29. Bouncing Around Bolivia

May 25, 2011 - La Paz, Bolivia

Having gone through the laborious task of leaving Chile we ascended into ‘no-mans’ land, across part of the vast Atacama desert that covers part of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Peru.  We took a dirt road and finally arrived at the remote Bolivian border post which was at over 3,500 metres (10,500 feet) above sea level.

We also met our Bolivian guide who would take us over the stunning scenery of the Atacama Desert and the Altiplano (the High Plains) as there were no roads to speak of.  We loitered at the border post for an hour, taking in the scenery and also watching a desert fox that put in an appearance, obviously on the scrounge for any scraps of food.

We learnt about the benefits of cocoa leaves which the locals chew and make tea out of.  We of course had to give it a go, and after being shown how to chew the leaves we chomped away although neither of us liked the taste.  It is supposed to help with altitude sickness but apart from giving a slight numb feeling in our mouths, we couldn’t feel any benefit.

With our passports stamped we entered Bolivia (Country 18 of our World Trip) and soon came to a beautiful lake that had great reflections of the surrounding snow capped mountains.  We were told however, not to go near the lake as it contained Sodium, Potassium and Arsenic!  So after grabbing a few photos we got back into the truck and bounced through the upper Andes and were soon told we had climbed to an altitude of over 4,000 metres (12,000 feet).  It was beginning to get hard to walk around and it wasn’t long before even walking up a small slope, would make everyone breathless.  It was hard going but the scenery made the effort rewarding.

Our driver Ant had given us a briefing about altitude sickness and what to do to alleviate any ailments attached to the lack of oxygen.  It was important to drink up to 4.5 litres a day, so we nominated time keepers in the truck to advise when to take a few gulps of water to alleviate any symptoms.

We stopped and had lunch at some hot springs and a few of the group had a dip in the natural hot water.  As Clare had to prepare lunch (it was her cook groups turn) we declined the chance of having a dip.  Also the cold air put us off a bit!

After lunch we visited some nearby geysers that had fast plumes of steam curling into the air, along with bubbling pools of sulphurous water and boiling mud.  Alas, the sulphurous fumes and the high altitude got the better of Clare and she had to sit back in the truck.  There were signs that the altitude was starting to affect other members of the group with headaches and feelings of nausea.  These are two very common symptoms of altitude sickness.

By mid-afternoon we reached a sodium factory and a sign confirmed we had climbed to 5,020 metres which is over 15,000 feet.  The one’s who felt well enough, disembarked and had their photo taken next to the sign.  We noticed that the workers had built a football pitch next to the factory but none of us could entertain the idea of having a kick-about at this altitude.

We then started to descend and we drove past a lake that had a flock of flamingos.  It was an unusual site as you expect to see these birds in Africa rather than high up in the Altiplano.  Still, those who could stand it got off the truck and took a few photos before we headed for our overnight stay in a Bolivian village.

Unfortunately the ground deteriorated which didn’t help those who were feeling unwell and the constant jolting tipped a few over the edge and there were frequent stops for them.  However, we finally made it to the village and all those that were ill were put to bed and given some cocoa tea which the Bolivians say will help anyone feel a little better after suffering from altitude sickness.  It was amazing that I seemed to be the only one not suffering too badly although it did mean I was helping prepare dinner for the group as others were too ill to take part.  There was also no hot water so it was a case of having a rather brief cold, freezing shower! Brrrr!

The next morning the sun was again shining and everyone in the group was feeling a little better albeit still a few shaky legs.  Our guide took us to an interesting area that had petrified volcanic rock and some of the formations looked like condors, lions and parrots.  It was a good opportunity to have a group photo which was fun before it was time to head back onto the truck and onward with our journey.

After a couple more hours driving we finally rejoined a road and after a while it turned into tarmac and was great not to be bounced around anymore.  We arrived in Uyuni just before lunch and checked into our hotel.  Uyuni is still 3,740 metres above sea level and is famous for being on the edge of the largest salt flat in the world and it covers over 1,089 square miles.  The salt flats provide 70% of the compound to make lithium batteries and so it is a major industry as well as tourism.  As we had a free afternoon, we explored the small town and bought some Bolivianos which is the local currency and wandered around a street market.  Being a Sunday there wasn’t a lot open so it was nice to relax, unwind and have a nice hot shower.

