FIRST DAY OF SALT FLATS TOUR
Our alarm was set for 5.30am as pickup would be from 6.15am, lucky we set the alarm early as the doorbell rang at 6.05am! Once everyone had been picked up, we headed towards the border, only to find the road to it didn't open until 8am. Slightly perplexed as to why we were picked up so early (as we only travelled around 10 mins to get to this road), we were given breakfast on the side of the road while we waited for the barrier to be lifted.
Border crossing went very smoothly, even if we were given more than one warning of how strict the Chilean border might be to get through. On the other hand the Bolivian border was very easy, with just a glance at the passport and no bag checks! The hardest thing about all of this was how cold it was, the wind had really picked up and was literally blowing us around. We were up at 4600m, so it felt like we were getting wind burn and being frozen at the same time. After meeting our driver for the next few days, Miguel, and meeting the rest of our Jeep group (an American couple and a Scottish/German couple), we got our bags on top of the Jeep and headed off to the first stop. We were all looking forward to warming up in the car, but the first stop was only 5 minutes away, so didn't really get to warm up at all!
This was at Laguna Blanca. The lake was completely frozen over which gave a really surreal look as it was set within a desert surrounding! We didn’t spend too much time here due to how cold the wind was, so took one or two pics and ran back to the warmth of the car!
The next stop was literally a minute drive on, at Laguna Verde. The lake is normally a vivid green colour, due to the amount of arsenic in the water, but sadly due to the wind you couldn’t really see the colour too much. The lake reminded Dan of his Nan, due to one of her favourite sayings whenever you stuck your nose up at food or drink - “What do you think it is, Arsenic”.
Luckily the next stop gave us bit of respite from the wind, as it was around a 40 minute drive on very bumpy off-road track - an insight into how the whole journey would be for the coming days! The stop was bit of a stretch to be honest, it was called the Salvador Dali desert. Not because he had been here or painted anything like it, but because some of the rock formations looked like they could be in one of his paintings. However we were so far away, we can neither confirm or deny this! Perhaps because it was so windy they didn’t get too close, but we aren’t really too sure.
After another hour in the Jeep, we stopped at the thermal baths of Polque for some lunch and a dip. It was still freezing outside, although very sunny the wind was still crazy. Lisa decided to brave the cold for the 36 degree thermal bath, Dan on the other hand had bit of common sense/chickened out and waited inside for lunch.
After a good lunch (better than we expected), we drive towards the geysers named Sun of the morning. The Geysers are caused by intense volcanic activity with sulphur springs full of mud lakes and steam pools. These were at 4900m, so the highest altitude we had been to so far on the trip! Luckily neither of us felt too bad at this height, only both suffering a slight headache which was combated with some cocoa sweets, a local remedy.
The final stop of the day was probably our favourite, the Laguna Colorada (the red lagoon). As the name suggests, this was a massive vivid red lake full of thousands of flamingos, with llamas also grazing along the shore. We got to go on a walk around part of the lagoon which gave a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding area.
It was then a 2 hour long drive to get to our hostel for the night. We had been prewarned that it would be basic lodging, so weren’t expecting anything fancy. Even so, when we arrived, from the outside the hostel did not look warm in anyway! We had a shared room with two of the guys from out jeep, who luckily we got on well with so was fine. The bed provided 4 blankets, however this still didn’t feel like enough, shivering ourselves to sleep. Before we went to bed we went out to look at the stars to get a few pictures as we were in the middle of nowhere - also having missed out on the stargazing tour every night in San Pedro!
SECOND DAY OF SALT FLATS TOUR
After a very cold night, we woke up early after being told by our driver Miguel, we’d be leaving at 8.30am straight after breakfast. At 9.30am, there was still no sign of Miguel, and when he did appear, we were told to go and explore the very small village we had stopped overnight in. The only upside of this was that we found some dog friends on our walk, as well as some more Llamas. At around 10.30am, we finally set off.
The first stop was The Valley of Rocks. Among some very large natural rock formations, were some which had been labeled as looking like the World Cup and a Camel. With a lot of imagination you could see it… to be fair the camel did kinda look like a camel!
We got to wander around here on our own for a while, before a quick drive to some more rocks, this time that we were expected to climb. Dan, not feeling too well at this point, decided to stay on the ground, probably a wise decision as it was a pretty ropey climb up - definitely no health and safety! After admiring the views and a few pictures, we tentatively scrambled down, breathing a sigh of relief to have made it without any slips!
We drove on passing a large lake with over a hundred llamas grazing. We stopped again for a short walk and another photo opportunity with the llamas!
Next we stopped at a tiny ‘village’ which consisted of about 3 houses/huts and a dining hall, where we had lunch. Walking around after you really did feel like you were in the middle of nowhere. But of course there was a dog to befriend.
After lunch was the “Mystery Lagoon”, so called for the fact it appears out of nowhere after a walk through a rocky valley. We stayed here for a good half hour, sitting and enjoying the view, and the peace and quiet of being the only group here at this time. Along with lots of birds, we saw a rabbit and a chinchilla.
From here we headed to the Inca Canyon. We didn’t actually receive any explanation as to this stop or what it had to do with the Incas, but it offered another photo opportunity and view point.
