Preparation. You probably think that we have this whole thing planned out, right? Would you believe it that our preparation is only a few days ahead of our actual arrival time? As we found out, it is impractical to plan for more than a few days in advance. There are so many factors in play that it is just easier to live in the moment. If you set some sort of hard deadline to be in a certain place at a specific time you are just adding a headache to your trip. There is always a chance that something will go wrong, with you or with your car, stranding you in place for an undetermined amount of time, just like it happened to us in Nicaragua. We were able to just take a few days off, lay in bed and watch whatever movies our dial-up internet could provide and finally, get better. Luckily, the other possibility of trip delay has not happened…but it could.
So – we only have some longer term plans. Where we would like to be and in what month.
Why this long treatise on preparation and planning? I just realized that our views of the trip have changed so gradually that we didn’t even notice the changes ourselves. I remember when we met other overlanders in La Paz (Baja California), just a few days into our trip, and these guys have been travelling for at least 9 months all around US and Canada. We talked about the cars, the prep, the trips, the experiences and i remember that they told us – “you will slow down”. At first i took this as literally as possible, at that time we were doing 400 miles in a day. Now i know that they meant, not only in the miles you cover in a day, but also the sense of anxiety of getting there. I’m not discovering anything new when i say that the trip is the important part, not the destination.
It is the process of letting go – o.m.g. Ivan really, are you write a self-help book here?
No, just listen.
The first day of our trip, yes the FIRST day our trip we were already in another country. Everything we knew was left behind us at the border. According to US media outlets, Mexico is one of the more dangerous parts of the world. And no matter, how much you repress all the things you have heard, they are still there, floating just beneath the surface of consciousness. Next up is Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – homes to some of the most notorious gangs in this side of the world. Once again, you push all the bad stuff as deep down as possible. So on and so forth, with a lot of the places we visited. There was always a constant level of stress present in me.
Something happened and i’m not sure what it is, but i dont care anymore. Maybe it was Peru, maybe it was Bolivia…whatever it was it doesn’t matter – i finally feel free.
Okay…we are happy for you Ivan, now get we get back to the blog?
At the same time i was writing the Nazca Line post, we were “formatting” our documents for the Bolivian embassy. You see, Bolivia charges $160 for US passport holders to enter the country. Its called the “reciprocity fee”, meaning they just mirror what US charges Bolivian citizens to enter US. But…if you have other passports you might be able to get around this fee. If you arrive at the border without a visa, you will still have to pay $50 on the spot. However, you can get a visa for FREE at the embassy.
Check out the list of requirements to get a visa, specifically look at #3. Yes, you read that right: “Credit Card Copy”.
“Sure, here it is Mr. Consul”, i haven’t used my credit card since i left, over three months ago, and now i will just leave a copy with you. Here is my social and my PIN, while we are at it. Through magic of computers we did submit an “artistic” copy of our credit cards. But for the legal record i will state that everything was submitted in order!
We were told that submitting over the internet is much better and faster way of getting a visa. But of course when we got there the morning of the next day their internet was not working, so they had to do the visas over the phone. No, not dial-up…actually call somewhere and talk to get our visas ready.
A few hours later, after we had a chance to have some coffee and cake in a nearby cafe, the visas were ready. The consul shook our hands, handed us our passports and told us to have a great time in Bolivia.
We drove south from Cuzco, towards lake Titicaca. It was about 400 some miles to the border with Bolivia and i expect that it would take us a couple of days to get there, considering all our previous experiences in Peru. Surprisingly, the road was amazing. There was minimal elevation gain and we drove on top of a beautiful Altiplano. We were making amazing progress and it seemed like we could reach the border town of Puno (Peru) the same day. We drove into Puno with hopes of spending one last great night in Peru before leaving it. Our dreams disappeared as fast as the setting sun in the mountains. The city, more like an overgrown village, seemed like an endless collection of tire shops, oil change places, mechanics, some sort of recyclers…basically an shit hole of a place. We drove through empty streets, no pedestrians, no restaurants just closed doors and an extremely unfriendly feeling.
This is when we realized, thanks to some random motorist, that we had a flat tire.
“Fuck!”, i thought to myself. “Why couldn’t we have it in ANY other places? Okay, not Colon (Panama), but ANY OTHER place?”
