At last today we crossed the border into Bolivia. The road from where we camped was not too bad, but definitely muddier and more potholed than before. When we arrived at Infante Rivarola the army guy had to walk across the river on a long plank, because the river had caused the road to collapse. Thankfully, there was a passable route to the left and we were told the borderline was 6km away. We had only been 7km away when we had to turn back at the other river - how frustrating!
The first military checkpoint for Bolivia was 16km away and the immigration formalities a further 50km. The officials were all very friendly and helpful and the roads conditions better than in Paraguay. There were even more butterflies (las mariposas) floating about than in Paraguay. Unfortunately many of them fell casualty to Nyathi and they did a good job of trying to block up the radiator!
We stopped for a quick lunch in Villamonte at a basic little cafe, which was mediocre, but filled a gap.
We had to pay a road toll of 6 Bolivianos (less than US$1) for the stretch between Villamontes and Tarija. There was a very seedy and somewhat drunk 'gate guard' to whom we took an instant dislike and was a little too friendly for our liking (I politely let him know I didn't want him to hold my hand for a prolonged period thank you!). After we'd paid the toll (to the pleasant officials inside - along with pet monkey) the drunk asked for something more and when we said no he tried to pull the barrier down on Nyathi's roof as we drove through, but didn't succeed - creep!
The toll was worth every penny and much more. The dirt road was in good condition (Petrobras are building a cross-country pipeline, so we assume funding the upkeep) and went through the most spectacular scenery.
It wound its way up, down and through the mountains with some very steep edges and hairpin bends. We saw loads and loads of little sanctuaries in memory of those who were killed en route.
We gained quite a lot of altitude and Michael kept getting me to guess what we were at before he would tell me. We found a little pipeline service road which lead to the top of a hill (1391m) giving a spectacular view of the Andes and the approaching electrical storm.
After a few frustrating attempts to get the vehicle level (accompanied by much fly/bee swatting) we settled in for the evening. We spoke to Kathy, Lex and Isabel which was great.
As the evening progressed the slight wind helped to keep the insects at bay and we both had refreshing bush baths.
We collapsed into bed, pleased to be cooler and less insect-infected and despite noisy advances, the storm never reached us!
More gorgeous scenery today. Not quite as striking as yesterday, but beautiful nevertheless. We stopped in Entre Rios and parked in the river (along with two other vehicles) and gave Nyathi a good wash - it is amazing how much mud you can pick up on bad roads!
The road got higher and the views were terrific. We had a couple of oncoming drivers going to fast, but we continued to hoot when approaching a blind corner to let them know we were there! We saw the remains of a lorry being pulled up the side of the mountain by a massive crane. It was blocking the whole road so a line of vehicles had stopped on either side and there was quite a crowd of onlookers. There was no way anyone survived that crash, so there will be another sanctuary added to what we estimated was easily over a hundred on the 150km stretch of remote road.
Just before Tarija there was a road block where we showed our toll ticket and had to get all our details written in a book. Another 'seedy chap' tried his hand at some money gathering, but without any success - especially as all I could say in Castellano was 'I'm very sorry - I only speak a little and I don't know'. We thanked him, smiled and went on our way.
We had a lovely Mexican lunch at La Taberna Gattopardo in Tarija and went to the internet cafe - which was US$0.50 an hour! We stopped at a fuel station on the outskirts of town to sleep for the night, because our search for the local campsite was unsuccessful. We both sat in the cab catching up on GPS coordinates, journal entries, emails etc. Unfortunately the electricity was cut out as a result of the rainstorm, so we had a noisy generator for company...
We went back into Tarija town and had a delicious breakfast (Michael - English, me - omelette). We found an oil-changing place, under cover, which was open and while they did their bit, Michael was able to check most of the bearings. We had to leave before he had finished because they were closing for the day and they had already stayed open longer than usual!
The road climbed higher and higher and the landscape became starker. We saw lots of dogs (perro montes, as we call them) sitting on the hairpin bends, as if waiting for someone. All afternoon Nyathi climbed up and down the mountains, peaking at about 3800m, and her air horn was reduced to a feeble squeak from the low outside pressure.
We passed a few remote villages and shortly before we camped we stopped at one where I went in to see if they had ice. The shop had all sorts (maize, canned foods, drinks, shoes, second-hand clothes, ice-cream in big steel buckets on the floor) and the customers were standing around haphazardly paying for one item, then wandering about choosing something else and paying for it. I was somewhat of an attraction, particularly for the staring children. Eventually after some insistence I got three very small bags of solid ice for 3 bolivianos - better than nothing!
We found a little service road for the gas line installation and used it to get off the main road to a lovely campsite hidden from passing traffic by some hills. Michael used the last of the daylight to check the remaining bearing, while I cooked dinner, set a table and opened a good bottle of Argentine wine. We had a really pleasant evening outside, in the fresh air, with no insects - bliss!
Early in the day we passed through a lovely little village called Villa Abecia. We stopped and bought delicious fresh, hot saltenas (pies). We travelled alongside a fast flowing river for sometime, and were interested to see that little cable-slung platforms have been installed in various places to allow people to cross the river - pulled across by a big hand-winch.
We met a truck going in the opposite direction who advised us to take a different route to the one we had been thinking about because there had been landslides which made the route really tricky. So we took a left over the bridge and went up a steep mountain road which twisted around cliff edges and had the most beautiful flowering cacti on the mountainside.
