A Travellerspoint blog

Blowing Through Bolivia

From Tupiza to Copacabana

sunny 74 °F

After our unconventional jeep border crossing into Bolivia, we decided to head to the far south of the country to Tupiza. It is near here that Butch Cassidy and The Sundace Kid had their final shootout. Since we both love train rides, we opted to travel to Tupiza by rail. Since our train left at 3am we spent a few long uncomfortable hours in the Uyuni station watching the ebb and flow of of people arriving and departing.

tupizaTrain.jpgSunrise on the train revealed an extremely rugged route occasionally marked by mud villages eeking out a difficult existence. The flavor of Bolivian culture was made richer as we gathered locals on their way to the market in Tupiza. "Chola" women, with their distinct Bowler hats and their cargo tied in a blanket on their backs, flooded our car chewing coca leaves and chatting in their native language. Apparently we were just as strange to them as they kept looking at how Renee was dressed.

tupiza.jpgArriving in Tupiza we found a small orderly town flanked on all sides by red sandstone mountains. We were excited to find a town that wasnt saturated with gringos. Sure there was a fledgling tourist industry, but it hadnt eroded the authenticity of the town. Unfortunately Renee had gotten sick during the journey. Between´getting used to the altitude (somewhere around 11,000 feet) and Renees condition, we missed out on the main attraction of the area, hiking through the stunning canyons. No biggie though because we have seen lots of amazing desert enviroments in the states.

TupizaChola.jpgWe have to be in Peru soon for our arranged language classes, so after a week in Tupiza we headed to La Paz on an overnight bus called a flota. This journey will be etched in our memory for all time. The route crosses the altiplano at elevations over 12,000 feet. At night it got cold. Like deep space kinda cold. The bus, for some reason, had no heat. I couldnt figure this one out, I mean the engine is hot right? Why some of that heat wasnt diverted into the bus I dont know. We were the only gringos on the bus - we like this. Everyone had wool blankets and as many layers of clothes as they could put on. Renee and I shared a down sleeping bag. The inside of the windows were literally iced over from all our breaths. Renees flexibility allowed her to sit so her feet were covered by the sleeping bag. Since Im a stiff white male my feet remained outside the bag. I thought maybe Id loose a few toes by the time it was over.

tupizaBus.jpgAs the sun rose over the hills, we craved its warmth like a starving man craves any scrap of food he can get. Getting off the bus in La Paz I almost fell down the steps because my feet were frozen. It took a good hour for them to feel normal again. I have never experienced that depth of numbness before, but we were in La Paz. Probably one of the coolest cities ever.

Posted by retomer 09:53 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking

Jeeping across the Altiplano

A very chilly desert crossing from Chile to Bolivia

sunny 50 °F

Highlight video of our 3 day jeep trek:

jeep_border__640x479_.jpg It´s 8 am and we meet the mini bus and our nine fellow jeep mates. An hour on the mini bus brings us to the Bolivian border where we will be handed off to the Toyota Landcruiser that will be our transport for the next three days. The border crossing is tiny and very casual consisting of two small shacks. We (the only Americans) are asked to go into the shack first, and here we run into a snag. It seems those from the USA are the only ones required to have a visa. This visa costs $135 though the migration agent tosses out all sorts of numbers and we get the feeling that we are being extorted. Renee shifts into gear and begins to play dumb and tries to negotiate with the Bolivian immigration official. Because of the remote location of this border post and the suspicious fact that the bus driver seems to be part of the negotiation, Renee holds fast and claims we don’t have the cash. We think the agent and bus driver realize that we aren´t going to hand over and money without some effort, so they grant us entry into Bolivia as long as we register with immigration on the other end of our journey, and they start processing the rest of our group. Our passports are put into a makeshift envelope, stapled, and given to our driver for the duration of the trip.

jeep_geyse..40x359_.jpgThis first day brings us across a stark yet magnificent landscape populated with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, lakes tinted green from copper, and lakes tinted red (from iron?) with pink flamingos lingering in the shallows. At one point we are over 5500 meters. That’s around 18,000 feet, though the huge flat plain that surrounded us gave no indication of this high altitude (the highest either of us has ever been to in our lives). We are experiencing the Bolivian Altiplano. To combat the creeping effects of altitude sickness, an adventurous German gave us some coca leaves to chew. Worked like a charm. No wonder the locals chew them. The acrid tasting leaves muted the throbbing headache and settled the nausea. Oh yeah, Renee began to speak more rapidly.

jeep_day3s..40x480_.jpgOur first night is spent literally in the middle of nowhere, in a little settlement village. We explored the tiny settlement with the Canadian couple sharing our jeep, walking to the top of the cliffs above and spent the remaining sunlight in awe of the spartan conditions. I am worried about the passports under the drivers care and convince him to hand them over. He does without batting an eye saying that he really doesn´t want the responsibility. I really relax for the first time all day.