I didn’t feel same here before the flat, but now…
Okay, i can do this no problem. The important thing is to do this as fast as possible and get out of here.
Spurred on by the ever present feeling of uncertainty and discomfort, i’ve changed the tire so fast that i could have passed the tryout for Formula 1 pit crew. Not a single movement was wasted. Later on Hyein said that she found it extremely sexy how fast i worked.
Even though the town was packed with tire service shops, i did not feel like spending an extra moment more than necessary there. We drove a bit outside of the city and spend a quite night camping in a courtyard of a hotel.
The idea of going back to Puno to fix the tire didn’t even enter our minds, we just woke up and continued towards the border. We didn’t have to wait long and found a tire service/wood working shop.
I though that it was a nail or a piece of metal.
I didn’t expect it to be a 6” bolt. This thing is huge…HOW and WHERE did we get it? We couldn’t grip it hard enough with regular pliers and needed to use vise-grips and BOTH hands to yank this puppy out. Even the mechanic was surprised to see it.
We are bringing it home with us. Like a piece of shrapnel that decided a soldiers fate in favor of the living, this bolt will be forever our reminder of perils of the road.
I’ve been known to procrastinate on some things in my life, somehow during the trip if there is something that needs to be done, i need to do it RIGHT NOW. I can’t just distract myself with something else and not worry about it. I needed to fix that tire ASAP, i couldn’t relax until it was done. Its a new and interesting feeling. I’ve actually never seen Hyein procrastinate – even in grad school she would come home and like a complete nerd start the homework the same day it was assigned. I have now been converted to the dark side. At least for the time being.
At the border we were ready for our usual check-out/check in process. It has become a routine by this point. We stamped our passports out and headed to aduana (customs) to cancel our car import permit. As soon as we walk in the customs officer tells us the system is down and we need to wait. I’m not sure what it was about him or his behavior that made smell bullshit like it was steaming on the floor in front of us. We asked how long the wait is going to be and received a shrug with a nonchalant smile. If it is 10 minutes we can wait, but if it is longer than what are we supposed to do? He “didn’t” know. He asked a junior officer to translate it to us, which he did by walking us over to a computer, opening google translate and typing out some BS about the system and that we need to wait. Basically, just repeating what his boss said.
Hm….the internet is working. I don’t believe you guys. I’m just going to the Bolivian side first and do the immigration and wait for the system to “come back on”.
Left the car and walked 100 meters to the Bolivian immigration. Filled out the paperwork and gave our passports with visas. Hyein was stamped in without an issue, but i was questioned.
“Where is the exit stamp from Peru?”, said immigration officer.
“Other passport”, I replied.
“Which country is the passport from””?, he inquired.
“US”, I hesitantly replied.
“No, you need to pay or get an exit stamp in the passport with the visa”, he proclaimed with a conniving smile. I swear he got excited at the mention of US. At this point i refused and told him that i can do this, he shook his head and told me back to go back to Peru and get an exit stamp in the Russian passport. I stormed back to Peru, i was furious at this point. I was told that i cannot get an exit stamp from Peru. Neither could i enter and exit Peru with another passport. This all seemed like a load of complete and utter bullshit. I was being given the runaround and pretty much told that i’m not getting this done the way i want.
In this furious state I dropped by the customs to see if the systems “came back” online. I don’t remember what i said exactly, it didn’t matter which language i spoke, because the meaning of my words was apparently understood on a deeper, more animal level. Magically, the guy stamped our import permit and told us that we are free to go. Hyein apologized to him for my behavior as i was already half way back to the Bolivian immigration to tell them a piece of my mind, it worked in the peruvian customs maybe they also only understand only the whip?
Nope. They even called their manager that told me that i’m not getting into Bolivia…but he told me to go back and get an exit stamp…there was something in his voice that was pleading me just to go back and do it. I’ve told him i already have, he said go now and do it.
Reluctantly, we made our way back to Peru. After we stood in line and spoke to the same guy that refused us earlier, i apologized for yelling at him earlier and asked if there is “anything” that we could do, wink, wink?
“okay just wait here for the managed, he will be right out?”, he suggested peacefully and disappeared along with the other workers.
Meanwhile a bus full of tourists pulled up and lined up for their exit stamps.