We had a half-hour siesta at lunchtime and then made our way down to Cotagaita. After passing through the town, Michael pretty quickly realised we had missed our turning to the right and were heading in the wrong direction. We did a U-turn and found a small road which agreed with the GPS map, and off we went. It was pretty narrow and not often used. We passed one truck who had stopped to pick up passengers in a little village, but that was it. We had to move some rocks from a mini landslide so we could get around the corner safely. Then we passed damp riverbeds which had washed debris down the mountainside.
We came across a man and his old mother and he told us the road was very bad and we should turn back. We were in two minds because we've been told this before and discovered the road is passable. But, we decided as the next opportunity to turn off the road was only in 50km (at least two hours travelling time) that we would be wiser to turn around now. Then we gave them a lift back to their village about 5kms along the road, the old lady was particularly thankful as she was walking with two sticks!
It took us over an hour to retrace our steps to Cotagaita and then we ended up taking the road north toward Potosi which was a very long way to reach the Salar de Uyuni, but we didn't have much choice. Finding a campsite was a lot trickier and we settled for one behind some thorn trees and small cacti, but still visible from the road. Michael had to change a tyre as a large thorn had caused a puncture (we've lost count what number it is, but about 28).
It was raining on and off quite heavily so I grabbed some beans and corned beef from the boxes and made a cold supper with crackers. Not very tasty, but welcome as we were pretty hungry!
Shortly after getting on the road we came to an abrupt halt behind a queue of vehicles. There was a large truck stuck in the mud up ahead and although he was over to the right side, vehicles couldn't get past as the road had been washed away on the left into the wet riverbed alongside.
Many of the locals (including old women who were impressively strong) were throwing rocks into the big cavity, while the truck driver and his crew battled on with trying to free their vehicle. As more vehicles arrived, more people helped to throw rocks into the hole (though quite a few just stayed in their vehicles). Michael did his fair share while I went and fetched the camera.
We could have driven up the riverbed on the left and got past pretty easily, but we felt it wouldn't be the right thing to do. I helped throw some rocks into the hole, but when I stopped to take a photo of Michael carrying a rock the locals weren't very happy. A bit unreasonable I thought, especially as quite a lot of them weren't doing any work at all, but just watching. So, I went back to Nyathi and Michael stayed behind and helped with the last bit of building. It was hard work, particularly at this altitude - 3500m - and getting breath was not easy. Eventually the hole was filled and vehicles took turns in passing. In retrospect we realised it might have been better to drive up the riverbed on the left, but still stop and help with the road building - the locals may have been a bit more friendly then.
We got into Potosi at about 14h00. The city roads were very narrow and after driving in the vague direction of what we thought looked like the centre of town, I spotted a road name which was on our guidebook map.
Just then, a local guy told us to follow him to the main square and we parked there and locked Nyathi up. We went to the Belem museum restaurant where we had lunch on the rooftop. We climbed up some tight, dark spiralling stairs to find a hatchway at the top, with a small roof area with one little plastic table, four chairs and the best view of the city. Our waiter had to work hard coming up and down the stairs carrying our drinks, but we appreciated it and spent almost two hours relaxing and enjoying the view. We had a brief chat to two other tourists who came up to look at the view - one from Spain and the other from the UK.
We found a hostel where we could park the vehicle and camp in the yard. We agreed a price of 20 bolivianos ($3) for parking and to use their showers. We had an hour's siesta and then went along to the Belem museum restaurant to listen to Bolivian music, which was excellent. We met Paula from Australia who is working in Cochobamba and she told us that one of the concrete bridges near there had collapsed with a bus load of people on it! Makes us wonder how safe half the bridges are we've crossed...
We were up early and at Koala Tour's offices for our mine tour at 07h50. We left promptly at 08h00 only to wait around the corner in the bus for another group pf tourists. Then we went down a lot of back alleys to a house where we were kitted out with protective trousers and jacket, wellies and a helmet with torch and battery pack.
We went to a refinery and saw the process from the raw 'complejo' (soil with mixtures of silver, tin and zinc) being tested for quality control and then it all going through the refining process.
They take carefully recorded samples of what's been dug, crush it to a fine powder, and then send it for chemical assaying. The miners are paid on the basis of this test, and have a representative present at all stages of the process to make sure they are treated fairly.
The crushing and refining process is done on a small scale by independent refiners, who use a flotation process to purify the silver, lead, and zinc, to a 50% concentration. This product is then exported to Europe, Asia, and the USA for final processing.
Then we went to the miner's market where we bought gifts for the miners (dynamite, gloves and coca leaves). Michael was brave and tried out the coca leaves chewing them with a bit of sweet tarry stuff which helps release the alkaloids. When he told me it tasted foul I decided against trying it, despite its supposed medicinal properties. It helps with altitude sickness and prevents fatigue. The miners and many other Bolivians, constantly chew the leaves until they have a big ball sitting in the side of their cheek. I rather had some tasty saltenas.
After some more faffing about in the bus, putting in diesel etc., we got to the mine. There are about 36 mines in the mountain Cerro Rico, (all operated on a cooperative basis these days) and about 6,000 miners . Within each mine there are a number of groups ranging from small family units to groups of 35 people. The conditions in the all the mines are appalling.
The mine we visited had only one way to get in and out (although there is another mine that connects to it which could be used as an exit in an emergency).
The miners all believe that their success is dependent on the Devil (also called "Tio", meaning Uncle), and they have literally hundred of statues of him, ranging in size and level of detail. Anatomically impressive, some of the statues...
The mine has no lifts and only one rickety ladder from level one to two - all the rest is climbing down shafts on your haunches or walking/crawling along tunnels on the different levels. It is quite cold at the first level, but as you go down it gets increasingly hotter. They do not pump air for breathing through the mine, only limited compressed air for some of the pneumatic equipment.
The majority of groups work manually digging holes with chisel and hammer, placing dynamite and exploding it, then loading the blasted rock into trolleys (coco pans) which are pushed/pulled along one level. Then they shovel the trolley contents into large rubber baskets which are lowered/pulled up by hand to the subsequent levels. Michael took a turn to shovel some of the rock into the baskets - the altitude, the dust, and the heat made it extremely unpleasant work.
The really small groups carry their excavated rock out in bags on their backs, 40 - 50kg at a time. They can make up to 40 journeys up and down the mines everyday! Only a few of the larger groups of miners use pneumatic drills and winches.
There were 6 levels in the mine. Active mining only takes place from level 3 downwards. We only visited the first three levels and Michael climbed down with our guide and one other guy down a tight vertical shaft to the fourth level.
We were only in the mine for 3 hours and that was enough! A miner's job is not for the fainthearted. However, some of them do make good money and as our guide said, for them it is just a way of life - still, I'm glad it's not mine.
Outside the mine our guides set off a dynamite explosion for us which was pretty impressive. Then we made our way back to town, got out of our gear and went back to the hostel. We both had warmish showers - mine was rather interesting given that the electrical wires above the water rose were shorting and acrid smoke was filling up the shower, which made for a very quick one!
We got a nice hot rotisserie chicken and headed out for Tarapaya, stopping to fill up with fuel en route and for me to feed a perro monte. After a bit of searching we found the crater lake above Tarapaya (we stopped of at the thermal baths but they were not very inviting). It was quite windy up at the lake and a few families were there swimming (water was about 30°C). We decided to go further round the mountain for better wind protection. It wasn't any better, but we camped right next to the Oja de Inca (eye of the Inca) which was a boiling pond of hot, sulphurous water.
It was a sacred sight for the Inca's and people today still come and make sacrifices next to the water. We met up again with the Canadian missionary - Greg (whom we met earlier at the fuel station) and chatted to him for quite a while.
The weather closed in and the rain started so we retreated to the cab, phoned the UK to wish people Happy New Year and then we opened a bottle wine and watched a movie until 00h00 in Bolivia! Quiet, but most enjoyable.
We had a lazy wake up. The rain continued throughout the night and the ground was pretty soggy in the morning. With the bad weather, we thought we'd push on. Before we left, we met Bogdan and Marta from Slovenia and had a really enjoyable time chatting to them about travelling and all sorts.
The road north to Challapata was good. We encountered lots of begging women and children along the roadside and weren't sure it was a daily occurrence, or because it was new year. After Challapata the road deteriorated considerably as it wound through remote villages (some looking distinctly deserted) on the plains next to Lake Poopoo. It was sandy and had loads of puddles and potholes.
Then we came across a river in flood which was blocking the road and when Michael walked through the icy cold water, he decided it was too deep and fast to try right then. So, we drove a little way off the road to set up camp for the night (but not before testing the river a little further south first). Then we saw a tractor approaching from the other side and watched it plough through the water with a car in tow, whose entire bonnet went under the bough wave!
We drove back to the road and had a look at where the water mark was on the tractor. After some deliberation and confirming that if we got stuck the tractor would tow us out, we decided to cross. It was awful. Michael confessed to being very nervous and I was terrified. The water was much faster flowing than I had thought and Michael kept having to turn up stream as we got pushed downwards. The water covered our 33" diameter wheels entirely, although remarkably little water came inside the vehicle. Nyathi performed brilliantly, particularly only having 6x4 and I was very pleased to drive out the other side! The locals on the far side gave us a big cheer too.
The guy in the 4x4 waiting to cross said that there was another similar river to cross further along, but that he had managed it, but the one we had crossed was too deep and fast for him.
After one or two small streams across the road, we reached the second major river the guy had told us about. It was quite fast flowing, but not as deep, and Nyathi managed it without fuss.
Then some people waiting on the other side asked if we could turn around and tow them across in their minivan. We weren't keen to contaminate our oils anymore than we had to so we agreed to wait while the other vehicle tried, and if they got stuck, then we'd tow them out. Just then, two more 4x4's arrived, travelling the other way, along with a car. They towed the car across and despite me telling the minivan guy to ask the other 4x4 to tow him (I explained the 4x4 had to cross anyway so he may as well tow the minivan), he didn't ask him, so my sympathy level dropped somewhat. Our offer to tow him if he got into trouble still stood, but he wasn't keen, so we went on our way...
We set up camp about eighty metres from the road and I cooked a nice, warming soya chilli for dinner. I also made hot chocolate and we watched another movie, before crawling into a very cold bed. It was over 3800m and we both slept with beanies on to stay warm!
It was pretty cold last night, but at dawn it began to warm up a bit. I got up and did some diary work, while Michael caught an extra hour's sleep. Then we siliconed the clothing hatches to try and prevent the water leaking in. Michael started doing some odd bits on the vehicle which turned out to be a full morning session. I made us oats porridge for breakfast, prepared lunch for when we hit the road and got the journal fully up to date - hurrah! We ended up eating lunch before starting off at about 14h00 - it was lovely to sit out in the sun and eat lunch for a change.
