7 March ’14 – Half a year of Mrs & Mrs
5 months into our trip and it is our six month wedding anniversary today! And it has been an exhilarating six months at that. Not many newly-weds would head out on an adventurous mission of self (and each other) discovery so soon out the gate – but it may just be the best thing we could possibly do for each other.
We spend most of our day wandering around this dry town, discovering strange little corners under a vast open sky. We stumble upon a play park that seems like it was built for playful adults – I have never seen a slide that high or wide. It’s almost as if someone read my “things-that-should-be-in-the-world” file in the cabinet labelled “Daydreaming” in my mind. There is a group of young guys playing on it, and it takes me about 3 seconds to kick off my flip flops and join them.
On my first go down this epic giant slide, about 4 meters wide and three or four stories high, I build a little fan club with cheers coming from the new friends I just haven’t met yet. Soon we are having races down the slide and laughing our heads off. Out of breath I start talking to Pollo (literally Chicken, so I make sure it is only his nickname). He is Argentinian and has been walking his way around the continent, catching free rides and discovering the goodness of strangers. Play parks make the world a better place.
We celebrate our 6 month wedding anniversary with a lavish (by Bolivian standards) lunch at La Loco Restaurante. We are the first to arrive at 4pm to a closed resto for a late lunch. I wiggle my way in to spot a cleaner getting the space ready. Phew, for a moment there I thought we would have to search for another half decent, half anniversary worthy place to dine.
We enter as if we own the place. A big space scattered with colourful tables, a few unlit fireplaces and a bar furnished out of an old locomotive. We are the only patrons for now, and we take full advantage of the one employee’s attention by having him explain every cocktail to us, in Spanish and very broken English. One should always make an informed decision when planning to get a little drunk in a foreign country..
We start with a Naranja Pisco Sour, the Bolivian version is much different from the Chilean version, to compliment my crepe like pancake filled with ham, cheese, tomato and mushrooms to start with. It all goes down very well and the occasion calls for another pisco while we wait for our main course of Llama steak dressed with Roquefort sauce served with couscous and vegetables julienne. This is pretty much the national meal in Bolivia. I am very curious about llama meat as it is not something that I generally knew was bred here for sustenance. They’re adorable animals with expressive faces and super soft fur, very much like sheep, and I eat little lambs with no problem. (At the time of writing, any protein was very necessary while we were travelling, sometimes not knowing when and where our next meal will be. At the time of publishing I am leaning more towards a vegetarian lifestyle and it’s not because little lambs are cute..)
Llama meat is very lean. It has a lighter colour to it than beef, but is similar in texture to ostrich steak. It is definitely a winner and I now understand why it is the national dish here. Definitely a winner! I almost licked my plate clean a full 12 minutes after my lunch was served. Delicious!
After another cocktail we are quite jolly and still we had the whole place to ourselves. A chocolate and Brazil Nut tart is in the cards for dessert, and this is one that The FearlessFoodie would approve of! I never did find out what they call Brazil nuts in Brazil…
Before heading back to our hotel for some rest and relaxation we book our day tour of the Salar de Uyuni for tomorrow with Oasis Bolivia. It’s right next to the hotel. All the tour companies offer the exact same thing with minor differences in price. Every second door in the main part of town is a tour operator, so it won’t be hard to find one with space for you on their tour. Ai…tourist traps..
Until tomorrow, where a new adventure awaits*
8 March ’14 – Introducing the magnificent Salar de Uyuni*
I wake up remarkably early to shower, pack, eat breakfast, and check out before leaving for our day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats. Known in Spanish as the Salar de Uyuni, it is the largest salt flat in the world and is visible from space.
We’ve paid Bs150 each for a 5 hour guided tour of the area. We meet our driver, Carlos, a man of very few words along with Chen and Odeia from Israel & Jorge and Javeira from Chile who join us in the Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 for the day.
Just before we depart for the day a parade of some sort makes its way down the street. Mostly men and boys dressed in a variety of costumes, from blue creatures from Avatar to pretend prisoners, fake Spartans (with six pack abs drawn on with a pen for effect) fighting Romans, slicked black ‘slaves’ beating drums, grown men in diapers, some dressed like fairies, commando soldiers and Angry Birds singing and spraying shaving cream EVERYWHERE. My trusty camera got a big dollop of foam right in the eye.
