Bolivia: Country full of surprises

Floating islands and their colourful boats were getting smaller as our boat was taking us back to hop-on bus to continue our adventure in Bolivia. Being the second part of the three-week-vacation, you can catch up with the first one in my previous blog post about Peru. Survival guide follows in the end 🙂
Of course I had to encounter some problem at the border. Although I had an entrance stamp, I wasn’t in the system somehow so I had to go with the government official to the police office to get an approval to get out of the country. It was resolved quickly. With one brand new colourful stamp in my passport and my mind full of beautiful impressions, I waved goodbye to Peru and walked across the border to Bolivia. This was the second border that I crossed by foot (first one was between Israel and Jordan in my post about Petra).

Bolivia and I had a rough start. What supposed to be the free visa on arrival, turned out to cost 100$ and some arguing with the officials at the border crossing. It turnes out that regulations “vary” from one border crossing to another and, especially if you come from small country like mine, you don’t stand a chance but have to pay. So here is the first tip: Don’t get scammed at the border crossing, organise your visa prior to the trip in your country of residence.
Only that way you can be on the safe side and not depend on the mood of the official in charge.

After this first bump in the ride, we reached Copacabana where we took the first boat to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). Let me introduce you to Bolivia during the two-hour slow boat ride to the island.

Country name: Plurinational State of Bolivia
Capital city: Sucre (constitutional), La Paz (executive and legislative)
Population: 11,428,245 (2019 estimate)
Official language(s): Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani + 30 other indigenous languages
Currency: Bolivian Boliviano (BOB)

When to go?
Bolivia’s climate can vary depending on the region and altitude; from semi-arid in the highlands to humid jungles in the Amazon basin. Despite these variations, two seasons can be distinguished during the year: dry winter season and rainy summer season.

High season (May – October): dry winter season with short but sunny days throughout the country and a bit cooler weather in the highlands (Altiplano). The advantages of the dry season are open hiking/trekking trails, mountain biking conditions are good and transit is easier. Disadvantage – a higher number of tourists.
Shoulder (October – November): less crowded and a bit lower prices. It can be a good time to visit Salar de Uyuni as it can have a reflecting surface due to the rain.
Low season (November – April): the rainy season. Especially in lowlands, it becomes warm, humid, and with quite some number of mosquitoes. Highlands are less affected by rain than lowlands but climbing or trekking can be less amusing due to the muddy trails.

We visited Bolivia in June, during the high season. It had pleasant sunny days, perfect for trekking, and cool nights. Salar de Uyuni nights were especially cold. Dress in layers and bring sun protection if you plan to stay in highlands.

Where to stay?
Just like in Peru, we were staying in hostels. The accommodation was booked on the fly via booking app or inspired by flyers in our previous accommodations. If you book a tour around Salar de Uyuni, accommodation will be included in the price. Online booking works perfectly.

Fun Facts:

  • La Paz is the highest capital city in the world (3650m), overtaking Ecuador’s Quito for c.a. 800m. Bolivia‘s constitutional capital is Sucre, but the government and executive capital is La Paz. Therefore, another fun fact within this one – Bolivia has two capital cities.
  • The country got its name after Simón Bolívar, a South American soldier who led the revolutions across the continent against the Spanish Empire. He was also known as El Libertador (The Liberator). Battles under his leadership led to the creation of Grand Colombia (nowadays Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama) in 1821, Peru 1824, and Bolivia in 1825.
  • North Yungas Road, also known as Death road, can be found on many lists of most dangerous roads in the world (if not being the number 1). It is one of the longest stretches of downhill roads in the world, connecting La Paz (3650m) with the city of Coroico (1600m) in the Amazon rainforest. Heavy rains and fog make this narrow road with 600m abyss on one side even worse. The most northern part has a safer alternative, while the rest remains the tourist attraction for the mountain bikers. The death toll was between 200-300 people per year.
  • Bolivia is home to Pink dolphins (Bufeos), which are sweet water dolphins. They live in the Amazon river and are considered part of Bolivia’s natural heritage. They feed mostly on fish but can eat turtles and shellfish. There are many legends about pink dolphins, one saying that during the night they turn into humans to seduce young girls. It was considered bad luck to harm them or to eat them, which probably contributed to their preservation.
  • There is a place in Bolivia called Salvador Dalí desert or Dalí Valley, which belongs to Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. Why Dalí? Because the landscape looks like the setting for some of Dalí’s paintings such as Persistence of Memory or The Elephants.
Salvador Dalí desert

Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun)

Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands in Lake Titicaca. Together with smaller Isla de la Luna (Moon Island), it represents a birthplace of the Sun and Moon, according to Andean mythology. There are no big towns on the island, only several villages. Yumani and Challapampa are the biggest ones. We stayed in Yumani in the south part of the island. It was a perfect place to relax, enjoy the slow living, and rest after a tough week in Peru. The island has a harsh rocky terrain with several hills. Its narrow streets are unpaved, which means that you can get around either on foot or on a donkey. Families who live there are mostly engaged in agriculture, fishing, and tourism.

