Viva la corrupción! – Bolivia

What a pleasure to hear Spanish again after our Brazilian intermezzo. For the past week we have felt like complete idiots every time we had to explain something to a local in Portuguese. But now finally we hear some familiar sounds again and we can leave the Roman version of Russian behind as we cross the border into Bolivia. We look forward to another highlight of our trip here, the Salar de Uyuni, but on the other hand we don’t really know what to expect of this country. Well, it turns out we like it, a lot, despite it ruining our car – again and again… and again.

Driving into Bolivia immediately introduces us to a popular Bolivian profession: corrupt police officer. The province of Santa Cruz has a great scam set up involving all traffic police, even the customs officers inform us of the requirement to buy the orden de circulacion in the nearest town. This paper is basically a “we’ll let you drive on without paying more”-card for police checks in the province. Buy it as a foreigner once for 12 euros and you’re all set. Don’t buy it and every cop that stops you will want his fair share of your gringo riches… Welcome to Bolivia. At least for the 600 km highway to the city of Santa Cruz it works well. We see some people having a very hard time with the cops while we get waved on upon showing the paper. In Santa Cruz we meet up again with Mathias and Isabelle whom we met in Argentina a month ago. We relax for a day, make epic lasagna together and then drive on towards Cochabamba province. Here we visit our first Inca ruins – in preparation of Machu Picchu – and pass by some nice colonial villages on the way to Sucre. On this side of the Santa Cruz province acting as if you don’t speak Spanish is apparently enough to get you through the checkpoint, a trick our German friends pull off in style. Unfortunately we automatically answer with a polite Buenos tardes, Señor and hereby blow our cover… When we can’t find Hannes’ original driver’s license, the cop is getting a bit stubborn. A local drops by in the office and puts 2 Bolivianos – 25 eurocents – in a hole in the cop’s desk. The same guy smiles at us and tells us the “tax” is 2 BOL. When Hannes puts the same amount in the little piggy bank, the cop smiles and waves us on. Well, at least we pay the same as the locals… Truth be told, it’s not a game we should be playing. Paying the bribes only feeds the system and keeps it alive. On the other hand, they have little to lose and don’t care if they hold you there wasting half a day arguing. After all they are law enforcement and can do so… The government is totally aware it happens and doesn’t do shit, so we as gringos are not going to be the gallant knights who can oppose corruption. No, we rather play by their rules, pay his little fee and drive on. And luckily for us, corruption in Bolivia works in both ways! Fuel is heavily subsidised for locals but foreigners aren’t supposed to get the lower price and pay a hefty precio internacional instead. Showing up with a foreign plate often results in paying this higher price unless you have a flexible pump attendant. If you go to get fuel with a jerrycan you mostly pay the local price as well. We’re safe to say that we scammed the Bolivian system for a lot more Bolivianos than they scammed us…

 

 

Hannes’ stomach has been struggling already since we entered the country and in the middle of the Cochabamba highland he gets unwell again. Stefanie takes over the wheel and she immediately can experience the best of Bolivian roads: one lane dirt tracks with a river canyon gaping on one side and a mountain wall on the other. In the end we make it to Sucre and Hannes is very happy he can use toilets again instead of a shovel. Other than its toilets, we also really enjoy the rest of the city. Beautiful, white colonial architecture, local markets, some nice restaurants and coffee bars, simply a cosy city atmosphere. And most importantly, somehow we feel very at ease and safe here. For two days we walk around town to see the main sights and then we do one trip in the area to Maragua. This tiny indigenous village is tucked away in the mountains within a massive meteorite crater. It’s a nice sight in great surroundings but the road getting there is pure vehicle torture. On the way back we hear a familiar sound when hitting some bumps and when we stop to check, leaking oil confirms that one of the rear shock absorbers just broke. Well, that was probably not worth it… 20.000 km – exactly! – on South American roads are taking their toll! Thinking that we can do without, Hannes decides we can continue to Uyuni, instead of repairing it first in Sucre or Potosi. We’re heading into the altiplano now and soon we’re driving above 4000m. Whatever green there was in the East of the country now changes to endless plains of brown and red dust dotted with grazing Llamas, quinoa fields and old ladies harvesting potatoes. When we turn another hairpin and get a view over a massive basin up ahead we see the red dust abruptly end in a white line that stretches as far the eye can see: the Salar!

