Coming into Copacabana, we found a road that looked passable to take us down to the lakeside. The steep incline ended with us in a swarm of cars along the lakeside. Following the GPS, we turned away from the edge of downtown and the swarms of food stalls and cars, and drove along the wide dirt road. “This…this is a waysout,” we muttered, wondering if we’d be able to find the hostel. After passing a very fancy hotel, we indeed found our place. We had been warned it was a tight fit for vehicles, but we made it inside without a problem. We were immediately struck but the sheer volume of Argentinian hippies that were calling this place home. We were to learn over the coming weeks that Argentinians like to travel on the cheap, and its basically the 60’s down here. Most of them are carrying musical instruments or things to juggle. We settled in and set up camp, spending half of our time answering questions about our camping process from the 9 year old daughter of the proprietress.
The hostal owner would periodically let their pet parrot loose and he curiously gave Sweetcakes a good look-over.
We strolled into the town afterwards and grabbed a big plate of rice, potatoes, and fried trout (a specialty on the shores of Lake Titicaca)from an old lady selling it lake-side. Saddling up and asking for food, she proceeded to uncover the food from beneath some blankets to keep it warm. We paid our $5 for the meal after thanking her for it, and continued to run some errands: cell phone, fruit and snacks. After stocking up on a kilo of figs, we munched on them and fried banana chips as we walked back. On the way, we bumped into a huge parade for carnaval, and took some time to just enjoy the amazing costumes and people having to awkwardly dance without music because they were too far ahead of the bands. We made our way back into town later that evening, hoping to find some good food and cheap drinks; we found one! At Nemo’s bar that evening we hopped in and found they had from-scratch pisco sours at 3x50BS [$7] We did that, and I snagged an IPA from Bolivia. As we enjoyed our drinks, we also enjoyed getting to know Aaron from Vancouver – a cool dude who’s retired after busting his butt and is now taking 6 month trips every year to a new part of the world and getting his exploration bug worked out. We shared tips on places to see and gave cheers over travel at any age.
Note to self: potential Halloween 2015 costume confetti monster. This group was too far ahead of the band so they were silently doing their thing. Rock on.
“They said the boats were slow, but this is f—-n’ ridiculous.” I muttered to Bethany the next morning as we sat on the boat taking us out to Isla del Sol, said to be the birthplace of the sun by the Incans. We sullenly sat as the boat made its way through the water at what was essentially idle speed. After finally arriving at the island [over 2 hours later, for a 10km trip. AWFUL.] We departed and realized that the reason our hostel wasn’t crammed to the brim was that dozens of other hippies were strung out along the beach here on the island. We couldn’t walk ten feet without tripping over a drum circle or a guy and his acoustic guitar. We made our way up to some of the sacred sites and braced ourselves against the strong wind and cool air. We were hiking around 4k meters, and there was a fair amount of up and down. I found myself acclimated pretty well and the cool air kept me moving hard, but we paused as needed for Bethany. We were hiking from the NE to SW ends of the island, and wanted to make sure we got to the end before the last boat left at 4pm. We were making great time though and stopped for some lunch, then made our way down to the docks to catch the 3pm.
What a great time we’re having
Argentinian hippie tent town along the beach.
Observe! The…the stone table of stone!
Not quite up to Machu Pichu standards
We had been straddling the spine of the island along our hiking path, and descended the 400 meters to the water side, and upon getting there realized that while it had boats, they were ones that needed repairs and we had descended to the wrong side of the island. Furious at the lack of signs, we now had to blast back up the 400 meters and get down to the other side before the hour was up. We miraculously made great time (but about died in the process). As we waited to board the boat, I heard a couple next to us speaking English. I walked over and asked them where they were from. “Miami!” came the answer from Cris and Tanya. Cris’ family is from Bolivia and he and his girlfriend Tanya were visiting and exploring Bolivia. We chatted for a while, and agreed to meet up again after it turned out we were on different boats [despite what the woman who sold us tickets said]. We met that evening for some more drinks and food, agreeing to meet up for the bike ride down the death road in a couple of days. They were taking off for La Paz first thing the next morning as Cris lost his passport and needed it replaced to get home. But alas things weren’t meant to be.
