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That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert – Scorpions, Car Chases and Angry Italians

Whether you’re considering a trip to the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, or you’re a regular reader who enjoys laughing at my misfortune, this post is for you. If you’re not the laughing type, click here to skip to part 2 (I have never met someone who is not the “laughing type”, but this trip taught me to prepare for all possible evils).

Here goes.

On Christmas 2016, I was dumped in the middle of the desert by a bus company.

Allow me to provide some context. 48 hours before I opened my eyes in the desert, I woke up in a shed in La Paz.

Now, you probably have a few questions already.

“Why did you wake up in a shed?”. Well, my friends. On occasion, I make poor judgements when booking rooms on the internet. I paid for a room in a house and ended up in a shed. Good times.

To throw in a sprinkle of discomfort, La Paz is the highest city in the world. I was already suffering from altitude sickness when I arrived (and awful asthma), so I decided to let this false advertisement slide and sleep through my stay. Don’t expect any accommodation tips in this post.

La Paz, Bolivia

On a positive note, I was lucky to be alive. Bolivia is infamous for its dangerous roads. And by that, I mean complete lack of. If you don’t trust the bus driver, don’t step on board because you will need to trust him or her with your life. The one time I felt brave enough to look down on my bus journey to La Paz, I saw a mere inch or two of room between the wheel and the cliff’s edge. I nearly peed myself.

Anyway. After a day of huffing and puffing up and down the hills of La Paz, I decided to say ciao to the shed life. What better way to do so than to cross another thing off my bucket list? I decided to head south to the salt flats.

If you’ve never heard of the Bolivian salt flats, or “Salar de Uyuni”, these are the biggest salt flats on the planet. They are a wonder of the natural world, but getting there can be a logistical nightmare. Especially if your name is Amber.

La Paz to Salar de Uyuni

On the way to the bus station, my taxi driver raced up and down the rocky hills so aggressively that he punctured his tire. But did that stop him? No, it did not. He flew through La Paz like an injured gazelle on wheels.

But I was more surprised to see tears in his eyes. I paid him triple because a) he had punctured his tire and b) he bloody well deserved it. La Paz is a very poor city and I would recommend sparing some cash here. Five bucks might be nothing to you, but it will feed someone else’s family. Imagine what twenty would do!

Okay, seriousness over. When I entered the ‘Todo Turismo’ office I was faced with another problem. The manager announced that there were strikes in the desert. That’s right, people were on strike in the desert. Something to do with housing permissions.

The strikers were putting up barricades which might force us to stop a few kilometres before Uyuni – a small, dusty town which acts as a jumping-off point for the Salt Flats tours. The manager asked us to sign something before stepping onboard.

But what’s a couple of extra kilometres in the desert? Nada mate.

I signed the paper, got on the bus, had my dinner and fell asleep.

Everybody lies

I woke up as the bus came to a halt. Everyone was looking around. I checked the clock: 7 am.

Right now, you’re probably wondering how far out I was. A kilometre or two?

I hate to break it to you, innocent reader, but we were about ten miles from Uyuni.

“They lied!”, you’re thinking. Well, yes. Everybody lies.

It’s important to mention here that this bus was full of tourists. Bolivians would not have kicked off. But Brits, Spaniards, Americans and Australians don’t like bumps in their vacation. Everybody got off the bus and began yelling at the bus driver.

Apparently, the strikers had put more barricades up, and he would not drive through because they would throw rocks at the bus. He did, however, say that they would call our tour companies to get us picked up in the afternoon. But what about the people – myself included – who had not pre-booked a tour? We were absolutely forked.

In desperation, I asked the driver to call a taxi from somewhere. Those of us left over would pay the fee, given the situation. Nope. He mumbled and walked off. But unlike him, I had no food or water left. Considering I was in the driest place on Earth, this was not ideal.

I had to make a decision. I could:
a) Stay, watch the bus drive off, watch the others get picked up, and cry.
b) Start walking.
c) Cry.

I commenced plan B.

That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert

I explained to the others that no one was coming for me. To my surprise, I was followed by three other Europeans! Woo friends.

The desert was getting hotter with every step. The girls pulled their backpack covers over their heads. I regretted not buying one. When we passed the first barricade, we couldn’t believe that it was just four men and a burning tire. All of this for these posers?!

Funnily enough, after a mile or so, we saw a coach coming towards us. We couldn’t believe it! How did this guy get through the barricades? European guy ran over to the coach and asked him to give us a ride in the other direction. He agreed! Our saviour! Almost.

Suddenly a group of protestors ran over and hijacked the coach. While we looked at each other in disbelief, I ignorantly said: “When things go really wrong, at least you have a good story to tell!”.

For miles, we walked. And walked. And walked. I began to wonder if we were as far from Uyuni as the driver claimed we were. Hours had passed and there was no town in sight! But despite the risky situation we were in, we managed to make something out of it. European guy shared his Oreos. Of somewhat less value, I shared my embarrassing travel stories.

After some time we caught up with another group. Walking to Uyuni, Bolivia

I was amazed to see that a girl at the back of the group was dragging several bags (!!!). I had one backpack. ONE backpack and I was utterly exhausted. I caught up with her to take two of her bags and gave evil looks to the other people in her group. People suck.

Speaking of help, we got ours close to Uyuni. It was a napping taxi driver. Oh, the irony.

He drove us the rest of the way to Uyuni…but things were about to get even weirder.

For part two, “My Salar de Uyuni Disaster: Car Chases and Salty Pringles”, click here.

That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert

Flail with me

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