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Character building in Bolivia

BOLIVIA | Saturday, 2 February 2008 | Views [1458] | Comments [2]

So it was after our lengthy stay in Valpo that we made our way up to the top of Chile into San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis in the driest desert in the world.  It was a charming little town, completely kitted out for tourists (save for the atms which failed to work for the 4 days of our stay).  We booked a trip to Moon Valley to watch the sunset; a place of crazy landscapes, used by NASA to test out their robots.  It was really gorgeous despite not being able to climb the sand dune to get the best vantage point on account of the recent earthquake. We were bemused by the warning sign urging us not to "throw ourselves inside the big dune"... maybe they were afraid of another earthquake?

Our other, much anticipated trip to the geysers didn't eventuate as we (or rather the atms) ran out of money so we needed to get a refund in order to pay the entry fee to the moon valley national park. The most frustrating thing was that we were only about AU$2.5 short of affording both tours thanks to our ingenius idea of boiling our drinking water.  It was only later that we found out that the water contains dangerously high levels of arsenic from the mining activity in the area, oopsy... still kicking! Despite the disappointment of the tour cancellation, we booked a 3-day 4wd safari into Bolivia which included geysers so we were appeased.

Our 4wd trip started early with an enormous climb in altitude to over 4000m, past huge volcanoes to the border where we were herded into our somewhat recyclable 4wds and introduced to our equally recyclable drivers! There were 6 of us in the car plus the driver. Thankfully we had a really great bunch of people in both our car and the other one in our convoy... crazy French couple intent on constantly distracting our driver, taking over the wheel and sitting out the window when we were tumbling across the desert... huge Dutch guy who comandeered the front seat on account of his gargantuan proportions (cool guy tho, lol)... bubbly French-Canadian chica who derived waaay too much enjoyment out of playing in the snow (we were in thongs you see)... and Leo, our boozing, coca leaf chewing, mechanic-come-chef-com-driver with his o-so infectious laughter. The other car had in it the lovely Spanish smokers (one of whom just finished studying law with our Chilean host in Santiago!), the German gardeners, or our adoptive parents(!), and the ridiculously patriotic Columbians... I can’t help it if people have told me it’s dangerous there!

So off we rattled across the deserts, past amazing lakes containing colonies of flamingoes. Laguna verde (coloured a stunning aqua) was devoid of wildlife on account of the arsenic, oh yes, that old chestnut! Laguna Colorado however was filled with thousands of the pretty pinkies and surrounded by llamas and alpacas of every colour.  We were to stay at a shocking dive of a place on the shores of Laguna Colorado so we took a long walk around the lake and up to a lookout, snapping liberally at the flamingoes and llamas along the way. The air was so thin, we were almost at 5000m with little to no altitude sickness to speak of.  Thankfully we hadn’t really been rained on despite being in the peak of the rainy season.  We could see huge storms on either side of us though, so I guess someone was watching over us, cheers for that.

Our dinner is worth noting, solely for interests sake and so that nobody reading this dares serve it up to us again!!! Chopped “little boy” stir fry (only in Bolivia) with instant mashed potato... lucky we were hungry. The Spanish had been told we’d be served “traditional Bolivian cuisine”, between our special stir fry and the spaghetti we were served, there was a unanimous feeling in camp that, heaven forbid, we had been lied to.

We all slept fitfully on account of our driver and the local sheilas getting into our dinner wine (which we didn’t see) and causing a llama-waking racus.  The morning arrived eventually and we woke up to blocked toilets and a huge pile of spag-vom, just at the foot of one of the toilets... chaaaaaaarming!

Leo emerged long after the other driver, reeking of alcohol (with a suspicious spag-vom tinge).  We were pretty hesitant of getting into the car with him but were also keen to move on from little boy territory.  After hurling a few full gas bottles from the roof much to our horror, Leo strapped and tarped our bags to the roof and we jumped aboard.

We stopped off at arbol de peidra (the stone tree) which was pretty cool (yep, we do have pics... you will see them in time) and we all climbed some rocks and felt like regular explorers. We then ascended some more and came across a whole plain of snow where we enjoyed (or otherwise) a snowball fight. We visited another cool rock in the shape of a condor which we again climbed.

The geysers were cool too, literally... it was snowing, crazy contrast to the bubbling earth and squirting water. Oh, and never mind the safety rails alongside the bubbling, molten earth, just see how many of those stupìd tourists fall in, thankfully none of us.

We were all very much looking forward to the culmination of our trip in Uyuni as it was the location of the salt desert (or lake depending on the season) and we were to be staying at a hotel made entirely of salt! That wasn’t to be, apparently the rain came down so heavily that the lake became impassable so alternative arrangements had to be made to stay in the shanty town of Culpina K. We stayed in a really cute establishment and just as we walked in the door the rain and hail came down with a vengeance, spilling through the roof in our room and onto our beds: nothing a roll of blue plastic couldn’t fix.  We ate our friend the llama for tea (llyumy) and played cards for a bit before retiring to our damp quarters.

The salt desert awaited us the following day but before we got there we had to stop off at Uyuni’s other drawcard: a train graveyard, yep, fascinating stuff!  We did a bit more climbing and urged Leo to take us to the salar, we had waited long enough!!

The salar was an incredible sight to behold, we were so lucky it had stopped raining but there was still a couple of inches of water covering the lake.  We drove across it for about 3kms to a disused salt hotel- now a museum.  The water was the most amaing colour and reflected the sky so perfectly that all perspective was lost, which is where the fun began... we took heaps of pics exploiting this phenomena, Marts holding me in her hand, me standing on Marts’ head, rows of us jumping in the air, popping people out of a coke bottle... ahhh, the list goes on and I could have gone on playing with the camera for much longer than old mate Leo was going to permit!  The craziness of the trip was all worthwhile for the salar and the friends we made.

Now to Uyuni where the real adventure began.... The Spanish smokers (I’ll name them now), Alex and Laura, were desperate to get to La Paz as they had a flight out of there the following day and had only a few days of their holiday left.  So there were running around desperately trying to find a bus, to no avail. Some of our party found buses to Sucre, the Bolivian capital but there were none available to La Paz.

Marts and I, hardened travellers that we are now, evdeavoured to find a way.  As luck (or otherwise) would have it, we managed to organise a 4wd to take us directly to La Paz with an estimated trip duration of 6 hours, we were thrilled, it was only double the bus fare too and we had lined up Alex and Laura along with two passing Brazillian girls to join us, sensational.

Then the departure time came and went and then the price went up and then the driver couldn’t be bothered so we desperately went in search of another place which we were successful in doing, paying only slightly more than our originally negotiated price.  We waited around for about an hour for the 4wd to arrive and were shocked to find it older than our Uyuni tour 4wd, circa 1970 is my guess with a dreadfully bare spare strapped up on the roof.  The rain was coming down hard as they strapped our bags to the roof and we were loitering in the street, waiting to go when up went the bonnet for an inspection... no, a bit of repair work... the driver’s wiper was not working at it was monsoon season, ahem.

We refused to get in the car before he got it to work and just before we set off we found out that there was to be an Alaskan girl accompanying us half way (no worries about hiring out the whole car boys!) and there was going to be another driver (ahhhh, we felt at ease again).  As it turned out the other driver was there to stick his foot against one of the gearsticks so it didn’t pop out mid journey and was actually too young to drive.

They were wet, muddy, unsealed roads and the people in the very back seat were bouncing up and down like a comedy and despite our original nerves we began to see the amusing side of 9 people crammed into a museum worthy land cruiser, sliding our way through the mud and swimming our way across rivers (sans snorkel!).  It wasn’t until we got our first flat at about 1am that the nerves returned, namely because the tyre they changed to was that bare puppy strapped to the roof.  We consoled ourselves by saying that it wouldn’t be long before we got to La Paz, only another 3 hours by their original calculations.  Well... as it turns out the nerves were well warranted as the journey took another 15 hours (!!!!).

