February 7-12: from Puno to Uyuni

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On Feb. 7 Harry and I left our hotel on the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno…

 

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… and drove across the city to get back onto the motorway toward the border with Bolivia. Carnival preparations were ubiquitous.

 

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Dozens of brass bands were playing all over Puno in honor of (allegedly virgin) Mary.

 

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This group of indigenous dancers was practicing for a parade scheduled for the following day.

 

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Two hours later we reached Pomata, one of the last towns in Peru before one crosses into Bolivia.

 

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Pomata was one of the most picturesque human settlements I had come across in a while. As I’ve noted before, most Peruvian towns are ugly as hell, and so our visit to Pomata was a welcome parting gift.

 

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I haven’t been able to find out much about Pomata’s colonial church. I assume it was built in the late 16th century.

 

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Considering its proximity to Lake Titicaca (and the humidity that comes with that), the church is in stunning condition.

 

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Its cupola bears indigenous symbols arranged in Christian frescoes.

 

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When I walked back towards the entrance, the gentleman guarding the place had already completed a new entry into the church’s guest book — including a commentary (preciosa! = beautiful!) that was supposed to be mine. He smilingly asked me to sign off on it and also to indicate my country of origin. I happily complied and put “Mickey Mouse” and “moon.”

 

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An hour later we reached the border. Leaving Peru barely took twenty minutes. Entering Bolivia wasn’t much trouble either, thanks mainly to a police officer who shepherded me around. When it was finally time for him to stamp my temporary vehicle import certificate, he gave me a grin and asked for my Bolivian car insurance. Of course I didn’t have any, and since it was Sunday I wasn’t able to buy one as all shops were closed. To my surprise, he stamped the certificate anyway. Then he looked up, smiled again and said, “now that I have helped you, I think a tip is in order.” I haggled him down from 50 Bolivianos (US$7) to 40 Bolivianos (US$6).

Oh Latin America, you and your bloody police corruption.

 

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We spent a quiet evening in Copacabana–Bolivia’s main beach resort on Lake Titicaca–and reunited with Elizabeth for grilled trout and a few drinks.

On Feb. 8 we left mid-day…

 

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… and continued our journey toward La Paz, crossing Lake Titicaca on a barge.

 

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The roads in Bolivia are in very good shape–one of the many notable accomplishments by the current government–and so we reached El Alto, La Paz’s poorer sister city, merely two hours after disembarking. Here, too, carnival was in full swing.

 

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As we descended from the plateau hosting El Alto into the valley home to La Paz, we drove past gorgeous contrasts between clay mountains and snow-capped peaks.

 

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Just as it was getting dark, the clouds parted and allowed for a mesmerizing view of Illimani, the highest mountain (21,122ft; 6.438m) in the Andean Cordillera Real and the second highest peak in Bolivia. First ascended in 1898, it also is the site of the 1985 crash of Eastern Air Lines 980 from Paraguay to Florida, the highest controlled flight into terrain in commercial aviation history to date. Due to the extreme altitude, neither the plane–a Boeing 727–nor any of the 29 casualties could be recovered.

 

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We found a lovely place to stay at Walter’s Hotel Oberland in Mallasa, ten kilometers southwest of La Paz. Walter left Switzerland and built the hotel over twenty years ago, and he eventually decided to also offer safe parking as well as showers and bathrooms to overlanders. We ended up staying for three nights, not least because of the hotel’s quaint restaurant where I indulged in fondue, cheese platters and potato roesti.

 

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On Feb. 10 we drove into La Paz to obtain Bolivian car insurance (the absence of which had already cost us 40 Bol. at the border; see above) and to buy dog food for Harry. The latter took a while, but ultimately resulted in the purchase of a 20kg bag of Brazilian chicken-based dry food and a fresh BBQ bone that Harry devoured immediately, with obvious passion.

 

30,000km

On February 10 we also passed the 30,000km threshold of our trip.

 

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We left Mallasa on Feb. 11 and visited the Valley of the Moon near La Paz, an area where the erosion of clay mountains has left tall spires not unlike those we saw in the Badlands in South Dakota.

 

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We continued south on a perfectly straight Panamericana toward the city of Oruru…

 

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… which we reached in the late afternoon. For some reason I had only heard negative comments about Oruru, but I actually enjoyed the city’s bustle and its tree-lined avenues.

 

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As we were searching for a place to bush-camp, I noticed that la bestia was running low on gas. Both gas and diesel in Bolivia are heavily subsidized, and gas stations are only allowed to sell to Bolivians. Foreigners either have to pay more than twice the official price per liter (8 Bol. instead of 3.70 Bol. for gas) or are being sent away empty-handed. I was lucky to find a kiosk in a small town where the owner was willing to sell me 30 liters at 6 Bol. (US$0.85) per liter — sin factura (without bill), of course.

 

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With la bestia‘s tank almost half full again, we left the Panamericana and drove inland for about one kilometer. That’s where we stopped for the night.

 

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I felt it was time for a selfie, but Harry was visibly keen on being in the picture.

 

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Beautiful night skies are one of the many perks of bush-camping.

 

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The next morning (Feb. 12) we got up early and were back on the road by 7AM.

 

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For some reason I had not expected to see a train while crossing Bolivia; for me, it reiterated my general impression that what this country needs is a strategic communication campaign aimed at improving its global reputation. In stark contrast to touristically overdeveloped, politically stalemated and often suffocatingly dirty Peru, Bolivia strikes me as a country on the rise — on its own terms, fortunately.

 

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We drove past the Uyuni salt flats (which we are planning to explore on Feb. 13) and into the town of Uyuni, which serves as the region’s tourism hub.

 

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Although Uyuni itself is fairly underwhelming, I love the fact that literally two thirds of all cars here are Toyota Land Cruisers!

Harry and I found a nice hostel for the night and we are looking forward to our excursion to the salt flats.

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