Leaving Earth – Bolvia’s Salar de Uyuni and Sur Lipez Province

With so much build-up and planning, could Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and the wild area south of the flats (Sur Lipez Province) deliver? F$#K YEAH it did.

Because of limited fuel options, many independent travelers visit the salt flats for a few nights and then make a pit stop back in Uyuni (town on the east side of the flats) to fill up before heading south to the Sur Lipez province (the southwest circuit). George wasn’t having it – no pit stops. Instead we added 3 jerry cans for a total of 6 jerrys.

The extra gasoline and practical tips from a helpful Swiss gentlemen (Marco) at the tourist office in Sucre, Bolivia inflated our confidence. With 48 gallons of gasoline, 30 gallons of water plus 20 days worth of food and extra rice, garlic and cocoa leaves to trade with locals in case of trouble, we were ready to tackle what was to come. And no, in our day-to-day lives we are not preppers.

Day 1: Uyuni’s train cemetery to Isla Pescado

First camping spot - Isla Pescado.

Night #1 – Isla Pescado.

In our typical fashion, we were running late and didn’t head out on to the salt flats until the afternoon after a obligatory visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery.

First stop was a salt extraction operation where George quickly broke the first of Marco’s rules, “stay away from areas where there is water on the salt”. We drove right through the slushy middle of the operation to snag some photos.

Driving on the Salar is like being on another planet, drive fast or slow, turn left or right, it doesn’t matter. We had some of our best fuel mileage on the ultra flat Salar.

Getting to our selected camp spot, Isla Pescado, we broke the second of Marco’s rules, “the flats are the thinnest around the islands and at the entrances/exits – do not drive there”. We promtly drove right onto the island to set camp for the night, and would be all alone for our first night.

Day 2 – 3: Coqueza to Isla Incahuasi

Second camping spot - Isla Incahuasi

Nights #2 & #3 – Isla Incahuasi

The next morning, we visited nearby Coqueza. Each step up to the the mirador to get a better look at Volcan Tunupa was a struggle because of the altitude. After the hike, we made it to Isla Incahuasi, another obligatory stop because of the dense cacti growing on the island. This island is overrun with tourist groups during the day, but it calms down in the evening and was serendipitous stop for us.

George was able to scratch his sports itch playing football with some locals the first night.

After befriending the fellow players, we were able to purchase 5 more gallons of gasoline the next day. That evening, the wind picked up enough for G to mountain board. Finally, we were gifted with a surprise encounter when Southern Tip Trip and Patagonia or Bust rolled in.

Day 4: Salar de Uyuni to Sur Lipez

Night #4 – south of the Salar near a condor reserve

Tearing ourselves away from our friends and the warmth of our bed the next morning, we bombed away from Incahuasi in the depth of pre-dawn darkness to catch a sunrise in the middle of the flats.

It was then time for our ‘funny pictures’ and my opportunity to finally tower of George. I will clutch on to the memory for the rest of my life.

The Salar exit point that we took was a little slushy, but Vida piled on through the muck and delivered us to Gruta de last Galaxias to see a grotto filled with petrified algae. We then managed to purchase another 5 gallons of gas in San Juan from a local business woman who had the dried goods and gasoline markets corned. Although we paid her a little more than we should have, it was nice to see how excited she was to make the sale. We celebrated the gasoline purchase with a cold beer, a real luxury at that point.

Heading further into Sur Lipez province, we camped out near a condor reserve in our ground tent and worked on perfecting our tent cooking technique.

Day 5: To Copa del Mundo

Copa del Mundo

Night #5 – Copa del Mundo (World Cup)

In the morning, we unsuccessfully tried to spot a condor. George went exploring, and believing he heard a nest of baby condors, misguidedly left his flip flops behind to approach unnoticed. The nest was no nest, but some other lone baby bird crying. He promptly very uncomfortably hot footed it back to his shoes.

That evening we found a choice camping spot behind a big rock for some wind shadow. We had unknowingly parked ourselves under ‘Copa del Mundo’ or the ‘World Cup’, a stop from many of the tour operators. We would be in their photos the following morning cooking eggs for breakfast.

Day 6:


Night #6 – Volcan Caquella

After ruining a few tourist photos and finishing our eggs, we headed north to meet up with the road that would take us through Valle de Rocas and to the lakes district. The road started to degrade here requiring high clearance which meant creeping along at a snails pace for the next day and a half.

We camped in our ground tent that evening on an open plane under the impressive 5947 meter Volcan Caquella. It was our second night cooking in the tent. To someone who hasn’t had a roof over her head in the last year and a half, cooking inside the tent turned out to be nice and toasty.

