Uyuni is our first taste of a Bolivian town. It much more dirty, smelly and noisy than any place we’d come across before. This is the South America we were expecting, much more like Africa than Chile or Argentina. The people are so different, with much stronger ties to their pre-columbian roots. The women in particular are draped in brightly coloured fabrics and wear a really interesting traditional dress of petticoats, skirts and bowler hats.

Walking around the town there were a few things that stuck me. First of all, my favourite thing, food! Everywhere you look is a little shop or stall selling food: empanadas, fried chicken, nuts, fruit, bread, freshly squeezed fruit juices, smoothies, and all for just two or three Bolivianos (about AU 40c). We went pretty wild, trying everything we passed on the street.

The shops too had some really cool stuff that we had to get, such as locally made pomegranate liquour, quinoa chocolates, and most exciting, a half kg block of solid cacau, 100% chocolate. Eat your heart out 85% Lindt. On Our first night, attracted by the amazing smell of chicken on the spit over hot coals, we ate a local spot. The three of us had quarter chickens with chips and rice and shared a litre of soft drink. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was tasty and filling, and the price, 11Bs each. That’s about AU$1.50!

The next thing  was the crafts. Beautiful hand made fabrics, leather bags and woollen goods, again amazingly cheap. The main street is lined with shops selling these crafts, which is understandable given the number of tourists there killing time until their next tour or train out. So far, with the exception of Chiloe we’ve been so good about not overloading our backpacks, but here, with cost being much less of an obstacle it will be much harder.

And then there is the  infamous coca leaf, source of the drug cocaine. In this part of the world the leaves are chewed by almost all of the locals, for energy, nutrition and dealing with the effects of high altitude. The leaves are placed in the mouth and gently chewed until soggy. The taste is a bit like green tea. Its like a very convient form of tea really. Once well soggy, a pinch of something alkaline is added to help extract the nutrients. After more chewing, nothing is left but fibre. The effect is more or less like having a coffee, with the added bonus of being very nutritious as well. Its an amazing plant that has been used here for thousands of years, but has more recently been associated with a lot of grief here, mostly thanks to the western world. I might expand on this a bit more in a later post.

With our new friends from the Uyuni tour, our intention was to take the first available train out of Uyuni late that night. After wandering around for the afternoon we decided to kill time in one of the local pubs, the “Extreme Fun Pub”. Just as we were leaving for the train though, Emily, one of our travel buddies, discovered that her day pack had disappeared. Nicked! Luckily for her, her passport was not lost, but some goodies and her journal were gone. In the futile scramble to find it, I realised that I’d left my newish, very expensive jacket in the landcruiser. Unlike Emily, there was still hope for me that the jacket might still be in the car. However, we’d have to waste our train tickets and stay another night so we could check at the office in the morning. So, at almost midnight we left our very sad buddies and wandered off to find ourselves a hostel.

The next day luck was with us! The jacket was recovered! We bought the guys a couple bottles of beer in gratitude, but then had the rest of the day to kill wandering the markets and shops. That night we took a very bumpy and uncomfortable overnight bus to Oruro, arriving at a very desolate bus station at 3 in the morning. We then had to wait a couple hours to catch another bus to our next stop, Cochabamba.