Then the day got a lot more interesting...
We crossed a few more rivers, and saw volcano Tunupa, powdered with snow, towering over the plains.
We drove through Salinas de Garci Mendoza and headed along a loop road towards the Salar de Uyuni. We saw some vehicles way in the distance in the middle of the salt pan and we ventured to see if we could get closer. The ground was pretty firm and then we thought it looked a bit softer up ahead so Michael turned to the left, but it was too late! We came to an abrupt halt tilted way over to the right and bogged down to our axles.
We only had about two hours until sunset so we quickly set about trying to extricate ourselves. We decided to use everything at our disposal to give us the best chance of getting out first time. We prepared to reverse Nyathi back to the more solid ground, instead of going forwards. We dug a hole just behind the back right wheel and put one of the spare wheels into it to serve as a solid base for the hi-lift jack. It was much harder work being at over 3600m and we both had to put weight on the jack (plus an extension) to lift Nyathi up enough to push the sandladders underneath.
In the meanwhile we had an interested onlooker who just stood and watched and eventually road off into the sunset. We also put the half-shafts back in the rear axle to give us 6x6 capability. We dug out all the other mud which was causing a blockage and were amazed to see how much water came up to the surface. We also put four chock blocks in the channel behind the sandladders. A while later our onlooker returned on his bicycle to see what we were up to. After about and hour and a half's work we gave it a go.
She moved back about 4 metres or so, but then bogged down even worse than before, so we started the whole process again, moving the high-lift jack back. We had to dig really deep into the mud to try and retrieve the sandladders which had been pushed far below. Then our onlooker piped up that we would never get out and that we needed a tractor. We agreed it would be easier with a tractor, but where would we find one? 'My uncle has one,' he said. We asked him how much it would cost to tow us out and he replied '100 bolivianos, plus twenty for me to fetch him.' (About US$20 in total). We agreed with alacrity, and off he rode across the salt pan to fetch his uncle with the tractor who was apparently only about a kilometre away (we couldn't see any habitation, but it all blends in so well with the scenery here).
We continued to work on getting Nyathi out, or at least to jack her up to level so if the tractor couldn't do it today, we could at least sleep in the vehicle. However, true to his word, our onlooker (whose name is too complicated to remember) cycled back about twenty minutes later and about 15 minutes after that his uncle, farmer Marco, arrived with the tractor and two other young guys. They were very helpful and we were very impressed that they didn't mention the payment. They were all more than willing to help with digging and searching for submerged sandladders. After several attempts and more jacking and digging, the tractor pulled us out onto hard ground at 21h15. What a relief! We paid Marco 150 bolivianos for him and the three others, plus I quietly gave our onlooker his 20 bolivianos fetching fee. They pointed us in the right direction for Llica and off we went. Exhausted we stopped shortly afterwards just off the road. We washed as much of the mud and muck off as possible and fell into bed.
We didn't hear a single vehicle pass us by in the night, which is most unusual. We gathered the road ahead must be fairly tricky if nobody drives it at night. How right we were...
Shortly after getting up a huge bus drove past and a chap on a motorbike stopped to say hello. We confirmed that the bus had just come from Llica to make sure we were on the right track and that it was passable. He told us it was very wet and we would have to go slowly, but that the bus had just done it.
Just around the corner we came to the Salar de Uyuni proper! It was blindingly bright and covered with a layer of water about 5cm deep. There is absolutely no way we would have driven across it had we not just seen the bus come past. We drove along with the salt water spray obscuring our vision and the two of us nervously peering through the windscreen to try and follow something that look at least vaguely like a track. With the water covering, it was almost impossible to see the tracks and we kept weaving from left to right to cross tracks an then follow them until they disappeared. The surrounding mountains were reflected in the salt water and it was pretty amazing to see.
With the mirages and reflections it was also quite difficult to tell how much further we had to go. Thankfully at the other side there were some cairns which guided us onto a track which was raised higher than the surrounding water-filled and very treacherous looking ground. Having made it safely across we were both able to better appreciate what an unbelievable experience it was!
Nyathi was covered in a thick layer of salt crystals and badly needed a wash.
The road thereafter was bad, but beautiful. We saw lots of llamas, many of which were adorned with (Christmas?) ribbbons.
Navigation was a real problem. The track would fork every few kilometres, and we were never sure if it was just a slight diversion, joining up later, or if the tracks would continue heading off in different directions. None of our maps agreed with each other, or with the roads we were actually on. The GPS map was surprisingly accurate, but was incorrect often enough for it to be effectively useless. In total we must have done over 200km of incorrect tracking and back-tracking! At times we were actually travelling well on the Chile side of the border.
Close to the border, there are quite a few minefields (Chilean, we think), fortunately well marked.
Later in the afternoon, en route to the border with Chile, we came across a suitable river where we parked and gave her a good wash. I even got on the roof and wash off the sandladders and we did all the equipment which was covered in mud from our getting-stuck episode.
