Friday, October 9, 2009
Desperately seeking Uyuni
If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last 7 months of traveling, it’s that you have to be flexible and patient. Things don’t happen they way they do back home whether it’s a bus trip that takes twice as long as scheduled or dealing with taxi drivers. The best way to deal with everything is to just relax. Over the next three days, I had to learn this lesson all over again.
Our last stop in Bolivia was supposed to be Uyuni, a small town that’s the jumping off point for tours of the famous Bolivian salt flats. After a good scrub and a good meal last night we booked our bus tickets to Uyuni. After she sold us our tickets, the clerk warned us that the bus hadn’t been running the last few days because of a blockade. Apparently, the entire town of Uyuni was blocked off by protesting locals so no buses were getting in or out. When I asked her when she thought the blockade would be cleared she said Mañana. Adrian and I crossed our fingers and hoped she meant that literally (meaning tomorrow) but prepared ourselves if she meant it the typically Latin way (meaning some vague time in the future) Of course, the next morning after we had packed all our gear up, the clerk notified us that there would be no buses to Uyuni today, the blockade was still up. We checked back into our room for another night and hoped that tomorrow would be our day. Just in case we discussed a plan B.
The next morning, the buses were still not running. Bored of Potosi (and maybe wanting to put as much distance between us and Julio) we decided to get out of town and head to Oruro. There was a train to Potosi from there and we hoped perhaps that it would get in, even if the buses couldn’t. Oruro was a big town and hopefully, there’d be some more information about the blockade and something to do while we waited. It was also fairly close to Potosi so we were able to catch a bus that got us into town early afternoon.
Oruro was not very impressive, actually it was ugly, particularly after Sucre and Potosi. It looked like a huge jumble of bad wiring and dusty cement blocks. We bypassed the hostel across from the equally ugly bus terminal and headed to a small hotel downtown. The hotel was full of convention delegates but the super nice owner had a room with shared bath still available. We checked in and told her that we were trying to get to Uyuni. She hadn’t heard about the blockade but wasn’t surprised because they happen all the time. She handed us a train schedule and pointed out that one was scheduled to leave tomorrow. We followed her directions to the train station only to find a room full of empty chairs. A lone clerk came out from a backroom. Before we were able to complete our request he pointed to a notice board. There were no trains due to the blockade at Uyuni. Great.
We caught a bus to the bus station and confirmed that there were no buses to Uyuni. We had just a handful of days left to stay in the country and the one place we wanted to visit was closed. Do we go back to Sucre? Maybe but we’d have to find a place to stay. What were our other options? La Paz? Too far. We looked around at the different schedules and found a bus going to Iquique, Chile. That would solve our visa issue and with just a slight detour we could still do our salt flat tour starting at Chilean end rather than from Uyuni. That would send us back to Bolivia with a new visa and down into Argentina. That wasn’t our original plan but the other option was staying in Oruro. There were 5 different bus companies all going across the border the next day and all around the same time. So we planned to come back tomorrow and buy tickets for whatever bus was leaving first.
There was really nothing to see in Oruro. The main attraction was the carnival but that wasn’t on until February. The woman at the hotel told us we’d have to come back to see it. And as much as I wished we could, I knew we’d be long gone by then. Instead we headed out to the most highly recommended restaurant in the city. It was a posh place with linen tablecloths and bow-tied waiters ready to attend to our every whim. Adrian order the che’'s speciality which turned out to be the biggest plate of lamb ever while I stuck with rice and chicken. It was tasty but our choice of beer spoiled it a bit. Adrian had spotted an unfamiliar brand he had to try. But on first taste we realized it was more of a sweet malt drink than beer. Imagine sweet guiness and you’ll have an idea of what it tasted like.
The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel. It was a simple continental one but the bread was fresh baked with real butter, the sweet bread came with dulce de leche, and there was juice and real coffee with real milk. And it was included in the cost of our room. We still had some time before the buses to Chile were leaving so we headed to the internet café to find out a bit about the new country and city we were heading too. Our first shock was the prices. In Bolivia we would think twice before spending $20 on a room but in Chile it looked like we were going to have to spend that much each. I hoped that was just my bad math and picked out some cheaper options close to each other for us to check out when we got into Iquique.
