Bolivia - June-August 2011

From the 20th to the 30th of June, 2011

After crossing eight passes between 4000 and 4900 meters above sea level in seven days, we arrived at the border between Argentina and Bolivia. On the Argentinean side in La Quiaca it was dead however on the Bolivian side in Villazon we found more authenticity.

We spent two days in Tupiza, discovering a different culture. In the street, we found all sorts of snacks and fresh juice for less than 20 cents (US$). We could almost feel like in India :-). We visited the Canyon of the Inca by horse-riding and crossed beautiful sceneries worth Western movies.


Recently, our motor oil consumption increased from 1 liter per 1000 km to 3 liters per 1000 km therefore Aless spent the day at a mechanic, putting the engine down in order to identify if there was a leak. Unfortunately there were no spare parts for this vehicle in the area and had to wait until reaching the capital city to find what we needed.

Since there was a shortage of gasoline in Tupiza, we took the road to Uyuni hoping to find some on our way. The dirt road raised, raised and raised up to over 4200 meters above sea level. A few kilometers before Atocha, the road was blocked by protesters claiming the lack of medical infrastructure. When you see how some of them are living, they have good reasons waking up and getting together... What is a night of waiting for us compared to a sinuous path to a more "human" level of life to them ?


The next morning we continued our way to Atocha, a horrible dusty mining village where the only way to access the petrol station is through the sandy nest of the river. The good news is that we miraculously found some combustible. The road deteriorated and began to be shakier.

We finally arrived in Uyuni and looked for more gasoline. At the first station there had no more... The next, they refused to serve us because it was subsidized by the government and restricted to Bolivians only. After insisting, they agreed to fill our tank at the ridiculous price of 50 cents (US$) per liter... We fall on Luke and Jazz, the couple from Zürich we met a few months earlier in southern Chile. Too bad we didn't manage to see each other earlier in order to spend some time together. One week later, they needed to be in Valparaiso in Chile to ship their vehicles back to Switzerland.

After covering the chassis of an oil primer, we decided to go on the famous Salar. But first we had to cross an area inundated with salty water. Pfuiii, we went through, ready to go for a hundred kilometers in the middle of nowhere to reach one of the islands. It was amazing. We felt like if driving on snow. We are used to see snowy mountains and brown plains. Here it was the opposite, the mountains were brown and the plain white. Since there was no marked trail, we followed a simple GPS point as if we were sailing a boat. A little further north, a little further west. The Isla de los Pescadores was formed by hug rocks where hundreds of cactus took roots. The sunset lasted forever. There was no moon and the sky was covered by an intense milky way. There was no sound, the total calm, it felt so good...


After Paradise, we got back on roads which were for us but especially for our vehicle a living hell. After losing the muffler between Atocha and Uyuni, the effect of corrugated iron became more intense and gave us no rest. The brakes were getting looser, a suspension rubber broke, electrical connections disconnected, screws loosened and our oil consumption increased to 1 liter per 100 km. Gasoline was a commodity rather complicated to find. Either it was reserved for Bolivians, or they were not allowed to fill extra emergency tank, or they had voltage drops and had to recalculate the number of liters already filled, or they were simply out of stock.

We drove through some dusty ghost towns, where road looked more like a minefield. Where is the exit ? Either you had to drive on the railway line or cross a river hoping the bottom was neither too soft nor deep.


We made it to La Paz and put all our hopes on Ernesto Hug, the Swiss owner of a garage specialized in Volkswagen. From the Altiplano at over 4000 meters above sea level, we dove into the crater on a dizzy road. Woooww, we crossed fingers not to lose our brakes there because we would have no chance to stop. It was like going down a mountain with no curves. With the engine brake on the first gear, the brake pedal down, the hand on the handbrake and a cold sweat, we arrived in front of the garage. It was Sunday and we had to wait the next day to know what was going on. In the meantime, we continued to the hotel-Camping Oberland, also owned by a Swiss. The problem was that it was located in the valley of the moon which was at a higher place. With the first gear, bouboubouboubou. No! We can't go up anymore. We tried again and it worked. Another steeper climb. This time, there was no way. That was a good thing because we realized it was the wrong way... On the other road, the path was not as steep and we reached the hotel with a great relief. Aless tried to identify the engine problem. He dismantles the spark-plugs and realized that one of them was not only closed, but covered with oil. We left the rest for tomorrow. A good hot shower was very welcomed, but most of all we had a great Raclette party !


