Salar de Uyuni Tour – Sick Like Hell

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I can’t believe after just a few days everything is back to normal and I have no ill effects from one of the worst illness of my life and one of the most difficult things I have had to overcome. It just had to happen before I left Bolivia, clearly.

Back track a bit. After my trip to Cusco, Peru, I returned to La Paz to complete the tedious process of acquiring a visa to get into Brazil. You need to fill out a bunch of information online, print out your financial statements from the last three months and a bunch of other things in addition to paying 65$ and leaving your passport for at least 2 business days at the Brazilian embassy. The visa is new for Canadians. Since Stephen Harper started charging Brazilians to come into Canada they started to charge us AND make us go through the stupid process (so I heard). Thanks Harper. Americans just need to pay $160 at the border.

I was now looking at La Paz in a different light. I knew where everything was and I felt at home. I partied with some of my Bolivian Express friends and got to stay in the apartment of the editors. Then, as everything was going great, things got better. My long awaited story about the End of the World on Isla Del Sol for Vice got published – with zero edits and all my photos. I was so proud of myself. More to come folks!

I was on top of the world. However, on the night I was to party my Vice accomplishment I went out for the editor’s birthday party at a fancy Thai restaurant. Sure, the food was good, but it’s a lot worse when its stained with tobacco. I literally couldn’t breathe. Everyone was smoking and blowing it into my face. I was trapped in a long bench against the wall so I couldn’t get out. Hell.

Then, we went to a club and it was even worse. Now I was expected to dance in this cloud of smoke?

I know its alienating (I don’t care anymore), but FUCK YOU SMOKERS! It appears that Canadians (except Quebec) and most of America are the only ones to have realized that smoking is a stupid ancient invention. It is one thing to ruin yourself for no reason, but to smoke in my face cause you are weak and need to cope and to ruin my lungs is unacceptable. I am so thankful that Ottawa has the strict anti-smoking laws it does (no smoking indoors, in parks or on balconies). It’s time we get rid of the stupid shit. End rant.

The next day I had to leave the apartment I was staying at because they were moving, so I went to Loki La Paz. It was in a magnificent colonial mansion, but it was much shittier than Cusco in every way. A lot of my Cusco friends had come for a while, but it wasn’t the same. I took a large group of them on a tour of Feria El Alto, but was met with a bunch of complaining and whining about the area and the weather. I was trying to show these gringos that there is more to travel than morning Loki Blood Bombs. The parties weren’t even great and I was happy to leave and say some real goodbyes.

As some more friends arrived I stayed committed to the fact that it was time to leave these people and La Paz, so I got into a 14 hours bus to Tupiza to see Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). On the bus, I had major bodyaches, painful headaches and I couldn’t sleep. What do I want for 100 Bolivianos (14$)?

Tupiza is a small southern town with no wifi. A lot of the town is in construction in anticipation for more tourists. I had heard that heading to the Salt Flats tour was much better than Uyuni because not as many tourists were around and you got to see more stuff. However, it is almost twice the price.

I shopped around for a tour and decided to take the original tour company Tupiza Tours because everyone’s price was the same, a German told me it was the best and my group was set to be 3 guys from France, so I could practice my French. Yet, as I spoke French to them my Spanish went out the window. Only so much room in my head I guess.

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We drove nearly all day in our Toyota jeep with our tourguide Fredi and our cool Ema whom we called Mama. As we drove we stopped a couple times to take photos of rocks, but that was pretty much it. During the trip I started to get a bad headache and body pains similar to the problems I had on the bus from La Paz and to what I felt for a few hours during my stay in Tupiza.

I took an ibuprofen, but it got worse. As we escalated elevation and it got colder I started to shake uncontrollably like I was naked in a Canadian winter, but there were heat packs under my skin. When we got to the hostel in a small town I tried to go to bed early, but it was not easy. The chills got worse. I had a dry cough and swollen glands. It was hard to breathe and it took me nearly 10 minutes to get up and go to the bathroom. My toes, fingers and nose were all ice cold and went numb sporadically. I took a lot of pain killers and they eased the pain a little bit, but it wore off after 4 hours exactly.

As my eyes were closed and I tried to sleep my mind wandered to weird and bizarre places where people weren’t people, men weren’t men and women weren’t women. Everything was mixed up.

I did manage to get a few hours sleep, but in the morning it had not improved. My head was down on the breakfast table the whole morning and I hurt, bad. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was far from home on a so-far shitty trip with people that didn’t speak my language and there was no Internet (WebMD) to diagnose me.

