We looked at our Land Cruiser with a sinking feeling.
It had plowed into the soft sand and saltpan, and lay on its side at the end of the furrow. Food, gas, cooking utensils and other supplies were strewn across the ground near the 100-metre-long scar our vehicle has etched in the landscape. Six of us just crawled out through the hole left by our missing windshield; the only usable exit point. Something dripped ominously from the hood and my wife and our French friend were about to be taken to a medical clinic for X-rays.
We were on the Chilean Salt Flat in Bolivia, a few kilometers east of the Chilean border. It had taken considerable time and effort to get to this amazing area and now we were banged up and marooned until help arrived.
Though it had been spectacular, our time in Bolivia had also been full of problem-solving and rescheduling. We had been in the country for two weeks. My wife and I were nearing the end of our eight-month trip trip through Central and South America and Bolivia was setting new standards for adventure. We had gotten used to the thin air and all the uphill walking. The Andean region of Bolivia is high enough that many of the planet’s highest towns and cities are found here.
We managed to avoid all of the notorious pickpockets and con artists in La Paz. Instead, “Cholitas” wrestlers had entertained us — male and female wrestlers in masks or traditional costumes beat the stuffing out of each other in a wrestling ring while the crowd threw anything from popcorn to full water bottles at the combatants.
We took a day-trip from La Paz to the infamous “Death Road” where we spent a day biking 63 km on a stretch of road that killed almost one person per day when it was the only way to carry goods between Bolivia and their Brazilian neighbors. Today, it is still used by motor vehicles but it is a well-established stop in Bolivia for adrenaline junkies who want to fly down the narrow twisting roads on mountain bikes. Though there are still fatalities, they are not common. The day we travelled the “Most Dangerous Road in the World” there were 400 bikers from a number of different tour companies and no more than a couple of skinned knees were reported. The only fatality was a small python that my wife ran over as we careened down a particularly steep section with a cliff edge on one side and a wall of jungle on the other. It was a fabulous day with spectacular views and wonderful camaraderie among the people on the trail.
Leaving La Paz for southern Bolivia was problematic. A miners’ strike in the south had led to public protests and miners were blockading highways and halting all traffic. Clashes between protesters and police had become violent and a few people had been killed. Public support was on the miners’ side and protests and highway blockades were spreading across the country. This forced us to fly from La Paz to the beautiful colonial city of Sucre. From Sucre we wanted to head further south to The Solar Uyuni; a spectacular area of the high Atacama near the Chilean border where one- to four-day trips take visitors out to salt flats and mineral lakes full of flamingoes and brackish water tinted various colours from various trace minerals. It is an astonishing and surreal landscape and a must-visit place for anyone who comes to South America. Our only problem was the roads between Sucre and the Solar Uyuni were closed by blockades.
Our solution was to rent a car with some French friends and drive around the blockaded highway by using bumpy sand roads, goat paths and creaking, wooden bridges that spanned raging glacial-fed rivers. One long day, two flat tires and several bone-jarring kilometres later, we arrived in the southern outpost town of Tupiza. It wasn't the most logical place to access the Solar Uyuni but we had to make do under the circumstances.
I love Tupiza. It is a town set in a pretty valley surrounded by orange and purple rock cliffs, cactus and shocking blue sky. The area is famous because it is near the spot Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand before being gunned down by the Bolivian military for robbing a local bank. After a couple days hiking the local hills and canyons, my wife and I joined our French friends for a four-day, three-night visit to the Solar Uyuni and Eduardo Avaroa National Park.
Because we were accessing the area from Tupiza rather than a more immediate location, our first day involved a lot of driving. The climbs and descents around hairpin turns at shocking speed put us in mind of our earlier time on The Death Road. Domesticated alpacas, wild vicunas and sheep added a splash of life to the stark yet spectacular scenery.
We found ourselves surrounded by volcanoes and bizarre rock formations and made small by the Andean peaks that hemmed us in. We were on our way to our third-night’s stop at one of the many accommodations built of salt blocks when the accident occurred. Recent rain had left the dry bed of an old, salt lake crusty on top but slick underneath. Our driver was travelling the same speed as the other SUV drivers on the flat pan that acts as a highway in the area. We had already fishtailed a couple of times on the slick surface when we went into a full on skid that toppled us onto the passenger side when we hit some ruts.
After a few minutes of panic and apologies from our driver, we found ourselves waiting for another vehicle to stop and give us a hand. Since it is such a popular area, it wasn’t long before three vehicles full of travellers came to our rescue. One vehicle took my wife and our French friend Francoise for X-rays at a nearby clinic. After a couple of failed attempts to pull our vehicle back onto its wheels with straps, we simple pushed it over with our abundant manpower. Unbelievably, the vehicle started right up and the spider-webbed but intact windshield was re-installed. It was held in place by a pair of shoelaces donated by a traveller from another SUV.
Our French companions left us and flew home a couple days later. Francoise had a broken and very painful rib so they cut their journey short and returned to France. Bruised and battered, my wife and I finished the final day of our trip on the salt flat at the amazing “Isla Incahuasi.” It is an island of cactus in a sea of stunning white salt. We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were surrounded by a four-inch crust of salt on top of saline water and not by a sea of ice.
By the time we got back to Tupiza, the miners’ strike had been settled. We went on to nearby Tarija where we visited vineyards in the small but impressive Bolivian wine region just a stone’s throw from the Argentinian border. We stopped in the once-rich mining town of Potosi famous for being one of the two or three highest settlements on the planet. We visited a working mine where local boys and men risk their lives every day chasing ever-shrinking deposits of ore in barbaric and dangerous conditions.
We concluded our time in Bolivia on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the massive highland lake that is the Garden of Eden of Incan civilization. We toured the impossibly blue lake from the tourist town of Copa Cabana. A three-hour boat ride took us to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) where we spent a night punctuated by an astonishing electrical storm followed by a day of hiking past Incan ruins as we laboured from one end of the island to the other.
Our final images of Bolivia were seen through the windows of the bus that took us from Copa Cabana across the border into Peru. We had spent a month in an exciting and vibrant country with so much to offer that we didn’t even take advantage of all the opportunities. The Bolivian Amazon — an opportunity missed. Our only other regret was that we had waited so late in life to tackle the adrenaline-rich country of Bolivia. At 48 and 52 my wife and I were stiff and sore from our action-packed visit. Ah well, we would have a few days to rest up in Cuzco before our four-day hike to Machu Pichu.