We met Christine and Christopher, Austrians with a big comfortable diesel VW bus. They also required the services of Ernesto and offered to go together. In case of problems to climb the hill, they will pull us with a rope.

The next day, with a lot of noise (no muffler) and the first gear which has regained a little strength, we made it to the garage. After two days to dismantle the engine, one cylinder was indeed damaged. It will take two weeks to fix everything. In the meantime, we decided to continue by bus to Lake Titicaca and Cuzco with Beatrice who is flying from Lima on the 10th of July.

From Copacabana we visited the Sun Island. At the port, dozens of donkeys were waiting for the boats to be unloaded of kilos of food and drinks for the supply of grocery stores and restaurants located a few hundred meters above. The cultures were placed in steps to maximize the space on the hills. On the horizon, we could see other smaller islands, but most of all, a beautiful snowy mountain range.


Lets go to Peru !

Click here to read the following story in Peru.

From July 20th to September 1st 2011

Back in La Paz, repairs on our car were not yet completed, they still needed a few more days, three weeks in the workshop in total. Meanwhile, we spent a few nights in a small hotel downtown and took the opportunity to ride the "Death Road" by bicycle. Eighty kilometers of pure descent from La Cumbre at 4700 meters above sea level, to Coroico at 1200 meters. During the first hour of descent we could really let go at full speed since the road was paved. During the next three hours, we had to be more cautious as the road was as wide as a car, the 300 meters deep precipice, the fog and the mixture of stone and earth did not help. The mountain landscape and was superb. During the last hour of descent, we got closer to the Amazonian region, it was hot, humid and mosquitoes keep us company... About four years ago, an alternative paved road was built therefore the major part of the traffic bypass the Death Road, but it is not closed to traffic. During the descent, three people in our group fell and one of them ended with a broken rib. Fortunately, they did not fall on the wrong side of the road...


On Friday, we got our van back and spent one more night in the garage of Ernesto Hug. At the end, our engine was rebuilt, cylinders and pistons have been changed, a new exhaust system has been adapted, we had four new shock absorbers, they fixed a bracket which was holding the clutch cable and they attempted to repair a small leak in the gearbox. A bill of 1900 USD in total. We spent two more days enjoying the Jacuzzi and a Raclette in the camping Oberland.

In order to visit the Madidi National Park located in the Amazon basin, we decided to drive to Rurrenabaque, about 450 kilometers from La Paz, on the alternative road to the Death Road. It was in Coroico that the paved road gave place to dirt and a change of lane. We had to drive on the left side of the road, near the precipice. At 2:30 pm, the road was closed for constructions until 6 pm. How can they close a road without informing anyone ? Was it too difficult to inform us at the toll located at the exit of La Paz? After waiting for over three hours, we were caught in the rhythm of the crazy drivers who took the road for a rally track. As the road was very narrow, we couldn't drive faster than 25 kilometers per hour. After getting very close to have an accident, we decided to let the crazy drivers pass us by pulling on a mini-shoulder. After several cars, there was so much dust that the following vehicles couldn't see us anymore. Some cars came very close. A light touch was enough to push us into the ravine. Half an hour later, the night fell, the road was so narrow, there was so much dust, we couldn't see anything. My hands and fit were tingling, my heart was pounding, I felt like if I was going to faint. Was it because of the panic ? Was I no more accustomed to so much oxygen? It's been about eight weeks that we were not at 800 meters above sea level. Bolivians with whom we chatted while waiting for the road opening suggested to leave the main road and follow them to the community where they were going to. We agreed to make the detour and spent a peaceful night. Along the way, our rear wheels got stuck in the mud and it was with a rope that their 4x4 got us out of there in the dark.


