9-Oct-2009: Copacobana (Bolivia)

San Pedro de Atacama (2455 metres) in northern Chile is located in the most arid desert in the world, called the Atacama Desert. It is said that some of Chile’s most spectacular scenery is located in the Atacama Desert. The unique climate and altitude of the desert and salt lakes of the Atacama is conducive to very unique and special flora and fauna.  Different types of Flamingos can be seen in the salt lakes along with many other bird species. One can also see the three different types of camel-like Llama, Guanaco and Vicuna. The candlelabra shaped Cardon Cactus is the most common type of flora to be found in this region. A real surprise is a moss-like plant called Llareta, also to be seen here. The Atacama is also home to many imposing volcanoes, visible from nearly every corner of the town. The closest and probably the tallest is the Licancabur standing at 5950 metres.

We have been here in San Pedro Atacama for three nights at Camping Takha Takha. After our mammoth feat driving over numerous mountain passes and high plains, we felt Troopy deserved a well-earned rest. The climate here was very pleasant with 25° Celsius during the day, cooling down to about 6° Celsius at night. The atmosphere of this quaint dusty town is very laid back and friendly. As this is a prime tourist destination, many of the locals speak English. Many young and fit tourists come here to climb a volcano, sand-board down the huge sand dunes, visit the Geysers of El Tatio or explore the area on horseback or mountain bikes.

The Adobe houses are not much to look at from the outside but upon stepping over the threshold, one is in another world. There is usually a courtyard in the middle with a small garden and that seemed to be the focal point of family life. There are also many hotels, hostels and restaurants set up in this manner. The interior design is rustic using timber for tables and seats, Cardon wood (made from cactus) for rafters and ornaments, extensive use of woven rugs and tablecloths and a bit of dust to add the finishing touch to the decor!

We first looked for a bank and ATM machine but could not find it. It was only when we drove down the main street looking for Camping Takha Takha that Kienny happened to peer long and hard into a doorway and saw a dilapidated looking machine behind a grubby glass door that we realised we had struck “gold!” We raced in to find notices warning people not to use the machine between 5.30 to 7.30 pm due to frequent power blackouts. There was another hand written note warning people that the machine was unable to dispense 2000 peso notes. With fear and trepidation, Kienny plugged in her card and the sound of the machine counting out the notes was like sweet music to our ears! We were pleased that Kienny even got her card back!

Feeling rather rich with $100000 pesos (AUD$220) in our pockets, we drove on in search for the campground. There were a lot of Chilean flags on every rooftop and front door. We later found out that it was the Chilean National Day. The whole town was abuzz with excitement and fervent with patriotism.

When we found the campground, it was actually a Bed and Breakfast Hotel with a few campsites and one parking space for a motor-home/camper. The facilities were very clean and they had 24 hour hot showers. One of the reception staff spoke English and was very forthcoming with information for tourists. The hotel also had 6 very friendly dogs and the gates were locked at 10pm every night.

We enjoyed walking through the cobblestone streets looking at local arts and crafts shops and the many stalls. We found the leafy town square where a few stall holders were selling Chilean style meals and deserts. We tried a potato and bean soup with lots of coriander and the most amazing chilli salsa. Then we tried a main course dish of stewed lamb with rice, salad and the same chilli salsa. We were too full for anything else the rest of the day! There was a festive atmosphere as families and tourists were out enjoying the good weather, food stalls and Chilean music. We also visited a lovely white-washed church with beautiful wooden ceilings and beams.

The main street of San Pedro has a lot of tour agencies offering all kinds of tours. There are internet cafes on virtually every corner.  There are quite a few gypsy looking people with dreadlocks, turbans, colourful clothing and they seemed to be the ones weaving intricate necklaces with string and an embedded stone. They also make silver and beaded jewellery.

Upon departing San Pedro Atacama, we drove to Valle de la Luna, well known for its moonscape, sharp jagged peaks and very interesting rock formations and sand dunes. It is easy for one to imagine what it could like to be on the moon. This is a very special and spectacular place despite the hazy and dusty day. How awesome to think of the sheer power of the movement of the earth’s crust and of the erosive power of wind and rain.

We returned to San Pedro to pick up the road to Geysers de El Tatio. The road at the start was a good gravel road but was slow going as we ascended in altitude. Within an hour, the road got very rough with corrugations. We travelled again on very high plains at 4515 metres. It was a very fascinating drive as we drove alongside several volcanoes. In some places we saw evidence of lava flow from eruptions long ago. The majority of the high plains landscape was predominantly barren country.

As we got closer to El Tatio, we came upon a small area of salt lake wetlands with grazing vicunas and quite a lot of birdlife feeding in the lake with crystal clear waters. Crossing over the Rio Putana, the corrugations in the road became very nasty forcing Troopy to travel at a snail's pace. We eventually arrived at the El Tatio ranger station just as it was getting dark. The park rangers allowed us to camp close to their building in order to shelter from the freezing cold winds. We were cooking dinner from the back of Troopy when the temperature was 0° Celsius. We knew we were in for a very cold night! So we rugged up well with 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of thermal pants, 3 fleecy tops, beanies and woollen gloves inside our down sleeping bags. We were like two very chubby caterpillars wriggling about in the back of Troopy!

We had a noisy night as there was a really big geyser about a kilometre away that was constantly belching steam and it roared like the jet engine of an aeroplane. We had read that Chile was at one stage trying to harness geothermal energy but it never got off the ground in a big way as it was not cost effective. Even so, it still looks like work is continuing to harness this energy.

