Crossing the Argentina-Bolivia border north of Humahuaca, as I read the night before on the internet, was meant to be a painful long process. So the next day we arrived prepared. In reality though, everything went rather smoothly and after finishing with the border formalities, Voukefalas rolled into Bolivia welcomed by a spectacular “Wild West” landscape. Our first destination, after exchanging a few dollars in order to pay the tolls, was the village/town of Tupiza. On our way there, the route led us via the Valley of Río Tupiza, which is surrounded by low hills full of cactuses and rainbow-colored rocks. The climate here is desert like. Days are hot, dry and clear, at nights though the temperatures drop below freezing. As we entered Tupiza, it became immediately obvious that the town depends on agriculture (lots of colourful dressed ladies sell their products on the side of the road) and mining (lots of dust from bypassing overloaded trucks).
If you’re not familiar with Tupiza’s fame like us, it is here that Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid met their fate after robbing a local bank. The city has made sure to remind you this as half of the names of tourist shops as well as hotels are named after them. As we started exploring the streets of Tupiza, the pace of life seemed slower than any other country town that we had gone through, “This is a great place to relax for a few days” Rochelle said (that was before sunset). At night the temperature dropped below freezing and sleeping in our tent, in a parking lot of a dirty local hotel (the only one we could find) proved to be rather challenging and definitely not convincing for a longer stay. The next day it was Sunday and as we were refilling our “chariot” with diesel for the day’s drive, a crowd’s gathering around the river draw our attention. A few minutes later and while I was negotiating the fuel price (read more here), we figured out what the fuss was about. Drag races are the Sunday city sight as locals with pimped up cars race through the dry river bed. I must admit it was fun to watch later on, as a video on Rochelle’s phone. From here and according to our pre-departure research, the Dakar Rally passes through using a back road, on its way to Salar de Uyuni. It was this back road that we had in mind when we came here, as our route to follow or at least parts of it. Tempted and challenged as well as thrilled, we jumped straight onto it and in the first kilometers we were already lost. Our mistake was that the route straight from the beginning starts by criss crossing the river for a couple of times. We didn’t expect that so we lost the tracks. Further down the surplices continued and for almost a hundred or so kilometers, we were literally driving in the actual river bed. The song “Many rivers to cross” became our anthem for the day. Moving on, the route brought us through some dusty villages where we had to pay a questionable toll. A rope blocked the road in somebody’s back yard. As promised by the man that collected the “toll”, as soon as we would start ascending, the road would be paved. True? Of course not, the hypothetically new road was still under construction and a lot of the detours led us to a harsh off road driving, forcing us on constantly air-down and back up our tires. The result, more slowing down. At some point we finally reached the high passage of 4100m above sea level. On the way down, when we reached the 3500m, a high plateau opened up and the terrain changed. We came across hard and soft sand tracks in a desert-like landscape that went on. The irony is that for the last 50 km, before we entered the dusty, unpaved roads of Uyuni, a brand new asphalt showed up (clearly because of tourism). Justifying why this route is picked to be part of the Dakar Rally in Bolivia, this was one of the longest days that put us and our vehicle Voukefalas to the test. “Many rivers to cross…”
Back in Tupiza now, when we mentioned to some locals that our destination was Uyuni, they whistled and answered “harto frío” (extremely cold). They were absolutely right. Icy conditions, lots of dust and an inhospitable environment were our first impressions as we arrived in Uyuni late that night. The next morning, we figured out that Uyuni owes its fame to the hundreds of travelers that pass through only to arrange and start off their tour to the nearby Salar de Uyuni. Most of them are gone in a day or two as there’s not much to see or do there beside dust. Unfortunately for us and as we depend on the weather, we were forced to stay in a village hotel as the 11 degrees below zero, that the thermometer hits at night, canceled once and for all our plan to sleep under the stars in the Salar itself. Worth keeping in mind here is that Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat (12,106 sq km) that sits at 3653m. In the dry season, the surface gets hard enough to drive on it. With only limited time in our hands, driving into this pure white of the greatest nothing imaginable, surrounded only by just blue sky, was one of the things that we will probably never forget. Driving across this kind of surface at times was as surreal as living in a dream. And in that dream, we were flying through the clouds (that sounded very poetic!) Countless picture scenarios (tourists’ favorite thing to do out there) and epic drone flights took place before we decided to park the car in the middle of it all and have a quick lunch. It was 13:00 o’clock and the thermometer in Voukefalas was still showing 9 degrees. We stayed out there as much as we possibly could but around sunset the cold started kicking in, so we had to return to Uyuni’s marvelous dusty roads and go back to the Bolivian cruel reality. I could talk and talk for hours about this place but I’d better stop here. As you probably have already understood, even as part of only a day visit, Salar made it immediately in our top favorite list for this trip.
After completing Salar de Uyuni, it was time to move on and after a five-hour drive on a good asphalt road this time, that continued its ascend in the Andean Cordillera, we reached the city of Potosi. The city is known for its silver mines that in its hay day were so productive that were bankrolling the whole Spanish empire. Those days are long gone but some of the old time traditions in this city still live on. So our arrival coincided with Potosí’s most unusual celebration for the Pachamama (Mother Earth). The miners, in order to ask for the goddess’ help in their quest for silver, sacrifice their best llamas. All of the above of course is always accompanied by the traditional chewing of coca leaves, drinking alcohol, music and dancing. As we drove in the city, we were stopped by the crowds parading under the sounds of local bands, dressed with traditional, unusual looking clothes. A bit later and after we found a hotel (still too cold for camping), I read the ritual from Lonely Planet’s
Bolivia: “At 10am, one miner from each mine purchases a llama and their families gather for the celebrations. At 11am, everyone moves to the entrance of their respective mine. The miners chew coca and drink alcohol from 11am until precisely 11:45am, when they prepare the llama for Pachamama by tying its feet and offering it coca and alcohol. At noon, the llama meets its maker, as a petition to Pachamama for luck.”
