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Making it to Potosi & SW Bolivia


(the above map is slightly wrong; we were able to drive from D to E and not back track to C but Google Maps doesn’t think we can as there are no “roads” per se on the Salar!)

September 14th, 2018

Finally, we felt we could leave Sucre; as much as we loved this city (our fave in Bolivia) and the lovely family whose property we were camped on, it was long past time to hit the road.

We thought to be safe, we should leave early so that IF we had to turn around and return, we’d be at Julio’s when he opened the shop.  Well, we made it 100 kms /60 m without a hesitation!  We were so happy and cautiously optimistic that all was good.  We made it to the small town of Betanzos and stopped to see about getting the skid plate fitting properly; it was hitting the drainage pipe for the black and grey tanks making it impossible to close the cap on the pipe properly so the whole thing needed to be a smidgen lower.  We found a welder and got the job done before continuing on to Potosi.

Doug occupied himself making balloons for the local kids:

Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world; siting at 4070 m / 13,353‘ it is set on a desolate, windswept plain amid barren mountains – not a place to come to if you want to see “pretty”.  Walking on its hilly streets is a challenge to your lungs!  It came into existence because of a hill called Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain).  This mountain is the richest source of silver in the world and the find was made back in 1545.  It was discovered by a llama herder and when the news reached Spain, well the rest is history.  This led to a mining boon with slaves of indigenous and some African origin (the latter couldn’t handle the altitude and ending up settling north of La Paz in the jungle).  It is said over 8,000,000 slaves died here over three centuries. 

The city still contains a good deal of Spanish colonial architecture and some of Bolivia’s finest churches.

We arrived in Potosi well before lunchtime, WhatsApp’d Julio to say all was good, found a quiet street to camp on and then walked into El Centro to see the architecture and book a tour for the silver mine.  We needed a bank as well and found one enroute, breaking up the challenging uphill walk in this high city.  We found a tour operator just before reaching the main square and made a reservation for the morning to visit the silver mine.

We walked to the main Plaza and saw the cathedral (not open), the Casa de Moneda (the mint but didn’t tour it) and the very nice square itself.

We were hungry and after looking for the restaurant the guy at the tour office recommended and not finding it, we found a pizza place and had a nice lunch taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi.  While finishing up we got a message from Angela & Graham (the Brits we’d had many a happy hour with in Sucre) asking us where we were and lo and behold they were just down the block from us!  We finished up, met them outside and went into another restaurant so they could have lunch while we enjoying a coca tea (for altitude) and chatted.

Just before walking into the city, Fran realized we’d forgotten to hand in the gate key when we left Alberto’s so she WhatsApp’d Carolina and was told we could put the key on a taxi back to Sucre for about $1.50!  She gave us the address of the office where we could leave it and the name of the lady to hand it to and when we got back to Tigger, we put it in an envelope with her name and phone number on it, walked over to the office (about five minutes from us!) and gave it to Cristina with 10 Bolivianos.  What a system!  The driver will call her when he gets to Sucre and she can pick it up.

While we were preparing a light dinner, Carolina WhatsApp’d Fran to say her mother had found a laptop dongle on the common room table and was it ours?  Turns out it was Doug’s and she said she’d put in on a taxi that night to Potosi and we could pick up after 6 in the morning.  Again, all for 10 Bolivianos!  Doug was lucky as without that dongle his mouse was useless.

Saturday morning, we walked back into the tour office and along with a young German couple and two single guys from France and Israel, began the silver mine tour.  This mine is actually a working mine and that’s why, despite having been to a silver mine previously, we opted to take the tour.

After piling into a minivan we were taken to a house to get our gear on:  jacket, pants, boots and a helmet with a headlamp.

Next stop was the Miners Market, where each person is supposed to buy a least one gift bag for a miner – these contain a 2L bottle of soda and a bag of coca leaves.  You can also buy extras like dynamite, 96% proof cane alcohol, gloves, and cigarettes.  We bought the gifts and some cigarettes for them as well as some dynamite

and alcohol for ourselves which Fran,  of course, taste tested, on the spot.

Then they took us to the mine and into the tunnels we went.  This mine still produces silver but the main mineral now is zinc followed by tin and lead.  This was not a clean, polished tour like we’ve been on; walking in mud, lots of dust, no lighting….

The reason you give miners alcohol is so they can take a shot with which they first bless the tunnel they are in, by dripping some onto the ground, praying to the earth goddess, Pachamama and then shoot back the rest.  There is also a devil spirit name Tio who lives in the mines and there is a shrine where prayers are said to him.

