Monday, 16 January 2017

Bolivian reflections

We arrived in Bolivia not really knowing what to expect. Starting in Argentina and Brazil had set a precedent for South America as being moderately expensive so Bolivia provided quite a stark contrast because the cost of living in Bolivia is much lower. Although accommodation costs remained fairly steady (around £5 per night each), food and goods were miraculously cheap in comparison to what we had been paying in previous countries. 

We worked our way from Santa Cruz to Sucre, where we were greeted with a truly stunning sunset view from our accommodation.

Our first night in Sucre also took us to Condor Cafe, recommended to travellers on TripAdvisor, where we each had a delicious vegetarian meal with wine for a cost of £9.24 total, which we split between four. From Sucre we travelled to Uyuni, a completely unremarkable little town only visited according to necessity by those wishing to explore the Bolivian Salt Flats, Salar de Uyuni.

We booked a three day, two night tour of the salt flats with a company called Sandra Travels for 750BOB each (about £80) including food, accommodation, and national park entry. Although this was the going rate according to some other travellers we’d met in Sao Paulo, this company turned out to be a bit of a disaster (for reasons I’ll explain later) so I would absolutely not recommend going with Sandra Travels. Had we googled the company prior to booking we would have found plenty of other travellers also discouraging from choosing Sandra. However, oblivious to what was to come, we set off on our tour. 

The first day of the trip was actually fairly well organised. There were 5 of us to a 7 person jeep and the stops we made were all really worthwhile, starting with the Train Cemetery just outside Uyuni. 

The abandoned train depot was beautiful, although it was a slight shame that every tour running that day seemed to be stopping in exactly the same places simultaneously. From here we drove - almost in convoy with all the other jeeps - to the famous salt flats. The salt flats themselves did not disappoint.

They also provided a perfect backdrop to take a few cheesy group photos!

After this we drove for another few hours to get to the volcano, this was to be our lunch stop and was also where we were promised we would see some reflections from rainwater that had collected on the flats. The lunch stop delivered on its promises of water and we managed to take some beautiful photos here. 

We could also see quinoa growing on the farm where we stopped to eat. 

However, as we went inside for lunch, things started to go downhill. By some bizarre twist of fate, we happened to be travelling with one vegan and two vegetarians. Although they had all informed the tour operator of their dietary requirements, it soon became clear that this information had not been passed along and no preparations had been made for them. As a result they spent the next three days eating unhealthily small portions of cucumber, tomato, raw cabbage and pasta. 

The one upside to this, was that all the meat they had been cooked was shared between us four carnivores. This was extremely lucky because the portion sizes were ridiculously small even with the extra meat, so we can’t imagine how hungry we would have been otherwise.

As we had now collected two more people, we were now 7 to a jeep which was a ridiculously tight fit. Eventually however, we all squished in and headed to our final stop of the day, the bizarre Cactus Island.

We arrived at our night one accommodation to another quite spectacular sunset. 

The hotel we were staying in was literally made out of salt. Even the floors were coated in it, which made for an interesting evening of brushing salt crystals off our beds and trying not to get salt on our feet every time we got up to go to the bathroom. 

The next two days of the tour were slightly underwhelming. While we did get to see some truly beautiful locations (and a huge number of wild flamingos) we spent so much time squashed into the tiny jeep that the magic of the salt flats started to wear off. The constant stops for photo-op after photo-op weren’t exactly what we had been expecting. The photos we did get however, were quite lovely.

On our final day we woke up outrageously early (3.30am starts are not my friend) to see the geysers.

Made even better when we discovered we could see our shadows cast on the rising steam.

I'm not sure we needed to be up quite that early to appreciate them, though. While the tour definitely was not well run - and please, if you ever have the choice, make sure you steer clear of Sandra Travels - the experience itself was well worth it. I’m sure, had there been enough food and more space, we would have loved it.

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