Bolivia Southern Circuit, not according to the manual

I’ve mentioned before, but plans do change very quickly whilst travelling. Whilst in La Paz I decided to head to Sucre stay there for a little while before heading for Tupiza and the 4 day Southern tour out of Tupiza – I had even bought my ticket for B$130 (~£12), however I met back up with Alex and Jenny at the hostel in La Paz who were heading for Uyuni that night for a tour the following day. It seemed daft to not join up with them as finding a tour alone may prove difficult, so after fruitlessly trying to sell my defunct ticket, i jumped on the bus headed for Uyuni.

It was the most unpleasant bus journey I’ve ever had. Roads in Bolivia aren’t paved and are simply badly rutted dirt, so you end up sitting on a bus, in the dark, trapped in your seat by people around you for 14hours, in the freezing cold been bounced around constantly. It’s downright horrible and an experience I hope to never repeat. Ever. However, it got us to Uyuni at 6am and allowed us to find three more people looking for a tour (you need six per Land Cruiser usually).

The gent from Thiago tours was touting for business and offered us somewhere warm to sit at 6am which after the journey we’d experienced we gladly accepted. Alex took the lead as he speaks fluent Spanish so after negotiation and settling on a price, we paid up and went off in search of breakfast. The whole experience turned into a bit of a farce and the only thing that seemed to go well was the six amigo’s on tour!

Day 1

We were promised a brand new vehicle with iPod connector, new stereo, a guide… We got none of these things. The truck appeared with bald rear tyres, offset steering and a Juan Carlos (he was no guide and a downright liability) but we dutifully climbed in ready to start our trip – the first part of which is the train cemetery. I had been quite looking forward to the cemetery but it was a complete let down. The trains were indeed rotting away but had been helped along with graffiti and the entire area was one big rubbish tip. We climbed all over the trains for a few minutes chatted to some of the other tours before climbing back on-board the Land Cruiser and bumping our way back through Uyuni, stopping briefly to pick up food and charging off to the Salar (via a stop at a tourist market stall).

The salt flat itself was impressive and it was fun taking a few pictures of the mined Salt and we then moved on to the Salt Hotel for more pictures, lunch, movie taking and general goofing about. The Salt Hotel was quite a let down though – it was just a grubby building with loads of other Gringo’s messing about taking perspective shots. After lunch we insisted that the driver took us to the water and whilst we had to cajole him to continue the end result was worth it. With the water shimmering on the surface you couldn’t tell where the salt flat ended and the sky began. The reflections were simply amazing and each and everyone of us were simply stunned by the beauty of everything. We stood mesmerized the spectacle and had a few photos but were convinced that what we’d seen couldn’t be replicated in a photograph.

 

We then climbed back on-board the Land Cruiser for the next 3 hour drive to our hostel. The road was just as bumpy as before and we all stotted around the car taking pictures of the sunset and listening to the music supplied by Alex’s iPhone and my little travel speaker. It was then one of the rear tyres blew. I didn’t actually realise what had happened (I’ve never been in a car with a tyre blow out before) but we quickly jumped out of the truck and Juan Carlos started to change the tyre. He was so inept, he wasn’t able to change the tyre as he just didn’t have the strength to undo the bolts so I stepped up and did it for him (he jacked the car up, I changed the wheel). Thirty minutes later, we climbed back on-board and continued our journey to the nights accommodation.

The hostel was a bit of a dive and very cold so we all huddled in the rooms before a terrible tea of chips, weird sausage and onions (all in the same plate). Huddling in the rooms again, drinking rum and coke (2 small beers for me which still gave me a hangover) trying to stay warm before heading to a very cold bed!

Day 2

Day two started off to disappointment. The other tour group in the hostel had a wonderful spread of fruit salad, yoghurt, sponge bread… we had white stale bread and jam. When we asked for something else, we were told “tomorrow”. There wasn’t the hot showers we had been promised either. Still, we got ourselves sorted, back on-board the Land Cruiser and away we went for a very long days worth of travelling.

The first site we saw was rock formations from the near by Volcano and it was a fairly surreal place with eroded rocks piled against each other and sitting in odd formations. We clambered around taking pictures of the them before all clambering onto one for pictures. I decided to climb on top and ended up getting stuck – I’m ok at climbing up, but coming back down, well, maybe not so great. I was grateful for James’ hand to guide my feet into the foot holes (the hand grips weren’t great was my excuse!) and the others all found it funny watching me getting unstuck.

Back on-board the Land Cruiser we bounced through more stunning scenery stopping at frozen lagoons, a rock which is meant to look like a tree (but doesn’t), a deserted village by a lake but nice as it all was, it became a little monotonous. The bouncy jeep, the cramped conditions (I had it better than the others in the front) and the incessant driving started to grate, especially as when you arrived somewhere it was “10minutes here” without any explanation as to what we were looking at. Music helped, but people were simply sleeping through the trip and not seeing anything as time was passing relatively slowly.

We then arrived at the big red lake (Lagoon Colorada) and spotted some Flamingo’s and had a rest-stop for more photos, a wander before, you guessed it, climbing back on-board the Land Cruiser for the 5minute bounce to the Park entrance where we all paid our B$150 (~£13.50). We asked to stay at the nearest accommodation due to friends stationed there but weren’t allowed (the reasons becoming apparent later). We then drove across country to a tired looking place where we stopped for tea and a sleep.

We ate our Spaghetti Bolognese, drank our glass of red wine and turned in for the night trying to answer Joe’s riddles and questions (What 5 countries end in the letter L? What 5 countries, written in capitals, don’t have any bits you can colour in?). By 9 we were pretending to sleep as it was an early start the following day (04:30) for a a visit to the hot springs and geysers.

