On the Bolivian roads

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Once the Bolivian border crossed, Bolivia offered us one of the nicest roads of this trip. Between the small city of Copacabana and San Pedro de Tiquina, we went alongside the Titicaca lake across a pine forest remembering us the Mediterranean Coast. There were many curves, one after another, following the relief of the coast over thirty kilometres. In front of us, a strait at the bottom of the cordillera. To continue, we needed to cross this strait separating the major lake from the minor lake with a wide wooden boat. To divide the weight with the other vehicles, we went on two different boats. Ours was manoeuvred with a long wooden paddle by a grandad and his grandson before to start its old engine letting a “sweet” smell of petrol. 

Once the strait crossed, the Bolivian roads didn’t offer us anymore a good playground. Only straight lines on the large flat and monotonous fields until we reached the desert of Uyuni at the South of the country. 

In Bolivia, the main challenge that we needed to take up was to get petrol for the sidecars. First, the petrol sold usually in the petrol stations have an octane rating of 85. However to maintain the engine in good conditions, it’s recommended to use an octane rating over 90. As we read online that some petrol stations have a “Premium” petrol with a better quality and an octane rating of 90, we tried to find this rare gem. From the border to La Paz city, which means 150 kilometres, we asked to each petrol station on our way if they were able to serve us. On the advice of a bus driver, we went to the Automobile Club of La Paz having a petrol station. By telling our problem to one of the employees of the club, we learnt the Premium petrol is indeed very rare in the various stations of the country and, anyway, it cannot be served to the foreign licence plates.  

Other difficulty in Bolivia, the petrol is offered at two different prices. The first one is for Bolivian people at around 0,35€/L and the second one is for the foreign licence plates at around de 1,10€/L. This meant that, once our tank was full, the petrol pump attendant gave us a receipt mentioning the price per litre paid. Then, this proof can be requested by the Police. So we needed to make sure the petrol station was able to give us this receipt.

Once we got this precious paperwork, it was possible to use another strategy and ask to the petrol pump attendant the foreign price with a receipt, the Bolivian price and then to get an “in between” price for foreigners with a receipt. As we didn’t have any other choices than getting the “Corriente” petrol with an octane rating of 85, we opted to add an additive increasing the octane rating of three or four points before filling our tanks; plus we negotiated this average price for foreigners. 

These constraints influenced our itinerary and comforted our wish to reach Chile for the celebrations of the end of the year. So, we opted for a short itinerary to reach Chile. After exploring the desert of Uyuni and the South of Lipez area we took a last Bolivian path with a dry clay over 300 kilometres to reach Ollagüe, the first Chilean village.

Since we left Colombia, a routine was settled when we needed to ride over 200-300 kilometres.

The day starts by packing. When we sleep in our tent or in a hostel, the day usually starts with a Tetris game to fit again each item removed the previous day. The breakfast is prepared, we build up our strengths for the day by getting a generous meal often including a hot drink, butter, jam and eggs. Sometimes, in a small restaurant, we follow the local habits by ordering eggs with a plate of rice.

Then, we usually ride over one hundred of kilometres before to take a first break. The engines are cooling down while we are sharing a small pack of biscuits before to change of pilote. One hundred of kilometres further, if the destination has not been reached, we allow us another break for a lunch in a small restaurant along the road. We often eat an “almuerzo”, the equivalent of our menu of the day, including a soup as a starter and a meat or a fish dish as a main.

Then, we start the Urals for the last kilometres separating us from the place we will stay overnight. It could be a hotel, a campsite or a wild camping spot, it has been usually noticed on “IOverlander.” This application for mobile phones shows all the good adresses and the nice spots where it’s possible to stay overnight. This database is collaborative and completed by the travelers depending on their discoveries.

Behind the Licancabur volcano, the Chilean asphalt replaced the Bolivian roads and paths. 

Bolivian Experiences

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Travelling means being confronted by making choices. The hardest ones are usually related to the itinerary. The next destination and the journey to do can impact the next adventures. Should we opt for asking a little supplementary effort to the side-cars to go up and see a lagoon recommended by another traveller and therefore risk to have a mechanical issue? Can we make a detour by this city which maybe means not having enough time to reach Tierra del Fuego?

So, we chose to have a quite short stay in Bolivia! It’s hard to assess our own decisions on these conditions but these few days offered us unforgettable experiences.

Swimming in the Titicaca lake

The Titicaca lake is the highest natural lake in the world. With its 3 812 metres above sea level, it offers a peaceful scenery to the travellers, with the sun and the cordillera reflecting in the blue water.

We didn’t need more to make us wanted a boat trip to explore the Pata Patani Islands on the minor lake. With a Tri Yann’s tune (French folk group), we went at our own pace to meet the fishermen on the lake.

Each village of the bed of the lake has his own team of fishermen who are meeting together to help each other to increase the fishing. Each fisherman is on his own boat and has only a paddle helping him to navigate and to fish. The strategy is simple: fishermen are making a large circle with their boats to catch a shoal of fish. Then, they are getting closer, bit by bit, until the boats are spaced of just a few centimetres. The first ones are standing up in at the front of their boat to hit the water with their paddle in the hope of knocking out a fish.

On the way to go back to Puerto Perez, we negotiated with our captain to stop for a swim in the lake. After having asked if we know how to swim, he accepted!

With Julien and without a second thought, we got into position for a first dive. The water was fresh but its transparency enchanted us. After we managed to go back on the deck, we dived a second time. The lake was not that deep and the seaweeds ticked our feet. A few lengths and it was time to dry ourselves in the Bolivian sunshine while our boat was heading to the shore.

A night in the middle of a salt desert

The Salar of Uyuni is a large field covered of salt of 10 582 km2 located at the South of the country, 3 658 meters above sea level. This desert has been created after the disparition of Tauca, a prehistoric lake, 14 000 years ago. Then, the largest crust of salt in the world appeared, covering today the Salar.

To discover this desert, we opted to give a break to our sidecars and we chose the “colectivo” (the local bus) as a means of transport. After the hundreds of journeys in the Salar, going back and forth, the bus is damaged due to the salt. The bodywork and the floor were damaged by the rust, we were able to see the road through little holes in the floor. This reinforced our choice of not using our own vehicle!

We left for the Incahuasi Island at the beginning of the afternoon. The driver started the engine at 12:30pm. The engine was coughing, the breaks were squeaking, but nothing to worry the driver!

We were heading to the Cactus Island on a 4 hour-journey. After 20 kilometres on the main road going towards La Paz, we turned to the left to use a path crossing the Salar. At the first loop, the tires were spinning in the rust but quickly the vehicle reached the 80 kilometre per hour, its cruising speed. On the large field of salt, it’s better to know where you go. Here, there is nobody or any sign to help you to find your way. The path is barely visible. The contrast of the white path on a white background requiers an optimal concentration for not loosing your track.

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Incahuasi Island, enough time for walking on the island between the cactus and take a few photos of the Salar. At the end of the afternoon, it was beer time for us. The last 4×4 of the operator agencies left and we were almost on our own on the island. With us, only a guide, the Chef of the restaurant and a souvenir seller.

The Salar offered us one of the best sunsets from the beginning of this trip. The colours of the sky were unbelievable, we enjoyed our Huari beer in a peaceful silence.

After a burger lama at the restaurant, we enjoyed the starry sky in the desert. There was almost no light pollution, allowing us to watch the stars and the constellations of the Southern hemisphere. For the first time, we saw the most famous and the smallest one of them: « The Southern Cross ».

We spent the night in the refugewith the souvenir seller. We woke up early in the morning to watch the sunrise over the Salar. Many backpackers arrived with 4×4 vehicles for this opportunity. The show was less quite than the precious day, but still sensational. It was 7:30am when the colectivo arrived on the island to pick us up. We went back on the path with the same old bus than the previous day, leaving the Incahuasi Island and the Salar of Uyuni behind us.

From the banks of the Titicaca Lake to the South of Lipez – 15 days – 3000 metres above sea level

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At the end of an afternoon, we crossed the border post in Kasani with no troubles. In this hamlet, there are only five little houses including a mini “Mercado”, plus the offices of migration and customs which were empty when we arrived. We woke up the customs officer for the administrative formalities. 

Then, we had only a few kilometres left alongside the lake to reach the first Bolivian city. The orange nuances of the sky at the sunset time offer a beautiful purple tint over the water of the Copacabana bay. 

The city is the main seaside city alongside the lake in Bolivia. Its dynamism is mainly due to the pedestrian street, its pontoon (where the excursions go for the Sun Islands) and its beach. When we started to look for a place for the night, we met Ron, a rider travelling who left Canada with the aim to reach Ushuaia with an Ural sidecar. Finally, he changed of vehicle in USA after some mechanical issues and the wish to travel lighter to enjoy more the “off-road” sessions. 

We left the enclave of Manco-Kapac, isolated between the Peruvian border and the Tiquina strait. To cross the lake, we used a small boat to reach the rest of the country. 

After a few days on the road, we allowed ourselves a break in Pampa alongside the Titicaca lake. We spent three days with the feet in the water, surrounded by the mountains of the Cordillera Real (Royal Mountains). These snowy summits have their reflects in the blue of the lake, offering beautiful and peaceful surroundings. 