In the morning, it took an hour to reach the main road again. Conditions were still bad, but at least it was during the day and because of the road work, there was not much traffic. We finally reached the village of Caranavi and continued on a winding mountain road. Twenty kilometers later, we faced a new road block, opening after 6 pm. It started raining. How is it possible! We drove 180 kilometers from La Paz, not even halfway in two days ! Our desire to visit the national park couldn't take over. We gave up and turned back to Caranavi in the mud. At 5:30 am, still in the dark, we drove towards La Paz attempting to pass the work areas before the closure of the road at 8 am. Oufff, we got there at 7:45 am. We then climbed the 4000 meters of height in the fog and rain.


We spent two more days in La Paz before leaving for the Sajama National Park, near the border with Chile. Once more, the road was blocked by demonstrators. We followed the cars trying to bypass the demonstration by a dirt road. After a few hundred meters, we were facing a steep hill where a big truck was stuck in the middle, while other cars needed several times to reach the top. Will we be able to reach the summit? Another vehicle turned around and informed us that the main road reopened. What a good news ! We turned back and continued our was towards the National Park where we hoped to see our friends Six en Route, a couple from Switzerland (Vero and Thierry) traveling with their four children (Max, Loane, Sam and Zoe), which we met in India about a year and a half before. We spent part of the afternoon at the park entrance in order to give us a chance to meet. Before dusk, they were still not there and we decided to spend the night near the geysers.


After the story of Rurrenabaque, here is the history of the Sajama National Park. To reach the geysers located a dozen kilometers away, we had to cross a river. Because it has become a habit in Bolivia, Aless gained confidence. Should I check the depth? Not needed, he affirmed ! Let's go ! Oops, our bumper hit a sandbank, the engine shutted down. We couldn't manage to start the engine because the exhaust was completely submerged under water. The river may be a bit deeper than what we expected. The water began to filter through the doors and we ended up with ten centimeters of water inside. One woman said we should have crossen more on the left. Thank you, but it's a bit late... After running to the village to find help, it's a 4x4 which took us out of there for 100 Bolivianos (~15 USD). It took a lot of patience to start the engine. It was in the dark that we drove to the geysers we discovered the next morning. Boiling water geysers mixed with a cold water stream. The water was either too hot or too cold for bathing. Shortly after our return to the village, we met our friends. We enjoyed the last sunrays while relaxing in beautiful natural thermal bath with a magnificent view of the Nevado Sajama (Bolivia's highest peak), and the two nearby volcanoes. Despite the altitude of 4200 meters, we had a good night sleep under the stars.


Two days later, we met each other again near Potosi, in the Laguna Ojo del Inca which was formed by the crater of a volcano. Our friends were accompanied by Mathilde and Clément, two French traveling with a Volksvagen Beetle. We spent a great night altogether enjoying the delicious vegetarian lasagna generously made by Vero.


In Potosi, we visited the charming historical center, squares and colonial-style buildings. After some hesitation, we decided to visit the mine of Serro Rico, accompanied by a guide. It was not far from what I had imagined. It was dark, dusty and miners were still working mostly manually. The mine was a real cheese, there were tunnels everywhere, ladders used to go climb up or down to different floors. What annoyed me was the "politic" part of the visit. It was the guide who chose which worker to photograph and they were rewarded by a gift (coca leaf, soft drinks, tobacco, alcohol, gloves, dynamite, etc.) we previously purchased in the mine market.


We wandered in the narrow alley of the Mercado Municipal of Potosi. Aless walked ahead of me. A woman turning her back to me was distracted by her phone conversation and was blocking the alley. I wanted to pass to the right, she moved right, I went on the left, she moved left. Behind me the slowdown began creating a jam. I had a strange feeling. I clung on to my values. A man walking on the opposite direction sneezed right on my face. Yuck! No way I would let my stuff be stolen! I ran to Aless who was waiting for me a few meters away and discovered that my little bag strap has been cut. Victim of a stratagem ?

We continued to Sucre, the former capital of Bolivia. Based at an altitude of 2600 meters above sea level, the temperature was more pleasant. Sunday was market day in Tarabuco. This was an opportunity to see weavings as well as local people dressed in their traditional dresses. For us, it was nothing new. It did not seem authentic, as too touristy. We also spent a day trekking the Cordillera de los Frailes where we could see rock paintings and visit the village of Maragua located in a crater.


