28 Bolivia

BOLIVIA. July 2006

Drive on the right – not always.

We entered Bolivia from Brazil at a remote eastern border crossing. We had to go to San Matias, the nearest small town with muddy streets, to track-down the immigration and customs offices. We had obtained visas in Cuiabá, Brazil and were stamped into Bolivia for 30 days. The signs in Spanish were welcomingly familiar after the Portuguese of Brazil.

There were tedious regular controls on the main road, where the vehicle and driver’s details had to be written in a big book. Although it was obvious that you had come from the previous town and were going to the next one, they still asked the question. Instead of being irritated, it amused Jan to say: “from: Tierra del Fuego; to: Alaska”.

We were in the vast sweltering tropical rainforest of Bolivia’s upper Amazon Basin. The bumpy gravel and occasional pot-holed tar road took us past villages with mud houses and palm-leaved roofs. White humped-back oxen pulled carts with wheels of solid wood. Snakes were lying in or were slithering across the road.

The road was heading west towards the capital city, La Paz. In spite of the Land Rover front vents and our two little fans going, it was unbearably hot. The low afternoon sun and the clouds of dust made driving extremely difficult.

When we could find a clearing in the forest, we parked for the night; under huge trees with a high canopy and hanging woody vines. Before our sundowners outside were finished, we had to flee from the mosquitoes. Behind netting, with repellent we felt safer. But we did not reckon with the vicious tiny biting flies that got in somehow and bit us polka-bumps; causing itching for weeks afterwards.

One night we had to drive until dusk to find parking, in front of an eating place in the middle of nowhere. They had lots of cold beer and a good plate of food for under $2. By 10 pm, 50 people had walked or cycled from a-far to watch TV – thanks to the only satellite dish and generator in the vicinity. Then it was more hot, bumpy driving.

Near the hot and sticky town of Trinidad we escaped early afternoon to a fish restaurant on a lake. We were revived by some frosty liquid refreshment and a dip in the swimming pool. (Avoiding the turbid lagoon)

Jungle tours are available in that region. We paid a visit to one of the protected areas. Reserva de la Biosférica del Beni. The other popular area for rainforest expeditions is Rurrenabaque. The rangers admitted that poaching was impossible to control. We were alarmed also by the slash-and-burn clearing, logging and cattle ranching which was taking place in that region.

Internet Café

Jesuit mission churches:

It was a surprise to find the exquisite mission churches, recently restored, in a number of small towns. They havetransformed the nondescript villages like San Ignacio de Velasco, Concepción and San Javier. The elaborate stucco and woodcarving was done by local craftsman. The Jesuit missionaries who arrived in 1587 (and were expelled in 1767) had taught the indigenous people the skills, of architecture, building, sculpting, painting, woodcarving and the making and playing of musical instruments; in exchange for conversion and labour. These buildings are like shining gems in a dull environment. The whole region has been declared a world heritage site.

After Trinidad we had to cross three wide rivers, tributaries of the Amazon, by primitive ferries. The deep mud ruts from the last rainy season had become like concrete.

The dirt road then became huge holes covered with talcum-powder-like dust.

Leoné had to wear a dust mask to protect the sinuses. Our speed was an average of 30km/h for days.


We noticed that all the road workers had lopsided faces with one fat cheek. Each one had coca leaves in his cheek. Coca chewing is an ancient ritual to stave off hunger pains and exhaustion. Coca growing has been one of the main means of employment. The Bolivian government is trying to eradicate coca, under pressure from the US. The demand for cocaine from N America and Europe has not diminished though. The USA imports coca leaves for medicinal uses. After the cocaine has been extracted a derivative of what’s left, goes into Coca Cola…

The Yungas is an area where coca is cultivated. It consists of steep valleys with tropical vegetation which lies between rain forest and high mountains.

The festival of the Yungas was taking place in a riverside village. There were musicians and people in fancy costumes. Apparently Bolivian campesinos dance and drink with such complete abandon because they need to ‘escape’ from their poverty and living conditions.

World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Now we had to climb from the Yungas; 4000m up to the altiplano in 150km. We had entered the first pass when suddenly Dipli came face-to-face with a bus, driving on the “wrong" side of the road.

