iKamper blog: Episode 13: Bolivia tour
You don’t typically see Bolivia listed as a top tourist destination, but with it’s off-roading dirt roads, massive uninhabited deserts, and the largest salt flat in the world, it’s a destination dream for an overlander. Bolivia reaches from Amazon jungle in one corner to the Atacama desert in the other with a variety of landscapes and wildlife, including supernatural surprises like bright pink flamingos grazing in deep blue, green, and red lagoons. One of the country’s major highlights is the salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, a prehistoric dried-up lake, leaving behind a 11,000 square foot desert-like salt flat. And there is nothing more appealing to an overlander than miles and miles of nothing but vast, wide beauty. During its rainy season however, December- March, the Uyuni salt desert floods, creating a shallow salty lake which can (and has) easily ruin and rust through any rig’s frame that dares to drive through, converting an overlander’s dream to a destination nightmare. We took perspective photos on the world’s biggest mirror, but opted on keeping our rig dry and salt-free. Little did we know, we were about to embark on our most adventurous overlanding journey yet…
In the southwest corner of Bolivia, is 260 miles of uninhabited desert and uncharted dirt roads, which very few overlanders to dare cross through. We’re talking 3-4 days of no food, no water, no grocery store, no people, and definitely no gas station. If the Pan-American highway was a series of easy 5ks, than the Lagunas Route was the marathon. After studying maps, checking the weather, reaching out to other overlanders who safely crossed, and creating a plan, we decided to go for it.
Just like the feeling before a big race, we could feel the butterflies in our stomachs… both nervous and excited. There was another thing: no phone signal. We called our parents, down playing the dangers, but advising them that we wouldn’t be in touch for a few days. We stocked up on groceries for 5 days, bought 6 large containers of water and 2 plastic jerry cans, then headed to the gas station to fill up both jerry cans with extra gasoline before attaching it to our roof. We stood in that little run down gas station for what felt like hours as we struggled to attach the jerry cans to the top of the roof with straps that other travelers had given us, doubling the strap over and over to secure it. The night was so cold and we struggled with that thing for hours, fear and excitement pumping through our veins as we imagined those jerry cans being our life line in the middle of nowhere.
It was time. We took off bright and early, using our offline map to navigate, and when the map signaled, we pulled off the concrete and onto the dirt road and toward the horizon. This is it! We put on our music and started taking in the scenery. We weren’t even an hour into the journey before our dirt track led us straight into a deep, huge lake. We just stood there, assessing how the hell we were going to cross this lake, when we spotted a Land Cruiser, jumped back into the car, and raced to catch him. The lagoon route is only accessed by a couple tour companies with strong, off-roading vehicles to manage the terrain. We felt like cats in the jungle racing toward the same prey. We engaged the 4wd and climbed up the steep mountain. The terrain was rough. The dirt road fluctuated between soft sand, loose pebbles, and that washboard effect. The washboard roads were the worst, vibrating the whole car dramatically, causing everything to shake including the teeth in our skull.
On a road like this, you can’t exactly ‘plan’ where you will sleep, so you just drive until it gets dark. Around 4pm we start the task of staking out shelter. The space is so massive that the mountain winds can be brutal. Shelter was key. Finally, we arrived at a section of the desert that similazed the moon, with a few tree shaped rocks. There was just us a couple cyclists. We popped open the skycamp, taking a cool video and preparing tea, little did we know that would be the hardest night’s sleep of our lives. The altitude was nearly 5,000 m above sea level. Our stomachs churned, we felt dizzy, and just laid awake most of the night. With the high altitude, washboard vibrations, and extreme weather conditions, it was a rough journey. But we made it to those jewel colored lakes with the bright pink flamingos, and we stood next to the hot bubbling geysers as they sprayed up from below the earth. We drove around the area completely alone, zig-zagging through the desert, blasting our music. No agenda, no road, it was just us, our rig and all the space. It was pure freedom. All the planning, worrying, and preparing for this journey was 100% worth that taste of freedom in the vast open spaces of Bolivia.