This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tour War: The Battle of Atacama Mistica in Uyuni, Bolivia

"Hell hath no fury like a [tourist] scorned"

First Things First
This is my 90th blog post and I have always gone in order of our travel. No matter how far behind on writing, I never jump ahead. This will be the first time that I skip some places and will have to write about them later. But having just left big drama in Uyuni, Bolivia I want to get it all down now with everything still fresh in my head.

During our almost thirteen months of travel, sure we have had our fair share of terrible tours, horrible hostels, broken down buses and rancid restaurants, but it has been my policy to never call out any business by name. That is until now. The flaws of our tour company to the salt dessert in Bolivia were so egregious from our false start all the way to our photo finish in the police station that I feel morally obligated to publicly call them out in the hopes that maybe at least one reader will be saved from giving them money. So for the official record if you find yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or Uyuni, Bolivia do not use the tour agency Atacama Mistica!!!

Editor's Note: If you happen to be holding a grager (or any noise making device) feel free to shake it every time the name Atacama Mistica is mentioned.

Now if I really wanted I could go on about how on our first day our jeep never showed up and we had to return to Chile for the night, or how there was not enough food for eighteen people on the tour, or how our lazy drivers made us skip seeing the sunrise over the salt desert, but for this post let's just focus on the car accident and its aftermath.

Tour Interrupted!
The tour through the Bolivian national park to the salt desert is really quite beautiful. For three days in a jeep the endless scenery is stunning. I will definitely write about it and post photos one day - hopefully soon. But for this post I am only writing about our calamity. We all know accidents happen. That’s why they are called ’accidents,’ yet what happened on our tour was entirely avoidable and what happened after the accident was also entirely avoidable had our tour company, Atacama Mistica, just accepted their responsibility.

So it is early Tuesday morning, June 14, our third day on tour and we are have stopped to take some photos of the salt desert. Before getting back in the jeep the driver asks if anyone wants to go on the roof. There are six of us, but only Mika and a Japanese guy accept the offer. As we are chugging along our driver suddenly leaves the slow moving vehicle and joins the people on the roof. The car is now moving without a driver. Of course we are in the middle of a salt desert so there is no fear of hitting a tree or lamp post, but still we have no driver! Now I am not exactly sure why, but the tourist in the front seat moves to the driver’s seat and soon our driver climbs around to the passenger seat. Again I am not sure why, but the tourist accidentally hits the brake. The Japanese guy flies off of the roof hitting his head on the way down. Mika, very luckily, is holding onto something and just ends up on the windshield with only a few minor bruises.

Broken Windshield
We clean his wounds as best we can and decide that because he hit his head we should get to a doctor as quickly as possible. It is a very long drive across the salt flats to get us to town and his girlfriend is doing her best to treat his injuries. Mika and I stay with them at the hospital because they need help translating from Spanish to English to Japanese. He ends up needing nine stitches in his mouth, pain medication and cannot travel for several day for observations to make sure his condition does not get worse.

The Blame Game
Just yesterday I heard a story about something that happened about month ago to a friend of a traveller we meet while waiting for the bus to leave Uyuni. The morning of the last day of his friend’s tour, their jeep was found smashed up and their driver was drunk in bed with a prostitute. The discovered driver then ran away and they had to wait all day to get back to town. This friend, understandably, demanded that their company compensate them for the lost third day of the tour. The company did not want to pay. The driver couldn’t or wouldn’t pay either. This company then brings the driver’s parents to try to get them to pay the tourists. The friend tells the owners that they do not want the driver’s parents’ money. It is the company that has to reimburse them. ..and this is exactly what we are dealing with now.