The following day it was time to visit the salt flat and so we climbed aboard some off road vehicles and were first taken to the edge of the salt flats, to a train cemetery.  The cemetery has a number of rusting steam locomotives that had been used by mining companies until the minerals ran out and were left to rust on the edge of the flats.  It was a little eerie seeing these skeletal monoliths and their wagons slowly deteriorate but also made for some stunning photos.  The Bolovian Government are considering turning the cemetery into a proper museum but they will have to decide soon otherwise some of the hulks will have disappeared!

One of the off road vehicles was having mechanical difficulties so we were delayed a little until the drivers could get it going again.  We then visited a Bolivian village where they had a small salt museum which consisted of blocks of salt that had been carved into various animals.  There was also an opportunity to buy local handicraft souvenirs.

After half an hour it was time to head into the salt flats themselves and we were surprised how much standing water there were on the flats.  However, this did provide fantastic reflections of the distant mountains and again, a great photo opportunity.  The drivers and guides also had fun driving alongside each other as there are no roads over the flats.  We stopped a couple of times for photos which made for some unique shots.

Our drivers seemed to know where they were going as after a couple of hours we came across an island which the Bolivians call Incahuasi and is covered in cacti and which also features a restaurant and other facilities.  It is where most tourists on the salt flats visit and is a great place to do perspective photos.  We had a picnic lunch and after an hour of taking these perspective photos, some of which worked and some didn’t, it was time to head over to a hotel that is situated on the salt flats.

A couple of hours later we arrived at the hotel and as it is winter it was not actually open.  It is supposed to be quite a famous hotel but it didn’t look all that great from the outside, perhaps it was better inside.  The sun was beginning to set so after another few perspective shots and a couple of group photos it was time to go.  We all climbed aboard the vehicles and sped off.

We stopped again just in time to capture the sun setting and the moon rising which was amazing.  We were the last ones to board our vehicle and suddenly the driver couldn’t get the engine to start.  By this time the other vehicles had already departed!  The driver didn’t seem too bothered as he hopped out and started tinkering with the engine.  This gave our small group a chance to take a few more photos which actually turned out to be stunning and we gave a little cheer when our driver gunned our vehicle back to life.

We all hopped back on board and headed back towards Uyuni and finally caught the other vehicles up and they dropped us back to the hotel.

The next day it was time to leave Uyuni and head towards Potosi which is the highest city in the world.  Unfortunately Cindy, our elderly truck, wasn’t feeling too well as some of the fluids in her engine had frozen overnight and was unsafe to drive.  So Zoe, our guide organised a bus to take us to Potosi instead.  This did mean unloading all the bags from Cindy and also going out to buy food at the local market, to make sandwiches for our lunch, as it was a 7 hour drive to Potosi.

Nonetheless this was all done without much fuss and we were soon climbing away from Uyuni and onto Potosi.  Part of the road had fresh tarmac on it so we made good progress.  The local Bolivian driver stopped for his lunch at a small town that had mud brick houses and straw roofs.  We had a wander around for twenty minutes and then it was time to hop back on the bus and continue our drive.

Potosi is famous for being the highest city in the world at over 4,090 metres above sea level.  We arrived in the city in the late afternoon sunshine and just had time to visit the Bolivian Mint Museum.  Clare was feeling a little jaded from the trip so I decided to go with a few of the others to soak up a little culture.

Fortunately we were in time to grab the last English speaking tour of the day and with our security guard to keep us company, the tour guide took us through a series of rooms with exhibits of coins and oil paintings going back over 400 years.  It was interesting to learn that currently, Chile mints all of Bolivia’s notes and coins!

Our truck ‘Cindy’ rejoined us at Potosi and we all climbed back on board, to continue our journey north, to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz.  It was a long drive day so it meant having lunch on the truck and we eventually reached the capital at nightfall.  La Paz itself is built in a valley with the richer class living in the bowl of the valley which is warmer, leaving the poorer people to live in the much cooler rim.

After a long couple of days travelling, it was nice to check into our hotel and have a nice hot shower (although the shower taps were very sensitive and temperamental!)  The next day, Bill joined us for a stroll in the city and with a map provided by the hotel we located a post office, bought some stamps and posted our postcards.  It was unusual to see half a dozen police in full riot gear hanging around the entrance to the Post Office but we paid it no mind.

However, no sooner had we stepped out of the Post Office we saw a very colourful parade of protestors who were chanting and letting off fire crackers as they went past.  Mind you, the mood of the protestors seemed fairly relaxed and jovial and we felt we were in no danger.  In fact some of the local costumes looked very colourful and I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos.

