Slipping and Sliding Across the Bolivian Countryside

Caught in a lightning and hail storm at 3 miles above sea level, Wilber expertly steered us across treacherous mountains and knee-deep rivers.

All four passengers held our collective breath as the jeep wiggled its way through a foot of mud like a worm escaping a child’s chase.

It was our first day in the Bolivian desert and the beginning of an adventure I will never forget.

 

Our group: (clockwise from the guy in blue... aka, me) -- Dana, Wilber, Carrie (my wife) and Marc
Our cast of characters: clockwise, starting with the guy in the blue — Me, Dana (from Israel), Wilber (our driver), Carrie (my wife) and Marc (from Germany/Spain).

 

 

The El Sillar mountains are located near Tupiza, Bolivia
The El Sillar mountains are located near Tupiza, Bolivia

The journey begins

Our adventure started in Tupiza, Bolivia, with cloudy skies and a caravan of four 4×4 Jeeps.

Upon reaching the nearby mountains, we marveled at a never-ending vista of rolling green hills, deep valleys, jagged red rocks, ominous skies… and llamas.

 

The brightly-colored "earrings" in a llama's ears are used to identify its owner.
The brightly-colored “earrings” in a llama’s ears are used to identify its owner.

 

We spent 14 hours driving through the mountains of Southern Bolivia.
The mountains of Southern Bolivia come in all shapes and sizes

 

Muddy roads like this were the norm during our first day driving across the mountains of Southern Bolivia.
Muddy roads like this were the norm during our first day driving .

 

Did I miss something? When did we land on Mars?
Did I miss something? When did we land on Mars?

Stuck in the mud

Our first glimpse of trouble came during the lunch stop.

Wilber maneuvered our jeep through a deep mud patch; but, another 4×4 became completely stuck.

 

Jumping to task, we ripped branches off nearby plants and placed them under the tires to create traction.

Meanwhile, a group of people braced themselves behind the jeep and pushed.

 

After helping pile bushes and branches underneath the jeep, I decided the best thing I could do was stand back and photograph the scene.
This was the final push that freed the jeep.

Up, up, up into the Bolivian mountains

After lunch, our color pallet faded into a mix of cactus green, yellow, white and gray.

The air turned cold; and photo opportunities now included majestic snow-capped peaks, ancient valleys and a small mountain village.

 

This is Paso del Diablo... and I swear, every other rock formation or mountain range in Bolivia has the word Diablo in it in some way.
This is Paso del Diablo… and I swear, every other rock formation or mountain range in Bolivia has the word Diablo in it.

 

San Pablo de Lipez is a small mountain town of 500 residents in the Potosi Department of Bolivia.
San Pablo de Lipez is a small mountain town of 500 residents in the Potosi Department of Bolivia.

 

My camera was constantly outside the jeep's window during our drive through the Lipes mountain range.
My camera was constantly outside the jeep’s window during our drive through the Lipes mountain range.

The sky above was stirring…

By the afternoon, the sun had hidden itself behind an ominous wall of storm clouds.

As fierce thunder and lightning crackled in the distance, we knew an epic storm was not far behind.

 

As I wandered through the ruins of Pueblo Phantasma, the downpour officially began. This was one of the last photos I took before retreating to the dry safety of our 4x4.
As I wandered through the ruins of Pueblo Phantasma, the downpour officially began.

 

All those spots and dots in this photograph are a mix of hail, sleet and rain.
All those spots and dots in this photograph are a mix of hail, sleet and rain.

 


Wilber 1
Nature 0

Throughout the lightning and hail storm, Wilber expertly maneuvered through mud, rivers, landslides and strong winds.

When other drivers got stuck, he braved the elements to help them out: a favor that would not be returned later that evening

Eventually, our caravan passed through the storm and we were treated to a beautiful sunset and pleasant drive through the blue hour.

 

The lingering rain clouds made this sunset over Laguna Morejon especially spectacular.
The lingering rain clouds made this sunset over Laguna Morejon especially spectacular.

 

By the time I took this photo, we had been driving for more than 10 hours.
When I took this photo, we already had been driving for more than 10 hours.

Broken Down in the Middle of Nowhere

By the time we arrived at Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina National Park, the stars were out and our caravan was down to two.

Both cars unloaded at the guardhouse and we purchased our entry tickets by flashlight: as there was no electricity.

Once finished, our companion jeep drove off towards our lodging for the evening.

Meanwhile, our car would not start.

No matter how many times Wilber turned the key and pumped the gas, it just wouldn’t turn over.

He flashed his headlights in a desperate attempt to stop the other jeep.

But, the only brake lights we saw were getting smaller by the second.

Then, they were gone.

 

If we hand't needed these tickets to enter the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina, then we never would have gotten stuck...
If we hand’t needed these tickets, then we would’t have gotten stuck…

A Horror Movie in-the-Making

After nearly an hour of tinkering and waiting for the other jeep to return for us, we spotted another car driving up towards the guardhouse.

“Hurrah! Someone is here to save us,” we cheered.

 

Since Wilber was standing outside, we assumed he would flag down the car and ask for help.

Imagine our shock as he just stood there and let the car drive by without a wave or shout.

When asked about it later, Wilber simply said,

“It was not a tour jeep. It was a private car.”

 

At this point, I began to point my camera towards the stars to save my sanity.

 

A 13 second exposure of  Volcan Uturuncu @ 15mm - f/5.6 - ISO 400. The bright starburst is an almost-full moon
A 13 second exposure of Volcan Uturuncu @ 15mm – f/5.6 – ISO 400. The bright starburst is an almost-full moon

Wilber’s new plan

With nary-a-car in sight, Wilber convinced the gatekeeper to give him a ride on his motorcycle.

They promised to return with help; and began to drive off into the dark horizon.

 

Deja vu crept in, as we once again watched a set of lights fade into nothingness.

Then came the realization that we were completely alone in the middle of nowhere.

Many references to horror movies were made; especially when Marc left the car by himself.

Later, we saw a swinging light a few dozen feet away.

It went back and forth; back and forth.

Then it disappeared.

We never saw the light again.

 

So, there we sat – me, Carrie, Dana and Marc – trying to stay warm and cracking as many jokes as possible to alleviate the tension.

At one point, we even developed a snuggle-system to keep warm if we had to sleep in the car.

 

While waiting for Wilber to return, we joked that we might never see this sight again.
While waiting for Wilber to return, we joked that we might never see this sight again.

Epilouge

Nearly an hour later, Wilber and the gatekeeper returned with news that the other jeep was not far behind.

Lucky for us, its driver was a mechanic; and, minutes after arriving, he had our engine up-and-running.

In total, we spent two and a half hours stranded in our jeep.

By the time we made it to the guesthouse, 14 hours had passed since we left Topiza.

We were achy, tired and ready for bed.

After all, we had another long (and amazing) day ahead of us.

 

We were all quite happy when we finally reached our dorm room... well after 10pm.
Have you ever seen 2 people more excited to FINALLY be in a dorm room?!

 

 

  • Wow a hell of a journey, but those great expanses of nature were ripe enough for some fantastic snaps. Those muddy pits looked like a nightmare, but I’m glad you were able to make the best of it. Good job as usual with your photographic eye Greg!

    • Thanks Dave. Yeah, the scenery really was some of the most astounding natural beauty I’ve ever come across.

  • Fantastic adventure despite the niggles! The photos are pretty awesome.

    Just followed you guys on Twitter – hope to see you there sometime!

    Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

    • Thanks Torsten. Yeah, the niggles always make the story so much better in the end. Just gotta keep remembering that while it’s actually happening :)