Bolivia will knock your socks off. It has an other-worldly charm that I defy anyone not to be seduced by. I’ve already rambled about the first part of my three week adventure in Bolivia (as part of a two month South American circuit), but this post is about the second half and the three cherries on the Bolivian cake, the Uyuni Salt Flats, Death Road (La Paz) and La Isla del Sol (Lake Titicaca).
With the salt flats tour you have a couple of options: day trips, 2 day trips and 3 day trips, though the most popular option is the 3-dayer, which we went for. This can be done starting from either Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and you can either return to your starting point or use it to get from one country to another. From what we could work out with our shaky knowledge of the exchange rates, it’s quite a lot cheaper on the Bolivian end. We booked in Potosi, going for the cheapest option we could find, Andes Salt Expeditions. People were turning up on the morning of the tours and getting even better deals but if you don’t have much time in Bolivia booking ahead is definitely worth it, as there is zero to do in Uyuni and you don’t want to end up not getting on a tour and spending a day there.
On the first day you’re straight out into the salt flats, via the train cemetery and a slightly frustrating stop at a market flogging the same souveneirs you’ll find across the Andes. If you’ve forgotten to stock up on your alpaca wool hats, scarves, gloves etc. take advantage because it is going to get bloody cold. We were there in April, so mid autumn, and the nights were absolutely perishing. I doubt that the summer nights are much warmer up at 5000m.
The salt flats give you a pretty mindblowing sensation of being surrounded by snow and ice combined with being on the moon. When you’re out in the middle you can’t see the edges, it’s just white and more white as far as the eye can see. If it’s a cloudy day you’ll have a hard time telling where the salt ends and the sky begins. You have lunch at Fish Island and you have to pay extra to be able to climb up to the top of this incredible hunk of cactus-covered rock that sticks up out of the salt, 100% worth it for the panoramic views from the top of salt, salt and more salt. Planet Bolivia reveals yet another of it’s alien landscapes!
Top tip: don’t rely on your guide for the photos. I had seen various awesome perspective shots of people fleeing plastic dinosaurs etc, and so I thought our guide would be making suggestions and producing various props for profile pic worthy photos, but we were unlucky with our guide and made do with a water bottle and my imagination. Bring your own props and check out other people’s snaps beforehand!
As far as the guide goes, it is totally luck and can make or break your tour. Ours did his best impression of a mute the whole way round, but posters all over the walls of the agency sang the praises of various other guides. We were lucky with our group (us, two Uruguayans and two Brazilians= a serious case of Portunol) and so chatted away and enjoyed ourselves no end but we felt we missed out on quite a lot of interesting facts. The guides are clearly exhausted, doing back to back tours, and don’t earn all that much, but it wouldn’t have killed him to volunteer a bit of geological info now and again. He did however provide a cracking soundtrack.
The first night was in a tiny little village just off the flats in a hostel made of salt blocks. We arrived just in time for sunset and watched the locals herding their llamas home. For 10 Bolivianos you can have a hot shower and for a lot more you can warm up with a bottle of wine. The food is the best on the first day whilst your guide/cook still has the energy to cook a decent meal and we got private rooms that night, luxury.
Day 2 is all about the lakes, and the altitude. The first few are breathtaking, ringed by snow capped mountains and home to flocks of flamingos. Am I the only one who associates flamingos with hot climates? Because it sure as hell wasn’t hot up there. The last lake however makes you wonder how you could have possibly been impressed by the first few. We were the first 4×4 at the viewpoint and so had our first glimpse of the red lake in glorious solitude. In the late afternoon, when you get there, the sun is at just the right angle to make the water a rich opaque red, verging on pink in some places, and the shallows are absolutely covered in thousands upon thousands of flamingos. Down at the water’s edge the water close-up isn’t red at all, but crystal clear. When I discovered a spring through which water was bubbling up before tumbling over a small waterfall and wending it’s way out into the lake, surrounded by vivid green moss, I nearly died and went to heaven. All this is in the middle of the desert and overlooked by mountains with little white caps of snow. It’s the most surreal place I’ve been blessed enough to find myself and it makes for some cracking photos. They literally had to drag me away from the banks of the little stream where I was busy drinking in the beauty all around me. A red lake in the desert with mountains, springs, waterfalls and flamingos?! What more could you want?!