Finally we headed to another small town, this one at least much bigger than the last. We got dropped off at a shop, which sold local beers made from Coco leaves, Quinoa, Honey and something else it's really bugging Lisa she can't remember! We were told this was the only place we could try these… which obviously turned out to be a lie, you can try them all over Bolivia, but it was nice to try a Coco beer for the novelty none the less.
Our accommodation that night was in a Salt Hotel. The walls, and even the bed heads were made out of salt rock! A little warmer than the night before at least we had an early night ready for an early morning.
FINAL DAY - WE MAKE IT TO THE SALT FLATS
We had a 5am wake up in order to make it to the salt flats for sunrise. We were lucky, as usually the waters which create the famous mirror effect on the salt flats are usually dried up by April. However this years rainy season had been a heavy one and the waters were still there! This created a beautiful effect turning the flats into a mirror, which we were lucky enough to see the sunrise on.
It was -7' at 6.30am so we were completely numb when we eventually got back into the car. Some of the group didn't have walking boots with them, and therefore had to wear flip flops in the freezing cold water so their trainers wouldn't get soaked! Even with our boots on our feet were frozen through so we can't imagine how cold they must have been.
We drove on over the salt flats for half an hour, eventually reaching Inkawasi, which is an island of Cacti in the middle of the salt flats. We went for an hour long walk around this island, such a bizarre sight seeing a rocky hill full of cacti in the middle of a salt flat with nothing else but white around.
By the time we had walked around the island, our driver Miguel had set up breakfast for us. The benches and table was made entirely from salt. We even had a little birdie help us finish the leftovers.
It was then time to set off for a more remote part of the salt flats to have fun and get lots of perspective photos. The pictures show more than we can explain, and it was equally fun and embarrassing getting them!
We spent way too long taking these, and eventually got shepherded on by Miguel to the next stop. This was just to an old Salt Hotel right in the middle of the flats. This is no longer a working hotel (no explanation why) but we got to walk around and the outside is cool with loads of flags from every country.
It took another 45minute drive to reach the town of Uyuni, where we had lunch, then headed to the final stop of the tour - a train graveyard. Uyuni was a big transportation hub for Bolivia, and In the early 1800's, there were plans to build a bigger network of trains from Uyuni. This plan was abandoned however and therefore the trains left to rust. Most of the trains in the graveyard were actually imported from Britain in the 20th Century! There are over 100 cars which you can even climb on or into (health and safety really isn't a thing here!) and many of them covered in surprisingly political graffiti.
And that was it! We got dropped off to our hostel in Uyuni, then before crashing for the evening (and of course catching up on GOT - jesus Christ Daenerys) we went for a very quick walk of the town. It's a tiny town, full of half built houses and desert streets. There is one short street in the centre with restaurants and a more touristic vibe, with signs of colonial influence, however on the whole there isn't much going on in Uyuni. Many tourists get a night bus straight out of here, however having heard many dodgey stories about night buses (or just buses in general) in Bolivia, we thought it was safer and wiser to spend the night.
There are only two bus options to Potosi from Uyuni, so unsurprisingly we were reunited with our salt flats tour group when we got on the bus in the morning. It was just under a 4hr drive, through very windy roads. This route never actually used to be paved so we can't imagine how scary it would have been before. We were the only ones hopping off in Potosi however, with the rest of our group continuing on for a further 3hrs to Sucre, our next destination.
Potosi is the highest City in the world, sitting at 4067m above sea level. It also used to be the richest City in the world, all thanks to the mountain which towers above the town, Cerro Rico, which was full of silver. The Spanish used the indigenous locals, as well as slaves to mine this and gain wealth for the Spanish Empire. It is said that enough silver came out of the mine to create a bridge from Potosi to Madrid. It is also said that so many people lost their lives to the mine that you could also build a bridge from Potosi to Madrid out of their bones.
When the silver ran out and Potosi was no longer needed as the main Mint producing silver coins, unable to keep up with growing technology and at a disadvantage due to its altitude, the City declined into near enough poverty, which is still the case today.
There isn't too much to do in Potosi, other than wander around and explore the colonial buildings of the centre, a hint of it's previous wealth. One of the main tourist attractions is a tour into the mines, something which we decided to skip, feeling inappropriate ogling at how bad the work conditions still are in the mine. It is also not the safest of activities with the mountain being so over-mined there is risk of collapse.
Therefore we opted to spend the afternoon exploring the town.
POTOSI & BUS TO SUCRE
Being the City built on silver, Potosi also had one of the worlds biggest Mints for it's time. This has now been turned into a museum, so we headed here for the morning. You have to take a . guided tour, so whilst we waited for the English tour to start, we headed outside where a local school was parading a marching band. When we asked what this was for, no one seemed to know, apparently parades and marching bands happen a lot!
You had to pay extra to take pictures in the museum, which we didn't really think was needed so we only have pictures from the entrance. The mint was a very impressive building though with much of it left in its original condition.
