Salar de Uyuni: From Bolivia to Chile in Style

 

The last leg of our Bolivian journey took us through some of the most magnificent scenery this world has to offer: Salar de Uyuni (also known as the largest salt flat in the world), Laguna Colorada, Laguna Verde finishing in the Atacama desert in Chile. You spend up to 3 days in a jeep with complete strangers tackling some of the toughest terrain this continent has to offer, wondering how on earth the driver knows his way with no signposts or discernible landmarks. I was truly in awe of our 24 year old guide Hugo, who got us safely to our destination and gave us a ride to remember whilst listening to cheesy dance music on repeat for 3 days straight.

Booking a tour

Judging by backpacker rumours and the reviews of this tour on Trip Advisor this adventure can either be the highlight or the ultimate near death experience of your entire trip so don’t rush into any decisions. If you can, book with a full car of people you know, I can’t stress enough what a severe impact to your sanity sharing a car for 3 days with crazy people will do to you.

Most people do a 3-4 day tour of this region starting in Uyuni heading south towards the border of chile stopping off to see the sites along the way, heading straight back up to Uyuni again on the last day. Some tour companies give you the option of finishing the tour in San Pedro de Atacama which is ideal if you’re heading to Chile or Argentina. Otherwise your third day consists of a 7 hour journey back to Uyuni. We did meet some unfortunate people who didn’t consider finishing in Chile because their plan was to go to Argentina next. It’s actually quicker and much less hassle in terms of border crossings to finish in Chile, enjoy the Atacama desert and get bus to Salta in Argentina afterwards. Otherwise you have a 7 hour bus journey back to Uyuni, an 8 hour bus journey to the border town of Villazon, a possible overnight wait in the cold until the border opens, then another 7 hour journey down to Salta. Not ideal as some Israeli people we met found out the hard way.

Another option is to start the tour in Tupiza, further south than Uyuni in Bolivia. This town is apparently much more beautiful than the touristy tumbleweed town that is Uyuni, and the tour route is much less busy than if your start in Uyuni as its going the opposite way. You cannot really finish a tour from here in Chile unless you do an expensive private tour so this is only really a viable option if you’re heading north.

We booked our tour with Cordillera Travel, a reputable company recommended by the Lonely Planet and several people on Trip Advisor. We paid 850 BOB (about £85) for a 3 day 2 night trip finishing in Chile with a Spanish guide. if you choose this company you have to haggle down from 950, but you didn’t hear that from me… Another good company if you prefer an English tour is Red Planet Expeditions. In hindsight I would have liked an English guide because I’m really interested in the geology and geography of the region. If you’re not that bothered you don’t need to pay the extra 300 or so that an English guide costs. Also be aware that there seems to be a lot of issues with drink drivers on these tours, mostly with the smaller less official looking companies. This isn’t a rumour, we heard first hand stories of people stuck in cars with aggressive alcoholic drivers with no choice but to sit and pray they didn’t have an accident. I have no idea why this industry is so corrupt in this way, no one really does, just be careful and go with a company you trust.

I think in this case pictures speak a lot louder than words, so I’ll leave you with some of the stunning photos taken by myself and (mostly) Mickaël on the trip.

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Bolivia’s Cities

We kept our time to a minimum in Bolivia because we didn’t have a lot to spare, and had heard from pretty much everyone that you get sick a lot here. Considering how much illness I’ve suffered on this trip we decided to heed this warning and choose our destinations wisely. Our entry point was Lake Titicaca and exit would be after the Uyuni salt flats expedition. In between that, the only place we heard about that seemed worth visiting was Sucre, Bolivia’s second largest city. We thought it would be rude not to visit the capital, La Paz which was en route, and from Sucre to Uyuni we made a cursory stop in Potosi giving us a total of 5 steps in 2 weeks in Bolivia. Here’s the run down on Bolivia’s cities.

La Paz

We’d heard mixed reviews about this city, but honestly I don’t know why anyone likes it. That’s my objective opinion. I believe most people come here to do the famous “Death Road”, a narrow mountain road with beautiful views and killer turns. Ok so only 17 people have died on it, but that’s enough to make me think twice. Obviously some people come here and do it dangerously which we never would, but still, I had no interest in earning the “I survived death road” t-shirt, mainly because it costs you around £50. We had a beautiful mountain biking experience in Popayan, Colombia for a fraction of that price so I was contented with that. For those of you looking to survive death road, just make sure you go with a good company and test those breaks well before you leave.

