August 22, 2014. Watching the sun set over Lake Titicaca from on top of Cerro Calvario.
“Nature. That’s really it. The moments that I’ve felt the most relaxed, happiest I’m doing this, and amazed at the world have all been when I was surrounded by pure, amazing, beautiful nature.
I love cities, don’t get me wrong. I did study architecture. I can be wowed by buildings, towers, skylines, and infrastructure too, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these around South America. But this trip has been different in what I’m prioritizing and enjoying most.
How many times have I sought out a spot to watch the sunset? It was an activity that I made sure I did every time I used to visit LA – watch sunset on the beach – but I didn’t realize it would be such a priority all over the world.
I bent over backward figuring out how to get to the Salt Flats, adding and deleting cities only so that I could get there. Cities became expendable.
Nature. From humid beaches in Colombia to the highest lake in the world in Bolivia, nature never fails to impress. And it’s during these moments, staring at the landscape, when I truly feel at peace.”
There was this annoying trend throughout Bolivia of extra hidden fees. Nothing too substantial – one or two Bolivianos here or there is only 15 or 30 cents – but it does make you feel like you’re being cheated a little bit.
We first noticed this upon entering Bolivia from Puno, Peru. We had already paid for the bus to get to Copacabana, but as we arrived in town we were told that it was 2 Bs per person to actually enter Copacabana. Um, what? First, why are you charging us to enter a town? Second, why wasn’t this included in the bus ticket? Third, why didn’t you tell us this sooner? Some people didn’t even have Bolivianos yet. No problem, they’ll accept 1 Peruvian Sole.
This happened again when we were leaving Copacabana. We got our bus tickets and were never told that we would have to pay another 2 Bs to cross the lake in the middle of the trip.
Plus there was that story about being left behind on Isla del Sol by an overly impatient boat that had been the cause of our being just a minute late to begin with. We would not have been surprised if this was a plan they devised on purpose just to get another 20 Bs out of us.
Then there’s the Salt Flat tour. We were warned this time about the extra 30 Bs for the Isla Incahuasi and 150 Bs to enter the park on our last day, both not included in the price of the tour, but then there was an additional 10 Bs for the group to have a table for lunch the first day, and 6 Bs to go in the hot springs. More minor costs that just were sprung on us in the moment. Also if you have to use a bathroom at any of the eating stops its 5 Bs; compared to the rest of Bolivia this felt like robbery.
Maybe this sounds like bitching – hell maybe it is, it is only change – but it’s more the principle of the thing. By the end of my time in Bolivia any new charge was not a surprise anymore. It was just how things worked there. So this is more of a warning to anyone who is planning on going to Bolivia: always have small Bolivianos on you, you never know when you’ll need them.
There are so many Salt Flat tour operators to choose from, and there seem to be just as many positive reviews on each one as there are negative. So how the hell do you know which one to go with?
Short answer: you don’t. You just pick one and hope for the best.
I opted to book through my hostel in La Paz, Wild Rover, who works with Extreme Expeditions. I went this route for a few reasons: first, I figured a reputable hostel would work with a good company for the many tourists its hosts; second, after doing some quick research I learned that this tour was priced reasonably compared to a few others I was looking into (Kanoo and Cordillera); and third, the process was incredibly easy – I booked and paid for the tour and my bus to Uyuni all at the hostel, and with credit card (finally somewhere that takes credit card!). If I was to do it again though, I probably would not have booked through Extreme Expeditions.
Why? Because I ran into other tours and envied them a little, mainly because of their guide. Everyone drives around in the same cars, eats the same food, and sleeps in the same places. The only difference really is the people you are with. Your driver acts as your guide in the Salt Flats, but depending on who your driver is you may not believe that. Once I referred to the driver as guide to someone who had been on a different tour and they said, “Oh we didn’t have a guide, just a driver.” That’s who I meant. Our driver was a semi-guide; he told us the basics about where we were but not much more than that. He also only spoke Spanish, so even if he had tried to explain more it would have been lost since the majority of my group didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
We met another group our first night who had a bilingual guide with them. She told them history of the sites and came up with the ideas for their Salt Flat pictures that we were all a little jealous of; the typical ones that play with perspective, ones of people standing on cars or crushing each other. We had no such pointers.
