PORT Elizabeth whale-watching guru Lloyd Edwards has travelled to most places on Planet Earth, but none as unique, challenging or visually spectacular as the South American country of Bolivia.
Rarely spoken about beyond its reputation as a seat of international cocaine trafficking, Bolivia is something of a tourism enigma, playing second fiddle to neighbouring Peru and its highly marketable attractions of the Nazca Lines and Machu Picchu.
Yet, as South America has increasingly realised its tourism potential as a continent, so more people have steadily been making the pilgrimage to countries like Uruguay, Paraguay and of course, Bolivia.
Edwards accepted an invitation to visit the country from partner and scientist Lorien Pichegru’s brother late last year, after he gave him a tour of Algoa Bay earlier in 2012.
He and Pichegru undertook the three-week journey in a 4×4 – although, as they were to discover, some things are best done on foot.
While Bolivia is home to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth, it also has the dubious honour of hosting the world’s most dangerous motorway, the Old Yungus Road. For any Top Gear fans, this is the road that caused even the great braggadocio Jeremy Clarkson to wince like a child being bullied in a sandpit. Not that the look of horror was unjustified.
“We walked a little bit along this road but it is crazy,” Edwards said.
“It is so narrow that in parts you have two cars going in the opposite direction travelling on half a road. It is impossible.”
Dalliances with death aside, Edwards said the beauty of Bolivia was just how colourful the country and its people were.
At so many thousand feet above sea level, breathing can be extremely difficult, but the tiny villages – some of which have only 30 or so people – provide welcome relief.
“We would stop and camp but it was so easy to find accommodation in the villages and the people were so welcoming. In some villages we stayed for as little as R15 a night and were provided with blankets. It is very basic, but it was all we needed.
“But I have to admit that it can be tough at 4000 metres above sea level. You start to feel very strange, and I would say it takes at least two weeks to acclimatise. You also have to drink gallons of water to stay hydrated.”
Despite Bolivia being one of the poorest countries in the world, its people have maintained a wonderful, generous spirit during their daily struggle for survival.
“In the villages you see traditional people selling 50kg bags of rice. There is also a lot of trading that takes place. I definitely would not rate the food though. It’s actually pretty horrible, bowls of beans and things like that.
“Occasionally you do see people catching fish, but not often.”
A distinguishing feature is the cultural chasm between the people who live along the Amazon River and the colourfully- dressed Inca descendants at altitude.
“The Amazon guys really like to have a jol where the Inca descendants are a bit quieter. That is not to say they don’t drink, because they do (lots of homebrewed beer and Chilean wine), but you don’t really see okes drunk in the street.”
For Edwards, it is the mysterious quiet of places like Salar de Uyuni that makes the country such a unique entity.
“You feel like you are on another planet and that it’s just you, a place where you can just be still and do what you want. It is so peaceful, and so totally different.”