It’s not far from the Atacama to cross the border to Bolivian desert. There’s a small brick building, but it’s really a shack, with officials and flags and lines of tourists waiting to board their 4x4s. That’s the only way you travel the Bolivian plains if you’re not local. And if you’re a Bolivian you’re usually only driving tourists, unless you’re part of the cartels. At least we’re told that when we see local hitchers in the middle of the desert with a canteen. All the drivers are from the small towns between here and Uyuni. One of the women, one of three female cooks and the youngest, she’s from Uyuni. The older woman works with her husband, one of the three drivers. They’re all wearing tracksuits when we’re introduced. They’re finishing checks on the vehicles then shyly take our bags to load up.
Lots of tarps and hockey straps. There’s fourteen of us tourists to three jeeps. We’re excited as all hell. It’s cold and sunny and we’ve got bags of crackers and oreos between us from the tiendas in Atacama.
It’s Jill, Iqbal, Victoria, Soledad, and me with the driver. We’re at 2000m now maybe, Sole says the first day will take us to 4900m where most people struggle. Some people are nervous, our jeep is calm.
What’s outside the windows keeps us quiet. Why do I never have the adequate words to describe what I feel when I look out to massive ancient volcanoes and plains so unique, they were once part of earth’s largest freshwater lake. Colours of brown, white, grey, and red fill my vision. We’re not driving long before the first Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde. Jill and I stir the other, unable to contain excitement at seeing a massive white lake shadowed by snow capped volcanoes and surrounded by a fluroscent green algae. The level of minerals and salts in the earth causes the colour. We run down the base, gasp, and continue on for the next part of the show.
It’s a long drive and we’re still tired. We blankly seek the rabbits, llamas, and vicunas in the landscape. We stop for lunch in another old brick room; it’s occupied with other tourists on long tables. It’s like a restaurant. Each group’s own chefs disappear to other rooms to cook up our meal. There’s a bathroom you pay a Boliviano to but it’s no better than going on a rock. I didn’t think until now, this was my first Bolivian meal, because there’s isn’t anything similar to it that I experienced. Food is served in three courses, usually a soup or light meal first, then a plate of spiced meats and rice with vegetables and maiz. The large white maiz. Then we get a dessert.
The lunch spot is also where the natural hot springs are. It’s really a small round pool beside a massive lake that takes the hot water below and looks over the wildest of natural views. A beautiful natural wasteland.
Rains are coming in over the mountains and we hurry out of the aguas calientes, dress, and race back to our jeeps. We drive for another hour or two and the altitude is climbing. There’s no communication with the other jeeps and they keep stopping. Someone has started throwing up. All of the Europeans are pale and faint. Wouldn’t they have more exposure to heights than someone from city 6 metres above sea level? Not long and we reach the next natural sight. The ground is dusty grey and there is smoke coming over the ridges and multi-coloured foothills. Most of the group stay in the jeep, the altitude here is the highest, which might explain the sight we were walking towards. I’m feeling light, but then we see the fumerals. Geysers of bubbling cavities of mud scattered between the ridges of rainbow acid colours. Jill and I explode. We can’t contain our wild enthusiasm at seeing mud, bubble and rise, in the clay-like pits. Yeah science! Sole finally finds a connection with us; we’d been strained before now. She explains them to us, but we’re not really listening. What is this? How are we here, seeing bubbling pits of mud in the deserts of Bolivia? I nearly cried and I can’t explain why. South America has made me so emotional in my experiences.
We have to keep moving; Sole doesn’t think it’s safe for the others to be at altitude for too long. We keep losing the other 4x4s; they keep pulling over to be sick. We’re way ahead of them, we’re supposed to see the Laguna Colorado today, but the others won’t enjoy it, Sole says. We’ll do it in the morning, lucky our accommodation is right near it, and we can see it from the gravel yard.
Tonight we’re in a place without electricity, nothing but a collection of bricks and wood with cement beds. Most sections don’t have doors and the cold is freezing. There’s a layout here. One house is for dining and showers, there’s a few rooms connected where the sick ones, and other travellers are bunking. Vic, Iqbal, Jill, Sole, and myself share a room in another house; it’s a walk away without toilets. There’s even a small store in another house, Jill and I are feeling cocky and buy ourselves a bottle of wine, chocolate, and a large bag of coca leaves. We go and play poker in the dining area.
