Getting high in Bolivia

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Roads..? Where weīre going we donīt need roads..

Not just a classic line from Back To The Future, but also a pretty fair description of our trip across the Bolivian "Altiplano", heading towards the Salt Flats of Uyuni.
The Bolivian Altiplano is a big plateau that sits between the two ranges of the Andes. This means that Bolivia is high. I mean really, really high, and holds the world record for pretty much the highest everything, from lake to city to lager.

As Helen mentioned on the last post, weīd read some pretty horrendous stories on the internet about these trips. Itīs pretty much the only thing weīve researched where the vast majority of reviews say how terrible the tour company was, with compaints ranging from drunk drivers, crappy vehicles and no seatbelts (a nice combination when youīre a million miles from nowhere) to -20 degree hostels with nothing but a couple of bed bug infested blankets to fight off the cold.
Add to that the very real threat of altitude sickness, since this route climbs around 2000 metres in an hour on the first day - a BIG no no according to Google - and you get a pretty scary sounding trip.

That said, even the worst reviews said that for all the badness, the journey is so amazing that itīs worth it. It sounded like one of those life experiences that youīre glad youīve done at the end of it, but the actual doing is pretty much a nightmare. You know the sort I mean - giving birth, running a marathon etc.
So, we decided to man up and go for it, albeit with the most expensive and least poorly reviewed tour company available who promised us nice things (Cordillera for anyone who might be in the Area).

We set off the first morning in a bus to the Bolivian border - a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere where no-one even gave your bags a second glance never mind scanned them, where we swapped the bus for a 4X4 jeep along with a couple of Belgians, Pierre and Bernard, who would be our travelling companions for the next couple of days.
Iīm happy to report that our Jeep looked in decent condition, had seatbelts, and our driver seemed perfectly sober. If a little stern at first.

A little lesson in Bolivian infrastructure at this point if I may. Bolivia is an extremely poor country, even by South American standards. This, coupled with the extreme remoteness of the vast majority of the country means that a very small percentage of the roads in Bolivia are paved in any way, and only 25% even have a gravel surface, with the rest being simple dirt tracks.
For the next 3 days, we didnīt even have a dirt road, it was just a free for all across the plains. The umpteen Jeeps on the same tour route would get together briefly then split off in all directions, sometimes across tracks that had been driven before, or sometimes just making new ones as the went, before eventually all meeting up again 20 minutes further on.
It was actually a pretty cool sight looking out the window and seeing all dust clouds being kicked up in the distance as the jeeps raced along.

To describe it the tour probably sounds a bit boring. It essentially went like this: drive for a bit, stop, take pictures, get back in the jeep and repeat. It wasnīt boring at all though, simply because the scenery you are going past is just amazing. There I go banging on about scenery again. You just canīt help it when you come to this part of the world though.

I wonīt go into every stop we made, itīs much easier to look at the ton of pictures we took (and you better enjoy them, because it took roughly 24 hours to upload them on Bolivian internet!) but over the course of the 3 days we saw amazing lagoons complete with flamingos, hot springs, geysers, volcanoes, stunning landscapes, and rock formations that allegedly inspired Salvador Dali.

Our fears about the trip didnīt materialise at all, although the first day everyone was feeling a little woozy with the altitude, and the first night in the unheated hostal in freezing temperatures at nearly 5000 metres was pretty brutal, but you know these things going into it and it really isnīt as bad as everyone made out on the internet.
Against all google advice, we decided to have a little nip of some local spirit the first night to combat the cold - literally a couple of shots worth - and woke up with an absolutely pounding headache. The night wasnīt too cold though, although admittedly I slept in thermals, a fleece and a hoodie, inside my sleeping bag and covered in blankets. Mmmm toasty.

The second night we staying in a little hotel made completely of salt which was pretty cool, not to mention much warmer, and then on the final morning drove to the the salt flats - the main reason people do this trip.

Weīd been told by the agency that we could arrive on the salt flats in time to watch the sunrise, a sight which has been known to make grown men weep, but sadly our driver wasnīt having any of it and for the first time seemed unable to understand our dreadful Spanish. Thatīs the only complaint Iīd have about the tour we did.
Anyway, we drove to "Fish Island", a small green island in the middle of the flats, and got out to have a look. It was a shame missing the sunset but the flats are still an amazing sight.
The brilliant white floor extends off to the horizon in all directions - quite a dizzying experience.
We took a few of the obligiatory silly photos of ourselves against the pure white background and headed towards Uyuni to finish our trip.

Half an hour later we arrived, said our farewells, and wished that the next bus we could get wasnīt till the next day. Itīs really not a place youīd want to hang around, just a bit of a dump full of gringos that have just finished the salt flats tour.

Having been showerless for 3 days we managed to get booked into a nice hotel with promised hot water for the night, just in time for me to come down with a sinus infection. Seems I didnīt react all too well to 3 days of dust. Poor me.

After a slight panic over no Bolivian currency and the only ATM in town being broken, we managed to get sorted with a bus ticket to our next stop Potosi..


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Mary Evans on

Just been catching up with several episodes of your blog. Sounds like you're still having a great time! Fantastic pics - they really bring it all to life.

Love Mum and Dad

P&B on

Hello to both of you !

What a very nice review of the trip ! Thanks for the pictures.
As I am a little bit lazy, I will forward this link to our contacts.

We hope everythimg is allright for you and that you got out of Potosi without any problems ... We are now at La Paz, it is really too big !

Hasta luego,

Pierre y Bernard

JimmyJames on

Hallo Heavens!
Hallo Johnboy!

Your holiday looks utterly Triffic, although I'm sorry to hear about the dicky sinus.
Summer in London is lovely, but in October the lights will go out and misery will set in for the next 6 months. Me'n'Cath might want a wee holiday then. What part of the world are yous planning to be in in October?

helenandheid on

Hiya Jimmyjimjams,
It´s looking like we´ll be in Columbia in October, would be fantastic to see you both! xxxx

JamJimJames on

Columbia, eh? I looked at flights, but BA would want nearly 2 grand for a pair of return flights. That's quite an expensive week. I suppose picking up a bit of duty-free marching powder would help defray the cost.

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