Rio de Janiero, I mean Bolivia.
It’s been a whirlwind the past 2 weeks. As mentioned in my previous post, I was supposed to go to Brazil for the first week of my winter break. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I still can’t comprehend how I forgot, because I never forget things, but I forgot to get my visa for Brazil. US tourists need a visa to enter Brazil, because the US requires one of Brazilians. To say I was heartbroken is putting it lightly.
So instead of relaxing on the beach in Rio de Janiero, I spent the week at home with León doing all sorts of visa paperwork (for Chile).
^^ I had these cookies made especially for Flo and Joaquín who I was going to stay with...
Because my trip to Rio hit the fan, I decided to go forward with the trip I had planned to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It was a trip I bought with airline miles and wasn’t planning on taking originally. I’d been wanting to visit Uyuni for some time now but have been turned off because of the fact that I’d read some bad things about Bolivian tour-drivers and the fact that I’d have to pay $160 dollars to enter the country.
I signed up with the top tour company and swallowed my pride and paid that $160. The trip itself was 3 nights and 4 days. We crossed the border of Chile and Bolivia (more on that later) and traveled by car for hours at a time to various lagoons and rock formations. We covered a lot of distance in 4 days.
The trip itself was an adventure to say the least –and definitely not for everyone. We were really roughing it at times, with bathrooms that hadn’t been cleaned in what appeared to be years, no heat (in below freezing temperatures) and no hot water. We had to sleep in our jackets and hats. One night, I even slept with my shoes on. It was so cold that I had no desire to shower. None of us showered for 3 days because it was too cold. There were also no roads, so we were driving in the middle of the desert over rocks for hours on end.
We were traveling at a high altitude (peaking at around 40,000 feet above sea level) which often takes a toll on people. One of the people in my group had terrible altitude sickness the entire trip. She had awful migraines and was vomiting in the car. Altitude sickness affects people in different ways, it definitely makes me feel exhausted from the smallest of tasks. One morning I woke up with a pounding headache –but a few Advil pills did the trick.
The agency I traveled with is a huge company. They divide their clients up into jeeps for the tour and tie their luggage on top of the car. The group you get sort of makes or breaks your trip. Since I was traveling alone, they wanted to shuffle me around. Finally, I found some nice people and requested to be placed in their group as they spoke English. I’m so glad I made that request because my group was wonderful. Luckily, our driver was friends with another driver who had a family of gringos so we all formed one big gringo group and traveled all together. The people I met was one of the best parts of the trip. In my immediate group I had a lovely couple from The Netherlands and another couple who currently live in South Africa. In the other car, was the kindest most wonderful Danish family. I quickly became close to them and enjoyed their company. I hope to one day make it to Denmark to visit my new friends! If I had gone to Brazil, I would have never met such lovely people!
^^ My mom laughs at me because I always seem to insert myself into other peoples' families
^^We had so much fun drinking tea and playing an intense 10-person game of Uno
Of course the highlight of the trip was the Salar de Uyuni –the largest salt flat in the world. Although it was exhausting and at times very difficult, seeing the sunrise over the 4,086 square mile salt flat made it all worth it. Because the weather was a bit out of character, there was water left on the salt flats which allowed us to experience the mirror-effect. We had so much fun taking the typical photos on the salt flat. Our drivers were so kind and went out of their way to help us in any way they could. I couldn't fathom the vast enormity of the salt flats. To me, it looked like a very flat snow-covered field. My favorite day was by far the salt-flat day. I also loved seeing all of the different animals such as the flamingos and llamas.
^^Cats like to watch the sunrise too...
^^Table made of salt
^^ The mirror-effect
Highlights of the trip for me:
Seeing the salt-flat at sunrise
Meeting the most wonderful people from all over the world
Seeing the climatic and geographic changes between the different areas (you can see some areas were covered in snow!)