Ike was thrilled after we realized we hiked down the wrong side of the mountain.
The local villages charge “tolls” for passing through on the trail that spans the length of the island. So many tickets!
We forgot to take a pic together, but here’s a cute polaroid of our new friends Cris & Tania.
I awoke the next morning sick, most likely from altitude and the hard hiking from the previous day. I was down and out the entire day, with Bethany nursing me back to health. Cris and Tanya also spent the entire day at the consulate trying to get the passport issue resolved, so they weren’t able to do the bike tour either. We rolled out to La Paz the following morning, after taking a couple of hours to explore the back roads of the peninsula near Copacabana.
I spy a Sweetcakes!
If it’s good enough for a bus, it’s good enough for us!
We stopped here for lunch en route to La Paz. I love how all the Bolivian lunch ladies pack up their homemade deliciousness in these little lunch carts and serve a plate up fresh for you.
A highly recommended Swiss hotel for overlanders was our destination. Rolling in, we decided to celebrate Bethany’s birthday [a few weeks prior] by having fondue. Asking how big the portions were, the waitress told us you would need to be very hungry to finish both the meat and cheese fondues with just two people, but she assured us we could combine the two. Well, we learned that by ‘combine’, she meant order both of them. So as natural scavengers, we ate all we could and proceeded to scrape the rest into a carry-out box.
Is there such a thing as too much fondue?
Taxi-ing into the city the following morning, we enjoyed the view of La Paz rising up to meet us as we descended through the mountains to the city. We gave up on taking a colectivoafter waiting unsuccessfully for one for over half an hour. We arrived at one of the main plazas and hopped out, waiting for the tour van that would have a bunch of bikes on top. Hopping in, we met Edwin from Quito and Fernando, our guide. We spent the next hour winding up roads on the way out of La Paz on the other side of the city. We started to see snow capping the bits of mountains we were passing, and then crested and moved into a new valley where a fresh layer of snow covered everything except the road.
Hopping out, we began suiting up and unloading the bikes, looking around wide eyed at life at 4400 meters. We got a brief rundown from Fernando on safety, took the bikes on a little spin around the gravel lot to make sure we felt comfortable in them, and then we were off.
Let’s all be honest with each other for a moment here: riding a bike downhill is lots of fun. Riding a bike on pavement downhill is even more fun. Doing it for 17 km’s straight, through a valley with snow, wisps of clouds, and passing engine-braking trucks is just the best. Being over 200 lbs while you do all of that though? That’s just icing on the cake. See, there’s this amazing thing called momentum, and it means that you start kissing the high 40 mph range on your bike. Fernando was all about speed, and would crouch down over the handlebars to lower his wind resistance and would zip out ahead. And then I would lean myself forward over the handlebars, and all of a sudden he’s not going so fast.
A few short minutes later we stopped for a snack, and then made our way onto the death road proper. We were stoked for this part, as we’d seen clips from it when the Top Gear crew made their way along theroad in their Bolivia special nearly a decade ago. With the completion of the paved road, though, traffic on the old gravel road is almost exclusively tourists who want the thrill of driving it, with less death than used to be standard. Riding along the road, it was hard to imagine traffic going two-ways along it, much of that traffic large trucks. We felt cramped enough with the bicycles. As the bikes ate up the 54kms we descended, we noticed the change in air temperature, eventually stopping to shed our cold-weather gear. A little while later, we were at the end of the road and stopped for some lunch. And then we waited. And waited some more. And spent 3 hours twiddling our thumbs as we waited for Fernando and the driver to eat, and shower, and flirt with the teenage Argentinian girls wearing lingerie instead of swimsuits in the pool. [can’t fault him on that one] We eventually found ourselves back in downtown La Paz later that evening and hopped into a cab to get back out to the hotel, pretty well worn-out.
We didn’t die!!