Potosi sits at 4070m above sea level and at such an altitude the air is really thin. Any kind of movement has to be slowed down in order to avoid shortness of breath. As we started exploring the city walking up and down the steep hills, at the end we found ourselves struggling to reach back to our hotel (either the altitude or we are just getting old!!!) After a quick overnight and with the altitude symptoms kicking in, we decided to move to lower ground. So we pushed to our next destination, Sucre. Proud Sucre is Bolivia’s most beautiful city and the symbolic heart of the nation. It was here that the independence was proclaimed and Sucre is recognized in the constitution as the nation’s capital. (Rochelle told me that, WOW!!!) The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. We settled in a wonderfully kept camping that Professor Alberto and his lovely wife Felicidad, both retired, maintained right in the centre of the town and the exploration started. Walking around Sucre’s Centro Histórico, we were surrounded by whitewashed buildings with pretty patios. This place preserves much of the city’s colonial architecture, ensuring that it remains a real showpiece for Bolivia. Another extra bonus for us there was that the city is set in a low valley surrounded by mountains and enjoys a mild, comfortable climate, much needed after the previous weeks in high altitude. We found a good coffee shop, our daily ritual after Rochelle’s Spanish lessons. With excellent accommodation at Alberto’s & Felicidad’s, Rochelle’s Spanish classes (great progress here!!!) and plenty to see and do around town, it’s no surprise that we ended up spending a much longer time than originally planned.
After almost a week, we decided to move towards Samaipata this time. The famously bad Bolivian roads caught up with us once more and the road works, which by the way had been going on and never finish for the last 7 years, made the trip to Samaipata a big challenge. For one more time, Voukefalas proved his value in gold and got us there. Samaipata itself now has developed into one of the gringo-trail spots in eastern Bolivia over the last few years and the sleepy village in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental is full with foreign-run hostels and restaurants. Most of the visitors come in search of a dose of the ancient site in the pre-Inca El Fuerte or as a jumping-off point for Parque Nacional Amboró. As you do in the gringo trail, we didn’t do any of above. Instead, we had burgers and gin and tonic for dinner and a quick overnight stay. The next morning, we took the spectacular route from Samaipata to Santa Cruz in the beautiful region known as Los Volcanes, a landscape of tropical sugarloaf hills. Entering Santa Cruz, we were caught by surprise. Bolivia’s largest city has a small-town’s relaxed tropical atmosphere. Vibrant and thriving, its narrow streets are crowded with locals. Restaurants close for siesta and little stores line the porch-fronted houses selling cheap, local products. This is not the Bolivia that you see on postcards. This is an everyday place with the greatest population diversity of the country – from the overall-wearing Mennonites (Rochelle still goes on about them and their dress codes), to altiplano colourful dressed immigrants and to fashionable cruceños (Santa Cruz locals), that cruise the tight streets in their fancy SUVs. The very special reason we were there though took place the next day, as Voukefalas had its new snorkel and winch installed. His new look transformed him from a good looking vehicle TO THE SEXIEST OVERLAND VEHICLE AROUND, as Rochelle claims. Now tell me, do we sound like we are in love with our car/home?
Our next stop should have been the seven-town region of Las Misiones Jesuíticas, some of Bolivia’s richest cultural and historic areas, forgotten by the world for more than two centuries. Until “The Mission”, a movie with Robert de Niro, spectacularly replayed the last days of the Jesuit priests in the region. In our quest to visit most of them, our first stop was Concepción, which was the most representative of the extremes of styles. About 50km before Concepción though and after a village called Okinawa, the route involved a river crossing, which was held with small wooden boats that cars are loaded on by wooden stills. It was a pretty scary site, as we could hear the cracking wood sound under Voukefalas overpass. Somewhere here and almost half way over, we found out that when the rain kicks in, this passing closes down. I guess someone might say we chickened out but as our days allowed in Bolivia were running short and we were there the rainy season, we decided not to risk it any further in order not to get landlocked. So we turned around and headed to Buena Vista, a nice little town two hours northwest. Next on the list was Cochabamba, one of Bolivia’s boom cities that much of the population is typically poor, but parts of the town have a notably prosperous feel. After our first night in a tragic convention centre (one of the worst stays) we moved to the spacious new town that has a broad choice of restaurants, boutique hotels and a bar scene that is lively driven by students. Worth mentioning here is that even for Bolivian standards, Cochabamba remains an affordable city, with prices far below those in Sucre or La Paz. So, as we couldn’t find a descent place to camp, we decide to treat ourselves to a wonderful hotel stay in a beautifully renewed old mansion, which included a bubble bath and a free yoga class for Rochelle. Sometimes treating yourself to small luxuries doesn’t blow your budget away. We could easily have stayed a lot longer there and I guess thinking back now, we should have, but instead we continued on the final stretch of our route that would eventually bring us to the Chilean border. As an end to Bolivia, our last night in the country we stopped in Oruro, a dirty, crowded border town where there’s not much to do. In many ways Oruro (which means “where the sun is born”) is the most “Bolivian” of Bolivia’s departmental capitals, where 90% of the inhabitants are of indigenous heritage. It’s a miners’ city and an environmental hazard with polluted surroundings that appeared intoxicating to us. Yet, even when least expected, there’s something that pops up and makes your day. Here it was a wonderful meal (probably our best) at a local restaurant and our unique overnight accommodation in a hotel atrium. Voukefalas was parked right inside the hotel and we slept in our lovely tent opened right there, escaping the minus degrees of cold. To be continued…