The park rangers told us that the best time to view the geysers would be at 4 am in the morning. We awoke at 5.30 am to the bright spotlights at the park entrance gate. We emerged from our cocoons and quickly drove down to the geysers about a kilometre away. The temperature was -16° Celsius and we were very cold, including Troopy. We even had ice on the inside windows of Troopy. However, it was a great opportunity to be walking onto a geothermal field. The El Tatio Geysers are the highest geyser fields in the world at an altitude of 4330 metres. It was an eerie sight to see columns of steam rising from hundreds of pools of boiling hot water. Some of the columns of steam also came from very small vents in the ground shaped like mounds. As the temperature warmed up to -11°, the columns of steam started to merge into lifting fog. By about 6.30 am, there were about a hundred other tourists who have arrived direct from San Pedro Atacama in minivans and mini-buses.

After breakfast, we decided it was time to leave and head towards Bolivia. Poor Troopy did not like the altitude and extreme cold. The engine was surging badly and the exhaust was belching white and black smoke just like the geysers! Worst of all, Troopy did not have any power to climb up the hill from the geothermal field. It would have been quicker to walk! It wasn’t until we dropped down in altitude and the temperature warmed up a little more that Troopy was back to her usual self.

From El Tatio, we took the road towards Calama and turned off at Chiu Chiu. The gravel road was very rough with nasty corrugations. From Chiu Chiu, we took the road to the border town of Ollague. Once again, we were driving through high plains and volcano alley at an average altitude of 3600 metres. It was a very fascinating drive as we passed one volcano after another. The road here was pretty good most of the way and we were able to travel at speeds of 60 to 80 km/hr. We had also been following a train line all afternoon from Chiu Chiu that went all the way to Uyuni in Bolivia. We wondered if the train line carried passengers or mining ore.

Just past the village of Cebollar, we came upon a salt lake wetlands encircled by volcanoes with pink flamingos. It is amazing how the desert at high altitudes can reveal marvellous miracles of life just when one least expects it. The road to Ollague crossed a salt lake at 3700 metres high! There were people and trucks busily extracting salt from the dry salt lake with trucks going to and from the mining camps. Not far from the village of Ascotan, we drove through an area signposted and fenced off, warning of land mines on either side of the road. We thought that most of the volcanoes here were dormant but just before Ollague, we saw a volcano with smoke streaming from a vent near its peak. We also saw a train pulling carriages loaded with barrels. We found out later that the train was moving barrels of zinc and silver ore from Uyuni (Bolivia) and San Cristabol (Bolivia) to Calama (Chile).

We arrived at the Chilean border post of Ollague late in the afternoon on a Saturday. Exit proceedings were very straightforward. 3 kilometres later, we entered Bolivia at the border post named Avaroa. We first had to call into the Aduana or Customs office to fill in a form for Troopy. Then we had to walk to another building where all the vehicle details could be entered into the computer. We then had to pay $15 Bolivianos and take two printouts back to the first Aduana building where the officer put his personal stamp and signature on the paperwork. From here, we had to walk to the immigration building and pay another $15 Bolivianos to get our passport stamped. As we returned to Troopy, another customs officer had a quick look in the back of Troopy and then we were let loose into Bolivia on very corrugated roads. By this time it was getting dark so we bush camped nine kilometres from the border post.

We had a good night’s sleep with temperatures down to just -6° Celsius. It was a beautiful starry night. We awoke with the sun streaming on Troopy’s windows. After having experienced -15°  temperatures, -6° seemed very tolerable! We continued our journey towards Uyuni on a slow corrugated road across desert high plains gaining altitudes as high as 4354 metres. The desert vegetation consisted of small clumps of brown grass on the high plains with barren looking high peaks in the near distance. Later in the morning we drove through an area called Valles de Rocas. This consisted of some really bizarre shaped rock formations, like stacks of mah-jong tablets arranged in rows ready for the game to begin.

Half an hour later, the countryside changed back to wide expanses of grassland again. Near Villa Alotta, we came across a wetlands area with many flamingos, ducks and other bird life. Around Culpina we noticed that most of the houses had tin roofs rather than the more typical thatched roofs. This may have been due to the fact that there was a mine nearby providing a higher income for the local people.

Our first sighting of the traditional dress worn by Bolivian ladies was at San Cristobal. San Cristobal is the biggest town in this part of south west Bolivia. We saw a huge open mine cut into the mountain side with lots of heavy machinery and trucks going back and forth. We stopped to visit the central market. It was a colourful market with little stalls of fruit and vegetables on display. There were different types of rice, pasta and beans on offer. The stalls were mainly run by women wearing the traditional Chola dress: gathered skirt, stockings, two plaits, apron and a bowler hat balanced precariously on top of the head. Most of the people are very short in stature. We tried to buy bread but the panaderia had run out of bread so we journeyed on.

Just after lunch, we were stopped by a family broken down on the side of the road. They had a flat tyre with no spare on board. They asked if we could take all seven of them into Uyuni. Since it was only another 53 kilometres away, Geoff thought it would be better to loan them one of Troopy’s spare tyres so that they did not have to wait in the desert heat and dust. We told the family where we had planned to stay in Uyuni so that they could return the tyre to us. Meanwhile, we took two of their hitch hikers and dropped them off at the Mercado central in Uyuni. It was a short lesson in Spanish having the two Bolivian hitch hikers in our car. As they were getting out of Troopy, they offered to pay for their ride. When we declined the offer, they seemed surprised but very thankful.