Walking through the common area is like a hospital for the terminally ill, everybody is on his or her beds moaning and crying except our group, thunder cats unite! The cooks give us tea and biscuits while we wait for dinner. The sun sets late here and we all try to get some rest, Sole warns us the altitude can make the first sleep hard. We’re still high up, maybe 3000. I’ve still got a cold and that night becomes the worst night sleep in my life. Breathing is hard, the heart races and pounds and you can’t slow the pace. My nose is blocked and the altitude has shortened my breath and dried the throat. The cement is barely separated by rugs and the blankets are heavy and press you harder. I barely sleep that night.
After a forgettable breakfast in the morning we leave for Laguna Colorado, a spectacularly large and still lake, the colour of burgundy, surrounded by mountains and dust and algae, ocassionally dotted with flamingoes. Afterwards we drive to El Arbol Del Piedra (rock tree), it’s almost mystical. A lone tree standing like a 5 metre tall. From this point, everything is volcanic rock. We spend ages driving through Valle del Piedras, formed by eruptions, & our lunch point is the Stinky Lagoon, named for the fumes produced by sulphur. Hundreds of flamingos stand in the lagoons. We’re told the pink is because of the algae and minerals they eat. The flamingos also migrate to Chile and Argentina.
In the afternoon we reach our next accommodation, similar to the first night, possibly even slightly “nicer”. There are brick walls and working toilets, if only for the afternoon, and we all have shelter. The beds are still cement. The two nights on the road were incredibly rough experiences, being isolated without water, toilet paper, supplies, money, and sharing large dorms on cold nights with thin breath.
In the morning the cocineras lift our spirits with pancakes and tea and the day keeps feeling magical when we drive through massive stretches of the brightest red and yellow quinoa plantations and fields. We’re on our way to the train cemetery, abandoned in the 1940s and once the main supplier of silver. It’s supposed to be the train that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed on their escape from USA. In Bolivia there’s still a reward for recovering their guns. It’s a creepy site, rusted collapsed trains covered in graffiti and now it’s become a playground for tourists, people climb all over it, there are swings attached to levers. The entire area is surrounded by trash. That’s a common sight here though.
Don’t spend too long here, we’re 20 minutes from Salar de Uyuni. We drive through a dusty town, you can see the white plains in the distance. The town is on the border, where all the salt miners live. The street is wildly crowded with souvenirs and eager tourists keen to buy a piece of salt or a woolly beanie. We drive straight ahead, then like a mirage, we see visions of white for miles. We drive far out into the flats. Looking back the mountains and cars appear to float. The earth curves like a trick of the horizon. We can’t look without glasses. The ground has a tiled, crunchy appearance. The surface layer is wet and digging a hole, people find salt crystals and bright reflections. There’s a storm gathering in the distance. Everybody runs around and takes photos at first. My friend and I stand contemplating the distance. The cocineras bring us all a plate with llama, quinoa, and vegetables with curstard and soda. Sole tells us the salt flats are 12,000km wide, the Bolivian government had banned people from crossing as they can get lost easily and salt water kills engines. One French family in the past got lost and had to be rescued by helicopters.
It’s painful to leave but we’ve got a while to reach Uyuni. It’s a small, miniature town and we stay at a ‘hotel’. It’s the best we’ve had in a while and it’s our first shower in days. ATMs don’t work and there’s not a lot of people around. Jill looks for a place to get her passport entry stamp. I’m sick and try to sleep. We run out into the street for food, it’s getting late and there are only tiendas and small barren restaurants selling comidas tipicas. Fried chicken and rice. We decide to get noodle cups and chocolate and watch two Seasons of Eastbound and Down. The only television show of five channels available in English. Funny.
The following morning we farewell our 4×4 crew. They’ll have a night or two here before they go back to the border to take the same trip. Our group takes a small bus to Potosi, the highest city in the world. It takes 4 or 5 hours.