At 01:30 Joe and Sylia woke to the sound of car engines but thought nothing of it. Turns out this was probably a good thing as they wouldn’t have got back to sleep if they’d realised what had happened.

Day 3

I woke early and was the first out the door and was grateful to find the keys in the ignition of the Land Cruiser. I fired her up to get some heat into the cabin as it was very, very cold. As I got out of the car, one of the German ladies in the other tour group stopped me to explain that our guide, the ever useless Juan Carlos, had arrived back at 01:30 drunk and had smashed the car up. Turns out she was right as Juan Carlos had crashed the night before punching a hole in the radiator and destroying the coolant fan. There was coolant all over the floor, rum bottles in the car, open bottles of coke (that were destined for our lunch) and no sign of the inept fool of a guide.

Switching the engine off, I dashed back into the dorm to share the bad news and we went on the search for Juan Carlos. He wasn’t where he should be (in the guides quarters) and after a brief search I found him in a spare room with a lady friend. Wearing my head torch and three jackets, I put on my best Geordie accent and roared as loud as I could insisting that Juan Carlos gets outside, NOW! Stumbling, a groggy Juan Carlos appeared toured around the car before disappearing back to bed.

The group took stock, waited an hour and went to get the drunken idiot back up, this time taking a video of the state of him in bed. We did manage to rouse Juan Carlos but he declared he wouldn’t do anything until nine. During the brief conversation he did start offering excuses for his behaviour – it was his friends who did it, we (the group) were drinking, it wasn’t his fault… In a bit of a tiz, Alex, Joe and I wandered off engaging the other tour leaders in conversation desperate for some help. We finally found a great group whose tour manager and helper came along to kick Juan Carlos out of bed and told him to fix the problem he’d created. Juan Carlos did get out of bed, but simply went and hid in a new compound.

An hour or so later (this is now 09:00, we were meant to leave at 05:00) Alex prods Juan Carlos into doing something and he starts trying to find the owner of the spare Land Cruiser that stayed at the Hostel. Another thirty minutes later we wandered back to find Juan Carlos sitting head in hands and a new gent putting steering fluid into the car. Yet another thirty minutes later, we had transportation home.

We all piled into the new Land Cruiser removing the battery from the original, told Juan Carlos where he could find his car keys (on the bed he slept in) and started the seven hour trip back to Uyini. It was a fairly uneventful trip and the new guide was lovely asking if we’d like to stop for photos and pointing out things as he drove. The journey was even more cramped and uncomfortable for everyone (more so for the girls in the back) but we did get to see a new road and scenery (Bolivia is stunning!)

Back at the Thiago tours, Alex started complaining to the guy. The guy looked pained initially but wouldn’t budge pulling out every excuse he could (he’d spent money on the fuel, food accommodation, Juan Carlos wasn’t his responsibility etc) and refused to accept that we’d paid B$150 park entrance but hadn’t seen anything at all. Essentially he was been the slimy so-and-so you’d expect and had tried every card in the book. Alex didn’t give up though and eventually the Tour guy decided to ring Juan Carlos’ parents and also feigned calling the police but gave up as the parents arrived with a young girl in tow.

Juan Carlos’ parents looked annoyed with us and arrived shaking their heads in disgust that we could make up such things about their son. Alex was on a roll now and didn’t give up. He replayed the video a second time and the look of annoyance on the parents faces turned into sheer embarrassment – there was nothing they could say to defend themselves as we proved without doubt that our story was true. Juan Carlos had messed up and destroyed our trip. We’d “won”.

We ended up receiving a refund of B$350 each (B$200 for the ruined final day, B$150 park entrance) all thanks to Alex. It was fairly amazing what he achieved in a foreign language and we were all extremely grateful. We weren’t without guilt though – we’d shown a video to Juan Carlos’ parents (and possibly his child) and the refund had been made up from Juan Carlos’ monthly wage and a donation from his parents (though they were to get it back from Juan Carlos) – the slimy tour operator only stumped up B$300. Still, the details are for them to sort out – it wasn’t our fault for the screw up!

Afterwards…

We then booked into a Hostel where I discovered I’d made a bit of a boo-boo. I’d repacked my bag in the office and left behind my jacket. I dashed back and picked it up along with swimming shorts, hat and gloves without problem but later realised it wasn’t the only thing to be left behind – I’ve lost my Spanish phrase book and little notepad where I stored all my expenditures. Not a disaster by any means but the type of stupid mistake I’ve tried hard to avoid – I can’t easily replace my phrase book here!

To finish the night, we all took a long awaited hot shower and cleaned up headed for a Pizza joint recommended in the guide books for tea (Minuteman). As we wandered down, we were the talk of the town and people stopped us to ask us how we got back. We celebrated with beers, wine and pizza whilst ensuring that Alex was sufficiently lubricated with beers – he’d done a sterling job! It was in the pub I met Tess again (we first met at the Sun gate on the Inca Trail) – it’s strange how you end up running into the same people as you go round. I wish I’d taken her contact details as she’ll be in Sucre similar time to me and it’d have been nice to have someone to meet there.

Another early night ready for a 6am bus to Tupiza ended the excitement of the day. The tour might not have gone entirely to plan but I’d learnt a lot of lessons and we probably have the best story to tell!

More Pictures of the Bolivia Southern Circuit

Lots and Lots more pictures can be found in the digitallery album South America – Bolivia – Southern Circuit

Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.