The town of Uyuni itself is tiny, and built almost entirely for tourism, which means overpriced, average restaurants, and not much else to do. The one day tour allowed me to see the main attraction, and still get back in time for the bus to Potosi that same night. First, we went to an old train graveyard, where trains brought by the British during early mining operations lie resting in peace. They were abandoned there in the 1940s when the mining industry went south. Interesting to see but I was ready to see the main draw. We arrived to the entrance to the salt flats around an hour later, and put on our boots like true salt flat explorers. Formed by the evaporation of prehistoric saltwater lakes, the flat contains a few meters of salt crust. When dry, it’s salt as far as the eye can see. But perhaps the coolest feature is when the area gets rain, the flat floods with a few inches of water, and turns into the world’s largest mirror. The combination of complete flatness and lack of surroundings makes the horizon disappear. It also has the wonderful effect of making you feel extremely small. Don’t get me wrong, I got some cool pictures, including the one featured in this blog, but I enjoyed just sitting in admiration even more. The original plan was to stay for sunset, but a storm rolled in and we decided to head back instead of try to wait it out, which was fine by me. It guaranteed that I’d get back in time to reach my bus (not train, never again) and we had more than enough time to take pictures.
I arrived into Potosi late that evening and checked into Casa Blanca Hostel without issue. The next day I used to relax a bit, but as I was thinking about dinner, I found out it was the hostel owner’s birthday, and they were making homemade pizzas if I wanted in. All I had to grab was something to drink. It turned into a classic great hostel night, where a bunch of people, who have nothing in common other than the location of their bunk beds, come together and share in tons of beer, wine, and laughter. We had fun, and it’s safe to say I slept through breakfast the next day. I finally dragged myself out of bed, and that following afternoon, I went on a tour of the mines of Cerro Rico. We went to get geared up with coveralls, boots, and a headlamp, then went to the miner’s store to buy gifts for the miners, which consisted of coca leaves, juice, grain alcohol, and dynamite. It was troubling that you could buy a stick of dynamite for under $3, but my inner masculine desire to see stuff blow up won, and that’s what I bought. We get to the entrance to the mine, turn our headlamps on, and get in to start exploring. Over the next hour, we climbed unstable ladders, tried to avoid breathing in too much silica, and helped some miners haul rocks to the exit. It’s pretty hard to explain how I felt about the mine tour. It was a unique experience and really cool to see it first hand, but at the same time it was eye-opening and sad. We ran into a 15-year-old kid in the mine, who had been working for three years. And the only reason he was working in the mine was to help his dad, who had developed lung disease from his 30 years in the mine. It’s a vicious cycle in a town without much other work. And our guide seemed to be encouraged that only 12 people died in the mines last year. Overall, I was glad I went but it certainly made you appreciative of the opportunities we are provided as Americans.
The next day I was off to Sucre, and I used yet another different type of transportation, a shared taxi. For a three-hour taxi ride, it worked out to $7 per person, so I decided to ride in comfort through the winding Bolivian hillswith three strangers instead of on a bus with 40 strangers. My four days in Sucre were relatively uneventful. It’s the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but most government business is conducted in La Paz, and Sucre is a much more laid back colonial city. I met up with some friends from Potosi my first night there, and woke up the next day sick, which curbed most of my appetite to get out into big excursions. One thing I was finally able to accomplish was getting my yellow fever vaccination. When I went to the travel doctor in the states, she surprisingly told me it would be much cheaper abroad, and it’s still the same vaccine all over the world. And since I plan to enter the rainforest in just over a week, I was running out of time if I wanted to be adequately protected. It took a silly amount of time due to typical South American bureaucracy, but $14 and a few hours later, I was immunized without any real side effects.