Uyuni is a dusty, windy frontier town with many mud brick adobe houses. The ones with tin roofs had big rocks on top to stop them blowing off. There were also some double and triple storey hotels and government buildings. The main streets was paved but most streets were uneven and pot-holed. There is no camping ground in Uyuni so we took a room at Hotel Tonito. The hotel is owned and run by Chris and Suzie. Chris is from Boston and his wife Suzie is Bolivian. We soon heard that Chris makes fantastic pizzas, bread and pasta dishes in his “Minuteman Restaurant.” They are a very hospitable couple and are a great source of information.

The Tonito Hotel has very colourful decor and the rooms are clean and comfortable with plenty of hot water for showers. This hotel is a popular oasis for many overland trucks and tour groups and has secure parking in the rear. Breakfast is included in the room price and there is even free WiFi. Geoff was so excited about the WiFi that he hurriedly dumped our belongings in our room and left me to my own devices so he could get connected!

When we told the hotel staff that we were expecting a family to return a tyre to us, they warned us that there was a chance that we may not get it back. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. As in all countries where people are desperately poor, there are the few that will resort to unsavoury behaviour.  Anyway, we felt we were doing the right thing for this family and hoped that they would return the tyre. The two Bolivian hitch hikers we dropped off in town had offered to pay us for their ride, so we were quietly confident. It was not till late in the afternoon that we were summoned to the front door where the young couple was waiting to return the tyre to us. They were very grateful indeed and even asked how much they should pay for the loan of the tyre! It was a heart-warming experience. To top off the day, we had a fantastic Pizza Mexicana with apple-pie, ice-cream and hot chocolate.

Until reaching Bolivia we had seen hardly any Toyota Landcruisers. What a delight it was on entering Bolivia and seeing Toyota Landcruisers everywhere. The next morning, we set about getting a few jobs done on Troopy. We found a mechanico recommended by Chris to fix a small oil leak around the engine drain plug, replaced a couple of tail light globes that had blown and welded a broken support bracket on the radiator overflow bottle. Despite its appearance, Uyuni is a great town for getting mechanical work done, especially if it is a Toyota since all the local tour operators use Toyota Landcruisers.

While we were waiting for the mechanics to work on Troopy, we met Alfonso from La Paz, who was visiting Uyuni with friends. He was waiting for the mechanics to work on his vehicle. Unfortunately, his vehicle was not a Toyota so he spent a long time waiting for the mechanics to decide what to do with his vehicle. Alfonso spoke good English and gave us a lot of information on Bolivia. We asked Alfonso about how to get our cooking gas bottle filled in Bolivia and he very kindly decanted some gas from a 40 kg propane bottle in the back of his vehicle. Everyone had a good laugh when they saw one of our three 1.25 kg gas bottles!

With all the jobs accomplished on Troopy, we set off towards Colchani, on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. We took a left hand turn on the first corner just past the police checkpoint and headed south west on the salt lake. It was a strange sensation to be driving on the salt lake as we were not sure if we would get bogged at any point in time. As we drove further along a fairly well defined track, our confidence grew and we were able to drive at speeds of 100 km/hr. The track was very smooth like an airport runway. We passed a hotel built entirely from salt bricks. We could also see Vulcan Tunupa (5432 metres) in the distance. On either side of the runway, we saw many hexagonal shaped tiles of encrusted salt. We were surrounded by a vast expanse of white as far as our eyes could see. It was pure white, set against a perfect clear blue sky!

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 3686 metres in altitude, spanning 12000 square kilometres. The salt is over 10 metres thick/deep in the centre of the salt flat. The Salar de Uyuni also holds half the world’s reserve of Lithium which is the lightest metal and has half the density of water. It is used in cell phone, laptop and iPod batteries, and in the future, will power electric and hybrid vehicles. This link contains an interesting documentary on the Lithium at Salar de Uyuni.

We first drove 90 kilometres south west from Colchani across the salt lake before heading north to Isla Incahuasi. Again, the track was like being on the Autobahn in Germany. There are tracks criss-crossing in all directions but we have our trusty GPS which is leading us direct to an island in the middle of the lake named Isla Incahuasi.

As we pulled up to Isla Incahuasi, we saw another tourist jump up from where he was seated on a stone wall. He began to wave madly to us. Then we realised that it was Rainer and Anne from Germany. This was the third time we have bumped into them. We first met them at the German Club in Buenos Aires. They have a similar Troopy with a wonderful camper built by Rainer himself. We had a quick chat before they had to leave as they had opted to take a tour rather than drive their vehicle onto the salt flat.

Isla Incahuasi is a very pretty island in the middle of the Salar with a fantastic panoramic view of the salt flat. It costs $15 Bolivianos (US$2) each to do the short walk through the cactus forest but it was well worth it! Incahuasi is full of the ancient Trichoreus cactus, some 900 to 1000 years old. Their shapes reminded us of Marge Simpson’s up style hairdo, only in green! While we were at the Hotel Tonito, we saw some really cool pictures people have taken on the salt flat. We decided to give it a go to see if this optical illusion really works. Poor Geoff drew the short straw to be the model. He was quite weary of it all by the time we were done! You can see the results of the pictures on our web page.

We spent the night bush-camping on the salt flat. It was very windy at first but it subsided after the sun went down. It was a chilly night with the temperature down to -6° Celsius. We positioned Troopy in such a way that we would get the first burst of the sun in the morning. It was very nice to wake up with the warmth of the sun beaming through our windows.