Day 7:

Camping spot #7 - Arbol de Piedra

Night #7 – Arbol de Piedra

Our first stop on day seven was Laguna Canany. You may call it the stinky lake. We followed the route of other travellers off the main road forcing us to navigate through a handful of ravines. We realized that the road we were on was no more when George jumped in the ravine we were facing and I could barely see the top of his head. We agreed that finding another way was our only choice. My vote was to turn around, but George used his driver privileges to navigate us down a steep hill to the Laguna. He was smiling ear to ear on the way down reveling in the adventure while I was containing the game-ending scenarios my mind was concocting.

Exiting the car, the air wafting towards us was ripe with the smell of sulfur. We made quick stops at Laguna Chiar Khota and Laguna Honda before deciding to do a little more exploring on a slanted auxiliary road flanked by dirt banks. Turning around proved difficult, so we were forced to use the rear diff lock for the first time.

The road to the Arbol de Piedra (a stone tree sculpted by the elements) was an absolute sand pit. We balked at some bikers we saw in the distance struggling through the thick sand. Half of me can respect anyone who has enough gumption to cycle through Bolivia while the other half of me thinks they must be off their rocker.


Day 8:

Camping spot #8 - near Laguna Colorado

Night #8 – near Laguna Colorado

Day eight promised to be a good day since we would be crossing into Reserva Eduardo Avaroa (Lagunas Park). The ranger station at the park entrance sits on the west side of Laguna Colorado that was impressively jammed with what I can only guess was hundreds of thousands of flamingos.

That evening we snagged another beautiful camp spot in the belly of a canyon hoping to hide from the unrelenting wind and celebrating with another toasty fire.

Day 9:

Dali's Rocks

Night #9 – Dali’s Rocks

By the morning of day nine, I was reaching the breaking point on number of consecutive days without a shower. Adding in the beating sun, sand blasting wind and cold nights, George decided we needed a distraction in the form of a mountain of crepes. While he cooked, I practiced some knots.

After a brief visit to the Bolivian Aduana at 5020 meters situated next to a borax mine, we stopped by Geiser Sol de Mañana and then headed to the thermal baths situated near Salar de Chalviri to wash away some of the nine day dirt build up. Thankfully, we managed to arrive at a time when there were not tour groups. The family who runs the hot springs took advantage as well of the down time. No sooner had we jumped into the pool then a four year old was passed to us to look after until her older siblings got into the pool. George and I quickly bonded with the five children.

We found a choice camping spot in the midst of Dali’s Rocks for the night. Truthfully, it took us over five attempts to make it up the steep sand hill but George persevered.

Day 10:

Our last day in Bolivia began in epic style with a 360-degree view along with coffee and crepes on top of Dali’s rocks. The decent down from the rock we were perched upon was equally as memorable because of a close call (we’ll leave it at that).  We had the truck packed and ready to go when two park rangers drove up and let us know that we were not supposed to drive anywhere near Dali’s rocks and hadn’t we received and information packet? Well, no we didn’t. The park still has some administration kinks to work out, but from George’s observations they had already made many positive changes since his last visit in 2010.

We rounded out the southwest circuit with a visit to another set of breathtaking lakes (Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca). Enduring a few more miles of dirt road, we finally made it to the beautiful paved highway that would deliver us down nearly 2500 meters into San Pedro de Atacama Chile.

The Road to Bolivia’s Altiplano

We were finally on the road heading toward Bolivia’s altiplano and salt flats from the muggy east and into the Andes. Arriving in Sucre, we knew there was a big problem with the truck. How you ask? Every time we went over even a small bump or hole on the road, something slammed on the back right of the truck. We could feel Vida’s pain. One of the airbags the previous owner installed had completely sheered off. What we were hearing was metal on metal.

The mechanic we tracked down to add an additional leaf spring and remove the airbags soon discovered another problem. Our frame was also cracked. Driving Pantanal and the road into Sucre had taken a toll. It would be fresh carrot juice every morning for the next week as we waited for the repairs.

We got the truck back 5 days later and Vida had some bounce. The mechanic had installed springs to replace the airbags he removed. It was almost enjoyable to hit a speed bump.

Next stop was the mining town of Potosi where we slept at a hot springs (Ojo del Inca) perched above the city. A lot of people we talked to are not fond of Potosi, but George and I both felt an energy in the town’s colonial center. I also managed to snag a proper vegetarian lunch, which helped.

The road to Uyuni on the edge of the Salar was gorgeous and treacherous with the hail. Honestly, I was so focused on the days to come that I hardly noticed.


