It was the first time that Stergios and I would travel apart. He would keep the vespa and only the necessary to survive in the harsh environment of the region with the famous volcanic lakes in the South of Bolivia – everyone had told us about the extreme difficulties we would have to face (no water, no fuel, no food, no people, almost nonexistent roads*) – and I, alone with no vespa nor Stergios but with 6 complete strangers in a 4×4 which would take us to Uyuni after 3 days. The 3 days that followed were an amazing experience for both of us! It wasn’t for the harsh conditions (which were harsh but not in an extreme way), but for the breathtaking scenery that we’ll never forget this trip! It was from another planet!
*remember to turn on the English subtitles
Back to the beginning: we were in San Pedro de Atacama. Still dark outside and Ι, utterly stressed, was getting on the minivan which would take our newly formed group to the borders with Bolivia (I was stressed and worried about Stergios because I had believed all these stories about the difficulty of the route…). After less than 1 hour, we had reached the border. Passport control, breakfast and off we go! The Bolivian driver of the 4×4 (a 4500cc Lexus, with leather seats etc…same as the vespa!) didn’t make us wait for long. After some minutes’ waiting, he came and soon the “adventure” began. In the 4×4, there were 2 girls from the USA, 2 guys from the UK and 1 Canadian. From the first moment we met, I realized that I was probably the “odd one out”. It wasn’t the fact that they were born a whole decade after me, but that we were very different even in small things, such as the quantity of the alcohol they’d choose to consume, regardless of how much annoying it would make them to other people.
Soon, we were in the “Eduardo Avaroa National Park”, but before we even enter the area, we had our first clues about what would follow! We were already at 4000m above sea level and we’d climb up to more than 5000! The volcanic landscape was one of the most breathtaking we had ever seen! The flora and fauna was fully adjusted to the harsh environment and consisted in some yellowish small bushes which were the food of the vicuňas – the wild cousins of the llamas. Only some kinds of birds and other small animals could survive there (foxes, flamingos etc). The air was really thin and every effort resulted in gasping and panting! Fortunately, no-one got the altitude sickness which, as we’ve read, is not pleasant at all!
We’d spend the first day visiting some lakes with the most unusual colors: the White Lake, the Green and the Colored one (Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorada), next to which we would spend the night – at a shelter. We’d also see an area with geysers and dive into a small pool with warm water from a nearby hot spring. I was anxious to take as many pictures as I could and enjoy the magnificent view! At the same time, I was wondering where Stergios was and if we would meet at the shelter. My co-travelers were more concerned about the abundance of alcohol at the shelter…
The day came to its end before we realized it! The beauty of the place left me speechless and I’m not sure if I can find the right words to describe it! The White Lake (Blanca) was calm and deserted, the Green (Verde) one had some subtle waves and a striking turquoise color! Last but not least, the Colored Lake (Colorada) with the color of blood or rust – depends on the wind – and some dozens of flamingos “dancing” on its surface. Only the unfortunate fate of some of the youngest or weakest ones, that were lying dead on the shore reminded of how harsh can nature be. We were at the beginning of the winter and the lakes had started to freeze. The birds had already started to migrate, except for those that couldn’t…
A small break for a dive in the relieving warm water of the hot springs was what I was dreaming of – Instead, I only had my feet wet because I didn’t have a swimming-suit with me. While I was waiting for the rest of the group to finish, I took the opportunity and walked on the frozen shores of the nearby lake which were full of borax. The geysers, where we went next, were also interesting. The “exhaust” of the earth…amazing power and smelly gasses! Our day finished in the shelter next to the Lake Colorada. We had a simple though tasty dinner (soup and spaghetti) and an infusion made of coca leaves and some herbs of the area. Of course, we were not alone in the shelter. There were some other 6-people groups – English speaking in their majority – who were in search of wine (which unfortunately they found…). Soon, I hid in the dormitory under 5-6 woolen blankets and wrapped myself inside my sleeping-bag – if I’d seen a llama, I would also have taken it and use it as a blanket.
I fell asleep with some questions: Where the hell was Stergios?! Did he make it to the Lake Colorada?! Did he see the “WORLDVESPA” sign I wrote on the sand at the shore?!
Stergios was fine! Alive and kicking and after 3 days – while we were in Uyuni celebrating with some glasses of wine – he told me his side of the story which I’ll write here: He left from Sad Pedro de Atacama about 1 hour after I had left. With no problems at all, he took a 30-days visa and the license for the vespa and crossed the border (according to the law, we should have a 90-days visa – only 1 month later we understood why we had been given a 30-days one…although we knew we don’t have to pay anything, the officer at the immigration office in Uyuni asked 20BOB in order to give us the extension we needed!). With great relief, he learned there that the customs office was now next to the passport control office and not on some mountain 5000m above sea level. Some time ago, it was next to a mine in order to be easier for the company to do business and not easily reachable for the travelers who had their own vehicles. The only thing that Stergios hated was the “I-Know-Everything” officer who sarcastically laughing, told that “this thing can go nowhere in these mountains”…he meant the vespa!
