We are travelling through South America for a few month starting in Santiago, Chile heading south to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel and then wandering north through Argentina via Patagonia, onto Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and return home via Easter Island. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. Bolivia starts off pretty badly for us but we soon warm to it great value, dramatic geography and scenery and friendly people. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the Pampas and the Jungle because of the wet season but it still won John’s heart.
Travelling along our old friend Ruta 40, we cross the Tropic of Capricorn and continue on to the Bolivian border at Villazon. At 3,500m Villazon is a high, grubby border town and a major contraband crossing between Argentina and Bolivia. It seems we entered Bolivia, if not by the back door then certainly by the side door, while Villazon is a big dot on the map few vehicles cross here.
Exit and entry is uneventful, but at this height the oxygen starts to get a bit thin so we recruit a couple of nine year old porters who spirit our packs through the vendor lined strees to the hotel 500m up the hill.
Villazon: is not a great place to stay, bad hostels, bad food, bad internet connections, bad buses and generally a bad neighbourhood. John is affected by altitude sickness and is in a very bad mood. We make the best of cold chicken and chips and try to sleep until the morning bus. Cathy considers how altitude affects John’s attitude.
At 7.00am, we secure the top front seats of the bus to Tupiza (4 hrs) and peer down through the broken windscreen. Next to us sits a stubborn old man who refuses to give up his seat to its ticketed owner, the conductor’s best efforts are ignored, he just refuses to move, so the ticketed passenger stands beside him for the journey, eventually giving up and sitting in the isle falls asleep.
The 10 percent of Bolivian roads that are paved ends two blocks short of the edge of town, the road turns to gravel, later just to dirt, and a little further on we turn up a dry creek bed. The creek beds deliver some of the smoother traveling, still the image of a modern if worn out double-decker bus driving up a dry creek beds it’s … well Bolivian, we guess.
The bus is very full and the plastic stools in the isle space are sold separately after all other seats are full. The journey is monotonous. Cathy uses the time trying to decode the randomness at which the driver stops to pick up more passengers or just drives straight past. It’s not a numerical sequence, it may be football team colours or just perhaps the way they wave at him.
Tupiza: is set in a green valley oasis surrounded by red mountains, a relief from the barren high plains we have crossed. The accommodation, food and John’s attitude have improved. Internet is still bad, in the middle of property negotiations back in Australia, the internet connection improves, and moments later the town electricity goes down.
We decide to move on to Uyuni and the world’s largest salt plains (Salar de Uyuni). We are set on crossing the high plains during daylight, but the train only goes a couple of times a week and travels at night. A crowded rough old troop carrier with bench seats is our next option but the view is limited to the passenger that sits opposite you.
The other option is the long way around, an expensive 4 day tour of the high plains, volcanoes, coloured lakes, wild life, rough tracks, cold nights, sleeping in village huts and includes an option to shower on the third night. Can’t imagine why Cathy passes up this opportunity.
We are fortunate to come across a tour operator who needs to get his jeep to Uyuni the next day for a tour group heading south. We negotiate a special price which includes a stop at Dead Cow Pass, the site of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid’s last hold-up, and from here we head to Saint Vincente the venue for their final shoot out.
We speed across the Altiplano, this is high and dry country, broad barren high plains, sandy deserts, up through passes that simultaneously overlook more plains, and even higher snow capped mountains. It is remote country and very few other vehicles, we pass a truck with a flat tire, our driver says they may be stuck here for several days so we give the crew a couple of litres of drinking water. We occasionally pick up the railway line slightly raised above the plains for a better view, while the local Llamas graze along the track, Cathy supposes they have memorized the train timetable.
Late afternoon we arrive at the spaghetti western town of Uyuni, it is the middle of siesta and a sandstorm, it’s dry, flat, very dusty and very deserted.
We set off the next day for the salt lake tour. It starts badly, the only petrol station is out of petrol and all the tour four wheel drive are hanging around waiting for the tanker to arrive. Our tour includes a German girl adventurer, fresh from the Amazon jungle with insect bites which make her limbs look like a moonscape, and a couple of Japanese boys with little English and even less Spanish.
As we head across the plain the bonnet pops up, and we slow to a blind stop, we’re glad it’s in the middle of a salt plain. Further on the emergency water supply strapped to the top, is spotted through the rear view mirror sitting quietly on the salt plain. Later on the gear stick comes out off the floor, luckily for us it’s a Toyota, and we have the Japanese tourists on board.
We lunch on Llama and mashed potato at the hotel built of salt in the middle of the plains. Accommodation here does not include showers, but expensive drinking water is available.
