Tags: backpacking, bolivia, cementerio de los trenes, high altitude, latin america, salar de uyuni, south america, southwestern bolivia, sucre, train cemetery, travel videography, travel writing, uyuni
I’ve finished the first video on Bolivia, featuring the first two days of footage of the trip through the southwestern part of the country. Take a look at it here:
Leaf through a Lonely Planet published in the last few years and when you make your way to Bolivia, you’ll probably come across the town of Uyuni sooner or later. Check into hostels and activities, and eventually you’re gonna realize that you need to eat too. And there, at the top of the list, is where you’ll find Minuteman Pizza, an unlikely gastronomic delight in a random high altitude speck in the world. All things considered, it’s a major find.
Though you might want to focus on the typical food while in Bolivia, once you get to Uyuni you’ll probably be craving something that doesn’t make your stomach churn, or at the very least reminds you of familiar food that you can rely on. And Minuteman is just the place for a fix up of good food. But still, it’s not just food that suffices in a harsh environment, and it’s really good.
After our tour of southwestern Bolivia ended with the icing on the cake, the Salar de Uyuni, the girls from the tour and I were looking for a decent meal to cap off the excursion and have a nice goodbye. Alex, Faye and I were heading to Sucre in the morning, but Erica was leaving at midnight on the train to Oruro, so using the Lonely Planet’s advice (often times way off, by the way), we wandered into Minuteman, which was recommended for having good pizza. I thought that maybe the guy who owned the place had at one point visited the Boston area, because that name is specific to my hometown. You see, during the American Revolution, regular Joe’s would be sitting around a tavern drinking a beer. Suddenly a church bell would ring out, and within a minute they were on their feet with muskets in hand, ready to fight the British. Hence, Minuteman, which is also the mascot of UMass Amherst, my alma matter.
My ideas of a Bolivia with knowledge of Boston were thrown for a loop, however, when I walked in and saw the Red Sox flag on the wall. I heard the guy behind the counter talking with another American and though I couldn’t spot his accent immediately, knew that the owner was from the States. Suddenly I heard it: “I’m from Amherst, Massachusetts.” Of course, it all made sense. The flag, the name, but how on earth did this guy get to Uyuni, Bolivia to open a pizzeria? Was he a tourist who fell in love and stayed behind?
I waited for my turn to speak and then eagerly went up to introduce myself and say I was from the Boston area as well and had gone to UMass. With a big grin, he shook my hand and introduced himself as Chris Sarage, saying welcome to Uyuni. We chatted it up and it turns out he used to be a manager for the (world) famous Antonio’s By the Slice pizzeria in the center of Amherst. Antonio’s had been a highlight of my four years in college, and the fact that I was talking to a living legend who helped set it up and create my favorite slice, the chicken bacon ranch, was a total shock. Like the salt flats, I felt as if it was some kind of illusion.
Chris told me the interesting story behind Antonio’s and the food industry in Amherst, and told me how he met his wife, from Bolivia, while serving her a slice in Antonio’s. Eventually in 1998 they moved back to Bolivia, first to La Paz, where Chris found the pizza to be lackluster. All the Bolivians ever wanted was a Hawaiian pizza, and though he swore he’d never make one, he eventually added it to a rather long list of topping filled and appetite stifling ‘za.
So much of a restaurant also has to do with its onda, or atmosphere. Minuteman Pizzeria has buena onda, or in other words, good vibes. Though it was mostly filled with tourists, it felt like a branch of the South American Explorer’s Clubhouse, a place where weary travelers could unwind comfortably and safely and share stories. Good music playing in the background, appropriate lighting, and a location across from the train station (ideal if you have to catch a train out and need a place to kill time) completed the experience. It was also one of two places I went to in Bolivia that actually had toilet paper in the bathroom, in addition to humorous survival guides on the wall.