While in the stream, we met some vehicles coming the other way, and the drivers confirmed that the border post was at Bella Vista in Bolivia and Cancosa in Chile. We made our way to Bella Vista, but were unsuccessful in finding anyone who could give us a Bolivian exit stamp. We asked a respectable looking man for directions to the border crossing. The first route he sent us on ended at a steep hill with rock covered ground which was impossible to negotiate, so we went back. En route we asked an old lady who told us of a better route on the other side of the village. When we drove back into the village we told the previous man his route was impassable, so he too told us about the other route too. We went back to the military compound to try and get our passports stamped, but they had no sort of stamp whatsoever and told us not to worry, to just go - what option did we have?
After some tricky roads we eventually arrived in Cancosa. We saw an official looking building with a national flag so we decided we'd better go and get our passports stamped - we wished we hadn't! The military people we met there were all very friendly but told us that the border crossing was only for pedestrians and not for vehicles. They assured us that all the other vehicles we had seen must be contrabando. (We were told this same information by locals both before and afterwards - it seems hundreds of vehicles are brought in illegally from Chile).
No matter how much we begged, they said we would have to return to Bolivia and go via the northern route in Colchane. They offered us a place to stay for the night and that we could leave in the morning. However, we left headed back to Bolivia, and resolved not to bother with Chile again. We spent the night camped next to a big reservoir a few kilometres from the border. I made us chilli soya tortillas and we fell into bed, tired and a bit frustrated.
We were up early, freshened up and got on the road. We drove through Bella Vista again and headed north toward Salar de Coipasa. We asked some locals directions to ensure we were on the right route. We were stopped at the entrance to the a village and asked for a contribution of 10 bolivianos to the community. We told them that was too much and we would pay five instead, which was more in keeping with other road tolls. They gave us what we think was good information on the road conditions and advised us that with all the recent rain, Salar de Uyuni was easier to cross than Salar de Coipasa, so we backtracked once again. We were flagged down en route by some people driving contrabando vehicles. They asked us if we wouldn't mind going ahead and if we saw a police checkpoint ahead, would we stop so they could see not to follow us. Only in Bolivia!
When we crossed the Salar de Uyuni it was much drier and the the sparkling salt crystals were beautiful.
I was wearing two pairs of sunglasses because the glare was so strong.
It was interesting to see the difference between it being really wet and wet/dry, and could clearly see our tracks from the outward journey, even though it had been flooded at the time.
We were still glad to have crossed it safely and felt sorry for Nyathi who had a fresh coating of thick salt crystals again! Her name was frosted beautifully by the salt:
We stopped near our getting-stuck place to see if we could retrieve the remaining wood blocks, but after some digging and swirling about of gloopy mud Michael decided it wasn't worth the effort.
En route to Quillaca we stopped to give a lift to a guy who had a serious blow out and needed to take his spare tyre to the gomeria. We explained that we wanted to stop at the river before Quillaca to wash down the car and he said he was happy with that. However, as we got closer to Quillaca we saw some enormous storm clouds brewing, accompanied by some strong dust storms so we forded the river and went straight to Quillaca. There we discovered there was no gomeria open, so we ended up taking our guy to Challapata (his home town). However, we still had the major river to cross which had scared me before. I'm pleased to say it had subsided substantially and after safely crossing we parked Nyathi a little downstream and gave her a good wash.
About an hour later we arrived in Challapata. Our guy (whose name was also far too complicated to remember) was really thankful for our help and even offered to pay us, which we of course declined.
We eventually found a nice little campsite next to a river down a side road through the mountains behind Poopoo. We weren't very hungry so just had cake/biscuits and read our books before falling asleep.
Although not originally our plan, we spent the whole day at our riverside camp. Michael refitted the water pump which had vibrated loose - which was an incredibly fiddly and frustrating job - a few choice words flew about from both of us. I gave the tent area a thorough clean and we gave the mattress a good beating and airing. I also did some clothes washing in the river and gave the kitchen a good scrub. Then I cut Michael's hair (and he trimmed mine). Then we both had lovely hot bush baths and sat and read our books while the sun went down.
We only had one local visitor the whole day and he just came for a chat, which was rather difficult as his already rapid speech was somewhat impeded by the coca leaves he was chewing.
We had a delicious, filling dinner of spaghetti and soya mince with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and chilli. We sat in the cab and watched Chicago, which we'd got from Mal and Mart in SA.
We got to Oruro by about 10h00 and parked and locked up the car. There was some little celebration going on and there was a long queue of children receiving cake and chocolate milk from a clown. We walked for quite a while looking for spare part shops and in particular fuses, a T-piece for the Ebesbacher and free wheeling hubs. We only found the former, but will look for the rest in La Paz tomorrow.
We had lunch at Nayjama. Michael had steak with two fried eggs and rice and I had a rack of lamb with rice. It wasn't the best we've had, but it was still enjoyable. (They also had the cleanest toilets I have seen in ages - which was a bonus!)
On the way to La Paz the brake light came on and Michael found a serious leak in the rear brake system. We continued on with just the front brakes, but in Pacamaya we stopped and got someone to fix the copper brake pipe which had fatigued after 60,000km of travelling on varied road conditions. The repair wasn't great, but it'll do for a while.
Instead of driving into La Paz at night, we drove up into the mountains to a deserted spot alongside the track at about 4300m, and settled down at dusk to relax and read for a while. At about 10pm, just when we were ready to go to sleep, we were disturbed by a group of people who tapped on the cab windows.
