I had been looking forward to driving through southwest Bolivia for years, and even with all the stress of the tire situation, I was determined that we take our time and enjoy it. Little did I know that while being one of the most beautiful, stark, remote places I have ever been to, this part of Bolivia was not a place conducive to slow travel and relaxation.
We were traveling at elevations between 14,000 to 15,500 feet daily, and even though we were acclimated to the altitude by now, sometimes just turning over in bed left us out of breath. A few times I forgot we were at elevation and would sprint up a hill for a picture and then keel over as I sucked in air lacking the oxygen my lungs craved. On top of the altitude situation it was freezing cold. At night we used our Webasto heater (yes it worked fine at 15,000 feet!) which kept us cozy and warm, but if we left a bottle of Coke or water in the cab of the truck it would be frozen in the morning. I am not sure it ever got over 45 degrees while we were there even during the warm part of the day. At night it always dipped well below freezing.
Lastly, just in case the elevation and freezing temps don’t get us, this area has tremendous, powerful, unrelenting thermal winds that start at about 11am everyday when the sun heats up the air and blow with a vengeance until the sun goes down. So you can imagine, besides driving in our vehicle and marveling at the beauty, there was not much else we wanted or could do in this part of Bolivia. And unfortunately the driving is limited by gas range (and tolerance of the worse corrugated roads of the trip) because there are zero places for fuel on the southwest circuit. We have a rather generous gas range, we can go about 1000 miles on one tank of gas, so we could actually see a lot of this part of Bolivia without worrying about the running out of gas, all we really had to worry about was freezing to death.
Driving the southwest circuit was hard on Sam, it was not relaxing driving. The roads were so bad that we felt our teeth were going to rattle out. It made for some long days, and Sam was so exhausted that he did not want to take any pictures, so I became the appointed photographer for the entire circuit. The good news is it is hard to take a bad picture here, the landscape is so stunning, and it was fun for me capture this otherworldly place through my perspective.
After the stunning red Laguna Colorado we spent the next three days exploring a landscape so otherworldly and different from anything I had seen before I started calling it Mars. And while I have never been to Mars, I kind of hope it looks like the strange world we were privileged to see in the crazy high desert of Bolivia.
After the geysers on the southwest circuit there are hot springs. I saw pictures of other overlanders in the past in these hot springs and they looked amazing!!!! I was dreaming about these hot springs after days of not showering and being freezing cold outside all the time. I was sure they would be perfect.
The reality was a little less than dreamy, isolated hot tubs. We parked the XP next to the hot springs in the late evening (when the tourists have left) and I changed into my bathing suit, grabbed a towel and ran through the 30 degree cold to get into hot bliss I was sure was waiting. I was met my an elderly Bolivian lady who told me I had to pay for the changing room. I told her I did not need to change and showed her my bathing suit and pointed to the truck. She told me I still needed to pay, so I asked her if it was the fee for the hot springs. She said the hot springs were free, but I needed to pay for the changing room. It was like the skit Who’s on First. I was starting to get frustrated and then it dawned on me:
1. I am arguing in my bikini in 30 degree weather with a toothless, poor Bolivian women.
2. I am being an asshole and I should just give her the whopping $1.75 she wants so she can probably feed her family.
Fee paid I got in and realized that the tub was only about waist deep. I know I am tall, but seriously? In order to submerge myself I had to lay down in the water that was very warm, but not super hot. Ten degrees hotter and I might have forgiven it being a baby wading pool. Sam refused to come in, he said it was too cold to get into a bathing suit and thought I was bonkers.
So I was in the pool alone watching the flamingos down stream until I was joined by a Bolivian local with a 1970s transistor radio that he placed next to the tub and shattered the silence of the Bolivian altiplano with bad love ballads. The radio’s reception kept breaking up and his solution to fix that was turning the volume up. Between the loud music and the long awkward moments of him staring at my chest, I decided my hot springs time was over. As I got out of the water, I realized quickly that Sam was right, it was WAY too cold to be in a bathing suit.
While we we camping one night near the Dali desert we had one of most annoying “overlander moments” I can remember on this trip. You can camp anywhere within the park, ANYWHERE. There are thousands of miles of open space. We were parked in the middle of nowhere making dinner around 8PM when we heard a vehicle pull up next to us. It was a white overland van that we had not met yet. We thought they maybe pulled up to say hi which happens often, but instead they just parked about seven feet from us and did not stop by. We were in the middle of so much open space it would make your head spin and now we had someone parking so close to us we could hear them talking inside their van. It was kind of strange, but we thought they might be scared, or wanted to hang out later so we let it go. Then the generator came out…..
As I was sautéing chicken I started hearing this really loud sound. In the silent desert it sounded like a plane landing. I looked out the door and not six feet from us was a full sized Honda generator buzzing away next to the van. One of the most beautiful things about this part of Bolivia is being in absolute silence and darkness at night, there are not many places on this earth where you get that. Now instead of silence it felt like a giant lawn mower was parked next to us. I was in shock at how inconsiderate our “neighbors” were and I was getting more and more pissed off by the minute. For those who know me I am sure most would agreeI am a laid back and nice person most of the time, but I also don’t suffer fools and when I get mad about something, well I am a bit of a force of nature.
And I was mad. We finished dinner around 9pm and I went out and knocked on the door of the van and there was no answer. I did not know what to do. For us to move campsites would take us putting all the dishes away, letting the stove cool, unmaking our bed and driving in the dark to find another wind free space. And I felt a stubborn “we were here first” voice from deep inside me telling me we should not have to move. I decided to wait until 10pm and see if they came back. Around 10 they were still not back at the van so I bundled up in all my coats, put on a headlamp and set out to find them. As I was walking down the pitch black road I saw flashlights in the distance and ran over to talk to them. Unfortunately, when I got to them I was so out of breath from running in the altitude that as I tried to tell them off I kept desperately gasping for air. I think it made me seem totally crazy.
They were German, very young, maybe early 20s, and as I told them how their generator was bothering us and how they could park anywhere in the park, but they parked right next to us and ruined our peace, I saw on their faces that they did not even think about it being a problem. Ah youth….I felt a bit bad after I ripped into them, they looked terrified of me, so I apologized and told them I was just tired and wanted to sleep. We awkwardly walked back to camp and they turned off their generator and silence fell again onto our world again. And I am certain those two boys will think twice the next time they use their generator next to people. As I laid in bed I imagined them talking about the crazy American girl yelling at them in the middle of the pitch black desert which made me laugh to myself, anger all gone.
The next morning we headed to our final spot on the circuit, Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca, the last lakes in the National Park. Green and white colored lakes to go with the red, yellow, pale blue ones we had already seen.
I spent the day at Laguna Verde cooking all our left over food and turning our apples into applesauce. We would be crossing into Chile the next day for our first time and they do not let you bring any meat, cheese, honey, nuts,vegetables or fruits into the country. We would start calling this “the great Chile cook off”, because we would have to do it every time we crossed into Chile, which would be five borders before the end of the trip.
Before we went to the highest border crossing in the world, at over 15,600 feet, we planned on stopping at Laguna Blanca in the early morning where we read that is you are lucky and there is no wind, the white lake acts as a mirror. We were lucky!