The restaurant was a bit more expensive than the other places in town where you’d get a typical meal, but sometimes you need to splurge when you’re on vacation. And when you do the math, it’s fairly cheap as it is. Take a load off and get a cappuccino or a slice of death by chocolate with ice cream on top, because it might be your last chance while you’re in Bolivia.
Sometimes you make your home where you are, and other times you create a new one. Chris Sarage has helped to bring a little slice of home back to those on an adventure of a lifetime, and for that, I’ll raise my pizza in the air in salute and say, “¡Buen provecho!” Bon appétit.
Address: Av. Ferroviaria 60 (in front of the train station and military base)
The Salar de Uyuni might be off the radar for many travelers, but then again, Bolivia is off the radar to many travelers as it is. The giant salt flats in southwestern Bolivia are a virtual wasteland which inspires imagination in even the most jaded of journeymen. Those who have heard of it or even seen the pictures hold it up on a pillar as one of those fabled places worth visiting before dying, and might even consider it to be one of the natural wonders which, once having experienced, gives you the right to carry a certain pop in your step.
If you’ve seen the pictures, then you know what I’m talking about: the conga line of friends walking into a can, a perfectly timed jump over a white desert and clear sky, or the aspect games in which one person is huge and another is tiny. These are the traditional and touristic photos that all must demote themselves to, for in reality, the only thing to do in the salt flats is take pictures.
As fun as it might seem, the act of taking the pictures is much less enjoyable than the end result. The smiles on our faces is a bit of false advertising, because as we spent the better part of an hour struggling to figure out exactly how to get the pictures to come out correctly, we realized that sometimes you have to work hard for a simple photo. At first we had zero success and tension was building. Blame the camera or blame the photographer, but it sometimes comes down to the fact that it’s hard to take the perfect shot. We eventually enlisted the help of our driver, Gonzalo, who has become a seasoned expert after so many trips through the desert with tourists wanting the same thing.
We began with a walk into a Pringles can. Easy enough, right? Next up was a bigger challenge. I was to kneel down and hold my arms up so that the girls could appear as small objects resting on my hands and head. I had the hardest part because I needed to keep a firm position bent down with my arms up while Gonzalo ordered the girls to move forward, backward, closer, farther, etc.
The idea that these pictures come out perfectly is almost impossible. At the time we wondered how people do it, yet later on we checked other photos and realized that by looking closely you can always notice something a little off. After all, it’s not Adobe Photoshop that you’re working with. It’s simply white salt as far as the eye can see, clashing with bright blue sky, creating a natural sort of green screen. When water covers the salt you see perfect mirror images, and as the sun rises the desert gets brighter and more powerful.
For that reason, you get there before dawn (on a good tour) and watch the sun rise. It’s a bitterly cold experience, and it seems like the sun is lazily getting out of bed and taking it’s time. The effects of the cold and slushy salt made me think of February in Boston, and if you hadn’t told me it was a salt flat, I would have assumed that it was snow. Little mounds set up to drain water rested in front of the famed Salt Hotel, where you’re not supposed to go to the bathroom, but paying for it can get you in to the facilities.
Once the sun has risen slightly the temperature jumps up, explained by the Salar’s high altitude (3,656 meters/11,995 feet above sea level). This area, which contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves, becomes a hot pan by midday, though you’ll still most likely remain in warmer clothing for most of your experience there, the wind remaining a factor. Even in the beginning of the dry season, your 4×4 will likely have to ford through flooded parts of the area, and in the wet season you’ll be able to witness one of the largest mirrors on earth. (The water recedes six inches a day in dry season).
So besides these things to see, a tourist going to the Salar is most likely to go picture crazy. There isn’t a ton else to do. But it’s the highlight of a tour which for me was the culmination of 3 nights and 4 days of roughing it through the Bolivian Altiplano. To be in a place so different and unique that I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere else like it, it made it all worth the trouble. You take pictures that will eventually create hundreds of words as you try to explain what the otherworldly place is like.
