Offroading Through Bolivia

Why You Shouldn’t Cross the Border on a Friday

We chose to go to Bolivia on the wrong day. It was a Friday afternoon when we arrived at the border and were greeted by hundreds of people, stalls and taxi bicycles riding through the one street we needed to take to the border. It was market day and no one was interested in moving out of the way for us in any sort of hurry. So inch by inch we slowly moved along, having our car hit on by passing people hands, till we reached the tiny bridge of a border. On the Peruvian side there was no lines to be found. Our passports where stamped, car was checked all in a matter of 5 minutes and we were off to Bolivia.

Getting across that bridge, with bicycle taxis carying people and goods piled hirer than they could see was an interesting adventure. On the bridge a guy stopped us wanting us to buy a 5 soles ticket to cross. We actually had 0 soles left, using the last to get through a toll were we were 20 soles short, so we just said no, and he let us go anyways, no one checked our tickets, what a scam. But we made it and were sent to the back of a 2 hour line. Here it seems that of you want to just go back and forth across countries you can on your own accord, but going and getting it legitimized is on your own accord too. We obviously needed it so for 2 hours we baked in the sun until we finally were able to get our car paperwork done. After a solid 4 hours we were fighting our way through the streets again onto the open road.

One last check point. They do this everywhere after the borders in Peru as well. They have an additional aduana (customs officer) and futher down the road another police check point to top it all off. Well this police checkpoint was known to be corrupt so we were prepared. He wanted money for a stamp which we didn’t need, so we refused. Annoyed, he made us go through our whole car showing him our triangle, fire extinguisher, and first aid kit. He said it wasn’t sufficient as it needed iodine, so I took off the label and showed him visine. Finally, La Paz here we come.

La Paz, the Capitol

It was late by the time we were entering La Paz, so just before sunset we decided to stick to the outskirts, no interest in sleeping in the actual capitol, and went to the airport for the night for food and to do a little research. We made the mistake the following day of going into the city to get groceries, however there really was no other option. As well there are no other options for groceries essentially when you leave La Paz because it is in the low season and everything is closed, so we shopped like it was the Zombie Apocalypse. The city of La Paz it’s self is not so desirable and traffic really screws you over.

We had a lot of plans, three in fact when we started the day, and we got so fed up after driving around and sitting in lines for hours that we chose none of them and headed straight for the Salar de Uyuni (the famous salt flats of Bolivia).

The city really slowed us down so we knew we wouldn’t make it as far as we wanted but after a lot of km on a flat straight highway we found the perfect camping spot. This was the only place thus far which had a small hill. So we pulled off the side of the road and drove behind it into a little dirt valley. It appeared to be a small cow graveyard with all the horns lieing around but it was perfect. Less wind, less noise and a quiet peaceful night hidden from sight. We stopped with enough time to even make a stew and have it ready to eat while the sun was setting.

Let’s get the f*** out of here

We arrived the following day at the North entrance to the Salar de Uyuni at 1pm. Every town we passed through seemed like a ghost town, and like we had been warned the restaurants and “hotels” were seemingly abandoned because it wasn’t the touristy season yet. Thankfully there was one last gas station that would give us gas before we hit the flats.

Gas negotiable?!

Fun fact, in Bolivia, since they produce their own gasoline and diesel, the locals get it for a steal of a price like Ecuador. However the difference between these two countries is that in Bolivia they charge foreigners 3 times the price for a liter of gas. So this is where the Central/South America style comes in. For locals it is $3.75(Bolivian) per liter and $8.60 (=$1.25USD) for foreigners. In La Paz you have to pay the full amount because it is city and they have a constant demand for gasoline. However, once out leave the city a ways you can start bargaining for gas. Yes we just said you could haggle the price down! In a smaller town we got it down to $7 per liter, and at the last gas stop before the salt flats we got it for $4 (=$0.58) per liter!

