Out of the wilderness
La Paz: After being turned away yet again by our bus company, which at 8 pm cancels our bus and tells us to come back in the morning at 8 am, I lose my temper. Other buses are leaving, I point out. We’ve been waiting here for days and we’ve checked out of our room now, I plead, in vain. We trundle back to our hostel, rebook our dark room and wait another night.
Morning arrives and with little expectation we return to the bus office. Things are looking good: an expectant crowd with bags is huddled around one of the best-looking buses we’ve seen in Bolivia; tickets are being inspected; and best of all, someone is administering gasoline to a generator outside the bus office – the bus has brought fuel with it. Soon, lights are on and the passengers are talking to each other in the over-friendly, slightly hysterical tones of people who have survived some sort of ordeal together and are about to embark on another.
Within the hour, we are on our way, leaving the dust, grey and desolation of Uyuni, bound for the bright lights and imagined comforts of the capital, La Paz. The journey is supposed to take 10 hours, but we’ve already been informed that our diversion route to avoid the blockades will stretch it to 13 or 14 hours, but nobody cares – we’re glad to be on our way.
Our changed route takes us back across the salar, treating us to a second look at the incredible ocean of salt that fills the southwest corner of Bolivia. We drive slowly in the tracks made by other vehicles in the blank emptiness of white that stretches to the horizon on either side. We are an hour or so into our journey, when the bus pulls to a stop in the middle of the barren plain. From the windows we see the unbelievable sight of people running towards us holding suitcases. Where did they come from? It’s as surreal as if they had been dropped from a spaceship.
We wait on the bus for many minutes while the men, women and children gradually grow in size until they are at the door of our bus, hurrying on and gasping thanks. The bus moves on and we question our new companions.
They tell us that they set off last night across the salar as passengers in a caravan of six buses, but every one got stuck in the salt by 9 pm, falling into the ‘eyes’ of the salar – patches where water rises to near the surface. They spent the night there in the freezing conditions.
We drive on, sombrely. After another hour, we exit the salar and climb the dirt tracks used by llama herders into the mountains. The scenery is stunning, but it’s a slow, tense journey, hoping that we don’t burst a tyre on the perilous rocky paths.
Luck and the careful driver are on our side, though, and after 10 hours on the road, we stop in the cold miners’ city of Oruro, whose name means ‘where the sun is born’. We eat our first meal since the night before, gulping down chicken and rice greedily. This is President Evo Morales’s province, an indigenous region that’s home to South America’s most ancient tribe, the Chipaya people, who are thought to be descended from the Tiwanaku civilization. Chipayas speak a language related to Arabic, live in beehive-shaped stone houses and keep ancient traditions. But they are being wiped out by climate change as the rivers on which they depend dry up and their communities dissipate, migrating to cities.
We pass the amusingly named Lake Poopó (Nick maintains that Lake Titicaca has a funnier name) and the landscape flattens out and becomes slightly greener – I even spot a few cows grazing.
It’s midnight by the time we reach the twinkling slopes of La Paz, stand gratefully under a hot shower and crawl happily into bed.
This evening, we met a Dutch girl who had left Uyuni on a bus the night before we did, got trapped in the salar and spent 36 hours awaiting rescue. We heard tales of people who toured the salar in jeeps that ran out of fuel and from others who got stuck crossing icy rivers on their tours. Last year, 17 people died on the salar. We feel lucky.