So after this jeep fiasco on the salt, we go to the Atacama Mistica office. At this time I actually feel a bit bad for our driver and have no intention of mentioning to his bosses that he invited people to go on the roof (which we learn is prohibited) and that he left a moving vehicle and then let a tourist behind the wheel. The problem is that the company of whom we gave a lot of money to take us on a safe tour feels absolved from all responsibility whatsoever. We, however, strongly feel that our contract is with them, not our driver. They keep pushing blame every which way which gets everyone very angry and soon we must reveal exactly what happened. They make our poor driver pay for the Japanese guy’s medical bills and their hotel in Uyuni.
Day 3: In the clinic waiting room
After lunch we have another meeting at our hotel. The bosses tell us what great guys they are for even being here discussing compensation with us and that if they wanted they could just throw their driver under the bus and let him deal with this by himself. After this speech we say that this is not acceptable. I lecture them on employer responsibility. I really do not believe it is cultural, these guys are idiots. Now of course the Japanese couple have much greater demands than we do and at first they are offered 50% compensation. The thing is that they have future medical expenses and will quite possibly lose their train tickets and hotel in Cuzco, Peru while getting further treatment in La Paz.

Mika and my demands, however, are very simple. Like the friend in the story above, we just want one-third of our fee returned (US $45 per person) for the lost day on the tour. In our opinion a very normal and fair request. The agency offers us a redo of a one-day tour on the Salar or US $20 cash. I definitely do not want another tour and Mika does not want another tour with them. Our lines in the sand have been drawn and the difference is only US $25 per person.

 The Battle of Atacama Mistica
Now do these people at Atacama Mistica really believe that we are putting up such a big stink for just $25 dollars or that the Japanese couple is trying to nickel-and-dime them for every cent? In the USA, I cannot buy a pair of jeans or fill a gas tank for US $25. In Tokyo a single movie ticket costs US $22. We are dealing strictly on principle and getting the company, Atacama Mistica, to accept responsibility for the actions of their employees and reckless culture of their drivers and agency. I believe that this is something that, even today, the clowns in Bolivia just quite don't understand and in the end it is their downfall. This is where The Battle of Atacama Mistica is ultimately decided.
Tourists on top of moving vehicles is "strictly prohibited'
History will show that apart from believing money to be our only motive, the bosses of Atacama Mistica made one other grave error: to underestimate the resources of their enemy. When these matters arise, which they inevitably will, most tourists do not have the time nor desire to fight with unscrupulous companies. This is where we are different. First of all, we have very good Spanish language skills - how can you argue with an agency you do not understand? Secondly, we have the time (87 days left on a Bolivian tourist visa with absolutely no type of travel plan), the war chest (Uyuni is dirt cheap less than $20/day for our hotel and food) and the resolve (Mika at least) to stay in Uyuni for an extended campaign.

On these types of issues when Mika feels like she has been wronged she will fight like a pitbull for her just compensation. Once on the jugular she does not want to let go until the opponent’s complete submission. In Denver, I have seen her duke it out with carpenters, handymen, our health insurance carrier and a hospital. Traveling it has been with a hotel, a bus company and now this one really dumb tour agency in Bolivia. I, on the other hand, am like a very lazy viper. You really have to poke me with a stick many times to arouse my anger enough for me to be bothered to strike. For the record: these guys were really annoying.

Since we are not getting anywhere with the office in Bolivia, we decide on Wednesday to contact the office in Chile. They easily offered to refund our money before (which I will talk about in another post) and US $25 is actually not a lot in Chilean Pesos. Maybe they can talk sense into their Bolivian counterparts. I write a very nice, concise email laying out the reasons for our demands but never hear back. The Japanese woman also tells our driver that she does not want him to pay for their hotel. The company has to do it. He does not quite seem to get it, and we feel sorry for him. He is caught in the crossfire between his clueless bosses and scorned foreigners.

Blood and salt do not mix
We call Chile again on Thursday to try to get them to talk sense into the Bolivia office. The Chileans seem to have a better sense of where their clients are coming from. When almost 100% of your business is foreigners from Europe, North America, Israel, Japan and Korea you should have an idea of how they do business and their expectations.

Meanwhile, the Japanese couple has decided to go to La Paz. The doctor in Uyuni recommends not traveling, but he is feeling a bit better and it is imperative to get a CT scan to check for internal head damage. They do not have the machine in Uyuni. That evening the bosses return to our hotel to tell us that apart from already covering medical bills and hotel in Uyuni (the driver actually, not them) they will only compensate everyone US $20. The Japanese couple are understandably irate and leave Uyuni very stressed from the whole situation. Mika and I stay in Uyuni to battle it out. Really, I swear, we have nothing better to do.

On Friday afternoon, I make one last phone call to the office in Chile to see if they have accepted our offer. I tell them bluntly that I really do not understand. One negative blog post or many bad reviews on the backpacker internet forums could easily cause much more damage to the business than the compensation we are asking for. The woman tells me that this is up to the Bolivian office and that they are not budging from their position. We can go to their office if we’d like and get our $20. Lines in the sand.
The tourist police office is inside the clock tower
Upon hearing this not completely unexpected news Mika and I decide that it is time to launch Operation Go To Tourist Police And File A Report Against Atacama Mistica. Mika's wish now is that hopefully they will lose their license. Pitbull. Interestingly, we discover that someone has filed an accident report but left out details about how it actually occurred and any vehicle damage or personal injury. We are now eye witnesses to the accident and the photos we give to the police are material evidence. We also stress that our beef is with the company and that we think the driver has suffered enough.

MySpace Codes
"I'll be the judge of that"
The tourist police call over a Licensur (sp?). I am not even sure what the English equivalent of this guy's title would be but he is something like detective, lawyer, arbitrator, jury and judge wrapped up in one intelligent person. The closest thing I can think of is Judge Dredd from comic book and Hollywood fame. We tell him our story. Meanwhile they have summoned the owners of Atacama Mistica to tell their side of the story. And this is where our Spanish skills become very helpful. We easily refute all of the bullshit told by the bosses and explain again to the Licensur that for us (and the Japanese couple) that this is not about money, but about responsibility.

Dredd Picture & Judge Dredd Images

And just like that after hearing both sides, the Licensur, siding with good over evil, lays down the law and tells Atacama Mistica that they need to reimburse us one-third of our tour. Vindication. He also says that our Japanese friends should go to the tourist police in La Paz to file their own accident report and show all their receipts. Everything will then be forwarded to him in Uyuni where Atacama Mistica’s auto insurance will cover all the future medical and lost travel expenses. As of this post he is feeling much better. I really, really hope it works out for them to get there money back. A positive of all this is that we have made new friends and will definitely see them again one day in Japan.

So if up until now you still do not believe me how dumb these bosses are this final bit will hopefully seal the deal. At the police station the night before we agreed that we will meet at their office at 8:00 AM to get our compensation. We will then show our receipt to the police and have plenty of time to make our 9:00 AM bus out of town. We go to the office at 7:55 AM. All other tour companies on the block are open except Atacama Mistica. They are very late and we do not make it to the police station -- where Mika is strategically waiting for me -- until 8:55 AM. We miss our bus because of Atacama Mistica’s further incompetence so as a final insult the police make them drive us to the bus station and buy our new tickets on a ten o’clock bus out of town thus concluding The Battle of Atacama Mistica.

Of course our internet campaign has just begun...
8:15AM -Waiting for the office to open
The International Rambler Travel Tip: If a problem ever arises with a local company do not be afraid to go to the tourist police. The worst they can do is tell you is that they cannot do anything.

Also, in case I forgot to mention it above: Do not use the company Atacama Mistica  a.k.a. Tierra Mistica. Our unique incident aside, the fact is that most other agencies are cheaper and all tourists we've spoken with received the similar or much better service than us. If you have friends going to do a tour to Salar Uyuni please forward them this blog post.

To read about our quick jaunt into Chile, click here
To read about and see photos of the actual tour to Salar Uyuni click here


  1. I'm so glad Mika wasn't hurt! Be safe out there...

  2. Thanks Mara. Us too. I'm sure from now on she'll think twice about getting on top of a moving vehicle. Or at least ask the driver if he plans on leaving it.

  3. Hey Jeff just read this for the first time...a friend of mine (Anna) met you guys while you were still battling it out in Uyuni so had told me of the ongoing battle...!
    Unbelievable it took so long to get them to pay out. Hope you are both well wherever you may now be. Rhian xx

  4. Hi Rhian,

    Well I guess if we would have gone to the police first it would not have taken so long, but it was all fine in the end, but I don't think th Japanese couple had luck with the tourist police in La Paz. Maybe too difficult w/o speaking Spanish.

    We are now in Rurrenabaque doing a Pampas tour tomorrow. Where are you?