We made our way back to Uyuni town to buy some bread and vegetables before heading to Tonito to say farewell to Chris and Suzie. We pulled up behind a Toucan overland truck and who should be working on the truck but Ben, the Australian truck driver who we had met in Ushuaia 9 months ago! It really is a pleasure to meet up with other overlanders and to catch up with their travel adventures. Some of them we meet only once while others, we tend to run into each other from time to time. After farewelling our friends in Uyuni, we found a Lavadero to give Troopy a good high pressure wash to get rid of any salt that we might have picked up from driving on the salt flat.

It was late afternoon by the time we drove out of Uyuni en route to Potosi on Ruta 701. It was a slow and rough road with many corrugations disguised as a nasty surprise. We came to a small picturesque village of Pulacayo (4200 metres). This town used to actively mine silver and copper. They used to import locomotives to transport the ore from Pulacayo to Uyuni but now, only a few decaying steam locomotives remain. This included the famous ore train that was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!

After Pulacayo, the mountainous countryside appeared a bit greener with deep rugged canyons. The village of Tica Tica (3667 metres) was rather quaint. Here the farming paddocks were demarcated by retaining walls built from carefully arranged rocks. Most of these paddocks appeared to have been abandoned for quite some time. From here the road again ascended in altitude with many hairpin bends. The road to Potosi was one long, continuous construction zone taking us through some very pretty valleys. The villages along the river seemed to be in an idyllic location with poplar and willow trees towering over the simple adobe houses. Above the valley, the road followed a spectacular rocky ridge. We got as high as 4040 metres before we found a small gravel pit on a ridge high above the road. It was getting dark as the sun had all but set and we did not like driving at night with so many trucks on the road. We could see and hear the faint rumble of trucks coming and going all night long. What a busy road it was!

We had a very good night’s sleep despite the temperature going down to -7° Celsius. We were unable to wash our breakfast dishes until later in the morning as Troopy’s water hose was frozen! We only had 60 kms to go before arriving in Potosi. As the road funnelled us into the heart of the city of Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4090 metres, we found ourselves in a spider-web of confusion. The narrow streets were very busy with mini-buses, trucks, cars, and people everywhere. Potosi is a city on the mountain-side with very tiny house numbers and street names that made it was quite challenging finding our way to the Residencia Tarija where we were told we could camp in their secure compound for $50 Bolivianos ($US7) . It turned out to be a very convenient location within walking distance to the city square and central market.

We first walked to the Silver Mines Tour office to book an underground mine tour. We managed to book into a tour for that afternoon with another French couple. With two hours to spare, we were able to have lunch and even managed to purchase a very large Alpaca wool blanket for $45 Bolivianos (US$6) to help us through the sub zero night temperatures.

Our tour guide Freddie was a former miner who spoke a little English. He first took us by minivan to his house to suit us up in polyester overalls, gumboots, safety helmet and miner’s headlamp. Then we were driven to the miner’s market where miners obtain their coca leaves, cigarettes, 96% alcohol, drinks and even dynamite! The mines are owned by different co-operatives. Every miner is a member of a co-operative and so, they effectively work for themselves. They earn about $80 Bolivianos (US$12) each day and work with very basic equipment, no safety equipment and have to buy their own dynamite. So, tourists are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners. With bags of coca leaves, 96% alcohol, soft drink, cigarettes and dynamite, we made our way to the mine entrance a short distance from town.

As we got out of the mini-van, we were confronted with a lot of dust and diesel fumes from trucks loading up with the ore. Our guide showed us a few pieces of the precious ore containing silver, zinc and copper. Then we followed Freddie into the mine walking along the railway tracks. We trudged through the mud aided only by our headlamps. The tunnels were no more than 2 metres high and 1 to 3 metres wide. Geoff kept hitting his head on the ceiling. Fortunately, he was wearing a hard hat. There was no lighting whatsoever in the mine. Miners have to rely solely on their headlamps.

As we made our way deeper into the mine, the air became stuffy and stale, smelling of various gases and chemicals. We weaved our way through a maze of tunnels till we came to an opening in the ground where we crawled down a vertical rickety wooden ladder. We could hear a lot of drilling and had to walk towards a thick cloud of dust. Freddie handed us pieces of a plastic bag which he told us to stuff into our ears as we neared the drilling site. We found three miners working at drilling dynamite holes. It was difficult to breathe with the thick dust and we had to cover our noses and mouths with a handkerchief to prevent ourselves fully inhaling the toxic dust. The miners worked without ventilation, masks or breathing apparatus. All their work is done with basic digging tools except for a jack-hammer at an altitude of 4200 metres, facing noxious chemicals and gases and stale air all day long. Majority of the miners could only last 10 to 15 years before they contract silicosis and permanently damage their lungs. They earn about $80 Bolivianos (AUD $13) per day, much more than the average wage. They were happy to show us their work and were very grateful for the gifts of coca leaves and dynamite. They chewed coca leaves for energy and stamina. Our guide Freddie also chewed coca leaves. One side of his cheek puffed out as the pulp of the coca formed a big ball inside his mouth. We did notice that he got a little quieter, almost in a trance, as he chewed more and more of the leaves and drank the 96% alcohol with the miners as they worked underground.

We left the drilling team and continued deeper into the “abyss” by climbing down 8 wooden ladders to the fifth level of the mountain. It was not easy with floppy gumboots and baggy miners’ clothing. This time, we found another three miners shovelling the blasted ore into big rubber baskets and fixing the hook on and shouting to his colleague 4 levels up to haul the basket up. It was very hard work. One of the miners was a 19 year old who had only started two weeks ago. He was nursing blisters on his hands from shovelling the ore. We felt very sorry for him! The other two older miners were very kind to him and they did most of the shovelling.

