Bolivia was a country we knew almost nothing about before we entered, but it turned out to be spectacular. The scenery astounded us at every turn. The laid back beach town of Copacabana on the shore of Lago Titicaca, the interestingly-located and bustling city of La Paz, the deceptive white expanse of the largest salt flat in the world, and the brilliantly-colored lakes teeming with flamingos in the mountains of the southwest absolutely blew us away. Although we spent only about two weeks in Bolivia, we left with hundreds of amazing photos and a sense of awe from the incredible scenery of the altiplano.
Although Bolivia contains a huge swath of lush and remote jungle in the Amazon Basin, we chose to stick to the altiplano in the western part of the country. Starting with Lago Titicaca at an elevation of 3,812m (12,507ft) and topping out in the southwest at an elevation of 5050m (16,568ft and our trip record), our entire time in the country was spent at high altitude.
After crossing the border along the shore of Lake Titicaca, it was just a short drive to Copacabana, a lakeside town that The Lonely Planet describes as being a destination for many Argentinean hippies. We quickly found a fantastic place to hang out a little way out of town and right on the lakeshore. While preparing our lunch, we heard some shouting and realized that some kayakers had capsized in the wind chop about 50 feet offshore from where we were parked. Both young men were wearing life jackets and the water was barely over their heads, but they were clinging to the overturned kayak, clearly terrified and unable to swim. After watching one passerby swim out to help, but doing no good, Tim stripped down to his boxers and plunged into the cold blue waters. He calmed the stranded kayakers down and talked them into letting go of the boat, swimming them to shore one at a time, then pulling in the upturned kayak. The wet boys headed back toward town and Tim dried off and returned to the van to warm up and eat lunch. Soon after, two cars pulled up and the entire family of one of the kayakers came to thank Tim, some of the verge of tears. What was a silly plunge in the lake to us was obviously a life-threatening situation to them. We both reflected on how glad we are that we learned to swim at a young age.
In the afternoon, we wandered into town to explore. Being Sunday, there were many cars decorated with flowers that had been blessed at the local cathedral. We also were happy to find that there were even more puffed corn snacks than we had ever seen in Peru. These large air puffed kernels of corn and other grains have a slight sweetness to them and had been our favorite snack throughout much of Peru. In Copacabana, we spotted one bag of puffs that was the size of a Volkswagen beetle. Puff heaven!
In order to get from Copacabana to the rest of Bolivia, we had to take a ferry across a small stretch of Lago Titicaca. Needless to say, it was another interesting experience riding on the wooden ferry that flexed and groaned as we made the passage. We were reassured that we would make it seeing the other ferryboats that were carrying busses or fully loaded dump trucks across. The two little outboard motors delivered us to the opposite shore, and we headed toward the next driving challenge… navigating the streets of La Paz.
La Paz was a great surprise for us to visit. We needed to go to the city to get a few logistical things done, but were pleasantly surprised to find it a rather enjoyable place. La Paz, the world highest administrative capital, has a very interesting geographic location in a labyrinth of a valley that consists of a conglomerate of mud and round rock that has been eroded by water. Think of Bryce Canyon overlooked by towering snowy peaks, which diminish the scale of the massive city. After exploring the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and exploring the seemingly endless crafts markets, we jumped on the newly opened and very modern telefericos (gondolas) to get a birds eye view of the city. This was a great way to see La Paz and made us appreciate the location of the city as well as the genius of building these telefericos as a means of public transit. They soar over all of the deep ravines and winding traffic-clogged streets, delivering passengers to their destinations in a fraction of the time that it would take in bus or by taxi.
Happy to have taken care of our to-do list and experience La Paz, we climbed our way back up to the altiplano and turned south toward the Salar de Uyuni. We had been looking forward to the salar for quite some time and it did not disappoint. We entered from the north near Volcán Tunupa and were happy to find it dry and safe to drive on. Since it was the start of the rainy season, it was possible that the salar would be covered with some water and not passable. The salar plays with the eyes – the expanse of blindingly white salt removes all sense of perspective, making a far away island look like a small rock floating nearby. After taking some obligatory fun-with-perspective photos we headed toward one of the many islands. The islands of the salar truly feel like islands on the ocean and even contain ancient coral-covered rocks.
When we were tired of the smooth, flat driving on the salar and craved some more washboards to rattle our brains in their skulls, we headed to the town of Uyuni where our good friend Corey of hobogoesrogue had left some new springs for Chimera that came with his vehicle when he shipped it to Chile. After spending a hard day installing the new springs and eating our fill of delicious pizza, fresh bagels, and flaming banana deserts at Minuteman Pizza in Uyuni, we filled all of our gas tanks in preparation for the stunning laguna circuit in the southwest corner of Bolivia.
On our way out of town we stopped by the railroad graveyard and enjoyed wandering through the hulking iron remains.
We spent our first night south of Uyuni camped amongst a vast region of giant boulders. This remote area is a climber’s dream, with endless possibilities for bouldering problems. We found a nice little wind-protected cove to tuck into and pulled off our seat crash pad to do some free-style bouldering right next to the van. Then we sat back and took in the view while enjoying some of the delicious microbrews that Corey left for us as a wonderful surprise.
Nothing could have prepared us for the jaw dropping scenery, nor the bone rattling washboards, that we would experience along the roughly 350 mile drive from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We couldn’t get over the ridiculousness of seeing hundreds and thousands of flamingos feeding in the serene and boldly-colored lagunas at elevations well above 14,000 feet. In fact, along this drive, we crushed our previous elevation record for the trip, topping out at about 16,570ft. In addition to the beautiful lagunas, the route was surrounded by incredible pastel-colored volcanoes and landscapes that reminded us of the liquid and multi-colored sand-filled frames, which erode into new landscapes each time you turn them over. No words, or any amount of photos can possibly fully portray the beauty of this corner of Bolivia.
After four days of jaw-dropping scenery, battling the cold gale-force winds, covering every inch of the van with a layer of fine moon dust, rattling bolts loose on the endless washboards, and stopping every few miles to gaze in awe and snap some photos, we crossed the Bolivian border and cruised down the blissfully smooth Chilean highway towards San Pedro de Atacama.