We then ventured towards the main square where we saw a band playing in their full regimental dress as well as some ethnic Bolivian drummers.  Again there were lots of people and it turns out there was a rally in honour of the President.  We also ventured inside the cathedral that was in the square which was very impressive inside.  After this excitement we decided to go to a cafe and have a ‘conche de latte’, a white coffee.

In the afternoon we had a city tour which included visiting Moon Valley, which is a cluster of rock formations that, funnily enough, resemble the surface of the moon.  We also stopped to get some nice panoramic views of the La Paz.

The next day we decided to go on a day excursion to cycle down ‘Hell’s Highway’, the most dangerous road in the world.  It is a dirt road that is barely two lanes wide and has a sheer drop, in some places, of over 500 meters.  There are few crash barriers and it has claimed hundreds of lives, over the years.  Nowadays it is rarely used by traffic as a new (safer) road has been built, so feeling brave we donned our cycle gear and mountain bikes and headed towards this challenge.

There were two guides with our group and the leader was an American called ‘Cody’.  He gave us a thorough briefing on each stage of the 64km ride and how to use our specialist bikes that were built for the terrain we would be going over.  The first part of our journey was over smooth tarmac and wouldn’t be a problem.  However, when we were to get onto the infamous road, it would turn into a dirt track with large stones that could unseat a rider quite easily.

We were fairly wrapped up as we started the cycle ride at over 4,000 meters and would be descending to an altitude of little more than 2,000 meters.  We had a back up bus behind us, so at any stage we could shed layers to keep us cool.

With this information we then handed a small bottle (containing neat alcohol) that we had to touch to our lips, then pour a little on our front tyre and then pour a little onto the ground , to toast ‘Mama Pichu’ or Mother Earth, to keep us safe.  Once we did this we were on our way!

After about three stops we arrived at the dirt road and given a further briefing.  We were told to actually stay on the left hand side of the road (which is the side of the drop) however, should we get off our bikes, always make sure we get off the bikes on the right hand side.  Even now, tourists have died by getting off the wrong side, losing their balance and falling over the edge!

Clare and I decided to take things a little slower than some and after concentrating hard to miss the the big stones and uneven parts of the road, we arrived at an animal sanctuary which was the end of the ride.  It was a fantastic experience and everyone got some great photos. 

The next day we were greeted with the news that there was a problem with Cindy yet again and also there was a problem at the Bolivia/Peru border and no traffic was getting through.  So it was time to board another bus which would take us to the town of Copacabana, on the coast of Lake Titicaca, the highest fresh water lake in the world.

The bus took us to a ferry port and with all our gear, and we met up with the other group.  We then boarded a small ferry and went across to an island to continue our journey to Copacabana.  We were greeted the other side by a guy who wanted to see everyone’s passport although we were still in Bolivia.  Much to the annoyance of everyone, most people showed their passport to him, although me and Clare sidled around him and carried on our merry way to our awaiting bus!

We arrived in Copacabana and had a restful afternoon.  The next day we took a boat to Isla del Sol (The Island of the Sun) to visit some ancient Inca ruins and to walk from the north of the island to the south of the island which was around 13km long.  It was good practice for the Inca Trail which we would embark on in a few days time and to see how we would cope, walking at altitude.

It was certainly harder than we thought and we were shown our age a little as the younger members of the group managed to maintain a quicker pace as we slowed right down, going up the steeper hills.  Still, we managed it in the time allotted and with some sore feet and aching joints we boarded the boat back to Copacabana.  We had an early night, as we up early the next morning to try our luck at getting over the border from Bolivia to Peru.

To avoid any delay the plan was for both groups from the trucks to board two boats and to sail across Lake Titicaca to Puno in Peru.  It was an interesting journey as our Bolivian fixer had got us visa stamps to leave Bolivia and gain entry to Peru however, when we got to the port we were taken down a grassy path and a very small dock where two boats were waiting to sail us across.  We got the feeling that this was not the normal port and was a little ‘ad-hoc’.  Still, we clambered aboard, stowed our bags on the roof of this small boat and set sail across Lake Titicaca and towards Peru!



20. Uyuni - The Market
21. Uyuni - Lady in a Bowler Hat
22. Uyuni - Train Graveyard
23. Uyuni - Paul at the Train Graveyard
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