‘In our time Potosi is a poor city in a poor Bolivia, “a city which has given the most to the world now had the least” an old Potosian lady, enveloped in a mile of alpaca shawl told me. Condemned to nostalgia, torture by poverty and cold, Potosi remains an open wound of the colonial system’
– The Open Veins of Latin America
It’s a chaotic, ramshackle city with an old beauty. There’s a massive mountain looming beside it, the site of silver mining history. The group decides to take a tour of the mines, it doesn’t feel right to Jill and I. We go exploring in the town, hunting for strong medication and food. The altitude is affecting us, losing our breath climbing a staircase. We circle the tiny steep cobbled streets, getting coffee and soup. The cramped markets are selling cheap American knock off jewellery, bags, socks, watches. Traditionally dressed women sell juices, corn and unknown foods on the streets. In the market plaza a charismatic man in a suit speaks to a large crowd. A glass, a lizard he tells to play dead , some large seeds, and a knife. Is he doing magic tricks? Actually, he’s advertising natural medicines, scraping powder from the seeds and showing the audiences. The cure for testicular cancer, influenza, we can’t translate the rest.
I get my upper ear pierced at a vendor across from the plaza for 35Bs. The guy tells us to see the Cerro, Copacabana, Oruro as he sharpens the earring with a nail file to pierce. Jill and I get beers, Potosini isn’t so good, with cheese and jalapeno chips. There’s only one restaurant open tonight, Sole asked the owners. It’s an early dinner, my cold becomes unbearable. The morning we race off again, departing for Sucre by a 3 hour bus.
It’s called the white city. The architecture is colonial and all the walls in the city are painted white. We later realize that it is, in fact, the cleanest city in Bolivia. We go up scale in accommodation, at the Hotel Independencia. It’s the first place we get to stop. For me that’s laundry and internet cafe skypes. Burgers for lunch with the group and for dinner Jill and I get Huaris and the best nachos of our travels in a small empty bar while the staff drink martinis and chat with us. We talk about ayahuasca visions and accounts of friends.
We wake up early the next day for activities, we join an Australian and British couple for mountain biking northwest of the city. Horatio is the leader of the six of us, another disinterested guy drives the van. The minibus crawls up uneven dirt tracks through the city outskirts, occasionally having to reverse off closed roads on steep hills. We get out at the top of a massive hill, overlooking the stretch of valley below. Get your bikes, helmet and gloves fast downhill rocky ride for 18km. Watch out for camiones, hold the brakes, slow down at landslides and ride fast through the creeks. Downhill biking, it turns out, is terrifying. It’s rocky and every 10 minutes we hear the horns of passing trucks. One girl cries because the minibus is tail-gating. My fingers are locked in pain over the brakes.
God, the landscapes are stunning, breathing the country dust and burning shoulders in the sun. We get to the bottom and cross the creeks. And finally we have our first uphill, it’s so steep and at least 5 minutes in, everyone walks. We reach the top and now we’re riding on the side of the mountain. There’s more evidence of landslides here and it’s especially rocky. We ride another 30 minutes, maybe an hour, to an abandoned mud-brick house and leave the bikes inside for a trek by foot to the canyons through cliff edges and green forest, lavender, tea herbs, eucalyptus woods. There’s granite and black rock on the mountains. We have lunch on the rocks in the middle of the lake. Horatio fills his bottle in the stream. Watch out for thorns. Horatio uses rocks to mark where we’ve been to navigate our way back.
And then, we reach the canyon, it’s like something for Indiana Jones. The muddy water feels like ice but we all jump in anyway. The mud is thick and sucks you down. The current is strong so we stay to the edges of the river. The British and Australian guy swim into the canyon, until we can’t see them, if I were stronger I would have loved to see the cove beyond. Instead we float and play with mud, looking up to the rock faces, inhabited by countless parrots. We take the same route back, trek, bike, bus and we finally get to Sucre but the sun has already set. We got back later than we though. The seven of us, including Horatio, go for beers at Joy Ride Bar then part our ways. Funny, we see both couples again in La Paz later on in our trip. Jill and I are recommended La Taverna, a French restaurant, for their excellent steaks. We meet the rest of the group there and spend lavishly on dinner, dessert, and wine. Then a small group of us go back to Joy Ride and the night is lost in a binge of tequila, Cuba Libre, and beer.
It’s a groggy day after, the massive buffet breakfast doesn’t make much difference but I run into the British girls I met in Mendoza. I saw them again many times in La Paz and even later in Copacabana. We waste the day wandering markets and juice stalls, getting bad cheap pedicures at one of the salons. We take a night bus to La Paz that evening, loaded with oreos and chips and it’s surprisingly magical, the skies exploding with stars and a bumpy road lulling us to sleep.