Isla de la Luna seen from Isla del Sol

If you thought that my troubles remained at the border and I lived happily ever after, watch out because there is more. Alessandro booked an amazing hostel with a lake view, but it was at the top of the island. No, beyond the top. No, beyond that. It was a 200m climb. Now you probably think – what is that compared to Rainbow mountain or Salkantay Trek? It is a lot when you carry 15 kg on your back over the steep Inca stairs and unpaved streets and let’s not forget the altitude: 3800 – 4100m. It took us more than an hour to reach the hostel, but that amazing view from the top was worth it. A happy family greeted us and showed us our rooms. Those were small comfy rooms with a nice terrace from where you can enjoy the sunset over the lake. After I had removed the backpack I could finally set my mind and body at ease and find some inner peace in that incredible lake view.
It could have gone easier if we had had wi fi on the way. The host wrote us that he could provide donkeys to carry our backpacks. We just had to inform him about our arrival time. If you plan to stay on the island, book a donkey from your host in advance and spare yourself the trouble.

A view from the hostel

A new day has come and Bolivia and I started getting along after the bad first impression. The morning sun entered through the curtains and the lake view was beautiful. We had rich breakfast including pancakes, made by the lady of the house. She was a strong woman with coal-black hair neatly tied in two thick braids and with deep dark eyes. She was wearing the usual clothes consisting of many layers of skirts. This style made her look larger than she truly was. Her husband, our host, offered us a boat ride to Isla de la Luna or to the northern part of the island. It was too expensive for just the transport and we wanted to explore more Isla del Sol, not Isla de la Luna so we refused both options.

To Mirador Pallacasa

The plan was to explore the island on our own starting from Mirador Pallakasa, which was the highest viewpoint. I already mentioned that island has no paved streets and, therefore, no motor vehicles. That makes it a perfect place for hiking. We ascended to a small fortress and as the wind blew, cooling us from the sun, we could observe almost the whole island.

View from Mirador Pallacasa
Crop terraces

There were small beaches with docs, receiving tourists every now and then, crop terraces with people working on them, donkeys, llamas, and sheep passing by, some of them loaded with tools or with crops. Everything was moving slowly as if the time had some different rhythm over there. We proceeded to some residential area observing people doing their chores: collecting green beans plants to dry, harvesting, transporting wood and dry green beans by donkeys, drying potatoes in the sun, etc. I would be lying if I said that everyone was happy to see us. Most of them were indifferent and some of them probably not happy with curious foreigners passing by and watching while they were doing the hard work.

It took quite some time to walk around and we got really hungry. Luckily, there are lots of small restaurants on the island, which offer great food at a low price. We ate the daily menu, which consisted of a big bowl of soup, main dish with salmon-trout and potatoes, and a small dessert. In addition to that, we had an amazing lake view for free.

Birdwatching on Titicaca lake
Fight for the food

As the day couldn’t be better for hiking, we decided to descend to a nearby beach. We engaged in bird watching. There was a flock of seagulls on the rocks, fighting with black diving ducks over food (in other words, trying to steal the fish from the ducks); duck family proudly walking around the lake with their feathers glistening under the golden sunset light, many interesting small birds and not a single person. We went back to the hostel to see the sunset from our comfy terrace accompanied by red wine.

Sunset view from the hostel

After dinner we packed our backpacks and prepared to continue our journey to La Paz the next day.

The following morning we said goodbye to our hosts and fully loaded headed towards the port. We got the boat tickets and places to sit and it could be considered a successful day. Make sure to come early enough to get the tickets. Long boat ride to Copacabana allowed us once again us observe the lake, surrounding mountains and Moon island (Isla de la Luna). There is lot more to explore on Isla de Sol, many Inca ruins, bird watching, etc. You can also organise a day trip to Isla de la Luna. We decided to stay in the northern part and relax a bit, which is why we enjoyed small things, long sleep and a bit of hiking.

Snowy mountain tops around lake Titicaca

In Copacabana we caught a local bus to La Paz. It was ridiculously cheap. I love local experiences like this bus ride. You get the same conditions as locals, not some fancy comfy tourist bus but a simple old one which would take us to the capital.

The best part of the ride, however, was crossing the lake. We had to exit the bus and take a small boat to the other side. Bus was mounted together with a truck on a small wooden ferry. Rather float than ferry. It all looked so unsafe and we were a bit worried about our backpacks. While waiting for the bus to arrive we managed to buy some local snacks to try out such as popcorn and salty corn seeds. The bus arrived safely and we could proceed our journey. We even managed to take a nap or sleep a bit in the bus until we reached the outskirts of La Paz.

La Paz

Poverty hanged in the air above unfinished houses, partially finished ones with no facades, small shops, car services on the streets, etc. We could take a glance on the hills stacked with red-bricked houses behind which, snowy mountain tops were emerging. Before we knew it, we arrived to the final station and got introduced to city’s chaos: busy streets, traffic jams, barber shops, shoe shiners, markets along of the street sides where people were selling everything imaginable (from food, clothes and cosmetics to ceremonial items, calculators, shoes) all that with loads of cars and people passing in between. After so many days in nature this was a shock to us. I could notice many cable cars flying above the city and was about to discover their purpose.

La Paz

First thing to greet us was the city cemetery where the urns were exposed in glass vitrines. Mourning tradition goes on for 10 years where dead get regularly visited, their personal items brought to the cemetery and some family time shared with them. After ten years items get eventually disposed. It was an unusual cemetery because it didn’t have that peaceful, sad look like the ones in Europe but was rather lively and crowded, as any other public place. Death doesn’t necessarily mean the end.

Maybe because of the sudden change, maybe because it really is that chaotic, La Paz seemed incredibly big and without any order. I had similar impression in Beijing but this raised that bar. After some long walk around we found our hostel. It was undergoing a renovation but it was ok for a short stay. Very kind staff and the cutest black cat Simba at the reception were a big plus. We left our things in the hostel and went for a dinner and a night walk around the city to Mirador Killi Killi where we could enjoy thousands of little stars in form of house lights. La Paz was amazingly beautiful because of its low houses. City was occupying a huge area of the surrounding hills with rather many small houses than big skyscrapers. Teleferico could be seen in all directions, blinking in the night sky. We returned to the hostel via Plaza Murillo and Jaen Street and could enjoy a military parade going around the city.

La Paz by night

The next morning we booked a bus to Salar de Uyuni as well as a three-day tour in Salar. Yes, you can book everything spontaneously, just make sure to read reviews and pick some good agency because we read reviews of drunk drivers and some bad experiences. Our plan was to stay two days in La Paz and then take a night bus to Salar de Uyuni. After breakfast we were ready to go to explore the city and first thing was Teleferico. Remember the cable cars I mentioned before? Well, it turned out that those are parts of the public transport network. There are several lines with stops, each of them marked with different colours, which allow you to literally fly over the city.

First cable car ride was to El Alto. Apart from being really fast and enabling you to skip all the traffic jams, it provides an amazing bird’s eye perspective of the city. You don’t really need drone in La Paz, you can simply go for a cable car ride. I found it incredible. In such a poor country on the other side of the globe, there is this futuristic public transport that works perfectly. The best thing is that it’s not just for tourists. We talked to some locals and they confirmed that prices are acceptable for the residents too. It’s fast, silent, offers a great view, clean regarding CO2 and partially powered by solar energy. I couldn’t help of thinking that Stuttgart could make something like that too. You could see everything from above: workers at construction site, unfinished houses, some houses on the edge of the cliff in a real danger of landslide, children playing, orchestra practicing open air etc. It was a completely new experience to have a city view like that.

Views from Teleferico
Living on the edge
Band practicing

Part of the city, which we visited arriving by Teleferico, was less trafficked than downtown. We walked along one large avenue, which had large free space between the lines where people were setting up a daily market. You could buy potatoes, fruit, vegetables, juices etc. It offered some great motifs for the street photography. Just one hint regarding El Alto – it is not a safe neighbourhood to visit during the night. During the day is fine but you should avoid it after dark. We took the next Teleferico to the city centre. We had a walking tour planned and you know how much we like those. For a chaotic city like La Paz walking tour is a great way to get to know the city and understand its vibe as well as an opportunity to ask locals whatever interests you.

Small stores, El Alto
Street market, El Alto
Street market on the Avenue

Red Cap city walking tour started at Plaza Sucre / Plaza San Pedro. We had two young guides and the first check point was the very square. Next to this square is one very unusual prison – Prison San Pedro. Why unusual? Well, the prison has no fences and no rods on the windows. It hosts 2500 inmates and their families and only 15 guards. Obviously, it is the prison for serving the penalties of smaller crimes, otherwise it would be quite dangerous. Although there are some illegal tours to visit the prison, it is forbidden to tourists to go inside. There are cases of documents being stolen there, people having problems to get out etc. Stay out of it. 