Then we heard another guide at one of our stops go into detailed explanation about the rock formations we were surrounded by; how they had been formed, why they got their name, theories about their appearance and the truth behind it. My entire group eavesdropped. As we walked back to our jeep, Tony remarked, “Now that’s a guide.” He was right.
For those who are curious, this guide was with Red Planet. I had heard of Red Planet and when I got off my bus I realized that the majority of English speakers on the bus had booked with them. This is when I started to think maybe I had chosen wrong. Maybe I should’ve pushed for an English guide or a more prominently reviewed company, if I could have found one. Going back to what I said in the beginning, if I had to book a tour again, I probably would book with Red Planet just from overhearing this one guy. But honestly I don’t know if a different company would have changed anything in the end. I really do think it is just luck of the draw.
So I was in the middle of the Salt Flats thinking about all of this and I made the decision to not be negative about it. Here is my conclusion on Salt Flat tour operators:
For everyone who booked through a smaller company like Extreme Expeditions, we were all thrown together anyway just to make sure that each jeep had its 6 people. Me and Sylvia were in one office, while Tony, Petra, Grant, and Marnie were in another, and since that totalled 6 we were all put in a car together. So in all likelihood unless you book with Red Planet or Cordillera you will end up in a truck that bears one of many names; ours actually said Alkaya Expeditions.
There is a range of possibilities of how this will end up: great and informative, like the two we were jealous of; middle of the road, like ours; or absolutely horrible. I had heard horror stories of drivers showing up drunk, making tourists drive, and threatening to turn the jeep around and take everyone back to Uyuni. At least I didn’t have one of those guys.
We had middle of the road, but I think a higher up middle of the road. We got some information on where we were, had no major issues, and I really do think that our guide cared about our group but was discouraged at our inability to communicate just like we were. So did this ruin the experience? Absolutely not, the Salt Flats are amazing no matter what. Could it have been more informative? Probably. Was there any way to guarantee that it would be? I doubt it. If anyone has any ideas on better ways to find and review these companies please share with as many people as possible. It’s an incredible experience and it is unfortunate that it is possible to come out of it with a negative opinion due to the luck of the draw with your tour company.
If anyone reads this who is planning on going and ends up with a middle of the road guide, I think the best advice I could give you would be to look around you. So what if you don’t know the details of how that stone ending up looking like a tree, the point is that you saw it, and years from now you most likely wouldn’t remember those details anyway but you will never forget the wonder you felt at seeing it.
It’s not possible to justly describe the Salt Flats.
The whole three day trip is like stepping into another world. The scenery is the most amazing and quirkiest landscape you’ve ever seen, with a strong feeling of endlessness. My jaw was dropped the whole time and my eyes wide open to the surreal surroundings.
If the Amazon was like a Dr. Seuss book then the Salt Flats are a Salvador Dali painting.
The tour is referred to as the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), but they are really just part one of this odyssey. The entire trip starts out with the worst overnight bus ride of your life from La Paz to Uyuni. At first the bus seems good enough – plush seats, an actually edible dinner with tv shows – and then it all goes downhill. Whoever designed these seats utterly failed at spacing; the seat in front of me actually reclined so much it was on top of my legs, and since the woman behind me asked me to move mine up a bit I’m assuming the same happened to her. That isn’t the worst part though, that award goes to the roads. Bumpy doesn’t even begin to cover it. The unpaved road feels like a constantly running massage chair set to uncomfortable. Somehow I managed to fall asleep enough to completely miss the fact that our bus got a flat tire and we were stopped for an hour while they fixed it. Maybe this is the hour I actually slept. (A few days after my trip a bus traveling from Uyuni to La Paz ran off the road, killing 10 people. They really should use some of the profit from these Salt Flat tours to improve this road.)
When we arrived in Uyuni I was picked up by my tour company and taken to meet up with the car and people that would be my constant companions over the next few days. Each group of 6 travels around in a 4×4 with a driver, who is also in charge of food and at least a little information on where you are each stop. I definitely have opinions on choosing a company and how this system works, but I’ll save that for another post. This one is about the incredible nature we saw.