They were greeted by 4 empty chairs…everyone was in the back taking their dinner breaks…for 45 minutes. The boss came to talk to us and said that he understands our situation and that we could do us a “service” for $50. We didn’t have that much and gave him 100 peruvian sols, he got offended that we were doing this in front of everyone and asked us to be more discreet. We put the money in the Russian passport and gave it to him. A few moments later I entered and exited Peru with the russian passport and now ready to go back to Bolivia.
Finally, the guy stamped me in and i was legal able to enter Bolivia.
Not so fast buddy. There is a police check. They asked us for EVERYTHING. Car import permit, international driver license (we never really needed it) and car insurance. All of this was just an excuse to get more money out of us. I was almost laughing in their face because i had EVERYTHING READY. Here is my international driving permit, the policeman studied it carefully but accepted his first defeat. Next, “where is your insurance”, he said like a teacher trying to trip you up on an exam. “Here”, as i gave him a our paperwork. I actually managed to buy insurance beforehand. He didn’t believe his eyes and even called another guy so that they could study it and find SOMETHING wrong with it.
“Where does it says that this is for Bolivia?”, he asked.
“Damn it” i thought to myself, “what if it doesn’t explicitly state Bolivia?” I was in no mood to pay these guys anything, so i combed through the 6 pages of fine print text. On the third page i found it “Coverage: Bolivia y Chile”. I smiled and shoved the paper in his face. He is done, he is defeated, there is nothing else he can do. Yes, stamp the papers like a good boy and let us leave.
Looking back, i’m not happy with myself on the way i handled this episode. Maybe with more patience and persuasion i would have been able to do this faster…maybe. But it did leave me with a sour feeling for Bolivia, even before i entered i already hated this place.
Side note: i wrote down the experiences almost 2 weeks after they happened and still i felt the rage come back like it was only a second ago.
Back to our adventure. Right after the border from hell, we stopped at Copacabana, a small touristy town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I dont know if this is true, since i am writing this without internet, but i heard somewhere that Lake Titicaca is the world’s largest, highest lake. If i’m wrong so be it.
The camera was behaving properly again and this “artistic” shot of the lake came to be.
We tried to find a place to sleep and asked a hotel if we could camp in their parking lot. They wanted a 100 Bolivianos, just for their dirt lot with access to bathroom. We camped in the middle of Cuzco for less than half of that. So instead we found a parking lot that would let us stay for the night for 10 bolivianos. And as a plus those two large scary looking native statues would be guarding us all night. Score!
While admiring the statues we came across a Belgian couple that saw us go through the border ordeal. They were happy to see that we finally made it into the country and after a few minutes we decided on dinner together. We had a great time remembering Machu Picchu, the train ride, the annoying and ever-present massage peddlers of Cuzco. It was a great night, thank you guys (Nigel and Francesca??? we forgot the name but not how nice you are, sorry!)
In the morning awoken by the rain, we quickly packed and made our way to La Paz. The road was briefly interrupted by a small ferry crossing.
There is a million of these little barges/ferries going back and forth between the two shores of Lake Titicaca.
No need to wait in line, just drive up on this wooden contraption and you will be on your way.
Seriously, all the ferries are made from wooden at a factory right there on the shore. Thank god that there are no large waves in the lake, since the small waves would twist the contraption and it creaked and moaned. For the uninitiated this would be an interesting experience, but after our Darien crossing, this was like crossing a bathtub.
Even had time to take a few pictures.
Once more as we drove up to the town, we encountered the poorest neighborhoods, the roads were blocked not for construction or repair, but what seemed like for military strategy. Great piles of concrete would block the major roads, forcing all the traffic through a few highly congested pinch points. Maybe i watched too many war movies, but i couldn’t shake the feeling of sniper or machine gun in the buildings above me, ready to destroy our whole column of traffic. Its my imagination, i did just re watch “American Sniper”, while with a fever in Nicaragua.
After the sniper region of town you have to driver through India before you could get to your hotel. Or China, or whatever other place where cars, people, stalls, vendors, dogs and donkeys all share the same street.
It took us more time than i care to write about, but we finally got through, found a place for the night and more importantly checked our email.