This mint is the second mint Potosi had, the first much smaller and once the quantity of silver was found, a second mint needed to be built in order to adapt to newer techniques and a much larger production line. The Spanish Peso, which was one of the first international currencies, was made in this mint. To begin with the coins were all irregular circles, the key being that they weighed an ounce for 1 Peso. You would then get half weight, quarter weight etc. As silver was a very mailable material, people we able to actually break coins in half or snap bits off of the coins, therefore they started mixing the silver with zinc and copper in order to stop this happening.
The museum showed the different processes throughout the ages of how they created coins, starting off with literally a hammer blow to one piece of metal at a time, to a production line powered by electricity. All of the machinery was original and so well preserved due to the altitude and lack of moisture. The most impressive one, was a huge wooded structure, designed by the Dutch for the Spanish, which took 14 months for the machine to be shipped over from Europe and work its way along the Andes to Potosi. Horses were unable to work at altitude, therefore they had to use mules to power the machines.3.3million coins were made per year with these machines.
When Bolivia got it's independence, the Spanish needed to get all of 'their' silver out of the country. To do this they needed to get all of the silver up to Panama, to then ship it over to Spain. 8 of the ships making this crossing never made it, one of them being found in the 1960's just off the Florida coast. In one ship, $465million worth of silver was found, so you can only imagine how much silver was being shipped over! This crossing at the time was one of the causes of the Pirates of the Caribbean, due to word getting out of how much silver was being shipped.
In the 1800's the mines silver was depleted, and Potosi never really recovered. At one point its influence was such that the mark used to signify a coin was made in this mint, is what the current dollar sign is based on. Now the mine is still working but only extracting different minerals, such as zinc.
The last thing we wanted to do in Potosi was to head up the bell tower to get a panoramic view of the City and of Cerro Rico. Climbing up the bell tower was a bit of a challenge as it was made in a time before people were taller. Many of the locals are still very short, with Dan nearly banging his head on more than one doorway. The other challenge of the stairs up the bell tower was .the altitude. Both of us were struggling to catch our breath by the time we reached the top!
Having explored as much of Potosi as we'd wanted, we headed to the bus station to head to Sucre. We chose the next bus leaving the terminal, only to get 10 minutes outside of Potosi and sit for a further 40 minutes whilst the driver tried to fill up the bus! Apart from this it was a nice journey through the mountains and we got to Sucre by early evening.
Sucre is actually the Capital of Bolivia in their constitution. Whilst La Paz has the Government, Sucre has the Courts, and the two Cities argue amongst themselves as to which is officially the Capital. Sucre couldn't be more different from Potosi. Due to Potosi's altitude and therefore colder weather, when the Spanish had settled, they used Sucre as a weekend retreat from Potosi due to the warmer climates. Therefore the houses and buildings are much nicer, as this is where they came to spend their money.
We spent the morning exploring the town ourselves, then decided to take a walking tour in the afternoon to actually find out information on everything we'd been looking at.
We were taken around the main buildings of Sucre. First to the Cathedral, which has one of the most expensive art sculptures, made of silver and diamond encrusted, therefore it's never open to the public for fear of this being stolen. We also saw the courts and the House of Liberty.
One of the most iconic bell towers in Bolivia is in Sucre, named the Liberty bell. Bolivia was actually the first South American country to fight for independence from the Spanish, but were the last to get it. The reason they started their fight for Independence was due to a lawyer working in Sucre being taking as a political prisoner by the Spanish. This lawyer was loved by the people and when he was taken they decided enough was enough and rang all the bells in Sucre to rally the people into an uprising. It is said that the Liberty Bell was rung so hard that it cracked and you can still see the crack in the bell to this day.
We next got taken into the central market, where they literally sell everything you can imagine. Here we tried one of the local dishes, which was a mix between a Chorizo and Bratwurst sausage. It was actually very tasty!
Other places we visited were the theatre, a chocolate shop (Sucre is the chocolate capital of Bolivia), a local textile market (to learn about indigenous traditions) and the university. Sucre was a very good university back in the day but is now a public university. Half the towns 300,000 population is students. Crazily their fees used to be 29 Bolivianos per year, which equates to £3, however the university got into some financial trouble and so upped the fee to 200 Bolivianos per year, which is £23! The students protested for a month against this and refused to take lessons - lucky they never had to have England's Student loans!
We then jumped onto a bus to the Recoleta, which was the original part of town. Earlier in the day we had walked this, up an extremely steep hill. So we were grateful to bus it this time! In this neighborhood we headed to a bar, which you would have no idea existed if we hadn't been taken, it was just like walking into someones house. Here we tried one of Bolivia's traditional drinks, Chicha. This is made from corn, water, sugar and (we didnt know this at the time) saliva, that is left to ferment. Amazingly enough, this is exactly how it tasted, not too great! It did kind of get better the more you drank, but always left a weird aftertaste. Traditionally this type of bar is just for men, so is decorated with pictures of women in bikinis and the drink comes in a glass bodice. Its traditionally drunk in the shell of a fruit found in the amazon (we forgot which).
After we somehow finished our drinks, we were taken outside and taught a game the locals play to decide who buys the round. This basically entailed throwing metal tokens at a metal table that had holes in, and the aim is to get the token into the holes to score points. Theres a frog in the middle, which has an open mouth. If you get a token in there you automatically win! We had a game but sadly lost by 20 points! and no one got the frogs mouth either.