We stayed in a quieter suburb of La Paz called Sopocachi, with beautiful views of the mountains and great food nearby. Our hostel was Landscape BnB, run by very friendly young guys but owned by a narcissist who likes to brag about how much money he has and how intelligent he is. If you can stomach this at breakfast you’ll be rewarded with excellent showers, wifi and a homely feel to your stay. We ate delicious Vietnamese food at Vinapho, although it was really more Thai in my opinion it still tasted great. We also chilled out in Blueberries cafe and indulged in blueberry pancakes. I also had the worst plate of carbonara IN MY WHOLE LIFE at Sancho Panza, it was basically tasteless scrambled eggs with spaghetti mixed in. It was so gross that I sent it back. This is what happens when you go to the only place open on a Sunday with no customers in it, shame on us.

We braved the traffic fumes and ventured into the centre of La Paz on one of our two days in the city, only to be greeted with a depressing “plaza” that paled in comparison to that of Cusco or Arequipa. We also found the tourist street selling tourist tat that we didn’t want, and decided to make a swift exit back to Sopocachi for some donuts and coffee. I do think that other people could really love this city if they gave it a chance, I guess after the joys of lake Titicaca we just weren’t feeling it, I do concede that it could have been better if we’d given it more of a chance. But this happens sometimes, you can’t force it!

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One of the nicer streets in La Paz

 

 

Sucre

From La Paz we got an overnight bus to Sucre, and managed to pay just 100 Bolivianos (£10) for a full cama bus with Trans Copacobana, reduced from 180! I do love to haggle and so do the Bolivians.

We arrived in the morning to the beautiful CasArte Takubamba hostel which was way out of our price range but in a lovely setting with huge comfortable beds. We would have left after one night of luxury if it weren’t for he fact I got sick again and was bedridden for 2 days. After I was better we moved to Condor BnB which had a much more central locations and lovely rooms for a fraction of the price. We spent a day exploring the city hand in hand, which is such a lovely thing to do in a beautiful city like this one. We started with delicious falafel in Condor Cafe then headed to the Plaza that I’m pleased to say made up for all the lackings of La Paz, and then to the park where oddly enough we found a miniature Eiffel Tower to climb, followed by the Cemetery- a weird choice I know but so many people said how beautiful it was and they were right. After that we went for a cocktail at the mirador on the other side of town. The next day we went to the Cretaceous park, because, well who doesn’t like dinosaurs?! It was so much better than we expected because not only do they have life size dinosaur models, but they’ve discovered actual dinosaur footprints there too! The area nearby used to be a lake where dinosaurs would drink on their migratory path. Each season they would come here, and each season the footprints would be covered with layers of mud and dust. After the dinosaurs died out the Andes were created by tectonic plate shifts, causing the land the footprints were on to become part of the mountains. Twenty years ago construction workers were digging got material to make cement with and they accidentally discovered this amazing insight into the past. It really is a sight to behold, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Sucre was a beautiful city that I would happily spend quite a long time in if I had the chance. A lot of people decide to take Spanish lessons here, indulge in some extreme sports or do treks to the nearby waterfalls or dinosaur relics. There’s so much to do here that I definitely recommend setting aside a good amount of time to enjoy the gem of Bolivia.

Potosi

We decided to break up the 12 hour journey to Uyuni with a visit to Potosi, the old silver mining city that was once the most prosperous town in the whole of South America. Unfortunately after the mining boom it sank into poverty which is much more apparent now than its previous glory. Most people opt to do a tour of the mines here but we decided against it as it can be very depressing and highlights the terrible conditions that the miners still work in today, not really my thing. Instead we decided to explore the town and have a nice relaxing day. Although it didn’t exactly start that way. You see the bus from sucre and anywhere else in Bolivia drops you at their shiny new terminal, all buses except for Uyuni buses. This makes no sense whatsoever. I had it in my head that we would casually find out the bus times for Uyuni the next day before heading to the hostel. When there was no Uyuni buses there, we decided to head to the old terminal to find out the times, despite the fact that we’ve always just turned up at the bus station whenever we wanted and got a bus that was leaving soon. Sometimes we do things that don’t make sense I guess. We got a minibus collectivo to what we thought was the old terminal and was actually a market inconveniently named “Uyuni market”, and when we asked for directions to the terminal kept on being told “it’s four blocks that way”. Hmm. Half an hour later we still weren’t there, clearly lost and it started to rain. I was feeling very foolish because really there was no need at all to go to the station anyway. Luckily we were saved by….. Rotisserie chicken! If ever you’re tired and weary and you see tasty looking chicken, don’t think twice, just eat.

