Step one: Follow the advice of travelers you know peripherally, who don’t need to shower more than once a week, think sleeping in the same room with six other people is heaven, find patchouli to be a remarkably endearing scent, and may or may not want to get you into an entertaining mess.
Step two: Do not solicit advice from other, more similarly minded travelers, for whom sleeping without the hair of strangers left behind on sheets and blankets may be a priority.
Step three: go to a very much still developing country, find the least populated part of it, and hop on a tour.
Back up. Step two B: land in the highest airport in the world, spend three days taking Diamox and sucking on diesel and too little oxygen.
I believe I have mentioned this blog should have been called, “flyingbytheseatofmypants.com,” so it will not surprise you that these are the steps my shall-remain-nameless (totally fantastic) Travel Companion and I followed in planning our trip to Bolivia, whose primary purpose was to go on a salar tour. What, you ask, is that? I had the same question.
It turns out much of Southwest Bolivia used to be a great salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. Times have changed, but salt has not. Over 4,000 square miles of the area is still a great salt field, worked manually by salineros who shovel the salt into piles, let the water (still not far below the surface of the ground) drain, then collect it in a truck and take it to be harvested and packaged for sale in Bolivia, and beyond. A few meters below the salt lies the largest lithium field known to man, projected to contain 50-70% of the world’s lithium stores, currently in the process of being extracted to power our electronic addictions. All of this happens at close to 12,000 ft of altitude, under some of the clearest skies you’ve ever seen. They are so clear, in fact, and the white flat beneath them is so flat, that the area is used to calibrate altimeters of some Earth observation satellites.
Before we get to the tour, Travel Companion and I have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, there is La Paz. Here, the airport is so high, it is actually called “el Alto.” All international flights seem to arrive between 2:30 and 6:00 a.m., for reasons I can’t understand, but which lead to a disproportionate number of people finding places to sleep in the small, humble airport until they can get into their hotels, hostels or onto morning flights to other places. Lucky me, I found a random couch outside a ‘pay by the hour’ travelers’ hotel and happily took it. I donned my eye mask and ipod, and slept in cirque-de-soleil inspired contortion until six-thirty a.m. When the airport roared to life, I changed some money, grabbed a cab, and went to meet the owner of our rental apartment.
Because sometimes I am a moron, and because I was booking my Bogota – La Paz ticket when still in the midst of a severe state of travel panic (see The Terror), despite having read Travel Companion’s reservation six times, I still booked my ticket a day too early, leaving her to fend for herself (albeit with excellent instructions) to get a cab from the airport the next morning. As a result, when she showed up, I was a day ahead of her in the ‘adjusting to altitude and diesel’ environment, having spent about ten hours watching bad American HBO movies and eating peanut butter toast the day before. I’d also adjusted to Diamox side effects, like bouncing eyeballs and tingling extremities, especially hands, which make it difficult to sign your name, or unlock the apartment door.
Such is the state we were in when we headed out onto the diesel-fueled and diesel-fumed streets of La Paz to schedule the tour, at a Lonely Planet – recommended, bilingual tour agency with which I had been corresponding via email. I had been taking this whole thing casually, but my travel companion had been doing research, and she was scaring me. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour drivers to be drunk the whole time they are driving. Since we didn’t want to pay $600 each for our three day tour, our driver would also be our guide and our cook. He wouldn’t be bilingual, and blog-rumor had it he would only cook hot dogs. Also, it was likely to be cold – REALLY cold – at night and we would need sleeping bags, which we didn’t have. What if, as the nurse at the travel clinic had warned her, my travel companion got typhoid? What if we had a drunk AND irresponsible driver and ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where no one found us until we had our own Bolivian version of “Alive” in full swing, minus the hot soccer players?
When we found the travel agency, we asked these questions as rationally and respectfully as we could. The kind agent tolerated my continuing to speak bad Spanish with her even when she answered me in English, and reminded us it wasn’t good for them if we had a bad tour. The last time they’d had a bad driver reported was in 2008. She recommended we bring some snacks and extra water, assured us we could rent sleeping bags from the agency, and booked our plane tickets to Uyuni for us. (We may not be willing to pay $600 for a better room, a bilingual guide or a cook, but we sure as shit weren’t taking an overnight bus to arrive the morning of our tour.)
Before we said goodbye, we were committed to whatever adventure we had just paid for, which would start with a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day. Unless the travel agent called to let us know it had been moved up to 5:30. In which case, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anyplace. We went to the grocery for bread and water, and returned home to our apartment for peanut butter toast.