 

 

Uyuni is probably one of the ugliest towns we’ve seen so far. It’s dusty, full of thrash and apart from the 100’s of Land Cruisers and tour agencies you really wouldn’t believe this is the most touristy place in Bolivia. Too bad we’re forced to stay here for quite a while. It seems that driving without shock absorber is seriously affecting the tire and these last 400 km wore off more rubber from the tire than the 4000 km before. We also think there’s something wrong with the tire itself but 2 mechanics tell us it’s all fine and we take their word for it. So we start the hunt for a spare pair of absorbers. Easier said than done in Bolivia! In the end the nicest old couple takes Hannes in their truck and drives with him to every possible store in town but nothing is available. One store can order something similar but that will take at least 2 days. In the end we have little options, so for way too much money we let them order the parts – they have to come from Sucre, the city we just came from… We spend our days catching up on the blog and pictures, drinking coffee in the one decent place in town and we camp in the desert by a train cemetery – an obligatory stop on all organised tours. We’re above 3500m here and the nights are quite cold. But with our blanket and down sleeping bags on top, we sleep comfortably warm in the van. The couple of days are great for acclimatising as we will reach 4500-5000m later in the week. The shock absorbers have arrived and indeed they are “similar” but we need some creativity to fit them on the car. We have to destroy the old one for it – a metal ring is missing on the new ones – so we decide to only change the broken one and keep the other rear one original until it breaks as well. After 3 failed attempts of jacking up the car – and crashing the jack into the side of the car like it was a tin can in the last attempt, oops – we decide to have it installed for 10 euros instead. Great! All set and ready to go…

 

 

We really needed the new shock absorber as we are about to start what is described as one of the most beautiful roads in South America, but unfortunately also one of the worst. The Laguna Route winds through a volcanic desert up to 5000m past colorful lakes from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We’re doing the light version, which is indicated on maps.me as an actual road. The hardcore version is just a trail and not accessible without proper 4WD. The first day is beautiful and desolate but we hope for more spectacular sights. The track is sandy but OK. Then, after paying toll for road maintenance, ironically the road turns into the worst rocky trail we’ve driven so far. At 15 km/h we struggle onwards and end up during sunset at 4500m. Sleeping at the highest point you reach on a given day is never a good idea, but driving this road in the dark is an even worse. So after a golden and pink sunset we look for a spot to camp and get ready for a cold and uncomfortable night – especially Hannes sleeps bad because of the altitude during the night. At sunrise we also rise and drive on to Laguna Colorada. This gorgeously set lake has a red sediment that colors the water and gives it its name. Also it is the home of 100’s of flamingos. All alone we sit by the lake for an hour to take in the colorful spectacle. Wonderful… We then have to ascend to 5000m to check out a geysers field. Several trails lead up the mountains and each time we try any other than the rocky main track, we get stuck in the sand and have to start shovelling. This is altiplano at it’s best… Volcanos all around, desolate plain as far as you can see and no one around – well, apart from the vicuñas of course. At 5000m Hannes gets dizzy again – Stefanie seems to be some kind of altitude beast – and the entrance road to the geysers is so bad that we decide to skip it and go for a free hot pool instead a bit lower. We relax for the rest of the day and get ready for one final day of bumpy riding. But not before we’ve had another soak! We camp next to a hotel with natural hot pools that fill up fast with tour groups after 7 am. So we get up before sunrise, temperatures still below zero, and have the place all to ourselves to see night turn into day from a pleasantly warm pool. These are moments we realise we’re living the best life ever at the moment…

 

 

From here on the road is rather good and soon we reach Laguna Blanca and Verde. Both lakes turn into their respective color when winds mixes the colored sediments into the water. We’re a bit too early so cook breakfast and wait for the show to start. It turns out more people have bought tickets for this show… Within the span of 30 minutes the place is packed with Land Cruisers! We clearly missed the memo that this is 4WD terrain. Anyway, they all leave again as fast as they came so we get to enjoy the solitude again. From the two lagoons we leave Bolivia for a couple days and start the descent to San Pedro some 2000m lower. This brings us from a dry Bolivian desert to a very dry Chilean desert, one of the world’s driest. Our return to civilisation also brings about paved roads. Good, because by now we have 2 more broken shock absorbers and also the replaced one is rattling… When we drive faster than 70 km/h the van is now performing a dangerously accurate imitation of a drunken Jack Sparrow. The sandstone landscapes of the Atacama desert are surreal but it’s Chile, so for every sight or mirador you pay. One of the real attractions though is totally free: looking up after dark to one of the most spectacular night skies. By accident we end up in a restaurant next to Steven, a Belgian astronomer and entrepreneur living in San Pedro. He offers us one of his telescopes for the night and thus we’re all set for some hours of stargazing. What we see in the telescope in the end isn’t really spectacular – Hannes was hoping it to match NASA’s instagram feed – but it was fun and even without telescope the starlit firmament is magnificent! We have breakfast with a view and for lunch we find a French bakery in town where they make amazing croissants and baguettes! It’s a rare treat to find good bread in South America so we enjoy it to the max and eat bread for the rest of the day. We had planned to loop back immediately to Uyuni via the normal route but now we take the opportunity to have the shock absorbers fixed in Chile still. Unfortunately after some searching in Calama they tell us it would take a month and 1100 euros to get the spare parts imported. Well… we friendly thank them and inform the mechanics it’ll have to go the Bolivian way. They install the new one we still had left and reinstall the already replaced one. With just the front right one still broken we head back to Bolivia. No wait, we wanted to head back. We can’t find the title paper of the car and we need this to cross the border! The only place where it can be is still at the border crossing to San Pedro where we were several days ago. Hasting back 150 km to try and get there before it closes, we miss a speed bump and almost send the car flying when we hit it full speed. Then we overheat the engine driving the 2000m back up to the border. But in the end, we are lucky and the pink paper is still there.