After paying the hefty entrance fee to the national park which the red lake sits in, we got taken to the second hostel. There are hostels on the lake shore but you could still see the lake from our rustic accommodation further off. There was no electricity during the night, definitely no hot water and your whole group shares one room. The stars are incredible but you’ve got to be pretty hardcore to stand still outside after nightfall long enough to appreciate them, as it’s absolutely achingly cold. Think putting on more clothes to go to sleep rather than removing them.
The last morning you’re up at the crack of dawn and arrive at some incredible geysers before it’s light enough to really see them and it’s still unbearably cold, before going on to the hot springs for sunrise. The idea of going swimming was highly unappealing until the sun hit us and then we found the nerve to go in, and I’m very glad we did. A swimming pool has been made at the edge of another stunning lake that the hot water trickles down to and a few early-rising flamingos were strolling around in.
Another slightly anti-climactic lake (it was meant to be green and it wasn’t) right on the Chilean border rounded things off and we began the long drive back to Uyuni. All in all it was incredibly mindbogglingly wonderful and completely and utterly unmissable (is that enough superlatives?). I’ve never been in so many completely different and alien landscapes in the space of three days. It’s an assault on the senses in the best way possible.
We timed it well and caught the twice-weekly overnight train from Uyuni to Oruru, planning to overnight there. We arrived and decided it didn’t look up to much so hopped on a bus straight to La Paz. We reckon the train/bus combo worked out shorter and cheaper than the direct bus.
Next on the agenda was the obligatory La Paz activity, Death Road. We booked with Xtreme Downhill as our Uruguayan buddies from Uyuni had already booked. It was about 400 Bolivianos (500 for me as I’m a bit of a princess and wanted the bike with the decent suspension). It’s pretty pricey, bearing in mind that we paid 800 Bolivianos for the 3 day Uyuni tour, but you get breakfast, lunch, equipment, transport, photos etc and the essential t-shirt.
The minibus picks you up nice and early and takes you up the mountain. When we got to the spot where we were meant to start, it was decided that the blizzard meant it was safer to start further down, thank god! Having not seen snow for 2 years I was not prepared to cycle through it. We stopped for breakfast (coca leaf tea was highly necessary) and then got on our bikes for the first stretch, on the newly tarmacked road with traffic (and hundreds of other cyclists) whizzing past. By the end of that my hands were absolutely agony they were so cold and we were nice and wet as the snow had turned to rain. It was back on the bus for a while until we pulled up at the start of Death Road.
It’s mostly fairly large stones that slide about alarming under your wheels and the fact that you couldn’t see over the precipices because of the clouds didn’t mean I wasn’t painfully aware of the fact that if I went wrong it was a very long way down. It took me a while to get my nerves together, during which I moseyed along at the back, often losing sight of everyone because of all the twists and turns, but I loved the sensation of being alone up there. You go under waterfalls and over streams and stop for plenty of photo opportunities and rarely have to peddle as it’s downhill all the way. By the end, I was up at the front with the best of them having got my confidence back and took great pride in overtaking the boys.
Having got down unscathed and reached a tropical valley (snow to t-shirt weather in four hours on a bicycle- madness) you abandon your bike and outfit in a bar and are encouraged to have a celebratory drink. We didn’t need telling twice, and the best part of a bottle of wine slips down very nicely after so much adrenaline. The rain had stopped halfway down but we were all soaked and mud-covered but in the best mood. On the 5 minute ride to the restaurant for lunch the minibus was party-central, having acquired a random Irish guy who was excellent value.
