Bolivia, the breakdown, and the amazing Altiplano

Shit. We are stuck. 18 inches of mud. Can’t move. No panic yet. Don’t have to drink our urine or chop off an arm. But I realize we are likely not getting out. Into problem-solving mode.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest Salt Flat in the world. Perched at around 13000 feet it is a visionally stunning desert landscape that leaves you in awe as it changes by the hour in light, temperature and vastness. To drive all the way across will take you over 4 hours. At 40-50 mph. Which is easy to achieve on a table flat landscape, as white as driven snow.

We spent the night by Isla Incahuasi, a beautiful island in the desert I visited five years ago.

Cacti, rocks, sand and salt, it was an oasis. The sunset was amazing, even though it meant we would soon have 20 degree weather and an even lower wind chill.

We popped the van top, boiled water to put into our Nalgene bottles to serve as hot water bottles, and settled into a sleep after a movie.

The next day we decided to explore a bit and the van never seemed to even make a dent in the already years old tracks on the salty terrain. If we veered from the tracks, the same thing occured. Like driving on pavement. After a lunch break (and using lots of water to clean dishes), we headed back to the main area but wanted to loop around a different way. I am sad I have to explain myself. We were playing by the rules and trying not to have a major impact on the area. Until the next part, you could barely see our tracks.

The salt flats are well, flat, but assuming the entire area has the same consistency of water, salt and mud is/was a crucial error. As we started south after lunch to connect with another main route, I noticed the drag on the van and could see imprints in the salt. Now was the error. Instead of turning back, I turned north to try and intersect the original trail we took. As the tracks got deeper, I now couldn’t stop. That would be a problem. At full steam ahead in 4WD, our speed went from 30 mph to 20 to 10 as we slowly bogged. Feeling the engine labor, I stopped. Shit.

When I last left you i was leaving the amazing Chilean Atacama and suffering the instant altitude and loving the incredible beauty of the Altiplano. The Altiplano is a large flat area (with mountains and volcanos all around) that basically starts in Bolivia behind the stunning volcanic sentinels that are the Andes. It averages around 13000 feet and I actually had to cross a 15,000 foot pass to get there, just 150 miles from the coast as I crossed the heartstopping Bolivian landscape at Tambo Quemando.

I drove and camped for a few weeks, dipping down from the Southern edge of the Altiplano to visit northern Argentina, the Yungas, and slipping back into Bolivia. Spending time in beautiful and traditional towns of Tarija and Tupiza. All the while reveling in the easier to understand Spanish and the colorfully indigenous Bolivian people.

Meeting Pascalle again in Tarija, we slowly ascended back to the Altiplano to give her some acclimatization time. Enjoying the awesome red rock formations and traditional Bolivian culture. One highlight was giving an aging Bolivian woman a ride back to her farm (I picked up a bunch of Bolivian hitchhikers. Eager to use my Spanish). However, when trying to get back to the main route thru the remote dry riverbed, we blew out a shock absorber.

As we climbed to Uyuni, we realized the back bumper of the van (that was super burly and heavy and held the spare tire) was separating from the van. I used a strap to hold it on and stupidly did not get it repaired. The shocks were enough of a scare and once repaired and gassed up, we were on to the Salt Flats.

Back to the crisis on the Salt Flats. One more self-extraction effort had us confirmed. Not only are we stuck, it is 3 PM (with a 5:45 PM sunset), and what vehicle can reach us? We have a little water, food and blankets. And crucially, some cell service.

I have a Bolivian SIM card, so can only use data as that was the package I bought week by week. So we had to find a business or friends that used Whatsapp for communication. I also had email. Pascalle thought Esmeralda Tours in Uyuni had good reviews so we emailed them, and sent messages to their phone. They didn’t have Whatsapp, but they did reply later that night, along with Pascalle’s hostel owner friend. I also put out an all points bulletin on the Facebook page Overlanding the Americas to hear suggestions.

What we didn’t realize was that underneath the salt, is a silty conglomeration of dirt and mud that is much like peanut butter. It doesn’t freeze, and with the salt layer above, doesn’t dry. My van is heavy. We were sunk.

In the morning, we recieved many messages and attempted calls, but importantly the gal with the tour group called and said the local police know we are in trouble and will help. This was about 9 AM. Our mental target for rescue kept moving.

We hunkered down, tried to watch episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and counted the hours. Staying hydrated and trying to distract ourselves from our plight.

At 3 PM (now 24 hours in), we saw a vehicle approaching. It stopped a km or so away and I started walking in that direction. I met with gusto, Sargento Miranda and his three companions from Colcha K, a local community.

Joking I only had one beer left, we made our way back to the van, carrying wood planks and a jack. They assessed the problem, and got to work. Over the next four hours, they jacked up all four tires on my heavy van and put the broken pieces of salt we all gathered painstakingly in the fading light underneath the tires to create a surface. Once jacked, they pushed me up on the planks and said go for it. I did. I immediately bogged again. Now back to the same process. Jack up, put in salt, then wood. Each time took 90 minutes.

At the time, I thought they were going to put the wood down, have me drive, and then pull the wood pieces in back and put it front. Again they said go for it. Again we bogged.

