Having read stories of waiting hours to cross the border, I chose the option to arrive La Quiaca (ARG) at 7:00am when the border opened. This meant a 2:20am bus, and not being able to order a taxi for 1:00am, I left Eva at 11:30pm in our room, taxiing to the Nueva Terminal just outside Jujuy to wait there in the chilly night, along with the other northern travellers and their bundled wares, and stray dogs roaming between the plastic seats.
Waking bleary eyed in La Quiaca, i asked for directions to la frontera which was a 10min walk along dusty roads. There wasn’t another backpacker or gringo in sight, and I was beginning to wonder whether I was headed in the right direction. A row of cabins then came into sight along with a ‘Migracións’ sign, indicating for people on foot to cross into Bolivia. There was no one in the queue ahead of me, and I was quickly stamped out of Argentina. I walked straight past the Bolivian border control, doubling back a few steps as it was right next door, and had then entered Bolivia.
Crossing a brook, there were Argentina/Bolivia signs and as I walked up the street in Villazon (BOL), the change was immediate: women dressed in bowler hats, and puffed skirts, men rugged up in winter coats laden with heavy bags, cute rosy cheeked kids in beanies tied tight with pom-poms and the border stalls setting up their wares.
I was glad to have settled for a cheap taxi to the (new) bus station (5Bs; 70p), a lot further out of town then the guides listed: 24 blocks v 6 mentioned! As soon as I stepped out, I had my pick of destinations with bus touts shouting for trade. The Bolivians were friendly, helpful and patient (with my ‘Spanish’), directing me to an earlier bus to Tupiza on a competing company, rather than selling me their ticket.
I’d missed out of horse riding in Argentina, having not planned well enough and not wanting to return 3hrs south to be able to join a ranch offering a tour. So was happy to be able to explore the red, dusty mountains of Tupiza on horseback. I chose a quick nap after my long journey (11hr total including waiting time, two buses, two borders) rather than exploring the town and awoke slightly fresher.
My guide took me out into Cordillera de Chicas, real Butch Cassidy country, and it truly felt like the Wild West. We rode through huge canyons and vast, arid expanses of shrubs and cacti, encircled by coloured layers of mountains. The red rock landscapes are mesmerising as they creep up on you step by step; most impressive was the Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door/Gate), and galloping (only for a few minutes) through Valle de los Machos with the sun rays shining on the ‘men’ standing rock tall. I walked back to town feeling very Wild West, complete with bow legs from the 3hr ride. My butt and legs would be sore for days afterwards!
Back in town, I shopped for supplies ready for my 4 days Uyni tour: it’s BYO toilet paper in Bolivia, never a nice surprise if you forget, and I also stocked up on coca leaves to prep for the altitude. I booked through Tupiza Tours who seemed to have a French following, and sent thanks across the seas to Dad for having taken us to Lyon and being able to speak French. My fellow companions were Samuel and his father Jean-Marie, and Gaël (travelling the world for 8months), plus a second Land Cruiser Chloe, Ben and Robin, and Jonny from Barca.
Our driver Santos was great: not the crazy reckless we’d heard of on the Uyni operators. Given the numerous accidents over the years (and even tourist deaths), the government closed down several of the more unsafe operators. He kept his cheek well-stocked with coca leaves like a chipmunk, taking small bites of a chalky square – turns out this activate the coca. Our soundtrack to the dusty, wild, vast landscapes was a loop of 80s Euro muzak and Bolivian flute bands, forever etched in my memory! Sonia, our cook for the two vehicles, was also upfront in our car, and meant we got some extra goodies like yoghurtas (lolly pops) and juice pyramids.
Most tours do a loop back to Uyni, one benefit of ours was that we were one of only four 4WDs on the route which thinned out as companies went to their different ways. Another is that you visit several lagoons, thermal waters and volcanoes – unfortunately the same snow drift that had closed Atacama off for me closed the national park and we were able to enter.
The days were long day drives through arid, dusty, seemingly never-ending plains and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Then in the blink of an eye, there were new formations and scenery to marvel at. This (ever/never) changing landscape was sparse: vegetation, animal and people-wise, and you could see how harsh it was to live and survive at such a altitude (4,000-5,000m).
We stayed in local villages of mud huts or squat concrete houses in basic rooms: no heating despite the overnight sub-zero temperatures, which never seemed to warm up during the day; limited electricity and lighting; cold showers or if lucky, a timed ‘warm’ shower for an extra fee.
I slept every night in my clothes from the day as the thought of changing in the cold was overwhelming, and only changed once in the four days under the covers of my quilt, still warm from sleep.
We spent many hours stopping off at rock formations, creatively named like the camel and the condor. Inspired by Jonny who has summited them before you could whip out your phone, we all joined in scrambling up the rocks – even our guides.
The lagoons were incredible and called for wistfully sitting, looking out over nature and contemplating life at Laguna Negra (black lagoon).
Laguna Hedionda provided an incredible setting to marvel at the flamingoes up close: clicking and creaking away to each other, with the reflection of snowy mountain peaks behind and below, framed by grass tufts and frozen shores.
The best was saved for last. El Salar de Uyni (the Uyni salt flats) is the biggest salt desert in the world measuring 10,500 sq m. They have about 11 layers of salt, from 2m-10m in depth. In addition to the 25,000 tonnes of salt extracted annually, the brine underneath the salt crust also contains other minerals including lithium, potassium, magnesium, sodium sulfate and boron. It is mind blowing to see flatness as far as the eye can see, and realise you’ve never seen anything like that before.
We got up at 4:00am and were the first cars to head out to Uyni. Stopping on the salt flats in the pitch dark, we spent almost an hour star gazing: they were truly phenomenal. I really miss the stars and night sky in London and despite the morning’s cold (sub-zero), wandered and stared at the Milky Way, Southern Cross and ‘caught’ a few falling stars.
Then it was on to the Isla Incahuasi (aka cactus island), where we climb atop enjoying the intimacy of it being just ‘us’ before the lights of other 4WDs tours pierced the darkness, signalling their arrival.
The sun’s halo appeared long before it burst on the horizon, changing the darkness to yellows, pinks and oranges, then contrasting purples with the lightest of blues. The salt plains truly looked like water lapping at the edges of the island, with the cacti popping up across the slopes and amongst the boulders of old coral.
After a hearty breakfast, we headed out into the salt flats for hours of fun taking tricky photos where the distance is distorted due to the sheer flatness.
And then, it was done – Chloe, Ben and Romain headed off to Peru via La Paz, and the rest of us to Potosi for the next stop in our adventures. Although we all only spent a few days together, it was a truly magical adventure, heightened by sharing it with new friends and companions.