I don’t know why, but for some reason we are ridiculously excited about entering Bolivia. I think we hope that, after the European standards of Chile and Argentina, Bolivia will be a bit more like our Asia trip.
The pass leading to the Bolivian border is very steep - the straight road climbs up 1,700 metres (5,600 feet) - it was a hard and slow climb for Nessie and a cold night camping but it allowed us and our U.K friends (John and Isabelle) time for acclimatization at 4,000 metres.
We entered Bolivia via a remote National park that took us past high altitude lagoons, beautiful scenery and thermal streams. There had been a very heavy fall of snow 2 days before but luckily for us the Bolivian side was frozen rather than snow covered, so our dirt roads were easy to drive. The customs office sits amidst a sulphur mine at a breathless 5,028 metres (16,724 feet) - that’s a record high for us.
Everyone complains that there are no accurate Bolivian maps and we can confirm that out of our 4 maps not one corresponded to the other and none were that accurate. We wanted to get down to at least 4,000 metres before we stopped for the night so we followed a truck that drove to the right around Laguna Colorada only to find ourselves in the middle of a salt mine! Rather than turn back, we found a narrow, rough boulder mountain track and followed that, crossing icy streams and having our cab fans shaken off their brackets.
At one point we reached a summit where we could see for miles - there was nothing - not even another track.
Just as night was falling we came to a junction of a very nice dirt road, we turned onto it only to find the village of Villa Mar around the corner! Perfect at 4,050 metres.
The next morning we awoke to freezing temperatures(-6c), llama’s, thatched mud walled houses and barrel shaped women waddling down the streets swaddled in woollen shawls, wearing bowler hats and heavily pleated short skirts that, when they bent over, ensured a flash of knee length bloomers! Meanwhile the men were warming up by pile-driving stone to make their village walls. This was exactly what we were hoping for!
Another beautiful drive through streams and past a bizarre rock valley leads us to San Cristobal with it’s lovely 350 yr old church. From here the ‘main’ road to Uyuni is awful - pot holes, corrugations and large grade gravel.
It is time to play our favourite game - ‘Scare the hell out of the locals’. The rules are simple - match your speed to the oncoming vehicle then chase them across the road until you are within half a metre of their wing mirror.
Why? Because if you tuck in close to them the gravel doesn’t have a chance to rise high enough to smash your windows. We reach Uyuni with all our windows intact.
Uyuni is famous for being the nearest town to the world’s largest salt flat. You can’t really imagine how big it is until you drive on it - a 80 kilometre drive takes us to the centre of the salt flat and to a small island covered in towering cacti where we sit eating lunch on a table made from salt! There are no ‘roads’ and no signs (typical of Bolivia), so the only way to tell if you are heading in the right direction is to use your compass or GPS and then look for the salt hexagonal’s that have been polished smooth by vehicle tyres. Once you find the tracks they are very easy to follow. We were able to ‘cruise’ along at 80 kph but we kept a eye open for the occasional water filled holes that can appear on the track.
Our next stop was the semi-ghost mining town of Pulacayo, home to Bolivia’s first steam locomotive plus a train and carriage that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid robbed, complete with bullet holes. Further on we stumbled upon a traditional village full of llama’s, donkeys and goats and decided to spend the night.
All the children and women came over to greet us and they enjoyed Dave’s first South American magic show but we wondered where the men were. Night fall revealed the men, staggering blind drunk into the village after a hard day of working in the silver mines or on the road construction teams. We have passed these men as they work, their cheeks bulging with coco leaves to stave off hunger. Life for the men and women in Bolivia is never easy.
The city of Sucre is our next stop and we are a little disappointed to find the road is asphalt the whole way!
We drive through lovely arable land where llama’s and goats have been replaced by cattle and sheep and farmers busily harvest by hand whilst the women sit weaving in the winter sun.
Sucre is reputed to be Bolivia’s most beautiful city, the whitewashed walls and lovely plaza certainly were pretty and we enjoyed visiting the usual touristy sites before setting off on another adventure.
We have seen a route on one of our maps that cuts northeast toward Samaipata, so we decide to go that way. Tarabuco is a interesting indigenous weaving village that we stop to visit on the way and it’s after this that we leave the good roads behind.
A rough stone track leads us to Tomina from where we turn into lush green hills and fertile valleys, parrots appear and we start to see forested jungle. We begin to suspect that this is probably not a truck route when we come upon some narrow gates, luckily Nessie squeezes through. The next day we set off on our rarely used dirt track passing through fabulous and very remote scenery. The track is rough but great to drive because it never sees traffic, at one point we come upon a VERY narrow section where we have to force our way through large stones to widen the route (hoping that the road edge doesn’t collapse down the hill in the process)!
A beautiful cacti and tree plateau reveals a dozen people trying to develop farm land. We stop for lunch by a bridge only to find a old man at our door, it seems the ‘derelict’ house nearby is his, he asks if we have anything to sell - the nearest place to buy food is 30 kilometres away (we are told it’s 2 hour drive)!!!
