At Desaguadero, a dishevelled border town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we were given a classic Peruvian farewell – an unofficial toll. We’d encountered such highly spurious enterprises on other roads, but this one came as a surprise, as we’d crossed this same border twice before without being thusly accosted. This time, however, we were halted by a row of traffic cones and some sort of quasi-governmental employee who may or may not have also been Peru’s oldest man.
He was demanding 5 soles for the privilege of crossing the international bridge, but given we were leaving the country, we’d recently parted with the last of our Peruvian currency. I handed him a 100 Boliviano note, thinking he’d not be able to change it. It turns out he could, albeit entirely with coins and at an elevated price to that which he’d stated at the beginning of the exchange. Exasperated but unwilling to argue, we entered Bolivia with a kilo or two of metal currency and a bad taste in our mouths.
When overlanding South America, you come to expect such shenanigans, and we’d encounter more before the week was through. As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, Bolivia is an incredibly scenic country with a level of corruption to match.
Unsettled weather in the Cordillera Real meant that an ascent of Huayna Potosi was not a particularly appealing prospect, at least not for a few days. Instead, I thought we might check out the town of Coroico, a charming village perched on the precipitous jungle slopes west of La Paz. A popular destination on the Bolivian tourist circuit, this hamlet is well-known for stunning scenery and steep cobbled streets, but its patronage relies mostly on proximity to the Yungas Road.
The Yungas Road, better known as the Death Road, no longer lives up to its fearsome reputation. With the modern bypass installed nearby, traffic on the Yungas Road has all but ceased, meaning that desperate passing manoeuvres conducted above a yawning, unprotected abyss are largely a thing of the past. That said, “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” is still a pretty catchy slogan, and it continues to serve as an attractive lure for the hordes of giddy tourists who experience this infamous thoroughfare by way of bicycle. I had hoped to be one of these, and read that a reputable operator could be found at a restaurant in town named The Coroico Star. This, we reasoned, was a better option than the privations of driving and parking in downtown La Paz, where most tours depart from.
Though pacified somewhat, the road to Coroico is still spectacular. The dry uniformity of the Altiplano soon gives way to lush, verdant forests as the road carves its way toward the Amazon. Impossibly steep mountains march into the distance, shrouded in mist. Waterfalls cascade from the steep flanks only to be lost in banks of fog. It’s basically Jurassic Park.
The ubiquitous, cloying mist had coated the town of Coroico in a thin layer of moisture, making the cobblestone streets particularly treacherous. Even with the benefit of 4WD, La Tortuga struggled to pull her bulky rump up some of the steeper roads. After searching the town from top to tail for a place to camp, we found that each venue was either shut or inaccessible, so we parked the car to search for The Coroico Star on foot.
The restaurant turned out to be further out of town than we had bargained on, so we turned back. On return to the car, the wheel had been clamped. Somehow deciphering the toothless mutterings of a local store owner, I was pointed in the direction of the police station, where the sergeant admonished me for illegally parking my vehicle. I protested, stating that there were no signs from which I might glean such information, and that as a foreigner, I should be granted some leniency given I couldn’t possibly be expected to know all the rules. He seemed to agree – this was a tourist town, after all, and I was a tourist.
But when he arrived at the car, he had a change of heart. Suddenly, he lost his temper and demanded that I return to the police station. He had decided that he would fine me after all, but his temper continued to escalate when he realised that he had misplaced his ticket book. Apparently, fines need to be paid into a government bank account, but an official infraction ticket is required to legitimise this transaction. Begrudgingly, he unlocked the clamp on our wheel and sent us on our way with a flurry of impassioned gesticulations.
It appeared we’d first been victims, but ultimately beneficiaries of South American inefficiency. Not keen on pressing our improbable luck, we departed with due haste, hoping to find The Coroico Star on the way. As it turned out, the restaurant was defunct and looked as though it had been for years.
“Fuck this place,” I said, and we left Coroico for good… but not before we saw an armadillo for the first time in the wild. Suddenly, the entire miserable enterprise seemed like less of a epic failure than a grand old adventure in classic South American style. It has been henceforth suggested that I should now finish all my stories with the post-script “…and then I saw an armadillo”. This seems like a fantastic idea to me.
We continued the journey south, stopping at an obscure crag which was so thoroughly underwhelming that the name escapes me. At first blush, it appears to be an incredible piece of rock – an incongruous orange dome located unexpectedly in the rolling golden plains of the Altiplano. On closer inspection, the climbing was fairly ordinary and the locals were less than friendly. That said, if you really like thinly-veiled hostility and technical slab climbing on rock that is both polished and chossy, you’ll love it!
At this point, in contrast with our first visit, we were feeling less than enamoured with Bolivia. Luckily, this was soon to change. The landscape transformed gradually, becoming ever more desolate as we ventured south. Beside the highway, among the stunted shrubs, herds of alpaca noted our passage with nervous vigilance. Suddenly, at the crest of a hill, we saw the brilliant reflection of a vast, white plain – the Salar de Uyuni.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat on Earth, but it feels like a different planet entirely. The light is piercing and the silence is dense. Between the Dakar Monument and a huddle of cactus-clad “islands” on the shimmering horizon, there is absolutely nothing to interrupt the otherworldly void. As the sun sets, your shadow begins to stretch, soon covering hundreds of metres before finally being swallowed in the twilight. As the light continues to fade, the vast night sky fills with stars, leaving you with an uninterrupted view of the cosmos. It’s a campsite like no other – eerie, beautiful, nothing short of amazing.
This was the first of an unprecedented (and mostly unexpected) trilogy of epic campsites that we enjoyed during our last days in Bolivia. On the fringes of Uyuni, we camped at the “Cementario de Trens”, a train graveyard where dozens of abandoned locomotives lay rusting in the desert. The following night, on our way to the border, we stumbled upon the “Valle de las Rocas”, a veritable sea of boulders in all manner of weird and fantastic shapes.
The frontier was close. We endured one final day of potholes, corrugations and gravel detours before launching onto the pristine asphalt of Northern Chile. With Bolivia in our rear-view mirror, La Tortuga had braved some of the worst roads that South America could throw at her, or so we thought…
…and then I saw an armadillo.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.