Admiring the jaw-dropping beauty of the scenery, he went on to the Lakes. The route was difficult but in no case impossible to cross. The only thing which was really annoying for the vespa and for its rider was that the road was corrugated due to the lack of rain and the hundreds of vehicles passing-by. The GPS proved useful because the road he had to take to Lake Colorada was more of “tracks on dirt” than of a dirt road. Trying to find his way without any help from the GPS, he somehow found himself at the exact place that he was happy he had avoided: at more than 5000m above sea level, next to the entrance of the mine where the customs office used to be! After he decided to be more careful, he soon reached the Lake Colorada and went to one of the shelters of the area. Having no idea about the exact location and number of all the shelters of Lake Colorada, he looked for me in 2-3 of them, but with no luck. He dined with the pleasant company of a small group of other visitors and went to sleep in a quiet dormitory, under many blankets.
The next morning – before sunrise – I woke up, got ready and impatiently waited to leave the shelter. While waiting, I took a walk around, saw some sleepy alpacas and admired the sunrise above the lake! The rest of the group were still sleeping and only after Emeterio, our guide, woke them up they started packing and yawning. After having our breakfast, we got on the 4×4 and continued our trip. I was happy and curious about what we were about to see, but the rest of the group were suffering from an awful hangover and the phrase that came to my mind but never left my mouth was: “I told you so!”. However, I kinda liked them in the end, so I won’t say anything else about them…The day passed with more lakes, more flamingos, more volcanoes, more vicuňas. Not even for a minute did I get bored, it was amazing! We admired the less famous Laguna Negra (Black Lake) and its dangerous, due to acids, waters. We took some pictures of the “Arbol de Piedra” (stone tree) and of other less popular rock formations but the most(!?) interesting part of that day was when we saw another celebrity of the region: a dusted long-bearded guy on a poor vespa! Yep, it was Stergios, who was covered in dust but continuing with no problems! I was screaming from the back seat of the 4×4, but he couldn’t listen. Only when Emeterio overtook him and I was hanging almost out of the car, did he realize that it wasn’t some tourists screaming and laughing, but it was me! At last, he stopped!
After the tears of joy dried and the necessary explanations about where the hell I was the previous night were given, our roads split again. Stergios would follow another route with more lakes and more flamingos, but I was not worrying anymore: all the visitors of the region were talking about the bearded guy on the small scooter, so I could easily track him down! From what he told me later, we was enjoying the astonished looks of the passers-by every time they saw the tiny vespa next to the huge vehicles – those which were supposed to be the only ones that could cross the area…
He also woke up very early in the morning and got ready to hit the road again. Too bad he didn’t have some instant coffee with him, because after some minutes his cup of water had frozen and he could have enjoyed a cup of iced coffee – his favorite back in Greece! The corrugation of the road around Lake Colorada was deeper and more annoying and Stergios was sure that something would get loose and fall off the vespa! After we met on the road, he chose to go towards the Lakes Honda and Hendionda – the most difficult part, as we had been told. We had chosen another route which combined the 2 usual itineraries of most of the travel agencies. The 6 of us were a combination of 2 different agencies that had different plans, so our guide chose to improvise a bit. After some serious consideration, we concluded that there was no chance of meeting Stergios anywhere else than in Uyuni.
The Lakes Honda and Hendionda offered Stergios – apart from magical views – some more private meetings with the local fauna: Some tens on flamingos danced in harmony on the surface of the lake only for him, some vicuñas were grazing almost next to his tent and a little fox got so close to him that he considered taking it with him as a pet! The night he spent there, was a unique experience! He decided to pitch the tent a bit further from the Lake Honda. The shelter that was close to the place, was a bit expensive, but that wasn’t the reason he spent the night in the tent. No shelter can be compared to a night in such a scenery! The wind was strong and freezing and he had to gather stones and put them above the tent-poles. When we finally met in Uyuni and showed me his hands which had been bleeding due to the harsh cold, I realized that things up there, aren’t that easy! Moreover, he woke up from the freezing cold several times during the night, despite wearing all his clothes and being wrapped up in the sleeping-bag.
Meanwhile, our little group were in warmer conditions. We had reached the small village of Villa Candelaria and we were already in the hostel where we would spend the night. The hostel was made of salt! Pure white salt from the nearby Salar de Uyuni! The famous salty desert of Bolivia which we were planning to visit the next day. Our salty hostel wasn’t the only one in the area, but for us it was unique. Even our beds were made of salt. And while we were thinking that we would freeze again, the landlady lit a fire in the fireplace and served hot soup. We had our dinner and quickly went to bed because we had to be ready to go before sunrise. The idea was to admire the sunrise in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni.
Being in the Salar de Uyuni is one trully unique experience. We had forgotten about our early waking and the only thing that mattered at that point was the magnificence of the scenery! The ultimate blue and the ultimate white were playing games with our senses and we had to keep our eyes wide open to realize that this was something real! After our first 40-50 minutes in the Salar, we reached the Incahuasi Island. A place that every cactus lover has to visit. Cacti everywhere on the island and around it, the pure whiteness of the salt! I kept myself from being utterly dazed by the Salar because I had promised Stergios that we would visit it together on our vespa. It would surely be even more interesting this way and not with a 4×4 full with strangers…Now, that I mentioned it, where was Stergios?!