The place is isolated from the tourists from Copacabana who are not going to this kind of little villages, in spite of the high season starting this month (December). But we needed to admit that the infrastructures are basic. We needed to do 80kms to find a bank to withdraw Bolivian Pesos. On the main square there was no one. Only three kids were playing by going down a little hill with their skateboards. We went to the only shop open to find something to eat. The nice old grandad presented his shop and showed us all the products he had available. We left with his best paté (we must admit that he had a strong flavour of anchovies), two of the best lagers of the country and, according to him, enough ingredients to make good sandwiches. 

After these peaceful days in this unique village, we went back on the road towards La Paz, the first urban area of the country and the administrative capital (the constitutional capital being Sucre). 

La Paz is full of people. Upon our arrival by the avenue of Juan Pablo II, we were stuck in the trafic of the city. We moved forward depending on the traffic lights and we weaved between the “colectivo” buses to manage our insertion on the highway serving the town center. Once the sidecars parked and the backpacks dropped at the hotel, we left to find some engine oil in the area of mechanics. Then, we walked in the town center and saw its National Congress, its Nossa Senhora da Paz Cathedral and its San Francisco Basilica. The city will not be kept in our memories for its architecture but for the Bolivian people. Indeed, in the mechanical shops, they helped us to find everything we needed for the service after the 10,000kms done. 

After crossing La Paz, we went straight to reach Uyuni, entry of the desert of the same name. The city is living almost only from the welcoming of tourists coming before or after the Salar. We need to admit there is nothing around this village except the desert and it seems hard to develop an economical activity not linked to the tourism. There is a little market with fresh produce where we bought some food for our sandwiches. But in the rest of the city, there are mainly travel agencies, hotels, bars, restaurants and souvenirs shops. 

For our visit in the Salar of Uyuni, we opted for a cheap option. We used a “collectivo” bus to reach the main island of the desert (which is a little hill with a few plants and two buildings), the island of Incahuasi. We spent the night there before to go back to Uyuni the following day at the end of the morning. The Salar of Uyuni is an impressive area of salt dried by the sunshine. Being in the middle of a desert, going as far as we can see, was the first time for each one of us. Only the Tunupa volcano came to break the regularity of the skyline. 

When we came back from Uyuni, we walked up to the train cemetery. At a few hundreds of metres away from the city, alongside the railways going towards the desert, there are old wagons and old locomotives! Time seems to have stopped. Little by little, tags decorate these steal beasts! The place is a true playground for tourists. We were back to our childhood, having fun to climb up the trains, imagining ourselves as train drivers with an arm through the window looking towards the desert like Buster Keaton driving the General.

Then, we went towards the South of Lipez for our last days in Bolivia. To discover the treasures of this area, we swapped our three-wheel vehicles for a 4×4. Previous travellers told us about the conditions of the path of this area, so we made the choice to preserve our bikes. 

Indeed, the South of Lipez is beautiful but you need to deserve it! Five hours on an uneven path in bad conditions and this is the least we can say. After this, what a show! Hundreds of pink flamingos at the Laguna Colorada were eating in the red water being rich of sediments and planktons. The column of smoke from the geysers of the Sol Manana are impressive. Under the smoke, there are boiling basins where the sulfur is escaping. Around, the ground has an intense orange colour. 

Then, we went towards the Laguna Verde having a turquoise colour. On te other side of the Licancabur volcano facing us, there is Chile but this country will be for tomorrow. Before this, we went back to Uyuni by crossing the Siloli desert, known as the desert of Dali where we could imagine a few melting clocks between these massive rocks in the middle of this large sandy area. 

We went back to Uyuni with the rain. The clay of the path became mud and the road was almost impracticable. We went back to the city very slowly, unlike some big lorries stuck on the path. 

For our last day in Bolivia, we rode over 300 kilometres on a nice path to reach Chile. Just after crossing the line separating both countries, we were back on the asphalte. But for how long? The adventure continues… 

Where to eat? 

Vegetarian Restaurant
Calle Tarija, La Paz

Here nothing fancy, but a relaxing atmosphère in this little and simple restaurant. We like the kindness of the grandma and her daughter serving us tasty vegan burgers. 


Turkiri Restaurant
Route 701, after the small village of Alota towards the Chilean border

By going towards Ollagüe, the first Chilean city, ten kilometers away from the border, there is a restaurant offering almuerzo for an affordable price in the middle of nowhere. The cuisine is simple but good. You can enjoy the dishes with a view over a small lagoon where lamas and alpagas keep hydrated. Ideal for a break on your Bolivian adventure before to go back on the path to Chile. 

Where to have a drink ?
Extreme Fun Pub
Av. Potosi 9, Uyuni

A nice address to enjoy a local veer. The deco highlights the best friend of Captain Haddock, the lama, in a muted atmosphere with softened lights.