The idea of heading to Bolivia was never really on the cards. That being said the cards were never laid out to begin with so everyday on the road was unplanned, that’s how we like it. Passing from the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca from Puno, we breezed through customs and entered into Bolivia through the Copacobana Border (not to be mistaken for the Gary Manolo type). Hopped on another bus, tiny ferry(which our bus also got on) and bus again to La Paz then boarded a 12 hour night bus for Uyuni. Feeling fresh! No. Feeling tired and ready for night bus sleep. By now we are pretty seasoned bus riders, we’ve had break downs, near crashes, chickens, military police searching for fugitives and salesmen but this one was up there with one of the worst. it began with 2 hours of stop-start La Paz traffic followed by 10 hours of unsealed desert road. Road so bumpy that my butt was lifting off seat continually and bus lights unscrewed from socket then smashed into the aisle floor. That plus random stops at chicken shops in the middle of the night and chorus of snorers led to zero sleep and bloodshot eyes. We arrived in Uyuni at 7am looking and feeling like zombies after over 24 hours of pretty bad travel. Pushing through the hord of ‘travel agents’ trying to sell salt flat tours to tired travellers, we bunked down and decided to check out the companies later that day after a nap.
There are a few key things to note before I dive into my story. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country and I can only assume that as a result of this the lines of what is right and wrong are a little blurred. For example, if you as a visitor are scamed, hustled, screwed or just plain bamboozled all you can say is ‘That’s Bolivia – what did you expect?’. Uyuni is the base town for the largest Salt Flat in the world and survives purely off the tourism of 4 day Land Cruiser tours through the desert, either ending at the Chilean border or returning to town. There are over 80 companies driving the EXACT same route and none – I repeat none – boast consistent positive reviews. I spent a good hour reading reviews (always a bad thing) of broken down cars, lack of food, zero communication and drunk drivers (that was the main one). A name and company that also consistently popped up in the bad books was ‘Fatima’ from Wara Altiplano Tours. With this is mind we wondered around the streets talking to agents, hearing the same itinerary over and over and having no idea who to choose. Whilst on the street a woman with a mouth of gold capped teeth approached us and walked us to her company. She said that it doesn’t matter who you book with, everyone goes the same way, sees the same things and at the end of the day it’s about filling cars. So you may book with another company but end up in a different car that needs the passengers. This is something other backpackers had told us so she wasn’t lying. Tired and sick of walking the streets we asked her two questions:
1. Will there be Vegetarian food?
– Yes, buffet options.
2. Is the driver safe and reliable?
– Ofcourse. Our drivers do not drink and drive. No way.
Ok – sounded good. As we paid and started to sign our names a weird feeling in my gut reminded my brain about the dodger reviews and the lady named Fatima not to trust.
1. What was your name?
– Fatima. She said with a gold capped smile.
Fuck. It was too late, we had committed. Knowing full well she wasn’t going to hand us our money back, we booked with Fatty and I remained anxious until our tour began the next morning.
We got off to a rocky start. We had been told by Fatty that our tour had 2 Canadians and a Spanish lady. Highly convenient as your driver/mechanic/tour guide and cook only speaks Spanish and he is your ticket in and out alive of the desert. However we were piled into a Land Cruiser and the door was shut behind us – where was the rest of our group? Only because I asked we found out the rest of our tour was 2 hours away and we would later pick them up. Confused, Fatty (who yesterday was fluent in English) decided that she didn’t understand what I was saying and Ai found someone to translate what the driver was saying. The rest of our group was already at the Salt Flats and we would pick them up later. We drove away and I hoped that this tour wasn’t going to turn out as bad as it already was in my head. Our first stop was the Cemetary of Trains, a strip in the desert were they had placed old steam trains to rot and locals had covered them in graffiti. We then headed off and eventually arrived onto solid, salty white road and all you could see was salt. Stopping at a few monuments, salt mines and open road to take photos the scenery was surreal.
After about two hours we arrived into a ghost town, built in the middle of the salt flat at the foot of a volcano. To our relief we were joined by two couples. Tim and Naomi (Canada) and Eric (USA) and Kana (Japan). They informed us of their bizarre last 24 hours – arriving in the middle of nowhere with no instructions and minimal food and we all found out we had booked with the same company and Fatima. Ah the reviews are starting to make sense. We headed out to the Island of Cactus – literally an island in the middle of the salt flat filled with Cacti and wandered around under the blast of the desert sun admiring the crazy scenery. When you start to look at the landscape it is ridiculous – salt out to nowhere as far as the eye can see, so white it almost burns your eyes. The air is very dry and the heat was incredible. We got back into the car with Rucio (our guide) and headed towards our accommodation for the night. We drove 2 hours into vast nothingness and arrive at an adobe building made of salt. We spent time walking around the dining room, hallways and bedrooms amazed at the oddity but decided it was ultimately very cool. Even the ground was made of soft salt to crunch around in, Trent and I were high on salt and just kept walking around the strange accommodation checking if things were made of salt or not. We convinced Rucio to drive us 5 minutes into ‘town’ (a few other salt hotels and a store) and bought some wine. That night we all chatted, drank, ate and eventually hit the salt sack with strict instructions that we were to be off by 6.30am the next morning.
