26/07/12 – 27/07/12 – Arica, Chile. Surfs up and out.
The three day, two night cross from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia via the Uyuni Salt-flat had been debated for a few weeks. Our destination from Chile was Bolivia but the question was how best to enter the country overland? The Uyuni Salt-flat tour was by far the most popular journey of them all for backpackers. For approximately $180 per person you hired a seat in a 4WD with another 5 strangers and toured at altitudes between 4 and 5,000 meters above sea level to view the 12,000 sq km salt flat; largest in the world, dating back to prehistoric times, once in a life time experience then cross the border and over the Salt-flats to Uyuni in Bolivia.
We chickened out.
The reasons were two. It was winter and temperatures in the desert and across the flats were said to occasionally get down to -27 degrees and with the first nights accommodation at 4,100km in elevation, in a family run hostel with no heating and questionable blankets, we knew our summer sleeping bags were just not going to cut it. The second reason was that of altitude. Neither one of us had experienced anything above San Pedro in elevation which was just over 2.5kms up. The sudden rise in nearly an additional 2kms in one day plus sleeping at that altitude made us nervous. If you showed any signs of altitude sickness, you were a day or two away from any town with third world facilities for treatment. We had read the horror stories – a passenger experienced sudden symptoms like coughing up blood and without the sheer luck of having a doctor also on the tour that told the driver to go to the nearest down for emergency air evacuation, would have died. Obviously an extreme case but it had us worried enough to take the safe road.
So we travelled yet another 11hrs on an overnight bus on the safe road to the surf town of Arica. A fairly drab city with the key attraction being the ripping big surf and warm sea currents that attracted international competitions and celebrity surfers like Kelly Slater. Our reason for visiting Arica was that it was flush against Peru and Bolivia, a frontier for crossing into the two countries simply by international bus or cheap flight.
After stepping off the bus in the wee-small hours of the morning, it was still dark, and the town was dead but our trusty GPS and google maps system on Murray’s phone easily took us the 2kms to our hostel – Arica Surf Hostel, perfect for two Aussies. There’s nothing worse then hopping off a long over night bus after no sleep and rocking rocking up at your hostel only to be told you have to wait to 3:00pm to check in. So you wait in such a daze you feel like you’ve just downed a bottle of rum, feel sick and missed the party. Lucky enough for us this time we knocked lightly on the hatched down hostel not expecting to get any reply but were greeted by a little Chilean man. Mmmm the smell of freshly baked muffins and good quality coffee filled the air (great start) and after ushering us over to the counter he said “your room is ready”. Yes! Still dark we crashed on the comfy bed for a few hours before scouting out our options for the next leg – an international 9 hr bus or hopeful cheap flight with Sky to LaPaz Bolivia.
Walking down to the main pedestrian mall of 21 de Mayo it was alive with shoppers, cafes, surf shops (one called Aussie surf) and a few bars. Outside of the avenue it became a little more seedy with the typical pubs, markets, drunks and strip clubs. Our first stop was Sky Airlines where we knew we could get a flight direct to LaPaz and we’re hoping to get on the next day for under $70. Well the fare was double that and although tempted, we thought we’d check out the bus fare. Another 2km walk back to the station and yes we could get on a bus the next day for $20. Sold. I told Murray it wouldn’t be that bad..”the scenery is supposed to be amazing as you cross over a few snow caped volcanoes, lagoons and reach 4,8kms above sea level for a moment before descending down to LaPaz.
So after a good nights sleep at the Arica Surf Hostel, we were so taken by the delicious coffee and breakfast that we were running late for our bus. Throwing pesos at the owners as we ran out the door we flagged down a taxi to take us back out to the station. We ran over to the terminals but couldn’t see the international bus. We ran over to the man who sold us the tickets who pointed back out the door and said “international terminal, international terminal”. Running back out of the station and across the road we realised that the international terminal was just across the street. We waived our tickets in front of one of bag handlers who pointed to an empty lot. We waited and sure enough a bus to LaPaz, Bolivia pulled up right in time.
So we handed over our luggage to the assistant to store our bags underneath the bus, climbed in and up to the second level, got our snacks out and braced for a hopeful comfortable enough ride. We waited and waited and were just about to pull out when a man came on board, looked out our seats and exclaimed we were sitting in his seat. “No No” we said and showed him the tickets. He shook his head and pointed to the bus next to the one we were sitting in. “We’re bloody on the wrong international bus” I screamed to Murray.
Quick as lightning we picked up, Murray yelled “grab the snacks” like that was the most import credential in this scenario and we pleaded with another man to take our bags back off the bus. “lo siento…lo siento” we exclaimed and he wasn’t happy. We also hadn’t realised that we were meant to pay an international departure tax so the bus handler that we had already ****** off and delayed ripped the money off us and run over himself to get the right piece of paper. Our bags we transferred, we found our second lot of seats and before we had a chance to sit down we were off, over the alto-plano, the volcanoes, the lagoons and the altitude to LaPaz, Bolivia.