Seventeen Days in (the Plurinational State of) Bolivia

We crossed the border at Kasani just outside of the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It was Christmas Eve. We didn’t know what to expect as far as Christmas festivities. We usually hunker down around the major holidays as travel can be difficult. Last Christmas we were in Guadalajara, Mexico taking a travel break at an Airbnb. When we were in Antigua, Guatemala around Easter it was impossible to drive anywhere in town with any surety as the streets were periodically closed for processionals.  The only sign of Christmas in Copacabana was the large number of local tourists chilling out on the beaches. Our hotel had no decorations. All of the businesses on the tourist strip were operating business as usual. Luckily, we were able to facetime with my family in Oregon and see their beautifully decorated tree in the background and see the pictures from Scott’s family’s Christmas Crab Extravaganza.

            We enjoyed our room in Copacabana very much. It had blue felt carpet, orange walls and a window facing north (they get a lot of sun down here in the southern hemisphere). Plus, it had a towel for each of us, a hand towel, and a bathmat! We were feeling very pampered. The tourist strip that ran perpendicular to the shore was full of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and bus ticket vendors. The shore was lined with about a dozen identical trout restaurants. These folks were crazy for their fried trout. Before leaving town, we located the fresh market and stocked up on everything. We had cleaned out our refrigerator and pantry and given all of our fresh fruits and veggies to the proprietors at our hotel in Puno in anticipation of having it all confiscated at the border (the border officials never even looked in our truck). We stocked up on all of the usual suspects and branched out to try some of the giant puffed corn we had been seeing piled high in the markets. They were the consistency of popcorn but the shape of corn nuts and about an inch wide. We were surprised to find that they were glazed in sugar. A fun treat, but not one we wished to repeat.

The shore of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana style.

            Leaving Copacabana, we were headed for the hills. The countryside was dry and grassy with a few groves of eucalyptus here and there. About every half a mile we would pass little kids with their hands and hats out asking for money. We would see their mothers on the side of the road as well, usually hiding out under the shelter of a piece of cloth tied between two sticks. Some families had little tents. The kids were making a game of it but the parents were not happy. The road wound back down to the shore of Lake Titicaca where it ended at a ferry dock. The boats we encountered there were high on the list of sketchy ferries. I’m sure they had a system but it looked like mayhem. There seemed to be a two-vehicle limit to each boat and only one of those vehicles could be a fully loaded bus. I was thankful that we shared our boat with a sedan bearing a family of four and one lone woman. We were propelled by a 40 horsepower Suzuki outboard. The space for the second motor was empty. We weren’t the fastest ferry but we made it across. 

Traffic jam in ferry-land.

            After disembarking the ferry, we said goodbye to Lake Titicaca and headed east. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance and we aimed to camp among them. Getting there involved many tiny dirt roads and paying “tolls” to women with so much coca tucked into their cheeks that it was a miracle we could understand how much money they were asking for. We drove deep into the mountains, past llama pastures and mining operations. The road ended in somebody’s front yard on a tiny lake. It felt a little strange to camp in their muddy yard so we turned around and checked out some other potential campsites we had passed on our way in. Everything was wide-open, exposed and windy. We decided that it was not in our destiny to camp among those snow-capped mountains. It was our destiny to get back in our warm truck and drive to Coroico instead. Following my recent pattern of not reading the warnings in iOverlander, we took a route that skirted the north end of La Paz before heading out to drive a highway that was under construction a few years ago and has since been abandoned. The stretch of La Paz that we drove was creepy. There had been months of protests leading up to us visiting Bolivia and there was evidence everywhere. The roads were scarred at every intersection from the blockades of burning tires. The neighborhoods were deserted and we saw effigies of people hanging from the light posts.  It didn’t help our spirits that we were listening to a podcast featuring a first-hand account of a man who survived being a Tutsi in Burundi in the early nineties. We were relieved when we left La Paz but soon became disconcerted by the lack of signage on our road. The roads we were on were not on any of our mapping apps and a thick mist had rolled in. Save for one motorcycle, we were alone on that road for over an hour, hoping that it reconnected with the roads we were aiming for. It eventually dropped us off on a piece of heavily-trafficked asphalt. We felt much better. Then it got dark. We try very hard not to drive in the dark. Neither of us has night vision as a superpower. This time, the main downside to driving in the dark was embarrassment. There was a hairpin turn that we couldn’t find for the life of us. Which would have been fine if there wasn’t a police checkpoint at the turn. We checked in with that policeman three times before we found our road. Once in Coroico, we spent another hour or so looking for camping with a gate high enough for our truck to fit under. When we finally found a place to camp, the owner warned us not to get too comfortable as he was fully booked for the days surrounding New Year. Ah, the holidays. 

