After standing in the rain on the bridge that crosses over from La Quiaca, Argentina, to Villazon, Bolivia for 3 hours, waiting to pass immigration (1 person behind the counter, staring at your passport and stamping it in slowest-motion, taking 1 hour for 12 people!!) we checked in at a little hotel in Villazon. It is amazing what a difference you notice once you cross the border. The people look very different, their skin much darker, their facial expressions much more distinctive from the tough living conditions, the women all wearing traditional colorful clothes and bowler hats.I guess because of the long wait and grey and cold wet weather I just didn’t feel comfortable on my first evening in Bolivia. The fact that it gets darker much earlier the more north you travel didn’t help either. I felt the strong urge to leave Villazon as soon as possible and walked to the bus station the next morning at 6.45 to get a bus to Uyuni. 10 minutes later I sat on a bus first going to Tupiza, a bigger town on the way where I changes buses again and then headed to Uyuni. The whole trip took about 11 hours and led through wide , deserted altiplano landscapes on windy, bumpy gravel roads (me sitting in the last row and sometimes seeing the scary drop-offs and the far too narrow roads for the buses to make a 180 degree curve was one of those adventures I am not too fond of) to the little town of Uyuni, located LITERALLY in the middle of nowhere at 3.600 meters above sea level. The big difference to San Pedro de Atacama (see earlier posting) which was also in the middle-of-nowhere-desert was the fact that it was a cute town with a positive and welcoming vibe whereas Uyuni was simply a poor, unappealing town with a heavy, depressing atmosphere. But everyone (including us) makes the long and strenuous journey to Uyuni for the same reason: the world’s largest salt lake (~ 11.000 km²) is one of the major tourist attractions of Bolivia and draws thousands of tourists to this isolated town which serves as the base for the popular 3 day excursions. Uyuni has more than 80 tour agencies all offering more or less the same excursions: 3 days in a 4×4 jeep, visiting the Salar de Uyuni for 1 day and many other beautiful natural attractions (such as volcanoes, lagunas and geysers) on the other 2 days. Michel and I booked such an excursion for the upcoming days but first we decided to stay in Uyuni “town” for another day before hitting the road – not because we couldn’t resist the charm of the town but because I was once again struggling with altitude sickness and therefore with head-cracking headaches. We walked (or I should better say I dragged myself) to the tiny local market and we bought a big bag of coca leaves. The stuff you use for producing cocaine – although that requires a far more complex process than what we were doing with them: chewing. My new best “green friends” have ever since accompanying me on my trip. The coca leaves are a very important plant for Peru and Bolivia – not only is the plant viewed as having divine origin and is therefore used for numerous rituals since the Inca-time (e.g. to worship the gods and Pachamama, mother earth, to predict the future or the weather by tossing coca leaves on the ground and reading from the way the formation is), it has also several great medical uses such as treating altitude sickness or overcoming hunger, thirst and fatigue. I really got to love this plant – it makes a lovely tasting tea by tossing a few dried leaves into boiled water (you are often offered this tea as a welcome and find it in every restaurant and café) and if you really want to fight altitude sickness you chew a few leaves together with something that comes in the shape of a flat rock of which you break off a piece: bicarbonate. Coca together with bicarbonate releases more of the enzymes and alkaloids which help treat altitude sickness than just the leaves alone. I was eager to get rid of my headache so badly that I chewed the coca a bit too eagerly and after I spit them out my cheeks were numb for a while 🙂 . But it seemed to work because in the evening I was feeling much better again. We went to a pizza restaurant that was highly recommended for its outstanding pizzas (thanks a lot, Lonely Planet!!!;() and that night Montezuma’s revenge knocked me down. I took some medicine every few hours so that I would be fit for the next day and our 3 day tour and by the morning I was o.k. enough to go on the tour. We met with the other 4 other people who were going on the same car with us and headed out to the Salar de Uyuni. The weather was stunning, blue skies and the sun burning down on us. After about an hour drive we reached the amazing salt lake and drove out to first have lunch at the Salt Hotel (yes, completely mad out of salt – but really not worth the visit..far less impressive or amazing that we thought..it looked more like a white prison than a hotel you would want to stay) and then a bit further onto the lake where we didn’t see any other of the many tour jeeps to make the infamous Salt-lake-photos (which we saw EVERYWHERE on the walls of every restaurant or hotel in the towns we stayed before): because you don’t have any references and therefore can’t make out the depth of photos you can cheat and create really funny photos (some of the ones we saw even worked with plastic dinosaurs eating people etc.. REALLY hilarious!). Since it had rained so much the days and weeks before the lake was covered with a layer of water which made the lake look even more stunning – and our pants and clothes completely white (and I really thought there was a new trend going around in Bolivia with all people having strange white patterns on their behind – but it was just the people who had returned from the lake and who had sat or lied down on the salty ground!). After an hour on the lake we headed 2 hours south to a little town where we had dinner in a house which rented out a few dorms for tourists and where we stayed overnight. A room with 3 really short extremely soft or hard beds, and the toilet outside about 30 meters away. That night those 30 meters felt like an eternity because Montezuma decided to come back and strike even more ferociously. I think that was the 2nd worst stomach bacteria attack I have ever had (Burma still makes 1st place) and I literally froze my behind off that night, marching to the freezing cold toilet all night long. The next morning I was a “Häufchen Elend” and Michel had also caught a fever from the food we had shared 2 days before (thanks again, Minuteman Pizza and Lonely Planet!!!!!!!!) and we realized that there was NO way we would make day 2 and 3 in our state. Sadly we organized a car back to Uyuni (maybe our sub-conscious mind had missed the lovely town) and spent the next 2 days in bed. (Now, 3 weeks later we are fine bust still not a 100 %, it seems that our stomachs aren’t made for the food in those countries). I was disappointed that we couldn’t do the whole tour with the many sights but everybody whom we have met on our travel sooner or later catches “something” and I guess Uyuni was our “time” to catch it. On the 26th of January I hopped on the bus to Sucre via Potosi where we spent 5 nice and very different days. But that will be on the next posting 🙂
P.S: this posting is for you, Lucki! Because if you hadn’t told me that I should see the Salar de Uyuni I wouldn’t have made the trip there. And despite the “disruption” it was still a great experience to see the Salar!