Thursday, May 5, 2011


During stays in hostels, sightseeing on our own, and taking tours, Pauline and I have talked with a lot fellow travelers.  To my surprise, most travelers are staying way longer than the three months that P and I are traveling.  We've met numerous people traveling for a year or more and we even met a Canadian fellow that has been traveling for over 4.5 years!  He was sitting next to us on the bus ride from Mendoza to Chile.  Naturally, when you meet someone that has been traveling for that long, and has been to 84 different countries (more by now), you ask him what what are his five most memorable trips. 

"Well, let me see, eh," said the Canadian journeyman of 4.5 years. He proceeded to tell us his top 5 destinations. Only one was in South America...... (the others if you're curious: middle of China in the forested area, Namib desert in Africa, New Zealand, and Cincinnati, OH).

"The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, definitely top 5.  It's even more impressive than a Vancouver Canucks power play, eh," said our friend from up north.

A few of the reasons Bolivia ranked in the Canadian's Top 5

Bolivia???  This place wasn't even on our agenda!

Bolivia - fast facts

1. Poorest country in South America (and one of the top 5 countries for receiving international aid despite an abundance of natural resources)
2. Highest percentage of indigenous people in South America (Quecha Indians)

Bolivian women in traditional dress

3. One of two landlocked countries in South America
4. Bolivia is the world's third-largest cultivator of coca

Mike and Mike with coca leaves - chewing them helps with altitude sickness

5. Salar de Uyuni, a huge salt desert in the high altitudes of southwestern Bolivia, was once a giant salt lake that dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind more than 10 billion tons of salt.

Salt flats

A four day tour, leaving San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (Atacama = the driest desert in the world), and ultimately arriving at the Salar de Uyuni (salt flat near a Bolivian city called Uyuni), was in the Canadian's top 5 in world.  We had to do it.

Cheesing in our awesome hats bought just for our trip to Bolivia

We did some research.  This was apparently a pretty popular tour, with 80 or more operators to choose from.  Most of these were fly by night operations.  Drivers of this popular 4x4 excursion usually spoke no English (like our driver).  There had been many reports of drunk driving.  18 tourists had been killed in the last two years on this tour (as of the publishing of my guidebook).  Numerous more injured.  My guide book recommended going to the tourist office and reading the current feedback from fellow travelers before signing up for this excursion, as quality of service for a tour group would rise and fall dramatically (like Oprah's weight, ZZZIINNNGGGG!!!).

So we head to the tourist office and ask for the book.  Stories of jeeps flipping over in the last month, check.  Drunk drivers, check. 

We also talk to travelers to get information.... 4 tourists killed in the last month.  Current demonstrations in Bolivia, with protesters blocking main roads and gas stations, police using tear gas, protesters slinging dynamite......Sign us up.

So Bolivia has some of the most psychedelic landscapes we've ever seen.  It doesn't even look like earth.  Endless desert, big ass rocks, red/blue/green lagoons, boiling mud, geysers.  All this at more than 5000 meters above sea level (that's over 15,000 feet for all you Yankees).

The beautiful Bolivian landscapes

Our group consisted of 18 tourists and 3 Bolivian 4x4 drivers.  Six tourists rode in each 4x4. 

Our transportation

Our car was definitely the awesomest.  We had an Irish couple and a Czech couple in our group.  4 of the coolest people we've met since we've been in South America. 

Our nightly accommodations were not of the 5 star variety.  No heat, no hot water, flickering light bulb dangling from a long cord attached to a partial roof, and a blood stain somewhere in the room was the norm.

Our lodging during the trip - welcome written in blood on the wall of our room, basic dining facilities, concrete blocks for beds, llama legs on the windowsill, staying in tiny almost deserted towns

During the day, the weather would be nice, but at 15,000 feet plus, the night was bitterly cold at -10.  Thirst and pounding headaches at that altitude were very common and we were lucky enough to enjoy both.