This will require a bit of explanation. Hyein was contacted about 2 months ago by a fellow traveller from South Korea, they found her blog because of our experience in shipping the car from Panama to Colombia. They started their trip in Korea, then drove through Russia, Central Asia to Europe and now were driving the PanAmerican Highway from South to North. Emails were exchanged and we agreed to keep in touch so we could meet up somewhere. That was 2 months ago and finally we were ready to make contact in La Paz.
We decided to share an AirBnB for a few days, exchange stories and get to know each other. Driving together in a 2 car convoy through streets of La Paz was amazing. We felt like we were part of something bigger than just our trip, we were a part of a much larger community.
Somehow we also managed to get the place right next to a korean market…luck?
Meet our fellow travellers and new friends: Hyungnim(dad), Imo(mom) and Hunn(son).
Unfortunately, the whole time we stayed in the apartment in La Paz, i was just lying in bed with a stomach infection. I’m fine now, and glad that we as a civilization have discovered antibiotics. During one of the dinners they decided that they will go back to Salar de Uyuni with us. It was only a day ride to the south and it would be super cool to go there together.
On the way to Salar, stopped for a few minutes to take a photo and much-needed bathroom break. Okay, i realize that i should have also taken an American flag with us. I spaced on that in the frenzy of preparation, my bad. I’ll pick one up on the way somewhere. So from now on, if you see either of the flags, imagine that there is also a third, american, flag in there somewhere.
We were lucky to capture the last minutes of the sunset and take in the beauty of the salt flats.
Look, we even got a video of the place!
In the morning we got up as early as we could to have as much time in the salt flats. To enter you can drive in…no ticket required, just go and have fun. Going alone without a cellphone or any other modes of communication is a bit more dangerous. But since we had two cars we felt much braver, if something happens, the other would go get help. It was also their 3rd time going out on to the salt flats, so Hyungnim was our guide for most of the day. First stop at a little bench made out of salt. The slabs of salt are as hard as a rock and no matter how hard i hit, i could not break the 6-8” slabs, only ended up hurting my foot. What would be the first thing that you do, if you were out there? Yup, i wanted to do the same. Here, Hunn and i are tasting them. Yeah, its salt alright!
Hey!!! There is a Russian flag and a Korean flag, but no american. They probably also forgot to get it from amazon before leaving for the trip.
It feels like we reached some expedition outpost, the base camp for Everest or the permanent South Pole station. It seems so surreal to be out here, in the blue and white kingdom and suddenly come up to a bunch of flags waving in the gale force wind.
Im not sure it that is a horse or a llama, but since we are in Bolivia, i’m gonna go with llama. And yes, this is supposed to be a suggestive pose. I think the sun does something to your brain…
I think you haven’t seen our little board since Mexico. The last thing that was written on there was “Bahia de Concepcion”. Maybe it was the collective food poisoning, but we tried to erase the memories of that place from our heads. And forgot to use our little blackboard. Well, its time we bring it back.
If you think that there is nothing to do in a large salt flat, you would not be using your imagination at all. There is a million things to see and do. First of all you have to find some pure white patch, drive on it and take some pictures. Since the salt is really, really, really flat and does not vary in color much, the sense of scale is all messed up. You see those mountain in the back? Yeah, those little ones on the horizon…well, they could be 50-60 miles away. It would take you an hour to get to them.
The next thing to do if you are lucky enough, is to find some place that has water. You are probably thinking, wait a sec Ivan, water + salt…its not going to be good. The salt flats are actually a crust of salt with a thickness ranging from 20 cm to 2m in places, that sits above a saturated brine solution with a depth of 2m to 20m. Any water that falls on top of the flats is quickly saturated with salt and cannot dissolve through the enormous layer of salt.
The water was not very deep, only a few centimeters. If you look down at the salt you can see perfect little squares of salt crystal. I know from 7th grade chemistry that Sodium Chloride forms a cubic crystal, i’m not sure about the other salts (LiCl,…) found in Uyuni.
Panorama of the place, it really does seem like there is a large mirror on the ground. This is a photographer’s dream, one of the most amazing natural settings for creative and beautiful photography.
You are limited only by your imagination to the kinds of photo you can make.
But surprisingly, it is the unplanned photos (above) that actually come out cool.
I think this photo is perfect as a desktop.
I think by this point our creative spirits were running low.
No…we forgot, in Colombia (Ibague) in swimming pool we learned to how to do a shoulder stand. So here, with help of Hunn we decided to recreate it.
