Category Archives: Bolivia

The Salt Flat Saga : Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

We had to shout at each other to be heard above the howling wind. The flying sand was stinging our faces and got into our eyes, noses, mouths and ears so that we could barely see, and had difficulty catching a breath.  With all of this going on, we were trying to dig the van out of a foot of soft sand which had blown in and engulfed what should have been a road.  To make matters even worse, the fast flying sand was creating a static charge, so that every time we tried to open the car door we were zapped with an electric shock.

This is probably the craziest situation we’ve encountered since starting our trip. Visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats was supposed to be a simple two day drive, but things don’t always go to plan.

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The drive to Uyuni started out quite well. We left Sucre early and puzzled our way through Potosi without too much hassle. We soon heard on the grapevine that the road to Uyuni was blockaded by protesters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe normal route to Uyuni… no big deal

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We were discussing the situation with a roadside restaurant owner when a truck laden with vegetables stopped for lunch. “These are my friends.” He said. “Follow them, they know another way.” This was the start of our hassles.

Firstly, the old truck was so weighed down with onions and potatoes that they had trouble climbing the steep grades and had to stop halfway up every hill to cool off.

It was already sundown by the time we reached their secret bypass through the desert.

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Unfortunately the deep sand proved a little too much for the heavily laden truck. Not knowing the way, and feeling obliged to help, we endured the freezing cold to unload the veges and dig their truck out of the sand.

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We finally arrived at the town of Uyuni, about 7 hours and only 112 kms later, frozen to the bone and tired. We found the place we had been looking for, grabbed some pizza and then collapsed into a deep sleep in the van on the street.

Uyuni 07Room with a view

The next day we learned that our troubles were not over. Due to the blockade, there was no fuel in town. We thought we’d find people selling it in plastic containers, trying to make a buck. But no such luck, the town was dry.

Our only option was to drive 110 km further on to another town that was sure to have gasoline. We had just enough fuel in the tank to make it, but only just.

It turns out that the road from Uyuni to Atocha is a horribly corrugated gravel road that shook the van like crazy and jarred our bones for hours. This was where we hit the sandstorm.

Uyuni 08 Uyuni 09No gas here

We were stuck in the middle of the road and unable to see more than two metres in front of us. We were worried a 4×4 would come screaming through at any minute and take us out. It probably took us close to an hour to move the van back onto firm ground, but it felt like so much longer, all the while being blasted by gale force wind and sand.

We were sitting in the car catching our breath, and wiping the sand from our eyes when help arrived. Once again, a local who knew another way said “Follow me.”

He set off at a cracking pace through the desert as we struggled to keep up. We only got stuck twice more before finally making it through to Atocha.

Uyuni 12 Uyuni 13The windows were closed but this sand still found a way in

Once in Atocha we asked for directions to the gas station.  “Just drive through the river, about five kilometres.” We had to ask a few times to make sure we heard right. We did.

Uyuni 14The river/road to the gas station

We made some calculations to figure out how much fuel we would need over the next few days, unfortunately the gas station wouldn’t fill our spare containers so we had to siphon the full tank into our spare bidones and then return for more.

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After another chilly street sleep in the van we hit the road to return to Uyuni. Luckily we picked up a hitchhiker who once again knew another way. It was a lot longer in distance, but it stuck to firm roads all the way and got us there pretty quickly.

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Back in Uyuni, Bec got horribly sick with a stomach bug. The staff at the Toñito Hotel were great to us.  We’d been eating at their restaurant and using their bathrooms while we slept in the street outside. So they knew what we’d been through. They let us book in early to a room, even sending up soup and hot water to help Bec recover. A good rest, a hot shower and bit of friendly help were just what we needed at this point.

So, we finally made it to the Salt Flats on the day that the blockade ended, making all of our hassles over the past few days essentially unnecessary.

Uyuni 17 Uyuni 18 Uyuni 19 Uyuni 20 Uyuni 21 Uyuni 22 Uyuni 23 Uyuni 24 Uyuni 25 Uyuni 26Uyuni 34 We met Stefano on the Salar, he’s travelling around the world on his 250cc Yamaha

We chilled out in the middle of the Salar for the day and then found our way to Isla Incahuasi, the cactus covered island in the middle of the salt lake.

