It’s been a while since I posted, and at this very minute I’m in a hotel near Santiago airport having completed a journey which began in Cusco. Andy and I took the rather handy “Bolivia Hop” bus and headed for the Bolivian border just under two weeks ago. After being led to believe that the Peru / Bolivia border crossing can be one of the tricker ones, we decided to sign up with a bus company that had a good reputation, as well as a hop-on/hop-off option to see some sights along the way to La Paz.
First stop, at about five in the morning, was Puno, just before the border. Here we were given the usual, highly appealing breakfast of bread, butter, jam, and Nescafe before jumping on a boat to the famed Uros Floating Islands. I’m not sure what I expected of this excursion, but was quite surprised to find that the huts had solar panels and electric lighting. The young children are schooled on the islands, whereas the older kids go over to the mainland each day for school. We mostly met the matriarchs of the islands, along with one rather cute little girl. The magic was lost a little when we went out on a gondala which was moved around using an attached boat with an outboard motor. Perhaps it was just too early in the morning for anybody to be paddling. God knows it was too early in the morning to be doing anything!
Next, we travelled over the border to Copacabana. After all the scare stories, the border crossing was very simple, and was the first where we got dropped off on one side, went through migration, and then walked over the border to find the next bus waiting. It’s a somewhat surreal experience when you’re so used to going through airports with their far less exciting border desks.
We arrived at Copacabana to find that Barry Manilow was not being played on every sound system in every venue, most disappointing indeed. Nor was everybody wearing hats made of pineapples and other tropical fruits as I’d imagined. Instead, we found ourselves in a rather simple town filled with tourists, many of whom needed a good haircut and a wash.
Our hotel looked out onto Lake Titicaca and was well placed for accessing the main street with all the restaurants. Of course, just having arrived in Boliva, our first meal had to be Mexican, as we both really fancied some beans.
The next day, we decided to be adventurous and hire mountain bikes. After being sent from the hostal which hired bikes but refused to show us them, instead directing us to the hire place on the water front, we were then sent back to the hostal who quoted us 20 Bolivianos more than an hour ago when we’d last been there. After some bargaining that brought the price down by 10 Bolivianos, we reflected on the success of having saved a whole £1 before being presented by the finest bikes Copacabana had to offer. We set off, with our partially working brakes, and three or four gears, and made our way partly around the lake, seeing an oddly placed shrine and stopping for lunch at a rainbow trout farm. Well, Andy ate, whereas I waited to get back to town for some veggie food at the Thai restaurant, whose proprietor kindly pointed out we could get the same meal cheaper elsewhere. However, too tired to move, I made do with having to pay £4 for a whole three courses.
In the evening, having totally mis-timed the sunset, Andy and I ran up the hill to take photos in the dwindling daylight, which we did after recovering our breath having just run up a hill at high altitude. It was worth it though as we were treated to a fiery sunset display.
Before getting back on the bus, we took up the offer of a tour Isla del Sol, whose best attraction, in my humble opinion, were two donkeys chasing each other along the path used by tourists to traverse the south part of the island. I also saw a baby llama, and happily paid 2 Bolivianos to take its picture since it was one of the first llamas to be so calm whilst everybody walked past it. So cute!
Then to La Paz, via one of the most interesting modes of transport I’ve experienced where the bus passengers cross Lake Titicaca on one raft, and the bus crosses on another. Whilst some questioned why I took the rucksack with all my worldly goods in it onto the passenger raft, I felt justified in not entirely trusting a bus which was crossing the water on something only marginally improved on what I built at an outdoor activities day. Still, we all made it across in one piece, and I treated myself to a bag of M&Ms whilst others enjoyed the local sausage-in-a-bun from a street seller. Little did I know then that avoiding eating meat off the street was not the way to stay healthy in Bolivia.
After a good hour on the bus watching everyone get dropped off in some of the distinctly less appealing parts of La Paz, we were put in a taxi to our hostel. In the morning, I woke up feeling worse for wear, before succumbing to an onslaught of, to put it bluntly, the shits. Thankfully, I had a pack of Azithromycin to hand (never go anywhere with poor hygiene without it), and after taking a tablet and running a fever, I felt much better the next day. Andy and I took the teleferico to one of La Paz’s miradors where you can see just how expansive the city is.
On what was supposed to be our final day in La Paz, we wandered around the city, stumbling on a festival or fair of some kind in the centre where we watched a couple of local dances. We found the square full of pigeons and the backwards clock, before heading to start a formal walking tour. It was interesting to hear about the prison which had its own micro-economy, along with shops, hairdressers, mechanics, and school. Yes, there are mums and kids in there living with their imprisoned fathers because rent has to be paid on prison cells, so this means the family doesn’t have to pay two lots of bills. It used to be possible to tour the prison, but in short, too many bad things happened and the tours were banned. I have to say, I think touring a prison sounds like a pretty strange thing to do, prisoners aren’t a tourist attraction, however you look at it in my opinion.
