The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical

Getting High and Not Dying in Bolivia – Part 1
May 22, 2010, 9:21 pm
Filed under: Bolivia

After two months in Argentina I finally bid it adios and headed north to Bolivia, a country about which I knew little and had few expectations, but which soon proved to be fascinating and wonderful.

Crossing the border into Bolvia

Among its most immediate charms are the women (and, less often, men) dressed in traditional clothing, complete with llama-wool leg warmers, pleated skirts, sweaters, throws, and bowler hats – no matter how cold or how hot the day, the dress was always the same.  Nearly 60% of the population identifies itself as indigenous, making Bolivia immediately and palpably different than Argentina, which itself feels much more European.  Another charm:  Bolivia is very cheap, so is an excellent place to be a traveler and climber.  Whereas a 15-hour bus ride in Argentina might cost 80 USD, the same ride in Bolivia cost 10 bucks or less.

I traveled into Bolivia with four others that I had hung out with in Cafayate, Argentina – Chrissy, Silvia, Susan, and John – as well as two British girls I had met weeks earlier in El Bolson – Emilie and Sara – and their Dutch friend, Hanneke.  Our first stop was Tupiza, in southern Bolivia, a few hours’ ride along a dusty, bumpy road from the border.


Tupiza is a hot, sleepy town in the middle of gorgeous red-stained mountains and cliffs. The second day there we went horseback riding around the quebrada and saw the most incredible red rock formations – the looked like massive stalactites.  My horse was a competitive bugger and every time another horse would gallop ahead, he’d race and try to cut it off.  After riding horses twice here in South America, I have concluded that it’s fun – for about 15 minutes.

Headed out into the quebrada

Our guide and his donkey

The main reason we stopped in Tupiza was to do a four-day Jeep tour of southwest Bolivia, from Tupiza to Uyuni.  The highlight of the trip would be a day on the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, at 4,086 square miles. I was a bit skeptical at first of spending four days in a car – not exactly an adrenaline rush – but the trip proved to be a highlight of my time in S. America so far, in large part because of our awesome group.  The eight of us — Chrissy, Sylvia, John, Susan, Emilie, Sarah, Hanneke and I — piled into two Jeeps, each with a driver and cook, loaded our bags on top, and headed out into the high desert that makes up Bolivia’s southwestern flanks.  The first day we spent driving up, up, up into the alitplano, a high desert-like plateau, at about 4000m/13,000ft, and enjoyed an excellent lunch of dried llama jerky, salad, corn, potatoes and fruit prepared by our skilled cooks.  Perhaps the best part of the meal was the super hot fresh salsa they provided – the first spicy dish in months, as Argentina has an allergy or something to anything spicy.

The eight of us, very high

Interesting rock formations as we head up into the altiplano

We spent the first night in a tiny town, population 250, hours from anywhere, and standing tall at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  Fortunately we had bags of coca leaves to munch on (well, masticate and suck on) to combat the effects of the altitude.  That night I spent well over an hour just laying outside being blown away by the incredible number of stars visible.  I had never seen anything like it – billions and billions and billions, so clearly visible thanks to the high altitude and complete lack of light pollution.  It was very nearly overwhelming.

Stopping for the night

San Antonio de Lipez, pop. 250

The next day we woke up at some illegal hour, like 5am or something, to get an early start on a long day.  We visited a number of sights – lakes and lagoons (often full of extractable minerals), small salt flats, volcanic geysers at 5000m/16,4000ft above sea level, rock formations of petrified lava, and an abandoned gold mining town.  But the highlight of the day was a stop at a natural hot springs for a swim and lunch – that, and drinking a couple of bottles of rum with the others that night and having some laughs (drinking at altitude makes everybody a cheap drunk).

Kicking back in the hot springs

The long and dusty road through the antiplano

Bolivia's beauty

The next day was surprisingly hangover free and we continued our drive north, passing by more lakes – red and full of flamingoes – and incredible painted landscapes with bizarre rock formations.  We spent the night on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni in a hotel made entirely of salt and enjoyed a drunken game of cards with out drivers.