Stergios, woke up and when the sun started to warm the area, he packed the tent and left with direction towards the small town of Uyuni. We had a date there! We didn’t know if and when he would make it through the region with the Lakes (the stories we had heard were terrifying), so we had agreed to meet in a specific hostel in Uyuni. His day didn’t hide any surprises. After some relatively difficult kilometers on bad dirt roads, he reached the central road to Uyuni which in spite of not being tarred, was in good condition. Early in the afternoon, I had said farewell to my travel companions and to our kind guide and I was looking for the hostel. Instead of the hostel, I found Stergios who was also looking for it. We decided to spend some days in Uyuni which was the first populated place we saw in Bolivia. We ended up staying there for 3 weeks and unfortunately not for pleasant reasons…
The small town wasn’t a beautiful one, but after so much time we spent there, we started liking it. Additionally to this, it was the first Bolivian town we saw, so there were many things which attracted our attention: its central marketplace where one can find almost anything, from vegetables and meat, to packed goods, flowers, cooked lunch etc was the first place we visited. Also, without knowing it, we were in Uyuni during the month of the annual celebrations for the town’s anniversary! Everyday, we could listen to the army’s band practicing and on the 11th of July, we attended the parade – schools-colleges-sports teams-unions…everyone took part in the parade! What else?! – During Sunday evenings there were fairs organized in the square, where one could play in the lottery or practice in an open-air karaoke or eat a freshly cooked dinner or win a huge and weirdly ugly teddy-bear…However, our daily highlight was eating in the local “parrilladas” different kinds of barbequed meat (my favorite one was llama-ribs). The people of Uyuni were friendly and nice and Bolivia was a cheap country – especially for us who had previously been in Chile (San Pedro de Atacama), where everything was expensive.
The quite affordable prices was one of the reasons that kept us there for that long…or better, the results of the aforementioned quite affordable prices (we hadn’t adjusted to the hygiene rules of the place yet…hence the food poisoning-s!). Not only this, but also the freezing cold and the lack of any means of heating in the hostel made me suffer from a cold, topped with some fever and a sore-throat. Stergios was not that lucky either: his back hurt and he needed 2 days before he could walk properly again. The infection I had for almost 10 days added some more time in our stay in Uyuni. These problems were not enough to make us hate the place, we were full of impatience to see more of this country which had impressed us! So, we went to the immigration office of Uyuni to extend our tourist visas. There, in order to do it, the officer asked us 20BOB, which was not written anywhere we had read. This money probably ended up in his pockets, but we couldn’t do anything about it…
One day, while I was still in bed suffering from something I can’t longer remember, Stergios went out to do some shopping. Instead of bringing home the grocery, he brought another traveler. It was Luca (ilgirodelmondoa80allora.com), the Italian guy who was also traveling around the world on his vespa (a TS 125)! What a coincidence! The next 2 days passed with vespa-talks, vespa-walks and vespa-photos! It’s really nice to meet other travelers with whom you have so many thing in common. I don’t mean only the fact that he was also a vespa-guy, but also, that we could agree in many things about life, travel etc…Unfortunately, we had to stay in Uyuni and Luca had to continue north. He had a deadline and in some months he had to be back to Italy. We are sure that we’ll meet again sometime.
After 3 weeks, 2-3 food poisonings, a hurt back, an infection, a cold, countless llama-ribs, some liters of beer, a collection of photo-portraits of Bolivians…we left the town to visit the Salar at last! I had an idea of what we were about to see, because we had a quick pass through the Salar on the 4×4, but it is completely different being in a closed vehicle with a bunch of strangers and being on the little vespa only with your co-traveler! The plan was to spend the night in our tent somewhere in the Salar and I was a bit worried about the cold. We decided to stay next to the “Isla del Pescado” which is some kilometers away from the more popular, “Isla Incahuasi” where all the groups with the 4x4s go.
From the first kilometers on the endless white flat area, we were left speechless, but the night that followed was something to remember for a lifetime! Every small detail was in favor of us, making the experience unforgettable: the cold wasn’t that harsh, the wind wasn’t strong at all, the moon retreated to allow the millions of stars to make an appearance and additionally to all these, the last travelers who had stayed there, had left some wood and stones to make a fire! What else to ask for?! The pictures we took that night are only a small example of the breathtaking beauty of the place. The next morning, we couldn’t resist temptation: we packed our things and went somewhere in the middle of the Salar to play some photographic perspective games with us and the vespa. It may be something not that original, but it’s really fun!
Although we liked the Salar so much, we decided not to spend more time there and we left for Potosi. During the last month, the general strike in Potosi was in the news and in every newspaper cover. Demonstrations, roadblocks, police and violence…We were sure that we would be able to cross the roadblocks and continue. Who could say ‘no’ to a couple of dusted travelers on a poor vespa?!
* Most of the stories we had heard, proved to be ridiculously exaggerated and some others close to the reality we faced. Here is a post, where we are presenting the “myths and realities” of the specific route.