El Tio – the devil god

Being Saturday, there were fewer workers than usual but Jose explained about the mine and how it began, how the workers work and how dangerous this type of mining is.  Apparently, the government wanted to close the mine a few years back due to safety issues but the workers protested and it continues to employ about 15,000 people – the average death rate is about 30 per year!.

At one point we met a man and his son who were actually working and the father came out to answer questions.  Doug took out our bottle of alcohol and offered him some.  He showed us how they do the prayer to Pachamama and proceeded to offer everyone a shot.  He ended up keeping our bottle!

So since we’d bought dynamite, Jose offered to blast it for us.  He took us down a short tunnel, lit it, and us tourists moved down the main tunnel about 50m to wait.  Jose placed the dynamite in a hole and joined us.  We waited about 90 seconds and heard the blast.

After the tour, we drove back to return our “mining” clothes, caught a cab back to the rig and began the drive north towards the north entrance of the Salar de Uyuni.  We had over 300 km / 200 m to drive and had no illusions about making it there today but wanted to get a good head start as it seemed the route had a good national highway for at least half of the drive.

So we left about 1:30 and made it almost 200 km / 125 m by about five o’clock with a few failed attempts at getting gas at a reasonable price.  We spent the night in Santiago de Huari on a quiet back street and left early Sunday morning for Coqueza, on the edge of the Salar.

Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is in southwest Bolivia near the crest of the Andes and is at an elevation of 3,656 m / 11,995‘ above sea level.

The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium.  It contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves.

The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of flamingos.

We made a stop at a meteorite crater which was on our radar.  This was pretty amazing:

About one yes only one, kilometre further down the road was another crater but not as pretty – had no water.

We stopped in Salinas Garcia Mendoza where were we able to fill up and get the jerry cans filled at a reasonable price at an actual gas station and hit the dirt roads to Coqueza.  There is a volcano behind this town called Tunapa and it’s pretty impressive.  We could see it from a long way off and now we were driving around it.

About ten kilometres before the town, there was a small access ramp that allowed you to get out onto the salt flat and get to the village that way.  That was way cool!  We saw lots of vicunas and llamas near the shore.

fun fun fun!

Access to shore in Coqueza
Salt structure outside of Coqueza

We arrived in the tiny village of Coqueza after crossing some water onto another access ramp right there beside the ramp were flamingos!

We drove into town and stopped at the square where there was a tourist information booth and next to that bathrooms with HOT showers which you could have for 10 Bolivianos (about $1.50) a person.

The man working inside talked us into driving the 3 km / 2 m up the volcano to a viewpoint and a small cave with mummies inside.  We paid our entrance fee and drove up.  Right before the gate, Tigger lost power completely; no hesitation but no gumption to move further up the mountain.  We were distraught and thought what now!??!!?

We parked on the side of the entrance circle, thinking maybe a rest would help Tigger, and walked into the parking lot where we had vistas of the Salar:

It was spectacular! 100 square kms / 60 square miles of white dotted with a few islands.  (really very had to capture in just one photo…..)

Then we went to visit the mummies hoping that a little break would help get Tigger moving uphill again.  A young girl was waiting to act as our guide and we took the five minute walk to the cave where we saw the mummies which are approximately 800 years old.

We returned to Tigger with no change in its power level so Doug backed up (which took a lot of back and forthing) but we were able to drive back down into the village.  On the square we added fuel cleaner and checked under the hood; lo and behold the duct that the mass air flow sensors sits in was disconnected from the air filter; we were up over 3600 m /  12,000‘ and so Tigger could not get enough oxygen.  We hoped this was all the problem was.

We paid our 10 Bolivianos each and had a nice hot shower before heading back out onto the Salar.  Our destination was the island of Incahuasi where you could camp with some shelter from the island from the wind. The guy at the tourist info said it was about 40km / 30 m and would take about 45 minutes – although being on a such flat surface it sure did not look that far.


All three of “us” on the Salar:

About half way there we got off the “beaten tracks” and parked to have some fun taking photos on this very flat part of the earth.

About 3:30 the wind picked up and we felt we should get moving.  We arrived at Incahuasi and found about three dozen tour SUV’s in the parking area.  On the island has a small restaurant, bathrooms and information.  It costs 30 Bolivianos to enter the island (so we didn’t) and after getting our chairs out, we enjoyed a Corona and then decided that we’d rather camp somewhere more remote; away from the crowds.

We checked out iOverlander and found a small island someone had named “Ford Island”.  We’d actually met the guy back in Central America and thought it sounded like a good place to see sunset and spend the night.  We parked in a small cove (remember we’re on salt, not water but it seems like you’re driving on a frozen lake!).

We decided if Ford could name this island (only on iOverlander!), we could too but didn’t want to change it completely so we have christened it “Tigger Ford Island”.