Steaming water and biting bugs in Aguas Calientes Bolivia

Yet again we had trouble at the Bolivian border. Our day excursion from Brazil to the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls had left us in a technically illegal status in Brazil. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue. The tourist would simply exit Brazil and be forced to pay a fine if they reentered the country in the next five years. As it stood, George needed a Bolivian visa. Before getting the visa, he needed to exit and reenter Brazil (get stamped out and stamped back in). He couldn’t however exit Brazil into Bolivia without the visa. So, a pickle it was. Eventually after bouncing around Corrumba and many visits to the border, he paid a fine and obtained the necessary stamps and finally the Bolivian visa.

Ready to be on our way, we again entered Bolivia and headed to Aguas Calientes. Many travelers only visit the altiplano of Bolivia. It never occurred to us that as you move east in Bolivia, the terrain flattens out into fields and the culture shifts with the hotter weather. The clothing becomes more western while the people seem less guarded (at least on the surface).

Aguas Calientes is situated 135 miles from the eastern Border of Bolivia. A hot thermal river runs through town. During the day, it’s almost unbearable to enter the water because it’s so hot but the river becomes pleasant with nightfall.

Unfortunately, our arrival was timed with the yearly arrival of a fruit fly sized bug that bites. The bugs were so small, they managed to find their way into our tent through the mosquito net and partook in a smorgasbord. George declared war, not resting until he had killed every bug he could find. The bites itched like a sand fly bite. I was loosing my mind scratching for days.

Wild Pantanal!

One of the best places for wild life viewing on our entire trip was the Pantanal wetlands area. In Portuguese, the word “pantanal” means swamp. Pantanal spans across south west Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay but the majority of the park is in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Groso do Sul. My ‘small country complex’ requires me to say that Pantanal is about 50% larger than Bulgaria which makes it HUGE!

Wait a minute! You don’t know how large is Bulgaria??

Pantanal wetlands wikipedia map.

I got this image from the Wikipedia post on Pantanal. It shows well the Pantanal area.

… anyhow!  Back to the story.

When we originally planned our trip back in Seattle in 2012 we decided to skip Brazil.  Our primary goal was to hug the west coast of South America and follow the Andes. Brazil is so large and diverse that it would require a Brazil-only trip in the future to do the country justice.

Fortunately, things do not always go as planned.  On the road, we  started meeting long term-travelers who were telling the same story. There was a magical and remote place deep in the Brazilian jungle where you can only go with a sturdy off-road vehicle.  The travelers assured us of intimate animal encounters.

At first, we did not make much of these stories.  A chance encounter with Sergius and Gaby (Germans with an amazing Unimog traveling the world 4 months at a time) changed our minds. Sergius told us about the Transpantaneira road in norther Pantanal that connects the town of Pocone and the Porto Jofre settlement.  The road is a 147km long dirt road that is barely a meter over the marshlands and has 122 wooden bridges.  To drive it, you have to sometimes go around the bridges and through the mud since some of those bridges have collapsed or are broken.  Furthermore, the road is partially or fully submerged during the rainy season. A few countries later, we met Nathaniel and Anita from Belgium.  They showed us amazing photos of three jaguars they saw on a boat ride through the Pantanal marshes.  They also showed us some ridiculous camping spots by a river overflowing with caymans.

Oh boy!  Really remote, rarely visited park accessible only by 4×4 over bad, broken or missing bridges and unbelievable wild life – we were soooo hooked!

We started prep for Pantanal long before we were anywhere near Brazil.  We went to the Brazillian embassy in Bogota, Colombia to get Teresa a visa. Turns out Bulgarians do not need a visa for Brazil but Canadians do.  Unfortunately I needed a visa for Bolivia so we combined the wait in Bogota. The process for getting these visas was another adventure in itself, but I will leave this to your imagination. Just think catch 22 Bolivian style sprinkled with Colombian bureaucracy and a fascination for colorful stamps and signatures  …  Magic!

To put it mildly, we had an ambitions plan.  Drive from Cusco, Peru to Pocone, Brazil.  This was a 3,500 miles stretch of road one-way that included absolutely every driving condition you can possibly imagine.  The path included Puno, Peru, Copacabana, lake Titicaca, La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in Bolivia and Corumba, Campo Grande and Cuiaba in Brazil.

Fourteen grueling days later we made it.  We had gone through snow and hail storms in Peru, crazy duck-tape ferry in Bolivia.  We survived the insane traffic in La Paz and being lost at 1am in Cochabamba – the cocaleiro capital of Bolivia.  The car braved 4000 meters mountain passes at well below zero and drove long days in the jungle at 35C and 100% humidity.   We pulled through illness – both the car and I had “melted disk rotors”… mine were just the food type. Note to self: the 3 seconds food rule in the Bolivian jungle does not work.  We even had the usual immigration and customs set of problems.  According to the omnipotent Bolivian customs’ computer system our car had left Bolivia less than 24 hours after entering at a border crossing with Argentina which was 5 days away.