We could barely understand their Castellano, or they ours, but it gradually became clear that they didn't like us sleeping there. They told us they wanted us to come to their village, but we didn't like their rather inhospitable tone (one of them had the cheek to keep asking us for our passports, which we ignored). Being in the midst of a slightly unfriendly crowd of about a dozen men, on a dark and deserted mountainside made us feel a bit uneasy, so we started the engine, apologised for making them unhappy, and drove off, almost pushing our way past the few who were blocking the road (they were pointing back down the road, wanting us to head for their village).
It is only the second time on our entire journey that we have been made to feel unwelcome when bush-camping (the first time being in Angola). Bolivians in general seem to be among the friendliest people we have encountered, but I suppose it only takes one influential guy with a chip on his shoulder to whip up a bit of indignation against strangers. I think a few of the quieter onlookers felt a bit bad about driving us off in the middle of the night.
Anyway, we headed down the steep mountain pass to the main road, and eventually stopped at a service station a few kilometres from La Paz, where the friendly attendant said we were welcome to sleep.
We got a fairly early start after a surprisingly good night's sleep. El Alto (at over 4000m) on the outskirts of La Paz used to be a suburb, but has now developed into a city in its own right with over a million people, most of whom have flocked from the countryside in search of work and fortune. We arrived at morning peak time and there were hundreds and hundreds of minivan taxis all of which had almost come to a halt on the eight lane road. We later discovered the reason for the tremendous delay was a bridge which had collapsed over the 'motorway' causing a disruptive diversion.
La Paz city is set in a valley with sheer sides of of eroding sand just waiting to let houses tumble down below. It reminds us of Quito.
We drove down into the centre of town and below into the Zona Sur which is the more upmarket area and the place where there is supposedly a campsite. No campsite was o be found but after some searching in the internet cafe we found the local Land-Rover dealer and took Nyathi in with a list of things that needed doing including the brakes, crack in the intercooler to be welded, front wheel bearings etc.
In the meanwhile we caught a bus up to town to buy an extended map of la paz, which was very time consuming and exhausting walking up and down the steep hills at over 3600m. We decided to treat ourselves and stay in a hotel for the night so the guys at Elite Motors could start work again on Nyathi early in the morning. So we packed a few overnight things and caught a bus back up to town and went in search of a hotel. We stayed at the first place we tried, Hostal Naira (opposite Iglesia San Francisco), because they were prepared to negotiate and at US$20 a nigh for both of us, it was expensive by La Paz standards, but worth every penny!
We met Martin and Natascha from Germany (there were more tourists in La Paz than we have seen in absolute ages) and when for dinner with them to Angelo Colonial where we saw even more tourists, but there was a great atmosphere and tasty food (fresh salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, avocado, palmitos and onions, plus chicken crepes). We had a great evening chatting and relaxing.
We didn't have the best night's sleep in the 'boat bed' but the shower was fantastic - hot and powerful! We had a simple breakfast of fruit salad, bread and jam (included in the hotel price) and then Michael went back down to Elite Motors to see how things were progressing with Nyathi, while I wandered around town looking to see if there were any hotels we'd rather stay at. The answer was no! Although our place wasn't the cheapest around it was very clean, we had our own bathroom and I changed rooms to one with a firmer bed.
In the afternoon we had pizza at the very expensive El Romana / El Centurion in Calle Santa Cruz, but they had the latest Bolivian guidebook to read which made up for it. We went to the Coca Museum. They gave us a comprehensive English guide book to use with the numbered panels, but as they were busy renovating everything was out of order and in a bit of a mess making it somewhat hard to follow. They didn't give the most balanced perspective on coca (slating the US and it's cocaine usage, as well as numerous incorrect facts about Coco-Cola), nevertheless, it was fascinating.
Later on we bumped into Martin and Natascha again (while having hot chocolate at Angelo Colonial).
They took us to a at a good little local place for take-away pizza. We took our pizza back to the hotel where we worked until after midnight resizing all our photos and putting them into the journal.
I phoned Elite Motors to find out if the vehicle was ready - they said it would be late afternoon. We had already decided we'd like to spend one more night so confirmed it would be alright to leave her their until tomorrow morning - they have really been good, extremely professional and friendly.
Michael finished doing some picture inserting on the web and I wandered round the streets looking at all the wonderful artisan stalls with jewellery, woven cloths, clothing, purses and beautiful alpaca wool jumpers. I also spent quite a while walking down the 'witches lane' where they sell all sorts of weird and wonderful things linked to their beliefs and superstitions including mini pachamamas (mother earth) and many other good luck talismans plus a variety of dead animals and skins including armadillos, wild cats and llama foetuses (which are burnt in people's homes to ward of malevolent spirits). I also discovered that they traditionally bury whole adult llamas in building foundations for good luck and safe housing.
In the afternoon Michael went in search of an internet cafe which was fast enough to upload the web updates and would allow us to connect the laptop. I went to the British Embassy to ask if they knew where we could find some free-wheeling hubs for a Series 3 (they have a fleet of Defenders), but they were closed early (Friday!) So I went down to the garage and collected more clothes for us and our three big bags of very dirty and damp (from the tent area leaks) laundry.
We met Natascha and Martin for a quick, but really enjoyable final dinner together before they leave tomorrow. We took my trousers in to a very friendly little tailor for a stronger repair!
We tried to have a quick siesta, but the pena (local musical entertainment) downstairs kept us awake. We wandered through the busy night streets and then went to watch Lord of the Rings which we both thoroughly enjoyed, but only got to bed after 02h00!
