Its my 3rd time back to Bolivia and this time I only have 2 weeks to squeeze everything in and visit my Dad, who has taken up residence here. Of course this isn’t long enough to experience everything Bolivia has to offer, but it is plenty time to get a really good dose of the Bolivian way of life.
The first treat hits us before we’ve even landed. Through the window, we can see clouds nestled around snow-capped mountains glowing pink in the early morning light. The second thing to hit us is the altitude, at 3,650m above sea level, the air is fresh and thin, leaving some people a little dizzy and short of breath. Arriving at Casa de mi Papa (aka Dad’s house), we sip a warm cup of coca mate, a herbal infusion of coca leaves which can help alleviate/prevent the symptoms. I soon find that Dad hasn’t learned much Spanish, instead choosing to speak English slowly and loudly and with a Spanish accent when communicating with locals.
One of the first changes I notice, is the shiny red, green and yellow carriages of the brand new Teleferico (cable car) installed by the Swiss last year. At around 50p a ride it’s an absolute bargain, carrying you high above the rooftops of La Paz! We enter a carriage occupied by a Cholita (indigenous woman wearing traditional clothing) and we greet each other with the customary Buenas Dias (good day). Most inhabitants of La Paz speak Spanish but indigenous people also speak Quechuan, which sounds more like Japanese if you ask me.
It’s my partners first time in Bolivia, so I decide to take him to Copacabana, a popular and somewhat romantic retreat on the shores of Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) where Bolivians often visit, mainly for the purpose of receiving blessings at the famous white Basilica. My cousin even got married there last year. We take the front seats of the next mini-bus leaving La Paz and watch the beautiful scenery passing by for the next 3 hours.
We haven’t booked a hotel, and the first 3 are full, but we soon find a room with lake-front view (see below). That evening, we make the cold, windy climb up the steep Calvario hill, adorned with 12 stone crosses (stations of the cross) where groups of people gather to watch the sun go down.
The following morning we wake up early to take a small boat across to Isla del Sol for the 3 hour trek across the island. The sun is out, but we are 4,000m high, so I don my fleece. The sun shimmers and glistens across the pristine blue lake. Perfect clouds rest in the sky and an owner-less dog wanders into my photograph. Its hard to imagine that air can get any fresher than this, especially since there are no vehicles on Isla del Sol. There is only one path across the island so its hard to get lost. The path is lined with a herb called Muña, which lets off a fresh citrus-minty smell and can be used as a herbal infusion. After 3 hours of walking, we reach the ancient stone ruins and take a much needed rest. On the way back we come across a family farming what look like potatoes and marvel at how clear the water is in the crescent shaped bays. By now its 3pm and we are starving! The restaurant right next to the pier serves fresh, juicy grilled trout.
Back in La Paz, we spend the day with Dad on the driving range, its weird to see such an expanse of neat grass next to dusty crumbling mountains. The golf course is fairly empty, but there are countless staff trimming the hedges and looking after the place. There is also a gym, sauna and swimming pool.
That evening, sipping on a Fernet and coke at Mojito’s cocktail bar, we quiz my cousins on what they recommend for us to see. The unanimous vote is for a trip to Uyuni, which is famous for its salt flats, flamingos, lakes, volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. We book ourselves on the overnight ‘bus-cama‘ which has big comfy reclining seats. We arrive 12 hours later in the colder and flatter town of Uyuni, where we are promptly accosted by friendly tour operators offering 1, 2 and 3 day Jeep tours. We go the whole hog and book 3 days.
Two hours later, we are introduced to our Bolivian guide, Victor, two Korean sisters and two French firemen. It turns out our guide doesn’t speak English, so I agree to translate everything – a great opportunity for me to practice my Spanish! Our first stop comes just half an hour into the trip at the Train Cemetery. I came here almost 15 years ago and time really has stood still. Nothing has changed, other than there are far more visitors. People jump like fleas along the huge metal carcasses. We have been given just half an hour, which flies past before having a chance to properly explore the place.
We huddle back into the jeep and zoom off to our next stop, the Salar (the worlds largest salt flat at around 12 sq km and growing – since every time it rains the salt spreads a little further!). At some points its 22m deep. At a glance it looks like snow, but it’s actually flat, hard salt, which forms hexagonal patterns after water from the rainy season has evaporated. Up close it resembles a white brillo pad. We stop to take the obligatory ‘silly-perspective’ photos against the white nothingness. Last year saw the Dakar race come to Bolivia, and we stop at the huge salty Dakar monument for a photo before being told off for climbing it!