T and I make ourselves comfortable in the very back seat of the SUV, I have my camera in hand as we set off for our first stop – Cemeterio de Trenes (the train cemetery) – about 2 km out of town. This is where old trains come to die a rusty, decaying death. The landscape is littered with old carriages and locomotives decorated in amateur graffiti with tourists climbing and crawling about them like colourful ants all over the carcasses of beasts.
The train cemetery is quite a sight and worth a look. It’s just a shame that all the tour companies begin their day here at exactly the same time. If a tour operator was truly smart they would make this the very last stop of the day – the metal against the backdrop of the sunset in the desert…I can only imagine.
After our 15 minutes at the train cemetery we move along to the very edge of the 12 000km2 Salar de Uyuni. This vast expanse is the biggest salt lake in the world. Once again you see masses of 4×4’s scattering this pure white backdrop, little people taking odd perspective photographs – somewhat missing the point of being so very small in this very big world.
15 minutes here is long enough for Carlos and he ushers us all back to the car for a very long drive to the centre of the Salar. I fall asleep, but it must’ve been at least an hour’s drive to Isla Incahuasi – an island of giant cacti that sprung up in the emptiness of this massive white wilderness.
Here Carlos sets up our lunch for the day – of course it is Llama steak, quinoa and veggies – the national dish of Bolivia. Satisfied we now have an hour or so to discover this surreal island of gigantic dessert soldiers surrounded by a sea of salt. It has a feel of mysticism to it, almost as if we are setting foot on an ancient people’s holy land. We climb up to the very top where there is a 360 degree view of this otherworldly landscape. It is almost difficult to understand that a place such as this exists..
After descending back down to white earth we are in for another long drive through nothingness back to the outer edges of the Salar. Somewhere in the middle Carlos stops the car abruptly, excitedly jumps out and points to something on the ground. We follow to where he shows us a small hole in the salt filled to the brim with water. A few feet away there is another, and another! They are all over the place. These are known as Ojo de Salar (eyes of the salt lake) and run so deep that I can stick my whole arm in to retrieve perfectly formed cubes of salt crystals. We play around like children for a while, amazed at these holes in the solid salt before racing across the flats to the Salt Hotel – a place that is built entirely out of salt bricks. The 2014 Dakar Rally ran through Bolivia not too long ago and the collection of flags in front of the hotel shows the diversity of the visitors.
After a long day of amazement we find ourselves back in town, and I am so hungry I could eat an entire llama, but I settle for tacos at one of the many Mexican/Italian restaurants down the main walkway. Satisfied we collect our hordes of luggage where it was stored at our hotel. We have 2 seats booked, ‘premier’ class (whatever that means in Bolivia..) on the train from rural Uyuni to the city of Oruro at 00:05. I use the term “city” very loosely here.. We have quite a bit of waiting to do but I am very excited to go on our first train ride together.
On a mission to find rolling papers, and figuring out that no-one in the whole of Bolivia sells rolling papers, we spot a group of rowdy Argentinians in the square. And what do you know, they are rolling a few cigarettes with those elusive papers. I decide these will be the perfect waiting companions, so we share various flavours of tobacco, their drink in a plastic flask (what I think was cane and coke) and stories of travel and South Africa. These 8 happy campers have been sleeping out in the wilderness of the salt lake for a few days and are very happy to have a night on a train along with us.
I search my bag for my phone so that I can take a quick snap shot with our new friends, and it is nowhere to be found.. How is this even possible? I haven’t used it all day. It is off, and has been untouched in the bag for the past 8 hours! How did it just disappear into thin air? Since the camera bag incident at the very beginning of our trip in Saquarema, Brazil I have been extremely careful with our things. I have been, obsessive; compulsive; pedantic even! Damn! This sucks! Not because I lost the phone, but because I lost a whole lot of photos of the last few weeks of travel. Well, some lucky Bolivian now has a collection of kick-ass tunes and expertly composed travel pics of two gringas..enjoy. Or it may have fallen out of the bag in the car, or the tourist office, or the restaurant. Damn again!
Feeling despondent, we collect our things and walk over to the train station to begin the long wait. It’s about 9pm, the temperature is dropping rapidly and our best bet is to wait out the 3 hours until departure inside the station where others, including a few of the town’s stray dogs, have already taken up most of the space. Once again we are stared at like the outsiders we are, and it is something to note that Bolivians do not respond to a smile from a stranger as you would expect them to.
With an air of slight hostility around us, we wait…*
More images of the Salar de Uyuni can be seen in the Gallery