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Once we had full bellies and happy hearts we found the terminal, booked our tickets and headed to our hostel on another collectivo. We were clearly feeling very adventurous today! After dumping our bags and the very friendly Casa Blanca Hostel we went for a walk to see the sights of Potosi, which it turns out aren’t that exciting. We still enjoyed our time, mostly because we spotted one of the many table football tables dotted around town had become free, and rushed over for a game, the father and son next to us had other ideas and invited us for a game which was the most fun we’d had in ages. The little boy couldn’t have been more excited to be playing table football with us, his new friends, actually I think he just enjoyed spinning the handles round and round while he screamed with joy no matter who scored. Good wholesome fun.

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That evening one of the guys that worked at the hostel decided to make a meal for everyone, the tastiest stroganoff I’ve ever had. Everyone gathered round the table for a declicious home cooked meal and cocktails, and for the first time in ages I really felt at home. So while Potosi may not have been the most beautiful or exciting city on our journey, it certainly was a lot of fun. It just goes to show that sometimes the best experiences aren’t the ones you pay through the nose for that everyone on the gringo train is expected to have but instead it’s the ones that happen by accident when you just say “yes!”

 

 

Lake Titicaca: Peru vs Bolivia

Lake Titicaca presented us with the most picturesque border crossing opportunity so far, a high altitude lake (the highest in the world in fact) shared by Peru and Bolivia. Exactly who owns the majority is in some ways a mystery, the story will differ according to which country you’re in but it doesn’t really matter because it’s absolutely massive.

It turns out however that each side of the lake offers a totally different experience, something that wasn’t made clear to me when I was asking around for which side was better to spend he most time. One tour company just shrugged and said have a look at both they’re nice. Nice?! I know English was not his first language but ‘nice’ really doesn’t do this place justice at all.

First up, the Peru side. We took a bus straight from Cusco to Puno, the nearest big town on the lake. You do have the option of taking the train here if you’re feeling fancy, and I really wish I had felt more fancy on that trip. We got assigned seats at the bottom of the double decker bus, usually reserved for the first class seats, but clearly on this bus it was not. Some buses like to advertise their air conditioning but turn it off to save money, and despite the suffocating heat and smell of unwashed bodies, nobody complains. Except for me of course. But you have to be crafty about it as you’re cut off from the drivers cabin and any form of assistance on these type of buses. You just wait until the “direct” bus stops to pick up passengers on the side of the road as it inevitably will do at least 10 times on the 6 hour journey, clamber over the cringing boyfriend and burst out the door to raise the alarm. “Clima por favor!!” This will get you a few minutes of air conditioning if you’re lucky. I’ll spare you the story of the nappy changing IN THE SEAT NEXT TO ME that preceded this breakdown.

So Puno isn’t a city to spend much time in, we got to our hostel Inka’s Rest and enquired about visiting the lake the next day. On the Peruvian side of the lake it’s all about visiting the floating reed islands. Apparently the indigenous communities also thought Puno was a horrible cities and decided to make their own mini cities on the lake out of the reeds that’s grow there. It’s certainly resourceful, a great use of space free of the pungent smells of traffic and rubbish. They also have the added bonus of being President of their own islands, this sense of confidence and pride is very apparent when you meet the people who live here.

We took a half day tour to the closest floating islands, Uros, and learned about how they make the islands and live on them. You can do a full day tour and visit another colony as well, or even a two day tour where you sleep on the islands. We opted for half a day so that we could get a bus across the border and be in Bolivia the same day, the tour was much cheaper (20 soles/£4) and it meant less time spent in Puno. I highly enjoyed the tour, the people clearly love explaining their very unique way of living and stepping onto the islands feels like what I image stepping onto a cloud might feel like (in my cartoon dreams). It’s definitely worth a visit, although I’m not sure what else could be gained from spending a full day there, half a day was plenty for us.

