Shake, Rattle, and Roll – Adventure Driving in Bolivia

Remember that time we drove through a crazy remote border from Ecuador into Peru and thought it was pretty wild… well… ummm… meet Bolivia. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of horrible, corrugated, dirt tracks at ridiculously high elevations with no services, gas, or help in any direction for days and days… sounds like the perfect adventure for the Craggin’ Wagon! What could go wrong?

After hanging in La Paz at the Oberland until a fleet of German RVs came through with reservations for the entire place forcing everyone currently there to leave, we camped at a local rock climbing area called Anarjuez for a bit before hitting the “road.” Bolivia is reknown for it’s horrible roads. Less than 10% of the roads in Bolivia are paved with some stats saying it’s as little as 6%. But we knew this going in and deemed our destinations would be worth the trouble (and the special, for-Americans-only, $130 per person reciprocity fee to enter the country).

No sooner than we got South of Oruro the pavement promptly ended and a three day long, freak hail and rain storm began pummeling the altiplano with more moisture than it could handle. It was bizarre and we were beginning to wonder if the rainy season had come early, or perhaps our research indicating it typically started in Nov/Dec was incorrect. What followed was basically a multi-hundred-mile jaunt through a seemingly endless mud trough. The rear wheel drive prevailed though, and we pulled into Uyuni a few days later just as the storm cleared… receiving a lot of funny looks and humorous comments in Spanish about the new color of our van.

Maybe after a carwash we'll be able to see out the windows again?
Maybe after a carwash we’ll be able to see out the windows again?

There are some funny little things that happen when traveling that really drive home the point that you’re somewhere different. The spontaneous creation of a full scale market where their used to be a street only hours earlier is one of those things. Uyuni decided to errect one where we had decided to stealth camp for the night. Even better, it was basically complete before we even woke up. Good morning!

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Besides putting a huge smile on our faces it was also the perfect opportunity to pick up food and an extra 30 liter gas jug for our looming adventure into the largest salt flat in the world and the infamous Southwest Circuit!

The places we were set on seeing are so remote and harsh that venturing into them alone would have been more than simply foolish, but down right dangerous. Meet Andre, Barbara, and their three young kiddos Casper, Conrad, and Kaia – a Polish family driving an ’87 Chevy with a lot in common with our beloved Craggin’ Wagon.

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Caravan ready, we eased our aging rigs onto the famous Salar de Unyuni.

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The Salar de Unyuni is a 4,000 square mile, perfectly level, salt flat left behind from several large, prehistoric lakes. The flat sits at a remarkably high 12,000 feet making the sun bright and the reflections off the endless white surface intense. The salt crust is a few meters thick in some areas and sits atop a liquid mixture called brine. We stopped near the entrance for the standard tourist shots of the salt piles, flags and salt hotel.

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A "Salt Hotel" constructed entirely of salt blocks
A “Salt Hotel” constructed entirely of salt blocks

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Then we put the pedal to the medal and drove about 60 miles out into the flat. The driving is like nothing I’ve ever experience. It’s so flat and perfect that before you know it your going a 100 and can hardly tell. After a while we rolled in to Isla Pescado where we would camp for the night under a brilliant display of stars.

Salt is great for vehicle upkeep... this was after only a handful of miles!
Salt is great for vehicle upkeep… this was after only a handful of miles!

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Amazing starry nights in this environment
Amazing starry nights in this environment

Salt flat yoga anyone? Niccole: “yes please!”

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The next day we took advantage of the strange optics the flat provides to snap a few funny shots with makeshift props from the van.

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Next up, we washed the salt from the rigs and filled them up with as much gas, water, and food as they could hold and started driving Southwest, fingers crossed for a uneventful outing with respect to mechanical issues. Remote doesn’t even begin to describe the collection of rough, dirt tracks and water crossings that journey hundreds of miles through strange, Mars-like landscapes filled with multi-colored lagoons into Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and then finally on to Chile (looking for non-4X4 info on how to do the SW Circuit? See our Bolivia Route, Border, and Tips page for details and GPS coords).

From Uyuni the next services for anything would be in San Pedro, Chile. The caravan picked up a motorcyclist from the UK by the name of Ross – an excellent addition to the crew. But before we motored off, we paid the Train Cemetery a visit on the outskirts of town.

