Journal 13 - December 13, 2002

Long Winded Bolivia » Go Back

Journal 13
La Paz is a fantastic city. Settled into a valley that lies 3632 meters in the Bolivian Andes, the place is fascinating. To the west lie 6000 meter plus snow-capped peaks that loom over the city like a canvas. Each evening the sunset paints its nightly masterpiece, provided there are no clouds. The city's infrastructure climbs up the surrounding valley walls like a spreading weed. Unstoppable as the population of the city grows, the valley will soon overspill into who knows where.

My first visit to La Paz was short, too short. I spent less than 48 hours getting situated, checking tour companies, catching my breath, and getting oriented. From La Paz there are two options to get to Uyuni, a multi-bus trip, or a combo train and bus journey. Because I was in a hurry to get to Uyuni I opted for the bus, this against the recommendation of every traveler I had met. I figured I could take it, already during my time in South America I have experienced some awful bus rides. Little did I know that the bus I'd be riding in would traverse Baja 500-like terrain. The bus itself was decrepit, more so than the usual Bolivian bus, which is a step down from the Peruvian buses, which is a couple of steps down from the Chilean busses. When you take the bus in Bolivia you can buy your ticket at the terminal, this seems very normal to anyone from the U.S. This guarantees you will get a seat. However, once the bus leaves the terminal it heads across the street to pick up a new group of non-ticket carrying passengers that pay to stand in the isle with their butts in your face.

During the Bolivia-500 I think I managed about 15 seconds of actual sleep, this during one of the few moments my head wasn't bouncing off the back of my seat like a Kobe Bryant double dribble. Ten hours, and ten thousand dribbles later we arrived in Uyuni. Not much to speak of as a city, but Uyuni is the starting off point for one of the highlight tours of South America. The Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, and one of the world's natural wonders. Some say the Salar tour is not only their highlight for Bolivia, but for all of South America. Pretty high praise for this continent.

In Uyuni I booked the typical four-day tour in a Toyota Land Cruiser, very cool. Nine people in a Land Cruiser, not cool. Out of respect for the elders in the group I jumped in the back seat with a cool Canadian dude and an Australian bloke. Let's just say that the third row of the Land Cruiser wasn't exactly first class on Delta Airlines. And plenty more dribbles, this time my head was bouncing off the top of the Cruiser. I didn't care though, I was so happy to finally be riding in a Land Cruiser, I was like a little kid riding on a fire engine. Given the opportunity to do it again, I would ten times. The trip was fantastic, and of the world's three largest salt flats, this one is by far the most spectacular.

As far as I could see in every direction was an ocean of French fry topping. In some directions the horizon disappeared into a white blur. In other directions were huge volcanoes reduced to ant hills in the distance of the Salar. Squinting as we drove, even with sunglasses, we crossed the blanco sea. Eventually we landed on Isla del Pescado, a cactus covered island in the middle of the salt sea. Surrounded by miles of salt, the island sports Shaquille O'Neal-sized cactus and a plethora of other living species. The island was incredible; in every direction for miles was the dead, salt sea, this in contrast to the cacti, butterflies, and other living species on the island.

After the island we visited el Cueva del Diablo, a pre-Inca archeological site long ago raided of its treasures and mummies, but fantastic nonetheless. From the cave we drove, for days and miles along the Salt Desert of Uyuni. This was wonderful. The oldsters on the tour eventually realized that the long legs of the youngsters in the back needed to stretch, so we began taking shifts in the middle seat, much to my aching bum's relief. The drive through the desert was amazing. This was the first time in my South American driving experience that I'd been treated to daylight travel. Most long-distance busses travel at night, which means travelers miss out on the scenery. This was not the case during the Salar tour, which had magnificent scenery. For two days we passed volcanoes, flamingos, red lagoons (the red water in the pictures is not pollution, it's a mineral reaction in the lagoon that gives it a crimson tint), green lagoons, white lagoons, more flamingos, more volcanoes, more 6000-plus meter peaks, rock formations, rock trees, rocks, dirt, salt.

Given the opportunity on day three to sleep in a small pueblo in the desert, or pay $2.50 for a ride back to Uyuni to catch the train that night, thus avoiding basket-head ride on the bus, the choice was easy. Back in Uyuni at 9:00p, I got a ticket for the 1:30am train.$1.50 for a room and shower until the train left had me clean as a train whistle and ready for the slow, steady ride back to La Paz.

Once back I booked the infamous La Paz mountain bike trip. Like the ultimate bed post notch, travelers discuss this ride across the continent. "Have you done the death ride?" "La Paz, did you do the bike ride?" Known as the world's most dangerous road, the ride from La Cumbre to Coroico drops an impressive 3500 meters in 65 kilometers, or approximately 40 miles and 11,800ft. According to various sources, 12-24 busses a year drop off the road, which was dubbed the most dangerous road in the world by an insurance company doing research there for obvious reasons. Imagine your rates if you live in this valley.

At first I wasn't impressed, or scared, the beginning was paved and very wide, and the 1000 ft. drops were protected by guard rails. Eventually though the guard rails disappeared only to be replaced by memorial crosses, like a picked fence they border the edge of the road where busses and vehicles have fallen off. The edge is so shear at some points that I was nervous just standing there. The ride offered more than just fear though, plenty of breathtaking landscape. Huge waterfalls (pictures will be great), and the decent from the Andes into the jungle meant a tremendous variation of plants, animals, and temperature. This marked my fist foray into the tropic lowlands. Not only could I feel it in the air, but I could hear it in the buzzing insects.

After the ride we made our way back up the road in a Land Cruiser, this was more frightening for me than the ride. Something about having my fate in the hands of a cocoa-leaf chewing Bolivian made me a little nervous. Although I would have been more nervous if he wasn't chewing cocoa, wouldn't want him to fall asleep like the driver of the bus they showed us the wreckage of.

Back in La Paz for a day to book a jungle tour to swim with pink dolphins and piranhas.

I hope you're all doing well.

Justin