To finish the tour we went to the recoleta that offered stunning views over the city, while another marching band played behind us! The pictures are from both our visits that day, one during the day and one at night.
That evening we met up with Fin and Tania from our salt flats tour to try some of the local beers of Bolivia.
One of the reasons we (or Dan) wanted to come to Sucre was due to the Dinosaur footprints they have uncovered here. There has been a park especially built around these. The footprints were actually uncovered by a cement factory that were excavating the land. Once they were found, the land stopped being used, however the cement factory still surrounds the area.
There is a Dino bus that we caught from the main square in Sucre, which takes you to the park about 30mins out of town. Unsurprisingly, just before we caught the bus, there was another marching band going around the square! Again no clue what it was about, but seems to be a daily occurrence.
The entrance to the park is basically through the cement factory, which it a bit weird, and the park itself is very light on activity. It has basically been made to make a bit of money off the footprints, luckily entry was very cheap! After walking around with a guide, showing us different, to scale, models of dinosaurs, it was time to walk down to the footprints to get a closer look at them.
The footprints are actually on a vertical wall of rock. This is due to the land originally being flat (footprints were around a lake), but over the years and during the forming of the Andes, the land concaved creating the vertical wall we see today. We were given helmets and started making our way down towards the wall.
We were given a brief talk when we got down there, explaining the formation of the footprints and what kind of dinosaurs created them. The dinosaur footprints on show were created by Carnotaurus (the first model dinosaur above) and then other smaller dinosaurs (which we cant remember the names of). There were over 5000 footprints on show, although they believe there will be more underneath, as found when the big V layer you can see in the picture above collapsed. It is the largest collection of footprints in the world. Sadly for Dan, they explained there was no fossils or dinosaur bones found around here.
After this we had a walk around the park, however was very basic information. Its quite sad that the cement factory is working next door, as it makes the whole place a bit industrial and ugly. They have tried to campaign to make it a UNESCO heritage site, however have been declined so far due to not having a good enough preservation plan - especially as the cement factory can cause the wall to collapse, as seen with the V in the wall (hence the helmets!).
MARAGUA CRATER TREK
It was an early start for our 1 day trek, with around an hours drive out of town to get to the village of Chataquila. We had breakfast here outside the villages Church (we actually saw no houses on the drive here) at the top of Cordillera de los Frailes. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who in Bolivian culture also doubles up as Pachamama - mother earth. Bolivians whilst considering themselves Catholic, have maintained many of the Incan beliefs within the religion. Pachamama loves alcohol, so around her shrines, you can always find bottles of alcohol, coca leaves and any other offerings. Before taking a sip of alcohol you have to pour a drop on the floor for Pachamama!
After a very nice breakfast here, we started our trek of the Inca Trail. Although named after the Inca's, this trail existed before them, acting as the connection between the villages of Chataquila and Chaunaca. The Inca Trail is a 4.7km pass, mostly downhill in the direction we took it, so we wouldn't want to be in the other village going the other way!
The views on the walk were beautiful and our guide spent time to pick local plants and explain what they were to us and how the local people used them.
It was around a two hour walk to reach the end of the trail. We were asked to look out for a purple flower which wraps around trees on the walk. Sadly none of us could spot one (including the guide) but he had brought with him the fruits which grow off these flowers for us to try. They were insanely sour, and actually upon eating one himself the guide even laughed that they aren't meant to be that sour!
From the end point of the trail we got to hop back in the bus towards the Maragua crater. The path was a little ropey at points, very windy and had no barrier to the sheer cliff drop on the edge of the road. Once we'd reached the village of Maragua, which sits in a naturally formed crater, we hopped out for another walk. This time to the waterfall called Devil's Throat. On the path to this you could see the bones of goats which had been sacrificed during rituals, by being thrown off the waterfall!
From here we walked into the village, where our guide had set up lunch. The company is a non for profit, and their ethos is to help the communities in which they run the tours to. Therefore we had lunch in a small 'hostel' which a local had set up with the help of the company. It had a gorgeous garden we could sit in and even had some of the fruits growing which we'd gotten to eat earlier. The lunch was delicious and a lot of salad which we'd both been missing, largely unable to eat this due to not knowing if its washed in the tap water. They also provided bottles of wine which went down well with the group!
From lunch we jumped back in the bus to a viewpoint of the crater, before continuing on to the start of the path for the dinosaur footprints. The walk passed by some very rural farm houses, and the guide had plenty of Coca leaves to share with anyone we pass. He told us this is a sign of friendship, but also means if anything were to happen and the group needed help, he would then help us. If we hadn't gifted anything to them they wouldn't. It was crazy to see these clay houses and think how cold they must get at night, when the temperatures plummet to zero.
It was a 45 minute walk to reach the footprints. These were uncovered during landslides, and paleontologists have estimated that much of the land in the surrounding area would also have footprints if uncovered. Unlike the park the day before, we got to get a lot closer to the footprints. There were some larger footprints than at the park, which were caused by a Brontosauras, and some smaller ones with three claws caused by a Carnotauras. These footprints were caused by the same natural process as the ones from the park.