The next day we made our way into the city for errands. We’d heard it was possible to purchase auto insurance that would be valid in most of the rest of South America. After some confused wandering around and asking locals, we finally tracked down the company, and were pleased to see that the coverage would nearly take us through the rest of our trip. We were told to stop back at the end of the day to finish the paperwork. We then made our way to a Moneygram to swap all of our US$20’s to US$100’s to get better rates of exchange when we hit up the blue markets in Argentina. We celebrated all this hard work with an absolutely huge lunch of authentic Korean bibimbap. We walked it off, got our insurance, and made our way back towards the campsite via the new funicular over the city. The views were great, and given the topograghy of the city, the funicular is actually an efficient mode of public transit.
We put the FUN in—aww nevermind
Glad we avoided driving through downtown La Paz traffic…
After getting back, we met Chris from Austria, another overlander who has a killer Land Rover rig. We swapped information about great spots as he was heading north.
I encountered this massive beetle stuck on his back and, after many tense attempts, successfully rescued him. Paying it forward! (Does that work with bugs?)
“Suspicious autos will be burned.” Eep, keeping a tight leash on Sweetcakes.
The city of La Paz is built in a stunning valley of crumbling mountains. We don’t know why the city is located here, and were amazed by the houses that were built right up to the edge of the eroding cliffs.
“Ok, so first we ask for gas, but then if they say no to us because we’re foreigners, then we say we don’t need a receipt. Then if they say something about the cameras, then we say the cameras don’t see the license plates, right?” I asked Bethany. We were about to attempt to purchase gas, and we’d read online about how much of an ordeal it is to buy gas in Bolivia as a foreigner. We were running through the checklist of reposites to convince the attendant to sell us gas. Arriving, we went through the list with her, to no avail. We asked where we could get gas then, and she told us. We whipped out the map, and she showed us. We told he were weren’t going that way though, and we needed the gas! She finally relented and told us it would be the foreigner price of 7 bolivianos a liter. Coming in at less than double the local cost, that was a decent price, so we readily agreed.
The hassle for gas was so great that I drove with a very light foot, trying to coax every MPG out of Sweetcakes. We followed our way along smooth highways south towards the border with Chile and the outskirts of Sajama national park.
After checking into the park, we took the gravel road back into the park, making our way back towards some hot springs, enjoying the wide valley dominated by several mountains on the horizon, including the behemoth volcano that’s the tallest peak in Bolivia and is the park’s namesake. We arrived later in the afternoon and verified we could just camp in the parking lot that led back to the hot springs. Since the tickets were only valid for a single day, we said we’d be back the next morning. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching clouds bunch up on the mountain, then turn into scattered thunderstorms that dropped frequent bolts of lightning among the foothills. Looking around, I quickly realized that Bethany and I were among some of the tallest things around. We finished setting up our tent and hopped in Sweetcakes and her rubber tire protection to continue watching the bolts. The night air quickly plummeted in temperature as soon as the sun moved behind the mountains, and it was with all of our layers that we laid down in the tent that evening.
Waking the next morning, we noticed that the snowfall on the mountains was much more extensive than it had been the day before, extending down into many of the foothills that didn’t look all that far away. [We learned that distances are deceptive in these huge valleys. Frequently things look quite close but then you drive towards them and realize they’re 5-10 miles away, or more.] We moseyed over to the hot springs, settling into them with signs of happiness as the heat soaked the cold out of our limbs. We’d periodically stand up and hop out of the springs when we got too hot, letting the cold brisk wind cool us off before retreating to the hot water again.
The afternoon involved making our way over to a nearby lake and walking around the outside of it trying to snap photos of the flamingos that inhabited it. We’d make our way around part of the lake, gradually getting closer to the birds, which would then fly to the opposite end of the lake. Our dance continued the entire time we were walking. Really, I was just happy for any excuse to drive around the park because it meant we got to keep fording the stream near our campsite.
We’ve seen flamingos in the wild a couple of times, but seeing them against the snow-capped twin volcanoes was otherworldly.
The rest of the afternoon was rainy and windy, with more storms to watch. Later that evening a group of travelers [two young french men, and a family of a Portuguese / Swiss and their son] came back to the parking lot and we chatted for a bit. Again a cold night greeted us, and before we left the following morning an older man who ran the hot springs swung by and chatted with us. Before long we had another offer to buy Sweetcakes! On our way out we went to the other side of the valley where the group we met the previous evening had been camping to see the geysers. Unlike Yellowstone, there were not railings or walkways, so we gingerly made our way around, trying to minimize our footprints [literally and figuratively].
Beautiful little church in the town of Sajama.
Driving out of the park, we were stopped by the guys running the entrance gate and they promptly tried to extract some more cash from us, saying there were additional fees. Frankly, the attempts at bribes in Bolivia are adorable. It’s like they’re sheepish about asking for them, and after the stiff attempts we had in Central America, we found these attempts easy to sidestep. After they quickly relented, we made our way near the Chilean border to fill up with gas. Due to the proximity with the border, the attendants were having none of our attempts to barter down the price, but thankfully they didn’t turn us away either. Unfortunately that meant we were paying over $5/gal for gas, and then came the formal receipt process, where we had to provide our name, passport #, license plate # and country. It took longer for the attendant to fill out the receipt than it did to fill up with gas.
The roadside to Sajama was dotted with chullpas, or funeral towers. The indigenous would bury their family in urns and place them in these towers.
Trying to capture the hardworking, Bolivian campesino way of life as we drive by.
Attempting to cover lots of ground towards the Salar de Uyuni after stocking up on gas, we were making good time. On the outskirts of Oruro though, the traffic thickened up then came to a stop. Hopping out into the rain, I began walking forward through the stopped buses and trucks to see what was up. We had a sneaking hunch that there could be a roadblock, as most of the vehicles still on the highway were larger rigs, the cars all sneaking out via the shoulders. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned ahead for this eventuality and were wedged between other huge vehicles. As I approached the front, I saw the lamest roadblock ever: a short truck that didn’t even block all of the lanes, some small rocks strewn across the road, and 6 guys standing around a burning tire on the shoulder trying to keep warm. Along the center median, lots of women huddled under cardboard to keep dry. “We could blast through this, no problem.” I said, frustrated. “Uh, we’re not breaking through a road block in a foreign country unless they let us through.” Came Bethany’s measured reply. Asking around, we were told the road block would be breaking up soon, as the protesters felt they’d made their point. It did indeed wrap up, but darkness was quickly coming, and the wild-camp spot we were hoping to make it to said it could be difficult in the rain, and coupled with the approaching darkness we didn’t like our odds. Instead we opted to stay at a hotel that was pretty nice [and pretty pricey]. We spent our evening eating cheap roasted chicken and watching the Hobbit.
JEALOUS OF OUR WAY OF LIFE NOW?
Enjoying the pristine highways before we rattle ourselves crazy on the gravel roads.
Our goal was to reach the edge of the salar [salt flats] the next day. Progress was great, until the GPS decided to go bonkers and take us along some roads that were little more than rock paths or roads under construction. We realized that we ended up taking the long way around the large mountain, and spent several hours blasting through tough roads, eventually ending up behind a grater that was putting the first real level into the new road that had been dug out. The path was so rough that our skid guard that protects the underside of the engine shook loose, and it was time to break out the baling wire again. We camped along a rock wall to help break the wind, looking out into a vast sea of salt, excited for the next day.
Parking near the edge of the salt flat, I took off my sandals and tentatively stepped out into the film of water over the salt flat. The water over the salt flat made beautiful views, but also made travel on the salt flat much more difficult. We’d heard stories of people getting stuck for a couple of days in the soupy mixture that the salt and water created. The salt flats are slightly conical, so the edges are the most likely places to get stuck. The water was quite cold, which was actually a boon, so I quickly could no longer feel the sharp crystals of salt poking into my bare feet. Satisfied that the water wasn’t too deep [always a good rule to walk any section you’re planning to 4×4], I made my way back to the car and we began airing down our tires. From there we put it in 4LO, crossed our fingers, and hesitantly made our way out onto the flat. After about a KM the water was just a thin reflective film on top of the salt, and we were clear! From there we basically just picked a direction, tried to find some other tracks, and followed them.