He was absolutely correct - large sections of this route disappear with rain and it took exactly 2 hours of driving a difficult, twisting and sometimes narrow track to reach Pucara, a tiny village perched on a steep slope.
It has been a FANTASTIC drive, exactly the kind of thing we love - remote, beautiful and a little difficult.
I can’t imagine that I’ll say this often, but Dave actually went white with fear on the road from Pucara to Guadalupe! We had slept overnight in a field and woke the following morning to heavy rain (our worst nightmare on these roads).
It was a steep decline on a route of bedrock and mud where the rain was washing parts of the road edge away down a sheer drop. The truck started to slide toward the edge, so we put her into four wheel drive but it was still treacherous going. It was when the mist parted and Dave saw just how sheer a drop it was that he went pale. My suggestion to stop the truck so that I could take a photograph did not go down well at all.We didn’t stop. In actual fact, Dave told me rather sternly to sit close to the passenger door and be ready to jump out if the truck started to slide again. Bloody Nora!
We reached Vallegrande alive and calm enough to visit the place where the body of Che Guevara was taken after his execution by the Bolivian police. (He was a famous communist revolutionary).
Finally we reach Samaipata, a beautifully set village full of hummingbirds and parrots with the interesting Pre Incan ruins of El Fuerte nearby.
When you ask people to name Bolivia’s largest city they immediately think of La Paz, yet it is Santa Cruz that is the largest city and our next destination. It is there that we meet Juan Carlos, the proud owner of a 22 year old Land Rover 3 series. He’s a interesting character, his ex father in law was once the president of the country, he’s had a book written about his family (surname Bowles) and he has written hundreds of articles for the newspapers. With typical Bolivian hospitality we are invited to lunch and welcomed warmly before he takes us to his ‘best friends’ garage for a private tour of over 40 sports cars all belonging to the owner of Aero Sur (Bolivia’s biggest airline). It never ceases to amaze us when we bump into people like this all over the world!
The Jesuit Missions route (Rt 10) loops northeast linking several churches and countless wonderful traditional thatched villages with a dirt road that cuts through jungle and ranch land. At night we sleep in tiny villages where women and children spend all day collecting water from a communal pump and the pigs busily forage for scraps. It’s a superb if rather bumpy drive but the opportunity to spot wildlife is good (even if it is sometimes road kill). The native tribes people were introduced to religion by the priests, who in turn, learned valuable lessons from them about living in such a difficult environment.
There was one thing that really fascinated us. Very odd looking American’s - the men uniformly wearing denim dungarees, the women in skirts and hats. All very stern looking they were to be seen around the vast wealthy farmlands. We got a clue later when we saw dozens of horses and carriages parked at the road side. Mennonites - a ‘cousin’ of the Amish who have been farming these lands since the 1950’s.
Valles de Rocas,
a frozen Laguna Verde,
Llama’s and a rock cutter in Villa Mar.
Uyuni ladies, Salar de Uyuni and Isla Incahuasi.
The drive to Potosi is wonderful - snow capped mountains, sand dunes, traditional villages and rocky valleys. Every village we pass has a baseball court, even the villages that are thatched huts with no electric or water - we didn’t know the Bolivians were so crazy on sport!
Potosi has a terrible history - in almost 300 years of Spanish rule 8 million African and indigenous slaves lost their lives working the silver mine here. A mine that made Spain unbelievably rich. The miners would spend 4 months in the mine never seeing daylight. Today the mine remains open and the hardy few who work it face dying from silicosis pneumonia within 12 years.
The Potosi mint has a superb museum with a wide variety of things to look at, the staff explain that Bolivia no longer produces any of their own currency, Canada, Chile and France now provide this service.
Neither of us has been affected by the altitude so far but here we both feel awful, Dave is light headed and breathless, I have chest pain and also feel breathless. We make the decision to drive east to lower land and leave lovely Potosi behind.
Robbery train, villagers from Yura and a overlanders best friend - the road grader!
Grooming in the plaza and a strange dinner guest at the Santa Teresa Convent, Potosi.
Some of the sights in lovely Sucre.
Life in and around Tarabuco village,
our trade route drive, Mairana village fiesta
and El Fuerte ruins.
Sports car collection, a coco chewing local labourer and Nessie getting some new padding for her seats - ooh my bum!
Some of the sights on the beautiful Jesuit Mission circuit.
We relax in luxury camping in the grounds of a hotel run by French overlanders for one week before making our way toward Brazil. On the way we visit a friendly Quaker ranching family and stop to swim in the beautiful thermal lake at Aguas Calientes. Leaving Bolivia is hard, the people and scenery have been wonderful, but we have a hot date in Brazil with our Malaysian friends!
Beautiful scenery, a friend for lunch and Dave having his toes nibbled in Aguas Calientes.
Road kill anteater, a very alive snake and a shy Toucan.