Roughing It in South Bolivia


In Paraguay we got spoiled by its smooth tarred roads but once we cross the border into south Bolivia the party is over. Or is about to start, depending on how you look at it. After all the asphalted roads we drove during the last six months, we had almost forgotten that there are places on this planet where you may need ten hours to cover 250 kilometers. In Bolivia we are reminded of this very quickly.

The 1000 kilometers to Uyuni consist of battling sand, washboard and tons of dust. Sometimes we try to speed up to 60 kms per hour in order to drive on top of the rims, thus shaking and bumping less, but this creates such a terrible noise that in order to communicate we have to yell to each other.

Table Football Games on Tarija’s Pavements

We need two days to get to Tarija. It is an easy city to navigate – the one who is the first to honk its horn on a crossing has right of way – and the large number of shady trees give the town a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Children play table football games on pavements while their parents are shopping. Women sit behind stalls from which they sell sweets, handicrafts or food & drinks. They

Women sit behind stalls from which they sell sweets, handicrafts or food & drinks. They wear short, pleated skirts, and underneath their typical black bowler hats two long black braids, decorated with ribbons, come down to their hips.

The next morning, Tarija is shut down. We are told about the Bolivian mentality to seize every opportunity to close down their businesses: to demonstrate, to strike, to celebrate, to drink, to have processions – whatever. We’re lucky that some of the workshops near the outskirts of Tarija are open so we can buy the parts we need for maintenance.

Hit by a Dust Storm

As soon as we leave Tarija we close our windows in order to keep out the dust. But the sun is burning and the one sitting on the side where the sun is shining sweating profusely. Opening a window means getting covered in dust. You can’t have it all.

All of a sudden the sky turns gray: a heavy dust storm takes over the pretty scenery with some of the gustiest and most forceful winds we have ever encountered on our journey. Sand and dust obliterate the sun and find every possible hole or crack to penetrate our Land Cruiser. By the end of the day we, and everything in the car, are covered with a thick coating of dust.

When the sky clears we can admire the desolate, mountainous surroundings again, which are rough with vegetation mostly consisting of low scrub and huge cacti. From 4,000-meter passes we look down on adobe villages, most of which are deserted. Others have fallen into ruins.

In lagoons flamingos are scratching the soil for tiny organisms and a couple of cows are quenching their thirst. Sometimes we see llamas roaming the countryside. They have pink pieces of cloth tied into the wool of their manes, denoting ownership.

A Marathon Day and Altitude Problems

We suffer the effects of high altitude: Lips and skin are drying out, Coen has a sore throat and we both get a headache. The sudden change in altitude also causes a continuous urgent need to pee. It’s a tough day and we’re glad to reach Tupiza.

We camp in a street and have a good meal with chicken and French fries at one of the local restaurants with plastic chairs and lit by tube lights. Not only the dogs prowl around in the hope for some food to be thrown at them but as soon as guests leave their table young kids in ragged clothes run to the table to drink unfinished bottles of coke and hide leftover chicken bones under their shirts.

The stretch from Tupiza to Uyuni is another marathon day on the road. At the exit of Tupiza we are about to take the wrong road when the employee at the tollgate yells after us to turn left. Thus far we haven’t seen any road signs in Bolivia. According to the locals there is only one road to Uyuni.

We don’t doubt this, but there are plenty of roads to choose from and without road signs and without being familiar with the surroundings, it isn’t always obvious which one is this “only road” to Uyuni. So we try, and ask, and hope for the best. We often find a confusing “Y” where both roads have the same hierarchy, where it is a matter of instinct and luck to choose the right one.

Turn Left? Turn Right?

One time we approach two men to ask for directions. One stands next to my window and the other next to Coen’s. We both ask for directions.”So we have to go right”, I say to Coen.

“So we have to go right”, I say to Coen.”No, this man said we have to go left”, Coen answers.

“No, this man said we have to go left”, Coen answers.

We ask again.

No clear answer.

Through trial and error we find an exit of the town. It leads into a dry river which is apparently the right road to follow. We’re having fun. This is about adventure, about enjoying the unknown, about meeting helpful people (even though we often don’t understand their heavily accented Spanish). We have fallen in love with the beauty of the barren and rough landscape of southern Bolivia. I can’t imagine living here, but traveling here is fantastic.

 At Last: Uyuni

During the last stretch, sand has piled up on the road, creating good-sized dunes varying from two to thirty meters in length. In four-wheel mode and with enough momentum we don’t have any problems tackling them. Sand dunes alternate with washboard. We follow a local and drive off the main road and twist and turn around the scrubs while following one of the many alternate tracks. By the time we reach Uyuni we’re exhausted. Time to find a shower and place to camp, and – later on – a place to get some work done on the Land Cruiser.

Contrary to Brazilians, Bolivians are not happy to let us use a corner of their parking lot for nothing. “Just take a room”, they say. “If I allow you to camp here free of charge, many others will follow”. We succeed in parking in front of a hotel, where we can indeed use the hot shower for a fee. With the sun out it’s nice and cozy but as soon as the sun is gone the temperature drops drastically. It’s time to stock up on woollies to beat the cold evenings.

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

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