Our first impression of Bolivia is affordability!!! After spending time in Argentina with its unofficial inflation rate of 25% and Chile in the touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama, our first week in Bolivia has been significantly cheaper. Where else could you do a three day 4wd tour that includes all meals and accommodation for only $200 per person. Perhaps we should’ve planned more than two weeks in Bolivia.
Our week started with the three day tour of South Western Bolivia featuring Salar de Uyuni (the salt flats). We were collected from our hostel by minibus which then took us to the Chilean immigration office to get stamped out and then we drove to the Bolivian border to get stamped in. Whilst not as bad as last week, it still took about an hour to get processed. It was at the Bolivian border that we were introduced to our driver/guide Miguel and his Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser was definitely a bit tired and had been through some tough times but compared to some of the horror stories we’ve heard, it seemed pretty solid. Every seat had a working seatbelt which can be rare in Bolivia. There were four other passengers in the car being a french couple (Thomas & Analise) and a Belgian couple (Cedric & Lina). This meant that there were 5 French speaking people on the tour and me, although Anna never confessed that she knew French because she didn’t want me to be left out. Fortunately the two couples spoke English as well so we could all communicate together. After eating one of the best breakfasts we’ve had in South America (the baguettes were just like the ones in France) we loaded up the 4wd with all of our gear and set off.
The first stops were Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (White Lake and Green Lake) aptly named for the colour of the water when the sun shines on it. The Green Lake was particularly impressive because the colour is produced by Copper and other minerals mixing together. When we first arrived there were two small patches of green but we waited for the wind to pick up and then almost the whole lake turned aqua green instantly. The wind helps the minerals to mix and produce the colour. From here we headed to the thermal springs for some relaxation in the sun. The temperature of the water was a very pleasant 35 degrees and the baths looked out over the lake. We could only stay in for 30 minutes though because the hot water dehydrates you which isn’t good for altitude sickness. This was particularly important since we were reaching 5000m during the day. From here we went to visit the Red Lake which had thousands of Flamingos and then to the Manana Geyser to watch the mud bubble. They definitely weren’t as grand as the ones in Yellowstone National Park but it was still cool to see. I couldn’t resist the temptation of running through the steam vent and throwing rocks in the mud. All whilst Anna gave me disappointing looks like my mother used to give me as a child – I guess I still have some growing up to do.
When we booked the tour the agent did warn us that the first night was going to be a little rough. We knew that the six of us would sleep together in a dorm but we didn’t quite know what to expect. Fortunately our stay at Villamar was better than expected. We were a little surprised when we saw that the bed bases were solid concrete slabs with mattresses on top, but we were well fed and we slept soundly. We did wake up one hour earlier than we were supposed to though because Cedric forgot about the timezone change when setting the alarm. After our first night we were feeling really good about our choice of tour since we were seeing plenty, well fed and well rested. Oh and no breakdowns!
Day two of the tour had a pretty cruisy start with us heading off at 8.30am after a pancake breakfast. The first leg was quite short where we visited a series of rock formations that resemble a camel, the world cup trophy and an Italian lost city. The latter required some imagination but the landscapes were interesting regardless. After this we headed to the mysterious lake, named so because it was well hidden along a rock formation. We had to trek in about a kilometre from the road and once you climbed up the rock it was like finding a desert oasis. After it was time for lunch and it was becoming apparent that we were going to receive three huge meals a day. It was too much for us but the French couple had been living on the cheap for the last 4 months so the devoured everything. They did say that their monthly budget was only a quarter of ours, but they haven’t had to pay for any flights. They had tales of hitchhiking their way from Patagonia up through Argentina and of free camping for weeks at a time. It made us feel like flashpackers since we’ve been flying all over the globe and we haven’t hitchhiked or camped the whole time. Oh and they made fun of us for having bags with wheels – and they wonder why people think the French are arseholes ☺☺☺.
In the afternoon we visited Anaconda Canyon which isn’t snake infested but is curvy. It was no Grand Canyon but worth a stop nonetheless. From here we headed to San Cristobal which is also known as Modern Town. In 2003, a mining company discovered that there was silver, lead and zinc underneath San Cristobal so the company paid to relocate the whole town to a spot nearby so they could create an open pit mine. You could definitely feel how the town was modern although they tried to disguise it by rebuilding the church exactly like the original. I think the smooth roads and nice paths gave it away though. We visited the train cemetery which were dumped after the mine ran out of silver and transport to La Paz was no longer required. Next we headed into Uyuni for the night, which isn’t the usual itinerary, but since it was wet season the water levels were too high to stay at the Salt Hotel. It was a little disappointing that we couldn’t stay there but you have to take what you can get. This time we had a private room but we still had to pay $2 each for a shower in the communal bathroom. At least it was hot.
The next morning we headed to the salt flats for sunrise. This meant that we were up at 4:30am and in the car by 5am. It was definitely worthwhile but it was a little cold at that time in the morning. We parked at the edge of the water so that we could get the reflections, but a downside to staying in Uyuni was that we had the mountains on the horizon. I think typically the view is just white salt as far as the eye can see but since we entered in from Uyuni we didn’t get to the middle. It didn’t bother us though as we still made the most of it by goofing around and taking funny pictures. We visited the first hotel built on the salt flat but it’s now a museum because it was determined to be bad for the environment with the waste the hotel creates. Our final stop was at Colchani which is a tiny town that survives off tourists buying their handicrafts. After our final meal we were dropped into town where we had to kill 6 hours until our night bus to La Paz.
