Bolivia, like love, is not for the faint of heart. If you seek real adventure in South America, the kind without consent forms or parental guidance, this is your destination. Never before have I looked around and felt so overwhelmingly that I had reached the ends of the earth. From the breathtaking Salt Plains through the treacherous Andes to a jungle where more of my body emerged covered in bites than not, one can barely believe people actually live in this gorgeous and inhospitable environment. It seems one the universes greatest ironies: so much poverty trapped in so much beauty.
Not to be missed in this land of brutal extremes are the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Once Lago (lake) Minchin, this dried salt bed will take your breath away, literally. It sits at an altitude of 3,653 meters.
While most people hop on a four day jeep tour in Uyuni and do a giant circle back to this dust-beaten tourist town, you can (and should if possible) opt to begin your tour in Tupiza, a quiet, friendly town three hours from the southern border of Bolivia. If you begin here you reach the Salt Plains on your last day as opposed to your first and also skip the entire day of driving back to Uyuni. You also get a day and a half of almost total isolation, on a little traveled road. It is this second day which in fact comprises the majority of what I will lightly label as my oh-dear-lord-are-we-really-driving-through-that-snow/river/hail/lightening/mud adventure?
The insanity begins on the first night, when we arrive under the cover of darkness to a small village which lacks electricity and running water. We have climbed to an altitude of nearly 4000 meters and are all beginning to feel oncoming symptoms of what I can only describe as the worst hangover of my life, i.e. altitude sickness. Since it’s below freezing, we bundle up in some eight layers of clothing and trudge into the small hut where dinner is being prepared by our resourceful guide. Light rain is knocking softly on the tin roof. By midnight, it is a heavy and intimidating torrent of drops which does not let up until early in the morning. By then it’s too late.
Since it is officially the dry season in early March, we are on dry season roads not meant to be used in the wet. Waking before dawn and setting off without a hint of breakfast to come for nearly three hours, we nervously watch the approaching Andes freshly coated with a layer of ice and snow which will soon be under our jeep’s already weary wheels. First, however, there is the mud. An hour into the drive, we are stuck. The five of us in the back and one guide (the other is driving) tumble freezing and bleary-eyed out onto the mud road and began to encourage the vehicle into action.
When it becomes apparent verbal coaxing alone is not enough, we roll up our sleeves and start to push. Fifteen minutes later and up to our knees in mud, the car finds its way out. We pile back in – for another five minutes. Then, we are stuck again. We repeated this ordeal a total of five times before we find ourselves on dryer land. We naively think the worst is over. Next, we hit the snow. Perched atop the Andes at heights of several hundred feet, we inch our way along snow-covered trails no wider than the width of the car. At points, looking out my window, I appeared to be extended over the cliff – the wheels just barely hugging the mud path. A collective breath is held in that jeep stuffed with five white-knuckled gringos and two grimacing guides. A good rule of thumb for traveling in Bolivia: if the locals are scared, you should be too. And I was. I began to seriously worry, then to freak out. I prayed in broken Spanish. By some stroke of unfathomable good luck, we make it across. Again, a nervous laugh and the careless pronouncement from the Swiss guy next to me, “Well, at least that’s over.” We pause for breakfast, savoring the hot coffee and stale bread with dolce de leche we only moments ago harbored no appetite for.
Then we begin again. A few hours later, we approach a river which, without a moment of hesitation, our guide plows right on through. Well, half way through. We are stuck. We are in shock, then angry and then we began to laugh hysterically as the freezing cold water begins to seep into the backseat of the jeep, threatening to infiltrate our boots. We have to get out. We know if we wade through the river in our shoes and pants we will freeze the rest of the afternoon and possibly the trip. Nothing air dries in the mountains. So, we do what any self-respecting travelers would. We strip – off come the boots, the three layers of socks and the two pairs of paints. In our underwear, we gingerly hop into the chilly water and wade towards the shore, much to the amusement of the locals who hadn’t so foolishly hazarded the crossing and were gleefully waiting for us on the other side. The Swiss guy manages to capture it all on film. Great.
Using up our third miracle of the afternoon, we manage to get the jeep out. By this point, we are giddy with the exhaustion of all this unexpected madness. No one says, “Well, at least that’s over” this time. And it isn’t. Throughout the next seven hours, we encounter hail, sleet, snow, and nearly get struck by lightening on an open beach where we are carelessly admiring flamingoes. This last incident has even the toughest of our group screaming like a lost school girl.
But we survive. When we ultimately reach the Salt Plains, we have more than earned the view. And it is unsurpassable: miles and miles of emptiness floating on a reflective salt bed, once again inspiring me to love Bolivia in all its unfathomable beauty.