Good morning guys!
First time airing down. Not the last though!
The flats are basically God’s zen garden, with outcrops of rocks sticking up like little islands among the vast expanse of salt. Some parts of the salar were wet and we were a bit nervous about getting stuck, but we saw that the tires weren’t really breaking through the top crust of salt, and felt better. As it dried out we could open the speed up a bit more, a few times topping 60, but nothing really crazy. We’d heard of others trying to push 90, but that seemed a little kooky to us.
Let the winds take her where they will – Sailor Ike
We had to stop and attempt some perspective pictures, famous on the salar. We had some issues with the focus on our camera, so some are more successful than others.
Ike squishing Sweetcakes.
Bethany giving Sweetcakes some love.
Sweetcakes takes revenge.
And then Bethany fell off the fruit mountain.
And Ike fell into the (blurry) beer bottle.
Eventually we found our way to Fisherman’s island, circling around to the back side of it and finding a nice spot to camp nestled against the island. Setting up, we broke out the sunshade, as the strength of the sun was outstanding. This was great for the solar panel though, as we could run the fridge and inverted and still have volts to spare. We spent some additional time that afternoon hiking to the top of the island. We’d put on sunscreen, but that wasn’t enough. I burned my lips for the first time ever, and I could feel the spots on the back of my legs I’d missed. Yowza! (My arms are still peeling from that day as we write this blog several weeks later.) The hike was enjoyable to see the vast salar from above, and we paused for a few minutes to watch a large bus make its way across our view, quite possibly using the salar as it was the fastest route from points A to B. Sunset that evening was incredible, with a huge storm front building up around the edges of the salar, so the rich hues were offset with flashes of lightening.
Rolling into the town of Uyuni the next morning after leaving the salt flats, we found a car wash to remove the thick coat of salt from poor Sweetcakes. Asking to verify they used agua dulce [literally ‘sweet water’, aka not salt water], we got her cleaned up and then proceeded to head towards the Lagunasroute, also known as Bolivia’s southwest circuit.
Sky reflecting in the layer of water covering the salar.
Time for a much needed bath to wash away the salt.
As we made our way along the gravel / dirt mixed roads, we quickly lost our clean car as I blasted through mud on an alternate ‘road’ as we tried to bypass additional road construction on the main road. We hit strong washboard again and realized that our tailpipe that we’d had soldered in Quito had shaken loose again. Looking under the car, we saw the break was on the other side of the plate that joins the muffler and tailpipe. We called it a day early, stopping in the picturesque Valle de Rocas, and proceeded to wire up the tailpipe again while the weather was nice, just barely finishing it before the storms came rolling in with a strong wind.
The following day we continued on, seeing some of the famous colored lakes, and making our way up to 5000 meters to have the Bolivian aduana stamp Sweetcakes out of the country. We had heard that the customs officer’s presence at the actual border was somewhat spotty, so it was best to take care of the paperwork in the middle of the park, even though we still had one or two more days left in the country. The customs agent took our paperwork. “Do we get a copy to give the men at the border to Chile though?” Bethany asked. “Oh, you don’t need it!” came the bright reply. “Really??” Bethany said with doubt in her voice. The agent looked over at the man working across from him. A doubtful frown and shrug greeted him from the other employee. “Ok, let’s make a copy.”
Flamingos in the Laguna Colorada. “Lake” is a generous term, since its average depth is under 1 inch.
At 5033 meters (16,512 feet) this has to be the world’s highest customs office.
From there we parked at another hot spring, and slipped into the warm water, watching storms on the horizon, chatting with a middle-aged German couple who were biking the route, and a group of hippies who were heading north on their bicycles. We thanked our lucky stars once again to have a car and called it an evening. We awoke the next morning with the vehicle surrounded by a swarm of LandCruisers. We’d seen the tour groups blasting through the roadways periodically the previous day, but as all the groups stayed on roughly the same time-frame, we were now in their midst.