The wind died down about an hour after the sun set and we had a quiet and not as cold as we thought it would be night.  Turns out it dipped to about -6°C but during the day it gets into the mid-teens and the sun doesn’t stop shining this time of year (there’s about a week of winter left here).

Monday morning, Doug decided he wanted to do his jog/sprints and set his sights on Fish Island (one of the bigger ones).  Well after running two miles he turned around without even making it there; distances are very deceiving out here!

Then we wanted to explore some more so after breakfast we drove to Fish Island and did a hike to the top of a peak to get a 360° views

that DOT is Tigger!

Next we drove even further west, where most people don’t ever go just to be in the pristine part of the Salar.  It warmed up pretty quick and we spent another couple of hours taking funny photos before having lunch sitting on our chairs.

We made our way east again towards Incahuasi (where there weren’t as many SUV’s as the day before – probably because it was Monday), dropped off our garbage and made our way further east.

On the eastern side of the salt flats, you find a Salt Hotel,

a large stand of international flags,

and the Bolivian Dakar monument also made of salt,

A little further east, almost at the eastern edge you find the Ojos del Sal (salt ponds) but they were not impressive.  We did see mounds of salt though:

We took the access ramp off the Salar to the town of Colchani, which is a salt mining/ processing town, and stopped in the village for a few salt souvenirs before stopping at a car wash recommended on iOverlander just on the north side of the city of Uyuni.  They did a great job too; for 130 Bolivianos (less than $20), they rinsed – with fresh water – washed with soap and rinsed again the entire rig including the Jerry cans which Doug removed expressly for that purpose and vacuumed the cab and washed the floor mats, all in less than an hour.  We were very pleased.

Next we stopped in town for a few supplies, cash and gas; we tried to find a mechanic to have him look into a thumping sound we were hearing but he wasn’t open.  We then made our way to the home of Emilio Lopez (he was on iOverlander) and camped for the night on their enclosed property; there was on rig here already owned by Peter, a German travelling solo.  Right after we got set up and opened a beer for happy hour but didn’t Angela and Graham turn up!  We invited them in and spent an hour or so chatting.  They are heading to the Salar tomorrow while we head further south.

It was a cold night; we had power at this camp spot so instead of wasting our precious propane, we were using our small electric heater and it never did catch up.  We left Emilio’s about 8, checked out the mechanic’s again where we were told he was out of town getting parts and made our way to Uyuni’s train graveyard:

before continuing southwest to Bolivia’s famous Ruta de las Lagunas – the lake route which so many overlanders do and rave about.  We took the F5 out of Uyuni for about 75 km / 46 m which is a pretty good

highway then turned further south to another half decent paved road to the town of San Cristóbal where were hoped to see their 350 year old church which had been moved stone by stone to its current location and was said to have a silver altar but it was closed.

We moved on to Alota to get our last gas before crossing the border into Chile.  There is a man here with a “depot” where you can buy gas and we topped up almost everything which pretty much gave us the equivalent of two tanks that should take us 700 km / 400 miles.  This guy seemed a little shady as his ten litres did not fill our ten litre jerry can but we bought 20L anyway to be sure we had enough.

We drove on and along the highway we passed through the Valley of Rocks

Saw amazing valley and mountain/volcano scenery

Before turning off on the western entrance of the Laguna Route – which really is a large number of dirt tracks mostly made by the tour guide SUV’s that bring people here from the town of Uyuni; sometimes it was a challenge to determine which track to take but they all generally lead the same way; some are just in worse shape with ruts or sand than others.

So our first stop was at the top of a hill where we met two German cyclists – yes, cyclists.  They were building themselves a shelter of rock in which to set up their tent; hardy souls up here at over 4200 m / 13,800’.

Next we began to see many lakes of varying colours, all with Andean flamingos:

Laguna Cañapa was first and impressed us with its setting and a few birds

then Laguna Hedionda came next with is more turquoise colour and hundreds of flamingos; here there is an eco-lodge where many of the tour groups stay too.  When we got out to our take photos. we met an insane young South African couple who were WALKING the Lagunas route!

Then it was Laguna Negra (which means black but the water was a golden yellow colour) and had very few flamingos.

We arrived at Laguna Honda where there is a small peninsula jutting into the lake and here we camped for the night.  We arrived around 3:30, did a few chores and kept checking out the windows of Tigger because we could spot flamingos on three sides at all times.  There were about a hundred of them here.

We camped on the peninsula

We spent a cold night – down to -14C there using all our blankets, all mylar sheets on the windows and vents and in warm pajamas’.  We were at about 4200m / 13,800 ‘ and although we didn’t get headaches, we did not sleep much all night.

