South America by Train – daily observations

By Gerald Bailey
We didn’t embark on this adventure in search of fame or notoriety – just a bunch of Kiwis enjoying a shared experience.   So we weren’t expecting to be singled out for a special welcome during the flight announcements on our trip from Buenos Aires to Salta; nor to have the same experience on our train trip on the third highest railway line in the world.   Then, when one of our group lost her passport only to have it retrieved by a policeman, she, her room mate, the Tour Guide and I paid a visit to the Salta Police Station so that she could thank the policeman in person.   We persuaded her against offering him a reward (paying money to a policeman isn’t a reputation-enhancing move) and after the pleasantries we were all invited into what I suppose is their control room, where we were greeted by the sight of 45 police officers monitoring screens from locations all over the city.   So far so good, but then a reporter and photographer arrived and our visit was reported in a local paper and on television!

As if that wasn’t enough, the two members of the party who are confirmed train buffs were themselves interviewed on television.

We stayed in a very pleasant boutique hotel in Salta, had a free day there to explore the place then had two days in the north-west of Argentina, firstly on the Train to the Clouds and then in a region boasting the most incredible rock colours and formations.   In one fairly tight walking circuit, I think we saw rocks of seven different colours.   The train trip was a trifle disappointing – the excursion train was full and we travelled for only half an hour each way because some of the line to the south of where we rode, was under repair.

The day before yesterday we crossed the border from Argentina to Bolivia, which involved getting our passports stamped by the Argentinian authorities at one end of a building and then stamped by the Bolivian authorities at the other end of the same building.   From there we proceeded to the home of a friend of our Tour Guide where we were provided with a delicious lunch.

We had expected to leave for Uyuni by train – a trip that was scheduled to take something like 10 hours.   But to our Tour Guide’s mortification, there had been a miners’ strike further up country and the miners had blocked the train line, so he had hastily to arrange a bus for us.   Some 20 or 30 kms into the bus trip, we came to a signpost showing 200 kms to Uyuni.   Trouble was that the whole route turned out to consist of gravel road!    And pretty rumpity gravel road at that (at one time we seemed to be driving along a dried watercourse).   We saw very little other traffic, had some nice panoramic views while daylight lasted, saw some evidence of farming but generally just shook, rattled and rolled for hour after hour until we reached a village where we stocked up on potato chips, crackers and biscuits which was all most of the party wanted, though when we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist greeted us with the news that dinner was available for us – at 11.30pm!

Uyuni stands on the shore of a great salt plain, apparently one-third the size of Belgium in area.   The salt varies in thickness from a few centimetres to several metres, with water underneath, so we went out yesterday in a convoy of five off-roaders rather than a bus.   We stopped in what our local guide described as “the middle of nowhere” to take in the scenery – just a vast, limitless plain surrounded by hills and mountains, then lunched at a small island before visiting a remote spot where a local resident had sculpted a remarkable collection of figures.   We photographed some of the llamas living there and the quinoa fields, before returning to the hotel.   That took an hour, our driver maintained a speed of about 80 kms an hour, but we seemed to have made no impression on the salt plain – just to give you an idea of its dimension.   Today we venture out on to the plain once more (and this time I’ll remember the sun hat and sunscreen).

It’s a good group and they look after each other’s well being. Many are finding their sleeping patterns out of kilter, and the lack of oxygen at our present altitude of about 3,700 metres is apparent.  One finds oneself puffing after performing actions like putting on socks and shoes!

The hotels have been very good, the last three quite “quirky”.   This one has all it’s cladding and internal joinery made of salt!   It gets very cold at night but we have good central heating and electric blankets.