After a great day two, we were ready for the final and longest day (12 hours of driving) of our tour of Southwestern Bolivia. We spent the previous evening eating spaghetti, playing cards and drinking cheap Chilean wine. None of us had particularly considered the fact that we were at an altitude of almost 4000m. We slept poorly, Yann and I huddled together in a single bed under a pile of damp blankets, wearing all of our clothes. There were around 7 or 8 groups spending a night at the tourist lodge and we had planned to be the first group gone in the morning. We wanted to watch the sun rise over the Sol de Manana, a geyser basin.
We were the first group awake (4:30am), we had all the bags ready, we passed on breakfast (much to the dismay of Hilarion who seemed to want to keep sleeping) and we began loading up the jeep. It was extremely cold outside so we took shifts going outside to help load the jeep (with Jonathan and Jonas doing the bulk of the work). Yann seemed to be struggling and was obviously not doing very well, a combination of food, alcohol (only 2 glasses of wine) and altitude had flattened him. We sent him back to bed while we tried to get things ready. We were getting frustrated with the speed at which Hilarion and Maria were packing up, they had nothing packed almost half an hour after the six of us were ready and waiting. The other groups were beginning to wake up and prepare their things (with their guides working much more efficiently).
By 5:30am we should have been on the road, but our poor jeep had had a rough night in the sub-zero weather. When we heard the repeated sound of a jeep starter (not starting), we didn't have to see whose jeep it was, we already knew... We tried everything to start it, we pushed, we boosted the battery, we changed parts. After multiple attempts at getting the jeep started by rolling it uphill, I threw in the towel. My lungs were burning, my heart was pounding and my hands were numb, I thought I was going to pass out. Jonas and Jonathan must have spent a brave 2 hours with Hilarion in the -20 C weather, trying to get our awful jeep started. They enlisted the help of other drivers who tried their best, but had their own clients and jeeps to deal with. One by one they drove off, until we were the last jeep at the lodge. We finally pulled away at about 8am, we were 2 hours behind most of the other groups.
Yann's extra hours of sleep had not improved his situation. He was pale and exhausted, and we piled him under blankets in the back of the jeep. When we got to the Sol de Manana to see the geysers, Yann couldn't leave the jeep. The stench of sulfur in the air wasn't helping him get over his nausea and headache, his face had gone from white to green. We were now climbed to an altitude of almost 5000m. I visited the impressive geysers and hot bubbling sludge by myself, trying to rush through so that we could get to a lower altitude and escape the smell. Nearby are the natural Termas de Polques hot springs, which we were really looking forward to, until we realised that we would have to strip down to our bathing suits, get wet, and then exit into the cold air. Yann had still not left the back of the jeep and was still freezing under his pile of blankets, so there was no question as to whether or not he would enter the water. The three other guys stripped down to the speedos the minute we got there and beckoned Mathilde and I to join them. I spent at least an hour in the water, which was so wonderful after our cold night and awful morning. Getting out wasn't pleasant, but was manageable.
I began to wonder why we were hanging around at the hot springs for so long, as we still had another 50km to the Chilean border where we would visit the Laguna Verde and the 6000m Licancabur Volcano. From Laguna Verde, Yann, Michael and I would leave the three Frenchmen to climb the volcano, and we would switch into a jeep who had dumped passengers at the Chilean border and was heading back to Uyuni half empty. The problem was, we were so behind, that all the jeeps were already on their way back from the border, and we wouldn't be able to catch up. Hilarion mumbled to us in Spanish, that we wouldn't visit the Laguna Verde, and we could get some money back in Uyuni. He flagged down a passing jeep handed the driver some money and we quickly transferred our things. We said goodbye to Mathilde, Jonathan and Jonas who had been wonderful company. They were nervous to be continuing three more days in the same jeep.
The next 5 hours were spent racing back to Uyuni, with a brief stop at the Valles de Rocas (where I puked from motion sickness, and Yann still did not have the energy to exit the jeep). Despite Hilarion's terrible jeep, I was grateful to not have taken the trip with our new driver. He was driving way too fast for the terrain. I asked him to slow down a few times and he obliged. Apparently, he had drank so heavily on the second night, that he was still drunk in the morning. His driving was so erratic that one of the tourists had driven for most of day two while the other passengers navigated. Our jeep troubles seemed minor when I listed to the description of their awful experience. We felt some frustration for having been promised a "great jeep" and missing one third of the sights on the circuit due to its utter crappiness. But since Yann was so sick, we were happy to have saved him from the extra 3 hours of driving. By the time we arrived in San Cristobal Yann was able to get up and walk. We had descended 1500m in one day, which seemed to relieve his headache somewhat. Back in Uyuni, Yann went to bed at 6pm and didn't wake up until the next morning. Meanwhile, Michael (who spoke some Spanish) was busy blasting the travel agent at Ripley Tours. She eventually reimbursed us each some money (reluctantly). So basically our trip was a great success!
Note: About a week later we ran into Jonathan who described their trip continuation with Hilarion. They had paid for 3 more days, but Hilarion only wanted to do 2, they argued with him for the rest of the trip over the terms of their agreement, the jeep broke down two more times, stranding them both mornings AND the absolutely unforgivable: they completely ran out of food!
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