The South-Bolivian Adventure

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October 2nd 2007
Published: November 16th 2007
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Where In The World Are We?

On all that we’ve gone through the past 2 weeks we could probably easily write a 100-page novel - not quite fitting for this little blog. However, writing just a short paragraph or two would not do justice in describing this final journey - the climax of our year-long escapade, perhaps. So, we’ve deviated from the usual format for this blog entry, and instead are going to put down some summarized extracts from our personal diaries.

Day 1 - Too Easy!

We arrive in Uyuni, a remote town of 10 000 people nearby the world’s largest salt plane, to investigate the possibility of an off-road trip in the beautiful south of Bolivia, but first we need to get the car revised and look for a guide who knows the region. As we check in to a cheap hostel, we notice something interesting happening next door - there is a man working on an old Toyota 4x4. “Well, that was easy” is what we think, never having imagined it would be this simple finding a Toyota mechanic out here. We kneel down beside him and get chatting. At one point we ask whether he knows a good guide of the area. He responds that he works as a guide for the hostel’s agency and this is his car that he is servicing. “Brilliant! A mechanic and a guide - what a great combination for this trip”. Well, could he be our guide, we ask naturally. He responds that unfortunately he is taking some time off from work to go to Villazon, a town on the border of Argentina, to sort some things out. So we offer to drop him off in Villazon if we can take the long way and pass through all the beautiful sites in the area first and then continue on to Villazon, where we would drop him off. He thinks about it…and then says “Sure, why not!”

Day 2 - Preparation is Key

Today is the weekly “feria” and the entire main road of the town is end-to-end covered with the stalls of traditional women from the town and surrounding areas, who are selling food, clothes, llama meat, fake Canon cameras, live baby chicks, miracle all-disease-curing potions, and everything else under the sun. Some of the items on our shopping list: woollen underwear; alpaca jerseys, beanies and scarfs; 5 x 20litre plastic canisters; 60 litres of
The Machine The Machine The Machine

Lib smiling at the back. Don Viktor snoring in the front.
mineral water; 50 bread rolls; spaghetti; and tuna…lots of tuna.
We also take the car to a friend of the guide to get it checked out. All is good. We ask about the engine support on the right side, which only has 3 out of its 4 screws, since we’ve had problems with this before. The mechanic assures us that 3 is plenty, and besides that, the 4th hole is messed, so fixing it would require removing the entire engine, which would cost lots of time and money.

Day 3 - White Hangover

11am and the guide still hasn’t arrived. The jeep is all loaded up and ready to go, but we are starting to lose hope on the guide pitching up. Just then he rocks up, wearing very dark glasses and very nonchalant. Next, he goes in to the hostel, starts returning things like car-keys, and saying goodbyes to everyone as if this is the last time he will see them. Once we finally get him alone, we ask what’s going on and why he is bidding everyone farewell like that. With chokingly foul alcohol breath, he replies that he is done working here. Whether he is leaving by choice or not is still unclear. Well, it’s getting late, so we load his stuff and then him into the car and hit the road.
The Salar de Uyuni really is something special. Soon after we leave the salt-miners on the edge of the salar, all we can see is blinding white, in every direction, and as far as the eye can see. Even sooner, Don Viktor, our guide (supposedly), is out - head down, snoring and drooling.
We begin our cruise across this massive expanse of pure salt. In contrast with the horrendous dirt roads of this country, the salar is flat, smooth, and you drive wherever the hell you want as there is absolutely nothing, dead or alive, that you can hit here - this is truly Bolivia’s top driving experience
With Don Viktor providing the occasional hand gesture to signal the general direction before dosing off again, 150 km later (and still on this huge salar!) we manage somehow to find tonight’s lodging - a fantastically luxurious chateau made entirely out of salt, 2 maids, all meals, hot water (!), and best of all, all to ourselves.

