05.01.2008 - 10.01.2008
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After spending another freezing night in Cuzco we drove further east to Puno, on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest elevation lake in the world at around 3800 meters. By that time the altitude was beginning to take its toll and when I had to carry my 20kg suitcase up 4 flights of stairs at our hotel in Puno, I started seeing stars and nearly passed out.
Later that night we had a few beers and some Lama steaks at a local restaurant and planned our escape from the cold of Peru. The next morning we drove to the Peru- Bolivian border crossing, which is in the middle of nowhere, at the far end of Lake Titicaca. By far the most casual border crossing yet and it was Sunday which made it even more relaxed. A few forms to fill out, a small bribe to pay and we were on our way.
Local Ladies at the Border crossing
Drunken Sunday after church picnic in Peru
Next stop Copacabana, a lake side tourist hotspot jammed with hippies and Brazilian and Argentinean tourists. The Bolivian side of the lake was a lot more scenic, the food and accommodation was ¼ the price and the people were friendlier.
We only planned on staying for just one day before driving to the capital La Paz but there were some political issues in the capital and the roads in and out of the city were blocked with trucks and boulders and guarded by rock throwing Bolivians.
View over Copacabana Bolivia
Apparently the way to protest in Bolivia is to block the main roads into the capital so that no traffic can get through and throw rocks at anyone who dare try to drive around them. The government had just doubled the yearly insurance fees for all truck, bus and taxi drivers and they were really pissed. Fortunately the police cleared the road blocks every couple of days or so, so we would be able to get through we just had to wait a day or so.
We left Copacabana very early on Tuesday morning to avoid any possible complications ( we figured it would be too early and too cold for any protesting) and headed south to Uyuni and the Bolivian salt flats, bypassing La Paz just in case. A crazy 6 hour drive with snow, rain and hail, over a mountain, across a lake and through a desert.
The scary ferry crossing on our way to La Paz
We drove as far south as Oruru and jumped on an 8 hour train to make the last part of the journey. The view from the train was really beautiful; flamingo lakes, herds of wild Lamas and some very rural villages, definitely a great way to see the country side. There was even a dinning car so you can watch life pass by as you eat your $2 steak meal.
What paved roads there are in Bolivia are in fantastic condition, it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more of them. The secondary roads and some of the main roads consist mostly of one lane dirt tracks, which turn into mud tracks in the rainy season, intersected by several rivers with out bridges. Too much for our Honda to handle and to be honest I think most 4x4s would struggle on some of the roads in the south of Bolivia.
We arrived in Uyuni late that night and crashed at a local hotel. Luckily enough our room came with polystyrene ceilings, beds that sagged all the way to the ground and of course my favorite, the electric shower. Fortunately we didn’t get electrocuted by this one. We got up early the next day to organize a tour to the salt flats. Because it was the rainy season and some parts of the salt flats were inaccessible, even by 4x4, we opted for a 1 day tour instead of the usual 3 day tour. After a few very boring mandatory stops; including the train cemetery, a bunch of old rusted out trains dumped in the middle of a desert and the local salt museum, we started the drive into and across the salt flats.
The salt museum built from bricks of salt
Now I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say that the Bolivian salt flats are absolutely incredible. For me personally it was the most beautiful place I have ever been to in the world and by far the most incredible thing that I have ever seen.
The incredible Salar de Uyuni
The salt flats are up on a mountain plateau in the middle of the Andes and cover an area of over 12,000 square km. In the rainy season they are covered with water and it turns into a massive mirror. We took over 100 photos in the few hours that we spent there and to be honest they don’t do the place justice; it really was hard to capture just how beautiful it was. At times it was difficult to tell where the sky ended and the earth began.
Salt mounds on the salt flats
It was also the first time I ever saw someone walk on water. We had a picnic lunch (another steak dinner) out in the middle of the flats and spent the rest day driving around on the roof of our jeep in what has to be the most surreal place on earth. What an incredible place.
Salt flat picnic
The lady that walks on water
The little boy that walked on water
One of the 4000 other tour groups on the flats....Bloody tourists
The bottle perspective
That night were continued our whirlwind tour of Bolivia and headed back to Oruru, by bus this time, to pick up our car. It wasn’t quite as much fun as the train ride down and with over 70 people crammed into a 35 seater bus, the 10 ½ ride along the bouncy muddy roads was torture. At one point there were five small children sleeping around the driver’s seat. As Alex politely put it, there was definitely a delicious potpourri of smells floating around the bus. The people in Bolivia are really cool but unfortunately for the people on our bus showering was not as popular as you would hope.
We finally made it to Oruru at 6:30am the next morning, jumped in the car with almost no sleep and headed south west to the Chilean border. After driving for about 2 hours the main highway turned into a dirt road and shortly after that came to an abrupt halt at a 2 feet deep river without a bridge. There was no way around it and it would have been one of many more rivers along the way. We had no choice but to turn back.
We couldn’t believe it, the main highway, one of the few main roads in Bolivia was a mud track all the way to the border. We had no choice but to turn around and drive north to the only other border with Chile, which we were promised was paved.
Thankfully it was and 6 hours later we were in the Chilean Andes at what has to be the highest border crossing in the world, just under 5000 meters. We crossed the border and started the long drive down hill through the fog, rain, rock slides and flamingo lagoons, into Arica on the pacific coast. From freezing temperatures at over 5000 meters, to over 30 degrees at sea level. More than 40 hours of travel in 3 days. What a week..
The top of the Bolivian Andes
Finally back to the beach and warmer weather…..but not for long….