We also went to the witches market where you can buy llama fetuses and dead baby llamas (delightful), and were told about how the city was previously split into the indigenous and Spanish parts, with the differences in the church decorations being highlighted. It’s interesting to see how the Catholics tried to work in the local culture in an effort to Catholicise the indigenees. Finally, we were told about some of the unusual things the President has said when we were safely behind the doors of the local Dutch restaurant. Unbeknownst to me, eating too much chicken makes you gay and Coca Cola makes you bald. I should probably ease up on the Coca Cola so that I don’t end up two for two.
Unfortunately, five minutes before getting on a bus to Uyuni that evening, I started being unwell again, and in retrospect rightly decided not to get on the bus and stay in the best hotel we could find until I recovered. As it turned out, I had a classic Bolivian combination of salmonella and amoebas; oh, the joy!
After recovering from the ordeal of staying in a suite in a five start hotel whilst being unwell (yes, sounds dreadful doesn’t it), I finally made it on the bus to Uyuni, although sadly alone as Andy had already paid for accomodation in La Paz in anticipation of flying from there to Colombia. It is at this point that I’ll say La Paz is one city I would happily never see again, not just on account of being ill, but because it’s so dirty, smelly, and heavily polluted. The walking tour definitely added some interesting detail and colour to the city, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.
The bus to Uyuni arrived two and a half hours early at around 5am where it was really, really cold. After sitting in one cafe where the owner left and didn’t come back, I crossed the road to find food and warmth, where luckily my tour guide also found me. Four hours later, a group of six of us set off to the Salar de Uyuni with our guide, Jose-Luiz.
First stop was the Cementario de Trenes, before moving on to what most would recognise as the salt flats. Apparenly this salt is about 70% lithium, yet we were shown how the locals extract and treat the salt to end up with edible salt. This is still a mystery to me. The salt flats are one of the first places that I was somewhat stunned by the vastness of the space of the desert we were at the beginning of exploring; it’s huge. It’s also got that same wonderful property of snow on the ski-slopes, i.e. without realising it, you’re getting sunburnt quite easily. So, I was somewhat pink by the end of the day. We were shown caves that had been found when looking for human remains (not sure why they were looking) which had been formed by cooling magma and had a huge variety of shapes, sort of like stalagmites and stalagtites, which were curious indeed. At the end of the day, we were taken to a salt hotel which I thought was really homely, despite the very low temperatures.
Day two in the desert was largely made up of mountains and lagoons. It’s here that you really begin to see how unusual, if not inhospitable, the landscape is. Some have likened it to being on the moon or Mars, and I can easily see why. The train track that runs through the desert largely carries minerals that have been mined in Bolivia, and must take days upon days to traverse. Some of the lakes are home to flamingos, and I managed to get really close to them, this time hearing the the sounds they make, when last time in the Galapagos they were too distant to be heard.
We saw lakes of salty white, icy white and red varieties over the course of the afternoon, as well as rainbow mountains in the distance. We were also lucky enough to get quite close to a relative of the llama whose name I can’t remember. One of the last major attractions of the afternoon was the stone tree, just one of the many strange stone formations to be found in the desert.
Come night fall, we were ensconced in the coldest hostel I have ever been in, which I think was at 4,500m. To put the cold into perspective, I went to bed in thermal long-johns and long-sleeve top, pyjama bottoms, jeans, two t-shirts, and a hoodie. I was also in a sleeping bag, under two blankets and a duvet, with a hot water bottle for good measure. Thankfully, I was lovely and warm in bed, but getting up just before 5am into -9 celcius was not quite as warm.
For the final morning, we went to geysers of stinky steam, and the aguas calientes. I have to admit, I chickened out of getting in to the thermal baths since I was still in all of the aforementioned clothes, yet still feeling cold. Our final sight for the tour was an active volcano on the Chilean side of the border, and a lake of ice.
My last stop on this journey was San Pedro de Atacama, and I’m disappointed that being ill meant I couldn’t spend the time I’d planned here, even if their border security gave even the Australians something to envy. First and foremost, the day was lovely and warm. The town itself was also quite pretty in its way, and the repeated loss of electricity somehow endeared me even more, especially when it left us eating dinner by candlelight. If I do get to come back as I hope to do, and travel through Patagonia, I may well pick up where I left off and start back at this northerly part of Chile.