Day 1 was all about the Salt Flats. When you google “Salt Flats” the images that come up are what we saw the first day. After a quick stop at a train cemetery, where they let tourists run around on rusting old trains like kids on a playground, we were whisked across endless off-white land to a few locations. First, a town where we could buy souveniers. Of course. This is a tourist excursion after all. Second was a salt hotel – a building made entirely out of blocks carved from salt – where we had our first mediocre lunch. Then it was off to the Isla Incahuasi. Time for the surrealism.
The Salt Flats were formed from several prehistoric lakes, so this “island” was originally under water. It is actually coral and is covered by gigantic cacti. It was so strange to be walking around on dried up coral rocks surrounded by incredibly sharp cacti that were easily twice my height. They grow at 1 cm a year; given how large they are, these things are seriously old. Surrounding the island is patterned white land that seems to go on for miles until some mountains in the far distance. After we climbed around for a bit we ran out to take some pictures on the Salt Flats. Our final stop of the day was to do the same, in the perspectiveless expanse. This is where people typically play with their pictures, using toy dinosaurs to look like they are being chased or standing far enough behind each other to look like they’re holding a tiny person. Our group was unfortunately not very creative, or at least didn’t have the proper encouragement, so I don’t have any of these pictures. Also since it was dry we weren’t lucky enough to have the mirror effect that happens in the wet season. But still, it was a sight to see, and I have some good pictures of me at least to document being there.
Driving around the Salt Flats was the most fascinating part of the day to me. There are tons of jeeps going every which way, but none of them appears to be driving. It looks more like the ground underneath is moving and the car is just on top of it. When you see these cars zooming around in the distance it’s like miniature toy cars that are being played with by invisible giant hands. It sort of messes with your mind.
Day 2 was entirely different. The whiteness was over and replaced by tan. We were in desert. From this point out, the scenery looks more like Mars than Earth. We started in another train cemetery, then traversed bumpy desert in search of odd rock formations, often created by petrified lava from the surrounding volcanoes. We played around on towering cliffs before venturing into the land of the wild flamingos. Lagoons were the theme of the day and we saw them in a variety of colors, from reflective blue to solid red. All of them seemed to host these flamingos. It’s so crazy to see these birds living their lives in this insane wonderland. We saw more wildlife from culpeo – the closest comparison I can think of is a fox – to vizcacha – sort of rabbit-looking things – as we passed by multicolored mountains and through a cavernous “road.”
This night was freezing. The first night was cold, but it didn’t even compare to the second night. We bundled up in all our layers as we huddled around our rum and tea concoction, playing cards underneath the sparse lightbulbs. At least dinner this night included a bottle of wine for an extra warming boost. The food did improve since the first lunch by the way, but nothing really worth writing about. We called it a night early since we had to be at breakfast at 5:00 am. To keep warm overnight, we slept in all our layers, in sleeping bags underneath multiple blankets, with a bottle of boiling water in each of our beds.
We woke up to -15 degrees celsius (5 degrees farenheit). We shivered in our car ride the entire way to our first stop, and the reason we were up so early, and it was so worth it. We arrived at the geysers just before sunrise. The heat of the geysers was an amazing contrast to the cold air, and we wandered around surrounded by white smoke as the sun rose over the mountains. It was, again, otherworldly. Next was the hot springs. Getting into a bathing suit in negative degrees is one of the harder things I’ve had to do, but I was rewarded for this effort once I got into the body-temperature-degree water. The water thawed me, and by the time I got out the sun had risen and I was no longer cold. It was entirely worth the extra 6 Bs (less than a dollar).
The rest of this day was spent driving past some more surreal desert – actually called the Valle de Dalí (Dali Valley, or Salvador Dali Desert) – and seeing one final lagoon – Laguna Verde – before we crossed the border into Chile and our adventure ended.
The border crossing was a bit hectic and hilarious. Three of us were continuing on to Chile and three were going back to Uyuni; an 8 hour drive across bumpy desert, I did not envy them. We rushed through the tiniest immigration office to get our exit stamps, hugged everyone goodbye, and jumped into a van that drove across the border. We knew we were in Chile when we were on smooth paved roads. A surprisingly long 20 minute drive and we were at immigration again for our entry stamps. Another country down. Leaving Bolivia by this three day adventure was definitely my most unique border crossing.