The return walk was a little more difficult, mainly being uphill and in the altitude you really feel it! The return drive however was even harder. It took 3hrs to get back to Sucre, despite being able to see it from the outset. The reason it took so long was due to going up and down multiple mountain passes, all scarily windy and no barrier again. We felt like we were holding our breath at each bend, especially when the sun set and we continued the drive in the dark. Each time we thought we'd reached the bottom and therefore a flat path to the City, we would ascend again! We made it back safely in the end and props to the driver cos we wouldn't have been able to do it.
FLIGHT TO LA PAZ
In true South American style our flight to La Paz was obviously delayed. This time to spice things up, we’d boarded the plane , sat for 40minutes on the tarmac, then after a Spanish announcement led to everyone else recollecting their stuff and unboarding, we followed suit. No one knew what was going on but we could see the pilots and aircrew stood around the engine so clearly the plane had engine issues. After 4hrs and an unsuccessful lunch token, where we handed it in for our free food which never arrived, we finally got to board again. For what was only an hour long flight we probably would have been better off getting the bus. However we made it safely and that’s what matters.
WALKING TOUR OF LA PAZ
We found out just how hilly La Paz is whilst heading to our walking tour. Only a few blocks away from our hostel but it felt like we were walking up and down constantly. Being at 3640m altitude as always you feel the hills a lot more!
The walking tour started outside of the famous San Pedro Prison. Lisa knew a lot about this as she’d read a book a few years ago called Marching Powder, a true account from one of the inmates. The Prison is basically a community within itself run by the prisoners, with the guards never entering, only guarding the perimeters. You have to buy/ rent your own cell, so depending on how well of you are you could have a space on the floor to sleep or a multi bed apartment fit with flat screen TV. You also have to buy your own food so of course you need a job in there, anything from cook, to taxi (taxiing prisoners to and from the front entrance when they have visitors), to drugs - notably this prison produces the purest cocaine in the world. The affluent prisoners can have their entire families live in the prison with them. It became famous amongst travellers when one of the inmates started running tours of the prison, travellers could go in there and even stay overnight with the author of the book Marching Powder living in there for 6 months of his own accord whilst writing the book. This prison is an old army base and crazily just in the middle of the city and one of the busiest squares!
We next went to three different markets, food and mostly fresh fruits and veg, with many different types of potato something the Bolivians are very proud of. Many of the stalls are run by Cholitas, who are from indigenous tribes and wear the traditional dress. Most locals will have one Cholita who they’ll use for all their goods, working in both their favour, as once a relationship is formed you get free stuff! There are so many different stalls though we don’t know how you’d choose in the first place.
The third market was the most interesting, named the Witches Market. Bolivians having kept many of their indigenous traditions and beliefs within Christianity, are very superstitious. Our guide explained that most people would use the witches market, for example they sell love potions, if you’re single for more than two years they’d purchase this as they’d believe that something is wrong with them! The most extreme belief is putting a dead llama foetus or baby underneath new constructions as a giving to Pachamama, to bless the house. Therefore there are dead llamas hanging up everywhere! The only comfort was that the llamas had to have died from natural causes. We were told for larger buildings it used to be much more extreme and witch doctors would lure drunk homeless people to the construction site and ply them with so much alcohol they would pass out, then whilst they’re still alive, concrete would be poured over them as a living sacrifice to bless the house. They weren’t able to tell us when this was last practiced but there’s a book written by someone who had escaped this fate!
We next visited the Church of San Francisco. This was built by the Spanish as a church for the indigenous people to start practising Catholicism. As mentioned they are very superstitious people, and the Spanish played on this to make sure once they visited the church they’d revisit. Many indigenous believe that when they see their reflection in a mirror, that in fact the mirror has trapped part of their soul. Similarly this is why many indigenous don’t like having their picture taken as some still believe this! The Spanish therefore filled the Church with Mirrors so that the local people would go back to the church to return to the piece of their soul trapped there.
From there we went onto the parliament square. A brand new government building has just been completed, it’s a large glass building that sits directly behind the old ornate one. We were told here that Bolivians have a history of rioting and protesting in this square. We were even shown exactly where one president had been dragged out from the building and hung on a lamppost. Ironically they quickly learnt and decided he was actually a very good president and in regret instead built a statue in his honour, right in front of that lamppost!
We also learnt a lot about the current president. Bolivia have had a crazy amount of presidents since their independence, 61 in total, one of them only lasting 4 hours. The current president is the first indigenous and has done a lot for indigenous rights while generally being popular. However he changed the constitution to allow him to run for a third term and in an attempt to run for a fourth, held a public vote asking to change the law so he could run again. He lost this, but rather than honour the people’s decision, has decided to run anyway, with the election happening in October. He’s therefore a little controversial now, as rather than go down as one of their best presidents ever, he is becoming something refusing to give up power. Those who don’t support him however don’t have a very strong opposer to vote for so no one knows what will happen come October.
Also in the square was the cathedral had taken hundreds of years to finish, only finally being finished when they learnt the Pope was coming to visit. Due to the rushed finish, the pope decided to not even step foot inside fearing it wasn’t stable, so only did a blessing at the door.
Here the tour ended so we wandered back to the Church of San Francisco to do a mini tour which we’d been recommended. Within the small entrance fee we got a guided tour. Not too much to rehash, but we did get to go up the the roof which have great views.
