Bolivia 1 – The Southern Altiplano – Villazon to Uyuni


Capital – La Paz                     Currency – Boliviano / Peso                    Language – Spanish + 30 indigenous languages

19th February 2013 – After the Argentine border town of La Quiaca we reach an unsmiling Aduana on the Bolivian side.  He doesn’t want to deal with our papers at the window, repeats something in Spanish far to quickly for us to understand  and points to the door,but when we enter the room he is most indignant, shoos us outside and bangs on the wall to show that we must wait here.  And so we wait patiently, even knock politely but no response, until he opens the door and disappears down the street. He had no intention of dealing with us.  The new woman who eventually appears, finally deals with our papers after lots of huffs and puffs.  Not a good start with Bolivian officials and we hope that other people are more amenable and yes they are….once we have this all important vehicle document, it takes just 1 minute to get it stamped by two smiling officers at the busy Bolivian frontier town of Villazon.  A long street lined with colourful stalls and convenient money changers, but Bolivia looks poor after Argentina.

We are in the Southern Altiplano of Bolivia that stretches south of La Paz to the Chilean and Argentinian borders at an average 3700m.  No sooner are we out on the tarmac heading for Tupiza approx. 90km away, than we are stopped twice for toll money at little huts at the side of the road.  Tickets are clipped to our vehicle document and have to be shown and checked at the next hut and so on.  We presume this only happens on tarmac roads.  Not a lot to see in Tupiza, mainly hostels and tour operators, so we have our toll tickets checked yet again and turn off the tarmac on to a dirt road that will take us some 200km to Uyuni  and its famous Salar, by far the largest salt lake in the world.

But first we must find somewhere to camp for the night, as no campsites around here.  We see another track to our left winding its way toward red rock formations in a cactus-strewn, desert landscape…. our first bush camping in Bolivia.

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The sky begins to look very stormy but we have a peaceful night.

20th February – We spend about an hour exploring our dramatic surroundings, discovering many little plants and a few cactus still in flower.

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Back on the dirt road to Uyuni, it doesn’t take long for the track to deteriorate quite badly although the scenery  is still spectacular, with views of snow-capped Cholorque at 5614m.

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We are soon over 4000m and having to find safe places to pull over to allow lorries, coaches and other 4×4 vehicles to pass.  This area has obviously had some rain recently as brown water is flowing in some of the rivers.

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We stop at Atocha for water and after a long search, find some bread.  We are amazed to see a huge train stationary in the town and from now on our route will follow the railway line.  The dirt roads are water logged, people picking their way through the mud, struggling with handcarts and their heavy loads, life looks hard here.

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North of Atocha the road at times is appalling, mud, water, deep corrugations and large ares of road breaking away.  We cross one large river and climb the steep mud bank out, smaller rivers also need crossing.  The sky looks incredibly stormy but the rain keeps away which is just as well as we are now amongst flat, swampy ground with water shining to the horizon.  A concrete bridge has collapsed in the centre, so we drive down it, through the water and up the other side. Bill and Moby have done marvels with the conditions along the entire length of this 200km dirt road.  Getting around in Bolivia can often be a challenge, as outside of towns most roads are unpaved and in poor condition, particularly in the rainy season which we are presently in.

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We can’t see anywhere to pull off and camp until a few km outside of Uyuni, where a track to our right takes us over the railway line and into what appears to be a small quarry.  Lightning is continually lighting up the sky in front of us and at 3680m we have a beautiful view across flat plains, followed by a beautiful sunset.

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What amazing scenery we have shared along this 200km dirt road……’painted’ mountains and rocks, spectacular eroded shapes, a snow-clad conical peak, green valleys full of crops, mud brick and thatch settlements and arid desert areas, where still many plants are in flower, having adapted to the climate and altitude.

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                                                 There are more photos of this stunning route on Bolivia – Photos.

21st February – Daylight reveals the views we have in front of us at our camping place approx. 8km outside of Uyuni.

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We drive into town, the dirt road on its outskirts, sadly lined with plastic and other rubbish.  However, once in the main town itself, it is a busy and colourful place with the main streets lined with market stalls selling everything you could want.  There is a leafy Plaza and the 19th century clock tower, is a landmark for the busy centre.  Uyuni also has an attractive railway station and the huge locomotive with its carriages passes through the streets amidst much hooting.  Amazing that it travels on only narrow gauge railway line all the way from Tupiza to Uyuni.

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We find an ATM machine and can withdraw some cash…….excellent, as it was not possible to do this in Atocha.  I find a row of fruit and vegetable stalls run by local ladies and stock up and we fill up with diesel and water at the garage at the southern end of town.

The Tourist Office informs us, that due to the recent heavy rains, only a small part of the Salar de Uyuni is open to vehicles. We did know that between December and April, the surface  of this huge salt lake is mostly covered in water, rather than the thick, hard crust of salt that is capable of supporting the weight of a vehicle, but this news is still disappointing.  The dirt road out to the Salar itself is in a terrible condition, with pot holes full of water and deep corrugations……..

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but the Salar is still fascinating, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and islands floating like a mirage in the water, which melts into the horizon.

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Plenty of Auto Lavado places in the southern part of town to jet wash the salt and mud, followed by a grease and all for only 60 peso (£6)!

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Minuteman Pizza near the Army Barracks in town, can certainly be recommended for its relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and excellent pizzas, which are served with a buffet salad.   Before returning to our camping place outside of town, we visit the Cementero de Trenes, an incredibly interesting place, where the relics of huge, rusting trains, are lined up out in the flat desert just outside of town. they must have been a wonderful sight in their heyday.

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22nd February – As we leave Uyuni we stop at a mirador and have an excellent view of the town spread out below us over the flat plain, with the Salar in the far distance.

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We go northeast toward Potosi, another 208km.  A wonderful tarmac road for a change and so tolls have to be paid.  Spectacular scenery still on this route at around 3800m.

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Seeing the conical peak of Cerro Rico (‘Rich Mountain’) glowing orange in the sun, we know that we have reached Potosi at almost 4100m – the highest city in the world but one with a tragic place in history.

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Once in the city centre, the roads, congested with traffic and people and full of fumes, lead us higher and higher, enabling us to have amazing views of the city below and glimpses of some interesting buildings and churches.

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The answer for this huge city ever being built here, lies with Cerro Rico – discovered to be the richest source of silver that the world had ever seen.  The story behind the silver rush which started in 1545, began when a llama herder lit a fire on the mountain one night.  He was amazed to see molten silver emerge from his blaze.  Once the Spaniards heard of this discovery, the silver rush began and Potosi soon developed into a booming city.  However, the indigenous workers and African slaves suffered terribly from the apalling working conditions in the mines.  Figures estimate that it is possible that as many as 9 million may have died over 3 centuries of mining.

Today Cerro Rico can be seen to be marked with the many entrances of mines that lead deep into its centre.  It is possible to visit these mines with a tour operator but it is said to be an unpleasant and dangerous environment to enter.

We are glad to leave the steep maze of Potosi’s grim, traffic-jammed streets, the rubbish and the many stray dogs always searching for food.  Ruta 5 takes us out of Potosi and toward Sucre and the Central Valleys, to the east of the Altiplano.

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One Response to Bolivia 1 – The Southern Altiplano – Villazon to Uyuni

  1. inkydogpress says:

    very interesting post… what terrible conditions the roads are in … well done to dad and moby for navigating them indiana jones style… xxx

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