            We weren’t planning on lingering there anyway. We were there for only one thing. To drive the Death Road. Back before the newer, more sensible highway was constructed, this was the only way for folks from this area and the jungles beyond to get to La Paz. It is narrow, winding, and the drop-offs on the side of the road are unforgiving. Now, the only people traveling this road are adventure-seekers like us. Most people travel the Death Road on bicycle. Tour operators take them to the top and follow them back to the bottom. We opted to drive the uphill direction both to save our brakes and it made for less doubling back. The Death Road has its own set of rules. Most prominent is that you have to drive on the left side of the road. This is so that the driver can look out of his window and see exactly how close to the edge the wheels are. There are reminder signs at intervals along the way but that didn’t stop bikers from threatening to run into us at every turn. We honked for every blind corner and the more responsible tour operators equipped their riders with whistles to use to warn other riders of traffic. Our phone was playing music at random from Scott’s collection. We had it set to randomly shuffle all of the songs. It did not seem too random as Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” was followed by Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”. Aside from the sheer drop-offs threatening death at every turn, it was a beautiful and tranquil drive. High consequence, low risk. In places, waterfalls would pour directly onto the road and jungle vegetation lined the cliff walls.

Maybe a bit touristy these days.
A gentle reminder to stay left.

When we emerged at the top of the road we found ourselves on the highway that was built to ensure that no one would ever have to drive that road again. 

            Our first order of business was to get gas. This would be our first fuel stop in Bolivia. There are two prices for fuel in Bolivia. A price for locals and a price for foreigners. Locals pay 3.50 Bolivianos (Bs)per liter and foreigners pay 8.70 Bs. In terms of US dollars and gallons, it is $1.89 per gallon for the locals versus $4.77 per gallon for us “extranjeros”. They have a system where they enter the license plate number of the vehicle into their computer. Some of the fuel stations are equipped with cameras to help keep everybody honest. Sometimes the stations don’t have the technology to sell to foreigners. Sometimes the fuel attendant is amenable to a bit of bargaining. In the absence of a receipt, we might find a middle ground on the gas price and the attendant is able to pocket the difference. This first gas station we rolled into was not modern.  Scott was nervous. He did not feel right about trying to weasel a lower price for gas out of the attendant. I was the voice of peer pressure in his ear. “Come on, Babe. Everybody does it. What is the worst thing that could happen? She could tell you no. Come on, you have to at least try.” Scott told the woman that we were looking to fill our tank. He asked how much it cost… without a receipt (sin factura). She paused, narrowed her eyes at him and said, “Cinco.” Scott quickly agreed to the price and she went about filling our tank. 

            It was a really good thing that things went our way at the filling station as we did not have enough cash with us to fill our tank at the foreigner price and gas stations in Bolivia did not take plastic. After we filled our tank we were left with 120 Bs which is worth about $17.50. Our route would take us through a number of towns so we were not too worried about finding an ATM.

            We were heading east to a national park on the border with Chile and we were taking the scenic route. One thing we learned from our jaunt through the outskirts of La Paz was that we did not want to go to La Paz. So, we chose a route through the mountains instead. It was definitely not the most direct route but it promised to be much more tranquil than driving through the heart of the Plurination’s capital. 

            Once we left the Death Road, there was ample room for two cars to pass each other. The jungle vegetation was broken up by blue blankets of hydrangeas. The only downsides were the dust (all of these highways were dirt) and the dogs. Every time we would pull over for a nature pee, dogs would appear from out of nowhere. At one point, Scott had to stand guard for me with a big stick to fend off a motley pack of mutts. This periodically tranquil road led us to a chaotic town where we were hoping to sleep for the night. It is often a challenge to navigate through the small towns because our map app doesn’t know which streets are closed for markets and definitely does not know how to go around them. We are constantly trying to figure out if we are on a one-way street or not. 

