Bolivia: Back in the Breathtaking Andes Again

We arrived in Bolivia from the North Pantanal in Brazil . Our first week or so was spent in the low altitude areas of the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos , and a few days relaxing in Santa Cruz. When we left Santa Cruz for Samaipata, we had the unanticipated pleasure of ascending and coming face to face with the magnificent Andes once again. In some part of me I had known we would be driving into the mountains but, until we were doing it, I had actually forgotten how breathtaking I find them; I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until I saw them again.

The Andes in Bolivia provide some breathtaking scenery – while literally taking your breath away

The Andes in Bolivia provide some breathtaking scenery – while literally taking your breath away

It’s no secret that I love mountains. Coming from Australia, whose highest mountain is a little over 2,000m, I was wowed by the Himalayas whilst living in Nepal in 1988. Trekking the Annapurna circuit remains one of the high points of my life, in more ways than one. Then we came to South America in 2008, and I fell in love with the Andes. Driving through, around and below them produced one awe-inspiring vista after another.

The last time we crossed the Andes was September 2015. We’ve spent 2016 in the relative lowlands of Uruguay and Brazil. I knew that entering Bolivia would bring us into altitude again. We’ve had some problems in high altitude in the past and didn’t want to risk repeating them, so we spent a lot of time discussing which parts of the Bolivian Altiplano we would try to access.

It is quite incredible that people live and work at an average height of 3750 metres on the Bolivian Altiplano.

It is quite incredible that people live and work at an average height of 3750 metres on the Bolivian Altiplano.

Although Samaipata and the World Heritage listed archaeological site, El Fuerte (at just under 2,000m) are still considered to be in the foothills of the Andes, we were also quickly reminded to take our time. The site is on a mountain top and the walking path is very up and down. But the views and the history were worth the exertion.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Our plan from Samaipata had been to take paved roads wherever possible to reach Sucre. But we had met a Swiss couple in Santa Cruz who had driven the ‘Ruta del Che’ coming from Sucre. They advised us to do the same, and said the scenery was beautiful. So we took this unpaved road through the mountains where Che Guevara spent his last days; through the small towns where he was held after capture and executed, and where his body was displayed to the media and then buried.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

The scenery was indeed beautiful. In some places the road was the worst we had come across in Bolivia – and that’s saying something! It wound up and down from one river valley to the next. We hit 2,850m just before descending into La Higuera, where Che was executed on October 9, 1967. Then we slept that night next to a river at just under 1,000m. When we were high we could see the mountains going on and on into the distance; in the valleys we were surrounded by peaks.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Leaving the Ruta del Che behind, our next stop was Tarabuco, which has a famous Sunday market. At just over 3,300m it was beginning to test our altitude tolerance. Coca is legal in Bolivia, where the majority of men seem to have their cheeks stuffed with the leaves. This means you can also buy tea bags in the supermarkets. So we always had a thermos of coca tea to sip – it really does help with the minor altitude induced symptoms, like the feeling that your head is being squeezed in a vice.

The market is a colourful affair, full of foreign tourists bussed in from nearby Sucre. But somehow the locals just didn’t seem to be very happy or welcoming. We had been used to the very friendly Brazilians and didn’t quite know what to make of these more reserved Bolivians. My guess is that it is something to do with the geography – altitude and the resulting climate and lifestyle.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

After the market we drove on to Sucre. This colonial city is often called “Bolivia’s most beautiful city” , although we weren’t overly wowed by it. We did stay in and around it for almost 2 weeks, but this was due to my need for some emergency dental treatment that led to a complication, rather than our delight in the city itself. There was the positive aspect of it being situated at just over 2,800m – a good altitude to spend some time getting acclimatised before heading for the Bolivian Altiplano.

When I was finally cleared to leave Sucre, we drove the short distance to Potosi. It’s 150Km away, but 1,200m higher – we reached 4,000m! The drive was pleasant enough, much of it crossing a plateau, with craggy, rocky peaks on the horizon; and lots of beautifully built rock walls around the fields and dwellings. I am always impressed that people live and work the land at this height – I have problems just putting one foot in front of the other.

