Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(2) Little Orphan Tourists

Sunday, Dec. 4th

A day spent shopping, lounging, and basically just killing time until we could catch our bus to Uyuni at 9 pm.  Salt flats in our future – nothing in La Paz could really hold our attentions.  Except maybe the witches market (Mercado de Hechiceria).  Llama fetuses everywhere.  Evidently, if you’re building a house, you can bury a llama fetus beneath the cornerstone as an offering to the Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Don’t want to piss off the Pachamama. 

So what are these salt flats of which I speak?  Salar de Uyuni, or Salar de Tunupa, is the world's largest salt flat, at 10,582 sq. km (4,086 sq miles).  It's located in the southwestern part of Bolivia, near the Andes, and sits at an elevation of 3,656 m (11,995 ft) above sea level.  Home of several species of flamingoes and a pretty cool volcano, it is also the site of 50-70% of the world's lithium reserves, which are currently being extracted.  

Monday, Dec. 5th

Day 1 in Uyuni was a complete disaster.  I tried and tried to plan ahead, but Bolivia constantly challenged my controlling nature.  First problem – my bus situation.  It’s an overnight bus trip from La Paz to Uyuni, so clearly people are going to be leaning back their seats, trying to catch a few precious hours of shut-eye before heading out to the salt flats the next morning.  Given my work schedule for the past three months, both my bedtime and my wake up come early.  A 9 pm bus departure means I’m getting on that bus, propping up my pillow, and going to sleep (well, at least trying to go to sleep).  This was not the night for me to get stuck in front of two cranky Europeans who thought the use of their cupholders for a beverage, of which they easily could’ve held WITH THEIR HANDS, was clearly more important than my need to slightly recline my seat to a comfortable resting position.  It’s a sleeper bus…PEOPLE WANT TO SLEEP.  Whatever.  Finally, a few hours later, I was able to re-recline my seat.  Not that I got any sleep though.  In that 12-hour bus ride, I probably managed to squeeze in about an hour/hour-and-a-half of useful sleep.  

So we get to Uyuni.  A little bit of bus trouble caused us to pull up about two hours later than planned, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I had arranged with our tour company to pick us up at 7 am.  Clearly they were not there at 9 am when we unloaded our bags.  A phone call and then a short drive, and we were sitting in the tour office waiting for our salt flat adventure to begin.  That’s when things got interesting.  Evidently, because our bus was late, our pre-booked two-day tour was now impossible.  They tried to convince us a three-day tour was better.  No.  Bus tickets back to La Paz had already been paid for…..we only had two days to see as much of the salt flats as possible.  So then we were informed that the English-speaking guide (that we were promised), wasn’t going to actually be guiding us.  Now it had to be a Spanish-speaking guide.  Well, we don’t speak Spanish.  But there was no changing it.  Our guide spoke Spanish and no English and we were just going to have to deal with that.  There was much confusion in making this tour happen.  Strange, since I had been in constant email contact with these people for three weeks, and as of Saturday (two days before our tour was supposed to happen), everything was set and perfect and wonderful.  Ugh.  Anyways, somehow we managed to snag a jeep around 11:00 am to start our “tour” with our “guide.”  Also in the jeep with us, a Bolivian family scheduled for a one-day Salar de Uyuni tour. 

Train Cemetery.  

Shannon, myself, Chantelle
Making sure the salt was salty.  It was.

Train cemetery?  Check.  Salt pyramids?  Check.  Lunch at a volcano?  Check.  We thought the morning was making a turn for the better.  We were wrong.

Lunch ends at 2:30 pm, at which point our “guide” and our one-day-tour-Bolivians unload our bags from the jeep, reload themselves into the jeep, and leave.  Yes, that’s right.  We were left at a volcano hostel with nothing on our schedule for the rest of the day.  Okay now I’m mad.  This was not what we paid for…I had the itinerary that I was promised, and we were not sticking to it at all.  But we are a creative group of girls.  We managed to entertain ourselves…thanks to the really adorable hostel puppy, the local flamingos, and the pack of llamas grazing in a nearby field. 

Our volcano - home for the next 24 hours. 

Salar flamingos 
The night was spent at the hostel. Not like we had any other choice.  But I had been promised a salt hotel (beds of salt, tables of salt, etc.), so clearly my anger was not fading.

Tuesday, Dec. 6th

The morning came early.  We ate a very unsatisfying breakfast of stale bread and cold eggs, and then headed out in search of mummies and a mirador (lookout) a little further up the volcano.  Keep in mind that every other group had a driver to take them up the volcano to these touristy attractions.  We had no guide.  We had to hike.  I love to hike, but I don’t like surprise hikes at altitudes to which I am unaccustomed.  It was an exhausting hike.  The mummies were pretty cool though.  We didn’t make it to the mirador.  We opted to go back to the hostel…since lunch was planned for 12:30 pm…and we were not going to be late for lunch. 

Making our way up the volcano...

Mummies.  We were very close to mummies.  
We made it back with time to spare.  Time enough to walk out to the salar and take a few “perspective” pictures.  And we were not late for lunch.  Lunch however, was two hours late.  A new “guide” with some new one-day-tourists pulled up to our hostel, food was consumed (though it was not the food I was promised by the tour agency), and then we left to visit Isla del Pescado (Fish Island).  Isla del Pescado was on the top of my list of Uyuni spots...lots of cool cacti, and I had been promised two hours to explore the island, so my mood was slightly more pleasant at this point. 

We got 40 minutes at Fish Island. 

Our tour was ending, we were on our way back to Uyuni, and I was not pleased.  I was going to march into that tour office and demand my money back.  And that’s exactly what I did.  I was promised caverns, a salt hotel, an English-speaking guide, a llama meat barbeque, and two hours at Fish Island.  We got none of those things. 

A very long story short, I managed to pull a partial refund.  This is not easy in Bolivia.  Businesses run differently here, especially in a small, isolated town such as Uyuni, where tour agencies dominate and they can basically so whatever they want.  Evidently, the tour agency I had originally booked with was unable to follow through with the promises that they made, and thus dumped Chantelle, Shannon, and myself on another tour company.  Well, these little orphan tourists were not going to be bullied (okay, well I wasn’t going to be bullied).  I spoke my mind, made my case, almost made a grown Bolivian man cry….but my mission was accomplished.  Only minor guilt set in when I realized all the yelling that had actually taken place.  But hey, don’t take advantage of me because I’m a girl or because I’m white or because no tourist ever complains like that. 

Good news - I got to see the salt flats with two great travel companions.  we got some great pictures and made some interesting memories.  Let's just say I won't be recommending that tour company any time soon.  But I do highly recommend the salt flats.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #25: Blood sucking hookworms inhabit 700 million people worldwide.  Yummy. 

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