The Transpantaneira north was totally worth it. We drove to Pocone, stocked up with two weeks of food and water supplies and headed to drive the famous 147 kilometers.

All in all we did 8 nights in the area.  The first night was a bush camp on the shores of Rio Cuiaba a little north of Pocone.  This was a popular locals’ river beach that was recommended by the www.landcruisingadventure.com folks.   We spent  the next two nights bush camping on the side of the Transpatanaira road.  We picked flat areas off the road and away from any water.  The caymans come out of the water at night and stroll around. Next, we did three nights on the property of Hotel Porto Jofre on the bank of Rio Cuiaba (Cuiaba River).  We finished with two more nights bush camping on the road followed by a night at a gas station in another small town on the way to Cuiaba.

Hotel Porto Jofre was fantastic.  The property manager let us camp there for free.  The place looks very fancy on the outside with its private runway and big locked gate but the guys are super friendly.  Just ask!  They had an amazing outdoor swimming pool and outdoor cold shower.  Both were perfect for the hot humid days.  At night, the property was packed with blue macaws playing and feasting on tons of fruit trees.

We were given a word of caution by the folks at Hotel Porto Jofre.  Be careful what you do at night and never walk alone in the dark even on the road.  There are tons of animals and their habits change at night.  There are millions of caymans, all kinds of snakes, including anacondas (unfortunately we did not see one), insects, spiders big and small bigger, jaguars and all kinds of other seemingly harmless animals that are freaky at night.

We hired a boat from the Porto Jofre hotel one morning to go photo hunting for a jaguar. The boat was really expensive but it was worth it. We saw the endangered giant river otter, tons of birds, capybaras (these guys are everywhere) and most importantly, thanks to Teresa’s hawk eyes, the mighty jaguar.


It makes you really think what can a 120kg animal do to you if he only choses ...

It makes you really think what can a 120kg animal do to you if he only choses …

Did you know jaguars are fantastic swimmers and can also dive?  It was eery seeing the guy a few meters away from us chilling on the river banks.  As a friend commented after seeing the pictures later “seems you are not that interesting to a jaguar” … and thank God! See the picture to the left from Wikipedia.


Not all bridges on the Transpantanaira were made equal.  After the 50th bridge the early excitement wore off and Teresa started snoozing even at the worst spots.

As we were leaving the Transpantanaira north, we came across two wild ostriches walking on the road.  After we waited for a bit for them to leave the road, I decided to start driving.  You would think they would simply get off the main road right …

After the Tranpantanaira north road we headed to the south part of the park.  Technically we first went to Iguasu and to Bonito, but eventually we drove the so called transpantainaira south. The south road has fewer bridges but you have to hop on a little ferry to cross the Rio Paraguai which compensates for the excitement.  There are also some hills and some desert like areas which were there thanks to failed farming attempts.  We saw a lot of caymans again but generally less animals than we saw out north.  I suspect the animals were the same both places but they were somehow much more accessible out north.  The south road stars 20 miles outside of Corumba and heads straight east before it cuts straight south.  The second part of the road is the more interesting one with more watering holes full of caymans and fish.  It was also late in the dry season (just a few weeks before the beginning of the rain) and there was very little water left forcing all animals to fight for food and space in the water.  It was a bit hard to watch.

It was Teresa’s job to walk ahead, clear bridges, check them and guid the driver (me) safely along the bridge.  So here we got to the following situation …


So what is the verdict?  Were the extra driving days worth it? Absolutely!  Getting to Pantanal by itself was an adventure. On the way there and back we visited Bonito and the Iguazu waterfalls so we ended up spending about a month in Brazil.  Brazil is easy to travel with good roads, nice drivers and a really good network of gas station most of which have free hot showers, free internet and buffets.  There are lots of big trucks in the Pantanal area but they will actually make way for you and not bother you.  Just watch for those speeding cameras everywhere. We spent cumulative about 12 days in Pantanal and every single day we were surrounded by wild life.  Overall it is a fantastic adventure travel destination.  If you have a car and you get a chance to visit do it!  Seeing wild life in the dry season is incredibly easy.  We were there middle of October, 2013.  If it has not rained you do not need a 4×4 but if it rains hard you probably stand no chance without one.

Another piece of advice is if you want to see Jaguars hire a boat.  The guides at the Porto Jofre hotel were talking to each other on the radios and when one sees a jaguar he calls all other boats.  This increases you chances a lot.

Enjoy your travels there and send us some pictures.  Pantanal is magical and wild!