Bolivia – a mixed bag

Faithful readers will know from a previous post that I approached Bolivia with more than a little trepidation. Its reputation had gone before it somewhat and as it turns out my (albeit truncated) route through the country has confirmed some of this, as well as providing glimpses of another side.

The totally mind blowing countryside is dealt with elsewhere. In this post I’ll focus on the southern border, Uyuni town, Oruro and Copacabana.


There is certainly one constant throughout Bolivia and that is the altitude. Spending a night at the southern border with Argentina I found a little bar that was open. I knew I’d been climbing all day but was still a little surprised to find an emergency oxygen bottle fixed to the wall.

La Quiaca is at 3500m but I could already feel the main symptoms that were to persist for the next week and more. Slight dizziness and cloudy headedness, shortness of breath after slight effort, upset stomach (nothing new for me), waking in the night panting for air, dry mouth, numb lips. Now 3500 isn’t exactly high but it is as high as the third highest top lift station in the Alps. Bearing in mind you usually get off at the lift and head straight down, you don’t live there. It’s high enough.

Coca-Coca the breakfast of champions

Climbing through the southern part of Bolivia I reached around 3800 on Bumble before settling to 3650 at Uyuni. Symptoms persist but I was taking Neil’s good advice by drinking lots of water and keeping a close eye on myself for signs of real sickness: vomiting, disorientation, headaches etc. I had briefly tried chewing coca leaves in Argentina but decided it was a pretty foul experience. However, with continuing symptoms I thought it was worth another try particularly for the 4×4 trip. Turns out the locals were right all along, chewing (legal) coca leaves does alleviate some of the symptoms. My upset stomach relents, my slight dizziness fades. It becomes a daily staple as I remain at high altitude. And it does get higher. On the 4×4 trip we sleep in basic hostel accommodation at 3800 then 4200. On the last day, we top out in the snow at 5000m. That’s 16,400 feet folks, half the cruising altitude of a passenger jet.

It’s not a nice feeling really, the body isn’t designed for such heights. Of course if you’re born here there are genetic accommodations but even with coca assistance my shortness of breath, blue lips, dry throat, slight fuzziness, waking in the night persist. I’m looking forward to going back near sea level to taste that sweet, sweet oxygen.

On the road

Road travel is definitely different in Bolivia. There is an overwhelming sense of vastness and remoteness. Horizons extend beyond view, mountains, plains seem never ending. Petrol stations are hundreds of miles apart, there are no shops just occasional villages with grumpy looking traditionally dressed people staring as I buzz through. The roads are a real mixed bag. A large part has been pristine brand new tarmac, but it can suddenly change into gravel or pot-holed danger without warning.

Altitude has a strange effect on Bumble too. I already knew that power output would be down the higher I got. As a rule of thumb they say a bike loses 10% of power for each 1000m in altitude. So unfortunately I’m really flogging the good girl up 4200m mountain passes with only 60% of her usual power. Another unexpected thing happened too, the mileage from a tank went through the roof. I can normally get a maximum of around 200 miles from a tank at normal cruising speeds. At altitude I’ve been getting 250, 270 even 300 at lower speeds. One explanation online suggests this is to do with the thinner air. Unlike with a heavy car, on a bike over 70% of engine power output is to push the bike through the air overcoming air resistance. If the air is thinner, the bike has to work a lot less hard.

Dropping into Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca was a beautiful and invigorating sight after hard hours on the remote, flat roads, and near death experiences through La Paz. The town is set on a peninsula so amazing views of the lake were both left and right. Bumble even got her own little ferry ride on a rickety wooden boat that seemed to take lorries and small buses with ease too!

People and Places

My time in Bolivia has been short and limited really, through design if I’m being honest. What I have seen of it has been enough to convince me that at best it’s a mixed bag. What I’d heard prior to arriving is that the people are unfriendly, do not want to help westerners, will rip you off if they can and are a generally miserable bunch. Sadly, I’ve met plenty of people like that. I’m always deliberately slow to generalise so am pleased that, at times, I’ve met people that don’t fit that mould. I think it’s fair to say it’s a mixed bag though.

The same people who went out of their way to accommodate Bumble were the same people who tried to charge me twice and ran their hotel like Fawlty Towers. Shouty notices everywhere, I got issued a numbered remote control with my key (which I must return!).

I wanted to give Oruro a chance so ventured out to find a drink and food around 6pm. I walked the whole city centre and used google and Trip Advisor yet couldn’t even find the crappest of hostelry open. It’s the first time I’ve failed in any city, ever. Judging by the assembled police with riot shields later on it’s probably no bad thing that I did’t have a few.

Uyuni was desolate and charmless, packs of dogs ran the dusty streets. Yet even amongst this was the contradiction of school kids pristine in their sharp uniforms. The high school band practice taking place on the basketball court outside my window proved them to be pretty bloody decent.

I was hoping for the best but fearing the worst when I came to Copacabana but I had the best meal I’ve had for weeks at a restaurant with a million dollar view. Also, even though my hotel appeared to be in lockdown at the end of the season, I was presented with a sumptuous spread for breakfast. In both cases the local staff seemed a world apart from the general grumpiness I’ve experienced from Bolivians up to then.

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