As we left this group of miners in search of the railway duo, we heard explosions above our heads and the whole mine vibrated from the shock waves. We were told to run under a solid rock mass and stand still while the series of explosions continued. It was a scary experience as the tunnels were mostly unsupported with only the occasional wooden beams in the weaker sections of the tunnels. Our hearts were pounding as thoughts of being buried alive filled our minds. Being 2km underground at 4200 metres was a very uncomfortable feeling. Not much we could do but to try to stay calm and breathe gently.

We found the railway duo pushing a cart filled with ore weighing 1.5 tons for up to two kilometres to get to the outside world to be loaded into waiting trucks. We found it difficult enough to walk at this altitude, yet these men were pushing these loads for up to 70km every day! What heroes!

Our final visit was to the miner’s shrine dedicated to the guardian of the earth they refer to as “Tio” or uncle. It was a grotesque looking statue painted red with horns. The altar was littered with streamers, cigarettes, coca leaves, candles and alcohol. Freddie our guide lit a couple of cigarettes and planted it on Tio’s mouth. Then he placed coca leaves and alcohol as an offering to appease the idol. Freddie then drank the 96% alcohol and chewed more coca leaves. We were beginning to wonder if he would be in a right state of mind to lead us out of the mine.

Anyway, we eventually came to the bottom of the series of 10 ladders we had to climb back up to get to the top level of the mine. It was the most challenging part of the tour. We were all very breathless due to altitude and lack of fresh air and we were also very tired. Kienny felt like giving up on the last set of the ladders but did not wish to be left behind. It was sheer relief to walk out into the open air and sunshine! It was a wonderful feeling to be revived and alive after being in the mine for about two hours!

Freddie had one more thing to show us before the conclusion of the tour. He led us to the side of the mountain where he detonated one of the sticks of dynamite which we had purchased earlier from the miners’ market. It went off with a very loud bang.  We were then driven back to the tour office to change out of our dusty miners’ uniform and farewelled. We could not stop thinking about the miners that night and the appalling working conditions. This very informative link contains more information on the Potosi silver mines.

We left Potosi mid-morning heading towards Sucre, the former capital of Bolivia. This was the first time we started paying tolls in Bolivia and encounter police check points. We were again driving at altitudes of around 3000 to 3500 metres passing areas of grassy hillsides and more adobe houses with cultivated plots. Basketball and soccer must be very popular in Bolivia as most villages we passed through had a basketball court or soccer pitch or both. There were signs at the start of each village indicating that these villages are all part of “Plan” high plains agricultural co-operatives. This area looked to be more populous. There were people on the roadsides waiting for buses or simply walking from one village to another. We saw women tending sheep and goats or just walking along the road twirling wool with their portable spindles. There seemed to be more precipitation in these areas with more gum trees, willow, peppercorn and jacaranda trees near houses. It was a very pretty drive with sheer drop offs from the mountain side down to the river valley below. The valley just before Sucre was beautiful and lush green with lots of trees, very nice homes and larger plots of agricultural land.

Sucre is a beautiful colonial city of white-washed buildings, cathedrals and cobblestone streets in the historic city centre. The city square or plaza where people congregate has neatly trimmed and colourful garden beds and lawns. There are many historical cathedrals throughout this city with magnificent interiors and big church bells.

We checked into the parking lot of Hostel Austria, with very friendly and helpful staff. The parking lot had very pleasant surrounds with outdoor pergola, flower beds and two very friendly dogs. The German couple we kept running into, Ann and Rainer also arrived the following day. This was the fourth time we have met them.

From the hostel, it was an interesting 20 minutes walk to the centre of town. The street was full of shops selling all kinds of hardware for the home, office and cars. Geoff found it very fascinating. Closer to town, we had an eye opening experience wandering through the Mercado central. There was a section with many stall holders selling fresh fruit juice and yoghurt. There were crowds of people seated at the tables all enjoying very healthy treats. Then, there was another level selling lunches of fried chicken, stewed meat casserole served with rice, chips and salad. The Mercado also had a long colourful section selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and dried goods like sultanas and nuts. There were many ladies dressed in their traditional bowler hats, gathered skirt, blouse, apron, poncho or scarf. It would be a great place for taking photographs except we did not want to appear too intrusive and offend the locals.

We found a very nice hotel to have lunch and inspected the arts and crafts shops before starting to walk back to our hostel. Along the way, Kienny decided it was time to go to the hairdresser and get her hair coloured and cut, all for just US$10. Kienny now looks years younger and no longer needs to comb her hair every day!

We left Sucre for Tarabuco very early in the morning in order to catch this well known Sunday market. It was a good paved road along the high plains at around 3100 metres. The road was busy with taxis and minivans taking locals and tourists to Tarabuco, a small town where lots of the indigenous people come to sell and buy food, arts and crafts. By the time we arrived, the narrow streets around the market were blocked off and it took us some time to make our way through to the other side of town where we could park troopy.  It was a very colourful market where potatoes, dried chillies and onions were sold by the sackful. The ladies selling vegetables were very amused when all we needed to buy were a handful of baby carrots and fresh chillies. We also had an early lunch at the market as we could not resist the yummy looking and fragrant stews, soups, rice, chips and salads on offer. We were very pleased whenever we could get the salsa picante, which really added to the taste of the meal. They have very hot chillies here in Bolivia!

After our very hearty meal, it was time to do some serious shopping. All through Argentina and Chile and southwest Bolivia, we have been pricing hand-woven rugs and tablecloths. Even though Tarabuco is said to be very touristy, we were quite pleased with our bargains. Now we just had to find room to store the rugs and tablecloths in Troopy?

