With the excitement and exhaustion of the Inca Trail behind me I was off towards Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia, for what was planned to be a relaxing few days lakeside before hitting the hustle and bustle of La Paz and paying a visit to the worlds highest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. Bolivia was the part of this trip that I was most unsure about – from stories of sketchy characters and neighbourhoods in La Paz to the extremely cold and dry environment of the salt flats, I was excited but also a touch nervous about what the next week was going to bring.
Mum and I arrived in Puno, which is on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, after a short plane ride from Cusco over some pretty amazing mountain terrain. Having read a few blogs and guidebooks I knew that Puno wasn’t going to be a hub of excitement, however I wasn’t quite prepared for just how little there would be to do there! Within a couple of hours of getting in we had eaten some food and seen just about all there was to see. Luckily we weren’t hanging around long – the next morning we were off on an overnight trip onto the lake, firstly visiting the Uros Islands, which are groups of floating reed islands built and maintained by the indigenous people of this area. These days they are more tourist attraction than anything else – a lot of the material I read before our visit suggested that the people live on the mainland now and just come across to the island to give presentations to tourists. Regardless, it was an interesting experience to see how people did/do live on these man-made islands and the water out on the lake was such a beautiful, deep shade of blue.
After that we continued another couple hours on the boat to Amantani island, where we stayed overnight with a local family. I was a very rustic experience, and not one I would probably repeat again in a hurry – the island is really beautiful and you could really forget you are on a lake and not out at sea, but I think a day trip would definitely suffice. Although it was nice to meet a local family and see their way of life, every person we met tried to sell us something and it just became a little tiring after a while. The next day we visited Taquile island for a short walk and lunch before heading back to the mainland.
After this experience I decided to skip the overnight stay I had planned on Isla del Sol, which is the main island on the Bolivian side of the lake, although I did go for a short hike around the island on a day trip from Copacabana on my way down to La Paz. It was much more built up than Amantani island, with a few homestay type hostels and restaurants and even electricity! Definitely looked like it would have been a better place to spend the night.
After that it was a long and bumpy bus ride through fields, paddocks and across rivers to reach La Paz, as protesters in the region were using road blockades as a tool to further their causes. It was a bit of an adventure, and a little nerve-wracking at times as hijacking is not unheard of in Bolivia and at times the bus had to stop for a while when there were a lot of people outside. It arrived safely though, and in La Paz I met up with my friend Marissa who I would be travelling with for the next few weeks.
Although Bolivia is not home to the most exciting cuisine, La Paz being a big city we found a few nice places to eat. Once was called Cafe del Mundo, a three story cafe owned by a Swedish lady where we had breakfast on both mornings we were in La Paz. They had decent coffee for South America, fast wifi to help you plan out your day and absolutely enormous breakfasts! My favourite dish there was the shakshuka, which was rich and tomato-y and served with copious amount of fresh, soft bread. We also found a great coffee bar called HB Bronze, which specialised in coffee cocktails – if your alcohol has coffee in it it’s ok to drink before midday right?
We were lucky enough to find ourselves in La Paz for ‘Pedestrians Day’, which is an annual event in Bolivia where there are no cars allowed on the road from midnight until about 6pm. It was quite an amazing experience to be able to walk down the empty streets of this sprawling city, given the traffic the day before had been beyond crazy. The only strange thing was that a lot of the bars and cafes were shut, which was the opposite of what I thought would have happened given everyone was out and about!
We took the cable car up to the witches market on Pedestrian Day, and just like downtown most of that was empty as well, although there were still a few stalls open selling Bolivian essentials like dried llama fetuses. We also visited the cemetery up the hill, which was like nothing I had ever seen before. Aisle upon aisle and row upon row of stacked graves, this cemetery is the most expensive and prestigious place to be buried in La Paz. There is a monthly cost for hiring a site here, and across the cemetery we saw little notices on windows where the bills obviously hadn’t been paid and the dearly departed needed to be moved on!
That evening, once the roads had been opened up again, we hopped on a bus to go and watch the cholita wrestling with a bunch of other tourists, which was one of the most awkward experiences of my life. I don’t like wrestling as it is, and this one was just so cringeworthy, plus all the locals had to sit up the back while the tourists got the good seats up near the ring which made me quite uncomfortable.
Overall though, I enjoyed La Paz a lot more than I thought I would. I never felt unsafe there, and it was such a colourful city with a lot of street art and character.
The next morning, we were on a flight out of La Paz down to Uyuni, where we would take a 3 day/2 night tour of southwest Bolivia, including the spectacular Salar de Uyuni. Before that though we had 24 hours in Uyuni, and I was about to find out there was a town that was more boring than Puno! Uyuni literally had nothing to do, and as most of the salt flat tours left at 11 and returned at 6pm, almost nothing was open during the day. We ended up buying a bottle of (truly terrible) Bolivian wine and drinking it on the roof of our hostel to pass the time. The one saving grace was Minuteman Pizza, which is owned by a guy from Boston, Chris, who married a Bolivian lady, Sussy, and came to set up shop here. The pizza and pasta is a shining oasis in the desert of sub-par food options in this town, and the chilli oil was delicious drizzled over the cheesy gorgonzola bread – Bolivian food is not known for its spice so this was a welcome change! They also have nice Bolivian wine and craft beer , and when we came for breakfast they had homemade fig jam, and lemon and ginger marmalade – definitely worth a visit (or three).
Then it came time to escape Uyuni and head off on our salt flats tour with Red Planet Adventures. Tour operators in Uyuni have a bit of a bad rep – lots of reports of drivers who drink and don’t get enough sleep – but I had been recommended this company by a few people I had met on my travels so I was feeling confident. 6 of us squeezed into a 4 wheel drive – 1 in the front, 3 in the middle and 2 very squished people in the back – and set off for our first stop at the train graveyard about 10 minutes out of town. This is where all the trains are sent when they are decommissioned, and you can climb all over them which was a lot of fun. A short drive after this we were at the salt flats, where we spent over an hour taking silly perspective photos in the stark landscape.
We stopped at a cactus ‘island’, where a massive rock with hundreds of cacti growing on it rose up from the seemingly endless salt flats. We stopped here to walk up to the top of the island, and more importantly so our guides could sit in the cafe there and watch the Bolivia v. Chile football game that was on. Bolivia won which put our guides in a great mood and we hung around at the island to watch the sun set which was just beautiful. That night we stayed in a hotel made almost entirely out of salt, which was really cool and much more comfortable than I thought it was going to be – we even had hot showers!
We spent the next two days exploring other sights on the southwest Bolivian circuit, including the red lagoon, green lagoon, volcanoes, flamingo filled lakes, rock trees, geysers and strange green plants that only grow at over 4000m above sea level. Most of the time it was freezing and windy, and getting out of the car was the last thing I wanted to do. The landscapes were just so mindblowing though, it was worth donning our beanies and windproof jackets and forcing ourselves out into the cold. We also spent a few hours after dinner on the second night in 35 degree natural hot springs (while it was close to freezing outside) watching the stars, which was an unforgettable experience.
After all of that, it was back to Uyuni and another dinner at Minuteman Pizza before our overnight train out to the border with Argentina the next day. Bolivia was certainly a challenge, and the most physically uncomfortable part of this whole trip. But the sometimes bizarre, always amazing scenery that we got to experience there made every moment of discomfort totally worth it.