Not bad, right?
Thats the russian flag on the side of the car. I tried to drive fast enough for it to be fully visible, but the water was getting deep here and i didn’t want it splashing high up into the engine bay.
Another non-posing photo, we were studying the crystal structure.
After we played in the water part of the Salar it was time to drive to an island and have some lunch. So we picked an island on the horizon, it seemed only 10-15 minutes away but took us over an hour getting there. The surface of the Salar is not uniform. Do you see the ridges in the above photo? Here they are only a centimeter high and very thin, in some parts they get quite tall and thick. The drive then becomes much more bumpy. And at some parts the Salar becomes as smooth as freshly paved asphalt, here you can drive side by side and really let it all out. Our Hodori maxed out at about 90mph.
As the day progresses the car becomes slowly encrusted in a layer of salt.
Ah…the island. It really is a desert island, with its flora and fauna. This is also the only place that you have to pay to visit, so we didn’t go in.
And instead decided to drive a bit off and have lunch right on the flats.
They have an identical ARB 2.5m awning. Do you see Hyein jumping in the background?
I couldn’t have her stealing all he attention. Here i’m posing with a russian grocery bag. Yes, they got it while driving through Russia. I asked how did they enjoy the country and to my surprise they said they loved it. Awesome, can’t wait to experience it for myself.
After the lunch we wanted to do some perspective photography in the white salt.
There are no normal landmarks for our brains to use for depth perception. So its possible to create silly photos of people being fried in a grilling pan.
Or two cute little “life-sized” llamas hanging out in the snow.
Or me kicking little Hunn so hard he flies away.
You get the point.
Before you even realize, its already sunset. We drove back to the water as fast as we could to take some last photos. One of the best photos of the trip in my opinion.
Im not sure how to do this in our camera, but the sunset has 2 suns. Its really pretty.
You have a sense that you are in a place like no other on the planet. I have seen sunsets, salt and water before, but never in such a glorious preparation. Salar de Uyuni is the 3 star Michelin restaurant of natural beauty.
And for desert, you get to see some of the most amazing stars in your whole life. Okay, its the same stars, but here they come out to play with their fainter friends in full force. The Milky Way shines bright across the sky like nowhere i have seen before. We stopped for a moment to admire the view. As soon as we got out of the car Hyein, Hunn and I saw a huge meteor shoot across the sky. If this wasn’t one of the most amazing days already, it surely was now.
I’m sad to report that we do not have a picture of what we were able to see, but not capture. On a clear night, like this you can see the reflection of the stars in the water. So you area completely surrounded by stars!
Driving back to our hotel, we were in complete awe. Salar is amazing. You feel complete freedom, you can drive in any direction you like, there are no barriers, its so large (100 miles x 150 miles) that is only amplifies the feeling of freedom. The natural beauty is unrivaled by anything else that i have seen. By this point all the immigration hassle to enter Bolivia was worth it, i would do it over again in a heartbeat to experience the Salar once again. It is truly one the Natural Wonders of the World.
Next day in the morning. Hodori was covered in a thick layer of salt that required a special kind of washing. There were huge chunks of salt falling of from the bottom, but this would only be a new experience to lucky Californians. As most people in the North call this a wintery Monday morning.
For 80 bolivianos ($15 usd), they wash your car completely. Undercarriage and all. It took them almost 2 hours to wash our cars and even the guys working there were surprised at how much salt we managed to collect.
We are back to normal coloring. After the wash they spray the undercarriage with a mixture of diesel and engine oil. This prevents rust and further salt accumulation.
I managed to find a spot they missed on the exhaust headers. They couldn’t just power spray inside the engine bay, so the resorted to Sponge Bob and Spiderman water guns.
It took most of the day to get our cars clean enough so they dont fall apart in a month.
We wanted to leave the same day, but decided to relax and spend one last night with our new friends. Tomorrow, they will travel North and we will go South. We knew that we would not be travelling together forever, but that did not make it any easier when we had to say goodbye.
It was amazing travelling together, i hope that we can do another trip in the future. But for now will plan to meet in Korea in the spring/summer. Safe travels!
Aaaaand be sure to check out their blog, its all in korean but you can at least see the photos feelyoume.blog.me
Peace out. And tune in for the next part about offroading the Southwestern Bolivia!