The morning we set off for the Bolivian border we were all a little nervous about what was to come. At Chilean migration, they enquired about our vehicle and our provisions for the trip. They were satisfied to hear we had a 4x4 vehicle.
The Paso Jama was still closed and it was disturbing to pass a line of waiting trucks to continue up the steep 2000 meter, 47 km climb to the Bolivian border. We saw the remnants of several accidents as we made the climb.
The roads were clear of ice and snow, but at the top of the climb we began to see the snow covered landscape.
At the Bolivian border we were extremely frustrated when the border officer would not allow us to enter on our Australian passports. He insisted that we must enter on our US passports. This meant that we would require a visa at a cost of 60 USD each. He would not budge. With no recourse we decided to pay for the visa. Our suspicions of corruption were confirmed when he handed us back $20 USD of the fee as we left, apparently as a gesture of good will. We suspect the immigration officer and his friend in customs had a good meal when their shift was completed.
We continued from the border, now in Bolivia, to the entrance to Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, where we would begin the Laguna Route. The guides were pleased to see us and provided helpful information. They do a shift of 20 days on and 10 days off. The 2 rangers we met had been there through the storm and I suspect had a little cabin fever. We were the only over landers they had seen in the last week.
The Laguna route and Salar de Uyuni routes are not sign posted and there are not accurate maps of the area. This is why most people take a guided tour and why it is seen as being one of the best off road adventures for over landers.
Mike and I had completed such a tour 17 years ago on our first trip to Sth America.
We had been told that our GPS would not work on this route, and people were correct. Once again we relied on ioverlander and the information provided from fellow over Landers. It still amazes me that our exact location can be tracked on our ipad, and displayed on the ioverlander map.
Our travel companions Petra and Heinz also had a map of the route that friends who had completed the route a couple of weeks before had shared with them.
The road conditions quickly turned to dirt tracks covered in snow and mud. We learned early on that there was never a main track but many tracks, of which you chose the most travelled and the one that looked the least ominous.
Passing Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (the white and green lakes) we were struck by the beauty of the landscape, which was even more picturesque due to the glistening white snow. The bitterly cold winds had us adding layers of clothing, until we were clad in beanies, fleeces, scarves and gloves.
It was reassuring as we made the drive to see the tour group vehicles, knowing that if we needed help, it would not be far away.
I was pleased at this point to be showing no signs of altitude sickness. We had taken some aspirin that morning and were drinking coca leaf tea, which locals use to assist with altitude affects.
We continued on from the Lakes to the Thermal springs where we intended to camp for the night. The springs were at 4200 meters, but for a few days we would have no choice, as the altitude remains high. Mike and I had already determined that we would opt for hostel accommodation if the weather would be too cold. A park ranger quickly distinguished any thoughts we may have had regarding camping, as he forbid us to camp due to cold conditions. He also insisted that our friends could not sleep in their enclosed vehicle.
Accommodations on the route are few and very basic. They are mainly set up to house the tour groups coming through. We enquired at the only hostel and they said the only option they had was a room “out the back”. We discovered that it was in fact their storage room that they had put a couple of mattresses in for us with some blankets. The room had no heating and was bitterly cold. Since we had no option, we gathered all our bedding, ate our heated up soup, and retired to bed as soon as the sunset. It was a long night, with temperatures reaching -18 degrees C.
During the night we all had some symptoms of altitude sickness, nausea, some difficulty breathing and mild headaches. It was a chore to get Keira out from under the covers in the morning.
Mike was pleased that the car started on the first try. We had taken a cue from the tour drivers and had covered our engine in an emergency blanket from our first aid kit, to keep the engine from freezing over night. The radiator water had frozen and needed some hot water to assist it to defrost. All our other water supplies in the car had frozen and our soymilk in our room was frozen too.
We had every intention of bathing in the hot springs, but we had witnessed an event the night before that destroyed those ideas. Before the tours arrived, we watched the bathroom attendant wash the pit toilet covers in the hot spring pool. We posted a note on ioverlander to warn other travelers and held our breath as the tour groups bathed in masses in the pool. Yuck!!
We spent an amazing couple of hours at Laguna Colorado. The lake was full of flamingos. The snow covered mountains made an amazing reflection in the lakes waters.