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Ha! Now that's funny
Ha! Now that’s funny. (This is a translation I’m quite familiar with: “I need a mechanic with experience urgently!”)

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The road was exactly what we had come to expect but were hoping wouldn’t be – that is, endless washboard. It rattles the vehicle so hard that you can’t go faster than 15kph at times and constantly wonder just how much the suspension and mechanical components can take.

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Fortunately, these old rigs were built tough. As our friend Jorge from South to Nowhere reminded me when we were initially contemplating this drive, “You’re a man with an American V8 – what can’t you do?” Indeed, we made it pretty far the first day, through several river crossings, and camped in the middle of a giant valley surrounded by volcanos.

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Our first mechanical issues would surface the next day. The first flat tire befell the Chevy. Some modifications to brakes would come next. Meanwhile, the Craggin’ Wagon kept chugging along.

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Then, when we’re crawling up a pass in about the dead center of our journey, as far away from either side as we could really be, came a horrible, grinding, metal sound. Talk about that sinking, stressful, pit of the stomach feeling. Had we pushed the limits too far in our vintage rig? It sounded critical. Like, perhaps we were about to become backpackers for the remainder of our trip.

I stopped the rig at about 15,500 feet and took the wheel off – good exercise at that altitude. I quickly identified a large space where a missing rubber piece from the strut had deteriorated and disappeared somewhere in the miles past. Fortunately, the entire thing was still held firmly together and showed no signs of worsening. I must have checked it 50 times over the next couple days making sure it didn’t deteriorate further. Honestly, the worse part was having to listen to the horrible (though mostly irrelevant) sound for the remainder of the trip. We finally hit Laguna Colorado and camped in the nearby Dali’s Rock.

Hundreds of flamingos scattered across the blood red lake.
Hundreds of flamingos scattered across the blood red lake (click to enlarge)

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Camp!
Camp!

After a quick stroll up the canyon we found an epic reward for making it this far – climbing! Not just any climbing, but perfect cracks in great volcanic rock that had never seen ascents!!! BOOM. Next thing you know were doing first ascents at 14,200 ft and checking supplies to see how long we can hang here before having to move on. (For climber specific info check our Bolivia Climbing page for details)

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Splitters!
Splitters! I named this one Bolivian Strut Buster

The next few days were more van shaking, metal banging miles past gorgeous landscapes, thermal springs, stunning lakes, volcanos, and geysers. Though I haven’t been to Mars (yet) I suspect we could have fooled a Martian into thinking he was home.

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We ended up driving all the way to 16,500 feet where we located the highest customs office in the world along the way.

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On our last day in the park the Craggin’ Wagon got it’s first flat tire of the trip. Over 16,000 miles without a flat – I was beginning to think we would make it the entire way. Not so. Another high-altitude, tire-changing endeavor later and we were motoring through the border and descending towards Chile. At this point I noticed a charging issue with the coach batteries in our rig. The engine batteries were fine though so we pressed on. Our Polish amigos weren’t so lucky. They had a catastrophic brake failure which rendered their rig unable to continue. Next thing you know we have a family of 5 on board with us!

Getting to Chile was a huge relief. Smooth paved roads that even had signs! Weird. The immigration office is actually in the town of San Pedro rather than at the border. They were pretty surprised when 7 people came piling out of our van. Over the next three days we repaired all of the issues with the van getting the tire fixed, a part fabricated for the strut, and determining a metal piece had shook loose, made contact with the battery, and caused a multi fuse-blowing short. We also detailed the van, cleaning about a 1/4 desert’s worth of sand and dust from our ride. Craggin’ Wagon repaired, we said goodbye to our Polish friends who would be dealing with their issues for much longer than us and motored off on the amazing roads into the Atacama Desert in Chile.

It was a helluva journey, but we made it. Arriving in Chile was a pretty monumental part of the trip for us. It marks the end of really poor third world countries, of insane driving with no rules, of horrible roads and no infrastructure. The lack of trash, the well cared for dogs, and the modern look of the people remind us of home… as does the price you pay for such things. Chile is not cheap.

We’re expecting smooth sailing from here, though we have many miles left to go, many places left to visit, and many friends to meet up with over the remaining months of our adventure. Signing off, from a fast interent connection no less… Ciao friends.

Eric & Niccole

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