Blown Away by Bolivia
Bolivia, South America
We were back on the 'tourist loop' of south-western Bolivia and the dust plume I guessed was from a speeding 80 Series Land Cruiser driven by yet another tour operator keeping to a tight timetable and loaded with backpackers paying a $100 or so for a three day excursion from Uyuni.
We had headed out to the lake and camped on its bright white surface at the eastern edge of a long stretch of brine water that stretched for a few kilometres across the lake surface. As much as I wanted to drive across the lake to one of the inhabited islands the salt lake supports, there was no way Neil, my travelling companion, or I, were driving our vehicles through long sections of salty water just for the fun of it; we were a long way from home and with just three and a half months of our South and Central America Overland jaunt behind us, we still had six months to go.
But as soon as the sun dropped below the distant skyline the temperature began to plummet. By the time the last backpacker had left and the last light had faded from the western sky we were crowding into jumpers, jackets and long johns in an effort to stay warm. That night our water tanks froze, as did the gas bottles; even water bottles inside the camper froze as we reckon the temperature dropped below minus 10 degrees Centigrade.
Our first introduction to Bolivia had been warmer!
By sheer good fortune though the next day we found ourselves camped amongst palm trees and beside a spring fed warm stream.
Stopped for lunch just off the highway near the railway line that turned out to be a spot where trucks were taking soil down the road. One of the truckies stopped and told us (with sign language and a few Spanish words we could understand) that there was a river nearby and a good spot to swim.
We went to investigate. Turned out to be the Aguas Calientes - a spring fed river where there is a small camping area (GPS 18°28'1.2"S 59°29'46.1"W) set up amongst a grove of palms. We quickly made up our mind to stay - one night ... then after having a swim in the 42°C water which flows quickly over a sandy bottom ... for two nights! There's clean toilets and the caretaker is friendly, the grounds being kept very clean by him ... and later by his wife. Cost was just 4B/night/person or about 0.70cents!
El Fuerte mightn't be so well known as Peru's Machu Picchu, but it features many of the same incredible traits; a virtually impregnable hilltop fortress, a place to pay homage to the sun gods, perfect alignment to the sun's equinoxes, impeccable stonework and trapezoidal shaped doorways. While the site dates back to around 1500BC, most of what you see, after taking the steep vehicle track to the park's entry gate and then walking for a few hundred metres to the top of the mountain, dates to when the Incas were in control around 1500AD and just before the Spanish arrived and wiped out their civilisation.
Instead, that evening a little higher up in the mountains from Potosi, while searching for a campsite off the main highway, the big Ford F250 of Neil's became bogged. In what was more of a Monty Python sketch than a well run recovery operation, we finally got the rig out with the use of some hard shovel work (ever tried that at 4200m???), the use of four Maxtraxs and a tug by the Patrol, which was wheezing like all of us at that altitude.
Once again we were breathless at over 4200 metres, but this 60sq km lake is just 80cm deep and its reddish waters are alive with algae and plankton that attracts all three species of South American pink flamingos. While they mightn't be in as large a number as the pink flamingos of the salt and soda lakes of East Africa, to see hundreds of them at this altitude, surrounded by a bare and harsh but spectacular landscape, is quite unforgettable.
Founded in 1548 when the Spaniards found gold in the now putrid, soap sud filled Rio Choqueyapa, the modern city of just over a million people has expanded up the steep canyon walls with houses seemingly clinging on to the near vertical cliff faces. It makes San Francisco or Sydney look like they are built on flat plains! The centre of the city is around 3660m (making it the highest capital city in the world), while the canyon rim is over 4200metres.
Once you leave the highway the old road is a sinuous, rocky, sometimes graded, often eroded track - and extremely narrow in places. Think of the narrowest most exposed track in the Victorian High Country - Billy Goat Bluff, or Blue Rag and you get a bit of an idea of what the route is like, but the drops over the edge are much, much bigger and, of course, it goes for well over 10km! There are sheer 1000' drops along much of the route, especially in the first 10km or so, and at one point there is an 1800' drop on a very tight turn. Still, it's nowhere near as dangerous as it once was as most of the trucks and buses that once used it now take the main highway. We only met one truck and a few cars and, as we were going down and the rule is those descending must give way to those coming up, we quickly found a spot where they could easily and safely pass.
However, safer or not, the sheer edges and long, long drops do sharpen the mind and concentrates one's gaze and all of one's attention. It is a fabulous drive though - verdant mountains rear up to the sky on one side and plummet downwards into narrow ravines on the other. Clouds swirl around the high jagged peaks and in places the road takes you under waterfalls - most of which were just a trickle as the Dry season was in full swing when we were there. The scenery is great but you really need to find a spot a stop to admire the view!
This park is now recognised as one of the most diverse protected areas on the planet and protects virgin jungle from 500 foot above sea level to glaciers at over 19,000 feet. We were led by an excellent and experienced, English speaking guide, Alex, during our four day stay at the lodge and he showed us some of the delights and magic of the jungle. Sadly we didn't see a jaguar, but they are there; evidence of fresh footprints in the soft mud of a creek crossing giving away their recent presence.
It is a magic place and we camped on the shore near the tourist and Christian pilgrimage hotspot of Copacabana.
Mind you this is a backpacker’s paradise and the place is crawling with them, but it's a pretty pleasant place all in all but the water is a bit cool for swimming.
Down on the harbour there are dozens of boats taking tours out to the nearby Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon, both of which were important sites in Inca times. There are also dozens of paddleboats, but we couldn't see ourselves in a boat with a Donald Duck bow spit or a lovely white swan!
The town is also an important Christian pilgrimage place so there are lots of shrines and the local cathedral is pretty impressive.
Best time to go - It's always cool (cold?) in the highlands, temperate in the valleys and warm in the lowlands (think tropical here). The rainy season is from December to March.
Highlights - The Amazon region & Rurrenabaque, especially Chalalan Lodge (https://www.rutaverdebolivia.com/tour/chalalan-ecolodge-madidi-national-park/); the southwest and Salar de Uyuni; the Death Road; Lago Titicaca ... but there's lots more!
Custom Tours - Arawi & Marcos from Natural Custom Expeditions (www.naturalcustom.com) are based in La Paz and can arrange everything you need and where you want to go in Bolivia. They are excellent, English speaking, friendly guides whom we couldn't recommend highly enough.
4WD Hire - Avis & Hertz, amongst others, hire 4WD vehicles in La Paz or Santa Cruz (see: www.udrivecarhire.com).
More info - www.visitbolivia.org/