We had separated from Petra and Heinz at the thermal springs, as they were travelling at a slower pace than us. They too were experiencing altitude sickness. We were unsure as to whether they would make it to Laguna Verde and if they did it would take them several more hours to get there. We had a time limit if we were going to make Uyuni, so we had to continue on way with no way to communicate with them.
It was coming on dusk and we knew that it would be close to dark when we arrived in Uyuni. We had decided to stay in a hostel, so we didn’t have to set up camp when we arrived.
At this point we came across a Bolivian couple on the side of the road with car problems. We stopped to see if we could be of assistance, however their fuel pump was shot. They had been on the side of the road for 3 hours with no one stopping to help. It was getting dark and cold, so we offered to tow them back to their hometown of San Cristobal, 20 km in the opposite direction to Uyuni. They took us up on our offer and were very grateful when we deposited them in front of their home. We said our goodbyes and continued on our way.
We were so happy to arrive in Uyuni. We found a hostel, showered and crawled under the blankets. We were once again pleased with our decision.
The following day was a rest day. Keira and I relaxed and Mike explored the town getting supplies and seeking out a laundry. We were amazed to find that Uyuni was now a large town. When we were there 17 years ago, it was a tiny town and there were about 7 jeeps operating for tours. Now there are probably 30 tours happening at one time.
In the afternoon we ventured out to the train grave yard where old steam trains have been deposited. They now appear more like rusted sculptures.
Most of the vehicles completing the tours are land cruisers. The drivers and tour guides were really interested to hear about Priscilla’s set up, and they were very envious.
Our second day in Uyuni, we ventured onto the Salar de Uyuni. Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt lake in the world covering 10582 square kilometers with a depth of 10 kms. It was amazing to be there again, and to be driving on it in our own vehicle. We had an incredible day exploring the cactus islands, visiting the hotel made of salt, visiting the Dakar monument, making funny photographs using the perspective of the salt lake and generally chilling out. We met a group of Brazilians who were roasting nuts native to Brazil called Pinhao, similar in taste to chestnuts but shaped like a gigantic pine nut, and drinking wine from one of their wineries in Brazil. They showed us amazing hospitality sharing wine and nuts with us, whilst dancing and partying on the salt lake. It was an unexpected experience and a lot of fun. Once again we were pleased with our decision to do the Salar de Uyuni as a day trip instead of as a part of the extended Laguna route.
Whilst in Uyuni we visited the local markets to restock our fruits and vegetables. The local people were so pleased to see Keira, as they rarely see children from foreign countries. They ohh’d and ahhh’d over her, and she loved the extra attention.
Our first trip to Bolivia we had travelled to many parts of Bolivia and had an incredible experience. We did not feel the need to see these towns again, and sometimes going back to the same places you taint previous experiences because it is not the same. So, we decided to head straight to La Paz via a night in Oruro.
Mike was anxious to get to La Paz as Priscilla was having increased difficulty starting in the mornings. We had heard many times of a very experienced mechanic in La Paz, called Ernesto Hug, who works on overland vehicles and specializes in 4x4 vehicles.
Our next destination, La Paz.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Priscilla- she is an awesome vehicle who has taken us to so many cool places and has kept us safe/George, plus John for helping to make Priscilla equipped for this type of travel/Mike and his expert driving skills in off road conditions.
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- completing one of the most challenging off road trips in Sth America/our day on the Salar/meeting the Brazilians on the Salar; Keira- making the funny pictures at the Salar; Riss- seeing the flamingos at Laguna Verde and enjoying the tranquility of the lake/our day on the Salar/meeting the Brazilians on the Salar
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-the altitude; Keira- the cold weather; Riss- altitude sickness
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike-coca leaf tea, Keira-a popsicle in Uyuni- yummy even if it was so cold outside; Riss- our reheated soup- it was warm and yummy, a real comfort food in cold conditions/coca leaf tea-it really helps with altitude sickness.
BEST CAMPING SPOT: no camping this blog
PRISCILLA GETTING A WASH- there are special car washes in Uyuni that specialize in cleaning vehicles that have driven on the salt flats. Priscilla has never been so clean. It only lasted a day as we were back on dirt roads again.
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.