When Kat ended the last blog we had just enjoyed three days at a fun, horsey guest ranch 30 miles south of the city of Salta, Argentina (just off the map to the south). Our adventure continued with three days in Salta getting the last blog out, doing laundry, restocking Charlotte’s shelves and exploring the heart of this, while large, very humanly vibrant city. Notwithstanding it’s a city, we enjoyed our time there immensely (surprise), but were ready to push on into the wilds of southern Bolivia.
We’d read much about the poverty, corruption and desolation that this land-locked country offers, so we planned accordingly with full food, gas and water stores. As usual, it turned out that reports were exaggerated, and we found Bolivia, like everywhere else we’ve visited, to be friendly, fascinating and full of wondrous sites. We really only scratched the surface of this rather large country, only covering its southwestern corner, an area containing vast salt flats and endless open desert devoid of human civilization like towns and paved roads. In other words, our kind of place! Instead of heading straight into the desert though, we did drive 200 miles out of our way to visit the country’s capital, Sucre. We wanted to get a taste of the urban side of Bolivia and we couldn’t have picked a better city. Even every Bolivian tourist we talked to assured us Sucre is their country’s jewel. Sucre also marked a turning point where we pointed Charlotte southward, once again heading towards our overall goal of reaching the tip of this amazing continent. Soon enough we were driving on endless salt flats and enjoying ourselves in total isolation – with a bit too much alcohol as the photos will tell! From the Saltar de Uyuni we bounced 268 miles over the worst washboard roads I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. But the beauty and desolation of southwestern Bolivia more than made up for the price we paid in rough roads. This area quickly became yet another highlight of our trip.
We hope you enjoy this blog, resplendent with dust, salt, booze, vast vistas, critters, locals, washboards and did I mention dust? Oh, and Happy New Year to you all!!!
Since it’s the holiday season we’ll start off with the best Cabernet Sauvignon we found in Argentina. The Pietro Marini winery is located in Cafayate, a town we stayed in a week earlier. We should have taken a tour. We enjoyed this bottle at the Jovi restaurant in downtown Salta, a landmark which has been serving amazing regional wines and delicious steaks for over 50 years.
Our waiter Roberto has been working at Jovi for 42 years. He recommended the Cab and served us with an old world hospitality not found much these days.
Our favorite breakfast spot quickly became Alicia’s which we visited twice. Isabel was the head honcho in the kitchen and insisted she put on a clean red chief’s jacket before I took her fuzzy picture. Here she displays freshly made empanadas, minced meat and vegetables wrapped in a pastry crust – delicious!
Lyle the Crocodile? We spotted this clever sand creation along the sidewalk while strolling around Salta on a Sunday afternoon.
On the road and heading north to Bolivia we stopped for a peek at the town of Purmamarca, known for its seven color hills which tower over the dusty tourist shops.
Close to the Bolivian border, following Ruta 9, these “potatoes au gratin” like hills came into view.
Finding a dirt road heading towards the hills, we were able to get closer to these amazing geological wonders.
…and get checked out by the locals at the same time.
The whole place was just too cool, so we stopped early for the night and camped with this view.
Before hitting the Ruta 9 again the next morning, I stopped to check our ever present coolant leak and was again watched over by curious locals.
For miles along Ruta 9 we ran parallel to an abandoned railroad track and an old telegraph line. All the poles, made from steel rail tracks placed vertically, sported perfect glass isolators; the kind I know people back home love to collect but can’t find in the American West anymore.
Bienvenidos a Bolivia. This was the main drag of the border town of Villazon just after going through the usual third world border hassles. After our efficient, no-nonsense crossing from Chile to Argentina, we just had to laugh at the silly antics of backward country bureaucrats.
Leaving the bustle of Villazon we crossed under this elaborate welcome bridge leading into the desert. It was the first sign that Bolivia might not be exactly what we expected.
At first chance I added the Bolivia sticker to our collection of now 15 countries we have passed through – and reflected that this is our last sticker for this continent.
After a couple of hours of driving and seeing no towns we took a side road around the grimy mining town of Potosí, which took us to the even grimier village of Belén. Approaching the town revealed the persistent problem of plastic trash in countries with no garbage collection programs.
