Our final morning on the long road south between Bolivia and Chile, we awoke at 4:30am to make the geysers by sunrise and Aguas Termales hot springs by breakfast. The kindness and tech-savvy of our driver, Edgar, allowed us to plug in iPods to the speaker system and create a crowd sourced soundtrack to our travels…
We alternated between The Avett Brothers, Mika, Josh Garrels and more as the sights melted into the rear view mirror, and we tried to forget the difficult night behind us.
Our accommodations had again been incredibly rustic dorm beds: mattresses supported by stacks of cardboard in a structure with no running water and no electrical outlets. We could live with the spare surroundings; what we couldn’t bear to think about were the cries in the middle of the night.
A humble family lived at the outpost inside the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve at Laguna Colorada. From what we could tell, two younger girls helped run the small tienda, selling beer and batteries, toilet paper and one-hour increments of time at the electronics-charging station. Their sad eyes gave over a sorrow behind their smiles.
What a life. Strangers passing through every night. Most of them complaining about filth and lack of flushing toilets and dead cameras. Most of them purchasing alcohol at high markups from the little store, drinking their way through another evening on the traveler’s rough trail. To live there year after year, taking money and giving smiles to strangers in the very middle of nowhere…what must that be like?
Our driver prepared the evening meal, then disappeared to his separate accommodations.
About 2am, we stirred from our sleep; a crying woman’s voice carried through the air. Speculations. Whispers in the dark between the six of us sharing the dorm. Worries of ghosts and a few nervous giggles turned into alarm once Roderigo went to explore and found our front door open and the shadow of a woman in the building with us.
It’s all very hazy after that. A man’s voice. More crying. Ted and Roderigo went back, this time to the door that the woman was now behind, and asked her what was wrong. Silence. And then a forced answer that nothing was the matter. It wasn’t a cry of brutality or injury, but it was a cry of pain and sorrow. She didn’t stop the muffled sobs for hours…
The next morning, we noticed one of the other jeep drivers emerge from her room. We’d noticed him the night before; a rude and pushy guide. She scurried quickly away in the pre-dawn shadows, avoiding all eye contact.
When Edgar arrived, we asked for an explanation, for he was certainly familiar with the typical operations of the establishment. No helpful answer was given.
Such a pit in the stomach.
Prayers and questions and anger: What can be done?
This poverty and tourism combination must have a better solution.
We rode in silence.
Letting the music fill the void.
Day broke at 15,649 feet. The geysers stood taller than Pikes Peak, way taller than Mt. Hood, taller than the highest passes on the Inca Trail. Thankfully, we weren’t starved for air this time around…
You have to wonder: after days without proper showers and hundreds of kilometers spent squished next to fellow travelers, which is worse? A hot pool of human stew, or smelling yourself until you reach the next country? Ted chose the stew. I chose to wait. Secretly though, I should’ve just hopped in… Who’s the clean-freak, now?
Racing toward the border…
One last photo stop with the crew before saying farewell to Edgar and the 4×4.
Passing through the Bolivian exit office (successfully avoiding the scam exit fee!), and taking a bus across the border into neighboring Northern Chile.
And just like that, stepping across an invisible line through the middle of the desolate South American altiplano, we left the land of crazy bus drivers and questionable toilets and entered a country offering roadsigns and polite traffic and comfortable bathrooms in exchange for our open wallets.
We ended the day in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Imagine being trapped on a wild west movie set… No, scratch that. Imagine being trapped in a Northern Chilean city built around courting tourists for their pesos. Every desert adventure excursion imaginable and then some. Lodging prices double, triple even what might be found in neighboring cities. Whitewashed walls and matching street signs, beautiful restaurant menus and homemade ice cream sporting flavors made from local sagebrush. A money shock, to be sure. Worse: all three (yes, all and only) of the city’s ATMs were completely out of cash, and all busses leaving for Salta, Argentina (the next location for most travelers passing through) were booked full for days on end. The city felt like a giant cage, and the streets teemed with budget travelers looking dazed and confused and wealthy wanderers irritated with the banks.
The street animals may have had the best approach for dealing with the circumstances.
In all, our tour accomplished what we asked of it: a visit to the Salar de Uyuni, and transportation across the border. We took in amazing sights along the way and struck gold with our traveling companions.
According to our guide, Edgar, changes over the past two decades have increased travel on the Bolivia > Chile tourist route from 3-4 jeeps a week to 12-15 a day, and sometimes up to 50 cars, too, depending on the season. He has driven the route since 1993, from age 18 to age 37, averaging two trips a week for a total of something like 1,976 and counting… Thankfully for us, he took his job seriously and gave his well-practiced routine.
The safety, the comfort, the shady dealings in the background are chalked up the “Best of the Worst” rating we gave our tour company. By comparison to outside standards, it was certainly sub-par; by comparison to observation and stories from travelers we met along the way, our experience seemed far better than average.
It’s difficult to not become jaded and pass judgment on the industry; then again, it’s difficult to know and admit that our dollars fuel the broken system.
How do we see the sights, admire the beauty of majestic places on the globe, advocate for their protection, and seek to see communities improved through fair wages, dignity, and respect?
We wonder out loud, while the music plays on…
This concludes the four post blog journey following our tire tracks south from La Paz, Bolivia by overnight bus to Uyuni and then onward via 4×4 through cemeteries, salt flats, volcanoes and lakes, through lands of geysers and hot springs and high elevation passes, and finally past the Chilean border and into the Atacama desert.
For related posts in this series, see: