Whirlwind tour of Bolivia

Crossing the bridge from La Quiaca (Argentina) to Villazon (Bolivia) is truly like stepping into another world. Everything is suddenly more chaotic, more colorful, and far cheaper. The city is absolutely throbbing with life. Women are dressed in vibrant swishy skirts and bowler hats and wield wheelbarrows full of steaming empanadas. Babies are bundled on backs and dogs roam freely. Children navigate the streets with ease, clogged as they are with countless stands selling everything under the sun. I, on the other hand, feel a bit like a fish out of water with my giant pack on and arriving at the bus station does nothing to make matters better.

It seems to be more of a small mosh pit, with vendors screaming destinations and travelers fighting for a ticket or simply a spot to stand. I, of course, find 2 other solo travelers who happen to be headed to the same place. We manage to buy a ticket and then form a protective circle to weather the constant wave of people swarming around us while we wait for the bus.  The bus is an hour late and that’s probably the best thing I can say about this particular bus ride. The trip was supposed to take 6 hours to go the 208 km to Uyuni. It took 10. We arrived in Uyuni at 4 am after 10 hours of bone rattling driving over rut filled dirt roads. There was no heat and the windows had no seals so it was freezing. And the seats didn’t recline. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. We checked into the first hostel we found and I got a whopping 3 hour nap until I had to awaken at 7am to start my tour of the salt flats.

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at a little over 4,000 sq mi. The bed of a prehistoric lake it’s now as flat as the Earth’s curvature allows it to be – average altitude change over all 4,000 sq mi is less than a meter. January is smack dab in the middle of rainy season in Bolivia but rainy season at the salar has its benefits, namely being the world’s largest mirror. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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The salar was such a beautiful experience and what made it even better was getting to share it with new friends. I was on the tour with 6 other people and we had so much fun splashing in the water, choosing favorite salt crystals and dancing to argentine house music. No english was spoken but they were so incredibly patient with me and my spanish for which I am always grateful.

After the salar I splurged for a slightly nicer bus to take me the 12 hours to La Paz. This one had reclining seats, blankets and a meal. Wawaweewhoa! I got to La Paz early in the morning and spent the day wandering the city. It’s truly a spectacular place. It sits in a bowl surrounded by the snow covered mountains of the antiplano at 11,975 ft. However, as the city grows it has been steadily climbing the surrounding walls of the bowl resulting in parts of the city being at nearly 13,500ft. I consider myself an active person but arriving at nearly 12,000 ft and climbing those hills had me out of breath and exhausted. It didn’t help to have women dressed in beautifully colorful skirts zipping past me uphill while carrying giant loads of who knows what strapped to their backs. Sometimes there was even a child perched on top of that! I tried to keep up a few times but had to admit defeat and console myself with chocolate covered strawberries from the market. The unique shape of the city, the bustling markets, the wafting smells of saltenos, and the narrow, winding streets that lead you from one new discovery to another made La Paz one of my favorite cities to visit so far.

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After just one measly day in La Paz it was off to Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol. Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. What is a navigable lake you may ask? I certainly did. Titicaca boasts an elevation of 12,507 ft and is the largest body of water in South America. However, there are at least 2 dozen lakes that exist at a higher elevation. Apparently, ‘navigable’ refers to commercial water crafts and all the lakes that are higher than Titicaca are too small or shallow for said crafts to operate in.

I caught a bus from La Paz to Copacabana where I milled about with other tourists until the ferry departure time of 1:30. By 1:45 all of us tourists had found our places on our respective boats and we left the now deserted town of copacabana behind as we slowly chugged our way through the clear waters of lake titicaca like some strange armada headed for battle in matching orange life jackets. I was on a ferry with a lovely group of people; 2 chileans, 4 uruguayans, an argentine, and 2 brazilians. We yammered away in spanish and got sufficiently sunburned lounging on the roof of the boat for the 2.5 hour journey to the north side of Isla del Sol.

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Isla del Sol is the largest island in Lake Titicaca and an ancient holy site for the Incas. Inca legend says that Viracocha, the bearded god who created the universe, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun. There are a number of ruins to explore on the island but the real draw for me was its stunning and tranquil location in the middle of the lake. There’s no motorized traffic on the island, snow capped mountains rise seemingly from the lake itself and the blue waters of titicaca spread out from the steep walls of the island in every direction.

I explored the north side of the island and the town Cha’llapampa for a small while and then headed towards the south of the island on a well marked trail.It winds around the side of the island, taking you through valleys, up ridges and through small villages. The people in the center of the island live a beautiful life and refreshingly enough seemed to care less about a tourist traipsing around their trails. The views were spectacular and every corner held some new view of the lake, of a furry donkey, or of children playing outside their home. It felt so wonderful to be out in nature again and the beauty and serenity of the hike coupled with the friendly “buenas tardes!” from everyone I passed had me feeling incredibly alive and rejuvenated.

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I made it to the south of the island, Yumani, right as the daily rainstorm rolled in. This one was more of a doozy than usual with lightning, thunder and howling wind. Yumani’s minimal use of electricity made the storm all the more exciting. I braved the storm to walk up to a restaurant where I got to listen to the storm batter the world outside and feast on quinoa soup, trout from Lake Titicaca, potatoes, rice and vegetables by candlelight. All that for a mere $3.

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The next day I woke up for the sunrise but the clouds from yesterday’s storm were still lingering so it wasn’t quite as spectacular as I had hoped. I went for an early morning hike to the Templo del Sol which ended up just being a hike since I couldn’t find the temple. And seeing as how Isla del Sol sits at a little over 13,000 ft said hike was rather strenuous and had me huffing, puffing and sore by 7:30 a.m. I munched some breakfast after my failed sun excursion and then decided I had just enough time to make a dash for the highest point on the island before my boat back to Copa at 10:30. This meant I got to head back to the lovely paths in the interior of the island but also that I had to book it. 13,000 ft and power walking made for a solid 2 hours of great exercise. The path and the view from the highest point were stunning but I ended up cutting it close enough that I had to run on the way back and just made it to the ferry on time.

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This ferry ride was slow, serene and full of friendly people once again. I got to spend the 1.5 hour ride back chatting with an argentine accountant who spoke fluent English and 2 Argentines from Cordoba. We played my favorite game which is they speak to me in english and I insist on responding in spanish. We parted ways at Copa and I boarded a bus bound for Peru. The crossing was unbelievably easy and while I’m sad to say goodbye to vibrant Bolivia I’m excited to start my adventures in Peru.

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