 

 

After our little 300 km detour we get back into Bolivia via the beautiful Ollague pass and we make it to Uyuni where we started our loop a week ago without any further car parts breaking down. Hannes was determined to drive onto the salar with our van to spend the night, but with all the recent issues and knowing that the salt water can screw up a car big time, he’s getting a little more hesitant. Anyway we want to see the sunset over the salar so we head to Colchani where we can see the state of the entrance to the salar. We’re clearly not the only ones with that plan as the entire place around the entrance is filled with land cruiser tours and more arrive every minute. We still manage to get a front row seat and dig up one of our Argentine bottles of wine to watch the spectacle. This time of year the salar is partly under water, especially at the edges, and the still water reflects the sky like a mirror as far as you can see. It truly is wonderful, even the 100 people around us couldn’t spoil that! Even better is that all tours leave when the sun is down and we have the place practically to ourselves to enjoy the last fading colors of day shining in the sky and on the water. Sunrise the next morning is equally beautiful and after close examination in the morning light we decide the water and salt sludge is too deep to try it without 4WD. We want to drive around to the Northern edge of the salt flat to see if we can camp there and spend some time on the salar as well. The roads for the first 150 km through countless quinoa fields are amazing so we make great progress. Unfortunately Hannes doesn’t notice one pothole in time and hits it full speed and destroys the rim of the front tire – the same one as the broken shock absorber, oops. Luckily the jack does work this time and when we change the wheels we see the broken rim is indeed not very round anymore… But when we arrive to the salar it turns out to be more than worth it! A causeway heads a few 100 meters into the salt and we can camp at the end of it, as if we were sleeping in the middle of the salt. No tour groups here, just us and white nothingness – and the obligatory silly pictures. At night the sky is even more spectacular than in the Atacama desert. Hannes spends several hours outside taking pictures and the alarm is also set for sunrise. What a magnificent place… Here we also must cross some salt water to get onto the salt but we decide not to. We’ve had the full experience and it’s not worth risking all car electronics just for that.

 

 

Instead we drive to our final Bolivian stop in Sajama National Park. On the way we stop to get diesel and the only station around is operated by a local policeman. Too bad this is a rare honest officer as he asks us for the international price. We friendly smile at him and drive on. No way we’re paying that once in this country! The last 100 km is a stunning drive. The horizon in front of us fills up with snow-capped volcanos. And the views in the park around the Sajama volcano are as beautiful. Here we sleep near a geyser field at around 4700m and temperatures drop far below freezing during the night. The river, which receives all the hot geyser water, was nice and hot the evening before but when Hannes goes for a bath in the morning it’s hardly warm anymore. Part of the hot water streams froze up at night and they are now diluting the pleasant warmth with freezing cold water. Brrrr, not as relaxing as last time… Later we find ourselves a boiling geyser and put some eggs in there to cook. It takes a bit longer than normal but in the end we succeed in having a nicely cooked egg for breakfast, fuel for the long drive to La Paz and the Peruvian border.

 

 

Bolivia is a country of exceptional natural beauty and we really enjoyed it. We’ve never felt unsafe or unwelcome even though a smile is often hard to find on the locals’ faces. But they have a long way to go to rid the country of corruption, plastic pollution and obesity – just to name a few obvious issues. Anyway, we’re happy to have finally seen this landlocked gem but we’re excited to drive on to Peru. Because we must admit we’ve had enough of chicken with rice for a while and look forward to the famous Peruvian cuisine!


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