As we sped past the convoy of other 4x4s on the narrow dirt road, the three girls and I began to look at each other nervously and joke around that we were about to die. To each side of the road was a sharp drop into jagged rocks, and at the speed we were going, no seat belt would ever do any good. I was warned the night earlier at the hostel to be careful with the drivers by two Israelis. Apparently just a couple of weeks before three other Israelis had died when their trucks rolled over on a tour.
“Is it really necessary to pass the other cars?” I yelled to our driver Gonzalo from the back of the Toyota Highlander.
“Yes,” is all he replied, continuing to take hairpin turns with the grace of a rally driver who had grown up in these parts.
We held our breaths and hoped for the best, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was rested assure that he was too busy chewing coca to be on a suicide mission, and that if he was speeding it was because he generally thought he needed to. Fast forward to the end of the day and we realized that with no refuge reservations, the first trucks into town had dibs on lodging, so in essence, yes, he had to speed up to beat everyone else. Even after taking the lead from dead last out of Tupiza, we pushed on ahead of the group and had to wait around for our wingman truck. You always go out in groups of at least two for safety, because you’ll probably encounter some kind of trouble along the way.
Let’s get cliche for just a moment: I don’t know what was more breathtaking, the scenery or the altitude. The first time we passed a snow capped volcano we stared at it with wonder and admiration. Naively, a couple of us tried to snap photos from the rapidly moving truck, thinking we would have no better opportunity to steal a memory. But we were foolish for thinking that. Soon volcanoes popped up on all sides, and neither the right nor left flanks were clear. Giants lurked with soft and inviting tones. I thought of a number of things, but rarely considered the extreme altitude we faced. It was partly because the numbers I was given were in meters, rather than feet.
Looking back on it, we passed through heights of over 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level on average. Because I had lived at high altitude in Ecuador and am a young runner, I assumed that I was impervious to the affects of altitude sickness. Yet the places where I lived in Ecuador (Quito, 2,800 meters/9,200 feet; Cuenca, 2,500 meters/8,360 feet) were much lower in comparison, and I was not well acclimated. One of our highest elevations was over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On the first night we stayed in a bare bones refuge in San Antonio de Lípez (4,200 meters above sea level). It was there where the effects of high altitude got the worst of me.
After settling in we had a nice dinner under two dim light bulbs. There was no heating, though we were given three blankets each (and I rented a sleeping bag), and one bathroom for about 15 people to share. As usual in Bolivia, no toilet paper was provided. After our dinner we walked into the frigid night for just a few minutes to catch the millions of stars in the sky. With no light pollution, we could easily see the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, etc. With a 4:30 am wake up time, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. Yet once I lay in the bed resting on a stone frame, I was unable to breath.
I tossed and turned all night, struggling for freedom in the tight North Face sleeping bag. On my side I could feel my heart beating double time, as if I had just been running for a long time. Deep and drawn out breaths brought me nothing, and I felt as if I were drowning. It was a horrible feeling, to reach back as far as I could and still have no air to breath. Throughout the night I could hear the girls in the room also struggling to breath, and a look at the travel alarm clock showed me that it was only 1:30 am. There were moments were if I didn’t mentally think to myself, “breath in, breath out”, then I was suddenly gasping for air as if I had been holding it without noticing.
By the time the alarm went off my mouth was as dry as sand paper. I sat up in bed and felt what must be the sensation during a migraine, because it was the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. While the others ate a breakfast of tea and bread I rocked forward feeling like vomiting, and after finishing my coca tea excused myself. I never came to the point of vomiting, and once I took some ibuprofen I felt better, but the uneasiness stayed until the sun rose. On the second night, staying at even higher altitude, the effects continued, though by this point I had at least gotten somewhat more used to it. And by the third night of the excursion I felt slightly normal.
You see, that’s the thing about Bolivia. It can knock you out and push you around, but still leave you wanting more. You get sick from the altitude, the food, the water, whatever else might be out there trying to kill you, and you selfishly keep coming back for more. Those monster mountains on each side of the truck call to you, and at the end of the day, it’s worth a few deep breaths.