We had a slightly lazy start and decided to forego breakfast for a bit of a lie in. We went and collected Nyathi and parked her in a secure area in Calle Murillo near the Hostal. I packed up the room and took some photos from the hotel rooms overlooking the street, while Michael went and uploaded the website.
I took ages looking for the internet cafe, but enjoyed wandering through the back streets where the locals were going about their business and thought it rather strange to see a tourist walking up the 'anything to do with security and plumbing' market street.
Michael was feeling a bit 'bleugh' so he went to sit in Angelo Colonial while I went down and befriended one of the 'witchcraft' stall holders. She tried to convince me to buy a small llama foetus for 30 bolivianos, but I strongly disagreed! Instead I bought a mini pachamama and her took her photograph along with all her gruesome merchandise...
I met Michael again and we had a salad for lunch at our favourite haunt.
Then we phoned home and Angela for her birthday. At about 15h30 we headed on our windy route out of town for Coroico. We were going up a steep hill towards the outer stretches of town when Nyathi just died. Luckily Michael guessed the little fuel cut-off wire had worked it's way loose and he was right! So a bit of fiddling and getting dirty and we both jumped back in the cab and were on our way again. It is amazing to see the eroded, unstable hills which surround La Paz and lots of people build their houses on them, but then I don't suppose they have much choice.
We reached our highest altitude yet in Nyathi at the La Cumbre pass, 4664m. The road was steeped in cloud and was almost spooky! The scenery was spectacular with loads of crystal clear fast-flowing streams and waterfalls tumbling down the mountainsides. We decided to camp down a little side road next to a river, which was within the Copata Reserve area. It was really strange seeing the cloud closing in around us. Michael got up into bed and I wrote lots of emails.
Just I was getting out to put the jerry can away and go to bed I saw two lights headed in our direction. Not wanting a repeat of our recent unfriendly experience I swiftly jumped back in the car. We waited a while and heard nothing, so I suppose it may have been a car in the distance, still, I didn't sleep very easily, especially as it was pitch dark outside and you couldn't see a thing!
The road today was even more spectacular than yesterday. We have never seen so many mountain streams and waterfalls within one range before.
We saw lots of mad people on their bicycles headed for old road which is 'the most dangerous road on earth', (as quoted in National Geographic). We decided that with all the rain and cloud cover it would be better to go up the old road and down the new.
Still, on our descent we encountered the recent remains of four big landslides and many more smaller ones. This one had been cleared, but had caused some damage to the concrete bridge.
Annoyingly Nyathi also developed a very loud grinding/squeaking noise when reversing or using the gears to slow her down on our deep descent. We stopped and tried to identify the problem with no success, even checking to make sure that the garage had put oil in the front diff. It is especially annoying as we have just spent almost $400 having her fixed!
When we reached the bottom of the road we were at 1030m, that's a descent of 3334m in about three hours! Then we had to climb back up to about 1800m to Coroico. The road was mud/sand, except as we got higher it was mostly cobbled, which was rather nice. The streets in the town itself were pretty steep and narrow, so we were glad they weren't slippery mud!
We arranged to camp in the parking area of Hotel Esmeralda, overlooking the valley and to pay 10 bolivianos each for hot showers, plus we ate lunch and dinner of cheeseburgers and chips (the same dinner was not out of choice, but because the buffet had run out of food). The whole Yungas area had an electricity failure, so it was also dinner by candle light.
In the afternoon however, we had a very relaxing time lying in hammocks reading our books, with a gorgeous view across the valley with Huani Potosi volcano in the distance standing over 6000m.
Michael crawled under Nyathi to identify the grinding noise and discovered that it was the universal joint on the front propshaft. We had asked Elite for a spare when we were in La Paz, but they didn't have any! Sod's law. We phoned Elite Motors in La Paz and asked them to get a spare for us. Edgar suggested that we could send the propshaft to La Paz, get Elite to fix it for us and then send it back. We decided that would be the best course of action. Edgar was extremely helpful and arranged for his driver to take the part into town to the courier. So then there was nothing more for us to do than relax...
We sat down at the pool and had lunch and a few drinks. We chatted to Howard from the UK about all sorts of different things and generally just chilled out.
In the evening we had a buffet dinner of salads, spaghetti bolognese, vegetable 'tortillas' and watermelon for dessert. We were going to watch a DVD in the hotel lounge along with another group staying at the hotel, but they selected Chicago from our DVDs which we had watched recently, so we left them to it.
Michael asked Edgar to phone Elite and get an update for us - it looks like they have the parts, which is good news, but I think we'll only get the propshaft back tomorrow. I wandered about 1.5km up to Hostal Sol y Luna to find out about the massages on offer. They are given by an American guy for 80 bolivianos ($10), so I decided to treat myself and agreed to come back at 14h00. Michael spent the morning playing Civilization, while I wandered down into town. I had a chocolate crepe, which was quite tasty, but not really enough!
We had toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and then I wandered up to have my massage. I was pretty hot and sweaty by the time I got there, but they have a fantastic meditation room way up the mountain where the cool air blows, so it was lovely. I felt great after the massage and thoroughly enjoyed the walk back down the mountain path.
We both relaxed until dinner, when it started to rain quite heavily. We had the hotel buffet of delicious soup, then chicken, vegetables, rice and a somewhat disappointing Angel's Delight chocolate dessert. We watched Pearl Harbour in the TV lounge along with another English couple and we only got to bed after midnight.