We realised that although Bolivia drives on the right, where there are narrow mountain passes, vehicles drive on the left so that the driver can see his left wheel – often on the edge of a precipice… What makes it even more “interesting” is that the command to drive on the left is only sometimes signposted; so one has to watch the locals to decide on which side to drive. But then the road is so bad that everybody drives wherever it is best. Only by waiting until oncoming traffic swerves, to avoid a head on collision, does a stranger realise which side of the road he is supposed to drive on!

We were on a steep uphill with tight hairpin bends and blind corners punctuated with crosses next to the sheer drops. The track was sometimes only 3,2 meters wide and often had water falls cascading down onto the road. There were many trucks and buses in both directions. Then Dipli was overheating and there seemed to be nowhere to stop until we found a slightly wider spot. Jan established that the alternator bracket had broken and that the fan belt was slipping. By fitting a bolt and tensioning the belt he could make it last to La Paz, where a permanent weld repair could be done.

First we had dust and then the mists came down, both reducing visibility to a few metres. Two large trucks could not get past one another at a hulking overhang, in spite of a sliver-like turnout ledge, and this caused a scary congestion with many vehicles having to reverse to a lay-bye. This road has been called the “world’s most dangerous road” (wmdr) because an average of 26 vehicles per year disappear over the edge into the great abyss. Since the road was built in 1935, about 200 people have died every year. (World Bank survey).

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For mountain bikers the spectacular descent is a popular thrill. Their t-shirts say: “I survived the death road”. They speed from 4670m at the top of la Cumbre pass, 64km down to Yolosa at 1200m – only 30 km of it paved. (To date 6 people have died cycling down).

Having reached the Altiplano, we saw herds of Llamas and the more woolly Alpacas.

Bolivian Indian women wear a dark bowler hat and a shawl over a wide skirt - carrying a brightly striped bundle on their backs. They are very photogenic at colourful stalls of food stuffs and hand woven textiles, and rather incongruous at cell phone and money exchange booths. Jan had battled for weeks with the auxiliary batteries not holding their charge. (That meant: no ice!). First we had to buy 3 new deep cycle batteries and could then pursue the intriguing markets and museums of the Bolivian capital.

In La Paz Leoné dragged Jan to yet another folklore show. The dancers wore colourful hand woven costumes and sometimes ornate masked headdresses adorned with plumes. The haunting Andean music was played on traditional instruments like pan pipes of various sizes.

Travelling with kids.

We had safe parking at the Hotel Oberland in La Paz. The spacious hot showers, laundry service, free internet and a resident alpaca were very much appreciated. In the camper next to us was a French family who had been on the road for 8 months. They had started driving from the US to S Am when there second child was 3 months old. (Grimaldi Lines has a regular drive-on ship service for motor homes, with cabins for passengers, from Europe to Buenos Aires). One travelling family included daughters of 10, 8 and 6. Both parents spent a large portion of each day tutoring

After a week Jan still had not adapted to the altitude. (2000m higher than Joburg). From La Paz we drove along the high plato west towards Chile. We were amazed at the number of Aymará villages at this high elevation. The “campesinos” possessed a few goats or cameloids and cultivated potatoes or “quenoa”, a fine tasty grain. We slept at 4127m next to boggy grassland, (“bofedale” in Spanish) where llamas and alpacas were grazing.. Behind us was a snow-capped volcano of Sajama National park. Minus 3° C inside Dipli, was our coldest night.

Usually border posts are such dreary places. However, the one between Bolivia and Chile was beautifully situated next to a lake with Chilean flamingos, Andean gulls and giant coots. This was Lauca National Park where vicuñas are protected (they are the dainty graceful cinnamon-coloured smaller relatives of the llamas, alpacas and guanacos).

We were to spend a week in Arica, Chile before heading for Peru.

Arica, Chile

After Bolivia’s wind-swept plato we headed for Arica, the northernmost city of Chile and driest city in the world. There was posted: “free camping” next to the beach... and we also noted the Tsunami warnings and the evacuation routes! Although there were kilometres of parking, groups chose to drink and play loud music right next to us throughout each night. However, it was a good place to chill-out, write, edit photos, work on Dipli, etc. When the solar panels could not keep up, nobody cared when we had the little generator going to charge the batteries; due to cloudy days (but it has not really rained in Arica since Pizarro landed in 1535!)

We sampled some scrumptious olives and were fascinated to learn how waters from the Andes have turned an arid valley into a productive olive exporting region.

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