            We eventually found our way to a hotel that we hoped would have room for us to camp for the night. With the New Year looming we knew it was a gamble. Luck was on our side and we pulled into a dirt parking area behind a hotel which would be our home for the night. We had to share the space with rolls of cable and piles of glass transformers, and we couldn’t use the pool, and the toilet tank in the lightless ladies’ room took two hours to fill, but the price was right. 20 Bs for a safe space to sleep after a long day on the road. 

            Everything was going swimmingly until the middle of the night when it started to storm. Rain quickly filled the parking area where we were sleeping and turned the dirt to mud. Also, the air was filled with the scent of sewage. We both claimed innocence. That horrible smell was definitely coming from outside the tent. We buried our heads under our blankets and went back to sleep. But not for long. Before sunrise, a truck full of workers showed up to start their workday by loading some of those cables and transformers we were parked beside into their truck.  They must have been quite taken with our tent because they spent plenty of time looking at it with their flashlight and shouting at each other. We bade them a “buenos dias” and hoped they would be quick. Nope. They spent about an hour shouting and reversing their truck (with the backup beep for safety). 

            The actual morning saw us leaving with a quickness. We were not inclined to linger amid the fecal mud surrounding our truck. It was a challenge to get into the truck without any of that mud attached to our shoes. Scott took his shoes off at the door, I took them to a puddle surrounded by grass and washed both of our shoes, then he picked me up from the grassy spot. A pain, but so worth it. 

            From our camp in poop soup, we headed out into the countryside. We let our mapping app guide us on circuitous routes through the heart of Bolivian coca fields. Throughout our drive through the Americas, we have seen so many different things drying on tarps in people’s yards. Coffee beans, cacao beans, hot chilis, and corn have been commonplace. Now we can add coca leaves to the list. It seemed as though every flat space was occupied by drying coca leaves. Bolivians have a strong relationship with the coca leaf. When chewed it produces a mild stimulant effect that aids them in digestion, dealing with the altitude, staving off hunger and smiling with stuff in their teeth. I think it would be naïve to believe that all of this coca was going to be chewed. Bolivia is number three behind Colombia and Peru for cocaine production. It was definitely interesting to see so much coca without any of the trappings of a clandestine operation. I think my image of coca fields was largely influenced by what Hollywood has provided over the years. Maybe where they process the drug is full of scary people armed with machine guns wearing camouflage garb. In the countryside, it is grannies on porches watching the leaves dry while sleepy dogs nap in them competing for the prime sunshine spots. 

Coca plantation.
Children playing among the drying coca leaves.

            Our long drive through the coca fields took us to the town of Quime. There were no really good camping spots around so, despite our dwindling funds, we opted to get a room. We had 100 Bs and a couple of coins to our name. We anticipated that we would find an ATM the following day. The stress of being broke was ameliorated by the fact that we had half a tank of gas and plenty of food. No problem. Well, only a little problem. The gal who was running the only hotel with secure parking that day wanted 110 Bs for a room. Thankfully she was open to giving us a wee discount.  We now had 3.50 Bs in coins equivalent to about 50 cents US. As long as there were no unexpected tolls we would be okay until the next town with an ATM. 

            It was about an hour into the drive the next day when we hit a toll stop. It was one of those little ones where they charge for the privilege of driving through their town. 2Bs. No problem, we had that. Our purse then had 1.50 Bs. Deep breath, there would be ATMs in the next big town.

            There were ATMs in that town. Five different ATMs and not one of them would give us any money. They were either for customers of that specific bank only or they were out of service. And it was Sunday so none of the banks were open for us to exchange any of the US dollars we keep stashed for just such a rainy day. The town we were in was not the kind of place where it would be okay to deploy the rooftop tent and wait for Monday to come. Also, we were running low on fuel so we couldn’t drive to where we could camp. We were left with one option. Drive into La Paz and find a working ATM. 

