by Franziska Jenetzky
Bolivia is like the Cinderella of South America. Easily overlooked in the shadows of Peru and Argentina, but once you take the time to get to know it, the country shines in all it’s glory.
When I entered Bolivia for the first time on a motorcycle in 2015 I didn’t know what to expect. People told me about the bad roads, corrupt officials, difficulties to get petrol and withdrawn locals. In short not really the dream destination on top of your bucket list. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I went and never regretted it.
And what should I say, everything told was true. But it was only a very small part of what distinguishes the country. It also has a long and rich history, a certain wildness, that is simply authentic, and it’s diverse and stunning landscapes challenge your senses as well as your skills as a rider.
The South Rocks
One of my absolute favourite routes starts at Samaipata in the centre and follows the roads to the famous Salar de Uyuni in the South.
The quaint village Samaipata lays in the midst of green rolling hills roughly 150km from Santa Cruz, the second biggest city of the country. It has a very cosy and comfortable atmosphere due largely to the local ex-pat community. Many cafes and restaurant inhabit the town and if you believe some of the ufologists, it is also a clear landing site for extraterrestrial spaceships. But hey, nothing is impossible and everybody has to decide for themselves.
On Revolutionary Routes
The next part is for me one of the best riding area in the country. You leave the main road and populated areas and follow the dirt roads to La Higuera. It combines great dirt road riding with stunning scenery through green hills and tiny hamlets. This is true rural Bolivia.
It is also known as the Ruta del Che named after the famous freedom fighter Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevarra, who found his tragic end in the Bolivian hinterland. He was captured by the Bolivian Army and executed by agents of the CIA.
I wonder if he looked over these hills and felt the same calmness and wholeness I experience when I get off the bike and take it all in.
In La Higuera they transformed the former village school into a little museum, that shows his achievements as a revolutionary and recalls the lasts days leading up to his death. Besides that the hamlet is a beautiful place to stay a night on the countryside, the former telegraph station was lovingly restored and turned into a rustic little hotel for visitors that come out all this way. Here they still cook on a wooden fire, the showers are cold and in the evening the dining room is lit up by candles, but that gives it the unique charm. There is no distraction through social media, internet or any other apps. The food is simple but excellent, I would call it Bolivian-European fusion. I love sitting in their little courtyard under the stars and enjoying a good glass of wine.
Colonial History Brought To Life
The second part to Sucre is very similar, lots of up and down on dirt, following the Rio Grande a little bit. It’s impressive suspension bridge in the middle of nowhere is a great lunch spot and provides the possibility for a refreshing dip. On this section there are hardly any people around, the enjoyment of the road and scenery is all yours.
Once in Villa Serano there is nice smooth tarmac back under the wheels and the last kilometres to the colonial city of Sucre are a blast, winding and smooth.
The city is most likely the prettiest in the country, especially the whitewashed old town, that is listed as an UNESCO world heritage. It stands in strong contrast to the hustle and bustle of La Paz. Everything just happens at a little more comfortable pace. The main square is the centre of it all, you find cafes and restaurants or many locals that meet here to catch up or go for a stroll under the old and mighty trees. I can easily spend an hour on a bench, with a big ice cream scoop of Dulce de Leche and observe the Bolivian women in their colourful dresses chatting and laughing away.
Mining Life At Over 4000m
After Sucre the road takes you on brand new asphalt along swooping corners to Potosie, which thrones at 4090m and is therefore one of the highest cities in the world. It is also UNESCO world heritage and looks back on a long mining tradition. Then the Incas used to take precious silver out of the surrounding mountains. Nowadays, besides silver, the mines also extract Lithium. Even so mining brought a lot of wealth to the city over the centuries it is also the cause for many socio-economical issues.
Undoubtedly the mines are a huge attraction for many visitors, which can be explored with local tour operators. An interesting view of the hard reality that is mining without heavy modern-day machinery. But it isn’t for everyone, which I discovered for myself. Although I can’t remember that I ever had problems in small places, when I was crawling on my belly through a tight spot in the tunnels and the person ahead stalled, while the one behind me tried to move on, I had a mid-size panic attack. Only through channelling all my will power and mental strength did I manage to pull through and finish the excursion underground. Today, I would think twice before doing it again.
Oxidising Giants In The Desert
The last leg of the trip follows curved valleys, past picturesque villages, and the local inhabitants llamas, emus and vicuñas can be spotted more frequently. The Altiplano, the high plateau, goes all the way from south-eastern Peru to the south-west of Bolivia with a average altitude of 3600m. This can cause in many visitors symptoms of altitude sickness and you need to take things easy, don’t push yourself too hard without proper acclimatization.
Before the town of Uyuni there is an unusual attraction that should be explored, one of the biggest train cemeteries in the world, the Pulacayo Railway and Mine Museum. Under the glistering sun trains and wagons slowly decay at 3800 meters. They are the remnants of the nearly forgotten 19th century train system. The oxidising giants built a strong contrast to this bare landscape a sight that has to be experienced.
Would You Like Some More Salt?
Uyuni is a renown name amongst riders at least since the Dakar rally in 2014. The Salar de Uyuni is with more than 10k squarekilometers the world largest salt flat and an icon of Bolivia.
I will never forget the first time I entered this surreal environment, bright white ground and brilliant blue skies as far as you can see. It is an indescribable feeling when you fly through this desolated landscape on your motorcycle. Little screams of joy aren’t unheard of.
Once the first wave of excitement has subsided there are also some sights to see. You have the famous Dakar monument, the salt production in Colchani and the the cactus island Huasi. And if you haven’t had enough salt yet, you can spend a memorable night in a salt hotel with the entire interior made out of the valuable resource. Without any light pollution, the night skies on the salt flat are a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed!
This is it! My favourite route through Bolivia ends here, but with more time at hand there are other options to continue from here.
One of the best and most challenging solo rides I have ever done leads from the Salar de Uyuni through the Atacama desert to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The legendary Lagunas Route – there are no real roads, most of it are trails through the desert, no human beings for miles in sight and the altitude measures up to 5050m.
Its remoteness and altitude make this ride a real challenge for any motorcyclist, but you get rewarded with unforgettable stunning landscapes and uncountable colonies of flamingos that filter through the lagoons for food.
Alternatively, if that is a little to much, there is a great possibility to make it a round trip. The tour continues to Tupiza, then Tarija and Villamontes, before reaching Samaipata again. On this return, you experience beautiful mountain panoramas, Bolivia’s wine region and more rural country life.
A more contemplative conclusion of a diverse and unforgettable road trip through the breathtakingly beautiful South of Bolivia.
If your inner adventuress has now woken up and seeks her own Bolivian Adventure, please feel free to find more information regarding all female guided tours here.