Red Cap guide

Our second stop was a street market, one of hundreds of them around the city. Smell of spices was in the air as we walked along the stuffed stands with huge sacks of spices, beans, vegetables, flour. Some other were equipped with basic electronic devices: phone chargers, calculators, lamps, batteries; and some with clothes and shoes. It was like Amazon store in the street. Here are some interesting facts about the markets, social relationships in them and La Paz in general:

  • Casera is a saleslady with whom you should build a friendship over time. It means being a loyal customer and engaging in personal conversations about life, love, universe. Once the friendship is established, not only that casera will be nicer to you but will also give you some extra refill of your groceries or juice for free. You can ask for that by saying ‘Casera me yapa?’ And you will get extra fruit and/or vegetables.
  • There are many potato types in South America (over 3000). The most popular ones in La Paz are white and black potato (Tunta Chugno). La Paz slang for potatoes/Mr. or Mrs. potato head is Chucutas.
  • Ladies in traditional clothes are called Cholas (Cholitas). The answer to the question why they  wear so many skirt layers is simple – weather conditions. Let’s not forget that La Paz lays on 3650m above sea level and it can be quite chilly. Longer skirts are worn in colder parts of the country and shorter in warmer ones. Another role of the skirt is to hide hips and calfs, which are considered to be sexy parts of the woman’s body. The flirting process in rural parts goes as follows. The man attracts the lady’s attention by bringing a mirror and pointing a sun reflection at her or by throwing the small stones nearby to grab her attention. If the lady finds him attractive and well suited for her, she will show her calf as a part of the flirting game and as a positive answer to his flirting.  
  • Ladies hats come from Europe, especially from Italy and Great Britain. They were originally intended for men. Unfortunately, after the delivery it turned out that they are too small for men. In order not to lose the money invested, salesmen promoted the hats as ladies hats and according to European fashion standards. That is how ladies started wearing them. Hats became inevitable part of their styling so that they paved their way into tradition too. They became a discrete indicator of lady’s marital status. It is still part of the tradition in the countryside but less in the city:
    • Straight on the head – married woman
    • Turned a bit to left/right – single / widow
    • Back – complicated relationship (joke)

We proceeded from the usual market to the Witch market. There are several of the kind around the city and there you can find the strangest products to buy: love potions, gifts for Pacha mama (mother Earth), most bizarre ones being llama foetuses.

Offerings for Pacha Mama
Baby llama offerings
Layered skirts

The tour continued to San Francisco church next to which was another market with avocado sandwiches, fresh juices and sweets! Baby llamas didn’t make us lose our appetites for a good avocado sandwich and some delicious cakes. Next we saw Plaza Murillo and and learned more about Bolivian tubulent political history of 88 presidents. It was a beautiful afternoon at the square. Palms were bending gently under the wind and institutional buildings around it were glowing under the golden afternoon sun. The tour finished in a small dutch pub where we had a small chat with our guides.

Plaza Murillo

After the tour we went for a dinner and a night walk in search for a cake, finding it finally in Michelline bakery, which was obviously so good that many people we saw passed by with packages from that one. Cable car brought us to the hostel and allowed us to enjoy the night landscape of this chaotic illuminated city. Wine and nachos on the hostel terrace made it a perfect end of the day.

Next morning the time came to repack again. We were about to leave La Paz that same evening so we prepared our bags, stored them in the hostel until afternoon and did a check-out. We took a cable car to Zona Sur, a richer part of the city. Unlike the unfinished homes of red bricks downtown, here were modern residential buildings and mansions with huge terraces equipped with grill places and outdoor bars. Petra and Nico went to see the Moon Valley and we went back to the city centre to explore the museums. Moon Valley and its strange landscape remained as a treat for another time. You can also book Death road tours from La Paz if you are a mountain bike fan. In Teleferico, on the way back to the centre, we met an incredibly friendly and kind Bolivian lady who works in a shopping mall near Plaza Murillo, who told us about bad image Bolivia had because of the daily protests everywhere and for all sorts of different things and how it affected tourism negatively. We saw some of those protest but they didn’t seem aggressive and we didn’t feel unsafe at any time. We wished her a nice day at work before we went for our daily schedule – museums.  

