Update Brazil

The thing about driving to South America is that you’re not always guaranteed quality roads. Here’s a quick update of how Marlin, our Volkswagen Golf, is doing after driving the Pan-American Highway for over 35,000 kms.


Concerned about which way to enter Brazil we started asking all the Bolivians we came into contact with what the roads to Paraguay (option 1 to get to Brazil) or to the Bolivian / Brazilian border (option 2) were like.  The response was that the roads were good but that the road to the Brazilian border was better than the one into Paraguay.  Perfect, now we knew which road to take.  We continued asking around and when we were about to leave Sucre we asked our lovely hostel owner if the road was really ok…

Si, she replied, si es transitable.

So we headed east.

The road from Sucre to Saimaipata was bad, the road from Samaipata to Santa Cruz was worse and the road from Santa Cruz to San Jose de Chiquitos …. oh lordy, it was the most excruciatingly painful road we have driven in this ENTIRE trip.

Transitable = a bone-jarring 10 hour drive to go 250 km, frustration,  no gas stations, instantaneous irritability (the kind when someone talks and you immediately get angry for no apparent reason, it’s just that they have spoken…to you), thoughts of calling the whole trip off, borderline breakdown tears (me not Tom) and to top it all off we watched a semi fall over right before our eyes.

It truly was an exercise in patience as well as a huge test for us as a couple, which we passed since both of us are still living and we have decided not to go our separate ways after being trapped in the car together for probably the longest 10 hours of our married life.

Semi down on Joydrive's worst road ever

Semi down on Joydrive's worst road ever

For more about driving in Bolivia (and it’s awesome roads) as well as other tips about driving the Americas click here.

The largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni in the southwest of Bolivia, stretches 10,000 square kilometers across the Altiplano to form one of the flattest areas on our planet. 12,000 feet above sea level the massive salt desert was created by the uplift and evaporation of the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin.  In Bolivian mythology the Salar is actually a collection of evaporated tears from nearby Mount Tunupa forever mourning the loss of her kidnapped son.

A vastness of salt, blindingly white and bloody cold at night the Salar de Uyuni is a formidable place and after hearing horror stories about drivers getting lost and people dying we decided to hire a local guide to show us around… apparently some of the minerals make compass readings unreliable.

Roberto was a sprightly, gap toothed ex-minor from Potosi and claimed to speak 7 languages, our tour was in Spanish. He told us that the Salar is believed to hold half of the world’s reserves of lithium but the only thing it yields right now is salt, about 25 thousand tonnes annually. He gave us a pretty good tour condensing a three day trip into a comfortable days drive. We ended the day giving Roberto an impromptu driving lesson …his first time driving and up to 80, not bad.

We had both been looking forward to driving into the Salar and after battling some of the worst roads so far, Bolivia finally offered up a salty smooth tarmac twenty five times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats. See below for Kels’ celebratory kung fu rock kick.

Salty Kung Fu

On the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, in the town of Copacabana (nope not that one), resides La Virgen de Copacabana who provides blessing and protection to vehicles.  If your car is in need of blessing this is the place to get it done.

Ready for a blessing!

The Benedicion de Movilidades (Blessing of vehicles) takes places twice everyday, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Thinking that it would be crazy to pass up the opportunity to have Marlin blessed by a priest of the church of the Virgen who protects cars, we rolled up on a Saturday morning eager to take part.

How to get your car blessed:

  1. Pull up in front of the church, park where the attendant tells you to.
  2. Hire car washer.  Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50 USD)
  3. Buy your blessing ticket in the church. Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50 USD)
  4. Head to the stalls in front of the church to purchase the decorations for your car.  You can mix and match but a completa (a complete set which includes an arrangement of fresh flowers for the front of the car, two bouquets for the side mirrors, and a garland). Cost: 20 Bolivianos (under $3USD)
  5. Don’t forget to buy a bag of flower petals and fireworks and some drinks for after the blessing. Cost: 15 Bolivianos ($2.25 USD)
  6. Wait for the priest.
  7. Once the priest has blessed your car, the village women to come around and give the car a second blessing this time to the pagan gods. Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50)
  8. Light the fireworks, throw some petals and have a drink.

Total Cost: $9.75 USD for one heavenly blessed vehicle.

Car Blessing in Copacabana from Kels M on Vimeo.

Ironically enough we experienced our first car incident three hours later in La Paz.  Nothing major just a minor scrape.
Cost: 20 Bolivianos ($3 USD)

Dragging ourselves out the hotel door at 6am we clambered, sleepily, onto the van waiting to take us to the start of 3 day/4 night Lares trek.  The Lares Trek is an alternative route to the famous and insanely crowded Inca Trail.  Hearing good things from a couple we met in Quito we thought it sounded about our speed: between 3 to 6 hours of hiking a day, all meals included, the highest pass was 4400m above sea level and we only had to carry our daypacks.  Wanting to do out best to promote sustainable and fair tourism we looked around at a few tour companies and settled on Qente, a long-standing tour operator in Cusco.

We weren’t disappointed.

Craggy hills and low-lying clouds marked our ascent into the Andean highlands.  Our tour guide, Kari, introduced us to the native plants, explaining how the land is farmed as well as sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inca history and mythology.  Dedicated to her job and intuitively aware of the trek and it’s impact on the locals Kari encouraged us to buy a big bag of bread explaining that bread is like cake to the highland kids. Unused to sugar the bread is less harsh on their teeth than packaged treats, and with the lack of dental care, fresh bread is the best option.  Personally I am still unsure about foreigners offering treats to the local kids as I think it encourages begging and the expectation that foreigners will always have something to give.  However when little kids started popping out behind rocks bellowing “GRINGOS!” and running down hills to meet us along our hike it was pretty nice to have something suitable for them.

We spent two nights camping, our first site at 3800m above sea level and the other at 4200m.  My god, was it ever cold. So cold that I think all of us had every imaginable layer of clothing on. So cold that were dreaming of hot showers, extra blankets and those long johns we didn’t buy.  Bed was right after dinner as the sun had long since disappeared taking the heat with it.  Curling up in our sleeping bags we waited, through bouts of icy sleep, for morning and the warm rays of the sun.

Lucky for us our last night was spent in a lux hotel in Aguas Calientes, complete with hot shower, before heading to Machu Picchu.  We rose the last day at 4am to get in line for the bus by 4:45am with hopes of getting a fairly exclusive ticket to climb the mountain directly across from Machu Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, where you can see the ruins from a bird’s eye view.  Stunned by the amount of tourists ahead of us we anxiously got on our bus and prepared ourselves to run to the ticket booth as soon as we got into the grounds.  Tickets and passports checked we followed Kari as she expertly wound her way  through the ruins to the ticket booth.  Coming in at numbers 385 and 386 we made it by the skin of our teeth.  Word to the wise, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and if you are going to get up at 4am anyway you might as well get to the Machu Picchu bus line-up at 4:20am

Machu Picchu is truly amazing.  However by about 1pm the ruins are swarming with tourists, taking away a little of the specialness and making clean photo ops few and far between.  But it was quite a sight from Huayna Picchu and we were left uncertain about what this place really was… a city, a refuge, a place of chosen women?  It’s secretive location and lack of definitive explanation makes Machu Picchu a very mysterious, albeit heavily touristed, locale indeed.

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