The Globetrotting Diaries: Life Is a Bolivian Highway

Central & South America

The Globetrotting Diaries: Life Is a Bolivian Highway

Driving from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Bolivia, you cross the altiplano—high plains—and on this route there are no roads, just dirt tracks. This was before the Internet and Google Maps. We made our way based on notes of previous tour leaders that had passed through and a compass. It was true old school exploration and I loved it!

It’s a two-day trip and our night stop was a basic bunk house on the shore of Laguna Colorado at an altitude of about 4,300m/14,000ft. It had toilets, beds, and was heated—all an overlander could ask for! We were no more than 2km from our night stop when we decided to skirt the edge of the lake to get better views of the thousands of flamingos that feed in the lake. Well, wouldn’t you know it, we hit a thin crust of the shore line and sank up to our axles in mud! No overland trip is worth its salt until you have had to dig your truck out… but doing that at 4,300m, the novelty wears off quickly as it did in this case.

Our band of overlanders might have been hardy adventurers, but at the end of the day, they were also paying ‘punters’ who don’t want to camp at 4,300m in the Bolivian plains where temperatures can drop well below 0°C/32°F at night.

The locals—husband and wife—who manned the bunk house saw our plight and came out to see what was up on their little motorbike. They soon realised we were stuck and needed help that would have to come the next day. The sun was going down, as was the temperature, but the mood of the group was going up, as husband and wife offered to shuttle our group on the back of their bike, with backpacks in hand, to the refugio. Twenty odd trips later, the group and my co-driver were hunkered down for the night and I spent the night on the truck at about a 45-degree angle hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next day as a ‘boat’ floating around the lake.

Now, you must understand where we were: in the middle of absolute nowhere. So the help we needed to get the truck out—a grader—was going to be very hard to find. We had a schedule to keep so we needed to find a solution. Remember, these roads are not roads, but dirt tracks. The Bolivian government maintains them and we found out that there was a road crew 50km/31mi away.

One thing you learn when you travel is that for the most part people are wonderful, giving, caring, and as open-to-adventure as you are. The dynamic husband and wife duo offered to take my co-driver on their bike 50km to ask the grader to come help us. There was no guarantee they would go out of their way like that, but desperate times meant desperate measures.

So, I sat on the our truck, a.k.a. our only means of getting 20-odd passengers out of the middle of nowhere, as my co-driver hopped on the back of 500cc motorbike with some random Bolivian and set off into the far distance, over the hills and far away in the hope of bringing help.

The hours ticked by, as did my hope for a rescue and as I played out contingency plans in my mind. These were as limited as the roads around me! Through the heat haze, I at last saw a grader chugging its way in my direction. “Hallelujah!” I screamed, knowing no one could hear me because this was ‘social distancing’ on steroids.

With not a word said, the grader hooked up to the truck and in one mighty heave that took all of 10 seconds, we were free! We paid the grader driver all of $20US for his 100km round trip, he said “Gracias,” and headed off into the altiplano as we picked up our group and began the drive back to “civilization,” or in this case, Uyuni. We arrived on schedule with memories that are as fresh today as the cold was that night. Memories of the beauty, the good-natured Bolivians, and some well-deserved, self-inflicted embarrassment.