Salar de Uyuni

The guy at the gas station did not give us good news about the salt flats, showing us a worrying depth of how flooded it was. Our hopes had been high since some other overlanders had gone a week before us and gave us the deets on where to go. Saying the weather had been good there too as of late so it would probably be drier for us than it had been for them. Well we had to go see with our own eyes. Yup. After 30k on a horrible road we arrive to the salt flats and were amazed but a little disheartened. To get across it is 100km to the city of Uyuni. Driving 100km in this deep of water without anyone else and potentially getting stuck was a no go. So we enjoyed our day walking around in the salty water the North entrance, driving out a little bit and trying to make our own experience of this famous destination.

Camping that night there was fantastic. There was a perfect reflection of the setting sky over the salt flats. We could see from afar the rain slowly coming towards us. A storm was brewing in the mountains. The sky turned orange and thunder and lighting started to fill our view. We laid in the car, hatch open, watching the storm roll across the salar, lightening lighting up the now black sky and reflecting off the water. These nights are my favourite kind, it reminds me of when I was a kid sitting on the porch or going on drives to follow the storm.

Salar de Uyuni East Entrance

The following morning we headed to the much more popular East entrance of the Salar de Uyuni. Here they have the Dakar monument showing where one year the race went right through the Salar. The Darak ralley is the biggest car ralley in the world. It originated in France, driving to the city of Dakar in Africa. However in recent years, due to safety, they moved it to South America. It is an offroad race which goes for hundreds of miles, one Frederik would like to do but our car most definitely couldn’t make it through. They also have a hotel beside it built completely out of salt. This side was much more touristy, as it is close to the city of Uyuni where all the hostals and hotels are. However we didn’t mind it so much. Because of the flooding you cannot see the roads where people drive so here all we had to do was follow the lead of dozens of other Landcruiser headed out packed down with tourists. The first part us deep, almost reaching our hood as we went nose into it. When you emerge through it it is much shallower and a slow, 10km per hour, straight drive to the monument.

As everyone knows salt=rust, and this dense of salty water just expidites the process. So after lunch we made sure to get it cleaned and oiled up. Even the following day we went to a different mechanic we met, took the wheels off and really power washed the breaks after hearing what happened to our friends car.

Almost a Overlanding Convoy

We follow many other overlanders doing the same trip as ours on instagram. This particular couple we saw had had some car troubles, and we were approaching the same city as them, so we offered to help. Well there was nothing we could do so we just grabbed some beers to say hey and meet face to face. As we were in the bar waiting a motorcycle couple we met at the border walked in! It turns out they were meeting them as well, what are the odds. A lot of beers later we all decided that it would be fun, and a good idea because the road is notoriously bad, to convoy together for three days on the backroad route to Chile.

Well, unfortunately for the motorcyclists they discovered it is more a pain than it is worth it, and our other friends (travelbeasts on instagram, they have an amazing profile) needed more time to fix their car as the part only just came the day before. It is hard trying to time up traveling together when everyone is on such different schedules and timelines.

So the following morning Jane and Alex, the bikers, came to meet us at the train graveyard where we camped. We enjoyed a nice coffee all together before the tour groups arrived and we had to say goodbye. There is not much to do in the city of Uyuni but work on your car so we did that for the full day, fixing it up, taking showers at a local bathing room and preparing to take on the lagunas route ourselves.

Lagunas Route, Backroading from Bolivia to Chile

It is a bit of a tactical route in a way because of gas. From Uyuni it is 470km to the first city in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. The last gas station is in San Cristobal, which leaves us with 375km of off roading before we can refuel. Now most people might think that this isn’t a problem, it’s not that far and we have 2 spare 5 gallon containers. Well the trouble is that we get 10 miles per gallon on average, and on narley roads it surley won’t even be that high. As well, this drive goes from 4000m to 5000m above sea level, meaning a lot less oxygen, decreasing our awful fuel efficiency even further.