LA PAZ BY CABLE CAR
La Paz is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, as we said it’s super hilly. As the City has built out, it’s spread out further up the hills. To make it easier to get to different parts and to help ease traffic congestion, they built a network of able cars. Similar to the underground, each line is colour coded.
Whilst obviously for the locals this is their day to day mode of transport, for us we saw it as the perfect opportunity to sightsee and see the city from different views (and at being 40p a journey, was a bargain!).
The pictures do the talking! We ended up doing 9 different journeys in total, some of them taking up to 30 mins to get to the next line.
At one section we stopped off to find a viewpoint that supposedly gave a good view of the city. Sadly this wasn’t the case, annoying after a 30 min walk to get there! We still got one or two pictures there though ...
FLIGHT TO RURRENABAQUE
Again not too much to write about we caught the worlds teeniest commercial plane to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon.
The flight was a little bumpier than normal, every bit of turbulence felt like a massive shake or drop, but it was only a 25 minute flight so not too difficult to bear.
We got to our hotel and check in, just before I started to tip it down... I suppose we are in the rainforest. It cleared up pretty quickly and we got to check out the hotel (stupidly we didn’t take advantage of the pool) and had a chat with the hotels parakeets. After we went for a walk to explore the town, which didn’t take very long at all!
PAMPAS TOUR DAY 1
It was a leisurely 9am pickup for our tour, and we quickly met our guide Herman, along with the two others who would make up our group for the three days, Ross from Ireland and Danielle from Canada. The rain had started again overnight and the mud based roads were now very soft, with the rain still not ceasing. About an hour and a half in to our drive to the Pampas, we hit a traffic jam full of lorries and buses who had skidded and got stuck in the very thick mud. Our poor driver had to jump out in trainers, with the mud up to his calves, and along with other 4x4 drivers, help to move some of the stuck vehicles in order to clear a path to get through. We managed to get through leaving buses full of people our guide told us could be stuck there until the roads dry back out! He was once stuck on a bus for two days when a similar thing happened. Luckily that was the most drama on the drive, and eventually the rain calmed down and we got to see lots of birds and some toucans on the rest of the hour and a half drive.
Having reached the river, we hopped on our boat for the next three days and it was only 3 minutes to reach our eco lodge. Amazingly we were 4 of only 6 guests who were going to be at the lodge so we got the place to ourselves. Normally up to 20 people can be there!
Our lodge was adorable and much nicer than either of us had envisioned, even getting our own en-suite.
After getting to chill on the hammock for an hour, it was time for lunch. Rustled up by the lodges Chef, Hilda, she produced such tasty food for our entire trip!
After lunch, it was time for our first outing in the boat. We floated around the pampas for around 3 hours and saw amongst others; Pink River Dolphins, Capybaras, Caiman, Piranhas (they jump out of the water, and gave Lisa quite the scare when one launched itself at the boat!), yellow squirrel monkeys and a wide variety of birds!
That evening we got another delicious meal, and Herman taught us some Bolivian card games (basically the same games we have but with little differences). We did go for a little night walk with Herman, but other than lots of tiny tree frogs we couldn’t spot too much. The weather was actually so cold, much colder than we’d expected and we’d all had to wear everything we’d taken with us to stay warm!! Therefore lots of the animals were staying hidden and warm!
PAMPAS TOUR DAY 2
It was an early start for breakfast before heading straight back out on the boat. If possible it was even colder today than the day before. We were heading further round the river this morning, to try and see more monkeys. We saw Howler Monkeys, who sound like pigs when they talk, spider monkeys, and lots more yellow squirrel monkeys. The yellow monkeys are much more sociable and curious, and Herman would drive the boat front first right into the bushes. He actually took bananas with him to entice them on to the boat, and without our knowledge would then put the monkeys near us so the monkeys would jump onto us! A little scary and neither of us really knew what to think about it... but they had surprisingly squishy feet. It was fascinating to watch the leader trying to push the rest of the group away or even at times into the water as he wanted the food.
After lots more animals and birds we even managed to see a sloth sleeping high in a tree. Herman said it was rare to spot them in the pampas, with them being much more visible when on the road.
We headed back to the lodge for lunch and another little chill in the hammocks. Actually it was so cold by this point we got back under the blankets in bed just to warm up! That afternoon we hopped back on the boat but this time to go Piranha fishing. This is something Dan had been looking forward to most, having wanted to try fishing in many other places but always been too expensive. We were each given a line and lots of little cuts of steak, and sheepishly tried to balance standing in the boat. Dan and Danielle were the most successful by far, catching 9 & 7 Piranhas respectively, and a few more who managed to escape before making it to the boat. Herman had turned it into a couples competition so whichever couple managed to catch the most between them got bought beers by the other couple that night. With Lisa on the team any chance of winning was looking pretty bleak, fair to say she’s not a natural fisher. The first piranha she caught managed to come loose in the boat so she just screamed until Herman caught it again. Luckily she turned it around and managed to catch 4 in the end, making us the overall winners!! Herman told us groups on average only catch around 5 total between them, so as a group, catching 23 exceeded expectation.