We joined our friends Six en Route in Cochabamba for the National Day parade and continued our journey together towards the Pantanal. The road leading to Villa Tunari went from 2600 meters above sea level, to a pass at 3600 meters, before diving to 290 meters in a distance of 100 kilometers. We were back in the heat and humidity and enjoyed a day of rest by camping in the nest of the river near Villa Tunari. During the day, this place turned into a carwash, a laundry or a bath. At night, small boats sailed discreetly downstream. A way of transit to avoid military checkpoints on the main road ? Who knows... In any case, both day and night, there were hundreds of sand flies biting us.


We continued our journey through Buena Vista and Montero in order to reach the loop leading to the Jesuit Missions. A well hidden speed bump made Casita fly and the table hit Loane's foot. It resulted to three stitches. Then, we faced a first obstacle... Soon after Okinawa, the dirt road became very bad. We had to cross some sandbanks which gave place to a river. Is there a bridge? A ferry? Or should we once again cross the river "swimming"? There was a bridge designed with two barges joined end to end, boards and ropes connecting them together. We crossed without much trouble, but with a little more apprehension for our big sister Casita.


It was in San Javier that we discovered the first church of the Jesuit Missions originally built in 1692, the oldest in the region. About thirty kilometers away, we spent a pleasant evening near a lagoon where capybaras were swimming. We continue by Conception, Santa Rosa and San Ignacio de Velasco. About fifty kilometers from San Jose de Chiquitos, we left the main road to visit a Mennonite colony. By asking our way to young Mennonites working in the fields, we realized how poor their level Spanish was. At the grocery of the community, we found rather salty and elastic cheese and some bread which was definitely not home-made. They invited us to spend the night in the courtyard and assist to the process of making cheese. They were rather curious and enjoyed the visit of foreign people, asking questions regarding our lifestyle, the value of money in Europe, the different languages we could speak. They speak a dialect of German and learn Spanish in school, but do not have much opportunity to practice. They live without electricity, but use gas cylinders for cooking and lighting. They operate tractors with an engine, but tires are replaced by studded steel wheels. By their innocent questions, we could realize that their general knowledge is affected by the fact that they are living out of the society.


On the way to the Missions, Six en Route had a small problem with their cover which did not close well, a puncture and a small electronic failure which was quickly resolved. On our side, the engine oil consumption was getting bad again.

After 400 kilometers of dirt road, at is in San Jose de Chiquitos that we reach the asphalt again. About thirty kilometers away, our engine started making a noise of pan. That was it, it broke down for the second time. Our friend Six en Route towed us for over a hundred kilometers to the village of Roboré. It didn't take long to think about different options. Maybe we could tow the van to La Paz to pay a visit to Ernesto Hug? The option of repair in Brazil was quickly discarded as probably too expensive. At Roboré, we were guided to a workshop. It was Monday 5 pm, three mechanics started to work on the engine already. Within a few hours, the engine was down, pistons and cylinders removed. News were not good. We had to change the full kit again, which I recall was changed a month earlier, only 3000 kilometers covered since the first repair in Ernesto Hug workshop. In addition to an unusual wearing for the distance, one of the rod which make the piston move was not properly attached. The next day, the crankshaft was sent to Santa Cruz to be machined.


Hoping to find our van in good condition on Friday, we accept the invitation of Six en Route and embarked on Casita to Aguas Caliente. Imagine taking a hot bath when the air temperature is at forty degrees Celsius. In the Balneario El Hervido, the hot tube is replaced by an incredibly hot river where the sandy bottom is surprising. Sources are hidden under the sand, forming holes of quicksand. We slowly sink up to the shoulders, before floating again. This was really fun. We had an amazing wood fire heated Raclette with cheese we bought a few days earlier in a Swiss cheese factory. It was SO GOOD!

The next day we drove three kilometers further to the Balneario El Puente. This time the river water was translucent and at perfect temperature. We spent the day swimming in the water and jumping from a tree trunk without feeling the need to go out to warm up or cool down.


Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 1: Thursday morning, our friends drove us to Roboré in order to see if the parts had arrived. At the entrance of the village, a road block protest which was supposed to last 24 hours, got extended to 48 hours. We hoped to receive the spares the following day.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 2: Friday morning, back in Roboré, spares were still in Santa Cruz and we were informed that they would arrive Saturday morning. If so, the mechanics were ready to work during the weekend. In the meantime, we spent one more night hosted by Casita near the river of the village.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 3: Saturday morning, the spares were delivered. At 2:30 pm, everyone started assembling the engine. At 7 pm, when fixing the valves, they realized that the cylinders we received were not exactly the same. A sample was returned to Santa Cruz in order to get the right size. The new kit would be sent Monday night and delivered Tuesday morning. After almost a week visiting the area while waiting for us, our friends Six en Route continued their way towards Brazil.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 4: Monday, we were told that the parts store in Santa Cruz has a hard time finding the right size cylinder. In the afternoon, they finally found the corresponding cylinders. Meanwhile, our Brazilian friend Toco who was waiting for us near the Pantanal joined us in Roboré.


Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 5: Tuesday morning, the kit in hand, each of the spares were checked before starting the engine assembly. Segments received are not adapted to the size of the pistons. The correct segments would be sent from Santa Cruz in the morning and should be delivered at 7pm that evening. Something held us in this small village for over a week. There must have been a reason, but who knows ... One word: Patience, patience, patience! At 8 pm, the new kit was delivered, but it was too late to start the job the same evening.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 6: The spares were there, the shape of the pistons was not exactly the same, but we were told that it wasn't a problem. At 9 am, everyone started cleaning and assembling again. At 5 pm, pistons and cylinders installed, they tried to rotate the crankshaft in order to verify the proper installation of parts. Surprise, surprise! The engine can not run because the pistons are too long and are hitting the cylinder heads.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 7: Thursday morning at 7am, Aless and Toco took a bus for Corumba in Brazil with a sample of our piston and cylinder. At 5 pm the same day, they come back with a big smile. After 30 minutes spent in Brazil, they had already found the engine spares kit, a bit more expensive than in Bolivia, of course, but after a week and a half of patience, this gave us a chance to hit the road again. The whole team got to work at night, they worked on the engine until midnight.

Zorro's engine, Season 2, Episode 8: Friday morning, 8:30 am they assembled the remaining spares and mounted the engine. Would it start ? It didn't. Was it the battery? The starter which has been running randomly lately? Maybe something else? They towed us and we started with the second gear. It worked. After a short test ride, we discovered an oil leak. It was 5 pm, they put the engine down again, changed a gasket and installed it again. It continued leaking. The next morning, Aless opened the cylinder heads cover in order to make sure it was properly sealing and discovered a small loose small gasket. We had enough. We decided to leave and visit another mechanic familiar with this kind of engine in Corumba, Brazil.


In summary, on the first replacement kit that we received, cylinders were slightly too short, but pistons were good. In the second kit received, cylinders and pistons were good, but the segments did not correspond to the size of the pistons. In the third kit received, cylinders and segments were good but the pistons were too long. Because they couldn't sell the spares of the kit separately, we couldn't get it all right. That's how things get complicated...

After showing the balnearios of Aguas Caliente to our friend Toco, we drove him to Corumba from where he caught a bus to Campo Grande. We take this opportunity to inspect and adjust the engine before returning to Puerto Quijarro, on the Bolivian side of the border.


After requesting an entry permit for the visit of the Parque National Pantanal de Otuquis at the municipality of Puerto Suarez, we followed the dirt road, surrounded by swamps, escorted by dozens of herons and huge tuyuyus. Along the way, we had the chance to see some caimans and a deer, but it was the quantity and diversity of birds which enchanted us the most. Herons, egrets, kingfishers, parakeets, tuiuius, hawks, toucans and many other species. After spending the night in the wilderness, we were escorted back by a group of toucans.


