La Paz – We Become Overlanders

We finally arrived in La Paz after many hours in road works and diversions from hell, the last hour and a half being in darkness. Actually a pretty harrowing experience as much of the on coming traffic don’t dip their lights and the diversions are dirt roads with no markings. On top of that there are crazy overtakers everywhere who don’t seem to fear on coming trucks in the slightest. We’re not doing great wih this not driving at night thing…

Driving into La Paz you quickly understand that it is on a steep hill as you decend down a helter scelter like dual carrigeway into the center of town. The route to our hotel was fortunately turned out to be fairly straightforward and amazingly we got there without getting misrouted. Even better found that the off-site parking was just across the street – we were dreading finding that by this point!  Sure, we got overcharged as our van was “larger than an ordinary cars” but we didn’t care about gringo taxes, we were just happy to be able to get in and have a hot shower!  Well, the hotel was a little basic but good enough, and the shower was hot  but had the same electric heating system as in Uyuni, which meant a hot trickle or a cold flow.  What escaped Barbara’s attention initially was the plastic wrap over the tap – that is, until she inadvertantly touched the metal behind it and got a shock.  Apparently the plastic wrap was their nod to health and safety.

We discovered that Bolivia is not as cheap as we had been expecting, as besides being able to get almuerzo (or lunch) for about £1 and accommodation being cheap, pretty much everything else cost as much or more than Chile – particularly wine!

We wanted to find a mechanic as Steve had a few niggles we wanted looking at, and a quick internet search led us to suposedly the best mechanic in South America – which may have been the case but he didn’t specialise in deisel engines.  Although he was able to call a friend who worked for Mercedes and gave us some helpful tips, one of which is not to get a Sprinter fixed in Bolivia as you can’t get parts easily and there are no mechanics experineced with Sprinter engines. We heeded this advice and decided to wait for Peru.

The great thing was that he had quite a trade in fixing other overland travellers’ vehicles so we got to meet other travellers who were staying at Hotel Oberland, introducing us to the world of overland travellers we had not discovered until now. We decided to move over to Oberland as it sounded pretty good, basically a big parking area with showers and the use of the other great hotel facilities. Barbara was particularly pleased to find that their fantastic hot showers weren’t reliant on plastic bags as a safety measure…

It seems that throughout Bolivia and Peru there are campsites that cater for ‘overlanders’ and a whole community that cross through them in a wide variety of vehicles from humble vans and 4x4s to mega trucks.

Overlanders at Hotel Oberland
Overlanders at Hotel Oberland

We spent the next couple of days sorting out a plan and aquiring some maps for our next expedition, which was to be out climbing some acclimatisation peaks. We hoped to climb a 6000er later. After eventually finding the Instituto Geographica Militar and requesting copies of the maps we needed we continued wondering round the narrow steep streets of La Paz. Having looked on Google Earth at the route to the place I thought would be good to base ourselves for a few days it seemed we’d need 4×4 transport out there, so I thought we should pop into an tour agency that seemed to specialise in mountaineering trips. I went in and asked the lady working there about hiring 4×4 transport to get us to the Khara Khota valley – she did not know, but she did call her boss and passed me the phone saying Doctor Hugo wanted to speak to me. He told me that return 4×4 transport would be very expensive (about $400) but I explained we had a van so could get some of the way. He suggested going to Pena and speaking to the local padre who would be able to arrange the onward transport. However he also warned that if we encountered any drunk miners we should make a quick exit as it could be dangerous. After talking through the miner issue a bit more it turned out that they really don’t like Gringos and if you get in amongst a drunk mob your life may be in danger. I asked him if he thought it might be better to go elsewhere. He suggested going to Juri Khotta valley instead. He said he would be in the office the next day, we could come visit him and he would show us on the map where to go and tell us how to get there. We agreed a time and went back the next day once we had ordered a different map from the IGM.

Tom and the Great Dr. Hugo!
Tom and the Great Dr. Hugo!

Meeting Dr. Hugo in person was quite an experience.  He was a fairly eccentric chap to say the least, his office bookshelves crammed full of guide books and mountaineering journals. He showed me on the map where the Juri Khotta valley was and explained we could hire a muleteer in Tuni, and that Tuni was quite safe as many tourists go there to walk to Condoriri base camp. After some more lively chat he said he could give us a lift back to the Hotel Oberland as he lived near by, we would just need to go to his lock up to get the Beast (his old toyota 4×4) and he would then introduce us to his mechanic friend (the second best mechanic in South America apparently).

The stunning night view over La Paz with Illimani in the background.
The stunning night view over La Paz with Illimani in the background.

As we drove round the streets of LaPaz he told us stories of his youth when he rode round on a motorbike graffiting anti government slogans and being part of the marxist revolutionary movement, ultimately having to leave the country to avoid being captured by the government. It seemed he’d had quite a colourful youth!  He drove us up to a fantastic view point over the city before visiting his friend Tuco to drop off ‘the beast’ who had to collect some other clients from Condorirri the next day, dropping us off at Oberland at the end . Dr Hugo was really knowledgable and helpful, even if he is a bit bonkers. If you need some mountaineering advice in LaPaz you should pay him a visit at Huayna Potosi Tours at the top of Sarganaga you’ll definately get some good advice and some entertainment to boot!