We all got to keep one Piranha to try that night, and we got to choose a local fisherman to donate the rest of our catch to. He was very happy when we gave them to him and said he would now her to go home for the night rather than stay out fishing. Hilda cooked up our catch for us along with dinner. They actually tasted pretty nice but were a lot of effort for the tiny amount of meat you get.
Again we headed out that night but on the boat this time. We saw lots of fireflies, but the main reason to go out in the dark is to see Caiman eyes. When you shine the torch on them they show up as red lights, it was scary how many you see hidden away in the dark, and Herman even steered us scarily close to to one. It was pretty jumpy at night especially with the Dolphins occasionally surfacing out of no where. Once back at the lodge, we went on another little walk and saw some more Monkeys in a tree right near our huts.
PAMPAS TOUR DAY 3
Usually on day three of the trip you put on big boots and go stomping through the swamps to try and hunt for anacondas. None of us were too keen on doing this, especially after learning the waters were so high at the moment they’d most likely go over the top of the boosts. Therefore we opted to go for a walk instead. The weather had miraculously turned overnight and even from 9am we were sweating in blazing sunshine. We had to take the boat 30 minutes away from the lodge, seeing turtles finally out in the sun and a Black Eagle on the way.
Eventually we climbed out at a river bank to start the walk. Amazingly, one of the first things we saw was a juvenile anaconda crossing the road!! We’d actually seen a Red Crested Caracara hunting something and that’s what helped us spot the anaconda. Herman said it was super rare to see them cross the road and that we’d actually helped save that anacondas life by going over to take pictures and scaring off the Caracara.
Along the walk we saw loads more Caiman, now it was sunny they were all out on the river bank taking in the sun. There were also loads of Capybara families out for a stroll on the same path, and of course lots of birds. We got to spot a lizard right at the end of the walk too, although he was too quick for a picture.
Time for the final boat ride; more monkeys and lots of Kingfishers, who were so quick it took Dan a long time to get a picture of one. We had our last lunch before beginning the journey back to Rurrenabaque. On the drive back we saw another sloth, this one actually awake so we hopped out to say hi.
Back in Rurrenabaque we finally got to have a much needed, nearly luke warm, shower!
FLIGHT BACK TO LA PAZ,
SARAH & CHOLITA WRESTLING
Our flight back to La Paz was constantly changed from the time we’d booked. Originally we’d booked a midday flight, which had been pushed to 3pm, and then the day before pushed again until 6pm! Having explored the whole of Rurrenabaque in less than an hour we weren’t too keen to spend a whole day here! Lisa complained to the company and asked to be moved to an earlier flight and miraculously they managed to get us on one at 11.20!
The airport is hilariously small with check in and security taking place in the same room, they tell you not to be there until an hour before. After a bus ride through the jungle and boarding the teeny plane again on the runway, we were off, and 20 minutes later arrived in La Paz.
After sorting our bags out (we’d only taken small bags to Rurrenabaque) we went to have lunch in the hotel restaurant whilst we waited for Lisa’s friend Sarah to join us! We’d arranged to all go to the Cholita Wrestling that evening, an apparent must do whilst in La Paz. Inspired by the WWE & Luche Libre, Cholitas (indigenous women in local dress) started wrestling for entertainment as a stand against domestic violence.
It was without a doubt the most bizarre evening of the trip so far. We thought we’d done well securing front row seats, however little did we know we were in the danger zone. We had the backspray of various water bottles as the Cholitas threw them over each other, one Cholita even snatched Sarah’s half drunk beer from her hand mid fight and proceeded to pour it all over her opponent and half on us! Dan even has a Cholita thrown into his lap which he was not expecting. It wasn’t just the wrestling which we had to watch out for, the local crowd really got into the drama and would throw orange peel (or even at one point a dirty diaper) at the wrestlers, sometimes failing to reach them and hitting us instead. Thank god not the dirty diaper! After three hours and various different wrestling matches, even ones where the guys wolf wrestle the Cholitas, we’d experienced and seen enough drama to call it a night, leaving the locals to carry on jeering.
We had a very early morning in order to catch our bus to Copacabana. It was just over a four hour, very bumpy, journey, including a short stop for breakfast, and a small ferry crossing. The ferry that the bus had to go on was so small we all had to get off and get a passenger boat, and the bus was the only vehicle on the ferry!
We found our hostel, which much to our delight had two dogs, one of them super chubby and cute. She eventually grew on Sarah who isn’t a great dog lover!
Copacabana is a really small little town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. There’s not too much to see & do here as we discovered when we went for a wonder. There is a very picturesque square and a huge Church in the centre. And then just to the side of town, there were supposedly some Incan ruins, but having wondered here and just seeing some unmarked rocks, we decided it wasn’t worth exploring. After a mooch in some of the markets, we headed down to the lakeside to one of the many restaurants with a rooftop terrace for lunch.
There is a small hill (although felt much bigger when climbing) right on the edge of town which we’d been recommended to climb for sunset. Picking up some cans of beer, we started the 30/40minute hike up. At 3800m altitude we had to have a few stops on the way up to catch our breath.
The view at the top was worth it though, and we enjoyed our Bolivian beers whilst watching the sunset over the island, Isla Del Sol, in the middle of the lake.