The next morning Trent spots our guide hop into a car and head off at about 6am. Strange but not entirely out of the ordinary. We finish breakfast and watch all the other groups one by one pack away their things, meet their guide and head off on their day. By 8am we have packed and wrapped the luggage on the roof racks ourselves and wonder if our guide is ever coming back. Off into the distance, 2 4WDs speed towards the salt hotel and pull up. One of the passenger doors opens and out falls our guide. He stumbles into the kitchen and comes back out with our food for the day in hand. His eyes are glazed over, he struggles to walk properly and he can’t even open the boot of his car. He is drunk. At 8am. I’m talking can’t even remember his name drunk. Half way between disgusted and not surprised that everything I had read was coming true – we all agree there is no way we are letting him drive. As Rucio tries to put his keys in the car – we calmly tell him (it is Bolivia remember) that we will be driving today. The drunk mess submits, moves over to the passenger side and quietly passes out. Tim takes to the drivers seat (use to driving left side – stick shift – jeeps) and we head off on a self guided Bolivian adventure across the desert, no map and no gps and as our guide drifts in and out of laughter and sleep.
The funny thing about Rucio is, he has been doing these 4 day tours for 13 years – driving Gringos across the desert so you are bound to pick up so,e English. So I call his ‘no hablo Ingles’ bullshit. As we drove off we are thankfully behind another car as a guide and we start to talk about how hilarious/ridiculous/Bolivia this situation was. Funnily enough at the end of every sentence Rucio (now nicknamed Rusty after Russel Coight – Australia’s worst outback adventure man) would laugh perfectly on cue, he understood perfectly. We would talk about the ridiculousness of the situation and he responded perfectly. Im sure to him it was hilarious he was wasted, getting paid and now getting driven by Gringos.
And so we set off on our day, at first it was exciting and the situation kept us entertained. But as the trail got worse, the car stopped and started and Rusty started to sober up the tension got thicker. After one of our stops in the desert admiring Joshua Tree like rock formations, Rusty decided that he was sick of trailing behind the other guides (who had probably been making fun of him – they were also drinking) he was ready to leave – now! So now we were driving ourselves through the desert, alone, whilst our alcoholic guide described the route with shaky hand signals and started to get angry that some white guy was driving his car. By this time I pretty much thought Rusty was the biggest piece of shit I had ever met. A couple of hours of back breaking rock trails Rusty started to yell at Tim for not driving smooth enough and told him to stop the car so he could drive. Tim politely told hi that maybe if he wasn’t a drunk asshole we wouldn’t be in this situation. Rusty understood and was pretty quiet after that. A bit later we arrived at a glorious mineral Laguna home to hundreds of Flamingos and Vicunas (rare desert dwelling Llama/Alpaca type things). We all went for a walk whilst Rusty prepared our lunch. The stops is when you would run into the other cars and meet up with other groups. Our guide had become quite the story and many people would ask ‘how’s he going? Yeh pretty sure our guide is drinking too’. It was also at these breaks that you would see the divide between the better companies and well.. The ‘Fatima’ companies. Whilst other groups had table cloths, picnic tables and glass wear we had rock seats, plastic everything and Rusty. No matter how many times he says Bueno amigos, I’m still not tipping him – I think to myself as I stare at the incredible long legged birds. We eat our lunch and decide that after some food Rusty will be fine to drive. And he was, very chatty and informative straight back into guide mode with I’m sure some help from a white powdery substance. We spent the afternoon driving through the crazy desert, stopping at different mineral and salt Lagunas and clusters of petrified trees that have turned to stone. The landscape was mind blowingly awesome and it felt as if we were driving on Mars. That night we were dropped at a small cluster of brick houses in the middle of the desert. Rusty unloaded our bags then disappeared. The 6 of us shared a room, played soccer with the little boy that lived in the hostel with his family, made friends with some Chileans and had a merry old time. We also wondered whether our guide would ever come back and would we be stuck here forever? We had a 4.30am call the next morning and we were worried as he was again MIA. Around 11pm he fell into the hostel blind drunk and generally looking great. We sternly told him we were leaving at 5am and he agreed and gave me a sloppy kiss of the cheek. Ew.
The next morning we rose before the sun and headed to a thermal hot springs to bathe and watch the sun rise. After soaking in heaven and relaxing after somewhat of a tense time it was time to get out and get back in the car for the final time. Soon we arrived at the Bolivian border and I was happy to wave goodbye to Rucio/Russell/Rusty and softly mentioned he should give up the booze. We only spent 5 days in Bolivia, so I can’t make an fair assessment about the country. But our desert trip and the overall vibe of how things are done didn’t paint a great picture of the country’s relationship to visitors. We also were made to pay a fee to enter and exit which the customs officer decides on his mood at that time. When we hopped in our transport to the border, in a matter of minutes we went from desert roads to sealed bitchumen and bright green road signs. Borders are a strange thing. Adios Bolivia, Bienvenido a Chile! Phew