My tip would be bring some spare clothes, socks and shoes to change into afterwards. It it’s raining you’ll get soaked and although it’s warm at the bottom, you then get back in the mini bus and have to go back over the mountain through the snow, and our minibus at least wasn’t very airtight. An icy draft + wet clothes = no fun. Also, they pick you up at your hostel but drop you at the agency to pick up your photos and so you don’t want to be walking back all wet.
It’s draining and not the safest of activities, but it’s one of the best adrenaline rushes I’ve ever had and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Our last port of call in Bolivia, on the way through to Peru, was La Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. You catch the boat from Copacabana (not to be confused with the beach) which is a tacky tourist town with overpriced (for Bolivia) restaurants and a sacred mountain with great views but covered in graffiti and litter. I completely fell in love with Bolivia, but one of it’s major downsides is that it is absolutely covered in rubbish. You know you’re getting close to a town when the amount of rubbish you see strewn around the countryside starts to increase. The graffiti culture is terrible, especially election graffiti which is on every wall in every city and can even be found by the side of the road on rocks in the middle of nowhere.
Escaping from Copacabana, we arrived in the paradise that is the Isla del Sol. We took the boat to the north of the island the morning after arriving at Copacabana with just an overnight bag, making our way to the south of the island in time to catch the afternoon boat back the next day, and head on to Cusco. The north of the island is far less developed than the south, though more basic guesthouses are being built. We got a room with a balcony and a lake view for 50 Bolivianos, the cheapest we found anywhere. You are immediately approached by a local guide who offers a tour of the main sites in the north in return for a tip. As he spoke no English, I became his translator! I never saw my half of the tips though..
You have to pay an entrance fee at the museum (the island is divided into three parts and each charge an entrance fee) and then make your way up to the sacred rock. The path winds its way through the village, up and down hills, past donkeys, sheep and cows, through the local school and over hundreds of streams tumbling their way down to the lake. It’s completely idyllic and the local’s way of life doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last millenium. We quickly regretted not having brought our backpacks with us as we would have happily stayed for a week, just being. We were shown various medicinal herbs that the community use and told the story of the island’s past. The Quechua people (Inca is apparently the term for King, not for the civilisation) used to come from the four corners of the empire to touch the sacred rock, and visitors are still allowed to do the same thing. There’s a sacrificial table and the remains of a temple, and after your tour, if you have any energy left, you can climb higher and see the sacred site from above, with spectacular panoramic views of the island and the lake. We ended up falling asleep in the sunshine, on top of the world.
Some people set off for the south after the tour, doing the island in a day, but it is very much worth staying. We headed back to the village, saying hello to a few donkeys on the way. A very enterprising local has set up a burgers, chips and juice business on the lake front. Having been struggling with veggie food, an avocado, tomato and cheese sandwich with the most delicious mango juice I’ve ever tasted was heavenly, and we sank into a food coma in the sun by the water. Just before sunset we bought a bottle of wine and headed to the other beach where we sat on a wall and watched the sun go down, a women’s football match and people bringing their pigs and donkeys home for the night. You would get an amazing view of the sunset from the sacred rock but we were quite happy to save our legs and watch the community settle down for the night whilst getting happily wine-drunk.
There isn’t much in the way of street lighting on the island, which makes for a great night’s sleep and a starry sky (wrap up VERY warm for star gazing), so make sure you take a torch. We found a tiny restaurant where we were served by a boy who should definitely have been in bed and had to check with his mum if anyone asked him any questions, poor little thing.
The next day we did the 3 hour walk up and down hill to the south of the island. If you do get off the boat at the south of the island, brace yourself for a LOT of steps to get to the top, and watch out for huge llamas on the path! The south is also much more expensive, as we found out on the hunt for lunch. The trout that is hoicked out of the lake on a daily basis is the speciality.
As you may have gathered, I absolutely loved Bolivia, especially the three last stops. You need to be careful, but I felt a lot safer in Bolivia than I did in other parts of South America, like Argentina. The landscape, the people, the prices… Put it on your bucket list and tick it off as soon as physically possible.
Photo credits to Victor Herranz.