The residents seem oblivious to their trashed environment.
A pots and pans store on the filthy streets of Belén.
While most gave our clattering bus a cautious stare, we got a smile out of a few. Note the braided pigtails and long skirts with sweaters.
These gals had it a little more together with a clean street to sell their fresh fruit on and ice cream to go around!
Further on down the road we camped our first night in Bolivia with this incredible view to wake up to.
We had a couple of steaks and some veggies in the fridge that were going a bit “off” to our tender gringo tummies, so Kat wanted to give them to a local. Her first approach, speaking in Spanish and not carrying the food, was to a woman standing in her front yard. Upon Kat’s approach the woman turned in terror and ran into her home! We realized these local natives probably don’t speak any Spanish and without showing the food, didn’t have a clue why we were stopping our big red box with the dead cow head and approaching them. Kat’s modified second try to this gal and her child, who were walking down the highway, was more successful. As I pulled off the road, Kat hopped out with steaks and veggies in hand. The woman grabbed the child and quickly headed to the opposite side of the road. Kat pursued, food outstretched. Finally the woman stopped and acknowledged the gift with a shy, fleeting smile, then quickly ushered her child onward and swiftly continued down the road as I tried to sneak this photo. Kat noted that she appeared quite young, maybe early 20s, but was already missing several teeth.
We arrived in the capital of Sucre with the intention of just checking the city out, restocking supplies and headed for the desert. But a quick walk around the main square told us this was a place to hang for a while. Sucre was unlike the Bolivia we had seen so far.
Plaza de Pedro de Anzurez, the oldest part of Sucre, named after the founder of the town.
A view of the charming city of Sucre as seen from the mirador, the lookout point atop La Recoleta hill and the spot where the capital city was founded in 1538.
The beautiful main square convinced us we needed to stay. Kat poses with a statue of Bolivia’s namesake, Simon Bolivar. Note the gorgeous landscaping throughout the square.
Being Sunday and close to Christmas, lots of local families were out enjoying the unusually beautiful weather in the main square. Situated at 9,000 ft, the city is not known for its heat, even in the middle of summer.
We want these guys to landscape our yard!
“Mom, I’m sick of sitting in the park. And tell my sister to quit bugging me!”
Duh! Which way do I go? The crosswalks split in the middle of the street with separate walk/don’t walk signs for each direction. Walking around had me more confused than driving!
We gave this little street beggar toast with jam and butter in exchange for a big smile. Wonder where she spent her Christmas?
This prostitute looked to be about 13 years old.
The main open air market was a cornucopia of beautiful fruits, veggies and beautiful, friendly Bolivians eager to serve us…
Victoria sold us some fresh chicken and happily de-boned and diced it for us while we told her about our trip. She wished us safe travels and to go with God and all will be well.
Victoria’s competition decided to take siesta a little early.
Kat wanted to take every one of these spices with us.
Dog and cat food anyone?
How about some shampoo? Deodorant? Shaving cream?
Think a tie might help my pathetic wardrobe?
We checked in to the Capital Plaza Hotel, a beautiful old colonial right on the main square – for $55 bucks a night.
Dinner on an upstairs balcony overlooking the main square.
At night the main square came alive with the Christmas season. Throughout the month of December, either in Argentina or Bolivia, we have not seen much fanfare about Christmas. Only now, a few days before the 25th have the decorations come out. Nowhere in stores do you get the barrage of sell, sell, selling of material stuff, such a welcome relief. It seems here in Latin America the true meaning of Christmas, celebrating Christ’s birthday, is alive and well. The Holiday has not become a commercial excuse to buy a bunch of crap.
Heading south again, the main traffic towards Uyuni was mostly the four legged kind.
Waking up the morning of Dec 23rd and looking out our kitchen window almost looked like we had a big front lawn. Where is the white picket fence?
Lately we’ve been pretty good about our morning stretches and exercises, thanks to mild temps, no bugs and great hidden camp spots. Our Mac’s Tie Downs Utility Mat helps too.
After carrying around a winch and a ground anchor for just over a year, 21,000 miles and lots of nasty dirt roads, we finally needed them! Leaving our river bottom camp site I wasn’t paying attention (fiddling with the stereo) and missed applying the VW Syncro four-wheeling creed of “use momentum.”
