This is the story of my journey to Uyuni, Bolivia.
Act 1: The bus ride to Uyuni
There are some moments when you backpack… You have planned it all quite well, globally. You know where you are going and how and why. But sometimes, some local conditions subtleties just escaped you.
I was happy, in that bus terminal of Oruro, Bolivia. First of all, happy to leave Oruro which I found was a really ugly and uninteresting city – no offense, that’s just my opinion. But above all, happy because I was soon going to reach Uyuni! Uyuni is the Holy Grail, the Mecca of any traveler in Bolivia. It’s easily understandable when you know that there lies the largest salt flat in the world.
That’s when I started to see this abnormal amount of blankets around that I got a little worried. Each and every passenger or family was holding at least one, looking at me quite amused while waiting for the bus to be ready.
I approached a lady who was among the most amused ones and asked what is going on in here. As I was listening in awe to the lady explaining me that the buses does not have any heating system (Oh. My. Gosh.), the signal was given for all passengers to board the bus.
I was sitting next to a man who, like everybody but me, had planned ahead to bring his thick blanket. You have to realize that this is the Altiplano and this is August. The Altiplano means an immense, desert and desolated plateau in high altitude. August means freezing cold at night.
The first couple of hours went fine, just a normal old-Bolivian-bus ride. But as my bus was plunging into total darkness, what had to happen happened, I got cold. Really cold. My window got covered with a layer of ice and I was starting to wonder how on earth I will be able to withstand such conditions for many hours until we arrive. Luckily the Bolivians are generous people and the man next to me shared his blanket with me.
Act 2: The Arrival in Uyuni
The 8 or 10 hour ride in my wheeled freezer had ended. I was in Uyuni! As I stepped down the bus, I felt totally wrapped up by the bitter cold. Being from France, I had known some very low temperatures before, but this was of another level. It was very probably around -20°C (-4°F). You feel the cold penetrate your body as you breathe in, and you feel it attack the skin of your face. Even if you couldn’t sleep for a single second on the bus, don’t worry, you will be very awake when you arrive.
As another passenger told me, the transportation to this city is not great; it seems that no matter what bus you take, you always arrive in the middle of the night!
Uyuni is a bit of a ghost town lost in the immensity of the Altiplano. Already during the day it is very gray and quiet, getting most of its life from its small market and of course tourism activities. But at night, there is almost no light, all hotels are closed. Everything is closed. There is no one in the street – of course, there is nothing to do anyway and it’s freezing cold.
I had a couple of hours to kill before the sunrise. I started wandering like a homeless in the dark and empty streets of Uyuni, frozen by the night. I was desperately trying to find an open door, any door would do! All the people in the bus had disappeared already, mostly locals who knew where to go.
I have known more serene moments. Being in an empty and town of Bolivia, in the middle of the night, carrying a heavy backpack on your shoulder plus a smaller backpack at hand (with all my electronic stuff in it), at 3660 m (12,000 ft) of altitude, -20°C (-4°F), is not exactly something that feels great.
Everthing was closed. I was hoping to find some higher standard hotel with a 24 hour reception or something… Nothing. 99.9% of the time, I have never booked any hotel when backpacking in Latin America. I have always found one on the spot. But I hadn’t planned to arrived here in the middle of the night, my bus actually took more time than expected to arrive.
Act 3: The Encounter(s)
Keeping up with my wandering, I suddenly ran into a young man. That’s an absolute nightmare situation. In Latin America, I have learnt to be very careful and very suspicious. Some crazy things happen to many people, tourists included (or particularly to tourists…) and being alone with a young man in a dark street of Bolivia was quite… stressful. He could do anything to me, no one would ever know. He was clearly drunk. He told me that he just got out of a party with friends. I was hoping to get rid of him quickly, but since I have a very friendly face, he started to chat with me and follow me everywhere.
I soon realized that he was harmless, just a drunk guy in his 20’s who felt like chatting. So I just chatted casually with him to be nice, while I was still searching for a damn open door. Of course, he didn’t know of any open door around. And he found that very funny. I had been walking for a while now, with my heavy backpack on the shoulders, and my other backpack at hand. I hadn’t slept at all since the night before and I was exhausted.
All of a sudden, the noise of an engine disturbed the total silence of the night. A taxi was coming towards us. I didn’t pay too much attention to it, chatting with my drunken buddy. I suddenly felt my hand held backpack being pulled away: a guy was almost halfway out of the taxi car window, and had grabbed my backpack! Bad luck for him, the bag was very heavy. Inside were my laptop, two cameras and their accessories. I could NOT afford to let that bag go. He didn’t manage to get it, he dropped it.
A little shocked, I just quickly resumed my walk, holding my backpack tight. Thinking the taxi went away anyway… Until I heard my new buddy scream “Corra!!” (“Run!!”). He had spotted the guy who tried to rob me, he had actually come out of the car to come after me! I had absolutely not noticed. If he hadn’t told me, who knows what this guy could have done to me. He would have robbed my bag, but he could have also forced me in his car, forced me to empty my bank account for them, he could have sent me to the hospital… Such things do happen.
We started to run together like crazy. The weight of my bags, the cold, the altitude, the lack of sleep, none of that mattered anymore. I had never run so fast. After a while we stopped running and realized that our assailant had given up and was gone. Soon after, another taxi came and stopped by. He proposed me to help me find a hotel. The sun would rise soon and doors would start to open. Still shocked by what I had just lived, I found the courage to get in that car. That’s where I said good bye to my new friend. The taxi finally took me to the hall of a hotel that had just opened its doors.
I am not a religious person but sometimes really… It’s like that young guy was sent there to protect me. I have lived a few stressful situations during my travels, and I have always been lucky. Nothing really bad has ever happened to me so far. I believe it is the result of my very careful lifestyle when I travel, but there is some luck involved too for sure!