At dawn we warmed up the truck with the furnace, got dressed and went out to observe the flamingos stuck in the frozen lake!

There are three types here:  The Andean (pinker heads), the Chilean (light pink) and the James flamingos (black tails).

After the sun came up the lake still do not thaw much and by 8:45 we’d had enough of waiting for them to wander off.  We continued south, the entire time, not far from the Chilean border.  The roads were of varying surfaces: sand, rocks and washboard and there were always mountains/ volcanoes visible.  This park ranges in altitude from 4000 to 6000m (13,100 to 19,700’) of Altiplano.  The tracks are everywhere and the Land Cruiser tour vehicles are making new tracks all the time.  The sun shone all day and the sky was cloudless; it never got that warm, maybe 14C/ 53F.  The land is pretty barren with some llamas and vicunas at times and of course flamingos.  There is supposed to be Andean fox, but we were not fortunate enough to see one that day.

Our first stop today was the Arbol de Piedra (rock tree) which is set in a section of weird rock formations.

We then entered the national reserve:

and spent a bit of time at the famous Laguna Colorada (red lake) – at two view points and here the water is actually red and there were thousands of flamingos.  The lake contains islands of borax, whose white color contrasts with the reddish color of its waters, which is caused by red sediments and pigmentation of some certain algae.  It’s about 60 square km in size.

We stopped at Sol de Manana after passing 4900m / 16,000’ and driving through snow patches;

this is a location with geysers which were not that impressive – it is supposed to be better in the mornings when the temperature differential is greater.

We arrived at the Salar de Chalviri which is part of the Laguna Chalviri and here there are hot pools you can enjoy with water up to 37C / 98.6F.  Here we bumped into Kirsi and her dog, Jack again as well as the Belgium and German couples we’d met in Sucre.  We enjoyed a nice long soak after two dusty days.

We got out of the pools before the sun went down (the air would be much colder then!) and after drying off we got the rig ready for the night and stayed inside the rest of the evening.

Thursday morning we headed further south passing the Desert of Salvador Dali

We met a vehicle broken down and stopped to see if we could help.  It was a commercial truck with three men, a woman and two children.  Turned out they were working on antennas at the Aduana offices in the park (there are two).  Anyway, they had a water hose leak and could not continue.  Doug found some pipe repair tape for them and Fran gave the kids Canada pencils and we were going to wait to see that they got going alright, but the hose needed to cool down.  So we left them wishing them luck.

Our next views were of Laguna Blanca enroute to the Aduana at this end of the park.  It is a large lake but seemed to a low level and was quite frozen still.  There were a few flamingos but all on one side of the lake.

We wanted to see about cancelling our TIP at the Bolivian Aduana (customs) up north as we wanted to go north again to cross Chile at the highest border post in the world and visit the EL Tatio geysers located right across the border.  The family we had helped earlier advised that there was customs up there but no immigration right at the border and that actually you cannot cross there at all????

We were told at the Park office next to the Customs office,  that this customs office here was closed right now and we’d have to go back the 80 kms / 50 m to the high one and they confirmed you could not cross into Chile.  So we had to think about this: 80 km one way and 80 km back just to cancel our TIP was a fair bit of gas in Tigger and if we couldn’t cross the border it was a waste of time and gas.

So we drove to Laguna Verde, only 6km away to see it as it was on the itinerary and we’d been told to wait until after ten when the ice on the lake melts as the colour is better so our timing was good as it was 10:45 ish.

Volcan Licancubar

Then we began the drive back to the Park Office/ Customs office and stopped at Laguna Blanca to go through our remaining food as Chile allows no fresh fruit, veg or meat, no cheese, honey or seeds.  We hid a couple of things and ate some food and put a few things in a bag as a sacrificial offering rather than saying we had nothing.

We then drove to the immigration where we finally got to see an Andean fox:

We got out passports stamped out and told the Immigration office we could not cancel our TIP at the office 6km away as it was closed.  He said we’d need to drive the 80 km back north to get it stamped but when we showed our dismay, he said we could take a picture of it and he’d give it to the Customs Officer next time he came through.  We also took a photo of him.  He then added our TIP to the small pile he had on a shelf so we were not the first people to get caught out this way.  It seems that these two Customs offices in the park, take “turns” being open but you have no way of knowing which is open ahead of time.  Ah Latin, America….

So we crossed the border and it was ADIOS Bolivia.  We loved Bolivia and its people.  We traveled 2984 km / 1832 m, spent more than two months and saw amazing sites and met such warm, friendly, helpful people.  We may come back one day on our way north after Argentina to enter the Pantanal of Brazil.