Kat demonstrates the proper technique for setting a Pull Pal winch anchor in soft ground while I control the winch, a technique she has come to master over years of four-wheeling together.
Yes! Its working! The Pull Pal took hold and our trusty Warn winch, riding dormant for a year, drags poor Charlotte through the muck.
The Pull Pal is a life saver when there are no trees, rocks or another vehicle around to anchor your winch to.
Back on dry land once again.
Dropping down into the town of Uyuni, Bolivia on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the endless salt flats seen in the distance.
We picked up this grateful miner hitchhiking about ten miles out of town. We hadn’t seen another car heading our way all morning. We never did get his name but gathered in local dialect Spanish that he had family in Uyuni and was excited to see them for Christmas.
Funky artwork in downtown Uyuni.
We took a quick look around town but decided to head straight for the salt flats for some isolated camping before Christmas Eve. On the edge of the salt lies the Hotel de Sal, a hotel made completely out of salt! The walls, furniture, beds, wall hangings, staircases – everything is made out of the stuff! We had to check it out, and although cool, Charlotte looked a lot more appealing.
On the salt at last! We’d been looking forward to this part of the world for a long time. Kat immediately jumped out and played hop-scotch in the bizarre polygon patterns formed in the salt bed.
Then we took the obligatory silly photos that everyone takes on the endless horizon. We’ve seen some very clever examples on the internet (Google Salar de Uyuni – more images if you need more than our two). There are also some really beautiful ones, taken when the sky and light are just right and there is water on the salt. These are some of the images I saw years ago that inspired me to want to come to this part of the world. Check them out.
Then we got into the beer… La Burra, which we picked up in Argentina, has an 8% alcohol content and, combined with the excitement of reaching the salt flats and no lunch,… well the next few pics will explain.
Don’t drink and drive, ha! You might hit something out here! After a few large 360s and weaving through some imaginary salt cones (I think they were imaginary), we wisely made camp in the middle of nowhere.
Then we got into the Tequila!
Yum, yum. That girl can sure cook a mean pot in the middle of nowhere.
They say Tequila makes your clothes fall off, but in our case, it seems to make our arms and legs fly around.
Almost lights out.
The next morning… this is almost TMI but we finally used our Sit, Shower, Shave unit from Synergy for its intended purpose instead of just our trash can. It’s good to be green when you can’t dig a hole.
One of us was more green than the other.
Charlotte just wanted the salt off of her after 120 miles of driving on the stuff.
We ended up doing a big loop, mostly following the tracks of dozens of tourist filled, guide driven Toyota Land Cruisers. I swear EVERY old FJ80 in the world has wound up in Uyuni, Bolivia doing duty as a 4X4 tour bus. Although these photos look like we are the only ones around for miles, the truth is by day, these tourist haulers were never very far out of site during our entire time in southwest Bolivia. Another myth busted as we thought we’d really be “out there.” At least they disappeared at night, leaving us alone to camp in quiet seclusion.
Back in Uyuni Charlotte got a Christmas present in the form of a partial bath from this happy guy. He actually gave Kat a big Christmas hug after his work was done.
Of course we had to restock our beer supply. This is one of the cool little walk up stores where you stand at the gated entrance and the proprietor/owner gets you what you want.
We checked in to the Toñito Hotel for a much needed shower on Christmas Eve. We had big plans to attend midnight mass in the old town church just to watch the locals, but alas we failed; a combination of lasting hangovers and months of a propensity towards early bedtime hours.
This is Chris, an American from Boston who owns the Minuteman Pizza restaurant inside the Toñito Hotel. He is married to a local gal, Suzi, whose family owns the hotel. Minuteman is by far the best eating in Uyuni.
Stocked up with all the water, gas and food we could carry we set off Christmas Day for the “wilds” of southern Bolivia. Everything we read made it sound like we were really heading into nowhere – and we really were, as the photos show. However, I think we’ve spent more time further from people in the Nevada deserts than in Bolivia. Land Cruisers full of tourists with hired driver/guides were everywhere. We never saw another private vehicle though. Where ARE all those Overlanders in their fancy 4X4s?
We passed by these awesome rocks a couple hours out of Uyuni and had to stop and play on them like little kids.
