The Easy Way to Tour South America Lazy dad, hyper mum, four kids (one in nappies) tour South America for 6 months

The Easy Way to Tour South America
The Bolivian Diaries
Bolivian Elvis the Salt Plains Guard

Crosses and miniature shrines pepper the side of the road from La Paz to Uyuni here in Bolivia. Each was planted by the family of someone who died along this very straight road, usually killed by a lorry overtaking a car in the opposite direction and not bothering to see if there were oncoming cars. A stretch of road this straight shouldn’t have one hundredth of the deaths that it has on it. But there is much about Bolivia that suggests that other people’s lives are not as valued as they should be.

Our driver as we make our way off the road and into the desert is Jaime, who remembers October 1967 and the “assassination” of Che Guevara by the army and the CIA. We have all our luggage and our four kids crammed into this Toyota 4×4, which feels like a reinforced bubble encapsulating our entire existence. Together we are making our way across the poorest country in South America, which is paradoxically resplendent in mineral wealth. Actually, no real paradox. Like many countries, much of the wedge between the natural wealth and the man with his hands in the bin scavenging for scraps is called corrupt bureaucracy and government. The random roadblocks in this stretch of road where you pay 2 Bolivianos (about 20p) to the policeman on guard are pointless and seem innocuous enough. But with about a thousand cars a day going through, that’s a not insignificant amount of money changing hands at this toll, especially with Bolivian cost of living. The pyramid starts here, with every local chief taking a slice of the proceeds for all the policemen under his watch, and his chief doing likewise.

We had entered Bolivia by bus, with a short walk just across the border, crossing from Puno into Copacabana. This Copacabana has none of the luxury associated with its namesake in Brazil. It’s rough and real, resplendent with wild dogs and hustlers for the local hostels. For a tiny effort we found a basic but comfortable hotel with very friendly service (Hotel Mirador) for the same price as the hustlers were demanding for cramped hostels.

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Copacabana serves as a stopping point for crossing into lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol, where we stayed 2 nights. Two booths with Internet connectivity on the whole island. This served as a precursor to going into the Salar de Uyuni a couple of days later, with no Internet and no phones (fixed or mobile). However, like the Salar, the views on this island are spectacular. We stayed at the Inti Kala hotel, magnificently perched at the high end of town, and overlooking a bay and several island inlets into the clearest blue sea. And again paid peanuts for a family of 6.

Bolivia seems to specialise in magnificent views. Coming into La Paz a couple of evenings later, the lights in the valley in which Bolivia’s capital is nestled had us spellbound on the bus. The boys loved our hostel there, with its lax attitude that had them up in the bar necking Sprites, and the free all-you-can-eat pancakes in the morning.

It was from there that we set off on our trek from La Paz into the salt plains of Uyuni. Entering the plains, there is a small shack where a guard checks people going in, and takes an entrance fee. In full military uniform, he had a shiny blue guitar for company. Is this where Elvis ended up?

The library image we use at the top of this blog is of these plains, and I thought it was touched up with Photoshop to get the colours. But I discovered it wasn’t. So many lakes in the 4000+ metre high stretch of the Andes that we are in have impossibly green, blue and red colours. Light and local chemical composition have their roles to play in this. Others are pink with thousands of resting flamingos. And that’s not to mention the weird rock formations that with a very limited imagination have you seeing faces, animals and bodies within their structure. Or indeed the Dali desert, with sporadic outcrops of rock that paint a surreal landscape. Or the crowning jewel, the vast plains of endless white salt, punctuated by islands with pre-historic looking cactuses, and with some of the most luxurious hotels we saw in Bolivia, which happened to be made of salt. There are many points in this trip that are carving their way into our long-term memory. Fortunately and coincidentally, I discovered how to (over?) use the landscape photography capability of our Sony camera at this point.

This is a tough ride to do with a young family. Seven different hotels in ten days with an awful lot of driving each day is tough for them, and is a high price to pay for admittedly unique natural scenery. We have to recharge the Nintendo DSes every night, as it is the only way they can keep partially quiet during the hours of driving. Paola and I are fine with conversation and the scenery, but four sub ten-year old children are not so easily kept sane. When we stop, creating new rock formations or running through ice-grass releases some pent up energy. And watching Jaime overtake other jeeps makes for a live Mario Karts game in their imagination.

In fact, anyone wanting to do this trip could do far worse than contact Jaime, this 60 odd year old veteran of the plains who seems to know everyone and everywhere, and injects adrenalin with his safe but fast driving. I was teaching my son Omar the meaning of the word ‘resourceful’ a couple of days back, and he got to see the word in action today. Just after some fun driving through a stream, the accelerator cable snapped. Left with an impotent accelerator pedal, Jaime jammed a stone in the engine to keep us going at low speed for about a kilometre until we got to the next village. There, after some below-the-breath gentle swearing, he found some unused cable hanging off an old building which he deftly swiped, skinned and inserted in place of the broken accelerator cable, and off we went again.

I’m not sure where the overall Bolivian experience will finally sit in our memories in a few years. I do know that its scenery was unique and breathtaking, but we never really managed to connect with her people as we had elsewhere in Latin America. Maybe the divide is just too big for us to bridge easily.

Leaving the plains

We left Bolivia as we came into it. Walking across the border to Argentina. Our excitement probably reflecting both how much we have been looking forward to Argentina as well as relief at moving on. And the excitement was tempered, ever so briefly, by a blockade of Argentinians who stopped us from crossing the border, wielding placards with photos of (it’s that man again) Che Guevara.

5 Responses to The Bolivian Diaries

  1. The truly educated man is that rare individual who can separate reality from illusion.

  2. wszyscy martwia sie tym co bedzie gdy Jarek to czy owo…ja sie pytam -kto dzis rzadzi w Polsce???(zastanawiam sie czy Polska jeszcze istnieje) PO czy pan Jaroslaw????o Tusku ( w nadrzeczu amerykanskim to brzmi nie inaczej tylko -sorry ,ze to napisze ale huj-prosze mi wybaczyc to slowo-nie zmienie tego bo tak jest)-zacznijmy martwic sie Tuskiem (h…) bo to jest przytocze slowa Paligniota “szubrawiec i ZLODZIEJ”

  3. Han skrev inte att han ”inte var redo”. Han skrev att han, pga mÃ¥nga olika anledningar var tvungen att tacka nej. Det är en jävla skillnad.

  4. Appreciating the time and energy you put into your site and detailed information you present. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material. Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  5. I thought finding this would be so arduous but it’s a breeze!

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