We probably scraped together about 6 hours of sleep on the night bus, which is enough to get by, but we were glad we could check into our AirBnB apartment when we arrived at 8am because we managed to have a little snooze. The apartment had a washing machine which meant that we could catch up on our laundry – which was pretty much everything in our bags. The time on the salt flats tour was very dusty. After completing the chores, a hot shower and breakfast we were ready to hit the town to see what La Paz has to offer. Essentially we roamed from the southern end of town up to the north along El Prado which is the main drag through the valley of La Paz. To the east and west were the steep climbs up the sides of the valley, so we didn’t tackle that just yet. We learned that La Paz has loads of markets. There are indoor markets, street markets, laneway markets and even little stalls that appear on random corners. Different streets focus on different items like fabrics, hardware and electronics, but we wanted to see what the witch markets had to offer. There weren’t as many stalls as we expected but they definitely had some weird things like dried frogs, potions and medicinal plants used in Bolivian rituals. The weirdest though were the dried Llama foetuses that are sold to be buried under the foundations of houses as an offering to the gods.
As mentioned, heading east or west was tough business in La Paz as the hills can be very steep, but it’s the best place for a view of the city. Luckily for us there was a teleferico close by to take us to the top of the hill (like many of the cities in South America). The difference in La Paz is that these weren’t built just for tourists, it’s their public transport system. They have four lines open but another seven are on the way and they seem very popular with the locals, especially since it only costs $0.60 a trip. For a city that is too steep for train services and too densely populated for road based solutions, the teleferico is a great solution. It was strange floating along above houses and buildings but it gave a great perspective of how large La Paz is. The valley is jam-packed with buildings and houses with even the steepest of slopes utilised. It reminded me of Quito in Ecuador but there’s no nice UNESCO historic town centre here. It was great to see La Paz but is it one of my favourites from our trip… um nope.
One of the popular activities to do in La Paz is to mountain bike The Death Road which is dubbed as the most dangerous road in the world. You ride downhill for 40 miles whilst descending almost 12,000 feet along narrow sections of roads with sheer drops… oh and no guard rails. The worst bit is the 3 metre wide section of road with the 600m sheer drop off to the side. Our parents will be relieved to know that we didn’t do the trip. Since it’s wet season here at the moment and it pours every afternoon we decided not to do it because the road is very slippery and dangerous. We also overheard two people talking about their friend who came off when they did the ride two days earlier and needed to have knee surgery from the accident. Surgery in Bolivia… no thanks.
Next up was Lake Titicaca where we caught yet another bus, but this time we had to do a ferry crossing too. We stayed at Copacabana but this isn’t quite like Rio’s version… it’s far too cold for swimming! On our first day we explored the small lake side village and then tackled the walk up the mountain next to town for the views. Some parts were very steep but we took our time and made it eventually. The views were great and we were lucky that it wasn’t raining.
One of the main attractions of Lake Titicaca is a visit to Isla del Sol (Sun Island) so we booked onto a boat that would take us to the northern port and then collect us at the southern port five hours later, so that we could do the walk between. All was going well until the boat stopped halfway to the island and we were informed that the boat cannot go to the northern port because two villages were fighting about a new hotel that is being built on sacred ground. It wasn’t going to be dangerous, just that all the stores would be closed and they asked for no tourists to be dropped off. The boat company offered to take us to Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) for a look at the archaeological site for one hour and then 3.5 hours of free time at the southern port. Considering we were bobbing in the middle of the lake what choice did we have. Isla de la Luna was ok but we were ready to leave after 40 minutes.
Just as we arrived at Isla del Sol it started to rain which wasn’t helpful because we had to climb up 200m in elevation to the village of Yumani up steep wet steps made of stone. If that wasn’t enough, the steps were essentially used as drainage so torrents of water flowed down them. I had my boots on so my feet were ok but poor Anna’s feet were saturated. Once we reached the village we wondered how dead the north must be because the south was a bit of ghost town. We were wet and cold and looking for coffee but no one was open. Eventually we found the happening strip – no not like Las Vegas – more like three restaurants that were open. We had hot coffee and split a pizza for only $10 so we were happy with that. The best part was that the pizza base was made of the same dough they make their sweet rolls from so it was like lunch and dessert in one. During lunch the rain stopped so we had motivation to get the cameras out and go for a look around. We hiked up to the lookout at the top of the mountain and then looked around the village on our way back down. All up it was a nice day out, but it’s a shame about the rain and not being able to do the whole hike.
As for today… blog day! It was a busy week and we needed to make time to put it all into words (and pictures). Oh and there may have been the odd tv show and movie thrown in there too. How are we going to return to normal workdays???
From here we’ll be heading south towards Mendoza. We only have a few weeks left so we need to make it to Santiago for our flight home. I can’t believe the end is that close.
Fail of the Week
Everything went pretty well this week so I guess the failed plans of Isla del Sol would be it. I’m so glad we didn’t have any issues with the salt flats tour.
Meal of the Week
Our apartment in La Paz was in the Sopocachi district which has the nicer restaurants on offer. It was a cold night and we went to Swissfondue for a huge cheese fondue followed by a chocolate fondue for dessert. Too much food for two, but we tried our best.