Packing up and getting going on day three

Laguna Colorado full of flamingoes

Having coca tea in the salt hotel

Finally, the fourth day, we woke up early again to make it out onto the salt flats for sunrise.

Sunrise on the Salar

It was gorgeous.  And cold.  The Salar de Uyuni is immense and stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction.  It contains something like 60% of the world’s lithium reserves and locals harvest its salt in small plots. Incredibly flat, the average altitude variation is only one meter over the entire area of the Salar.  After marveling at all this, we spent the afternoon walking around a small island dotted with centuries old cacti, and then taking the obligatory “photos locos” on the Salar before being dropped of in Uyuni.

Las chicas

Detail of the Salar

On the Isla del Pescado with Emilie and Hanneke

Our cooks were giants...

Disproving the notion that you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose

Salt being harvested

In Uyuni our group split, some heading to Potosi, others to Sucre, and I to La Paz via overnight bus.  Arriving in the morning and seeing La Paz for the first time was amazing.  It’s a big, chaotic city that comes tumbling down some seriously steep mountainsides into a small valley, with immense Illimani mountain (6,438m/21,122ft) standing like a sentinel over the city.

La Paz, the world's highest capital at 11,943 feet, with Illimani in the distance

Downtown La Paz

The first order of business in La Paz was cycling down what the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed The World’s Most Dangerous Road, and which is known in town simply as El Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road.  This two-way dirt road descends over 12,000 feet over about 38 miles, in most places is no wider than 10 feet, and despite miles and miles of sheer drops of over 1000 feet, there are only about 20 feet of guardrails along its entire length.

Performing a safety ritual before departing: pouring pure grain alcohol on the bike's tire..

... and touching it to the lips before departing

World's Most Dangerous Road

For years – before a new, paved road was built in 2006, but which regularly closes due to mudslides – there were on average close to 300 deaths a year on this road.  While Death Road is no longer as heavily used by motor vehicles, it’s popular with bicyclists as it’s almost all downhill and is totally rad.  But it’s still very dangerous:  an Israeli girl died, biking of the edge, four days before I went.

The remains of a truck the plummeted off the edge

Crosses commemorating those motorists and bicyclists who took the plunge

My group made it down safely. We ended to ride in a jungle town called Corico (strange starting in the mountains and ending in a jungle) and spent a few hours at an animal refuge playing with monkeys and other animals before returning to La Paz.  Despite having to ride on the outside of the road, closest to the massive drops (vehicles drive on the left side of this road so the downhill driver can stick his head out the window and check to see how close his wheels are to the cliff edge), the scariest part was driving back up Death Road in the van.  Almost as scary is when I hit a rock on the downhill and came close to losing control on a turn where there was a 1000 foot drop, having to put my foot down to regain control.  The dude riding behind me told me I scared the s*** out of him.  Imagine how I felt!

One particularly gnarly turn


The bus/support vehicle. The driver was a former rally car driver - no joke

Monkeys at the animal sanctuary


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great story.
Great photos (the ‘photos locos’ are some of the best I’ve seen of the genre.)
Great vacation (I hope).
And yes–unbelievably awesome nation and people.
Fortunately, you obviously hooked up with a great group of others who enjoyed each other enormously, and you hired good people to guide you and help keep you from inadvertently doing something spectacularly stupid. (Speaking of “stupid”, one of the aspects of Bolivia I greatly appreciate is how free it is, including the freedom to do something even tragically stupid if you so choose. Living there includes the expectation of at least a modicum of intelligence and self-awareness to survive (including not driving beyond ones abilities, or walking/biking off a cliff).)
Personally, I have never felt as ‘comfortable’ in any other nation I have lived/visited, including my increasingly restrictive own. (Some day, I hope to move there.)
Fortunately, you skimmed the cream from the milk, but only got half of it into this article.
I hope you will treat us with more.

Comment by locojhon

unbelievably beautiful photographs!! what a country! I can’t wait to go there Andrew.

Comment by Brittany Myers

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