From Tarabuco, we took the Che Guevara road to Samaipata. This route traced the final movements of the much revered revolutionary Che Guevara. This beret wearing social revolutionary was also famous for his motorcycle trip around Latin South America which led to the making of the movie called The Motorcycle Diaries. The road was gravel and rough but the scenery more than made up for it with spectacular tall canyon country, moonscape like with a few gumtrees and conifers. Late in the afternoon, we came upon a stretch of cobblestone road that went for 4 kms from the town of Padilla. The valley became much greener as we came to Villa Serrano where we found some of the locals fighting a bushfire amongst the eucalyptus forest on the outskirts of town. We found a nice grassy patch to bush camp at 2514 metres, hidden just off the road, sheltered by a thick bushy hedge.

It was not cold overnight but we awoke to a blanket of thick fog. We waited for a few hours for the fog to lift as we did not want to miss out on the spectacular scenery. In the end, we decided it was better to keep moving and hoped that the view would be clearer as we descended in altitude. The fog did clear once we got down to 1800 metres. We came into a wide river valley of the Rio Grande. We were driving through desert country with barren mountainsides, rocky valley, cacti and thorn trees. Some of the cacti was coming into flower with pink and orange flowers.

We crossed Rio Grande on a massive bridge at 927 metres in altitude. This was the first time since being in Belgrano, Argentina that we have been at an altitude below 1000 metres. The valley was very winding and Troopy was rocked from side to side as we stopped on the bridge to take photos. After crossing over the bridge, the road rapidly increased in altitude with one hairpin bend after another. It was not long and we had climbed over 3000m and were driving along the mountain ridges at over 4000m. The wind did not subside but kept buffeting us all the way to Pucara where we stopped to buy eggs. By this time, it was late in the evening and the fog started to roll in again. We took a small road signposted to Alto Seco and found a small lay-by off the road to bush camp. We had a very quiet night with the wind easing and the fog engulfing us.

We continued on our way to Samaipata passing through Guadalaupe, Villagrande and Mataral, where the road changed to bitumen with lots of potholes and road works in progress. We eventually arrived at Samaipata, a sleepy village with many expatriates from Germany, Holland, Austria, Canadian and the US. Samaipata is in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental and has many hostels, restaurants and tour agencies set up by the expatriate community for tourists who come to visit the Amboro National Park and the pre- Inca site at El Fuerte. There is even an international race car rally that comes to Samaipata once a year.

We stayed two nights with Maarten and Tip. Maarten was travelling around the world on his motorbike when we met in Alice Springs through Horizons Unlimited about 5 or 6 years ago. He and his wife Tip, from Thailand, have built a beautiful house with a great view in Samaipata and are happily settled in Bolivia. Maarten is a partner in the tour agency Road Runners who run tours in the Amboro, El Fuerte and also the Che Guevara trail to Tarabuco. They speak English, German, French and Spanish.

We had a wonderful time with Maarten and Tip. Maarten gave us a personally guided tour of El Fuerte with a very interesting and comical commentary on the spread of the Inca Empire to El Fuerte. We have been thoroughly spoiled by their hospitality and have appreciated all the comforts of their home. Nevertheless, we had to say goodbye and be on our way.
From Samaipata, we took Ruta 7 to Cochabamba passing through more fertile agricultural valleys of San Isidro and Torrecillas at 2500 to 2900 metres. Once again, as we got higher in altitude the afternoon fog began to engulf whole towns. The fog lifted at La Siberia to reveal a picturesque and colourful patchwork picture of many cultivated plots against the steep mountains. We climbed as high as 3500 metres! Late in the afternoon, we encountered very strong winds after Cruce Projo. The wind was so strong that Troopy was almost airborne! We were pelted with fine grains of sand and dust. It was nearing sunset so we chose a bush campsite on a grassy patch where cattle had been grazing, watched over by a family living in a farmhouse halfway up the opposite hilltop. It was three minute noodles for dinner that night! The weather was just too tempestuous to linger outdoors.

The next morning, we continued on towards Cochabamba through more toll roads. Fortunately, they were all very inexpensive and it pays to keep the toll ticket as at certain toll booths as they sometimes put a stamp on it without us having to pay extra. We arrived at Cochabamba around lunchtime and found a cafe where we had fried chicken, rice, chips and fried banana for lunch. We then tried to withdraw some cash at an ATM where Geoff’s credit card got swallowed up by the ATM, not once but Twice! Fortunately, the ATM was outside the bank and we were able to retrieve the card in quick time. We found another ATM that was more obliging and we continued on our way.

The afternoon drive was an interesting one at altitudes in excess of 3500 metres. We saw many dogs seated by the roadside at around one kilometre intervals just watching all the traffic go past. They could almost double as mileage posts! Someone told us that the dogs were used to getting food thrown out from passing vehicles and buses.  We got to as high 3900 metres where we found an old gravel lay-by obscure from the view of passing traffic. We could see farmhouses across the valley but thought it highly unlikely that anyone would bother to come pay us a visit in the night.

Just as we were having breakfast in the morning, one farmer came walking towards Troopy. He was very friendly and inquisitive. Kienny had a brief chat with him and he was very happy to leave us alone after we gave him four little koalas for his children.

The road continued at an altitude of 4000 to 4500 metres for much of the day. We came across another of the many police check points just after the town of Pongo. Here the policeman took a special  interest in Troopy. He muttered something about triangles which Kienny did not understand at first. He motioned us to pull off to the side and he came to the driver side and asked if the steering was original because the steering should have been on the left hand side in Bolivia. We said we have a tourist permit for the vehicle and that the steering was original. Then he took us into his office and flipped through his traffic code book and pointed to the hazard triangles. We said we actually have three of them. Then he started to flip through the code book again looking for something else before he gave us the thumbs up and waved us goodbye due to the language difficulty. We were sure he was working up to a fine or a bribe!