Let me take a second for another quick rant. Just a week into my trip I made a Facebook post complaining that I wish I had Internet. I was met with a comment from a former classmate who ripped me saying why don’t I just enjoy my travels. Subsequently, about 10 other friends liked the post. To put it bluntly: you have no fucking clue!

As I respectfully responded (less respectful now), Internet is an absolute travel necessity. Whether it means booking hostels, flights, buses or planning where to go, or whether it means connecting with other travelers, or finding travel warnings, or doing research for stories (my job), or connecting with parents or diagnosing why the fuck your head is ripping out of your skull, Internet is an absolute necessity. Not all the time, but I’d say 5 days is the maximum before you are royally fucked without world connection depending on whether you are in an emergency or not. It’s all well and good to smell the flowers on vacation at the cottage or camping where you know your safe (or maybe you are not cough* Into the Wild cough*), but for backpacking Internet is crucial. The sooner society and tourism gets this the better. End rant.

Fredi the tourguide took me to a local doctor who diagnosed that I was in fact suffering from altitude sickness. Impossible, I thought. Altitude sickness is for silly gringos who complain of a headache, stomach ache or loss of breath. I played soccer my first day in La Paz. I played soccer for G-d’s sake!

The doctor gave me ibuprofen and some really weak altitude pills for 13 Bolivianos. I took a few pills before I realized that they were 10mg and I already had pills that were 250mg from Canada. The doctor also said I had to go down and couldn’t drink cold water, only hot.

The guide asked if I wanted to go down now and head directly to Uyuni therefore skipping most of the trip. Let me tell you a little something about myself. In elementary school, let’s say I broke my arm playing soccer (I didn’t, but I still got pretty hurt). I would drag my bleeding carcass off the field before delaying the game and ruining it for everyone else. I was not going to be the one to cost the trip for the rest of the people in my car. Thus, on we go. And, that day happened to be the highest day. Oh joy.

On the bumpy road we escalated higher and higher. Through snow and on top of mountains. We stopped at a lagoon to see flamingos, but I couldn’t focus. I was in absolute pain and stuck in my head. I couldn’t eat. The 5000m volcano summit lay ahead and although I wanted so bad not to go, I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone.

As the rest of the group played in a magnificent geiser and on the edge of a gaping volcano I absolutely had to lie down in the back– clutching my exploding head and smashing my head on the metal seat bar.

After that hell was the descent and I couldn’t be happier. I think that joy started to get me to feel better along with a mouthful of coca and a stomach full of ibuprofen. We passed by another group from Tupiza Tours pretty much for the first time and it happened to be a group of four French girls. When the guide told them that we were going to a lower altitude so that I could get better I was immediately chastised by the French guys for ruining their chance at girls. Obviously that would happen. They couldn’t understand the pain I was going though. Look at that pussy Canadian grunt in so-called pain. What a pussy. The magic of a group of 4 dudes.

The pain again got worse. As we arrived at the lower camp I had a whole new set of problems. My body knew we were down, so now it was time to change my body pressure back. Dizziness, cold sweats, runny nose, dry mouth (no water remember), sore throat. I tried to sleep, but I woke up exactly every hour mostly due to fucked up dreams where a group of forest people tried to keep me with them in their spinning forest, but some people were lying to me and were not even real according to other forest people. As I woke up for the fourth time I realized that fuck it, I’m gonna’ drink some water. Then, I understood why I can’t. In one way out the other, uncontrollably. The sickness that just keeps on giving.

At 6 am I couldn’t do it anymore so I walked around the town. It was beautiful.

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I chewed more coca and I was starting to get better. We went to see some volcanic rocks and although difficult, I made my way up to the top. I had beat this thing! Altitude sickness is not a joke people!

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For lunch we sat by a beautiful lagoon and I took some awesome HDR photos.

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In just a few hours we had made it to Uyuni and looked at the tourist attraction of the train cemetery. Apparently, the old junk was donated just for tourists. How authentic.

Uyuni is really a garbage town as labeled. You literally drive by a river of garbage as you enter, but at least we could have a shower and be with the girls. We bought some booze for super cheap Bolivian prices and proceeded to drink. The first thing one of the French girls tells me was that I was mocking her accent simply by speaking – she didn’t believe that that’s how I speak. Then, she thinks I shat myself when I was sick and everyone laughs at me. For the record, I never shat myself, I had many other problems though. What a bitchy Parisien.