Colourful Calle Jaén

Calle Jaén is a perfect place for a beer break among numerous museums and galleries. They are usually open in the afternoon hours so we had some time to relax in a café near Mamani Mamani gallery of art, which was a colour blast. After our deserved break, we finally started with museum tour. First one was Museum of costumes with very interesting collection of photographs and clothes, artefacts of cholitas, historical buildings’ miniatures (bus station, university etc.). The second on the list was Museum of precious metals with fascinating gold department and some smaller copper and pottery collections. We also visited Museo Litoral, dedicated to the Pacific war with Chile. Last but not the least was Museum of musical instruments, which had quite a big and interactive collection. Many guitars and ukuleles were exposed in various sizes, shapes, scale numbers and string numbers. Some of them were even made of turtle or armadillo shells. Fortunately for us, all of the museums were small and next to each other, which didn’t make us feel tired like after some huge overwhelming collections. One thing that was missing were descriptions in English. There were just few of them. The explanations of the artefacts were sometimes missing too. It was a nice experience overall.

We met Petra and Nico for a dinner and overheard a conversation of a couple who was about to do a session with shamans. While obseving the witch market and all those offerings I couldn’t help but wonder if people truly believe in it or they just keep it a tradition. This conversation, however, convinced me that people visit shamans and with high expectations. The whole conversation would be quite funny if the two shamans didn’t stink of sweat after their 3-day-nirvana in the jungle. We made a quick stop to the hostel for a shower and caught up the night bus to Uyuni.

Salar de Uyuni

Day 1: Train Cemetery and Cactus Island

I have literally no idea which roads we took through Bolivia to reach Uyuni. Remember, the deadliest road in the world is exactly in this country. The only thing I know was that we reached Uyuni very early in the morning after long sleeping/napping combination. Luckily, the weather was nice and the sun was shining. Couple of days before we heard about buses being blocked on the road because of the snow and blizzard. We went for a breakfast in a small café near our tour operator’s office – Perla de Bolivia. I had some nice pancakes to start the day with. 

On the way to the Train Cemetery

Uyuni is a small city. It has approx. 10000 inhabitants and it situated in the middle of (almost) nowhere. It looked like one of those Wild West cities with dusty yellow streets and buildings. Only “Saloon” was missing. We took a short walk around the block, which turned out to be the entire city with the small square and church and many tour operators for Salar de Uyuni.  Briefing in Perla de Bolivia office took place in a cramped cold room with one little gas heater and a huge dog, which laid there lazily on the floor. We met our friendly guide for the next three days – Luis. Unlike with Luis, we didn’t get quite along with our driver from the very beginning. Already by putting the backpacks on the car he didn’t want to bend and help us a bit. It is quite hard to lift almost 20kg above your head and stand on tip toes because he doesn’t want to bend and take it. We were six in total per car: the four of us and an elderly Korean couple. In the other car were 2 British guys, the guide, Alice – French girl solo traveller, and a German couple. The Korean couple was very nice. We found out that they were married for 40 years and visiting their friends and siblings in Paraguay. As they flew a long way to South America, they decided to extend their trip to Bolivia and Argentina. 

Train cemetery

The first stop on the tour was the Train Cemetery just outside Uyuni. I heard about it from Miloš, a friend from photography course, and it didn’t disappoint at all. The railway is still active. A train, carrying minerals from Bolivian mines to Chile and Argentina, passes two times a week. These two countries have license to extract certain minerals in Bolivia but, in our guide’s opinion, they extract even more than they are licensed to. The city of Uyuni didn’t develop much thanks to the mines like Potosi but it had a railway connection. However, trains got damaged often and their reparation was too expensive in the regular service so miners used to repair them. In cases where miners couldn’t help any more, the trains were abandoned. Firstly, the trains used were made in UK and afterwards US trains were imported. In the times of drought and hunger people started cutting the abandoned train parts and selling them as scrap metal to provide for their families. That is why the whole site looks post apocalyptic with train wrecks, partially or completely cut into pieces, leaving only wagon skeletons or some graffiti on more fortunate ones. It looks like a set for “Mad Max: Fury road”.

Welcome on board
“crazy for more”
Train cemetery

Luis was a well informed guide. He studied anthropology and truly enjoyed his work as a tourist guide. You could notice it by how he presented the facts, giving thoughtful and careful personal note. This dark skinned man chews coca leaves all the time and provided simple and interesting explanations and welcomed our numerous questions.