Canyons and Silvermines

We didn’t take much persuading to leave Uyuni. The next stop was to be Potosi, once one of the richest cities in the world due to the now largely exhausted silver mines. Our guide we’d had on the salt flats tour had told us the the road to Potosi was good, and it turned out to be a nice new fully tarmaced road through the mountains and altiplano, the drive was very enjoyable.

Vacuna and cattle grazing the altiplano.
Vacuna and cattle grazing the altiplano.

About 60kms south of Potosi we passed by a really impressive canyon near Aguas de Castilla ,which looked like there could be some good climbing and be a good park for the night.

There's got to be someeeee routes in tha there canyon
There’s got to be someeeee routes in tha there canyon

We continued on to Potosi, however, as we needed some supplies and wanted to have a wonder round the city. The city is built on a steep hillside and at over 4000m this makes just walking round the city a challenge, although well worthwhile as the old colonial buildings and narrow streets are really pretty.

Streets of Potosi.
Streets of Potosi.

There was no information about climbing in the canyon on the internet, so we would have to just go and see what we could find. After a good and undisturbed nights sleep we found a way down into the canyon and started looking for suitable lines to climb (strong lines that did not look too hard). We could see lots of good potential routes, but the easier lines all seemed to be involve a lot of loose crumbly rock and required more cleaning than I was prepared to take on. The harder lines were solid, but were more than one pitch and looked a bit hard for Barbara to follow.

Steep corner cracks in the canyon walls.
Steep corner cracks in the canyon walls. 

After a couple of hours we gave up on the climbing idea and decided to go for a walk down the canyon. The canyon was really stunning with a beautifully clear stream running down the middle, the high sandstone walls were impressive. The stream had many deep pools so we took the opportunity to have a much needed quick dip and a bit of a wash. The water was COLD, but we felt refreshed and importantly clean afterwards.

Hang on, Bolivia is suppposed to be cheap!

Nowhere in any literature had we read anything to fully prepare us for Uyuni.  After a marathon drive from San Pedro, along some surprisingly good roads for the most part, we finally saw the signs telling us we were almost there shortly after it got fully dark.  Every bit of advice tells you not to drive South American roads at night and for good reason, even the best roads can suddenly become pot-holed at a moment’s notice.  Having heard that Bolivia isn’t the safest place on earth though, I was keen to have at least the first night there in the relative safety and comfort of a hostel – not to mention we were both pretty keen on a hot shower.  We couldn’t get the fully glory of the town in the dark, but using the (slightly out of date) Lonely Planet for inspiration we hunted out a few of the hotels/hostels recommended.  It’s safe to say that there is quite a lot of literary licence used to describe these places, a little bit like estate agents’ shorthand you get to read between the lines quite quickly.  After a few enquiries we realised that Uyuni was not going to be the cheap ticket we had been expecting with rooms costing at least as much as in Santiago but without creature comforts like hot showers and central heating – and Bolivia is %$£$**ing cold!  We settled on a room in a hostel which  had a courtyard we could park Steve in safely.  We ended up spending the evening in him, as it was warmer in the van than in our room!  The hot shower was  only hot when at the lowest trickle, but beggars can’t be choosers…

 We decided moving on was a good idea, but wanted to see the salt flats and as maps (and road signs) were thin on the ground elected to take a tour – helpfully the first place we went into had one leaving in  twenty minutes so we jumped in!

We don’t really do guided tours as a rule so found it a bit odd, but our guide was pretty good.  There was definitely a strict agenda though, as we got driven from place to place and  instructed to get out and take pictures now, thank you, before getting piled back in the car and off to the next sight.  Very strange.  The Uyuni Salt Flats were in fairness really quite amazing, and you just can’t resist taking crazy perspective shots.

It's not the head of a pin, but I guess we're not angels either.
It’s not the head of a pin, but I guess we’re not angels either.



We stayed the night in a salt hotel, which is exactly what it says on the tin and made entirely out of salt bricks.  It was actually quite warm, which came as a welcome surprise!

Inside the salt hotel
Very nice,  but I would have liked another 45 minutes in bed.
Very nice, but I would have liked another 45 minutes in bed.

Our guide clearly had experience getting his group moving in the morning, and had told us we should be up at 6:30am in order to catch the sunrise over the salt flats – but it only actually arrived at 7:15, the little tinker!  We did get out first however, so were able to get to the other attractions before everyone else which was most likely the plan. That day took in a couple of lakes high up in the mountains, which definitely would have been a no-go for Steve so we felt the tour was justified – 4×4 was a requirement for sure!  

We got back to Uyuni and made plans to leave, but due to, ahem, a bit of misrouting by me, we wasted some time driving down a terrible road before deciding that all the guidebooks in fact are right and driving in Bolivia at night was a bad idea.  We thought it best to park up on the outskirts of the town, choosing a dark street.  This may have been our mistake. It appears that parking  in the middle of nowhere was a much better option, as at about 3am we were woken up by someone trying all the doors, only leaving when Tom let him know that it was occuppied by thumping on the side. Happy to leave?  I think so.