            We had been driving for three days in our effort to avoid driving through La Paz and now we had no choice but to head straight there. We turned our wheels toward La Paz and saw before us the last thing we wanted to see. A toll booth. Oh boy, we were in for it now. At the toll booth we explained that we wanted to pay the 8 Bs toll but we did not have any money, and the ATMs wouldn’t work, and it was Sunday, and, and, and. The woman in the booth told us to pull over up ahead and talk to the police. Yikes. We parked on the side of the road and I got out to try to sweet-talk the police. I couldn’t find the policeman and ended up telling our sob-story to a toll worker on her break. She chatted with our original toll lady and let me know that we could go and just pay the next time we go through. I thanked her profusely and we headed on our way. We were about 12 miles from the heart of the city and traffic was already stop and go. The wide-open countryside transformed into a wall of bricks. Twilight was looming. People were everywhere. It was loud. It was colorful. It was chaos. I spied a bank amid a bus station/ vegetable market. We pulled in so that I could give the ATM a try and avoid going into the city proper. The clouds parted and the angels started to sing in four-part harmony. The ATM gave me beautiful crisp Bolivianos! We were so relieved. I pulled out the maximum allowable amount. Twice.

            Now we needed gas. We pulled into a station and Scott got nervous about bargaining for gas again. I gave him another peer pressure laden pep-talk and the gas jockey scowled and told us no. He wouldn’t even sell to us at the foreigner price. He told us that we wouldn’t be able to buy gas until the town of Tholar. We parked outside the gas station and drained the last of our spare gas from a jerrycan on the roof into our tank and hoped we would make it to a station that would sell us gas. 

            We were so wiped out by the time we made it to the town of Tholar that we used some of our new Bolivianos to get a room and put off the gas problem until the next day. It was a sad room with a saggy bed. It smelled like mold and was about two feet wider than the bed. Shared bathroom down the hall. Dinner was in the attached restaurant. We had the vegan special; French fries and salad. Mmmm. This day was not one of our finest in this Pan-American adventure. The best part was that it was now behind us. 

            We were able to fill up our tank and the jerrycans the next morning. Scott negotiated a price of 5.50 Bs/liter. He was getting good at this negotiation thing. We were happy to have a full tank of gas and a full wallet and were ready to hit the open road.

            Parque Nacional Sajama is named after Bolivia’s highest mountain, Nevado Sajama. She stands a majestic 21,463 ft above sea level. We watched her get closer all day as we drove toward the park. The landscape was stunning. Eroded red rocks formed badlands as far as we could see. Adobe funeral towers called chullpares dotted the landscape. They were tall red-mud constructions with windows that faced the rising sun. Inside were the remains of the nobility of the Carangas people who ruled the area between 1200 and 1500 CE. We stopped and peeked inside the first set of these towers we came across. One of them still had the bones inside. The rest of the towers we saw were enjoyed from a distance.

Roadside chullpares dotted the landscape.
Bits of the power elite.

            Once inside PN Sajama, the road took us on a tour around the mountain. We stopped at a lagoon where we got to see both flamingos and vicuñas cohabitating at the water’s edge. We walked around the lagoon hoping to get a picture that featured both animals with the mountain in the background. The pictures looked better in my mind’s eye. 

My attempt at vicuña, flamingo, and mountain picture.
Flamingos pretending to be swans.

            A little further down the road, we stopped at a small adobe house. There we met Ines. She lives in the house and allows people access to her private hot spring in her back yard for 15 Bs per person. That access included one of the best camping spots of our trip. It took her a while to unlock all of the chains she had blocking her driveway. She directed us to follow the road back and we could camp in the wide parking area. She was concerned about when we were planning on leaving because she was going to go into town to celebrate the New Year. To take the stress off we told her we would stay through the holiday and promised not to leave before she got back. That first day we had many visitors as people were getting their baths in before the big festivities. The conservationist in me cringed at the amount of shampoo going into the river. After the first day, the only other bather was Ines. For the next couple of days, it was just the two of us with about 100 llamas. We could have stayed indefinitely but mother nature kicked us out. All it took was one snowstorm and we were packing up to leave. Ines popped by on her way to her daily bath and asked for a ride into town. It worked out perfectly, we were warming up the truck when she returned from the spring. I scrunched into the space behind the seats and gave Ines my Navigator’s Chair. She smelled of tiger balm. We dropped her off in the town of Sajama and continued on to visit a geyser field. This one was missable. And it had begun to rain. We were ready to move on.

View of our camp from the hot spring.
View of our camp from the hot spring, version 2.
Fence visibility is not a problem in these parts.
I don’t know if there is a term for it but the vicuñas like to poop repeatedly in the same place. These dark spots are the result of many visitations by many animals.

            The Salar de Uyuni has been on our radar since the beginning of planning this trip. It is the largest salt flat in the world. During the dry season, you can drive across it at top speeds without much to worry about aside from getting too close to an island and falling through the salt. Camping on the salar with nothing but white in every direction had been a goal from the outset. We missed that season of freedom by three days. The salar was dry right up until three days before our arrival. This was disappointing. I had planned for us to drive onto the salt from the north and exit to the east in the town of Uyuni. Spoiler alert, that did not happen. We spent the night in the self-proclaimed Quinoa Capital of Bolivia, a town called Salina de Garci Mendoza. That night it rained torrentially for hours. Our hopes of finding dry salt were dashed. We still tried to access the salar, knowing we would have to drive no more than 5mph over the salt should we get there. Mud from the prior night’s rainstorm thwarted our efforts. We decided on a change of plans. We would drive around the salar to the town of Uyuni and try to access it from there. Most of the tours of the salar start from there so we figured we might have better luck. 

This is where a meteor met earth.

            Arriving in Uyuni, we found it gritty. The streets were flooded mud affairs and the intersections were piled high with garbage. We camped in the outskirts of town at the Cemetery of Trains. Retired bits of trains are stockpiled together and it has become quite the tourist destination. We joined the hordes of tourists and wandered around the most charismatic of engines. I was nursing a headache so Scott wandered the rest of the grounds solo. We made dinner and were watching another storm brewing on the horizon when we saw another overlander roll up to the graveyard. Yay! Camping buddies made staying out there so much less creepy. It was a couple from Spain, Unai and Hainoa, that we had not met formally but had crossed paths with two times in Peru. We made plans to team up to visit the Salar and also stick together for the Lagunas Route after. It was fun to have travel buddies for a while. 

Steampunk Scotty.

            We agreed to run errands independently and meet up at the main road to the Salar in the afternoon. We needed to stock up on the basics plus extra. Running out of water or gas on the Salar was not an option. Also, we needed to pretreat the undercarriage of the truck with oil to help protect it from the salt. Scott and I were running late (of course). In that time, Unai had befriended a couple of the guides and gotten good information about where we might find dry salt to camp upon. 

            We drove out onto the salt following those who had gone before us. We passed by a salt hotel and a monument to the Dakar rally. There were people everywhere. We wanted to get out far enough to get away from all of the people. Driving over the salt flat was one of the coolest experiences of my life. It was otherworldly. The dry salt formed a pattern of hexagons that stretched as far as we could see. When we came upon the flooded salt we could still drive on it. Slowly. It was important to minimize the amount of saltwater splashing up under our truck. We stopped and took some pictures and then returned to an area closer to the salt hotel to camp. We were alone out there but could still barely see the hotel and monument in the distance. 

A sunset like none other.
Feeling very aware that we are the tallest thing for miles around.

            The next morning, Scott and I drove back to the hotel to answer nature’s call (there are no bushes to hide behind on the salt flats) before we met back up with our new friends and drove out to the island at the center of the flats. It took us about five hours to drive the 40ish miles to get there. It was a surreal day. The water was only about three or four inches deep but periodically we would pass over potholes in the salt that looked like they wanted to suck us in. 

Travelers bring flags from their home countries to post up here.
Taking a moment to reflect.
The road less traveled.

            When we arrived at the island the wind was very strong. It was blowing waves across the shallow water and hitting the parking area of the island head-on. We had planned on camping there but were thinking twice about it. There is a hike on the island that took us through a cactus garden and through a fossilized coral arch. It was especially unique after spending a whole day surrounded by white. 

A high point in the sea of salt.

