Ever since crossing into Bolivia our preconceived notions of the country keep falling by the wayside. In contrast to La Quiaca on the Argentinian side, the Bolivian border town of Villazon was a hive of activity, full of Argentinians looking for a bargain. The constant changing of currencies, both physically (bills and coin) and rate of exchange, is a bit much at times and I struggle to keep apace. We shopped for some necessities but if you don’t know your way around, shopping is an ordeal. Every 3-4 M there is another store, jammed with a mishmash of things except, it invariably turns out, what you are looking for. The markets overflow with tiny stalls that spill out onto the surrounding roads and alleys. From what I can see most vendors do a marginal business, much of their typically long day spent waiting for clients. It all seems horribly inefficient and a waste of manpower. The reality is Bolivia is a poor country, the poorest in South America, and people do whatever they can to survive. As one trucker told us pointedly ‘people don’t retire in Bolivia’.
After accidentally discarding 3 hours worth of work on our last blog post, we got up early the next morning determined to get it finished, posted and out of town. Somehow it all came together. Note: Putting this blog together is a challenge with slow or nonexistent wifi the principle culprit. We justify the time and energy spent as a way of recording what our memories will not. Comments from home are most welcome and a big incentive.
The ride north was great. The road was quiet, the drivers respectful and the scenery interesting …..what more can one ask for? After a good 70+ km (at altitude ), we pulled over in the small village of Santa Rosa where neither lodging or restaurants could be found. What many small towns do have however, much to our surprise, is a covered basketball court surrounded by dilapidated classrooms (the local high school). As rain was imminent, Claire had the bright idea to ask to see if we could set up our tent on the deserted school grounds under this big roof. Of course you can, the caretaker tells us with what was in retrospect, a wry smile
We got set up and put dinner on the stove as darkness came. A light rain fell as we settled in for a quiet evening and then early to bed. And then……we hear the front gate being unlocked and before we knew it, approximately 40 youngsters, primarily teens, pour into ‘our’ space, turn on the lights and shortly after, a spirited game of basketball was underway. What the hell were we thinking? I positioned myself between our tent and the game and we settled in for what turned into a wonderful opportunity for us to witness the social life of young Bolivians in a small, out of the way village. The kids played with abandon and some skill. Girls, younger kids and even two adults (seemed a bit out of place to us) participated. There was no arguing, no complaining, just laughter and positive energy. It reminded us both of simpler times long before social media, cyber bullying and video games. As suddenly as they had arrived, they turned off the lights and were gone, probably a little earlier than usual on our account. We were soon in bed but chatted for awhile about what we had just witnessed….a simple but unique experience.
It is truly embarrassing how little planning and/or research we did prior to setting off on this trip. We meet couples our age who figure out their entire itinerary and book lodging months in advance. They know when, where, how and why they are going to any particular destination. We don’t have a clue. I’m sure there are advantages to both approaches but ours can be trying at times. We arrived in Tupiza only to discover that it is one of the starting points for the justly famous 4wd tours of the Lagunas Route and the Salar de Uyuni (the worlds largest salt flat) of which I had only the vaguest idea. The fact that we were also in the midst of the rainy season was abundantly clear and also negated any hope we had to ride the Salar…..so, in our spur of the moment way, we went ahead and booked the comprehensive four day tour starting, rain or shine, the following day. It was quite an adventure and not at all what we expected or, as it turned out, was advertised. It was also super reasonable – $250/pers, food, lodging, transport and guide included.
The night before setting out, our fellow passengers (max. 5 clients/vehicle) were confirmed, a lovely young Catalan couple from Barcelona, well educated, stoic and uncomplaining. We almost got stuck with a pushy couple of guys from an ‘unnamed’ country and as we were going to be together 24 hrs/day for 4 days this was of utmost importance.
The first day was a marathon, 13.5 hrs on a single lane dirt track that was literally being washed away as we drove. We had to dig our way past one small landslide and crossed at least 30, fast moving, muddy streams, which kept growing as a light rain fell all day. The road never dipped below 4000 M and repeatedly climbed to +/- 4800 M. The road had no ditches, culverts or any allowance for run off. Thank God we teamed up with another 4wd (95% of which are Land Cruisers) as conditions were so sketchy. We crossed paths with maybe 3 other vehicles during the whole day and went through four, tiny, forlorn villages. The countryside was vast, empty, treeless and beautiful.
On the second to last river crossing, which we thought was the much anticipated final obstacle, the truck stalled in deep water but managed to cough and sputter its way to dry land. Our relief was palpable but just around the corner was another river, maybe 2 km from our destination. The light was failing and the rain stronger. A vehicle on the far side of the sprawling, fast moving but shallow river, maybe 100 M distant and presumably expecting us, signalled with its lights the best place to cross. Without hesitation Wilber, our driver, went for it. 25 M in we hit a hole and…..we were stuck! The following 30-40 minutes were very intense. It was now dark and cold with only the lights of the accompanying Land Cruiser on the riverbank behind us, to light the scene. The four of us and our cook Adriana were essentially stuck, helpless in the vehicle. I’ve never felt so useless and, quite frankly, was preparing to abandon ship. The water started coming in over the floorboards and all the while, Wilber was making the super human effort to attach the ‘miraculous’ winch from the other truck to the submerged frame of ours. The water was frigid and dark and he was just keeping his head above water as he frantically tried to make the connection. I would have been hyperthermic in minutes. He was in the water forever! Somehow the connection was made and very slowly we were winched back to dry land. The truck’s distributor was soaking wet and running terribly but after only a few minutes of revving the engine he chose another path and back into the river we went. We just barely sputtered across only to get stuck in the mud on the far side. Once again the winch saved the day and with, a now almost catatonic Wilber still at the wheel we drove to the very rustic, unheated ‘hotel’ we were to call home for the night.
I don’t know if the wad of coca he’d been chewing most of the afternoon played into it but Wilbur’s effort was an incredible display of strength and determination. Bolivians are one tough lot! Adriana got some soup into him and the owner found a propane heater to plunk in front of him and he slowly came around. Claire thinks he was somewhat traumatized by the experience. All I know is that we awoke to falling snow and continued on our way without our saviour vehicle of the previous day. We start to climb and before long the snow was 20 cm deep and we go off the road and get stuck. We manage to extricate ourselves by digging and stuffing shrubbery under the wheels (at which point we now know the 4wd isn’t working….don’t even ask!) We are in running shoes quite unprepared for the conditions. We continue to climb. The snow is now 30 cms deep, we are following the quickly fading tracks of probably the only other vehicle that day. It is now a full on white out. Wilber can barely see (he doesn’t have sunglasses!). Adriana, in the passenger seat, acts as guide telling him “a little to the left….a little to the right’. He’s doing maybe 25 km/hr as we, the clients, are all quietly freaking out in the backseats as we recall the cliffs and dangerous road of the day before – not knowing that Wilber knew he was on a straight stretch. It was all a bit much!
We eventually descended, came to a junction, some more tracks, the weather cleared and our tension subsided. That afternoon and the following two days were filled with wonderful sights, less stressful adventures and general awesomeness! Hopefully our pictures can tell some of the story. Clearly, I’ve gone on too long!