I’m sure this will come as no surprise to anyone, but I entirely recommend going to Salar de Uyuni if you have the chance. How many more words can I use to describe it and still not be sure I have accurately portrayed it? Surreal, incredible, otherworldly, amazing, quirky, endless, Mars, Salvador Dali – I hope these have at least painted a picture similar to what I experienced.
Part 1: The City of La Paz
I’d heard mixed opinions on La Paz. Now having been there, I hate to admit I am on the not positive side.
My first impression of La Paz was haphazard. Houses climb up the hills surrounding the city in an overwhelming way. In Medellin this happened too, but they eventually stopped. In La Paz they ran out of mountain. The houses made it all the way to the top and then kept spreading over the surrounding land, as we saw on our bus ride in.
The approach is kind of crazy: starting out in barren land, you pass buildings that are being constructed before your eyes, with a landscape of impressive mountains looming in the background. As you get closer to the city, buildings are starting to be completed, and streets are getting busy. Then traffic hits, and people and vehicles are all over the place. Finally you start to descend down a hill and the city is revealed below you, nestled into and bursting over the top of the valley.
The city itself is a network of winding streets with no city planning. The one main avenue, El Prado, looks like it was meant to be a publicly appealing thoroughfare with a center island that welcomes walking. It wasn’t necessary to walk on this island though since the entire street was shut down for protests. There were people all over the street, and it was a Monday afternoon. And all the protesters were eating ice cream from street vendors. It was quite a strange scene.
We wandered by the main square San Francisco and its back streets, full of shops selling tours, clothing, and dead baby animals in the Witches Market, which left a very unsettling feeling. I continued some wandering by myself and eventually found what I think was the main government square, due to the high level of security (which was the reason these streets were also closed to cars) and official looking buildings. The square was more overrun with pigeons than people though, so I didn’t linger long.
I had a full second day in La Paz before my night bus to Uyuni and I spent it all in my hostel catching up on computer things and watching a movie. I honestly just didn’t feel the need to go back out into the city. Sorry La Paz, I would have liked to have been more positive about you but I have to admit, you were my least favorite city in South America so far.
Part 2: My First Wild Rover Experience
All backpackers in South America have heard of Wild Rover and Loki, and most have stayed at at least one of these. I stayed in a Loki in Lima two years ago and was not a fan. I decided to try my luck at Wild Rover in La Paz. It was my first hostel experience like this on my trip, and all around it was better than Loki, but it’s not something I’m rushing back to any time soon. However I will say, I knew what I was getting myself into, so I embraced it and left satisfied.
What is the deal with Wild Rover and Loki? These are notoriously the party backpacker hostels. Tons of young people packed into dorm rooms that they barely sleep in because they spend most of their time at the hostel bar where everything is charged to a tab based on a wristband that all hostel residents have to wear with their name and bed on it. I admit, I spent most of my time in Wild Rover’s Irish bar. I ate meals there and took advantage of their 2 beers for 30 Bs happy hour (that’s about $4.50, and the beers were 650 ml). My team tied for first in pub quiz and participated in a karaoke sing off on the bar. I played a few games of pool and lounged on beanbag chairs in the movie room. I spoke only English with all the other English speakers, from visitors to employees.
What a place like this also comes with is a tour desk, and this was my primary motivation for staying here. I booked my Salt Flats tour and my overnight bus to Uyuni through Wild Rover. I figured with all the different options out there, and all of them having both positive and negative reviews, I might as well go with one that is backed by a hostel that has so many Hostelworld awards behind its reception desk that it must be reliable. My opinion on the tour operator I’ll save for another post.
So my first Wild Rover experience was exactly what you would expect, and I am totally okay with that. It served its purpose in crazy La Paz. It was a fun place to meet other people and get in some bar time, a safe place to hang out in a not-so-safe city, and a good place to spend what I call a “weekend day” just chilling at a hostel in between all my time on the go.
With the new way I had decided to travel – land border crossings – I ended up at Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. So I figured why not see the lake while I was here.