Hot springs and cold air; great combination.
So I’m looking for a Land Cruiser?
We fled the hot springs, forgoing our planned morning dip and instead moving on to another lake and attempted to make some breakfast, but it turned out we had just moved ahead of the rush, and as we were setting up breakfast the fleet began to arrive and the spot we’d picked out, which was touted as being above and beyond the tour groups’ route instead began to flood with them. At one point one of the tour drivers attempted to kick us off the mirador, telling us that a park ranger would be along shortly and would ticket us if he saw us up there. We found a spot along the lake edge down in the valley and called that home for breakfast, spitefully hoping we were ruining the photos of the tourists. [Yes, we were feeling vindictive.] But the anger quickly melted as we continued on the road, the scenery replacing the frustration with awe. As we approached the border with Chile, grins were on our faces as we marvelled at the drive that had seemed like we were traversing mars, instead being on earth, but at 15,000 feet. This had been another part of the trip I had eagerly anticipated for months, and after a bumpy start, it still met [and exceeded] my expectations.
Mountains peering through the morning fog.
The mountains reminded me of sand art.
Bolivia budget recap:
Our budget was ambitiously low for Bolivia; additionally, visas & car insurance (not included in our daily spending budget) were both expensive. This meant we completely blew our budget, but it was totally worth it.
Expected days in country: 14 Actual days spent in country: 14
Daily budget: $41 (Hah!) Actual expenses: $78 (excluding car repairs) Difference: +$37 (+90%)
Ouch! We blew our (ambitiously small) budget in Bolivia. Here are a few of the contributing factors: 1) Gas was much more expensive than we had budgeted (see below); 2) We spent a lot more on tours and entrance fees than we budgeted for, but it was totally worth it; 3) Our budget doesn’t include things like visas and auto insurance, two big ticket items for Bolivia.
Average price for gas: $4.50/gallon (8.08 Bolivianos/liter)
Buying gas in Bolivia as a foreigner is hard work! The government subsidizes gas for locals, but taxes the hell out of it for foreigners. The “international” price is about 2.5 times as much as the local price. Ok, so gas is expensive. We can deal with that, but the problem doesn’t stop there. Many gas stations refuse to sell to foreigners because they have to fill out additional paperwork. Thankfully we were only refused gas once, but of the 4 times we filled up in Bolivia, twice we paid the full international price and twice we were able to barter for a lower rate (which means the attendant pretended we were locals, and pocketed the difference between the local price and the price we agreed to). All in all the experience wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated, but we are happy the days of Bolivian gas hassles are over.
Expected miles driven: 1000 Actual miles driven: 1,143 Difference: +14%
If you haven’t guessed by now, when we budgeted for miles driven it was really a shot in the dark. We picked a few cities or locations in the country and asked Google to calculate the mileage.
Average gas mileage: 22.6 mpg
We attribute the better than normal average to Bolivia’s excellent highways and our driving at slower speeds. That being said, our last few days in Bolivia were on some very rough gravel/dirt roads that probably hurt our average.
Average miles driven per day: 62
I’m surprised how low this is. We spent several non-driving days in both Copacabana and La Paz, and our last few days spent driving rough roads equated to lots of hours but few miles.
Biggest daily expenses ($/day):
#1 – Food ($18.84/day): When we weren’t wild camping we ate out a lot! Including a splurge for Bethany’s birthday that included cheese and meat fondue at a Swiss restaurant. Noms.
#2 – Entertainment ($17.92/day): This includes the $150 we spent on our bike tour of the “Death Road” and several park entrance fees. All totally worth it, just more than we had included in our budget.
#3 – Visas & Insurance ($15.75/day): Our budget doesn’t include things like visas and car insurance, but they were both significant in Bolivia. Single-entry visas are currently $55 USD per person. We purchased a 6-month car insurance policy that covers us in Bolivia and all surrounding countries (Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay), basically everywhere we plan to go except Uruguay.
Is this the first time gas didn’t make the top 3? Shocker!