The Bolivian side

In the afternoon we took a bus to Copacobana on the Bolivian side, via the border. We took the Titicaca tourist bus which looked NOTHING like the pictures, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. 60 backpackers crammed onto a decrepit rusty bus in the sweltering heat headed straight for the wild side. I think this company gets some bad rep but they dropped us outside a hotel offering a dos out if we stayed there (cheeky) but it was actually a bloody good deal with a huge room and a view of the lake (Hotel Mirador), so I have no complaints.

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The view from our £10 hotel room

FYI Americans, Bolivia is not your friend. They will not make your border crossing easy or cheap, so make sure you have $160 in crisp unripped notes ready. Plus photocopies of your passport and pictures if you’re feeling super organised, if not they have facilities there.

Copacabana is a nice town set on the Bolivian side of the lake. Unfortunately its main drag is rather touristy, with waitresses trying to drag you into their establishment at every opportunity. Do your research before entering, some of her food is abismal. I’m talking mainly about Kota Kahuana who managed to get coffee so right but burgers so wrong. The Condor and Eagle cafe does fantastic breakfasts, it’s part Irish owned and they make amazing homemade baked beans on homemade Irish soda bread. It was the little taste of home I had been craving. Next door to this we had a great meal at Winaya, great enchiladas of all things.

Isla del Sol

The main reason people come here is to visit Isla del Sol, a 2 hour ferry ride away from Copacobana. This is easily the highlight of lake Titicaca for so many reasons. It’s isolated without wifi which makes a nice change, it’s beautiful terrain for challenging climbing, the views over the snow capped Cordillera Real are gorgeous and this all makes it the perfect place to go back to basics and unwind for a few days.

There are several ways to enjoy Isla del Sol depending on what you’re into. Both the south and the North have archaeological sights so it’s worth seeing both if you can, you can do this by boat without trekking if you wish. There are several trails across the island that you can do, some through wonderful smelling eucalyptus forests and some through indigenous villages. You can do it all if you decide to do a full circuit in one day which takes about 7 hours, if you do this you can take all your things with you to the island. We decided to leave our big bags at the hotel on the mainland and just take supplies for 2 days as this meant we could hike from one end of the island to the other without all our stuff. We met a lovely couple Nicole and Dave and decided to head to the island with them and do the trek together.

Ferries at 8.30am take you to the north side of the island, but we were running late so took the 1.30pm ferry to south of the island. The plan was to spend the night her and trek to the north the next morning in time for the 1.30 ferry back to the mainland. This ended up being perfect because it meant we got to have dinner at Las Velas, an enchanting restaurant in the middle of a forest lit solely by candles (even in the kitchen!) The lovely couple that own the restaurant are trained gourmet chefs and the food reflects this. It’s a seriously long wait for he food (1 hour 50 minutes!) but we were kept entertained by card games and wine. If you stay in the south part of the island this restaurant is a must, and make sure you get there in time for sunset for a great view and guaranteed table. You’ll also need to take a torch as there’s no lights to lead you back home at the end of the evening. Despite being prepared we still got lost on our way back down as we were staying near the port, I’m not going to lie I was terrified. Luckily the boys led us to safety using their Bear Grylls skills.

I recommend staying as high up as possible, there are a lot of hostels being flogged near the port but the main part of the village is on the summit so it’s worth doing the long walk up at the beginning to find a place to stay, otherwise you’ll be doing it again the next morning when you start your trek, and it’s not easy!

The trek across the island is one of the best I’ve done, despite being at altitude and therefore pretty difficult at times. Luckily there’s not too much uphill to do once your on the summit you kind of walk across the peak, but we did get a bit lost yet again as it’s not exactly well signposted. We were led through some beautiful eucalyptus forests, some isolated farms, down ancient in a trails and eventually made it to the other end where some ancient inca ruins awaited us. This trek had everything and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So does Peru or Bolivia win? In my opinion Bolivia was more picturesque, challenging and an experience to remember from start to finish, but then again it’s not every day you get to bounce up and down on a spongy man made island dressed as an indigenous couple, so I guess we can just say it’s a tie 🙂

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