Potosi would have to be one of the most unattractive cities I have ever visited. As you reach it you get a good view of it laid out on the barren mountain sides. The centre of the city is quite attractive, with some nice colonial buildings, but that seems to be where it stops. We passed the weekend in Potosi, only because we were desperate to refill our gas cylinders before heading to the Salar de Uyuni. And we spent a lot of that time just lying or sitting around in the camper, reading or sleeping. We weren’t really sick from the altitude, but we were completely lethargic.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

On Monday, with a lot of time and patience, we were successful – we had full gas cylinders and could drive on to Uyuni. The route from Potosi to Uyuni was one of the loveliest drives we had through the mountains of Bolivia. The road was paved and in really good condition; the scenery was at times stunning and always interesting. We went up to 4,260m and finally stopped for the night at around 3,500, which provided some relief. Our sleeping place overlooked a river valley with real, green trees – a pleasant sight to the eyes.

As we climbed again the next day, we started to drive through some amazing coloured mountain scenery, similar to what we have already enjoyed in the Argentinean Andes . We stayed around 3,800m for a long period, crossing a plateau that seemed to go on forever to the foot of distant peaks. Where there was water, there were green fields with large herds of grazing animals, mostly llamas.

As we were coming close to the town of Uyuni, we rounded a bend and caught our first view of the Salar, stretching out to the horizon. Soon the view included Uyuni – shining silver roofs in the sun, set in the middle of a vast plain. It looked exactly like what it is – a frontier town. It was a relief to arrive – even though it is around 3,600m, we felt so much better than in Potosi.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Because of our lethargy, that sometimes felt like total exhaustion, we decided to head for lower ground after visiting the Salar. We looked at our maps and found a route to Chile that looked like the shortest way out of the high Andes. Then we checked with the immigration authorities in Uyuni, who said we could go that way, and decided to take it. That’s a whole other story.

The Salar de Uyuni, with the peaks of the Andes in the distance – one of Bolivia’s most popular destinations

The Salar de Uyuni, with the peaks of the Andes in the distance – one of Bolivia’s most popular destinations

Even when we left Bolivia and arrived in Chile to escape the altitude, we stayed longer than expected in the mountains. We just hadn’t realised that the Altiplano stretched across the border into that part of Chile. Although exhausted from the effects of the altitude, we were still awed by the mountain vistas we experienced on that border crossing, and whilst travelling north to Colchane in Chile.

No snow at this time of the year, but this photo is from last year near San Pedro de Atacama – breathtaking Andes views in Chile

No snow at this time of the year, but this photo is from last year near San Pedro de Atacama – breathtaking Andes views in Chile

I keep wondering what it is about mountains that makes them so attractive to me. But, as you can see, I’m a bit fickle in my love affair with them – I do love them, but I don’t like what being so high does to me. We’ve discovered that 3,000m seems to be our tipping point; under that is manageable, but over it the lethargy hits. When we’re driving through them, I’m completely absorbed in the visual treat. But when we stop for the day at high altitude, my mind is often somewhat fuzzed, my body is exhausted, and all I want to do is to go down again. What to do? Have another cup of coca tea, and keep driving.
Although the breathtaking Andes make up less than half of Bolivia they are the most visited part of the country. The often snow or ice capped peaks and deep green valleys are the main attraction. Llamas, Alpacas, and agriculture, like Quinoa, provide (alongside colourful craft and tourism) a livelihood for most natives who live on the Andean Altiplano. I love these mountains and want to share my impressions in this post!

PIN THIS for later!

 

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Peter Rogers says:

    Wow, Yasha. Great post. You’ve convinced me. Bolivia is on the bucket list for sure. Just hope I can handle the altitude. About 4000m was my limit in Ecuador.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks, Pete. The Andes are just breathtaking, wherever you visit them, but Bolivia has its own unique vistas. We really enjoyed the mountains again in Bolivia. Keep it on your list for sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

There will be more great content like this! On our Facebook Page you can also keep up with where we are and see the latest photos from our journey.
So why not follow us?

Send this to a friend