Rally Dacar salt monument

From the train cemetery we headed to Salar, the largest and highest salt flat in the world. It’s an endless white field of salt that doesn’t even let you look at it without a good pair of glasses. That is how much it shines under the daylight. Being a uniform landscape, you can easily neglect the depth of field which means – it offers so many possibilities for the twisted perspective photos. Luis took the creativity to the next level with very cool photo ideas, as well as a video where we all get out of a box of “Pringles”. We passed a Dakar rally monument made of salt and visited a small village where we learned more about the salt production process. It involves a very hard physical work for a very low price. 50kg of salt cost no more than 2 dollars. We left a small tip to support the community and bought some salt for us. You could find plain salt or even flavoured one with different spices mixed together with salt.

Raw salt block
Packing the processed salt
Salar de Uyuni salt packs

We were heading further across the desert, our driver driving too fast because we were just a bit late and that is how we hit a vicuña on the road. It was horrible. The poor thing jumped all of a sudden in front of the car and driver couldn’t avoid it without putting us all in even greater danger. Luckily, it didn’t damage the car but on the other hand, it was left to die on the road. Although vicuñas are protected species, our driver didn’t seem to care much and just continued to drive. Afterwards, he was removing parts of the poor animal from the car front. I was a bit speechless with the whole thing.

In the middle of the desert under the clear sky, we had lunch and it was amazing. Even today it is hard to believe that that place is real. It seemed magical. White ground with regular cracks from the underground water flow that makes some kind of mosaic on the surface. It looks almost like those Heaven parlours from the movies. One bench and I could imagine a God appearing with some wise advice. I hope it will remain so even with the extraction of lithium. I said “I hope” because money is always more important to everyone than the nature. I bet the view is even more mesmerising when it rains and the whole surface reflects the sky. It’s probably the closest depitct of the paradise. I hope to come back one day and see that version of this already incredible place.

Lunch break, Salar de Uyuni
Water cracks on the surface

Just when I thought that the day can’t be better, we visited a Cactus island – Isla de Incahuasi. There is a higher piece of land in this flat area inhabited with so many cactuses. It’s what remained of an island, once existing in a prehistoric lake. I love cactus plants so this was like a Disneyland trip for me. There they were in all sizes and shapes, sometimes leaning on each other, looking like they are kissing or dancing. Incredible how our mind searches for human patterns in everything we observe. Luis told us more about their growth. In the first years they grow quite fast, around 5cm per year. After couple of years the growth reduces until it becomes less than 1mm per year. Then you look all those giants around you and realise that many of them are more than 200 years old, and they manage to survive different bird attacks, especially woodpeckers. Giant cactuses fall down sometimes under the force of wind. Their dry bodies can be used as wood. We left this island in just before the sunset and stopped to see the pink sky above this still unreal landscape. The first night we spent in a salt hostel. Me and Alessandro shared a room with Alice. She was cool and we got along well. Don’t imagine any luxury accommodation. It was a simple hostel with clean rooms and nice bathrooms. The only difference from the regular hostel is that walls were edible.

Isla de Incahuasi
Cactus giants sunbathing
Sunset in Salar with rain in the background

Day 2: Rock Soldiers, Cañapa and Red lagoon

The days in winter are short, which is why we continued the tour early in the morning and visited a huge field of “Rock Soldiers” just after the sunrise. The whole field and its rock sculptures are sedimented algae turned to stone after the lake, that covered that whole area, disappeared. It looked spectacular under the morning light. 

Day 2: on the way to Rock Soldiers
“Rock Soldiers”

Next stop was a red desert like landscape with unusual rock formations. It reminded a bit of Monument valley but more red and with smaller “monuments” and many “rock waves”. We noticed some vivid green blobs looking like broccoli. Those were the hard plant formations that bloom during the night and grow very slowly. The plant is called yareta (llareta) and its leaves grow into an extremely compact, dense mat that reduces heat and water loss. It is estimated that it grows approx. 1.5cm per year. Some examples we saw are more than 1000 years old. Natives used them for stomach problems as well as for heating, like wood. 

Luis giving explanation about Yareta (llareta) plant
Rock wave, Salar de Uyuni
Red landscape, Salar de Uyuni

We passed Chiguana salt flat, surrounded by volcanos such as Ollagüe (5840m), which is still active. Eventually we arrived to Cañapa lagoon, which looked like it could be on Iceland, with flamingos having lunch in the water. Beside pink, we could see some white flamingos too. Those were the young ones. They get pink with years because of the shrimps that they eat and algae that colours their feathers when they impregnate themselves. We didn’t see many of them because it was the winter season.