Oh yeah, the road. Guess we better get going…
In Villa Alota we passed by yet another school, closed because its summer vacation down here. Remember back in Columbia our awesome experience “teaching” school for a morning in a remote school house? We vowed to do more and bought world maps in Ecuador to give out to schools. Kat’s illness in Peru and our extended stay at home pushed our time frame into summer vacation for schools down here. Since returning, every potential school we’ve seen has been sans kids. Bummer. We decided to ask in this tiny burg of Villa Alota for the school master in hopes of giving a map to him/her for the coming year. Instead we got a promise from these two boys that the map would get into the right hands. Well, maybe… at least one young guy in Bolivia might now have a world map on his wall at home.
The roads got rougher and the silt began.
But there was no shortage of tracks to follow. At first we thought the famed Dakar race course had run through here leaving all the deep ruts. However no amount of race traffic we’ve ever seen in Baja or Nevada has left this much destruction. It soon became apparent that all these tracks were from the tourist laden Land Cruisers whose drivers take their clients anywhere they want.
The Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa will never be the same after we stickered it up with official Charlottamiles stickers. We’ve been leaving these stickers all over South America, so if one of you ever comes across one take a photo and please let us know.
Way too many fuzzy flamingo shots. After shooting a million shots these past weeks we realized the anti-shake feature on our little camera got turned off. Shit, we’re such professional photographers!
Fuzzy vicuñas too.
Dozens of scenic, salt encrusted lakes/lagoons dot the otherwise desolate landscape.
The only green things around for hundreds of miles were these crazy, moss-like growths which are called Llareta. They are a high altitude relative of parsley! The plant can live up to three thousand years, and its oozing resin is super flammable. We only saw it in one area where we happened to camp for a night.
Campsites like this make us want to wave our arms and legs around too. No Tequila needed.
Are we out there yet?
The Stone Tree is a popular photo stop.
Tabletop dancing has always been one of my specialties. Just ask my Porsche racing buddies.
These tough tufts of grass seem to be all the vicuñas live on.
This poor little fox seemed to pose for food. He was in an area near Laguna Blanca which was particularly heavy with Land Cruiser traffic.
Laguna Colorada is named for its red color which changes hues throughout the day. We had pretty cloudy skies so while the colors were lacking, the “icebergs” made up of borax, salt and ice (!) were fascinating. Although it was mid-summer and mid 70s temps during the day, it still dropped below freezing every night.
Being in the Andes mountains, all of southern Bolivia is above 12,000 ft which helps the ice stick around too. We took this shot of our GPS when it hit 16,000 ft, but the highest we saw was 16,200. I think that’s the highest Charlotte has driven yet.
The Termas de Chalviri was about the coolest (hottest?) area we saw.
The steam rushing out of this hole in the ground must have been 200 degrees and going 100 mph. Standing next to it really gave you a sense of the power of mother-nature.
Watching boiling mud is fascinating.
BIG country! Yes, that dot is Charlotte.
Not all Toyotas live forever. We called this overnight spot “Camp Dead Truck.”
Sometimes you feel so small.
Sure glad Kat is back in form.
Taking a morning run at 15,000ft elevation!
Ho hum, just another pretty mountain!
On the shores of Laguna Verde after crossing 250+ miles of remote Bolivia.
Charlotte ran like a top despite being pounded by endless washboards and slathered in endless silt. I don’t think we’ll ever get all the dust out of her nooks and crannies. Oh well, patina.
This is the high tech Bolivian exit border with Chile. The entrance border into Chile is 27 miles down a paved “international” road in San Pedro de Atacama. And by down we mean down! We’re at 14,000 ft here but when we hit San Pedro the GPS read 8,000 ft!
Stay tuned next time as we make our way a second time down through northern Chile. We plan to stop at Basecamp and Copiapó to meet up with our Santiago friends, Sebastian, Peter and José and their families who are spending their summer vacation camping at the beach. A highlight will be watching the famous Dakar Rally Raid pass through the dunes outside Copiapó. Sebastian and Pete will have their high horsepower jeeps and have arranged for a Razor XP1000 UTV for Kat and me so we can all journey deep into the dunes and chase the race. WooHoo! Can’t wait…