We arrived in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world with an average altitude of 3660 metres, early in the afternoon and our GPS was programmed to take us on a shortcut to Hotel Oberland, a popular camping ground for many overlanders. The GPS took us down a very steep narrow road with hairpin bends and the view of La Paz was just spectacular. The city is an amphitheatre of buildings all through the valley and up the sides of the mountain. We imagine that people might have to drive from their house at 4200 metres down to their favourite bakery to buy their bread at 3200 metres in the valley floor where the city centre is located. It is an incredible sight!

We checked into the parking lot at Hotel Oberland, owned by a Swiss man. The hotel is popular with the La Paz expatriate community and they seemed to be setting up for conference lunches every day. The restaurant also serves very nice meals though it is expensive by local standards but still good value by Australian standards. Campers get full access to the restaurant, pool, hot showers, laundry service and WiFi internet. The hotel employees speak English, German, French and Spanish and are very friendly and helpful. That evening, our German friends Ann and Rainer yet again pulled into the parking lot and parked next to us. We had another very pleasant reunion over dinner and enjoyed a very nice German style buffet breakfast with them the next morning. They had been in Cochabamba a few days getting some work done on their vehicle.

After breakfast, we took a taxi down to the city centre to book a tour to mountain bike down the Yungas Road of Death, the most dangerous road in the world. As it was a Sunday, most of the tour agencies were closed. We found a travel agency that was open who were agents for the company we planned to book through. In the end, we ended up booking our bike ride with B-Side Adventures. Well, there was no turning back now with everything paid for and we were measured up for helmet size, bike height, brakes, gloves and provided the name of our travel insurance company.

We caught a taxi at 6.30 am in the morning to our pick-up point at Plaza Humboldt not far from Hotel Oberland. Our van loaded with pushbikes on the roof came by within five minutes and we made our way to the city to pick up another 4 bikers. We then made our way to La Cumbre where we met up with another van load of 7 other bikers and our 3 guides. We first had to get suited up with knee guards, water-proof pants, jacket and helmet. Then we had to try out our assigned pushbikes to make sure we were completely comfortable with the seating and the brakes. Then it was a short briefing and a group photo before we were sent on our way down the “Road of Death.”

The Yungas Road of Death is a 64 km stretch of very narrow, steep, slippery winding road starting at La Cumbre at 4640 metres and finishing at 1100 metres at Yolosa. It is a 3500 metre descent from the cold climate of highland puna habitat, cloud forest, through to tropical and sub-tropical moist broad-leaf forests and other types of evergreen trees where the climate is hot and humid.

The first 15 kms of our descent was on asphalt. It was scary at the start as we had trucks, buses and other traffic passing us along winding steep stretches of the road. We were also trying to get used to our bikes and with how much to ease and squeeze the very sensitive hydraulic brakes. The strong breeze made it tricky to manoeuvre the bike. The adrenaline was pumping and we had to remind ourselves to breathe gently as we were still at high altitude. There were 13 of us in the group with Kienny being the only female. The young men were all in their 20s and we felt old enough to be their parents! Naturally, the boys charged down the hill at full-speed with us oldies bringing up the rear followed closely by our support van ready to pick up anyone who needed a rest. We had a guide in front as a scout and another in the middle of the pack to take photos and keep us all in line. We would stop at regular intervals and be briefed about the conditions of the road ahead and be reminded to concentrate on our riding. We rode past two anti-narcotics check points as this area is a coca-growing area. We also had to pay $25 Bolivianos (US$3) each for the privilege to ride this road.

The scenery was indeed awesome and spectacular with massive mountains rising much higher above us at 4700 metres. The gravel Road of Death proper was bumpy and slippery with loose gravel and surprise rocks. The start of it was very narrow that it was best not to look around but to focus on the riding. We spent nearly all the time squeezing our rear brakes and a bit of the front brakes. Kienny had a couple of wobbly moments when she squeezed the front brakes a bit too much but managed to stay upright. Every so often, there would be a chance to look at the view ahead and we could see the twisty roads carved like a precarious ledge into the mountain side. That got the heart pounding as the reality of us riding this infamous road now sank in. Then it was back to 100% concentration on the riding. If we were to see a vehicle ascending or hear the driver beeping his horn, the rule was that we had to quickly switch sides and stop at the next convenient lay-by on the cliff side and wait for the vehicle to pass us on the mountain side. Then we can continue riding on the right side of the road.

As we got well into the ride, we started to feel more comfortable with the handling of the bike and the riding terrain. We rode through stretches of muddy and slippery tracks with tiny waterfalls cascading over our heads. We also crossed a small rocky creek with water deep enough to wet our shoes so we had to peddle hard and fast to get to dry land. We passed many memorials and crosses erected on the sides of the road to the memory of those who have tragically gone over the edge. Whenever we came to one of these memorials, we took extra care to take the corner a little closer to the mountain side. Kienny did not dare look over the edge as it made her feel dizzy and uncomfortable. One of the boys in our group went flying over the handle bars and escaped with grazed elbows. Another rode into the ditch on the mountain side because he over corrected himself for fear of riding too close to the cliff edge.