Just like snow, the salt reflects the sunlight and its easy to get a little burnt in the afternoon sun so we wait in the shade while Victor prepares our lunch. With bellies full, we race off to Isla Incahuasi, a beautiful island of cacti in the middle of the salty sea. Once again it feels like very little time is given to climb to the top of the island and enjoy the unique landscape which emits a sense of peaceful serenity. The cacti cast long shadows in the slowly setting sun, and its time again to move on.
This time we reach the salt hotel, which is completely made from salt. I wonder what happens when it rains? Victor informs me that they cover it with plastic if there is a heavy downpour. Even the floor is covered in powdery white salt which looks like sand. Astonishingly, in this simple accommodation, there is a boiling hot shower. We huddle in our sleeping bags, under the quilts, with all our clothes on to keep warm. I wake up half way through the night and see sparks in my sleeping bag. For a minute, it looks like I have an infestation of fireflies in my bed, but it turns out to be sparks from the chargers in my pockets, which I placed there so they wouldn’t lose charge in the cold!
Day two of the tour begins with a walk through a valley to look at the still active volcano Ollyaweh, which has a small plume of smoke coming from the top. Victor tells us that the rocks here look like sitting down dogs… the Bolivians have a good sense of imagination!
Next we stop at Laguna Canapa and Laguna Hedionda, which translates as smelly lake because of reek of sulphur and borax. Both lakes are dotted with pink flamingos, their black beaks bobbing in the still waters as they feed. We spot a small fox called a Zorro and a small rabbit-like creature called a Viscacha which we feed our leftovers to. We drive on through an altitude of 4,700m and stop for a quick panorama. When we get back in the jeep, the engine wont start… me and my partner shoot each other a worried glance as Victor hops out of his seat to open the bonnet. Thankfully, within a minute he has the engine running and we are once again on the road listening to Victor’s favourite 80s music. We arrive at tonight’s accommodation, which isn’t as nice as the previous evening and is somehow even colder. We sit with other groups playing cards while we wait for dinner and wine (pretty sure that’s to help us keep warm – and it does the job!). The spaghetti fills me up nicely and we head outside to watch the stars light up the night sky. It’s a pretty good view from here since there is very little light pollution and we can see the Milky Way stretching its way across the universe. Its early to bed since we have a 4.30am rise.
Day 3 of the tour begins with pancakes at dawn. My partner has a headache again, perhaps its the altitude, or perhaps it was too much wine… The first stop is the geysers, spewing hot steam from the bubbling earth below. In the eerie light, it looks primordial. Dark figures of tourists wander around the crusty landscape. We’ve been warned not to get too close to the openings, but someone is perched right on the edge looking down into the seething crater.
I’m the first in and the heat is incredible, after all the coldness. I enter the hot water and my body relaxes as my feet sink into the sandy black floor. I coax the rest of the group in and within seconds my partner’s headache is gone (as well as his clothes!). What a way to start the day! We stay submerged up to the neck wallowing in bliss.
Getting out, its a scrabble to get your clothes on as fast as possible before the chill sets in! Next stop is Laguna Verde which is iced over. We see someone sliding around on it and watch with worry. Victor says its pretty safe since its frozen solid, so we join the crazy man and slide around on the ice like kids. We then make a quick stop at the famous Arbol de Piedra (tree rock) and a gust of wind whips up a mini sand storm. We rush back to the jeep and make the next stop to drop the Korean girls at the Chilean border.
Our tour is over and we return to Uyuni, spotting an Emu and lots of Vicuñas and Llamas on the road back. We have time for a quick Sopa de Pollo (chicken soup) before getting back on the bus-cama to La Paz. In the morning, we hear one of the passengers protesting that his camera has been stolen. Rather foolishly, he stored it in the overhead compartment – my camera, however, slept safely under my legs.
We have just a few precious days left in La Paz now. Time to visit Valle de la Luna, a super little place in the south of La Paz where erosion has created a landscape of tall spires with a sketchy path leading in and around the deep crevasses. There’s not much emphasis on health and safety though.
With our remaining days, we watch Bolivia get slaughtered 5-0 in the Copa America, witness some very bad acting at a Cholita Wrestling match and take some time to photograph the rich and colourful landscape of La Paz. A full gallery of images is available here.