Our expectations of Bolivia were unique compared to all the other places we had been to before. It is almost all at high altitude with the world’s highest capital city, one of the poorest countries in South America, has a large indigenous population, a recent history of nationalizing companies under Evo Morales, supposedly the worst fuel quality on the trip, the worst roads, and vast amounts of uninhabited altiplano. I was more worried about technical issues with the car here than anywhere else, due to the fuel, high altitude and the remoteness, but all of those concerned turned out to be unfounded.
We entered Bolivia around Lake Titicaca, with amazing views of the lake and Bolivia’s snowy Cordillera Real. After another easy border crossing (like all of the ones in South America), we headed to Sorata. The town is special because it’s essentially located in a hole in the Andes: a valley at only 2,500m, surrounded by peaks ranging from 4,000 to over 6,000m. Given the lower elevation, we were greeted with nice warm temperatures. In the morning we visited the Gruta San Pedro, a large natural cave that reminded us of Guatemala and Belize. On our walk to the caves, we had our first ‘not so pleasant’ experience with Leika when a handful of farm/street dogs thought she’d be a fun target. She was fine and they only nipped at her, but Nikki and Leika were both noticibly shaken up.
On the way to La Paz we headed to Tuni, a rarely visited place in the mountains. We camped out with glacier views, and were greeted by a local working on monitoring the local hydro project. He found talking to us more interesting than his day job, so we spent the next 2 hours chatting about the village, his family, the receding glaciers and the economics of owning an alpaca. Even though we wanted to pay for camping, he absolutely refused. The next morning we just went for a quick walk, but hiking opportunities here are amazing, with plenty of peaks in day-hike distance. We moved on mid-day to make it to La Paz.
A big overlander stop in the capital of Bolivia is Swiss-owned Hotel Oberland, where seemingly everyone on this trip makes a stop. Even though it was off-season, there were about 4 other overlanders parked. We spent the night, chatted with others and got some great info on our southbound route. Since we don’t like paying through the nose, we decided one night was enough – but the cheese fondue was definitely worth it! We also happened to be in La Paz at the same time as Tim, who we hadn’t seen since Costa Rica.
The interesting thing about fuel in Bolivia is that it’s not only supposed to be bad quality (mixed with water and dirt, and high in sulfur content), but that it’s also hard to come by. We’ve heard and read stories of others being stuck for days because gas stations simply ran out of fuel. In addition, the government subsidizes fuel only for locals (at $2 per gallon), and as a foreigner you get charged 3 times the price (for those a little slower on the math, that’s $6 a gallon). That’s where the fun begins and you try to haggle with the gas station attendants for a better price. Sometimes that caused us to ask around for quite some time, but the savings were worth it and there’s always a solution or someone willing to help / make some money.
From La Paz, we headed south toward Potosi. Expecting slow roads full of potholes, we were greeted by flat altiplano and brand-new pavement. We were cruising along at 70mph, covering the largest distance in a day probably since the US. So we made it close to Potosi in one day until 15km before our destination, there was a police control. They pulled us over and pointed out their radar gun, saying that we had gone 116 where only 80 was allowed (80kph is the national speed limit). Clearly we were in the wrong, which the police officer was pointing out in his rule book. 15 minutes were spent with me telling him that 1) I don’t understand (but I do…), 2) it wasn’t that much over the speed limit (haha), 3) I don’t have any money, 4) we just had a flat tire and friends are waiting for us, and 5) we can happily go to the police station together. Since it was Sunday, the clever police pointed out that all banks are closed and the only way of getting out was a “voluntary fine” in cash. I offered $6 to which the policeman readily agreed (i.e. I should have offered way, way, less), and we were back on the way to Potosi.
Potosi is home to Cerro Rico, a mountain that has been mined for metals for about 500 years. In fact a large chunk of the Spanish wealth came from this place, and Potosi was at one point one of the largest cities in the world. Although slave labor isn’t being used today, conditions haven’t changed. We went on a tour through the mines, and it’s shocking. The mines are owned by the government and mining is set up through cooperatives, owned by groups of miners that get access rights to the mines. However, every miner works for himself – you get paid for the volume of rock you dig up. Given that no miner has the capital to buy equipment, everyone ends up working without modern tools. Whatever profits they make often get spent on alcohol and coca leaves, which keeps people from improving their work conditions. If you need an example of nationalization at work, this would be it. It’s hard to imagine how a for-profit company would not improve the efficiency of the mines as well as the condition and safety for the workers. But instead, people just remain in the same misery they’ve been in for 500 years (except it’s not called slavery today).
We headed on south, on another newly paved road towards the Salar de Uyuni. After stocking up and getting arguably the best pizza since leaving the US, we spent an amazing day on the salt flats. Lucky for us, there was only a little bit of shallow water to drive through and most of the salar was dry. You can just point your car in a general direction, hit the accelerator and drive straight endlessly at highway speeds. Fascinating. We visited the main islands of the salt flats, spent some time running around and taking pictures and drove around 200kms on salt. It’s one of those unique things that surpassed my expectations.
From Uyuni it’s pretty much a straight shot south to Chile. The area is called the southwest circuit, or laguna route, known for its harsh environment and remoteness. Who knew that there are tour groups driving through this remote area in Toyota Landcruisers about once every 30 minutes! It was a really cool area to go to though. And we got “lucky:” As we came to the park gate, the ranger explained to us that it was impossible to pass due to snow the previous day (a rare occurrence at this time of year). He had heard of knee-deep snow and didn’t let anyone pass, including all tour groups that were being turned around. 5 minutes later a tour group came the opposite direction and told us the snow wasn’t all that bad, so we talked to the ranger again and decided to give it a shot. In effect this emptied out the park considerably, and we got to drive some snowy dirt roads all too ourselves!
The driving on the Laguna Route was mostly slow-going because of the corrugations in the road, so we took our time and drove slowly. As we were driving over the highest point around 5,000m, we had to go uphill for a while with snowmelt running down the dirt track. Overall though we never had traction problems and the car performed well even at this altitude and our balding tires.