            We drove around the backside of the island to find a less windy spot for the night. I was feeling paranoid about falling through because the salt gets much thinner closer to the islands. We kept a safe distance. Even though we were protected from the wind by the island it was still very windy. Thankfully, our new friends were generous with their space and invited us to eat inside their camper with them. It became a tradition that lasted throughout the week. It was fun to hang out at the neighbor’s house and share stories of the different routes we had taken down from California. Throughout the evening we noticed the water encroaching on our patch of dry salt. We were pretty sure we were going to wake up in a sea of water. The wind was blowing it right at us. Scott put a rock at the shoreline to monitor its progress. At one point in the night, the water had passed the rock and was about 20 ft beyond it. By morning the water was long gone from that side of us and quickly encroaching from the opposite side. It was an unpredictable place to be. 

Bird’s eye view.
This is what we came to see…
Just another interesting salt texture.

            Interestingly enough, the drive back to Uyuni the next day was almost completely dry. We figured that the wind had sent the water to the other side of the Salar that day. We had spoken to the people who live at the island and they ensured us that we would not fall through the potholes so we drove with much more confidence on the way back. Also, we had seen huge commuter buses crossing the wet Salar at high speed. If they can do it so could we. But slowly to protect our undercarriage. 

Commuters gotta commute!

            Upon returning to dry land, the first order of business was to get the salt washed off our truck. Car washing is a big business in Uyuni. First is the pressure wash, then the soapy scrub, then the second pressure wash, then they re-oil the undercarriage. It is a process, but definitely necessary. After the carwash, we returned to the train cemetery to camp for the night before getting ready to head out on the Lagunas Route. 

            Ah, the Lagunas Route. We had been anticipating this almost as much as the Salar de Uyuni. Also called the Southwest Circuit, it is a high-altitude track that weaves between lakes and mountains. The roads are punishing and the climate can be extreme. About 400 km of washboard road at times breaching over 16,000 ft in elevation was on the horizon and we were so excited. Before leaving Uyuni, we topped up our fuel tank and made sure the jerry cans were full as well. We were counting on really poor fuel economy as the majority of the drive would be over 14,000 ft and short on precious oxygen. We had one final opportunity to buy gas at the tiny whisper of a town called Alota. We purchased 30 liters from a woman in town. It was not a formal filling station and she, being the only game in town, got away with charging extortionate prices. 10 Bs/liter. We wandered the length of the town looking for someone else to sell us gas to no avail. We did meet a local guy who confirmed that the price wasn’t too far off. She charged the locals 8 Bs/liter. It was critical to start this journey with full tanks so we shelled out the dough and she started the siphon.

Last gas in Bolivia.

            Our first night we made it as far along as a really cool rock garden. The rocks were off the main road and afforded us with shelter from the wind. It was a spectacular place to wake up in the morning. We took our time drinking coffee and had fun exploring the rocks. 

We played around on these rocks for a while before another bone-jarring day of driving over washboards.

            The washboard roads took us to our first lagoon of the drive followed shortly after by more exciting rock formations. We got to see vizcachas close up. They are rodents that look like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. Very cute and with a perpetually sleepy visage. 

Rock formations along the Lagunas Route.
The viscacha has resting sleepy face. Always. This one was on high alert.

            Driving along the route involved a constant search for the smoothest track. The washboards were unrelenting. Sometimes we would find a side track that was just a hair smoother. Often, we would be riding the fluff on the shoulder just for a moment of relief from the constant jarring. We drove all day and arrived at Laguna Colorada just before the sun dropped below the mountain tops. It was incredibly windy so we opted to drive up into a canyon to hide out from the wind for the night and return to visit the laguna in the morning. 

It is rough being a passenger on a southbound road trip. The sun is intense, especially over 14,000ft elevation!
A vicuña taking a not-so-private private moment.

            Scott was almost done leveling our truck for ease of sleeping when I requested that we give it a 180-degree spin. We were initially pointed to the mouth of the canyon for a quick getaway should a flash flood occur in the night. It was sound logic but I was banking on a dry night. I insisted that it was more important that the morning sun begins warming our coffee making station as early as possible. Scott agreed to reorient the truck reserving full “told-you-so” rights should torrents of water wash us out of the canyon in the night. The next morning’s coffee was a warm delight.

Hiding out from the wind.