Bolivia traveling in company: We were first accompanied by Beatrice, my mother. We then had a taste of traveling in family with Vero, Thierry, Max, Loane, Sam & Zoe. Three years of travel around the world with four children, it requires organization, some school discipline, respect for each other space, but when everyone puts his hand to the dough, all goes well. We had briefly met in Verkala in India, for the time of an evening. After following their trip through their blog for a year and a half, we finally had the opportunity to get to know each character and discover each of them in a more personal way. Without imposing a rhythm, we made the journey together for two weeks. Sharing meals has enabled us to diversify flavors and cooking methods. Pizza, pancakes and raclette over a wood fire, lasagna and spaghetti bolognese with soy meat, apple curry salad and even lemon tarts... After our paths separated, we had a second visit from our Brazilian friend Toco. He came by plane to visit the Pantanal with us. Result, he spent nearly a week with us in Roboré and supported us with the engine's repair. He left with a smile, without seeing the Pantanal, but this experience gave him a taste of Bolivia and especially the opportunity to discover the magic rivers of Aguas Caliente...

Click here to read the following story in Brazil.

From the 27th, to the 29th of October 2011

The Paso de Jama was just the tip of the iceberg. Once we crossed the border between Argentina and Chile at 4200 meters above sea level, the road continued climbing up to 4840 meters through a desert landscapes, dotted with remnants of snow sculpted by the wind. At 4700 meters, before descending to San Pedro de Atacama, we turned to Bolivia to visit the lagoons in the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. Opinions differed, some travelers told us that the tracks were navigable with our type of vehicle, others discouraged us because of the risk of getting stuck in the sand or damaging our car.

If we choose not to travel backpacking in this part of the world, it was specially to enjoy the freedom of traveling at our own rhythm and stop where and when we decided to. The idea of visiting the region with an express tour did not appeal us, so we decided take our chance...


After the immigration and park entrance paid (150 bolivianos or 15,000 Chilean pesos per person, much better to arrive with bolivianos), we first followed Laguna Blanca, surrounded by some flamingos and reflecting the snowy peaks, before reaching the beautiful Laguna Verde at 4300 meters. It was noon, a slight wind picked up and the color of the water seemed unreal. Over time, 4x4 vehicles created alternatives tracked to the main "road". Some were well dug and we were forced to navigate straddling between the ruts and the sideband. We touched a few large stones, but fortunately it was without damage that we reached the main trail leading to the Laguna Chalviri through magnificent sceneries. We spent the afternoon soaking in the thermal bath at 4300 meters above sea level, in an attempt to cure from a slight altitude sickness.


At sunrise, we enjoyed the warm water before the arrival of lot's of tourists, then reached the Laguna Colorada. The landscape was breathtaking. Installed on a beach, we spent most of the day watching thousands of pink flamingos dotting the lagoon. Some tourist vehicles stopped to allow express pictures before continuing their tightly scheduled tour.


In the afternoon we turned back and made it to the customs office located at 5020 meters above sea level, in order to make the vehicle formalities. A headache settled instantly. The official made the documents for the entry and exit of the country at the same time. Going down, we stopped at the Sol de Mañana Geysers. It was like being on the moon! The ground was full of craters filled with mud, boiling water or sulfurized fumaroles. The multiple paths leading to the main "road" seemed more difficult than one another. We throw ourselves in a crazy road through sand, big stones, rut and an engine for which the altitude has removed all power. Sweaty palms, racing heart, holding breath, Aless shouted: "We will not be able to make it !" A few minutes later, with a huge relief, we reached the corrugated dirt trail... After this experience, we realized that for this region it was more essential to have some ground clearance (frame height) than a four wheel drive vehicle. We spent the last quiet night near the hot springs before returning to Laguna Verde.


This time, it was 10 o'clock in the morning, the wind had not yet risen and the magnificent Licancabur volcano was reflecting in the water. Shortly after our arrival, we could see a turquoise line advancing in the lagoon. In fifteen minutes, the wind picked up and transformed the lagoon color into a surreal turquoise. After three days in this amazing area, we left Bolivia and reached San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Click here to read the following story in Chile.

See the album "Bolivia - June-August & October 2011"