After a full 24 hours and three buses, I made it safely from Uyuni, Bolivia to Salta, Argentina. The difference between South America’s poorest country and South America’s most European country is quite striking. But I’ll comment on that later; first, let’s go back a week.
La Paz to Potosí
After biking down the Death Road to Coroico, I left La Paz, Bolivia’s largest city, for Potosí, a small mining town. The town’s main attraction, besides the colonial architecture, is the mine tour, which consists of a refinery tour and two hours in the unimaginable conditions that the miners face every day (at least, that is, until they die at 45 from siliconosis). After walking, crawling, and slithering through hot, damp, dark tunnels for only a few hours, I was glad to see sunlight again. (Also, dynamite is less exciting than Hollywood would have you believe.) It’s impossible to describe the experience, and impossible even for me to imagine working there. Fortunately, my next destination was less about human suffering and more about awe-inspiring geography.
A night in Uyuni
After Potosí, I hopped on an overnight bus to Uyuni, a town that seems to exist only for tourism. I arrived with my traveling companion, Miguel, at two in the morning to a cold and windy city with few working street lamps. Since it was already past midnight and we were planning to leave the next morning on a three-day tour of the salt flats, we decided that a hostel for the night would be a waste of money. The Lonely Planet guide mentioned that the train station was a warm and safe place to stay the night if needed, so we starting walking south along the dark, empty streets.
When we finally found the station, it was nothing like we had expected. What we found was a darkened building set back from the street, with the front gate slightly ajar. We could see that the main lobby had some low lighting, so we went through the gate and walked across the unlit yard. After pushing on all the doors and finding that none would open, we took off our heavy packs and settled into the doorway—with five hours until the city woke up, at least we would be safe from the wind.
But not from people. A few minutes later, a man walked through the front gate and started to cross the yard. Exchanging an uncertain look with Miguel, I tried to prepare for the worst. The man was walking straight towards us. What do you do in a situation like that? Us, we said, “Hola.” He returned the greeting but didn’t stop. Passing between us, he pulled open the door we had been blocking and walked into the station. After realizing that we had tried to push a pull door, we followed him in. The man left the station through another door, and we were alone in the lobby.
Lonely Planet got one thing right: it was better than sleeping outside (as the homeless guy sleeping in one of the hallways can attest to). Miguel and I each took one end of a bench, and we settled in for the night. The gentle sound of train cars slamming together (not to mention the homeless man’s snoring) served as our soundtrack as we fell asleep. Just as I was drifting off, in walked someone else: the security guard, to kick us out. Cursing our guide book, we traded the relatively warm train station for the frozen streets.
By this time, it was about four in the morning and dark, cold, and windy. There was no way we would pay a night in a hostel just to leave after a few hours, but we needed to get out of the wind. Finally, we walked by a bank and there it was, our salvation: an ATM. For those that are unfamiliar with South American banking, ATMs (or cajeros) are frequently found in phonebooth-like spaces, behind a glass door and recessed into the building. Finding one felt like striking gold. With two men and their packs in the tiny space, there was no room for sitting, but it was warmer than outside and there was no wind.
We only had a few hours until shops started to open, which passed slowly but warmly in the ATM. Finally, around 6:30AM, there was enough light outside that we left our accommodations and went searching for food and hot coffee. After wandering around for a few minutes, we found the only open restaurant. Being the first customers of the day, we had our choice of seating; we chose fire-adjacent. The pancakes were garbage, but the coffee was hot and the fire made everything better.
Salt flats, here we come
Soon it was time to find and book our three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. We did so without trouble, and, finally, at 10AM our driver/guide/cook loaded our bags onto an abused Toyota Land Cruiser and we were off. Stopping at the train graveyard before hitting the Salar proper, we quickly realized that our driver/guide/cook was a man of few words—more of a driver/cook, really. Fortunately, the four other travelers in the tour (two English and two Czech) were good company, and at least we wouldn’t be sleeping in an ATM that night.
In fact, that night was spent in a hotel outside of the Salar that is built from blocks of salt. (It’s nicer than it sounds.) But before we got to our hotel, we drove by a truck that was stuck in the clay. As is the rule on these tours, we stopped to help, and an hour or so later, we had them out and were on our way. We got into the hotel in time to see the sunset, ate dinner, played a rousing game of, uh, “President”, and went to bed.
The next day we saw a few lakes and some flamingos. We also had our first flat tire (a tiny hole), which our driver quickly switched for the spare. Then, as were were headed toward that night’s hostel, we had our second flat tire (more of an explosion this time). We did not have a second spare. We were alone on a rock plain. A few other Jeeps passed by, but none had a spare that we could use. After freezing in the cold for a half hour, the driver/cook/mechanic agreed to pump up the spare with the tiny hole in the hopes that we could make it to the hotel before it went flat again. Another Jeep (with air compressor) stopped to help with the operation, and before we knew it we were rolling into our second night’s accomodations. After watching the sunset and jumping around on a floating island of salt, we went to bed.
I must have adjusted to the South American weather, because the -5°C “winter” was freezing me. Unfortunately, it only got colder, with day three going down to -20°C (or so they said). We saw and smelled geysers, drove by a hot spring, and saw a “stone tree.” After dropping Miguel off near the Chilean border, we headed back towards Uyuni. It was this leg of the trip where our driver had his most entertaining moment: he pointed out a donkey skeleton that was propped up at the side of the road and started laughing hysterically. I still don’t get the joke, but it was smooth driving after that and we managed to get back to Uyuni without incident.
I ate, slept, and was on the bus to Tupiza by 5AM the next day. Thus began my trip to Argentina: Uyuni to Tupiza (“World’s Most Dangerous Road” has some stiff competition), Tupiza to Villazón (off-roading in a bus is possible—EA Games, you can pay me later), cross the border, La Quiaca to Salta (lying salespeople promised cama, but it was only semi-cama). Finally, after nearly 25 hours of travel, I arrived in Salta with my new traveling companions, the English couple from the Salar tour.