First taste of Bolivia
The road from Chile to Bolivia runs over 3000km high, across the dry, barren Atacama desert. There’s very little traffic and the only creatures livening up our journey are the tough survivalists grazing by the roadside; llamas and donkeys. We make one final stop just before the border and manage to get some photos of a colony of pink flamingoes residing by the salty Ascota lake. We also take some snaps of the Ollagüe volcano, which lets out a continuous stream of smoke and sulphur. The tiny border town that we’re in is also called Ollagüe, after the volcano. The closer we get to the border, the narrower the road gets and straight after border control it turns into a dusty dirt track, white from all the salt in some places.
The sun has already set by the time we make it to the remote town of Uyuni, in south-west Bolivia. Apart from a couple of blocks in the very centre of the town, there are no street lights around, and the atmosphere in this dark town is chaotic; the streets are packed with indigenous salesmen and their customers of all ages. Music is blaring out from the little cafes and judging by the way some of the people are walking we can only assume they’ve either had too much to drink or they’ve chewed on some coca leaves.
Finding a place to camp overnight proves a little problematic. Campsites aren’t really a thing here and most of the hostel yards etc are too cramped for us to fit in. After some driving around we find a good and quiet spot recommended by the iOverlander-app, on the street in front of an army training facility. We tip the soldiers on guard outside and sleep through the night in peace.
Our camping spot turns out to be a brilliant base for walks in to town, where we head to at first opportunity, in order to run some errands after a few days in the desert. We manage to exchange some local currency, obtain a Bolivian SIM card, replenish our aspirin stock for mountain sickness prevention and even get some washing done at a small launderette.
We can’t help but notice how full of life and colour this place is. People from both the Ketšua and Aimara tribes dress in traditional, colourful clothes and snazzy hats. Children get carried in slings on the backs of their mothers, who typically wear their black hair in plaits. Haggling is just a part of the shopping experience here, and us tourists pay triple for a lot stuff, like fuel for example. We wander around the marketplace, finding excellent local produce: bread, fruit and vegetables. We can only admire the beautiful patterns on the hand crafted ponchos and shawls, all made from alpaca wool. Warm clothes definitely come in handy, because the air is so thin up here. Even though it’s sunny in the daytime, the temperature can easily drop below zero at night .
We walk about 3km outside of town to see a rather strange tourist attraction ; a train graveyard . Dozens of rusty train engines and carriages that in the 19th century carried minerals from mines to the harbors, now lay dormant and abandoned by the tracks. The deliberate sabotage of train tracks by indigenous people, as well as the final loss of the coastline to Chile, put an end to the golden age of railways in Bolivia.
On our hike we also come face to face with the poverty and environmental problems the locals are battling with. Just outside of town, the buildings have been put together from bits of metal, cardboard and chipboard. There’s rubbish everywhere and the air is thick with the disgusting stench of excrement.
The next day we drive about a half an hour outside of Uyuni and begin our adventure in the worlds largest salt desert; Salar de Uyuni. Our aim is to get to Isla Inkahuasi, a cactus island in the middle of the desert. Whether we’ll find it or not remains to be seen, since it’s over a 100 km away and there’s nothing but white salt in sight.