Reflections from Bolivia

Distinct travel experiences can mirror everyday life and help people make sense of it, even when there is a pandemic

Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats (above), Laguna Colorada and Anaconda Canyon.
Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats (above), Laguna Colorada and Anaconda Canyon.PHOTOS: RYANDALL LIM
Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats, Laguna Colorada (above) and Anaconda Canyon.
Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats, Laguna Colorada (above) and Anaconda Canyon.PHOTOS: RYANDALL LIM
Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats, Laguna Colorada and Anaconda Canyon (above).
Bolivia's must-see sights include its salt flats, Laguna Colorada and Anaconda Canyon (above).PHOTOS: RYANDALL LIM

Up in the cloudless sky, a million stars twinkled.

I had traipsed across South America and capped my 40-day adventure in Bolivia. 2020 was off to a great start and I could not wait for the rest of it.

But towards the end of my trip in February, posts of a yet-unnamed outbreak began filling my Facebook feed. I returned home to a figment of my former lifestyle.

It will be a while before people can wander again, but we can still savour our journeys retrospectively. Here are six experiences from Bolivia that have helped me navigate the present.

1 Adapting to a new normal

Mijael, our chirpy Bolivian driver-cum-guide, picked my fellow travellers and me up in the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. It was a scenic two-hour ascent to the Chile-Bolivia border post, nestled at 4,400m between pretty, snow-capped Andean mountains.

Nearly 30 per cent of Bolivia is above 3,000m and the air lacks oxygen. Travellers are thus prone to altitude sickness. Quick ascents, over-exertion and alcohol consumption can increase the effects.

I paid the price for my foolery when I ran around taking selfies. In the hours that followed, I experienced headache and nausea.

After a day of rest, my body got used to the thin air and I fully enjoyed the rest of my Bolivian days.

2 Helping one another

My Singaporean friend Ling and I joined four others on the three-day tour to Bolivia's famous salt flats. Crammed with us in a hardy jeep was New Yorker Courtney, Canadian Scott and Dutch couple Adriaan and Nikki.

We were an easy-going bunch and shared the same quest to visit Bolivia, our dream destination.

The journey was rough with bumpy roads, long distances and freezing weather, but we knew, for better or worse, we were in this together.

Altitude sickness struck Scott first and Ling shared some coca leaves, which apparently combat its effects. When I fell ill, Scott gave me anti-altitude sickness pills. When we both suffered at the same time, the rest looked after us.

We swopped sweaters constantly because we did not pack enough warm clothes. At photo stops, we helped one another take copious posterity shots. We were as diverse as our hair colours, but shared a kindred kampung spirit.

3 Isolation and connection

Even if the landscape is extraordinary or locals embrace you warmly, it can feel overwhelmingly lonely at times, especially when travelling solo like I often do.

  • COVID-19 ADVISORY 

  • International flights to and from Bolivia are suspended and land crossings are closed until further notice.

    For updates on Bolivia's Covid-19 restrictions, go to the website of the US Embassy in Bolivia (bo.usembassy.gov/covid-19-information).

    For Bolivia's Covid-19 situation, go to its Ministry of Health website (www.minsalud.gob.bo)

But nowadays, even in the remotest places, there is probably a Wi-Fi hot spot that can virtually zap you home. Whether it is to share a magical drive through the Andes or the frenetic vibes of a traditional Uyuni street market, going "live" to loved ones is just a click away.

It is ironic, but it takes either an awesome experience or an unexpected tragedy like a global pandemic to remind people how much they yearn to connect.

4 Appreciating nature

Bolivia's interior is a canvas of stunning lakes, uplifting mountains, moonscape deserts and surreal salt flats. The mighty Amazon rainforest flourishes in the country too.

We passed pools of natural hot springs, valleys with towering rock formations, and massive serpentine canyons.

However, Bolivia's multi-hued Altiplano lakes are from another world.

A short distance from a massive hissing fumarole field is the most beautiful lake of all - Laguna Colorada. Guarded by shadowy mountains, the red-tinted salt lake is home to hundreds of roosting pink flamingos and the odd camelid.

While the six of us "ooh-ed" and "aah-ed" at the scenery, Mijael commented that he had driven past the lake so often, he was bored of it.

It got me thinking: People often pay to travel the world and gawk at nature, but these free sights, sounds and sensations are also in their backyard.

During these quieter days in Singapore, I have suddenly noticed more flowers and choruses of birds.

5 Believing in the journey

We set off at 4am for Salar de Uyuni. At more than 12,000 sq km in size, the world's biggest salt flat is also the planet's flattest place.

It had not rained for several days, so most of it was accessible when we arrived. Mijael drove almost three hours on unmarked ground in near darkness, guided only by a faint image of Mount Tunupa to the north.

As the first golden streaks of dawn broke, we saw the salt flat's iconic polygonal patterns that stretched to infinity. White ground merged into blue sky as the horizon blurred and it looked like we were floating on clouds.

Mijael was determined to show us the perfect photography spot in the 40,000-year-old dried-up lake.

It was a little unnerving, not knowing our final destination. But we knew we would ultimately get there.

Many times when we travel - and in our lives too - long, difficult or unpredictable journeys are the ones that create precious lessons and memories, and take us to the most remarkable places.

6 Gratitude in counting stars

Bolivia was not on my initial itinerary because of its uncertain political climate. It was also the rainy season.

But I decided to make the detour and the country turned out to be a serendipitous highlight.

I was lucky to have a bunch of fun-loving jeep mates. We laughed, shivered and fell sick together, which only bonded us closer.

After a round of drinks on the last night, I stepped out of our salt hotel, where almost everything from its walls to beds to the restaurant are made from salt bricks.

It was chilly outside, but I did not flinch. The Milky Way spread overhead and it was humbling to feel like a speck in the universe.

It often takes ground-breaking moments to jolt us. Whether in Bolivia or at home, in a surreal time like this, even the small things should make us count our lucky stars.

• Ryandall Lim is a freelance travel writer who is counting down to Earth's grand reopening by reliving past adventures and planning his next exotic vacation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 14, 2020, with the headline 'Reflections from Bolivia'. Print Edition | Subscribe