We visit volcanoes, see mummies, and fish island with very, very old cactus, then we have a special visit to the new but still incomplete Palace of Salt, built from salt blocks at US$1,000 a night it includes a swimming pool, spa, showers and drinking water.
As we return to Uyuni we are treated to an amazing sunset– but our spaghetti western town has no power or water. This is the night we planned to catch up with Hilary our neighbour from home but with no power and no internet we miss each other.
The bus ride to Potosi was all dirt, along high dry plains and even higher passes, roads are terribly corregated `drrr……..drr….…drr….., shaking the bolts out of the bus, the bones out of passengers and covering the roof cargo and our packs in dust. Again alternate roads are found, up dry creek beds, or simply just going bush and running parallel to the road in the sand. The bus makes a stop at Tica Tica, a dry dusty adobe village with no toilets, the driver and passengers just head into the corn fields.
Potosi: at over 4,000m it’s high and has a rich history and amazing architecture. We stay at an old Carmelite Monastery converted into a hostel, no heaters but eight alpaca blankets. At 4,000m we’re breathless and learn to move slowly, no-one ever runs especially up hills and you don’t bend over to do up shoes.
Another 500m up the mountain are the infamous silver mines. John takes a mine tour which goes kilometres underground and with temperatures up to 45c. On the way we stop at a local market to buy gifts for the miners including coca leaves, coca cola, alcohol, cigarettes and sticks of dynamite. Further up the mountain the driver takes us out on a ridge so we can throw lit dynamite sticks into the valley below. Can’t imagine why Cathy passed on this opportunity. Instead she tours the historic churches including San Francisco Convent, visits the basement catacombs and then climbs to the rooftop of the Cathedral for the best view in town.
Some things to note about high altitude that are not in the guide books, you use more moisturizer and sunblock than anticipated, you should only drink half as much rum as you think you should and you should open bottles of Coca Cola very, very slowly or they will fizz like a low grade explosives.
Four westerners with backpacks and a driver in a small Hyundai Excel scoot across more plains and through passes to Sucre but this time its asphalt all the way.
Sucre: at only 2,700m it’s a pleasant change, red roofs and white washed walls, complete with UNESCO heritage listing our first sign of sophistication and a relief from dry dusty high plains. We take some time out, eat all the western food we can find, walk the city and visit the dinosaur tracks quarry, Sunday market at Tarabuco and then take a flight to La Paz.
La Paz: at 3,500m the capital is in a valley 500m below the airport. Landing is pretty spectacular, snow capped mountains off in the distance, adobe covered high plains, a huge city down in the valley with suburbs clinging onto the valley walls, a town planner’s nightmare.
We find accommodation downtown around the corner from the huge market area, blocks and blocks of markets where you can buy anything and everything. Youths wander around with mobile phones on a leash, for rent by the call. We spend some time wandering around but vote against the opportunity to bike down Death Road – to Corocio, the most dangerous road in the world (UN rating). Instead we head to Copacabana by public bus.
Copacabana: on Lake Titicaca is our Christmas destination. The bus crawls out of the La Paz valley, up the hill and across the plains, the outskirts of La Paz seem to go on forever then on through farmland as we follow the shores of the lake, past reed boats and small dorys. The bus is ferried across a section of the lake, reed boats give way to pedalos as we reach Copacabana in the early afternoon.
Lake Titicaca: the highest lake in the world is Bolivia’s only decent water expanse and is the local beach resort for La Paz, pedalos, trout and beer restaurants on the lake shore, boat trips to islands of the Sun and Moon and the very small Bolivian navy base.
In front of the Copacabana Cathedral is the place for vehicle blessings occur every morning at 10.30. Long processions of cars, buses and trucks take out this alternative insurance for about a US$ 1.50 donation. Priests bless, owners spray beer, guests throw confetti, crowds cheer, car alarms go off and dogs bark, on Christmas day it’s even more popular and this spectacular event goes on for three hours.
We exhaust ourselves climbing the steep local Cerro Calvario with the 14 Stations of the Cross, seven on the way up and seven at the top, and a great sunset over the lake.
Its Christmas Day so we tie a metre of Dental Floss across our room and string hand-knitted animal finger puppets as Christmas decorations. We join the locals and take a pedalo ride, eat trout and drink beer on the lake shore. Boxing Day more families arrive from La Paz, the beach is as crowded as Surfers Paradise during Christmas holidays. The pedalos are in chaos and clearly in breach of some obscure Bolivian maritime law, the navy patrol boat is on full alert and while no boardings are required, some need towing back to shore.
With Christmas celebrations over in Copacabana, we ride the bus around the shores of Lago Titicaca and as the pedalos give way to the reed boats and dorys we reach a small village with a tiny immigration office where we are nonchalantly stamped out of Bolivia and into Peru.