When I was in grade school, one of my favorite subjects was Social Studies. I loved learning about cultures from faraway lands, the history, costumes, traditions, and way of life. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this interest at a young impressionable age would become a lifelong obsession – to learn and understand the meaning of life for peoples of the world. And this is how it came about for A Very Big Bolivian Adventure.
In fifth grade, one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Guerske, introduced our class to a Social Studies unit on Bolivia. I was beyond fascinated as I spent hours reading and looking at the photos of the hard-scrabble life of the Andean people. For decades after, Bolivia was filed away in my mind as a destination I needed to see.
A Very Big Bolivian Adventure
And so it was in year seven of The Grand Adventure we made our way to Bolivia and A Very Big Bolivian Adventure. You might be surprised to learn that Bolivia is one of the world’s fastest emerging tourism destinations. However, the Covid period took a toll on tourism in the fragile country. As tourism rebuilds, Bolivia is currently experiencing serious economic problems and political unrest due to low pay and political dissension. During our visit we witnessed countless protests and strikes and a lack of access to US dollars available in the banks. For the most part these things did not affect our visit, except in one serious case which I will elaborate on below.
We wanted to cover a lot of territory in Bolivia, and didn’t feel confident to handle those logistics as independent travelers in this country. So we took a recommendation from a fellow full-time traveler and booked our tour with the highly regarded Intrepid Travel. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Intrepid, and particularly our guide Wendy, who made this tour the once in a life time experience it was. She is amazing.
The Group Day One
Our ten day tour began in La Paz (see our post Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia), where we met the 10 other guests who would be traveling with us. The weirdest coincidence though, eight of the twelve guests are from the greater Seattle area. What are the chances?
It’s rare we travel in a group, or even with a guide, but as I said before, this country warrants it. In the past we have had some group tours where there is always that one difficult person…the complainer or the whiner. Not this group. These people were outstanding, adventurous, educated, fun and well-traveled. I now consider each and every one a friend.
Highlighting the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We covered 1800 km (1100 miles) during our ten day tour. It was a lot of driving. And we saw some incredible things. I can’t possibly talk about it all, so I am choosing to give you the highlights – the good, the bad and the ugly. So here we go;
Day Two La Paz to Uyuni
We took a private and comfortable bus for what should have been an eight hour drive to Uyuni. Our guide Wendy had told us there was a possible teacher strike that may block the road, but we were proceeding anyway. After a pleasant and uneventful six and a half hours we came to a roadblock. Not teachers however. It was a protest regarding the lithium miners demands for more of the profit from lithium extraction in the salt flats. Learn more about it here.
The road block was actually two – one where we came to a stop and another 20 mile ahead. There was no getting through. We waited for two hours and when it became clear the protestors had no intention of opening the road, Wonder Woman Wendy went to work. She contacted the 4-wheel drive operators in Uyuni on the other side of the two road blocks. Using their vehicles they came to us off-road through the desert. It took them two and half hours to reach us. When they were close we unloaded our bags from the bus, walked solemnly and quietly through the strikers per instructions from Wendy. There was some concern they might harass us but they did not.
Once we got through the strikers, suddenly the 4-wheel drive vehicles appeared, the drivers threw our bags on top, we jumped in and were off, no headlights into the bush. It was another two hours through the desert to reach Uyuni. I was never so grateful to see a bed. Wendy ordered pizza for everyone but it was midnight and I was beat. No pizza for me.
A side note – this road block continued through the next day. Anyone traveling on their own or in the larger regular express busses that make their way between La Paz and Uyuni had to sit there for two days.
Day Three Happy to be Here
As a result of most people still being stuck on the road, on this day we saw few tourists. Today was the Bolivian Salt Flat day, the raisin de ‘etra of our tour. And after last night, we were looking forward to some fun.
This day was warmer than I expected, in fact hot, so all of our cold weather clothes we have been hauling around the world just for this experience went back into the suitcase.
The massive Bolivian Salt Flats are the largest salt flats in the world. I had to keep reminding myself it was not snow. Everything about it confuses your brain. It’s bright and white and stretches as far as you can see. Google says ;
Salar de Uyuni, amid the Andes in southwest Bolivia, is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desert like, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands. Its otherworldly expanse can be observed from central Incahuasi Island. Though wildlife is rare in this unique ecosystem, it harbors many pink flamingos. ― Google
All the local guides have learned to have fun with the photo opportunities the flat and endless salt plain provides and we had a fascinating day.