Crossing another item off my bucket-list and adding another pin to the map
^^ This is a petrified tree
Afterwards, we stopped at an artesian market for souvenirs. I was stunned by how cheap the prices were in Bolivia compared to the other South American countries. I bought a beautiful poncho, that would normally cost about $50 dollars in Chile for $12 dollars! I also found the hat I’ve been searching for for the past 5 years (Lexie can attest to this)!
Finally we visited the train graveyard which was such a strange but cool place. It was basically a dumping ground for old trains. We were able to climb them and explore the area. It felt like the perfect setting for a horror movie, but I thought it was so cool. Thankfully I had my Tetanus shot!
As mentioned before, this kind of trip is definitely not for everybody. At times, I even questioned myself. I personally felt the 4 days was too much, and took quite a toll on me mentally and physically –so I would suggest to other travelers to maybe do a 2-day or even go straight to the salt flat. I saw many beautiful places, but there were things I could have done without seeing. I can’t tell you how many lagoons we stopped at...
Perhaps the most negative part of the trip was interacting with the Bolivian police at the border. I had read that Bolivia is very corrupt and that the border control likes to manipulate and take advantage of American tourists. As mentioned, I had to pay $160 dollars to enter the country and have all kinds of paperwork.
When I arrived at the border, the policeman told me I needed 2 extra things. After I explained to him that I actually don’t need those documents, he relented. When I went to pay, the man examined my dollar bills with a close eye. I knew they had to be in perfect shape. I did not know they couldn’t have even the tiniest, minuscule tear. He handed it back to me and said he wouldn’t accept my $20. I became frustrated and started arguing with him. He was the most miserable, grumpiest old man I’d ever met. Things escalated and at one point he threw my passport on the desk and yelled “THEN DON’T CROSS THE BORDER” in Spanish. I ended up making up the difference and then some by paying in the local currency. Because of his antics, he ended up making a profit off of me –which is exactly what he wanted. I also noticed that on my $20 bill, he was the one who made the original tear...
After that experience, I was very shaken and upset. At the end of the tour, the guy who was driving us to the border explained that at the last hotel, we were supposed to pay for the showers. He explained that he had paid for all of us and we needed to reimburse him. I was not in the mood to be taken advantage of again, so I stepped up to the plate since no one else in the car spoke Spanish. I told him that I had specifically asked him if we needed to pay for the showers the previous night and he said no. If we had needed to pay, we wouldn’t have had showered. If he wanted to be reimbursed, he would need to speak to the agency. He quickly backed down and I felt a sense of accomplishment. Finally, while crossing the border back into Chile, they made us pay 20 Bolivianos. I understand paying to enter, but paying to leave? Needless to say, I was happy to return to Chile!
One night, after being served dinner, we noticed there was only wine on the table. We asked the lady if we could have water instead of the wine. She told us, we'd have to pay for the water, as the meal only included wine, not water...
On the coldest night, we all shared a room. I was last to get into bed and I noticed everyone was wearing their snow hats to bed. I decided I'd follow and put my hat on as well. We all looked quite funny.
^^ reminding you to laugh in the bathroom
^^ My airport pick-up person was holding this sign. My name was copied from my e-mail so theres really no excuses...
^^ There is truly so much to be said about this sign...
^^I met this friend roaming the streets of a small town. She was quite friendly as you can see below:
^^Inspecting the camera
^^ I named her Olivia (from Bolivia)
^^My hotel was made of salt
^^Can you spot the dinosaur?
^^I met this dog friend at the border. She immediately plopped right on my feet.
^^ The perspective pictures were so funny to watch
^^ The drivers knew exactly what they were doing. They laid the floor-mats of the car on the ground.
^^How to wait in line without actually waiting in line. Only in Chile...
If you are interested in making a similar trip I can't recommend Cordillera Traveller enough. They're the best in the business.
Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes, hand sanitizer/toilet paper, a power-bank to charge your devices, and more than the recommended amount of Bolivian currency (to pay for showers, bathrooms, sleeping bags etc.) and medicine for altitude sickness.