Andean flamingos in Cañapa lagoon
Dancing flamingos

We had lunch by the Hedionda lagoon and then continued through a snowy and rocky landscape. The weather changed so quickly from warm summer day to winter blizzard in just an hour. It was getting quite cold. We stopped to have a look at this strange rocky landscape with interesting inhabitants. Big chinchilla like rabbits were hiding from the blizzard between the rocks. The highlight was however Arbol de Piedra (the Stone Tree), a 5m tall work of art made by wind erosion over years. It looked so spectacularly lonely in the blizzard, still resembling the tree. I was so cold so I observed it from the car while Alessandro was taking the photos.

Blizzard in the desert
Hiding from the blizzard
Arbol de Piedra (the Stone Tree)

Despite the weather, we still went to see Laguna Colorada (Red lagoon), which is situated in Eduardo Avaroa National park. It got its name from the radiant red colour it gets from the algae in the water. To see this shade of red, it has to be sunny. We got out of the blizzard just in time to watch the sunset over the lagoon. With many clouds, it’s intense red colour was not there but pink-reddish surface looked still amazing to me. It’s home to Andean flamingo, a very special species which can survive even harsh winters at those high altitudes. It’s smaller than regular flamingo and therefore it cannot mate at the same time when others arrive to the lagoon to mate and do their famous flamingo “dance”. It also has black feathers on the tale. During the winter these flamingos get sometimes frozen up to their legs. These incredible creatures slow down their heartbeat so much to enter a state of hibernation and survive weeks frozen in a lake. They were far away this time to make some macro shots but they were seen as small black dots in the pink lagoon surface. 

Laguna Colorada
Red lagoon blushing in pink
Andean flamingos

Hostel was without hot water and without electricity, which meant no heating. It was a shared dorm and we got a room with 6 beds. After dinner, in a small dining room with one heater which we all shared to warm our feet a bit, we proceeded to play cards with a bottle of wine when Luis came with an announcement that border crossing may be closed on the following day because of the snow. That meant that we may have to go to the other border in the north and skip all the lagoons that were planned for the third day. We could just hope for the best.

Sunset near the Red lagoon

Day 3: Sol de Mañana Geyser, Dalí Desert, Green Lagoon

We slept completely dressed in our sleeping bags because it was very cold in the room. That hostel was just 4 walls and a roof for the night basically. We were happy to proceed our journey even when it involved waking up at 4 a.m. We had a quick breakfast and hit the road in order to see geysers at the dawn. The latest information was that the border crossing should be open and that we would get to see the lagoons and could proceed with the tour as planned. Or at least we thought so.

Soon after we started our car slowed down and eventually stopped. The battery was empty after half an hour drive. We waited patiently in the dark to get bridged by another car. As all the tours start so early, someone came by quite soon and bridged us. The car started again, this time with no lights to spare the battery. Our very intelligent driver concluded that it should do the work and was driving in a complete dark. Alessandro took a flashlight to light the road a bit because it was not possible to go on like that. It vas quite dangerous and a bit stressful but we kept our spirits high. Battery broke again. Someone came after a while and bridged us again. We found out that our driver has no satellite phone or any mean of communication with the others and that he refused the help. Great. Battery broke one more time but we somehow reached the geysers. We arrived with 40 minutes delay. It was very badly organised for the emergency cases. Unprepared driver, no means of communication, not signalling for help when necessary etc. What made me angry the most was the fact that others didn’t even plan to return and get us. If the car had completely broken down that day, we would have been left behind on the road for who knows how long. The dawn finally came and temperature rose up, which saved that car battery and made it work until the end of the tour. We were laughing in the end how it all happened.

Sol de Mañana Geysers were interesting, despite the fact that those are the artificial ones with boiling mud baths of temperatures between 150-200 ºC.

Sol de Mañana Geyser

Next stop were small hot springs. Nico tried them out and said they were very good but nobody out car had the courage to take of the warm clothes and get into the pool so we just enjoyed the landscape and the morning sun.

Hot springs
Beautiful mountains surrounding the hot springs

We proceeded further to the Chilean border and found an unusual landscape, called the Dalí desert. It was another unreal and out of this world place. I don’t know if Dalí has ever seen this landscape, but it seemed like it got out of one of his paintings. It was a sandy desert with randomly placed rock formations all over the dunes. It looked as if someone put them there with the purpose of making an abstract piece of art. Pure surrealism in front of our eyes. We made a quick stop for the photos of the desert and snowy mountain tops around.

Driving to Dalí desert
Dalí desert
The international crew

Ten minutes later during our drive, another valley popped up, completely covered by snow. It was funny to see how weather conditions and landscapes change over such short distances. It felt like Iceland all over again. Blunt mountain peaks we drove by indicated volcanos. Some of them are completely inactive and there are some semi-active ones, such as one blowing dust constantly. 