We had to make the driver stop as he fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into the oncoming traffic at least half a dozen times, I don’t think he had slept since the night before (contrary to what we were told).  We all had a two hour kip outside our mid-way town, where we moved from the slow moving mud roads to paved madness with speeding trucks full of ancient looking gas bottles (hundreds of them) and buses hurtling along at impossible speed. The sleep was welcomed and we felt ready to make it to La Paz when we woke up.  Our driver tried to find a tyre repair shop a couple of times but it was too early, nothing was open or they didn’t have what we needed.  At one point the dashboard caught on fire so we had to pull over while father and son attended to the minor incident.  Next, while pulling in for fuel I had to insist on an emergency evacuation as the rear of the car was on fire, smoking next to where I was perched in the back, timing... right next to the petrol bowser.

The next incident was almost the last, our bare tyre exploded while we were at cruising speed on the highway and our car swerved violently in front of one of those gas cylindar transporters, narrowly missing it, then another was hurtling our way which again we narrowly missed, the whole car was shaking and I thought we were going to tumble down the embankment.  Neither Marts nor I have ever been more terrified.  Our driver finally slowed us down and stopped on the side of the freeway, in a very dangerous position but we were alive.  All six of us were crying on the side of the road while driver and son went to get a new tyre.  It was horrendous, we were lapsing between giggling and bawling and had to walk about 200 m up the hill so we felt safe as the trucks were passing each other where our car was parked on the side of the highway and could so easily have clipped one or the other.  We were so scared of getting back in the car when they returned but did so, crying out each time the gear slipped.   There was one more flat before we made it to La Paz, this one a non-event comparatively.  We were so pleased to retire to the safety of our hotel and a bit of cable, nightmare over!!

La Paz was a beautiful city, nestled way up in the clouds. We were staying on a street filled with alpaca wares and we bought up as much as our bags would tolerate, scarves, beanies, gloves and socks (all the things we would need for the Inca Trail).  We also took in the markets, selling all kinds of weird stuff including llama fetuses, fetus hooves, bubble gum ice cream, ponchos and the world’s biggest popcorn (or was it packing foam?).

We met up with our German friends and they took us to one of their favourite restaurants which was a treat, filled with antiques, mirrors everywhere and an array of thrones around each solid wood table.  The food was excellent, fresh strawberry juice, Chilean wine and delicious trout and llama steaks!

We did a city tour the next day, taking in all the major sights including San Pedro... the jail where Rusty Young’s “Marching Powder” is set – we even chanced upon visiting day but were too chicken to approach the large-weapon weilding guards and offer them a few bolivianos for a peak inside!

We climbed our way up to a lookout recommended by the Lonely Planet which turned out to be a big children’s playground... nonetheless it did give a good 360 of the city.

Next stop was Copacabana, Lake Titicaca where the trout was plentiful and the boats were “Bolivian”.  The town itself was sweet, lots of restaurants with $2 tourist menus set in reed roof and bamboo surrounds.  We took a trip out to Isla del Sol which was a touch on the laborious side as the boat was going about 0.5 knots and there was a whipping southerly lashing us on the roof of the boat where we sat on damp wooden boards (geez, whinge!!)... it was beautiful when we FINALLY got to the island though and we climbed some Incan steps and saw Incan watering systems (some of the pioneers of agriculture it would seem).

Border crossing into Peru involved another Bolivian boat which it’s fair to say, if carrying one more person, would have capsized.  Safe and sound to the other side we continued on to Puno, Peru, still on the banks of the lake.  Our bus driver manged to hook us up with a hotel for 2 nights, boat tour the following day and our bus to Cuzco the following day, such efficiency!  Shame I came down with $2-Bolivian-special-tummy and had to spend the following day with my head in the loo while Marts enjoyed a trip to the floating islands where unfortunately it rained most of the day.  The (pics of the) islands looked amazing and were used as a defence against aggressive little locals back in the day... up and float away into the Tititcaca mist, ingenious!

Tags: Misadventures



Character building or destroying!! So glad to find that you have both come out OK in the end. What an experience.

  Louise Bonney Feb 5, 2008 4:20 PM


What an amazing trip! Thank goodness we didn't read it last week or we'd be blaming th eterror it inspired on Graemes heart attack. Take care of yourselves we want you home i one piece, both of you!!!!!!
Miss you mountains. Love you sooooooooo much. xo

  Faye Feb 23, 2008 6:35 PM

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