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Getting from A to B in an unpredictable country like Bolivia is no easy business and we were just about to find out why. In our case “A” meant La Paz and “B” Uyuni, a little town at 3670 meters altitude, the tourist gateway to the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. The trip between La Paz and Uyuni consists of a 3½ hours bus ride to Oruro – a large, ugly mining town – and from then on, a seven-hour train ride on one of the few surviving Bolivian rail tracks, to our final destination. Like the good tourists we were we booked our tickets through a travel agency in La Paz, only to have our plans messed with by the favorite pastime of South Americans: social protest.
The miners in the south of the country - particularly in the department of Potosi - had gone on strike, and after a couple of days of unsuccessful negotiations with the government they had decided walk out and to block various railways and roads until they got their demands agreed to. I haven’t been exactly able to understand what they wanted from the newspapers, because the few articles I’ve read assumed inside knowledge of prior events on the side of the reader and didn’t make it clear what the strike was about. I was able, however, to get some information from a cab driver: in short, it’s about money, of course!
Miners or not, the agency wasn’t selling train tickets anymore (and we got our money back) and we decided to take a calculated risk: we reserved rooms both in Oruro and in Uyuni (our final destination) and took the bus. If the train wasn’t going to leave that day we were going to stay overnight in Oruro and make our way south some other way.
En route to Oruro, the most incredible of itinerant sellers joined us: he started talkin about the dangers of cholesterol, of drinking too much soda, eating fatty meats, of not eating fruits, vegetables or healthy foods like soy - of which Bolivia is a major producer but not a consumer - and so on, in a scientific yet comprehensible language. After talking health generalities for 30 minutes he started to extoll the virtues of the product he was selling: cod-oil, made in China! Very healthy! I don't know if anybody bought some, but people were asking questions...
We were lucky in Oruro: we caught the train just as it was about to leave, and it did leave because the government had brought in the army and the police to keep that part of the country free of miners. Sure enough, the ticket was much cheaper as we bought it on the train than what the agency was charging.
The train ride was seven hours and ended in Uyuni at 2:30AM on a freezing night. Within two minutes of getting off the train Angela and I couldn't feel our toes anymore. It must have been -15 or -20 degrees celsius... Luckily we had a hotel reservation, but the short walk to its door was the most excruciating three blocks I've ever walked.
We ended up spending 4 nights in this god-forsaken dusty, tree-less town and on the third day we finally took the Salar de Uyuni tour. We decided for a one-day tour only, because the night-time temperatures in this area and the perspective of being crammed in an SUV (everybody calls them jeeps here, although they are all Toyotas) for four days together with 6 other people had cut off our enthusiasm for three- or four-day tours.
The Uyuni salt flats and the southern Bolivian Altiplano (of which we didn't see much, except what got through the window of our bus going south the next day) are not to be missed by any traveler to Bolivia. It was absolutely stunning, walking on that immensity of white, seeing the reflecting mountains in the distance, smelling the salt in the wind, looking at the endless pattern of hexagons sculpted in the fake snow... The pictures of things we didn't see - the lagoons with colored waters south of the salt flats, the rocky deserts reminding one of Martian landscapes seen in National Geographic, the high-altitude flamingos - looked even more amazing. All I can say is "I'll be back!" You know whose accent to use when you say that out loud....