Final stop before the border were White and Green lagoons. It was a cloudy and misty day so the view was not too clear. Strong wind was not helping either to enjoy this place properly. However, considering how the day started, it was definitely the highlight. Maybe not at its most radiant colours but still impressive. White and bluish lagoon connected with another emerald green, surrounded by snowy mountains rising around them in different colours. Licancabur mountain top was covered by clouds. Luis explained about the minerals which give different colours to the water and the mountains around. We waved goodbye to the Korean couple who was returning to Uyuni, hugged Luis once more and went to the border crossing. While waiting for Chilean transportation buses to come and pick us up, we could try to catch up with all the incredible nature wonders we saw in the past three days. Although it was with couple of difficulties, it was still one amazing tour I would love to repeat.

Green lagoon

Eating some snacks and chit-chatting with the others proceeding to Chile, I can give you a small survival guide for Bolivia in the meantime.

Survival Guide:

Here are some useful tips & tricks for the trip, most of them similar to the ones from Peru:

  • Check the visa requirements for your passport and organise a visa before the trip. Scroll up to the begining of the post to see why.
  • Bring a backpack instead of the luggage. I brought my 55l backpack. Don‘t overpack it because you will need winter clothes if you go in June. You can always let your clothes be washed in hostel for a cheap price. Trust me when I tell you I managed to pack for three weeks in 55l with sleeping bag and walking sticks too.
  • Good hiking shoes, impregnated or already waterproof for some unexpected rain. These are essential! Bring also some comfortable walking shoes for the city.
  • Swimming suit. Believe it or not, you may end up visiting some hot springs too 🙂
  • Good sunglasses and sun protection. Considering the altitude, use blocking factor 50+. You don‘t want sunburns and traces of T-shirts on your body. Also, Salar de Uyuni is impossible to observe without sun glasses. White salt reflects so much light that sunglasses are essential.
  • Rain jacket and rain cover for the backpack. Weather can be unpredictable in highlands. Just check how we went from sun to snow in just 2 hours. Dressing in layers is a good strategy.
  • If you go in high season you will need a warm jacked for after the sunset. A down jacket can be light to carry around, occupies less space and will keep you warm.
  • Insect repellent for the hot days in cloud forest or Amazon Basin.
  • For the hiking enthusiasts, consider bringing your own sleeping bag, walking sticks etc.
  • Salar de Uyuni can be visited only with organised tours. There are many tour operators and it should not be a problem to book on the fly. Make sure, however, to read the reviews and pick a good tour operator. If you don’t have your sleeping bag with you, inform a tour operator to provide you one. Second night can be quite cold. You can start and finish the tour in Uyuni, or like we did, you can continue to Chile. Both options are offered. Tours can be done in opposite direction too if you come from Chile.
  • Take care of your documents and personal items, especially in the public transport and get informed about possible unsafe districts, such as El Alto by night etc.
  • Improvise every now and then. Stay longer in places you like, stay less in the ones that don‘t charm you that much. There are so many incredible places there that you should not miss them out due to the ones you don‘t like or that disappointed you.
  • Good woollen socks, gloves and hat are necessary in Altiplano, especially in Salar. Remember, it is a desert in the end and temperatures drop down dramatically during the night.
  • Some entrance fees must be paid for national parks and cactus island. Make sure you bring some cash with you. If you decide to proceed to Chile, you will have to pay an exit fee at the border. Check the prices on time and bring cash with you. Bring some extra money for the toilet fees, hot springs as well as bus transfer to Chile.
  • Due to changing weather conditions, some of the national park parts may be closed. Check in advance what can be visited. However, don’t exclude the changes in the last moment due to the weather. The tour operator will probably offer an alternative.
  • Bring extra bottled water and hand sanitiser on the tours.
  • Bring power bank for your phone and camera batteries.
  • Pack your adventure spirit, you will need it 🙂

Despite the bumpy ride with visa problems, dead animals and broken cars, Bolivia left an amazing impression on me. And I saw just one part it! There is whole Sucre and Potosi area, Amazon basin etc. to be explored. What I learned on this trip is to enjoy more the present moment. If you google the places I visited within this blog post, you’ll see that they can be even more amazing when captured under the right conditions. I haven’t googled them before the trip and I found them amazing just the way they were – unique. That impression didn’t change even after I saw the better versions of them because I always think that I can come back and see them differently. So, even if nothing is perfect, people and your peace of mind will make it unforgettable. Enjoy every moment in the incredible nature this country has to offer and always promise to come back. One day, you definitely will.

To be continued in Chile…

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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