Bolivia #3: The Andean Altiplano

Hello again. It’s about time I wrote another blog to prove to anyone that thought I had died that I am still very much alive. At the time of writing, of course. Wouldn’t want to tempt fate, lest a big wolf eats me as soon as I click publish, or something like that.

I even have a half decent excuse for not having updated for so long: a week ago, just minutes after writing the original version of this blog post, the laptop containing it was stolen. And it’s bloody difficult to motivate yourself to write the same words all over again!

But details of this thievery- and my opinions of Chile, where I have been for the past week- is for another time. Today I shall explain what I was up to in my final few days in “poor” South America, in Bolivia.

After returning to La Paz from the jungle a couple of weeks ago, me and Mirja took a bus up into the mountains and biked down the infamous “Death Road”, so called because of the hundreds of people killed after their vehicles careered from it into the valleys below over the decades.

I was never too keen on the name- it seemed to me to be trivialising the lives lost in order to allow western tourists to brag they’d “survived it”- but given that a number of people have died after falling from their bikes in recent years, it did at least put in perspective the risks involved.

The ride was a thrill. Beginning in the icy mountains on the outskirts of La Paz at 4700m, the 40 mile route- which was almost entirely downhill- saw us drop several thousand metres down into the subtropical Yungas valleys (1200m) in just a couple of hours of riding time. The first part of the route was paved, and while speeding down it was exciting enough, it was only when we reached the rocky off road section through the valleys- the Death Road- that the fun really began.

On the second half of the route, the road was usually only a few metres wide, completely unpaved, and for the most part sat precariously on a cliff edge with a sheer drop of hundreds of metres to the valley floor below. Fortunately, despite a few close calls- notably when I nearly collided with another biker while overtaking him, and the hairy moment where I understeered perilously close to rock wall before I regained control- I kept myself out of trouble and gave the cliff edge a wide berth!

The only sour note of the day was that on the occasional flat sections I could not keep pace with the other bikes. My bike was stuck in a maddeningly low gear, and everyone was overtaking me with ease as I sat pedaling furiously, my legs spinning like a hamsters in a wheel.

Near the end of the route, our guide noticed my struggles and suggested I changed gears. I can’t, I insisted. He reached over, clicked the lever, immediately proving me wrong and making me feel like a bit of a idiot. Whoops.

After returning to La Paz, we later headed south to the town of Uyuni, from where we set off on a tour of the barren, mountainous Atacama plateau (much like the desert of the same name, but higher) in the south west of the country. This turned out to be by far the most lifeless place I have ever been to- after three days of travelling across the region, the only plant life I observed were shrubs and very occasionally cactuses, the only animals birds and the odd pack of wild llama (or some sort of llama-ish looking animal, I’m no biologist).

After a quick stop at the train cemetery, the final rusting place (heehee, see what I did there?) of a bunch of train carriages from the heyday of Bolivian rail a century ago, we headed onto the Salar de Uyuni, the main attraction in the area. It was a bizarre sight- a huge, flat, blindingly white expanse of salt left behind after the evaporation of a lake which had once upon a time occupied the space.

In some places the salt stretched out into the horizon as far as the eye could see, and looking out over it, with the cold wind blowing around us, it was easy to imagine that we were stood on the frozen Arctic Ocean, not in the middle of the Andes.

That night our group stayed in a hotel made almost entirely of salt (even the floor was effectively a pit full of millions of tiny salt crystals!), in a village on the edge of the Salar that was as remote a settlement as I have ever come across. It was there and then that perhaps the most surreal thing that has happened to me in all my time in Latin America occurred.

As me and the other five members of our tour stood outside our hotel that evening, a group of about thirty locals- presumably the entire population of the village- appeared in a parade at the end of the street, headed by a man missing most of his teeth carrying a table on his back (we were later told he was the town mayor, but by this point nothing surprised us anymore). Dancing to the sound of a four person brass band, they were celebrating the Bolivian Independence Day in style, and with lots of alcohol.

Once the parade reached us, one by one we were all dragged into the line. My partner was a young woman who held me with one arm and a crate full of empty beer bottles in the other. The parade snaked around in circles, first around the village, and then into the town hall. Inside the small room, where we continued to dance around in circles. After a few minutes of this, the music finally stopped, and us tourists made our excuses and left. It was a thoroughly bemusing experience, but a lot of fun!

The following two days of the trip were mainly spent observing the incredible landscapes around us. There were immense snow capped volcanoes towering above the desert, huge rocks eroded by the wind into the most incredible shapes, and geysers spewing out a rather disgusting hot eggy gas into the air.

Perhaps most impressive were the lakes. We came across a number of these lakes, most of which had their own distinct colour- one was actually filled with red water! While the lakes themselves were usually spectacular, it was the hordes of beautiful pink flamingos, stood on their impossibly spindly legs incessantly sifting for food in the shallow waters, that were the highlight.

Of course, all of that sounds very nice, but as usual there were still problems. (Yep, it’s moaning time again, so feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you’re so inclined). Our “guide” was bloody useless. Rude, unfriendly and impatient, he added absolutely nothing to our experience- on the contrary, his antics rather spoiled the trip a bit. Also maddening was the fact that our tour company inexplicably failed to warn us about a 150 Bolivianos national park entrance fee we would have to cough up in the middle of nowhere, which we would have been completely unable to pay had it not been for the generosity of our fellow travellers.

So, to anyone planning a trip to Uyuni who just googled the name and came across this page, do yourself a favour and don’t book with Colque Tours. They’re shit.

So, final thoughts on Bolivia? It can be a frustrating and chaotic country: the people aren’t the friendliest you’ll ever come across, there are fees to be paid wherever tourist attractions are to be found, and the infrastructure is a mess. And yet regardless of all that, I can only recommend it- Bolivia’s spectacular landscapes make up for all of its other shortcomings.

(Apologies for any spelling or grammar mistakes in this article- I am now having to use a computer without Microsoft Word and thus also lacking Spellcheck. I used to be good at spelling, honest. You don’t realise how much you depend on those green and red squiggly lines until they’re gone. If you have any complaints address them to Mr Thievy McThievington of Calama, Chile.


Here are some of my favourite photos from the Atacama tour (sadly, all the bike ride shots were lost on the laptop:

The Salar de Uyuni
A llama on an “island” in the Salar
If you thought I was tall…
Rock + shadow = something fearsome
Ballet dancing flamingos
One of the Atacama Plateau’s numerous lakes
The so called Arbol de Piedra (stone tree)
Laguna Colarada and its bloody, cold water!
The geysers
The mirror-like waters of Laguna Verde

4 thoughts on “Bolivia #3: The Andean Altiplano

    1. Thanks Bas, I really appreciate the interest you’re taking in my travels! I do have Dropbox, and I intended to put my photos on there in case I ever lost them- but I was too lazy and never got round to it. Oh well. I’ve learnt a harsh lesson

  1. Oh, and can’t you just download libre office? It has got pretty solid spelling and grammar check as well (not a clue about how easy it will be to download much data though). And maybe getting something like dropbox or other cloud services to backup would work wonders for not losing too much in pictures etc.

    Not trying to be smart here, I can only imagine the feeling of despair when your laptop did get stolen.

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