Day 4 - Probably the Craziest Day of

our Lives
400km of rough off-road was what we’d have to cover today before we’d reach the first inhabitable place, Don Viktor said, now sobered up. That’s more than what we usually manage to cover in a day on paved roads with this car.
So we get up early, the maids stuff us with delicious pancakes, and we leave the Salar to begin the off-road part of the trip. This is serious off-road. Our little jeep is being thrown around and in this car you really feel every single bump. Honestly, we both have our doubts on whether this was a good idea, and whether our Beruška is going to survive this.
We stop on the way to visit a small community and see their cave of mummies. Later on there are some spectacular lagoons, each a different colour, almost all with flamingos (except the poisonous arsenic laden one). This really is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Even Don Viktor is taking photos with his simple, film, fake Canon camera. This really must be the last time he is doing this trip. The path goes from bad to worse to impossible. No, it is possible, Don Viktor insists. We cross icy rivers, get trapped in mud, and climb rocks that can only be described as boulders. Beruška is a champ. Tom is having the best fun of his life. Lib is in distress - “I’ve suffered enough today for the next five Yom Kippurs!”
Next we hit dry desert - for the next five hours no water, no life, nothing. Just lots and lots of sand. The sand is soft and difficult, and the engine is screaming away as we keep the revs high on low gear. The sun is beginning to set and we are concerned about the time. Going as fast as we can but every fifteen minutes we need to stop to cool the overheating engine and pour more water into the spurting radiator. Now, amongst the other things, we have to worry about the engine blowing up on us too!
The sun is setting rapidly behind us. We race up and then down the dunes, constantly chasing the end of the dune’s shadow, which constantly moves further and further away as the sun sets lower and lower. The wind outside is furious and it’s starting to get chilly. This is not a
Sheer Beauty Sheer Beauty Sheer Beauty

The red waters of Laguna Colorado
place you want to be stuck for the night. Lib is praying for our Beruška not to let us down, and swears that if we get to the lodge safely she is going to finally open her 50 year-old homemade Czech slivovice brandy that her grandmother gave her - potent stuff - and have three shots and give one shot to Beruška too.
And that’s exactly what she did after we arrived at tonight’s lodge just as the last ray of light disappeared behind the last dune.

Day 5 - Calm After the Storm

A much more relaxing day today as we need to cover only 150km.
We visit the unreal red Laguna Colorado lake, noisy and energetic geysers, a white dried-out lake full of OMO, as well as reach our highest point - a chilly, snowy 5000m above sea level.
The car is doing surprisingly well and, amazingly, everything looks in order.

Day 6 - Getting Lost, Losing Stuff, and Losing Our Minds!

Today we depart from the route familiar to Don Viktor and divert off to an alternative route that should lead us to Villazon in 2-3 days.
Along the way, there is another small detour
The Sound of Silence The Sound of Silence The Sound of Silence

Peacefulness at Laguna Celeste
that passes through the magnificent Laguna Celeste before later joining back on to the main path again…well, at least according to this little sketch-of-a-map that we have.
After lunch by the lagoon, we continue on what initially looks like a path, but then slowly deteriorates as more and more little shrubs appear along the way, until it becomes impossible to distinguish the path from the rest of the dry, shrubby field. Yet, Don Viktor is adamant he can still see a path. We push on, painfully slow, climbing over rocks and shrubs one wheel at a time, the jeep rocking from side to side like a boat on rough sea. We fear the ripping of our tyres on these sharp rocks (the most common off-road problem out here according to Don Viktor).
About an hour later and we are still heading forward. Don Viktor is certain we should join up with the main path any moment now. The spare diesel is leaking out of those cheap plastic containers. The front headlight and the hooter have fallen off, nothing critical.
Then we arrive at a dead-end. In front of us is a steep drop down to a huge, dry, borax lake
Let’s Face It…Let’s Face It…Let’s Face It…