We make an early arrival to a famously overcrowded and chaotic La Paz, lodging ourselves at Hotel Brisas on Avenida Llampu, the group trudges through the city for breakfast and coffee, coming back via the Witches Markets. It’s a poor attempt at bartering, it’s our first time. Then Jill and I, feeling tired, watch Point Break in the room and nap. We get dinner 15 minutes out of town at a buffet and say farewell to the gang.
7:30am, eight of us get picked up by Marcos, an Australian expat, and the driver from Gravity biking to take us on Ruta de la Muerte. Of course it’s raining, we’re all secretly horrified, climbing up the mountains, through police checks in Villa Fatima for safety equipment and passports, Marcos gets pleasure telling us a collection of horror stories about locals and bike companies. It’s a fair drive and he distracts us with his life story as we work our way up to 4700m elevation. He’s Melbourne born, a major bike enthusiast and inspired by Che Guevara. He moved to South America in his 40s, selling all possessions to travel around Brazil, El Bolson, Argentina and Bolivia before getting his current job. He gives us book recommendations; Open Veins of Latin America and The Shock Doctrine.
We reach the starting point. There’s a lake, a house, and wild llamas, but we couldn’t see that in the fog. Around the corner the road starts and we see locals slow down at La Cumbre and tip alcohol or items out their window. It’s a local ritual and well known tradition to offer valuable items to Pachamama for safe passage. Our group gathers in a circle after bike checks and safety instructions for our ritual. Marcos passes a vial of 96% alcohol around the circle to pour in the mouth, on the bicycle, and on the ground. The road begins on new asphalt road all the way through to Pongas, we reach police checkpoint for Narcotics (which is only ever open 9-6pm), stop to see infamous crashed bus down 1km below, take photos, pay entry at the one-street town of Pongas, pass the tunnel then onto the downhill dirt road. It’s freezing, foggy, raining, and requires full concentration.
Every time we stop it’s tragedy stories and graves. 1984, 106 people on a truck died returning from a soccer game when the truck they were piled on reversed off the cliff. Cyclists die and injure themselves every week. Three weeks ago a family of five died on a sharp turn. The car pancaked, Marcos said. It only made the nervous ride more slowly.
400, 600 metre drops, waterfalls, landslides, narrow paths, sharp corners. There’s the home of Clause Barber, Nazi criminal responsible for the killing of Che. We make a stop at the prettiest place for bananas and granola bars, bought from local communities. The lower elevation brings warmer temperatures and we take layers off. Marcos tells us this is where the road is the thinnest, that scene from Top Gear. There’s a waterfall in the middle and the fern walls climb so high, I couldn’t measure it.
It looks just like Jurassic Park.
We keep riding, there’s some difficult turns and the odd uphill and at 3pm we reach our finishing point, Yolosa. High-fives and free beers and we go to La Senda Verde, an animal refuge, for lunch. It’s a paradise. Marcos tells us on days off he comes here to read under trees where hummingbirds feed on the trees flowers and monkeys play around him. Is that real life? Jill and I convince ourselves we will return here one day. Monkeys, birds, turtles, and other mammals are skipping around. We have lunch in the lodge, the volunteers tell us to keep all doors locked in case of hungry monkeys. Buffet lunch, beers, coffee and quick natural showers. The river tide is high and too dangerous to swim in. Time flies and the minibus drives us back up Death Road on the most terrifying 4 hours of my life. Dark sets in quick, clouds are closing in with the rain, the bus inching on the edge of the road.
at one point he tells everyone to get out of the bus and we help push it around a sharp corner recently damaged by landslides. We drink Cuba Libre and Marcos tells us horror stories. Longest time I ever held my breath, not even Queen´s I want to ride my bicycle can make me forget where I am. Finally arrive back to town alive after the most exhilirating days of my life.
Check into Bacoo Hostal, Jill and I spend the next few days strolling La Paz before leaving for a break in Coroico.
Places: Salar de Uyuni, Uyuni, Potosi, Sucre, La Paz, Ruta de la Muerte, Yolosa, Coroico, Copacabana, Lake Titicaca…
Figures and politics: Silver mining, Clause Barber, Evo Morales
Food and drink: llama, Saya Paceña Huari cerveza, salteñas, quinua, coca
Other: Pachamama, Andean cosmo vision LLIUPACHA YUYAYCHAY, Wiphala flag