A relaxed get up. I read my book and Michael played Civilization, intent on conquering the rest of the world! The propshaft arrived back just before lunch, so Michael crawled under Nyathi yet again and put it back and then went for a hot shower. I had a shower and ordered lunch of some tasty cheeseburgers and chips. We had a really interesting chat with Sergio, the owner of Eco Bolivia Adventures and decided to follow him out of town and up to the start of the old road, proclaimed the 'most dangerous road in the world'.
We settled our bill and said goodbye. We can understand why the road is classified as the most dangerous in the world. It is extremely narrow and slippery in places and downhill traffic often has to reverse back up the hill to give way to uphill traffic (which keeps to the left, hugging the mountain).
The road is littered with little crosses in remembrance of people who have been killed en route. However, if you take it slowly it is fine and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. On your right are sheer drops down into the jungle valley well over a kilometre below and on your left lots of crystal clear waterfalls cascade down the mountainside, some of them falling over the road giving anyone in an open-top truck a good solid, shower!
Despite the fact that we were immersed in cloud for a good part of the journey, it definitely takes the cake for the most breathtaking drive so far.
We continued up to the camping spot where we had stayed on the way down. It was incredible to see how much more water was crashing down the rivers and waterfalls than three days earlier. We parked slightly more out of sight from the road than before and settled down to a good night's sleep.
The effects of the rain were much in evidence in La Paz with the main road back into town blocked by flood damage. We went back to Elite Motors to pay them for the two universal joints for the propshaft - it was over US$100 - ouch!!! Had we known, we probably wouldn't have sent it back there for repair. We headed up into town and had lunch at Angelo Colonial, which was delicious. Then Michael went to upload the website and send all our emails and I went and had a 50 minute conversation with Karen, which was fantastic!
We left La Paz mid afternoon and arrived in Tihuanaco just before sunset. As soon as we arrived, lots of kids came running up trying to sell us their wares. We told them we'd see them in the morning once we had been to the ruins. I arranged with the owner (Gloria) of a nice little restaurant at the end of the road that we could park there for the night. We we had a drink there and then retreated to the cab. A little later we ordered some sandwiches and more drinks and the daughter kindly offered to bring them out to us in the vehicle.
Michael continued his Civilization game and I finished my book and crawled into a very cold bed (definitely getting the electric blanket out tomorrow).
Tihuanaco is somewhat of an enigma, with no definitive records left behind to tell future historians what it was all about. Archaeologists believe it dates back to about 1200BC, long before the Incas. It costs foreigners 25 bolivianos each to visit the two museums and the outdoor sites of the ruins. They wanted the same again for a guide, so we politely declined. The first museum was very well presented, including some English panels, but no English descriptions next to the actual monoliths and various artefacts. We felt really annoyed when they also wanted to charge for the use of the toilet, after we had paid an entrance fee. It is something small, but it really soured it for us. At the second museum (which was older and had information only in Spanish) we met Gloria at the reception and bought a fairly useful map of the ruins for 15 bolivianos. The museum contained lots of good examples of pottery and artefacts through the different ages, but the thing that fascinated us most were the examples of deliberately distorted and elongated human skulls. There were about thirty of them on display, but no explanation at all as to why they would have done such a thing.
The ruins themselves were interesting, but not particularly well excavated and without our map, would have meant nothing (though eavesdropping on some of the other guides, we weren't disappointed with our decision). There was also no indication of which areas were restored (though in most cases it was very obvious). The bits we found most intriguing were the puerta del sol and the Ponce monolith. The size of some of the slabs of stone were most impressive and it must have been some feat to get them all into place!
We had lunch at Gloria's restaurant which was great value at 18 bolivianos ($2.50) for hot soup and bread followed by llama steak with fried egg, rice, chips and vegetables.
We headed off to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The shores of the lake are not particularly beautiful as the houses are not well built and there is quite a bit of pollution, however, the lake itself is beautiful. It is a deep, dark blue and has large expanses of reeds poking up through the water. They used to use the reeds to build impressive boats (some of which have crossed the Atlantic), but the tradition and skills are now dying out.
We crossed the lake from San Pablo to San Pedro by a simple barge for 30 bolivianos ($4). The locals were trying to sell us flowers for the blessing of our car and eventually we succumbed at the top of a mountain and bought two bunches of stems of fresias. Here is a car returning from its 'blessing session'...
The flowers certainly didn't bring us much luck... As were driving through Copacabana looking for a hotel with parking space, Michael engaged low range to ascend a very steep alleyway. About halfway up there was a step about 10cm high, and as Nyathi's rear wheels hit this step, there was an expensive-sounding noise from somewhere underneath.
I left Michael investigating while I walked around town looking for a suitable place to stay. The only option (Hotel Gloria) was more expensive than I would have liked at 50 bolivianos for a parking spot and the use of showers. When I got back to Michael he had established that the problem was with differential number two and had removed both half-shafts from the that axle. So we now had drive to the front axle only, although diff number two still makes the occasional clunking noise, as Michael has not removed the rear propshaft. Our three options are to 1) try and fix the problem here in Copacabana, 2) drive 200km back to La Paz, or 3) drive on to Cusco about 600km.
We had a tasty pizza for dinner to take our minds off things and then had terrific hot showers and crawled into bed (I had put the electric blanket back on, so it was nice and cosy)! The storm that was brewing over the lake didn't come to much, we just had a bit of rain.