            Once we mobilized, we headed back up to Laguna Colorada so that we could commune with the flamingos that lived there. This time of year, there are three types of flamingos sharing space in the lake.  The Chilean, Andean and James flamingos can all be found foraging and flapping in the shallow waters. The wind was almost calm and the sun was warm. It was a great day to sit on the shores and watch these beautiful birds wander by.

Laguna Colorada in all her glory.
Flamingos taking off!

            From Laguna Colorada, we headed on to visit a hot spring. We were looking forward to soothing our battered bodies in the warm waters. On the way, we visited the Sol de Mañana geyser field. Typically, people try to get to the geysers at sunrise to watch the sun peek through the steam. We are not sunrise people. It was lovely in the afternoon.

Goofing around on the Altiplano.
Sol de Mañana geysers.
I might have gotten a little too close…

We first stopped at a free hot spring hoping to camp there for the night. The locals had emptied it for cleaning and told us it would be full again in a few hours. Scott felt the water and reported that it was tepid at best. I like a really hot soak so we moved on to the Sol de Mañana hot spring a few kilometers down the road. We camped on the side of the road in front of the spring. When we arrived, there were about 20 people bobbing around in the water. We opted to prepare our dinner and have a soak later counting on it clearing out.

            Our plan worked. We had the spring almost to ourselves. Only a couple of tour drivers were taking advantage of the warm water while we soaked. After we left the pools feeling refreshed and relaxed the other tourists returned for their late-night soaks. We felt lucky to have gotten that window of quasi-solitude. 

            When we awoke around 6:30 in the morning there were over 40 Land Cruisers in the parking lot. The pool was full to the brim. I had imagined myself having my morning coffee peacefully in the hot spring. I was sorely mistaken. Maybe if we had stayed at the tepid springs down the road. With time, things mellowed out and we had a really nice soak before heading off for the day. 

            Shortly after leaving the hot springs, we came across what they call the Dali desert owing to the surreal nature of the rock formations dotting the wide-open landscape. We followed a track that took us closer to the rocks. It was a fun adventure as our traveling companions needed a bit of a boost up one of the hills. It was our first time towing another rig on this trip. The Joan was happy to help. 

View of the Dali Desert in the distance.
The Dali Desert.
I think there is a wormhole connecting the Bolivian Altiplano to Mars.

            Next, we went in search of an abandoned hot spring between Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde hoping to prolong our soaking experience. We found it but there was nothing inviting about it. The water was on the hot side of warm but still not hot. Thick swaths of algae billowed in the shallow flowing water. Soaking in that spring would have involved a lot of flopping around to stay warm and submerged. Also, the algae were home to biting bugs. Not inviting. It was abandoned for a reason. 

            We could see the border with Chile from there. Apparently, wild camping is not allowed in that area. Something about smuggling routes through the mountains and safety. We had read reports on iOverlander of people being ousted from their camps by rangers making them go and sleep by the hostels. We really wanted one more night in the wilds of the Bolivian Altiplano so we drove away from the border station to find a spot both protected from the wind and out of sight of the road and the rangers.  

Laguna Blanca. Aptly named.
A trifecta a beauty. Licancabur volcano, Laguna Verde, and vicuñas.
Laguna Verde. If she were an interior paint color I would call her “Bay Laurel.”

            Our last night was spent in a low spot in the topography protected by large volcanic black rocks. In the morning we cooked up all of our fresh food in anticipation of the border crossing to Chile. They are notorious for thorough searches. All fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, and seeds were going to be taken. So, we used it all up in what we called “Kitchen Sink Soup.” It was fantastic. Potato, cabbage, broccoli, way too many hot chilis, way too much garlic, way too much ginger, all of our sesame seeds… Delicious. We also put the last of our extra gas in our tanks as Chile does not allow gas to be transported in. Very picky. 

            When we got to the border the customs office was closed. They told us to just go to the immigration office about 5km down the road and they would call someone for us. Okay… When we got to the immigration office the customs guy was hanging out there. He took our Temporary Import Permit for the truck and then we went in to get stamped out of Bolivia. The immigration officer tried to charge us a bogus 15 Bs fee for leaving the country. We had read that he would try to do this. Our traveling companion nipped it in the bud when he told the guy that there was no fee. The officer backpedaled, pretended to look something up on a different computer, and then agreed that we did not need to pay the fee. Freedom! We were now in no-mans-land between countries. Another 5km and we would be in Chile!