Bolivia is the first country that I have ever been in illegally.  You see, when we arrived at the border, we were supposed to pay $135 each for a visa to enter the country.  The Bolivian immigration official, who was suited up in army fatigues complete with gun, looked straight out of a Rambo movie.  He explained to us in Spanish that since we would only be in Bolivia a short time, he would only make us pay $40 each.  A swell deal, thank you kind sir. I accepted and handed him the cash.  After we had left Bolivian Immigration, we realized that the guy from one of the Rambos never actually stamped our passports, thus making us illegal aliens in the poorest country in South America.  And Bolivian prisoners are notorious.  The government offers tours of their worse prisons.  At anytime, anyone with a gun in Bolivian can ask for your passport.  Failure to produce said passport can result in them hauling your ass directly to jail. 

The Bolivian boarder control - the building says it all

At one point our driver, Javier, who was going more than double the speed limit, passed what appeared to be a cop car.  Our driver apparently thought the same thing, since he immediately slammed on his brakes.  It turned out the car was just an ambulance but if it was a cop, I'm sure Johnny Law (or Juan Law) would have asked to see our passports.  "Gringo, where is your stamp?"

The fun did not stop there.  Javier was the Bolivian version of Ricky Bobby.  I've ridden in overnight buses in Latin America, tuk-tuks in Thailand, and been the passenger in Pauline's 20 year old station wagon on I-75.  I thought I had nerves of steel.  I, along with everyone else in the 4x4, made peace with our God during this trip.  I accepted and even welcomed Death with open arms.  Ricky Bobby was off-roading in the Bolivian outback in the complete darkness of night.  Driving through creeks and taking hairpin turns at excessive speeds.  The local fauna was darting left and right to get out of Javier's path of destruction and recklessness.  We were literally in the middle of nowhere.  If the 4x4 flipped, it might have been days before anybody found our mangled bodies.  Maybe weeks would have gone by, and Bolivia CSI would have to match our DNA samples to the bones and teeth they found in alpaca droppings near the crash site.  To get through the hours and hours of terror, I just went with the flow and kept repeating to myself over and over again, "I am Bond, James Bond."

Road during the day - just imagine this, but more twisty, more potholes, and no light

In closing, I have to say that Bolivia was one of the highlights of our trip.  Not only is Bolivia beautiful, raw, and awesome, but also it gave us the opportunity to meet some great people.  When you spend every waking moment with someone for 4 days, you get to know them pretty well.  The Irish couple (Willie and Aisling) reconfirmed that the Irish are some of the friendliest and funniest people in the world.  Unfortunately our itineraries didn't match up again, but I hope that our paths will someday cross again.  As for the Czech couple (Michal and Dominika), We were actually lucky enough to meet up with them on two separate occasions (surfing and beach day in Chile and dinner and drinks in Peru).

Weeks ago, when I was talking to the Canadian journeyman on that bus ride, he mentioned that when he first started traveling, he was more interested in the landscape, the tourist sites, and the culture.  But after awhile, all of that beauty and culture started to blend together.  Majestic landscape didn't really do it for him anymore; that wasn't the reason he was still traveling after all these years.  It was the people that he met on his journey that ultimately decided the enjoyment he received from a journey.  After almost 3 months of traveling, I would have to concur with him.  Random people in your hostel, or someone you meet during a tour, more than likely has something interesting to say that will add value to your day.  Maybe that guy with a maple leaf on his backpack, sitting next to you on a bus, will be the catalyst for one of the greatest adventures of your life.

Here are a few additional pictures from our adventure in Bolivia:

The salt flats made a great background for taking "perspective photos"

Mike learned a new photo pose - jumping...and Pauline learned that Mike used to be a cheerleader

Train cemetery; lots of rock climbing

Wildlife of Bolivia: llamas (with ribbons in their hair), flamingos, viscachas (related to chinchillas), vicunas