Even taking our time we arrived with lots of time to kill. We bought our tickets for the 11 oclock bus and then found two seats to read and wait. As we were sitting there, a German couple approached us. They had been to the train station already trying to get tickets to uyuni and were turned away. They only had three weeks to try and squeeze in a salt flat tour, and northern argentina and were a little panicked. They asked us what we were doing. I told them about our plan to do the salt flat tour in reverse hoping that the blockade would be over by the time our tour arrived in Uyuni. But we also let them know that Sucre was really nice if they wanted to visit another city and wait. They thought for a moment and decided to take the bus with us. They bought their tickets then headed back to their hostel to get their bags. I hoped that it was going to be worth it since we had no idea what Iquique was going to be like.
Bastien and Anita turned up with their bags and some provisions for the 8 hour bus ride. They had bought some beers and a jealous Adrian took off to get his own supplies. I reminded him that the bus may not have a toilet which scared the couple but didn’t stop Adrian. With beers in hand we boarded the bus and began our border run. There was a toilet and it worked. And the roads were some of the nicest ones in Bolivia. So far so good. I was even optimistic that we might make it to Iquique before dark. That didn’t last long once the bus turned off the highway and onto a sandy road through the desert. The driver barely slowed down sending huge plumes of dust over the bus. In an attempt to keep the dust out of the bus (and our lungs), we all closed our windows and the ayudante locked the bathroom door much to Adrian’s chagrin. He squirmed with his very full beer bladder for 30 minutes before I told him to just ask the ayudante for the key. It worked and he was able to enjoy the ride to the border.
I had no idea which border we were at. Once we left the highway, the map I was following was useless. We were at some minor border post just before immigration, the bus stopped to let us off to exchange money. Adrian bought a minimal amount of Chilean pesos and then got back on board. Just a few minutes down the road was a shiny new immigration building. In the midst of the Bolivian desert it stood out and quickly reminded us that we were leaving the third world for first world Chile. The building held both Chilean and Bolivian immigration so it was easy. The only hiccup was the customs inspectors. Chile has a very strict import policy. All grains, fruits, veg, dairy and meat were forbidden. They xrayed all luggage and the mostly indigenous passengers were a bit confused. Many of them had their quinoa and bread as well as other grocercies they were carrying with them. When we’d all been thoroughly checked and stamped we were allowed back on the bus.
The difference between Bolivia and Chile were immediate. Although the landscape looked the same, on this side of the border the roads were paved. Notice I didn't say well-paved however, the endless construction signaled that would soon be fixed and take more than a few hours off the trip. Unfortunately, at the moment the road was a little treacherous and at one point we had to stop when we came upon a crash. There was a bus overturned on the side of the road. As we got closer we saw that there had been a collision with a truck. There were no emergency officials and all the passengers appeared to be okay as they stood at the side of the road waiting for someone to pick them up. They climbed on a truck ahead of us to the nearest town while we were waved through the accident zone to continue our journey. I noticed that our driver reduced his speed after that. Well I thought it was because of that, as we chugged along it became apparent that the bus was having issues. The driver plodded on though the mountains getting us to the highway where he alternated between trying to make up some time and stopping to work on the bus. We may have been in a new country but it was the same old story when it came to buses.
Around 9pm the bus got to Iquique, or so I thought. It was a big sprawling town full of stoplights and modern buildings. But in fact this was Alto Hospicio, the suburbs of Iquique. I only realized where we were when the bus reached a cliff. Two kilometers down a steep series of switchbacks lay Iquique all bright lights and tall buildings that hugged the coast of the Pacific. It was an amazing sight but as the bus got to the city the awe of the lights changed to a turned up nose. The city looked grotty and rundown. Unlike old Bolivian towns which were just the victim of ugly architecture and building materials, Iquique looked rundown. The buildings were better built but were now grotty giving the town a very seedy feeling. In the midst of this the bus pulled over on a street and let us off. We had no clue where we were. The Germans managed to find a cab to take them to the hostel in town they picked out. We were headed in the opposite direction so we said goodbye and wished them luck. Now it was our turn to find a taxi. We lugged our bags to a busier road where we eventually flagged down a free taxi to take us to Cavancha beach where the hostels we had chosen were located. It was a good choice, as we got out of the centre of town, the homeless people disappeared replaced with landscaped lawns and palm trees. Our first choice of hostel was booked up. They recommended another place 4 blocks away but we couldn’t find it ending up at a small hotel described as a surfers’ hangout in our guidebook. It wasn’t great but it would do so we dumped our bags, grabbed a quick bite to eat across the street before heading to bed. It didn’t matter about the accommodation, all that mattered was we had escaped from Bolivia, for now at least.