Anyways we head off, fingers crossed, and ready to take on this famous route. Well, once you leave the city of Uyuni, the nice paved panamerican highway essentially stops. You’re left with a car crushing washboard road from the next 475km. We can either go as slow as a snail to save the car and not feel the hurt, or drive over 60 miles an hour. So like every other landcruiser packed down with tourist passengers we took off flying.

The day before we had heard horror stories of this route, a local mechanic, originally from England making it sound like the death of our car. Fortunately, we didn’t come out with to many problems that we know of currently, just a few broken wires and the bottom of the side panel which we will need re-welded.

There is no official road, occasionally there are sections where you can see several more cars have driven on, creating a worn path, and even sometimes they have a grater go through to lessen the now deep washboard. Either way there is typically a more well pronounced path, then hundreds beside it going off in every direction possible. We went on and off the path, blazing through the wide open valleys lined with snow topped mountains. The Darak Ralley monument and stories had given us off road inspiration so we were driving accordingly.

Our first camp site was on the edge of a baby blue lagoon, filled with flamingos. We drove around trying to find the perfrct spot, ending up hiding behind a big hill to get as much wind coverage as there is possible out here on the high flat aliplano. As Frederik was fixing our lights I made curry and we both instantly frozen when the sun went behind the mountain, but the sunset sure was beautiful.

It is amazing as you pass mountain after mountain how you become so use to it so fast. We stopped off at a few places for rock climbing, amazing pictures amd colourful lagoons, one to note especially was lagon Colorado. It is a pink-orange colour from above with hundreds of flamingos blending in an bathing.

However we ended up going through the route faster than anticipated because we just loved the drive. There was a particular spot where we raced from flat dirt planes through a sandy canyon, up over rocks and along side sanddunes. It felt like a scene from the movie Mad Max. Of course the occasional time I decide to drive it turns out to be the best time! So typical says Frederik.

We arrived at a group of geysers, walking around, taking in the scenery and sulpher before finding a spot near by for the night. The geyser field is named the morning sun so we figured with a name like that we should stick around.

Well we ended up, after driving around parking then leaving again, on the top of a hill, the windyest place out of everywhere we could have chosen! It did have a beautiful view of the sunset and sunrise however it isn’t ideal to camp in spots like this because you’re hiding in your car the whole time rather than taking advantage of the beautiful area.

Our camp site had a view of the valley below but it came with a price of being above 5000m. This was only the 2nd time we had been over 5000m, and even though for the last 2 weeks we had been living over 4000m, we still felt the effects greatly that night and had a very hard time warming up or even falling asleep.

Last day in Bolivia, how do we leave legally!?

After watching the sunrise and seeing the giant stack of steam emerge from the geyser pit we spent the remainder of our morning relaxing down the road, at a little known hot spring. There is a bigger, deeper one down the road but that one costs money and is filled with others.

Here we had it all to ourselves to warm our lower bodies, drink tea and coffee and enjoy the perfectly still lagoon. It was so peaceful. Until we remembered down the road that there was something particularly tricky about this border crossing.

Yes, it was that the aduana where we make sure our car permit is terminated is behind us 28km at the power plant rather than at the border with the immigration. But was it!? On our iOverlander app there is a lot of information about this crossing in particular and it seemed like every other post people were contradicting eachother saying where the aduana was really open, at the border or power plant. It is a risky thing because gas does not exist out here, you only have what you brought with you. But we didn’t want to ruin our chances if we ever wanted to come back to Bolivia, so we headed to the aduana, 56km deroute as it was better than being turned back at the border and doing a 160km detour, for a 5 mintue process.

Right before the border we took a tour of the white lagoon and greeb lagoon befote heading across. At this tiny shack we recieved out exit stamps, i lifted up the gate as the guard couldn’t be bothered and we were out. But wait what was this!? Right as we crossed the border there was suddenly pavement!? Dang Chile is really trying to send a message and make an impression for the differences to come.

Till next time.

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