Blown Away by Bolivia
Bolivia, South America
Dateline: April 2011
Bolivia can be hard work but the rewards are worthwhile for the adventurous traveller, as we discovered.
A long plume of dust hung in the clear, cold thin mountain air, like a jet's vapour trail across a blue sky, as we wound our way down yet another mountain ridge to the sweep of dun coloured plains below. In the distance a sparkle of late afternoon sunlight on the shallow, algae stained waters of Laguna Colorado indicated our night's destination, the lake's shore hemmed in by high bare brown mountain peaks and snow capped active volcanoes.
We were back on the 'tourist loop' of south-western Bolivia and the dust plume I guessed was from a speeding 80 Series Land Cruiser driven by yet another tour operator keeping to a tight timetable and loaded with backpackers paying a $100 or so for a three day excursion from Uyuni.
For most people, us included, Uyuni was the stepping off point for the great salt lake of Salar de Uyuni, which is the biggest salt lake in the world, but only bigger than our Lake Eyre by 1000sq km or so (10,582sq km compared to 9500sq km). Located as it is though in Bolivia's high country at around 4000 metres and surrounded by even higher peaks, most of which are volcanoes, you'd have to agree that its setting is vastly different to our great salt pan.
We had headed out to the lake and camped on its bright white surface at the eastern edge of a long stretch of brine water that stretched for a few kilometres across the lake surface. As much as I wanted to drive across the lake to one of the inhabited islands the salt lake supports, there was no way Neil, my travelling companion, or I, were driving our vehicles through long sections of salty water just for the fun of it; we were a long way from home and with just three and a half months of our South and Central America Overland jaunt behind us, we still had six months to go.
A short time later we were surrounded by a swathe of backpackers who had come to watch the sunset, their drivers not so reluctant to drive through the water. We consoled ourselves with pics of their vehicles ploughing through the eroding waters, while we marvelled at the sunset, the reflections and the blinding salt that stretched away to the horizon in all directions.
But as soon as the sun dropped below the distant skyline the temperature began to plummet. By the time the last backpacker had left and the last light had faded from the western sky we were crowding into jumpers, jackets and long johns in an effort to stay warm. That night our water tanks froze, as did the gas bottles; even water bottles inside the camper froze as we reckon the temperature dropped below minus 10 degrees Centigrade.
Our first introduction to Bolivia had been warmer!
A few weeks earlier we had left Brazil's incredible Pantanal behind and crossed the Bolivian border at Arroy Conception, a dusty, grotty border town that barring the trucks, buses and cars would have been more at home in some cheap spaghetti western movie than a 21st Century gateway to a nation.
By sheer good fortune though the next day we found ourselves camped amongst palm trees and beside a spring fed warm stream.
It was so good we stayed for a couple of days before tearing ourselves away and heading deeper into the country.
From my diary:
Stopped for lunch just off the highway near the railway line that turned out to be a spot where trucks were taking soil down the road. One of the truckies stopped and told us (with sign language and a few Spanish words we could understand) that there was a river nearby and a good spot to swim.
We went to investigate. Turned out to be the Aguas Calientes - a spring fed river where there is a small camping area (GPS 18°28'1.2"S 59°29'46.1"W) set up amongst a grove of palms. We quickly made up our mind to stay - one night ... then after having a swim in the 42°C water which flows quickly over a sandy bottom ... for two nights! There's clean toilets and the caretaker is friendly, the grounds being kept very clean by him ... and later by his wife. Cost was just 4B/night/person or about 0.70cents!
Young girl on her way to market with bags of palm nuts to sell.
As we climbed into the eastern foothills of the Andes the rich verdancy of the jungle gave way to more temperate forests, grasslands and rich farmland. Here straddling the divide between the Amazonia jungle to the north and the Chaco drylands to the south, the Incas had built one of their great shrines and citadels on top of a mountain peak that overlooked this change in habitation.
El Fuerte mightn't be so well known as Peru's Machu Picchu, but it features many of the same incredible traits; a virtually impregnable hilltop fortress, a place to pay homage to the sun gods, perfect alignment to the sun's equinoxes, impeccable stonework and trapezoidal shaped doorways. While the site dates back to around 1500BC, most of what you see, after taking the steep vehicle track to the park's entry gate and then walking for a few hundred metres to the top of the mountain, dates to when the Incas were in control around 1500AD and just before the Spanish arrived and wiped out their civilisation.
From here we headed south, climbing higher as we went, to the historic cities of Sucre and Potosi. Untold amounts of silver had made Potosi the wealth generator for the Spanish empire (it was the location of the Spanish mint from the 1540s to the 1800s, and the Bolivian mint is still located here), but most of the Spanish nobles who came to Bolivia to view this source of wealth preferred Sucre. We did too, and while we stayed a few days in Sucre, now a World Heritage listed city, we couldn't get out off Potosi quick enough.
I had harboured thoughts of trying to track down the grave of my grandfather, who back in 1908 was killed by bandits somewhere in Bolivia after he had taken possession of a wolfram (tungsten) mine, which most likely would have been in the Potosi district. But, a lack of any more substantial information, a quick realisation that cemeteries and records in Bolivia weren’t maintained as well as they are in Australia, and the fact that any exertion from us beach lovers at the 4000-metre plus altitude of Potosi (it is one of the highest cities in the world) severely curtailed our running around and we reluctantly gave up on that idea.
Instead, that evening a little higher up in the mountains from Potosi, while searching for a campsite off the main highway, the big Ford F250 of Neil's became bogged. In what was more of a Monty Python sketch than a well run recovery operation, we finally got the rig out with the use of some hard shovel work (ever tried that at 4200m???), the use of four Maxtraxs and a tug by the Patrol, which was wheezing like all of us at that altitude.
Next day we rolled down into Uyuni and headed out to Salar de Uyuni for yet another freezing night at high altitude. From there we turned south for our meeting with Laguna Colorado.
Once again we were breathless at over 4200 metres, but this 60sq km lake is just 80cm deep and its reddish waters are alive with algae and plankton that attracts all three species of South American pink flamingos. While they mightn't be in as large a number as the pink flamingos of the salt and soda lakes of East Africa, to see hundreds of them at this altitude, surrounded by a bare and harsh but spectacular landscape, is quite unforgettable.
A week later, and by a round about way, we were in La Paz, Bolivia's stunning capital; the highest capital city in the world; it takes your breath away in more ways than one.
From my diary:
Wandered back into town in the evening to have dinner at the Social Club. That was a little interesting, as it was a big place with just a few tables along the riverside wall; there was no menu and the waiter was out of Faulty Towers. I had steak but I should have had the fish like everyone else ...
From my diary about this incredible city:
Founded in 1548 when the Spaniards found gold in the now putrid, soap sud filled Rio Choqueyapa, the modern city of just over a million people has expanded up the steep canyon walls with houses seemingly clinging on to the near vertical cliff faces. It makes San Francisco or Sydney look like they are built on flat plains! The centre of the city is around 3660m (making it the highest capital city in the world), while the canyon rim is over 4200metres.
From La Paz the country's famous, or infamous, Death Road is just a short drive away. While most of the really hair raising sections have been bypassed by a very impressive alternate highway, the road is not closed to traffic, so there was no way we were leaving Bolivia without driving it.
Once you leave the highway the old road is a sinuous, rocky, sometimes graded, often eroded track - and extremely narrow in places. Think of the narrowest most exposed track in the Victorian High Country - Billy Goat Bluff, or Blue Rag and you get a bit of an idea of what the route is like, but the drops over the edge are much, much bigger and, of course, it goes for well over 10km! There are sheer 1000' drops along much of the route, especially in the first 10km or so, and at one point there is an 1800' drop on a very tight turn. Still, it's nowhere near as dangerous as it once was as most of the trucks and buses that once used it now take the main highway. We only met one truck and a few cars and, as we were going down and the rule is those descending must give way to those coming up, we quickly found a spot where they could easily and safely pass.
However, safer or not, the sheer edges and long, long drops do sharpen the mind and concentrates one's gaze and all of one's attention. It is a fabulous drive though - verdant mountains rear up to the sky on one side and plummet downwards into narrow ravines on the other. Clouds swirl around the high jagged peaks and in places the road takes you under waterfalls - most of which were just a trickle as the Dry season was in full swing when we were there. The scenery is great but you really need to find a spot a stop to admire the view!
A few days later after some time in La Paz and finding the local ARB dealer for some repair work on both our trucks, we were back in the jungle of eastern Bolivia. This time we were heading to the native Indian community run lodge of Chalalan deep in the Amazonia jungle.
The only way to this remote lodge, 100km from the nearest road accessible town - Rurrenabaque - was by motorised canoe, which took six hours ripping upstream and ploughing through ever bigger and wilder rapids. It may have been set up for tourists but it's meant for adventurous travellers wanting to get away from it all. Located on the banks of the Rio Tuichi, a tributary of the mighty Amazon and still an impressive stream in its own right, the lodge is located in the heart of the two million hectare, Madidi National Park.
This park is now recognised as one of the most diverse protected areas on the planet and protects virgin jungle from 500 foot above sea level to glaciers at over 19,000 feet. We were led by an excellent and experienced, English speaking guide, Alex, during our four day stay at the lodge and he showed us some of the delights and magic of the jungle. Sadly we didn't see a jaguar, but they are there; evidence of fresh footprints in the soft mud of a creek crossing giving away their recent presence.
Our time was coming to an end in Bolivia and we headed north from La Paz to the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, a virtual inland sea that sits at around 3600 metres and is again surrounded by higher peaks.
It is a magic place and we camped on the shore near the tourist and Christian pilgrimage hotspot of Copacabana.
From my diary:
From the ferry the road passes through some steep hill country, most of it covered in ancient terraces that date back to before the Incas, to the small tourist enclave of Copacabana - locals tell us that this was the 'original' Copacabana ... not that upshot in Brazil!
Mind you this is a backpacker’s paradise and the place is crawling with them, but it's a pretty pleasant place all in all but the water is a bit cool for swimming.
Down on the harbour there are dozens of boats taking tours out to the nearby Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon, both of which were important sites in Inca times. There are also dozens of paddleboats, but we couldn't see ourselves in a boat with a Donald Duck bow spit or a lovely white swan!
The town is also an important Christian pilgrimage place so there are lots of shrines and the local cathedral is pretty impressive.
The nearby border though into Peru was blockaded by locals angry at a new mining venture on the shores of the lake. Our route north was blocked - the 140km to Puno, our first destination in Peru, now taking us on a 1500km detour back through La Paz, across the mountains into Chile and then up the coast into Peru, before heading inland again to Puno and the great lake. You have just got to be flexible ... such is overlanding in South America!
How to Get There: Latam Airlines (https://www.latam.com/en_au/) (formerley LAN Airlines) fly from Australia to Santiago, Chile, with connections to La Paz and Santa Cruz in Bolivia.
Best time to go - It's always cool (cold?) in the highlands, temperate in the valleys and warm in the lowlands (think tropical here). The rainy season is from December to March.
Highlights - The Amazon region & Rurrenabaque, especially Chalalan Lodge (https://www.rutaverdebolivia.com/tour/chalalan-ecolodge-madidi-national-park/); the southwest and Salar de Uyuni; the Death Road; Lago Titicaca ... but there's lots more!
Custom Tours - Arawi & Marcos from Natural Custom Expeditions (www.naturalcustom.com) are based in La Paz and can arrange everything you need and where you want to go in Bolivia. They are excellent, English speaking, friendly guides whom we couldn't recommend highly enough.
4WD Hire - Avis & Hertz, amongst others, hire 4WD vehicles in La Paz or Santa Cruz (see: www.udrivecarhire.com).
More info - www.visitbolivia.org/
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon