Reflections on Bolivia

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Lucy

Bolivia is nice. We had Alisha’s birthday, we went and saw flamingos and we went to the jungle.

I liked learning about bugs in the jungle and going on boat rides in the Pampas. We saw lots of animals and went fishing for pirañas.

We went to the salt flats, it was fun to make funny photos. On the second island me, Carla and Alisha found a den, we make a salt house inside.

I love llamas. You can tell the difference between llamas, vicunas and alpacas. Alpacas are fluffy, vicunas are orange and don’t have special earrings and llamas have colourful earrings.

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This spider looks a bit like the one that was hiding in my wellies and bit me. It hurt a lot but I was ok as it wasn’t poisonous. I always remembered to check my shoes after.

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Look how high I can jump!

Alisha

After leaving Peru we found ourselves in Bolivia. Coming from the border we headed straight for Lake Titicaca. After spending one night in the truck we took a boat trip to Isla de Sol, where we spent the night. I ran off the path there and did some really good rock climbing by myself. Then we continued to La Paz, where we flew to the jungle. It was great there, the main thing I liked was when it was raining a and we made jewellery. When we went to our tent, I couldn’t believe my eyes: there was a big tent and a special little tent. The little tent was my tent and I slept in every night with Mummy, Daddy or Lucy.

We went to the Pampas and one of the funniest things on the last day was that we saw a whole troop of squirrel monkeys. Some of them went on Daddy’s knee and head and then they went on Lucy’s hat. I didn’t want to have that as Lucy said they were very heavy.

We went to Sajama where we spent my 9th birthday. My favourite present was the sewing kit, that Mummy and Daddy gave me.

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Gilly

After leaving Bolivia unexpectedly yesterday, I still don’t quite know how to sum it up. It was one of the most beautiful countries we have been to, the high altiplano makes your eyes sing with its beauty but is is definitely the most difficult country we’ve travelled though.

We experienced two extremes: the Amazon basin and the Altiplano. We felt very privileged to experience the Amazon the way we did: deep into the jungle and in a camp that was set up by people who fought to protect their lands by getting it made into a national park. Learning about the rainforest from people whose lives are so intertwined with this unique environment was a very special experience that I won’t forget.

The Altiplano fluctuating between 4000-5000m on its flatter parts, had its own unique harsh beauty. I certainly wasn’t sad to leave the dusty towns of Potosi and Uyuni but I’ll miss the salt flats, volcanos, snow capped peaks, jewel coloured lakes and sweeping vistas of plains covered with golden grasses. Back down at a more normal altitude it is great to find that some of the niggles that the truck was having have completely disappeared. Cooking on gas with so little oxygen wasn’t easy and the toilet, which is actually a yacht toilet was definitely not meant to go that high. It was a relief to find that still works properly! The stress of worrying about when the truck will start and how much damage we were doing to it on the bad roads was also wearing. Although we were fortunately unaffected, the threat of roadblocks and civil unrest for two weeks didn’t help matters either. That aside what I’ll remember most about Bolivia is the stunning scenery.

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Steve

Bolivia is a country of extremes. The Altipano is a harsh environment but is stunningly beautiful. People life a hard life up there and it was hard on us and the truck. Most of the time we were near or above 4000m and that meant it was also below freezing most nights. This meant we struggled to start the truck some mornings and sometimes had to wait for the sun to warm it up. Some of the roads were also really bad. We are used to dirt roads but what made these so bad were the endless corrugations which rattled the truck to bits no matter at what speed you drove. The scenery though was stunning and made it worthwhile, volcanoes, snow capped mountains and flamingo filled lakes.

The Salar de Uyuni was very special and it was great to be camped out in the middle of nowhere in a salt lake, the silence was deafening.

Whilst most of the high altiplano towns were uninspiring and reflected the harsh environment of the people living there, Sucre was lovely and pleasant and being just that bit lower was warmer both in temperature and in the people.

The jungle region was altogether different, clearly a different topography but the people were completely different too and it was a great experience to camp in the jungle.

Bolivia is a challenging country to travel in but one that is worthwhile. It also makes you appreciate the creature comforts when you arrive somewhere more developed.

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The truck “sunbathing”, trying to warm up after a night at -13° C.

The Salt Flats and the South West Circuit.

Before we left Prague the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia was one of the destinations on our trip I was most looking forward to. I’d marvelled at other travellers descriptions and photos of the perfectly flat plain filled with sparkling hexagonal crystal white salt tiles.

In Sucre we’d met our fellow overlanders Michael and Natasha (Swiss Land rover drivers) and Max and Tanya with their young children Clara and Robert (German Bremach drivers) again and as we were all heading to the salt flats on the same time we asked if we could join up with them. Steve’s main concern was that we’d break through the salt crust, this can be a real issue at different times of the year. We’d heard some horror stories about other overlanders breaking through and being stuck in up to the axles. It is so remote that it would be a major headache to get help if you couldn’t get yourself out. We met up with them in the dusty town of Uyuni just a few kilometres from the flats, ready for the next day. As we were wandering around town we saw a camper van we recognised well, it was the Tioga our French friends Carine, Andreas and family had been travelling in. This time though it had a new family in it, the French family are sadly heading home soon and they’d sold it a few days before to an Austrian family. We introduced ourselves to Christophe, Astrid, Eo and Linus, as they were also heading onto the flats the next day we decided to go all together.

Not wanting to sleep on the street in town we tried to head the short distance out of town to the “train cemetery” in convoy in the dark after excellent pizza. We couldn’t find the right dusty desert track, so parked up in a circle for the night. We awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a rubbish dump in the desert but quite close to the cemetery. It is where Bolivian Railways has dumped a whole load of rusting steam trains. We drove over and both adults and children alike had great fun playing on the old trains.

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After getting the undersides of the four vehicles sprayed with a thin layer of oil to protect them from the salt we headed north towards the flats. Luckily as it was in the middle of the dry season the salt was hard and easy to drive on. There are lots of land cruisers that come out onto the flats as part of tours, so you could see their tracks which made it easier to stay on the thicker parts. The day was cloudy and overcast and as the edges of the flats are more brown coloured. I was initially a little underwhelmed, where was the sparkling crystals I had dreamt of seeing. After a look round an abandoned salt hotel, we drove to Isla Incahuasi and parked up for the night. Lots of the tours visit the islands during the day but it was beautifully quiet at night. I awoke early to see a perfectly clear sky lit up by a full moon, it was stunning.
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As the sun rose and the sky turned azure blue, the Salar de Uyuni lived up to its reputation of being one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

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We drove further into the Salar to Isla Pescador, where almost no one visits and parked up for in a beautiful spot. Not too close to the island though, as that is where the salt is thinnest. The six children spent most of the day “mining” for salt in shallow caves on the edge of the islands. We all joined together to celebrate Natasha’s birthday with fondu and cake before the sun set and the temperature dropped to an icy minus 5°C.

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The white background of the flats gives a perfect background to take lots of silly photos playing with the lack of perspective.

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The so named South-west circuit of Bolivia is just outside the Salar and is known as one of the most spectacular drives in South America but the going is really tough. We waved goodbye to the Austrians as the Tioga isn’t made for off-road driving. Remote, wiggling between high volcanos the rough sandy track passes flamingo studded lakes and weird shaped rock forms. The “roads” were some of the worst we’ve come across, with rocky patches, sand and Steve’s personal favourite: bone shaking corrugations that rattled the truck so hard it seemed remarkable that it was in one piece when we stop. Most of it was though high altitude flat valleys but there were quite a few climbs an narrow, rock strewn paths. All of this between 4000 and 5000m high.

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Late afternoon the shaking all got too much for the truck and we heard an almighty melodic rattle from the engine. Straight away we recognised the sound, it was the left disc brake cover that had sheared all 3 of its attachment points and was now rattling free in a frenetic dance under the truck. The right hand side one had done exactly the same thing outside Panama City. In Panama we found a garage that could remake the three points. Here miles from anywhere that wasn’t an option but it isn’t essential but not ideal on rough roads. With Max and Michael’s extra muscle and experience Steve was able to remove the front wheel, take off the offending part and put the wheel back on in just 30 minutes. Unfortunately this time when it came off it had severed a cable. Luckily it was only a sensor cable so the truck can still drive ok. We parked up for the night underneath a volcano that marked the Chilean-Bolivian border, each vehicle carefully angled to catch the morning sun’s rays on the diesel tanks and to minimise the affect of the gale force winds. We tucked warm up inside once the sun had set for another freezing cold night.

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SONY DSCIt looks harmless enough but those little ridges shook the truck and us almost to bits.

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It was 11 o’clock the next morning before we could get all the vehicles started and get back on the road. The cold had frozen the diesel in the Bremach’s tank and the lack of oxygen at the high altitude makes it difficult for all the engines to start. Without a cloud in the sky, the high altitude scrubby desert was every colour from yellow, orange to brown. Although virtually uninhabited there were lots of horribly corrugated crisscrossing tracks through all the valleys from the land cruiser tours. The views kept on getting better and better though, as we stopped for lunch beside a salt crusted lake filled with flamingos. We arrived in time for sunset at the look out over Laguna Colorado. It was another freezing night on the small hill above the lake, it went down to minus 13°C at our highest camp yet of 4325m. We couldn’t get any of the vehicles started before 11.30 the next morning, even with boiling water under the diesel filters. It gave us time for a walk along the lake, admiring its frozen edge.

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We picked up an unwanted travelling companion on the bad road: “the knock”. Amongst the other horrendous noises coming from the truck as we shook our way along, this particular one sounded very ominous. The other overlanders were making their way to Chile, so the South-west circuit was on their route. For us though, as we are planning on going to Paraguay next, it was a scenic detour. Weighing up all the pros and cons at lunch we decided to head eastwards to Tupiza missing out the last two lakes on the circuit, which would have been a whole days extra driving. We sadly waved goodbye to the others and headed off. 15 minutes later a new swishing noise joined the cacophony, a puncture. Each of our tyres weigh 120kg and our spares are mounted high on the back, not an easy task to change. We were very thankful when the others pulled up behind us a little while later and helped us change and remount the tyre. The wind was bitingly cold, blowing dust in all our eyes. It took us 1.30 hours even with help.

Setting off again we decided to drive until we were below 4000m, to give the truck a chance to start the morning. We jiggled along at barely 30km/hr on the remote desolate track. By 8pm we were still no lower than 4200m, so we decided to call it a night at the turning for Tupiza. It is only the second time we have used our massive spotlights on the top of the truck.

We had parked just next to the entrance to the Reserva National de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, so while we were waiting for the sun to warm the engine. Steve went off and asked about the road to Tupiza. It didn’t sound good, rough and over many mountains with no where near to get the flat tyre fixed. The quickest way would to be to return to Uyuni, half of which would be on a better dirt road and then go to Tupiza, a 200km further drive also on a dirt road. Even though Uyuni and Tupiza were roughly equidistant from where we were parked. It was a two day hard drive to Tupiza either way but at least we could hopefully get somethings fixed in Uyuni. Thankfully the engine started at 9am but it was lunchtime before we hit the better dirt road, the track was relentlessly terrible right up to the last metre. The smoother dirt road into Uyuni felt very good.

Although the roads on the South-west circuit were absolutely atrocious, the scenery was magnificent. Let’s just hope there was no lasting damage to the truck and we can get everything fixed in Uyuni.

A Tale of Two Cities

Potosi is famous as a mining city. Set at 4000m on the Altiplano, Potosi was built underneath a hill (“Cerro Rico”) that was full of silver. Over the years the Spanish funded their empire from the silver from Potosi. It was said that they mined enough silver to build a bridge all the way to Spain and still have enough left over to carry across it. Today there is hardly any silver left but there are some miners still mining for it in conditions that are nearly as bad as those the Spanish colonialists forced the indigenous population and African slaves to work in.

One of the reasons tourists come to Potosi is to do a tour down a working mine. These are not entirely safe and therefore we had decided we were not going to do this with the kids. On entering Potosi we were soon lost and driving down increasingly narrow roads with the market spilling out into them. The town did not look very inspiring and nor was our parking spot in a coach/lorry park. Gilly said let’s just get out of here but having struggled to get in I thought we should have a look around.

The streets were very narrow and the cars almost touched you as you walked along the pavement in single file. Potosi is set in a harsh environment and you could feel it in the city. It’s had a hard life and it felt a harsh place. There were a few pretty churches but not that much to keep us there.

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We stayed the night so we could visit the Casa Nacional de la Moneda, the Potosi mint the next day. This is where some of the silver was made into coins first for the Spanish empire and then for Bolivia. The museum was very good and we had a good guided tour.

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On the way back to the truck the street was full of marching bands as the following day was Bolivian Independence Day and so they were all practicing.

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After our Potsoi experience and that of other Bolivian towns we were unsure of whether to go to Sucre. Whilst the scenery in Bolivia is fantastic the towns are not so inspiring. However we decided to push onto Sucre and were really glad we did.

Sucre is the administrative capital of Bolivia and was where Bolivian independence was proclaimed on 6 August 1825 so it seemed appropriate to be there for Independence Day. Immediately on arriving the city felt warmer and more welcoming. The city is lower at about 2750m so it was warmer in temperature but the streets were also wider and we found a place to park up quite easily. When we arrived 2 fellow overlanders were also there who we had meant a few times before: Max and Tania and their kids as well as Michael and Natasha.

We headed into town that evening which was jammed with people marching for the independence celebrations. We found a lovely French restaurant and had a great meal with a nice bottle of Bolivian ( yes, Bolivian!) red wine.

We spent a couple of days in Sucre and thoroughly enjoyed the city. It was very relaxing and the centre of town was very pretty to wander around. As with many colonial cities we have visited the buildings are all painted white.

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On Independence Day we went into town to see the marching bands but we missed the President who was visiting.

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The following day we went to the Casa de La Libertad to see the museum where the Bolivian Declaration of Independence was signed. This gave an interesting insight into Bolivian history.

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