We stayed up much longer than everyone else who’d gone up for sunset and walking down in the increasing pitch black we realised why! We made it down safely, after trying to save a cat from being tormented by a dog, and went for dinner.
ISLA DEL SOL
Our ferry over to Isla Del Sol wasn’t until 1pm, so we spent the morning mainly enjoying the sunshine, and reading, before taking a stroll up the lake side (it’s not a very pretty beach, lined with lots of ageing, unused pedalos) and grabbing some freshly made empanadas for lunch.
Isla Del Sol, translates as island of the sun, and it was of huge importance to the Incas. They believed this island was the birthplace of the sun god, Inti, as well as the birthplace and creation of the first people.
For an island that doesn’t look too far away, it took a surprising 80 minutes to reach the main port on Isla Del Sol. We’d made the mistake of sitting up top on the boat so we were pretty chilly when we arrived. The main town of Yumani is a 30 minute uphill trek, and this is where our hostel was. Having been warned of this, we’d guiltily arranged for donkeys to help us carry our huge backpacks up! After a very out of breath uphill slog, we were glad we had, it would have been a struggle and taken a lot longer with our bags. The only worry now was we’d just had to walk away from our bags and the donkey so we prayed they actually made them to us!
In the meantime we checked out our room which by far was one of the nicest we’ve had yet. And the view was even better. Worth the climb!
We decided to enjoy the view and read on the veranda whilst waiting for our bags. Just after Lisa started to worry nearly three hours later they turned up. Thank you donkey!
We headed out to explore, walking (up, never ending up) to a mirador where you could see the entire island. Isla Del Sol, despite being tiny, has a big conflict between the north and the south, with a small northern town jealous of the tourism and therefore trade the other northern town got, and they blew up a restaurant in the other town. After this the south closed the border and the whole north island (around 70% and sadly with most of the Inca ruins) is shut off to tourism. This is just the version of the conflict we’d heard, it’s very hard online to actually get a detailed account as to what happened and the stories all differ slightly! You could however see the main northern town from this mirador, so at least we’ve seen it even if in the distance.
After admiring the view we started to head back down slightly for dinner. Many of the restaurants have terraces so you can sit out and enjoy the sunset.
All the restaurants offer ‘menu del dia’, which is basically a three course set meal of soup, trout and a desert for the grand price of £4, so of course we couldn’t resist. The trout is meant to be a specialty of the area, freshly caught from the lake and it didn’t disappoint.
ISLA DEL SOL
We woke up early (the room had huge windows so the natural light woke us all) and enjoyed such a good breakfast - Lisa was especially happy when they provided banana milkshakes, her favourite!
As we were all up so early we decided to beat the crowds, and heat and go on a walk to the sun temple. Mostly flat or descending, with a only a few steep climbs, the walk there was very pleasant and we even took a little detour to another mirador.
We had to climb down to the temple, which was just above the coast. Built in the Incan times, the temple was still in relatively good condition for ruins! There wasn’t any information provided on the temple though which would have been appreciated.
The walk back to the town was a tough one, and the downhill on the way there now didn’t seem as great. We really started to feel the 4000m altitude! When we finally got back to town, after passing multiple women walking their alpacas, we decided to have a few hours rest reading our books, before getting some lunch and starting are afternoon hike.
After overhearing about a trek you could do through a valley just before you reach the north, we decided we would give this ago. We headed up the same very steep path we had done the evening before (after a big lunch which made it more of a struggle) and got to the same view point to see if we could see the path through the valley. Sadly we didn’t have much success as it all looked like farmers fields and the only path looked like it was heading straight to the north - we even saw one tourist get turned around by locals on this route. Instead we enjoyed the views from the top again, before cutting our losses and heading back.
The trout was so good and cheap the night before, we decided to make the most of it and headed for dinner there again!
CHILLED DAY ON ISLA DEL SOL AND BUS TO PUNO
The ferry back over to Copacabana to get our bus to Puno wasn’t until 3.45pm. Therefore as our hotel was so nice, we made the most of it by chilling in the sun, more reading and spending our last few hours with Sarah before she headed back to La Paz.
One thing we had been dreading was walking back down to the ferry with our bags, due to this time deciding not to rent a donkey. As it was downhill it wasn’t as bad, however still harsh on the knees.
We arrived down there with a few hours to spare, so went for something new - another trout dinner!
After sitting up top on the ferry on the way here, we learn from our mistake and made sure we had a seat inside this time. This was polar opposite though and was too hot, so we aren’t quite sure what would have been best. After sadly having to depart ways with Sarah, we jumped straight on our bus for the boarded crossing. It was a further two hour drive once crossing the border to Puno and we arrived around 7.30pm.
Puno couldn’t be more different from Copacabana and Isla Del Sol, it’s a big city, really built up, busy and not very pretty on the eye. After checking into our hostel and a very cold shower on Lisa’s part, we headed over to the much nicer hotel that Helen and Chris (Lisa’s mum and dad) were staying at. They treated us to a beer and we had a nice catch up, hearing all about their week so far in Peru. We even got all our bits we had ordered to be flown over with them!
We said farewell to them until Cusco in a few days time and headed back to our not so nice in comparison hostel.