Shortly after dinner all the other groups went to bed (because the bitchy one was tired so the others HAD to go too), so we were left us four boys again. Drunk, we decided to go out on the town. The first bar we found was a small Bolivian bar where a group of about eight (four guys, four girls) were on the dance floor dancing salsa. One Bolivian invites Jeremie, one of the Frenchmen from our group to dance with his woman. Jeremie takes the opportunity and spins the girl around. I jump in with the next girl and the other two guys starting randomly grinding on girls, jumping around and taking their shirt off.

The music changes to club music. We start to limbo, get a breakdance circle going (some random Bolivian breakdancer where an Adidas jump suit comes up) and other people start to join in the fun. No one could stop laughing. We LORDED the club for those who know what I mean.

As I have said before, nothing can shock me more than club antics. It can be absolutely random and crazy and insane – this time it definitely was.

We had to be up at 4:45am, so we went back and got two hours of sleep.

I felt fine the next morning, but the other guys were really hungover so we just barely made it for sunrise. This was the best part of the trip for me. The sunrise was absolutely unreal and my photos look incredible.

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For breakfast we ate the Hotel de Sal then took the loco photos.

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Final verdict – Tupiza Salt Flat Tours, not worth it. We were in the car almost the entire time and didn’t see anything that spectacular until the Salt Flats. Save the $200, go one or two days from Uyuni and you are set. Uyuni is too touristy you say? Tourists can be good! I was stuck with the same five people for four days. I wanted to kill them after. It’s good to talk to someone else for a change.

As soon as I got to Tupiza (feeling better mind you), I attempted to organize my escape. I was soo done with fucking mountains, shit food and poverty. I booked my bus to Salta in the morning and left twenty minutes later.

The bus stopped in Villazon, the border town of Bolivia and Argentina and I was amazed. The weather was warm, the tucumanehs the best I’ve ever had, even the vendors smiled and looked happy – the polar opposite of La Paz. It wasn’t “here take it,” it was “here you go!”

I had three hours to get through the border before my next bus so I wasted a little time walking around and using the rest of my Bolivianos. In line for my stamp out of Bolivia I met a Canadian guy who was reading the Alchemist. We started talking and I showed him a copy of the Bolivian Express. Amazingly, he had read it in La Paz and really liked it. He said he studied my centre-fold photo for like five minutes. That’s what journalism is all about folks J.

As we confidently approached the Argentinian side, after making fun of my English, the officer said we could not enter – we had to pay a new $75 Reciprocity Fee to get into the country. I knew about this fee, I had researched it before, but it said it was only applicable at the airport NOT everywhere. I guess on January 1st in changed. Crap!

So, we turned around and went back into Bolivia without a visa and walked 20 minutes before finding an Internet Café. There, we navigated through the snail-Internet and printed our forms after about 30 minutes.

We hustled back, not knowing that Argentina was an hour ahead so our busses were about to leave, and skipped the line to get our stamp.

Matt, the Canadian was really greatful that we had met saying that it was fate that we got together and helped eachother out. Maybe our paths will cross again one day if I move to Vancouver.

Just in the nick of time, we made it to our buses and I got to Salta after watching two really stupid movies “My Name is Khan,” soooo cliché, and “Real Steel,” Hugh Jackman plays a real douche in it.

Salta is absolutely stunning. I sit writing this blog now leaning against a tall palm trip under a blue sky at the city’s centre square with the sounds of a fountain and the sights of sexy Latinas tickling my senses. It’s just like Europe in the summer, I can imagine.

I was going to skip Buenos Aires due to lack of time and money, but after doing the math, it only is one hour more of bus travel (69 compared to 68) if I don’t do Buenos Aires. Now I am doing Salta – Cordoba – B.A. – Florianopolis – Rio de Janeiro for February 7th. For about $277.

So here my European (Argentina/Brazil) adventure begins. I know it will be very very different from the first half of my trip, but I am ready for it. I am ready for the beach and I am ready to party.

Vivo la vida Loca! haha

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2 thoughts on “Salar de Uyuni Tour – Sick Like Hell

  1. Helene Huot

    Awesome blog Joel! Some very difficult obstacles you faced but you. NEVER Give up and you healed . Glad you r on another new adventure!. Enjoy!! Love Helenexoxo

  2. Leslee Joy

    That was definitely a blog full of extreme emotions. You gave us a great picture of your highs and lows. Pictures are incredible and you took us on quite the journey. I am glad that you are feeling better. Remember to think of your own welfare.

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