Despite how incredible the endless salt flats were, the unexpected outcrop known as Incahuasi Island was beyond anything I could have imagined. Absolutely stunning to find this cactus-covered rock protruding from the miles and miles of white.
We ended this remarkable day at one of several salt hotels. These structures are made from salt blocks cut from the flats. People have been known to lick the walls just to be sure…I declined but it was a fascinating and also very rustic place to sleep for one night.
Day Four Pretty in Pink
We traveled away from the salt flats and into the Altiplano and enjoyed views of volcanoes in every direction we looked. The road was long as we rose higher and higher but we stopped often for photos and potty breaks. But the most scenic part of this day were several stops we made to see the flamingoes. Bolivia is home to several kinds of flamingoes who do not migrate but live permanently in this region feasting on the red-hued algae abundant in the volcanic lakes. Who doesn’t love seeing a pink flamingo in the wild?
As we finished this day we reached our highest altitude for the trip, and also the highest altitude I have ever been at on earth… 16,100 feet above sea level. And we felt it with every step we took.
Our accommodations on this night were rustic dorm style but the view from the dining area was other-worldly.
Day Five – The Ugly
Was it something I ate or the altitude? I doubt I will ever know. But the ugly reared its head in the middle of the night and I was very sick; diarrhea, bloating, chills, headache and unable to breath. Unfortunately this was a ten-hour-drive day in the 4×4. My car mates and my husband and of course Wonder Woman Wendy did everything possible to see to my comfort as I slept and moaned through the day. Arne did manage to take a few photos of some of this day’s scenery. I was so relieved to arrive back to our hotel in Uyuni. Please note – Wendy was monitoring my oxegen level and if necesary, would have evacuated me if I was in danger.
Day Six – Potosi
We took a bus to Potosi, a silver mining town in the hills of Bolivia. Although I still felt sick I was at least upright. I attempted to go on the silver mine tour with group but bailed at the last minute and went back to the hotel. The next day however I did enjoy the really well done National Mint, a museum of mining and silver known as the Casa Nacional de Moneda.
Day Seven to Nine – Sucre
Another bus; this day to Sucre. Both Sucre and La Paz are considered capitals of Bolivia, it’s a strange system. Wikipedia says;
“La Paz was established as the seat of government for the legislative and executive branches, while Sucre retained the seat of the judicial branch of the Bolivian government. To this day, Sucre remains the only official capital of Bolivia, but La Paz is considered by many as the de facto capital.“
Sucre is a more modern, colonial city compared to La Paz. It is flatter and very beautiful. We enjoyed a fantastic hike outside the city on a portion of the Inca Trail. I was so glad I was up to doing that, even though I still wasn’t 100% myself. One of my favorite things we did.
Sucre has a large and colorful mercado which we toured and learned from Wendy a lot about the products of Bolivia and the way of life for the people of the mercado.
The Textile Museum Museo de Arte Indigena, was a fascinating story of the indigenous textiles of Bolivia. I am always interested in textiles and I am so glad we took time to do that on our own. I also was able to purchase a small and beautiful item made by a local women to take home as a souvenir.
We visited the dinosaur footprint park, Parque Cretacico, which was honestly far more interesting than I expected. A cement manufacturing company scouring the mountain for raw material stumbled upon the dinosaur footprints estimated to be 68 million years old. This is the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in South America with over 5000 prints of at least ten different species. The tectonic uplift of the former lake bed creates this strange and eerie phenomenon, so it appears as if the dinosaurs walked up the side of the mountain like a gecko might today. The limestone face of the wall secures the footprints for eternity. Fascinating.
On our final night in Sucre – our Very Big Bolivian Adventure was coming to an end. We celebrated together as one of our group was leaving in the morning, while the rest of us boarded a flight in the morning back to La Paz.
Over the ten days we have grown close with our new friends as we all endured the joys and hardships of a ten-day overland tour of Bolivia. Back in La Paz we said our farewells, enjoyed one final dinner together, and thanked our amazing guide Wendy for her incredible guidance during A Very Big Bolivian Adventure. Then it was time to reorganize our bags once again for our next destination.
Bolivia is truly a remarkable, beautiful and culturally rich place, despite some issues it is dealing with. I want the best for the wonderful people we met, and all those we didn’t. I hope for better relations between the USA and Bolivia, and I hope more visitors will come to experience the color, culture and geology of this extraordinary country.
I wish I could tell Mrs. Guerske how I have fulfilled this lifelong dream. Viva Bollivia! Gracias.
Please see last week’s post Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia.
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