And we’re off! Thank you Bolivia! iHola Chile!

Still in Peru

Sometimes the navigation apps on my phone send us along some crazy routes. Luckily this time, some nice locals were on hand to A. laugh at our folly and B. direct us to the correct route to our destination. We were muscling up a washed-out switchback that, in hindsight, we had a pretty good chance of making it up. Like a strong 50%. We heard some whistling and caught sight of a group of men on the road above waving at us frantically.

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Northern Peru

I feel like my favorite country of this trip is always the one I am in. Seriously, I get so wowed by the moment that the previous countries start to meld together into a pretty cool memory, but not as great as the place where we are. Well almost, Belize and Panama felt pretty miss-able to me. Right now, Peru is my favorite country. Time will tell how long it can retain that status. Continue reading “Northern Peru”

Ecuador – Back on the Road

            The speed that we saw Ecuador return to normal after the “Paro” was surprising. The only evidence of the protest we saw were the scars on the roads from where tires had burned melting the asphalt and occasional smoldering tree trunks on the side of the road. Most of the tourists who were not bound by having vehicles in the country had fled. Once the roads opened, many of our fellow overlanders headed for the border as well. We had more of Ecuador to see and were betting on peace for the next few weeks. 

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One More from Colombia

We had been planning to visit Medellin all along. We were excited to hear the double L pronounced as a jjjj instead of a shhhh. We were excited to feel the energy of a town best known for its gangster violence. Medellin was hot on everyone’s Must Visit list. In the end it turned out that it felt very much like a lot of cities we had visited. Culturally interesting but mostly a maelstrom of money sucking. We are happier in nature. La naturaleza. We are more comfortable in tiny towns on the edge of the wilderness. Happier without the sounds of honking horns wearing at our serenity and the pervasive exhaust fumes blackening our boogers. We had grown accustomed to the rural soundtrack of barking dogs and crowing roosters and were very happy to get back to it.

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From Bogotá to Medellin- The Long Way

After having a wonderful time exploring Colombia as a trio with our friend Cadence, we were back to a duo and really excited to camp again. Well, I was excited to camp again. I think Scott was enjoying the luxury of the soft beds that didn’t involve a ladder for midnight potty breaks. After some less than exciting time at the auto shop getting The Joan all of the fresh fluids she could possibly want we headed north (I know we are supposed to be going south).

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Panama to Colombia

            For the most part, our time in Panama was about taking care of business. After lollygagging our way through most of Central America we had not left ourselves much time to really dig into Panama. Thankfully, crossing the border was quick and painless. We made it out of Costa Rica with no trouble once we got our order of operations straight.

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Costa Rica

Leaving Nicaragua and entering Costa Rica was easy peasy. Maybe we were just getting good at borders. More likely, we had border burnout and neglected to be firm when we told the helper that we needed no help. He was persistent and ended up making things go pretty smoothly. He probably saved us about 15 minutes of confusion. Leaving Nicaragua is a little different than leaving other countries. Continue reading “Costa Rica”

Nicaragua

We stayed in a hotel the night prior to crossing the border into Nicaragua. We did this so that we wouldn’t have a bunch of life maintenance to deal with in the morning and could get to the border nice and early. Best laid plans… We hadn’t counted on finding a channel on the television that had movies in English. We were faced with the choice of arriving at the border early in the morning, beating the afternoon heat or watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Since one bad choice usually leads to another, we opted to stick around for The Terminator as well. As the Terminator was doing his damnedest to wipe out the human race, I was becoming more and more caffeinated and anxious about our border crossing. I finally asked Scott to just tell me how it ended so we could get on the road. Continue reading “Nicaragua”

Honduras

Before we cross any border, I read up on what it is going to take to get ourselves and our truck across with as little hassle as possible. Was it G.I. Joe who always touted, “Knowledge is Power?” Or was it, “Knowing is half the battle?” I don’t remember. It’s not important. What is important is that the other half of the battle is actually using that knowledge. Continue reading “Honduras”