At that time, Pascalle mentioned that we need to do just that. Put the wood down, drive on it like a boardwalk and pull the piece from behind the van and start all over.

Well Sargento Mirando realized it was serious shit. He sent two boys back to get more wood. We jacked the car a third time and waited. It was now way past dark and not only was the temperature dropping below freezing, but the wind was picking up. I told Sargento Miranda we could sleep in the van again tonight and hit it in the morning. “No” he said, “El chico necesita ir a La Paz manana. Vamos a sacarlo esta noche.” The guy has to go to La Paz tomorrow. We are getting it out tonight. Mmmkay.

As we walked to where the returning police car would meet us, we could see the headlights in the distance. The police Jeep showed up, with another very large local man, and more wood.

As we set into a rhythm, Pascalle and the four Bolivians set the pieces of wood down, some as thin as six inches, into a ramshackle boardwalk that I slowly drove (with the direction of one police officer) over and stopped after 15 feet or so. Only 3/4 of a kilometer to go. Paso por paso. With little room for error. The boards creaking and sometimes loudly splitting beneath me.

In a stunningly display of, well I don’t know what, we were about 150 meters from the Jeep after maybe three more hours of this. The guys again tell me to drive off the planks. Afraid to tell them no, I listened. Bogged again. Damn! We had only maybe 30 min more!!!!

Now at 11:30 pm, they jacked the van for the last time. 90 minutes later and exhausted, we started the last 20-30 board switches to get us past the Jeep. At 2 AM, we drove the last 2 km to freedom and safety.

The policemen would not take any money, but we paid the locals about $500 for the 11 hours of work. Amazing, tireless champs. One guy NEVER used gloves. Amazingly friendly and diligent guys, they stopped only for a drink, a cigarette, some shit talk and a piss. Lots of laughs but focused extraction! We gave the guy who really knew how to work the jack a ride back to Uyuni to catch the bus to La Paz. I even let him drive. Imagine flying thru the dark, desert landscape at 50 mph not being able to see anything. Pascalle and I slept in the van on a vacant side street near the train graveyard in Uyuni at 4 AM.

Needing to get to Chile in three days, we slept til 9 or 10, gassed up, got the salt washed from the van, got water, ate, and hit the road for the Laguna route; one of the more scenic, and rougher roads in the world.

After 4 hours of shitty but beautiful road, it became evident our “fixed” shock was now unfixed. It also became evident my nearly 300 pound rear bumper was a hindrance and the constant vibration of the road was beating it up. We had bought and carried an extra 5 gallons of gas for this remote drive. As we rolled into the first small town of Villa Mar, we were exhausted from the shitty road, the vibrating shocks, and the nauseating smell of gasoline vapor. We opted for a small hostel for the night.

As we prepared for the next day before sleeping, I topped my tank hoping to reduce the gas smell from the cheap tanks in the van.

In the light, it was obvious the back bumper was not long for this world. We began the laborious 85 km journey of sand and washboard (worst road ever. Not just this trip. Ever). With a busted shock and a dangling bumper, we averaged about 10-15 mph for the next five hours as i tried to steer the van into piles of sand and dirt instead of the rough road to soften the blow. Stopping to check shocks and bumper from time to time. I was terrified I would destroy my van. At this juncture, extraction would be costly and time consuming. I was being mentally beat down with managing every meter of the drive. And Pascalle was a champ. Staying upbeat.

The low point (No, the salt flats weren’t. Surprisingly) occured at about 1 PM at 15,000 feet with a temperature of about 35 degrees and about a 70 mph wind. The back bumper basically fell off. I jumped out, took off my 75 lb spare tire in the lashing wind and dust, cut the cord I had used to hold the bumper to the van, and snipped the wires that powered the camping light in the back of the van.

In the howling wind, Pascalle and I struggled to drag this behemoth bumper to the edge of the road and its sandy grave; knowing we had no where to put it in the van. Nor could we lift it.

We continued our slow southward journey, taking sidetracks created by other cars to find the softest path; knowing now every knock was the shock, not the bumper. As we crawled down the grade, the hostel (and the welcome Thermal Hot Springs) came into view. Well at least we had people, shelter, and wine.

A beautiful hour long sunset dip in the Hot Springs (these were ones I visited five years ago and if you read my Nepal blog was where my locket with Namche’s ashes melted off). Pascalle made a big dinner, I drank with the Bolivian guides, and played a little guitar.

The next day we knew had about half the previous day’s drive to the Chilean border and asphalt road. Salvation. White knuckling and trying not to pee on myself in the howling wind, we limped along at a slightly faster 20 mph; trying not to get greedy and completely wreck the van so close to safety.

As we crossed the Chilean border and coasted down the nearly 7000 foot descent to San Pedro de Atacama (and a shock mechanic) we looked at each other. “Are you kidding me?” THAT WAS INTENSE.

I said goodbye to Pascalle today as she flew out and my buddy Chris is flying in here. What a travel companion! She will likely miss the van more than me. I will miss her.

One thing is for certain. She’s likely scarred for life.

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