The sun was just setting as the hordes of backpacker-filled Landcruisers left the island. We set up our bed for the night and watched as the sun set in a soft glow over the distant mountains.

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The night was incredibly quiet and clear with the most amazing starry sky I have ever seen. It was also brutally cold. But, we were warm and happy under our four layers of blankets and sleeping bags, hardly aware that the windows were covered in ice and our water bottles were frozen solid.

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The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset had been.

As we were having breakfast and boiling cups of tea, the crowds of people arrived once again. Our cue to fire up the engine, hit the open salt flat and get out of there.

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Being out on the Salar was really beautiful and peaceful, but it was a bit of an anticlimax after all the hassles we went through to get there.

When we returned the main road was open for travel, blissfully smooth and trouble free. We put in a long day of driving and made it to Tupiza late in the evening. We wanted to get to the border early the next day.

Our last hurdle for the week was mostly our fault. I thought we could buy our Argentina visas at the border, but it turns out they are only available online. So after being technically stamped out of Bolivia, we headed back into town to get our Argentina visas.  The internet was so slow that the visa website wouldn’t even load. After hours of trying, we finally decided to call Mugsie in Canada and ask her to do it for us. We finally made it into Argentina, 7 hours after arriving at the border. Just in time for dinner and another cold night of sleeping on the streets.

We look back on it now and laugh, but this past week has been exhausting. Just a few too many obstacles and a little too much adventure. Hopefully we can relax a little now.


Posted from Mendoza, Argentina

Warm Welcomes : Cochabamba & Sucre, Bolivia

After reading about Bolivia and chatting to some other road trippers, I expected Bolivians to be stand-offish, suspicious and reserved. The people we’ve met however, have been the complete opposite. I am realising more and more just how individual a travelling experience is. We have to take advice with a grain of salt. For us, so much depends on timing, luck and our mind-set at the time.

Our first day in La Paz, we were parked outside a cafe, when a fellow VW enthusiast tracked us down. Juan had soon invited us to visit him in Cochabamba. At the time this wasn’t on our planned route, but the offer was too good to refuse, so when we left La Paz we headed that way.

We had a great couple of days spending time with Juan and his wife, who coincidently is also a Rebecca. They showed us around Cochabamba (and the world’s tallest Jesus), and were extremely helpful and patient as we bumbled along in Spanish. Beccy is an amazing cook and we were treated to more delicious Bolivian home cooking. To top it all off, we camped at their apartment building with access to the hottest showers we’ve had in Bolivia.

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We followed Juan and his immaculate Westfalia around the city, accomplishing in half a day what would usually take us three. We got the brakes checked, indicators fixed and brand new tires. There is something about VW people, it’s like having family all over the world.

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Returning from lunch in Cochabamba one day, we found a note waiting for us. I guess the van had another fan, as did our matching denim outfits that day. We accepted the invite to meet with Daniel at the pub, he spoke better English than us, and reminded me of some of our friends from home (Canada and Australia) I’ve been missing.

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Sucre is another amazing destination that wasn’t initially on our to do list. Everyone we’ve met whose been there says “Sucre” in this wistful, dreamy voice. Obviously, we had to check it out. Sucre is very easy on the eyes, with its colonial white buildings and pristine main plaza. This is not the kind of city I expected in Bolivia, but then Bolivia has been proving most of my expectations wrong.

Cocha 10 Cocha 11 The road to Sucre

Sucre 09Sucre 13Sucre 10Sucre 11We camped in the courtyard at Pachamamma Hostal – a great recommendation from Arjan and Leontien

We only spent one full day here, so really weren’t able to explore as much as we would have liked. What we did find though was another couple, Arthur and Yana also traveling in a VW van, and had a great time sharing stories with them. They told us about the Mercardo Central, one of the best markets we’ve been to so far. We spent hours here, eating soup (less than $1 a bowl), snacking on peanut butter cookies, drinking smoothies and loading up on supplies before heading out into the desert.

