Bolivia

Even during our last few minutes in Peru, we had better and better views of Lake Titicaca, and we had barely arrived in Bolivia when the lake actually appeared as it is described: the Andean Sea – an endlessly broad expanse of water, with either blue sky or the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real beyond it. Our first stop in Bolivia was then also the most untypical. The holiday village named Copacabana was so overrun by tourists that we got no real feeling for Bolivia. A great place to spend the night directly next to the lake and have a front-seat view of a big thunderstorm, however, and then the snowy mountains early the next morning put us in the right mood to enjoy the next few weeks in this exciting country. As we were leaving the village area, our Bremach was decorated and blessed since the Virgin of Copacabana protects and safeguards drivers. Seeing the way the locals drive, this is certainly advisable.


The last ruins on our trip were also the oldest ones on the continent. In Tiwanaku, we gazed at the remains of a culture which had colonized the Altiplano long before the Incas. Not much is known about it, but the old walls are lovely and, along with the surrounding mountains, they form a harmonious scene not far from the city of La Paz, with its more than a million inhabitants. Accordingly, this picture changes very quickly as you leave the peaceful mountains and ruins and, within a few minutes, plunge into the harsh reality of the highest outlying districts of El Alto at an altitude of over 13,125 feet (4000m), where the poorest Bolivians live, stranded in this rough, dusty, and hostile environment in their search for a future in the big city. Wide, clogged highways wend their way towards La Paz between mountains of garbage, oil spills, lively markets, and half-finished buildings – a challenging test for drivers and simultaneously a deep insight into a socially disadvantaged hotspot with a remarkably peaceful atmosphere.
The views from El Alto to the inner city of La Paz are stupendous; the buildings seem to be tumbling into the valley basin like an avalanche, with ice giant Illimani towering over the scene. We spent a few days here with new and old travel companions and enjoyed fine food in the Swiss restaurant at the camp-site. Then we drove along secluded tracks and up into the heights of the Cordillera Real until snow blocked our way at an altitude of 16,400 feet (5000m). The views onto familiar and areas and ones still to be explored were beautiful, over the blue Lake Titicaca and on to white glaciers and the endless expanse of the Altiplano. Before continuing on upwards, however, we made a detour into the Yungas, the tropical eco-region along the eastern slope of the Andes.

The so-called “Death Road”, known from countless documentaries, extends downhill from La Paz across a 15,420 foot–high (4700m) pass to Coroico, with the lowest altitude along the way at 3,600 feet (1100m). Meanwhile, a new road has been constructed, so that the old gravel track is now actually only used by bikers and some daring travelers. We especially enjoyed the drive down it because there was hardly any traffic, the track was excellently maintained, and the views were terrific. With the right camera work and wild stories, the deathly legend still remains alive – thanks to the new track, a solid underground, and a comfortable width of at least 11.5 feet (3.5m), this is an especially attractive alternative on the way into the jungle. We had hardly arrived down there when the nasty sand flies swarmed out to greet us. We were happy to leave quickly and drive back up into the mountains which we have come to know so well.

Our first time getting gas in Bolivia was especially suspenseful since there are two prices in Bolivia – one for Bolivians and a different one three times higher for tourists. It was very unusual for us the first time we bargained for a good price at a gas station. If you get gas as tourists without a bill, the gas station attendant pockets the difference between the price for Bolivians and the price actually paid as a tip. The basis for negotiation is the number of employees present at the time, and maybe the presence of a policeman. We had already received extensive instructions from other travelers, so we bargained for our personal gas price, which always worked out well, provided that the gas station wasn’t equipped with cameras. These somewhat more modern gas stations can’t risk bargaining due to the government surveillance.
After one more night in La Paz, we started off into Sajama National Park. The highest mountain in Bolivia is an extinct volcano surrounded by small villages and hot springs in the middle of the Altiplano. After an icy night, we enjoyed a leisurely soak in the hot water and the great view of the high volcanoes surrounding us. These hot springs at an altitude of over 13,780 feet (4200m) were among the very best views and locations on our entire trip. We drove through the endless expanse of the high Andean plateau along remote tracks until we reached Oruro, a bleak, barren mining city. At this point, we weren’t aware that we would soon get to know this city well. We had just started off in the direction towards Sucre when we heard a strange sound which bode no well coming from the depths of the control rod of our Bremach, and, shortly afterwards, we were latched onto the towing eye of the Landrover of our friends Natascha and Michi with major bearing damage in the transfer gearbox and were on the way back to Oruro. We actually had good luck in our misfortune because it turned out that all the necessary spare parts were available in Oruro, and, three days later, we were able to set off again for Sucre on the delightful mountain roads. After these days and nights in a typical Bolivian repair garage (tiny, full of garbage and pools of oil, and penned in between car wrecks) in a big city at an altitude of about 12,470 feet (3800m), with a scorching midday sun and icy nights, we longed for a friendlier, more welcoming region, and Sucre fulfilled our expectations. With an almost European flair, blossoming trees, clean streets, and a pleasant climate, Sucre brought us recuperation from the strenuous climate in the highlands and the intensive experiences along the way through Bolivia. Thanks to the Bolivian national holiday, lots of the institutions and shops were shut, so we enjoyed the flair of the city in peace and quiet – interrupted again and again by parades which were practiced regularly on the original site a week before the actual holiday – with the accompanying total traffic gridlock and complete standstill for business dealing – everything completely normal.

We weren’t in the next city, Potosí, for very long. Although over 44,100 U.S. tons (40.000to) of silver have been mined out of the local mountain, not much of the wealth can be seen in the city. A lot of impressive buildings from times gone by are there (although even then, in the 17th century, a large part of the silver was transported to Spain), the little bit of wealth which the exploited mountain can still provide disappears completely in different channels, and Potosí is left with only cold winds and the intense sunlight of the high mountains. It’s not place to linger, especially when the Salar de Uyuni is tantalizingly close. Loaded with plenty of diesel because of the uncertain supply situation, we reached the desert village of Uyuni, which has nothing to offer except the wonders of nature surrounding it and a train graveyard, and met some other travelers there. We drove into the Salar almost like a tour group – four vehicles, three families, and lots to eat, all of which promised some good days to come. As a highlight, there was a delicious fondue chinoise in surreal surroundings, combined with beautiful sunrises and sunsets, along with seemingly never-ending views – a very special experience. The children mined salt together very busily and dug caves on their island, while the adults had fun creating funny photos. While other tour groups raced through the dried up salt lake to see as much as possible in a short time, we savored our time leisurely. Such particularly individual moments are the quintessence of a trip on your own, the freedom to enjoy very special experiences without any restrictions and limitations.

Only about 375 miles (600km) now separated us from Chile. Between the Salar de Uyuni and the Chilenian border, there is one of the most unique landscapes in South America, a desert crisscrossed by lakes, surrounded by snow-covered volcanoes, and populated by vicunas and flamingoes. A network of sometimes better, sometimes worse tracks runs through this region and makes the access to this very special area possible. Thanks to our off-road vehicles, it was no problem for us to take this exciting path together with Natascha and Michi and the Overlanding family. As remote as this region is, lots of tour agencies drive through it with their fully packed Land Cruisers to show their travelers the beauty of their country. So it isn’t solitary, but by avoiding close quarters, we could enjoy the beauty of nature to the full, only hampered by the cold temperature and the biting wind. Our diesel motors and the low temperatures at night made an early start impossible, so there was a lot of time in the morning for going on walks, enjoying the hot springs, or have a long breakfast. We started out around 11 at the earliest (provided that we had parked so that the sun shone on the gas tank and diesel filter in the morning). At Laguna Colorada, we even had to heat up the gas tanks with our camping stoves since the energy from the sun wasn’t strong enough to warm up the gas sufficiently. In addition to the main track, there are lots of other possibilities to take other side trips with great views, and we took full advantage of our off-road vehicles. When we finally reached the asphalt road in Chile, we had experienced the greatest off-road stretch on our trip; we hadn’t seen such an impressive landscape over such a great expanse anywhere else.
After so many weeks at altitudes around the 13,125-foot (4000m) mark, we are now somewhat lower and curious about what awaits us in Chile and Argentina. Bolivia was not an easy country to travel through because of the altitude and the harsh climatic conditions, but the incredible landscapes and the nice Bolivians compensated for any difficulties. In addition, we had the best bread and rolls on the entire trip, enjoyed surprisingly good local wine, and found some of the European products we had longed for in the supermarkets in the big cities. Once again, we saw that a lot of the prejudices just didn’t hold true, and we ended up spending more time than planned in this beautiful country.

Our private photos can be seen here with the usual password.

One Thought on “Bolivia

  1. Wieder einmal beeindruckende Bilder und ein interessanter Text. Wir freuen uns mit euch, dass ihr so viele Erlebnisse haben können, dass es euch gut gefällt und ihr bei guter Gesundheit seit. Alles Liebe aus Bremen eure Bannerts

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