unfamiliar to Don Viktor and not on the map. According to the GPS, we are only 20km from the Argentine border. We are lost.
Astonishingly, Don Viktor leaves the car and starts looking at the lake like he is thinking of actually going down there to try and cross it. Before he even brings up this crazy suggestion, we convince him that we have to backtrack to the main road from where we left it. It’s getting late and it’s too risky to carry on and get even more lost.
So we head back in search of Laguna Celeste again, but have trouble finding it as even our tracks are gone. Another two hours of roaming around this shrub-land, and with a huge sigh of relief, we spot Laguna Celeste. From there we can follow the path we came on back to the main road.
But before we do that, Tom has an impulse to have a quick check on the car, and that’s when he sees it. One of the three remaining screws of the engine support has snapped. We are down to only two out of the original four screws holding this heavy engine in place and keeping

Llama meat drying out in front of our room in Kolpani.
it from falling. Who knows how long the last two screws will last with this pressure? Who knows how long we could last if we broke down out here in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest evidence of any civilization?
The next few hours are long and painful as we negotiate the terrain as gently as possible, preventing any major movements to the engine, and trying to find anywhere, or anyone, where we could pass the night. Suddenly the over-powering smell of slivovice fills the car. The bottle is open again, and Lib and Don Viktor are passing the stuff around now like lemonade.
Finally, as the sun goes down, we arrive at Kolpani - a rural community of 100 people, all llama-herders. We are treated with a lot of curiosity, naturally, but with a lot of kindness as well, and soon we are set-up with a host-family, a bed to sleep on and some hot soup, which is cooked in a wood-fire oven of course - electricity doesn’t reach this part of the world.
Later on, we are looking at the car with Don Viktor and two local guys, and everyone is trying to convince us
The Kolpani GangThe Kolpani GangThe Kolpani Gang

Our guardian angels that saved us that night.
that two screws are plenty, and we should be fine tomorrow. But we’ve seen this before and so we convince Don Viktor that we know that once one of the screws breaks, it’s only a matter of time before the rest go. Don Viktor suddenly starts to get worried and a little panicky, explaining that with a bit of creativity most car problems can be fixed out there in that desolate wasteland, but if the engine falls there will be nothing we could do about that. “We could die out there”, he even says.

Day 7 - Our Unfaithful Steed Does It Again

Breakfast with our Kolpani friends is really something special. They invite us back into their warm room where the wood-fire oven is still going. This time a llama is roasting away. Roast llama for breakfast? We think they are kidding. But it seems pretty standard to them and soon everyone - Mom, Dad, kids from age 2 and up, and even Don Viktor - are all chewing away on a piece of this tough meat, so we, too, get into it. Pretty tasty actually, even if it is 7 o’clock in the morning.
With no other option, we tighten the last two screws one more time, say goodbye to our generous friends and get going.
Nearly three hours down the road, and after a really jagged patch, the worst happens. The last two remaining screws are no more. The engine has fallen.
The expression on each of our faces fades at this realisation. At first we don’t want to believe this hopelessness that is our situation. We are trapped out here in an arid, uninhabited, desert that is the definition of “the middle of nowhere”. All the screws are now broken deep inside. Perhaps we could remove them and somehow replace them with some other screws from some less-important part of the car. But the only way to remove them is with the use of an electric solder, and the nearest civilization with electricity is at least a 10-hour drive away.
For the next 2 hours, under the afternoon sun we investigate the possibilities available to us, but things are not looking good. An argument breaks out between Tom and Don Viktor about how to fix it - probably a combination of the heat, the stressful situation and the language barrier. Don Viktor threatens to leave
Engine Down Engine Down Engine Down

Making a plan to fix our collapsed engine.
us out here and start walking on his own until he meets the first truck. We manage to calm things down and soon our luck is changing.
Whilst looking for possible solutions in the boot, we find a thick 20m towing rope that our good friend in Fortaleza (Brazil) bought for us. God bless him.
Things are happening quickly now. We unscrew the bonnet of the car and lay it aside. Next we remove one of the black steel bars from the luggage rack on top of the car and strap it along the front of the car, from the windscreen to the bulbar. We use the jack to lift the engine up and then wrap the rope tightly around and around the engine and the steel bar, as well as around the luggage rack, until it seems as if this might actually hold the engine up in place.
We start the engine up once works!
We hobble along for the rest of this still-very-tense day and finally arrive at a small mining village long after the sun has gone down.