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So far lady luck has been well and truly on our side, but she has some different plans in store for us next …

Posted from: my sick bed in Uyuni, Bolivia.

Friendly Faces : La Paz Bolivia

We spent our last night in Peru camped along the shores of Lago Titicaca and got an early start to cross the border into Bolivia. Country number 13.

La Paz y mas 01  Views over Titicaca, from the Bolivian side

La Paz y mas 02 Ferry crossing, Lago Titicaca

La Paz y mas 03 Hitchhiker

After an uneventful stay in Copacabana we braved the mad rush of traffic as we entered La Paz. We’ve met quite a few people lately who seem to get lost in large cities when they follow their GPS. Since we don’t have one we have to use our intuition and ask directions from locals, which has been working fairly reliably. We made it to our destination quite easily, unfortunately the address we had was totally wrong, but nothing a little time in an internet cafe couldn’t fix.

La Paz y mas 04 La Paz y mas 05 La Paz y mas 06 Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon) and our cozy campground

La Paz is set in a high altitude valley surrounded by crazy landscapes and towering glacier topped mountains. There is a strong contrast throughout the different nieghbourhoods, of old and new, rich and poor, but throughout it all there seems to be a lot of energy and character.

We spent a day or two wandering the city, checking out the markets and testing out all the street food while we made arrangements for our Huayna Potosi climb.

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We left the van in the campground for a few days while we set off on the mountaineering trip. When we returned, we found ourselves in the middle of the celebrations for the anniversary of the foundation of La Paz. This is a big deal here, the entire downtown was taken over by marching bands, parades and partying in the streets.

La Paz y mas 12 La Paz y mas 13 La Paz y mas 21 La Paz y mas 22 La Paz y mas 23Chuflay – hot frothy spiced milk with a hit of singani liquor. Sounds weird, tastes amazing. 

The geography and demographics in La Paz are a bit of an anomaly. Due to the bitterly cold winds up on the altiplano, the good views are all to be had in the poorer suburbs. People with more money can afford to live in the bottom of the valley where the weather is more agreeable.

A cool new project that has just been completed in La Paz is the teleferico between the centre of town down in the valley and the densely populated El Alto neighbourhood way up high in the altiplano. It has only been open for a few months, but already thousands of people are using it everyday to commute, instead of taking the dirty old buses which struggle up and down the steep hills. For a few cents we took a ride, which only made us more excited about the upcoming ski season as we travel further south.

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The biggest highlights of our time in La Paz have actually been the great people we have met. We never feel lonely when we are camped out in the wild, but have often found cities to be lonely places when we don’t know anyone.

This was definitely not the case in La Paz.  We met a bunch of great people at the campground, mostly Europeans who are travelling in the other direction overflowing with tales of summer in Patagonia. This was also the perfect crowd to join at the pub for the world cup finals.

To top it all off, amidst a flurry of emails from interested buyers for the van, we found that what we were looking for was right in front of us. Leontien and Arjan had dreams of finding a VW Westfalia to take home to Holland… this dream will soon become a reality when we meet them again at the end of our travels.

La Paz y mas 24 Celebratory beers with the soon to be new owners of Oscar.

La Paz y mas 25 German party

La Paz y mas 26 Gooaaaaaaal – Germany for the win. (I think I was the only one hoping for an Argentina win)

We also had the honour of meeting up with our Bolivian friend’s Mum while we were there. The timing was perfect. Since it was a public holiday we were invited over for lunch, and also met some lovely members of the extended family. As Estela met us at the door she said “Please come in. My house is small, but my heart is big.” The way it should be.

She made us a delicious lunch (I still think about the quinoa bake) and we sat around chatting for the afternoon. Hopefully we will be able to catch up with her in Australia next time she is visiting her daughter, so that we can repay the favour.

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And so ended our time in La Paz. We arrived with the plan to get in and out quickly, we were feeling a little rushed about our schedule and a little stressed about finding a buyer for our van. After spending over a week here, we left with excitement for the road ahead, no stress about the van, and a bunch of new friends.

So far, Bolivia couldn’t get better… or could it?