South America: Bolivia

December 2010, by Gini

We boarded another bus, which looked a little worst for wear and no toilet to speak off which did immediately make me need to go! The water bottle went away for the rest of the bus journey. The bus weaved around lake Titicaca and stopped for enough time for lunch in Copacabana, which wasn't a bad spot but totally geared for tourists.

After an hour or so the bus filled up with no air conditioning, but lovely open windows and we were on the road again but for not long as we came to the lake crossing.

A crossing we will never forget, seeing our bus float on by on a single barge with only one man steering and the tiniest motor was priceless. It did get me thinking I wonder how many buses lie beneath this stretch of water! All the passengers climbed aboard small boats for a fee of course to get to the other side where our bus now waited for us.

As we approached La Paz, the city's sheer size just blew us away. The canyon that surrounded it was captivating and just as well because the road down was a bit precarious, but what an entrance! As we came into the bus terminal it was late afternoon so we needed to find a place for our heads for the night. 

There were subtle cultural differences between Peruivan & Bolivians, I just loved the bright colours the women wore with their baby bundles on their backs. The contrast from Lima to La Paz was at different ends of the scale, as Peru attracts a great range of tourists for their geological ancient sites, where Bolivia may not have but natural wonders it does. After wandering around trying to find an orange door with a nice man inside, we walked around for about an hour before we worked out we had walked in a circle up a big hill for no need! We stayed on a very busy street but it was close to the bus stop and easy walk into town.

After having lots of potato and meat we were sold on curry with an ex-pat curry house in the centre of the markets. Tom managed to eat lama curry and we enjoyed watching a small group of Bolivian men trying curry for the first time, they were definitely not used to hot hot!

After wandering through the markets and haggling with a few women over table cloths we called it a night. We decided to get up early to buy our bus tickets for that afternoon as we were on a tight schedule! We still had to bus it to Oruro in time to get on our first Bolivian train experience. The train only went twice a week and after hearing the roads are a bit hairy in places we thought a train ride would be a nice change. We wandered around the town and had ourselves some lunch, Tom had a large leg of maybe lamb? who could be sure? as we sat on our packs enjoying our ice creams before we boarded we watched the scramble of the luggage drop take place. When it was time to hop aboard we walked down to the end of the platform and handed our packs over to the luggage carriage and found our seat in first class.

It was an interesting journey with pink flamingos in the lakes on either side of the train as the sun was setting. The train felt like it was heading into the middle of nowhere with desert everywhere. We were fed a snack & frizzy drink and a warm beer at an extra cost, which smelt a little too funny for my liking. We arrived in Ulyuni around midnight and had a mad time locating our packs but it was an easy walk across the dirt road to a hotel and then bed.

We got up bright an early to book our tour Salar de Ulyuni - the salt flats! We went to two tour companies, then the only atm machine in town, followed by me buying two table cloths - we were leaving Bolivia and I just had to have them!  By the time we got back to the office, a four wheel drive jeep in reasonable condition was ready to roll our tour group into the unknown! We had six in our group, two french girls & a peruvain & Belgium couple. All seasoned travelers with many months under their belts. 

Our first stop took place only a few miles from the town in the train cemetery. Very airy, large rusty train carcasses slowly rushing away in the desert. They were mainly used by the mining industry in the 1940s but slowly became abandoned as the industry collapsed with the depletion of minerals in the area. Later that same day we reached the salt flats, which really was made of salt! As it was formed from prehistoric lakes. We enjoyed lunch in the salt flat hotel which was made entirely from salt, even the table and chairs! As we got ready to hit the road? what road! Pick a direction more like it! We could see a crazy storm moving incredibly fast and our way!

It was an action packed day when we pulled up to Fish Island.  Which was in the shape of a fish with a forest of old cacti covering it. Very surreal something you would expect in a Dali painting. We wandered around the little island in the really hot hot sun and got up close and personal (well as humanly possible) with the crazy plants and their beautiful flowers. Some were thought to be over 1000 years old and others were just a rubbish bin.

We also managed a few funny perspective photos with the perfect backdrop of the salt desert with nothing as far as the eye could see.

Our small tour arrived at our bed for the night as it was getting dark and a lot colder. It was also made of salt! We were sure glad we had warm sleeping bags. We didn't manage to brave the showers which were shared by other tour groups. We enjoyed coffee first and then we waited and waited for our dinner to be cooked. Which was gratefully ate with lots of bread.

After a not so great nights sleep with a room full of talkers we got up pretty early and threw our packs to the driver, who tied them down before we were driving once more. We came to a cute little town in the middle of no where with lots of lama's roaming and not a person in sight. We later came to the only green plant form we had seen since the cacti and I have to be honest it was weird and wonderful at the same time. So being the tangs we had to conquor it.

We pulled up for lunch near a Laguna, with Flamingos everywhere. They were just amazing. The colours and watching them feed on the algie that makes the water so rich in colour was priceless. We even saw little baby birds in white. It was the best birthday treat I could have asked for. Just breath taking scenery with beautiful wildlife enjoying their environment. We continued on to a few more colored lagoons, green, blue and finished with Laguna Colorado, which had a lovely red hue to the waters and Lamas wandering around the edges.

The landscape was so grand in size and powerful in colour and we got the driver to pull over oh just a few dozen times! After an awesome day seeing the flamingos we found our second bed for the night in the middle of a desert somewhere. We all shared a green watery soup and bought a few bottles of wine to celebrate my 29th birthday.  We later enjoyed the clear skies and stars which were the clearest stars I have ever seen. Didn't see the southern cross though! We managed to share a room and slept well.

With a really early start, it was dark when we left in the morning! we dozed until we reached the active volcanic area with large geysers shooting up into the air and no safety guards here! Lots of mud hot pools and steam coming from all directions. We enjoyed getting pretty close while the sun rose and warmed our backs. The tour had one more treat in store with a authentic hot pool to warm up in while enjoying the natural wonders which surrounded us. We finished it off with pancakes for breakfast, which went down a treat.

We hit the mountainous path once again with Mt Doom at every angle in search for the Chilean broader, where we were getting off! A random but not surprising that a immigration building just sat in the middle of nowhere. We hopped out of the truck and said our goodbyes a little nervously as we got our passports stamped which was very important for the next broader crossing on the Chile side. A shuttle was also randomly waiting for us and once we boarded we were off to Chile!

The Tour was a highlight. To see so many wonderful natural wonders in a few days was unreal and very surreal at times. We loved the colorful culture and faces of the amazing Bolivian people that gave a real sense of the country away from the generic tourist trip.