Day 8 - No Light at the End of the Tunnel

First thing in the morning we
The New Engine SupportThe New Engine SupportThe New Engine Support

This is what was now holding up our massive 325kg engine.
revise our new engine support. We add another bar to the mix, and re-tie it, even tighter this time. The original plan of going to Villazon is off the cards and we are heading back to Uyuni.
By midday, we have successfully made it back to Uyuni - an advanced, colossal, first-world megalopolis, at least in relation to where we have been the past few days - where we could quickly sort this problem out. Or so we thought.
15 minutes before we arrived in Uyuni, the entire town’s electricity went out! This means that, for now, Uyuni has been sent back to the middle ages, and in terms of the car-problem at least, Uyuni is as useful to us as primitive Kolpani.
Oh well, how long could this black-out really last?

Day 13 - Back from the Dark Ages

5 days later the lights finally come back on! We get the screws removed with the use of an electric solder and replace them with newer, tougher ones and begin moving towards Argentina on the main roads, which are in actual fact, not that much better than the dirt roads we thought we’d left behind.
Don Viktor is back at work doing trips to the salar for the hostel.

Day 15 - Farewell Bolivia

The main “road” from Bolivia to Argentina is the ugliest, bumpiest thing we have ever seen. This is worse than horse-riding! For hours on end, we bounce up and down, vibrations shooting up our spines. The entire car is rattling. We find ourselves going crazy - screaming and swearing in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech and Hebrew!
At long last, we reach the Argentine border. This is one of South America’s most shocking places. There are hundreds of men, women and children that have been turned into human-ants. All day long they carry huge loads of flour, fruit, and just about any contraband, back and forth across the border bridge. And all for a basic wage of 8 Bolivianos a day - little more than the price of a beer. They could all use a small, reliable jeep…just like ours.

Goodbye Bolivia, good riddance Bolivian roads, and God bless the Bolivian people.

Odometer at start: 33 900 km
Odometer now: 53 822 km

Additional photos below
Photos: 105, Displayed: 34


The Salt People The Salt People
The Salt People

The notoriously unfriendly salt miners who will rarely talk to you, never mind let you photograph them. As usual, Beruška played a part in breaking the ice with them. We had something in common – each of us owned a truck that was older than us. This truck is 51 years old!
The Salt People The Salt People
The Salt People

Tom trying out a new career.
The Salt People The Salt People
The Salt People

After no more than 3 spade-fulls, Tom is sufficiently convinced that this is not a path he is ready to pursue and lays down his spade. Besides, salt sell here for just over $1 per 50 kilos! Hardly worth the effort.
The Salt People The Salt People
The Salt People

Tom and Don Viktor by the salt miners’ heaps of salt. A rare shot of Don Viktor actually awake on the day.
Little Llamas Little Llamas
Little Llamas

Souvenirs made of salt on the edge of the Salar

17th November 2007

I'm sorry you had such a rough time but am happy to get a good chuckle out of your story. I guess all the bad stories about drunk guides in the Salares are true!
17th November 2007

Bo-live-ian dive!
What a fantastic experience! Well done guys! Beautiful pictures. Keep feeding us with more! :¬)
18th November 2007

hola! Wow, loved your Uyuni blog. I went there and it was one of the most beautiful places I've been to. Hope the car's now fine and that you love Argentina. Good luck! x
19th May 2011
Sheer Beauty

Wow, that is stunning.

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