The sun sank and we ate a basic meal of sticky spaghetti and watery tomato sauce followed by a local indigenous band playing traditional songs. With a fresh headache from the music we climbed in our sleeping bags in the most basic of all rooms with the Canadians and the German adventurer. The night proved to be freezing (about 15 degrees) and it was difficult to sleep at the 4,400 meters (14,520 feet) altitude on the prison hard cots. Lying awake we could hear our drivers whooping it up late into the night.

jeep_day3c..40x479_.jpg As the day dawns, we see proof of the amount of drinking that went on. Our drivers and a few locals were trying to free a jeep high centered on a mound of dirt. Apparently a very drunk tour driver went for a spin and got ridiculously stuck. We see empty bottles of what looks like rot gut whiskey in the bathroom. Our hung over drivers load us up and we head off into the altiplano for another day of seeing unusual rock formations and so many llamas that we stopped taking photos of them. We end the day in accommodations more comfortable than last night, on the edge of what really is the highlight of the journey, the salt flats.

jeep_day2l..40x422_.jpg The real sightseeing gem comes the third day. The Salar de Uyuni is a gigantic salt flat. Its an ancient huge lake that dried up and left behind salt. Covering over 12,000 square kilometers (7,200 miles!!) the salt flat is blinding white and seems like a big lake. First thing in the morning we all set out into the heart of the salt to Isla de Pescado. The most bizarre thing is the island is dotted with cacti, some over 1000 years old. Standing on the highest point of this island the view really made it seem we were surrounded by water. jeep_day2C..40x358_.jpgWith over 45 kilometers of blinding white salt between us and the nearest visible mountains, the sensation was surreal. The salt expanse was so large we could see the curvature of the earth!

jeep_day3i..73x640_.jpgOur tour ends with a tour of a train graveyard in our destination town of Uyuni. This dusty town inspires everyone to arrange an immediate way out. Well all of us except the adventurous German who plans to summit a nearby volcano that is nearly 6,000 meters (19,800 feet). Our jeep mates flee north while we buy train tickets south to visit the little town of Tupiza, Bolivia.

Posted by retomer 08:52 Archived in Bolivia Tagged transportation

Bolivia Bound

sunny 75 °F

Standing in the predawn chill outside the closed bus terminal in a random town called Calama, we groggily put on all of our coats, hats, and gloves and shake the night bus journey from the coast town of Iquique out of our systems. As I move from side to side trying to generate some heat I reminisce on the last 5 days of warmth and beach walks in the unusually situated city of Iquique: the desert literally transforms into 30 or so city blocks which merge right into beach and Pacific Ocean. We think of the other travelers we met at the hip hostel situated on the side of the long clean city beach and how Iquique is a crossroads for travelers coming from all directions. It’s a rest stop to recover from Peru and Bolivia travel, or a warm stop for those coming from southern Chile like us. It is here in Iquique that we decide to head east to Bolivia. Iquique__640x430_.jpg

We don’t have a guidebook. We are relying on fellow travelers´ advice to cross into Bolivia from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. And so here we are in Calama, the transfer town somewhere east, and at some altitude, in the vast and vacant Atacama Desert of northern Chile, waiting for the terminal to open and figure out how to get to San Pedro.

sanPedro_B..40x430_.jpgTwo hours later the sun is rising over the desolate landscape as the bus trundles along up and down a lonely paved road towards San Pedro. The early morning sun casts a reddish hue on the desert sand and we struggle to stay awake to take in the landscape. Before we know it, we are stumbling off the bus in a dusty lot on the edge of town.

sanPedro_d..40x430_.jpgIn the early Sunday morning hours San Pedro de Atacama is an incredibly quaint and mellow place. All the buildings are old and built of actual adobe bricks. The streets are lined with melting adobe walls and bright but faded painted doorways. It looks like a movie set for a Clint Eastwood western. We wander the streets gasping at the uniqueness of a dirt town in the middle of nowhere.

Our hostel is one of many with similar layout – adobe rooms strewn together around a courtyard. It is very basic with the most worn sheets I have seen yet. The bed is hard. There is none of the promised hot water for a shower. This is the first time in our 4 month travels that we can´t drink the tap water and so we buy 5 liter jugs. We are tired from the night travel but can only rest for a couple of hours in the pleasant courtyard hammocks before we are restless and want to figure out our route to Bolivia.

sanPedro_v..30x640_.jpgIts about noon when we head out and surprisingly we are bombarded with loads of tourists and travelers streaming up and down the main dusty street. The tranquility of the early morning is gone and we realize that we are in a major tourist attraction. We wander off the beaten track and snap tons of photos of the neat adobe walls around the town. We cover our mouths from the dusty gusts of wind and cover our faces from the 2550 meter (8400 feet) strong sun. We discover the adventurous route to Bolivia is a 3 day jeep trek across the altiplano and so we purchase our tickets for the next morning. We don´t really know what to expect as we are sort of half paying attention as the lack of sleep and elevation take their toll, and not really following the itinerary with much detail. We are Bolivia bound and that’s all that matters.

Posted by retomer 08:17 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking

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