We started with a day on the Peru side in Puno. Puno itself doesn’t have much to offer at all, but our hostel had an assortment of half and full day tours to book so we opted for the half day Uros floating island tour. This is the main highlight from the Peru side, and it had some interesting qualities to it, but more so it left me with an impression of hypertourism.
The interesting part came from how many ways this community has used the reeds that grow in the lake: a group of houses made from reeds sits on an island constructed from the reeds, floating on blocks assembled from the roots. They even eat the reeds. The hypertourism was evident in the entire experience: first we boarded a boat where a guy was playing The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di on a guitar and reed wind instrument, and after finishing he of course asked for money. When we arrived at the island, they reenacted how they construct each community with miniature models. Then we were divided into pairs and brought into houses where they tried to sell us things; and as we later learned, most of them didn’t even live in these houses, they were there just to show the tourists. As we left on a traditionally constructed rowboat (for an extra 10 Bs), they sang a few songs, and after rowing for about 10 minutes a motorboat came up alongside us and attached, motoring us to the next island, where they sold traditional quinoa bread and would stamp your passport. The entire thing felt manufactured and a bit exploitative, both of this community and us. No wonder the Uros who still do live traditionally don’t want these tours coming to their islands.
The Bolivian side was much better. To cross the border, we booked a “tourist bus” through our hostel. It left at 7:30 am from Puno and we were at the Bolivian border about 3 hours later. After being rushed through a cambio (money change) and our exit stamp, we walked over to Bolivia for our entry stamp. At this point the bus driver ran up to me, the only American on the bus, to escort me through the visa process. As an American I had to fill out a visa application and pay $135 in pristine, unripped US dollars. At least after this painful process I got to cut the line for my entry stamp. I now have a 90 day Bolivia visa that is good for 5 years, so if anyone wants to go to Bolivia any time in the next 5 years let me know! I have to make good use of that $135. (Same goes for Brazil and Argentina, those are good for 10 years and cost me $160 a piece.)
Copacabana, Bolivia is right on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and it seems to be the town where hippies go to retire. People attempted to lure us into lakeside restaurants while juggling, promoting 2 for 1 happy hour all day from their rooftop restaurants. Seeing how it was lunch time, we did end up on the roof, and I enjoyed my first watery Bolivian beer in sun with a view of the lake. I also started to learn that Bolivianos are an annoying conversion: 7 to 1. Dividing by 7 was not a common occurrence in my life before, but I got very good at it during my time in Bolivia. So that 600 ml beer for 20 Bs cost me less than 3 dollars. Sweet. And our private 3-bed (we picked up another traveler in Puno) ensuite “hostel” room that was more like a hotel room and came with a fantastic breakfast for 60 Bs per person was actually less than $9 a night.
Our only full day in Copacabana we spent on Isla del Sol. The boat ride to get there was a slow 3 hours but the island itself was beautiful. We started on the north, wandering through and past ruins built high up on the island’s hills, before we walked all the way to the south. At 4100 m elevation, if you have any elevation issues I don’t recommend attempting this walk. Our boat dropped us off an hour late, giving us only 4 hours to complete this hike. Jasmin was not doing well with the elevation so we took it a little more cautiously, but even so we made good time. Not good enough though.
Our boat was leaving from the south at 3:40, and we realized we were cutting it close so I moved ahead to get to the port in time while Jasmin and Val kept their pace. I arrived at the docks at exactly 3:40 to see our boat leave. It knew we were coming to meet it but that didn’t matter. We were forced to pay another 20 Bs to get the 4:00 boat back or stay the night on the island. It was hard to not see this as a way to make more money off of us.
Leaving aside the unfortunate boat incident, the island itself is worth a visit. The walk was satisfyingly hilly, making me feel like I got some exercise (which was very welcomed after 3 days on buses) and the scenery was stunning. We traveled past white sand beaches and tree-covered hilltops, all with a view over deep blue water and snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The next day we hung out on a rooftop again before taking the 1:30 bus to La Paz. It was a short visit to Lake Titicaca, but any longer I think would have been too long. The chill town of Copacabana was a nice stop, and if you like just hanging out on a roof with a beer and not much else to do then it’s definitely for you.