The weather got warmer and more humid as we dropped lower in altitude. We had to shed our layers of warm clothing along the way until we were down to shorts and T-shirts. The last stretch of the road contained a few flat stretches before the final downhill stretch to the village of Yolosa. It was a big relief to be able to remove all our safety armour and cool down with a good cold drink at the Mosquito Pub. The young fellas celebrated with Bolivian beer. As for us, we were just so proud to have conquered and survived the Road of Death without any mishap. All the pushbikes were lifted onto the roof of the vans and we all piled in for the short drive up to Coroico where we could have a swim in the pool at the Hotel Gloria, have a shower and change into clean clothes. Then we were taken to a German owned restaurant where we had a very beautiful and filling meal to recharge our energy and repair our frayed nerves.

After lunch, we piled back into the vans for the return journey back to La Paz along the same road we rode on. This time, we could see more clearly how treacherous the road is and the amazing scenery. As it was late in the afternoon, the clouds began to roll in and visibility was soon reduced to only a few metres. This made our drive up the mountain rather interesting and at times uncomfortable as other vehicles had to pass us very close to the cliff edge. It was dark by the time we returned to Troopy at the Hotel Oberland. Still being very full from our late luncheon, we decided to celebrate our achievement by having a banana split and a milkshake at the Oberland’s Swiss restaurant. It took less than five minutes for us to get to sleep when our heads hit the pillows after such a big memorable day. We conquered and survived the Road of Death!

Here is a YouTube video from the American ABC TV show Newsline filmed with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking on the World's Most Dangerous Road (also known as the Death Road).  As with many TV shows it is a bit over played but none-the-less, it does give a good idea of the ride, the road, the legend and the drama.

We awoke to another nice day in La Paz. We thought our bodies would be sore all over but that did not happen. We had a very lazy morning at the campground before taking a taxi into the city centre. We called into the B-Side mountain biking office to thank them for a fantastic adventure and to let them know that we were two very satisfied customers. The guides and drivers we had were very professional, patient and helpful. They even went beyond their call of duty when they gave a lift to another bike-rider who got left behind by a different tour group when someone from that group fell and broke their collar bone. In the rush to get to the hospital, the poor rider got left behind!

Our last afternoon in La Paz was spent browsing the many souvenir shops. It was very tempting to buy rugs, tablecloths, alpaca wool and silver for they were all very cheap but we just have no more room in Troopy. We came across some stalls in the street selling interesting things like dried llama foetuses, dried birds and feathers. We suspect this street might be the witches’ market. There were also different packets of colourful incense tablets, coca leaves, amulets and colourful feathers. We also came across the true concept of a zebra crossing when we saw a dressed up “zebra” at certain pedestrian crossings. When people wanted to cross, the “zebra” would walk out onto the middle of the road to stop the traffic. What a cool way to do zebra crossings instead of painting lots of white lines on the road.

We could very easily have spent another day in La Paz but we have to keep pressing on. We have been in Bolivia for three weeks. After a nice buffet breakfast at the Hotel Oberland, we left La Paz and headed northwest towards Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. We first had to climb uphill from 3295 metres in low range to the top of the city at 4000 metres. The road at the top was incredibly busy with buses, minivans and people everywhere. For the next 40 kms or so, we were going from one town to another before the traffic started to thin out a bit. The road was bitumen all the way to Copacabana, possibly the best road in all of Bolivia that we have travelled on. We were again driving on the high plains and even though we were at 4000m there were still very tall snow covered mountains towering over us.

We caught our first view of Lake Titicaca at the town of Batallas. It was crystal blue with reeds growing on the shore. The local farmers had their agricultural plots right next to the lakeshore. They were just working on turning over the soil in preparation for the approaching rainy season. We wondered if they could have irrigated their farms with water from the lake as the land looked very dry and parched.

The road followed the lake up to Tiquina where we had to drive Troopy onto an old wooden barge, powered by a very small outboard motor to cross to the other side of the town. As the barge got into more open waters, it started to flex from side to side and Troopy rocking in sync. We wondered how much worse the flexing of the barge would get if the waters were rougher. We could see other barges ferrying buses and trucks as well. Still, we were rather glad to be disembarking on the other side of the lake into the picturesque and sleepy village of Tiquina. From this village we started to climb up to 4250 metres before descending to Copacabana.

On the outskirts of town, we had to stop at a police check-point. The policeman recorded Troopy’s registration number and the number of passengers. Then he directed me to another desk where I was asked to pay $5 Bolivianos for municipal toll and another $2 Bolivianos to the policeman which I thought was a different toll. I should have inspected the receipt more carefully but it was too late. I got a business card for a Hotel Sucre in Copacabana! The policeman had a whole stack of them on his desk and I fell for this scam! Bah! To think we have always been very careful not to pay a bribe, even if it was only a miserly $2 Bolivianos (US$0.25)!

We pulled into the secure parking courtyard at the Hotel Chasqui del Sol on the beach of Copacabana at 3835 metres. It was a very nice looking hotel but we were the only guests. We walked to the beachside food stalls next door and sat down to a very delicious meal of trout, fresh from Lake Titicaca.

We have had a wonderful 3 weeks in Bolivia. The roads were rough but the scenery absolutely spectacular. Travelling in Bolivia has been very straightforward and cheap. We have felt very safe wherever we have been. The people have been very friendly, helpful and honest (apart from a few corrupt policemen). They work very hard and long hours. They seem to have a very strong family ties as we often see whole families working on the farm and enjoying a Sunday afternoon outing. We have had an amazing time experiencing the culture and colour of Bolivia and travelling to such great heights. Surviving the Most Dangerous Road in the world would undoubtedly have to be the highlight of Bolivia!

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking herehere and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.

A map of our trip can be seen by going to or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill