Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama- the world’s most gorgeous and inhospitable landscapes 

Salar de Uyuni is probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist attraction, and for good reason. The area is located in Bolivia’s extreme southwest corner along the Chilean border. The Salar is the world’s largest salt flat, and is so white and flat it’s used to calibrate satellites! In order to visit the Salar and the stunning landscapes that surround it, you have to take a tour with a licensed guide. Most tours last for 3 days and 2 nights, with the option of ending in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the border into Chile.

I arrived in the little town of Uyuni at around 4 in the afternoon after taking a noon bus from Potosi. Once I found a cheap hotel for the night I went out in search for a good and reasonably priced tour agency. There are tons and tons of tour agencies in Uyuni, especially along the main street near the train station. A lot of agencies have had problems with drunk drivers so it’s best to get recommendations from other travelers or sites like tripadvisor before arriving in order to book with a good company. I used World White Travel, which was recommended to me by some friends that had used them a few weeks earlier (I’d recommend them as well). I paid 800 Bs(~$115 USD) for the 3d/2n tour with transfer to San Pedro de Atacama and a sleeping bag was included. Be sure to ask about the sleeping bag because neither place I stayed had heat it was really needed the second night. It is possible to bargain the price down a bit depending on your skills – I got 50 Bs for mentioning my friend paid 750 Bs for her tour, but others on my tour paid 850 Bs, so it’s always worth haggling a bit. All the tours are the same route and prices (except Red Planet, they are way more expensive but seemed to have really high quality services and English speaking guides from what I saw). All tours are conducted in Spanish by default unless you pay a lot more for English, and the quality of the guide seems to be mostly the same for everyone at the usual price range.
After booking, I had dinner at this amazing American-run pizza place in the Tonito Hotel, called Minuteman Pizza. The owner is from Boston and makes perfect American style pizza, which is impossible to find in South America. I had the Heart Attack special which is essentially a pizza shaped calzone stuffed with tons of meat. Every pizza also comes with a fresh salad, another impossibility in Bolivia. I chatted with the owner after eating and he ended up giving me a free piece of cake as a graduation present, which was awesome for breakfast the next morning before the tour began.

The town of Uyuni

The tour started at 10 AM in the tour office, conveniently located around the corner from my hotel. Soon after I arrived, the American family I met in Potosi joined in the office as they had booked the same tour. I ran into them the previous evening when they were looking for a tour company and told them where I booked, so they joined so I could translate the tour (which sounds awful but was actually quite fun). Two German cousins joined our group and then we packed up the car and headed to the first stop with our driver/guide, Herman.
The first stop on every tour is the Train Cemetery, located on the edge of town. This is where the old and broken trains from the country have been put for decades, since Uyuni is the center of Bolivian railway. All the trains are rusted over but are solid enough to climb around on, which is pretty great for photos and stuff. The stop here is for about a half hour, which is really about all the time you need to see everything and take a bunch of pictures.

Train Cemetery

The second stop is the main attraction, Salar de Uyuni. We stopped first at a series of salt mounds set up for photos before continuing to a salt hotel for lunch. Just outside of the salt hotel were a giant salt statue for the Dakar Rally, which goes through the area, and a bunch of flags for every country that participates in the rally. Lunch was mediocre, but really every meal was and no company had anything different to eat – no one goes for the food anyway. At some point around this time we stopped at an “artisanal village” which sold generic tourist junk and some salt things but the stop was so short I barely remember it.
After lunch we headed to the middle of the Salar for more pictures, like the stereotypical “giant dinosaur” picture and general pics of the hexagons of salt. We then went to Isla Incahuasi, which is a giant cactus-filled “island” in the middle of the Salar. The place is called an island because the entire Salar used to be a sea, so it’s used to be an island. For some reason the island is full of giant cacti, which only grow 1 cm per year so they had to be really quite old. There’s a nice trail along the island with the option of going into a giant cave made of dead coral, which was really cool to go into. The island also had free bathrooms included in the ticket price (yay toilets!). When we finished at the island our driver took us back to the Salar for sunset, and we were seemingly the only group to do so, which was nice after spending the whole day with a bunch of other people who get into photos and are generally in the way. It was a bit too cloudy for a spectacular sunset, but it was still pretty.

Flags from the Dakar Rally
Salar de Uyuni
Colin the Alpaca looking unamused at Salar
Isla Incahuasi

After sunset we drove another 2 hours to our hotel. The hotel was on the edge of the Salar and was completely made of salt. The floor was ground salt, the table and chairs of salt bricks, even the bed and end table were both made of salt (thankfully the bed had a real mattress and pillow!). Since we stayed for sunset on the Salar, we were the last group to arrive and as such we had no room to plug our phones/cameras in as there were only 2 power strips for the whole hotel. Most of us managed to get stuff charged during dinner or after and then we went to bed early in preparation for the 7 AM breakfast the following morning.

Salt hotel from the first night

Breakfast was the standard Bolivian fare not worth talking about, so I won’t. We headed first to the Ollagüe volcano. Along the way we stopped at a tiny village cemetery with a nice view of the volcano before heading to the proper “mirador.” The mirador was a crazy maze of bizarre rock formations, all overshadowed by the distant volcano. The wind there was brutally cold and the air had a tinge of sulfur to it from the volcanic activity. We left the mirador after about an hour and went to the first of a series of lagoons with wild flamingos.

Cemetery in the desert

 
The Hedionda Lagoon was a stunning dark grey lagoon full of wild flamingos wading through thick black mud. The surrounding landscape of snow-capped mountains and barren hills combined with the general existence of flamingos really made the visit feel otherworldly. After spending a while here we moved on to the nearby Cachi Lagoon, where we also had lunch. It was insanely windy here but the view was spectacular. Here the water was a light green-blue color and there were even more flamingos than the previous hill. At this point the trip got a bit less fun for me as I started feeling the symptoms of food poisoning. Suffice it to say that that is not pleasant on a day spent entirely in a car.

Hedionda Lagoon
Cachi Lagoon

I honestly don’t remember most of the trip involving the desert as I was trying to sleep and avoid vomiting (did not succeed), but felt moderately better by the time we arrived at the arbol de piedra, a large worn stone randomly sitting in the middle of a desert landscape. Not far from here was the day’s final stop, Laguna Colorada. This lagoon is a deep red color due to algae which live in the water. There were flamingos at this lagoon too, and the general area was gorgeous. However I started feeling awful again so I spent most of the visit laying in the car. We spent the night in one of the coldest places I’ve ever slept (this is why the sleeping bag is needed) and started really early the following morning. This hotel had electricity for only 2.5 hours and no heat.

Arbol de Piedra
Laguna Colorada

The last day of the tour began at 5 AM with a sunrise trip to a geyser field. The amount of geysers shooting out of the ground and giant pits of bubbling mud was incredible. The weather was bitterly cold, though the steam from the geysers made for decent hand-warmers. We stayed here a bit longer than expected due to a second case of sickness in the group, but then moved on the the natural hot springs. This lagoon was volcanically heated and a small pool was placed next to it for visitors to enjoy the warm waters in such a cold place. Half of our group got into the waters to get warm while the rest of us took some pics and went back to the car and out of the wind. Once we left, we continued south toward the Chile-Bolivia border. We drove by the Salvador Dali desert, likely named for its similarity to his works. We didn’t spend much time here as we were running late for the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. We had to skip Laguna Verde because of that, though we got to see it driving by. We barely made it to the transfer in time, and thankfully the Bolivian exit process was super easy so we didn’t miss it. There was a 15 Bs”exit tax” to leave the country, which is clearly a scam because I only had 6 Bs on me and he took it and shoved it in is pocket anyway and said good enough.

Geyser field
Geyser field at sunrise
Natural hot springs
Salvador Dali Desert

Crossing the border into Chile is like crossing into a parallel universe. Right at the border the road goes from bumpy gravel to perfect asphalt and road signs. The trip to San Pedro de Atacama only took about an hour, and the Chilean border control was fairly easy to get through (just don’t have fruits or vegetables!). Right after we arrived the German guys in my Uyuni tour and I booked a tour of Valle de la Luna for later that afternoon before going to our separate hostels.
San Pedro de Atacama was so much warmer than Bolivia it was incredible. When I finally found my hostel I had to change out of pants and jackets to shorts and a T-shirt because it was so hot. It was a welcome change. The tour for Valle de la Luna left about 3 hours after we arrived, which was just enough time to charge everything up and walk around town a bit.

  

SPdA Plaza de Armas

Valle de la Luna is located just outside of San Pedro and is an absolute must for anyone visit the town. I paid 9000 CLP ($13) for a 4 hour tour in English and Spanish. The guide was great and took us trekking around the valley for a few hours before watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. He described the history of the area and the various minerals in the valley and volcanic activity that shaped it. The views from the top of the peaks in the valley were amazing. By sunset, we were at the main viewpoint which allowed for a perfect view of the mountains for sunset. The colors gradually changed from pink to red to purple before the sun finally went below the horizon. When we returned to SPdA, I went back to my hostel to get some rest before the 24 hour bus journey that was to occur the following morning.

Valle de la Luna
Death Valley
Volcano and the Andes at sunset

First thing in the morning I went to the bus station and bought a salon-cama ticket to Santiago ($60, 24 hours) and then had breakfast, which was my first meal since being sick on the Uyuni tour. By the time I had finished the meal and bought some supplies for the bus ride, it was time to head to the station and go to Santiago.
(The bus was actually quite comfortable, other than the baby in the seat next to me that screamed the entire night).

Potosí – Cerros, Strikes, and Silver Mines 

Potosi, Bolivia, is one of the world’s highest cities, located at 4,060 meters (13,320 ft) above sea level. The city is most well known for its large number of silver mines in Cerro Rico, which have been in use since the 1500s. I arrived in Potosi in the late morning after a short bus ride from Sucre and checked into the Koala Den hostel (really great, definitely would recommend). The hostel is associated with Koala Tours, which runs the best reviewed silver mine tours of the city. I booked the tour for later in the day and headed out into the city to wander around and take in the sites before the 1:30 tour.  
Potosi has a surprisingly beautiful city centre. The main plaza, 10 de Noviembre, is surrounded by colonial architecture and a beautiful cathedral. I wandered down the various side streets radiating from the plaza to photograph the old wooden balconies attached to the earth-tone colored colonial buildings. I stumbled into a tourist information centre which had access to Torre de la Compañía de Jesús, and old church bell tower with stunning views of the city and Cerro Rico (and also featured on the Bolivian $50 bill).

 

Colorful buildings near the main plaza
  
Torre de la Compañía de Jesús
  
Potosí and Cerro Rico from the Torre de la Compañía de Jesús
 
I grabbed lunch at a really nice cafe, called La Plata, located right in the main plaza. The guy running the place looked like he could have been working as a barista at any cafe in the U.S. and seemed to be a pro at making specialty coffees. I think this place is the only cafe in this part of Bolivia that has a good coffee and not just instant, for all you coffee people reading this. I had an amazing hot chocolate drink made with cinnamon and milk which was very thick but maintained a perfect temperature for drinking. While I was sitting in here, a parade of students passed by celebrating something which I never figured out. After I finished eating I went back to my hostel to prepare for the upcoming silver mine tour.  

I was picked up at my hostel, along with one other person staying there, to head to the bus to the mine. We got to the bus and met the other two people on our tour and headed to the Miner’s Warehouse to get protective clothing for inside the mine (over clothes, rubber boots, helmets and head lamps) and meet our guide, Ronald. Once we left here we went to a processing plant where the chunks of mineral ores are refined into the raw materials which are then shipped abroad for smelting. There are no places in Bolivia which can smelt the silver into solid pieces, so all of the processed mineral goes to Chile for shipment to Asia, mostly to China and Japan, to be used for electronics.  

Silver refining pools
 
We left the processing plant and headed to the Miner’s Market. This is where miners can purchase everything they need for working in the mines — drinks, coca, tools, clothes, boots, and dynamite. They can also purchase pure alcohol and coca leaves for rituals, called ch’allas, to El Tio, the god of the underworld who they believe protects them from harm in the mines and brings good luck. The belief is that the more alcohol they can drink for El Tio the better luck they have in finding minerals. Workers in the mines get paid based on the amount of minerals they extract, rather than by the hour, so it’s important that they find lots of silver veins in order to provide for their families. We as a group bought eight two-liter bottles of juice and two sticks of dynamite (dynamite cost 22 bs, about $3.10 USD and juice $1 USD).  

Once we finished purchasing gifts for the miners, we went up Cerro Rico toward the mine. When we reached the location of the mine, there was a great panoramic view of the city below. The area outside of the mine entrance is full of old rusty mine carts and miners getting fresh air before re-entering the dark and dusty mine. The four of us followed our guide into the dark hole that was the entrance to the mine. Just inside the entrance is a long tunnel with a fairly short ceiling, perfectly fine for most Bolivians but not for anyone taller than 5’5”. Along the walk down the tunnel there were many times where we had to step to the side to get out of the way of the two-ton carts of mineral ore heading out of the mine. We split off of the main tunnel and went down to one of the locations where miners were working.  

 

Potosí from the mine entrance
 
  
We first visited some workers who were drilling holes for dynamite with jackhammers. They drill holes that fit a stick of dynamite inside the holes to blow the veins of silver out of the walls. At each stop like this, our guide asked each miner their age, how many years they had been working in the mine, and how long they work every day. A great majority started the work in their early teens and work about 10 hours a day inside the mine. They chew coca throughout their shifts as they cannot eat in the mine due to the dust and have no breaks until they are finished for the day.  
As we continued through the mine, there were many places which were difficult to navigate. The mine is full of broken ladders, steep slopes of blown up stones, and deep holes with little space to navigate around. Many parts were full of extremely dusty air which was hard to breathe. The conditions are absolutely dismal, but for the men of Potosi, there are no other alternatives. Life expectancy of those working in the mines is only late 40s, mostly due to a lung cancer they call silicosis which is caused by the constant dust inhalation and is untreatable here. When men die in the mines, which happens fairly often, their oldest male child has to start working in the mine in order to continue supporting the family, as it’s the only source of income for residents of Potosi.  

  

One of the many sketchy ladders inside
 
 
Miners drilling holes in the walls
 
The miners work for cooperatives which represent the miners for the central government. There are many of these cooperatives in Potosi, each of them owning sections of the mines. However, they do not provide the workers with any equipment for their jobs, such as clothing, tools, or helmets. All of this has to be provided by the workers themselves. The entire system is very exploitative of the miners, who receive little for the amount of work they do every day. The mine tour was a fascinating and disturbing way to understand the conditions of miners in Potosi and hear their stories.  

 

Miners pushing a derailed cart back on the track
 
There were recent protests in the city addressing the problems with the mines. For 27 days, the people of Potosi blockaded the roads into the city from all directions, blocking all traffic into the capital of Sucre on the popular Potosi-Sucre highway. A large group marched from Potosi to La Paz to state their reasons for striking in front of the government offices in the main plaza. The people of the city want a greater amount of the profits from the mine – currently they only receive 3%, the rest goes to the federal government or to foreign companies. The were also requesting that the government invest more into the department of Potosi, as it’s the poorest in Bolivia and has little available. For example, there is no hospital in the region, for emergencies people have to go to Cochabamba, La Paz, or Sucre, all of which are far away and expensive for people to get to in an emergency. The people in the city don’t like President Evo Morales as he has not done anything to improve their living and working conditions, while he has in other departments.  

  

Miner pushing a two-ton cart out of the mine
 
Overall, Potosi was a worthwhile stop on my trip through South America. I had initially planned on skipping the city but had a last minute change of plans, which was very fortunate as it was an incredible place to visit. I’m now heading by bus to Salar de Uyuni, which is my final stop in Bolivia before crossing over to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  

 

Carts outside the entrance
  
Mine entrance
  
Miners dumping unneeded rocks off the side of the hill
 

Sucre – Bolivia’s hidden gem of a capital

Sucre is the first and official capital city of Bolivia, located in the central part of the country. It’s a colonial city which was founded by the Spanish in the early 1500s. The city is located at 2,810 meters (9,214 ft) above sea level, which is about 1,000 meters lower than La Paz. 

I arrived in the city around 8 AM after the long bus ride from La Paz. After checking into my hostel and recharging batteries, I wandered through the colonial centre of the city for a few hours. The main plaza of Sucre is full of palm trees, statues, and fountains, and is surrounded by stunning white colonial buildings. I spent about an hour wandering through the streets before stumbling upon the Military History museum, which was located inside an old white building full of arches.  

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Inside the Military Museum

The museum held information on all of the wars in Bolivia, particularly the ones with Chile and Paraguay. After visiting the museum I went to the central market and had a fresh mango juice at one of the fruit juice stands before heading back to the hostel to make lunch.  
Following lunch, I went to the Sucre cemetery. The cemetery in Sucre is a gorgeous area which looks more like a park than a cemetery. The city’s most affluent inhabitants and former Bolivian presidents get buried in large mausoleums near the entry. The place is such a popular attraction for visitors that guides are available for hire at the entrance. Along the walls were the more traditional ossuary burial styles in small crypts, and in the back some smaller in ground graves for the poorest people. The cemetery was very interesting and contrasted many other cemeteries I’ve seen in Bolivia.

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Main cemetery walkway
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Hundreds of graves line the walls
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Guitar shaped grave

After leaving the cemetery, I walked across the city to the Recoleta Church and Monastery. The church is located on top of a steep hill, which isn’t fun to climb but the altitude isn’t bad enough to make it impossible. The views from the top are absolutely incredible though, especially through the large hallway of arches with a viewpoint of the city. To visit the church you have to take a tour, as the monastery is still active. When we first walked in a couple of monks walked by us on their way to another section of the building. The monastery is full of courtyards and gardens, as well as one of the oldest trees in Bolivia. There’s a large collection of colonial art inside the church as well.  
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Sucre from the Recolecta hill
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Recoleta square
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Inside the church and monastery

When the tour was complete, I walked down the hill toward a castle shaped building which now holds government offices. This building used to be a residence but was recently purchased by the local government of Sucre for use as mayoral offices. I had a great chat with one of the security guards here for about an hour, who told me all about the tunnels under the house and under the city. I was fairly skeptical about what he was saying until he actually took me down into one of the tunnels under the house to see what they looked like! It was quite impressive seeing how everything could be connected like that. On my way back to the center from the house I stopped by the Santa Clara church for a brief tour of the associated museum. There was restoration work going on for the many murals which decorated the walls around the courtyard, which were beautiful. By the time I left the church it was almost dark so I grabbed dinner and headed back to my hostel.
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Old Castle House
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Tunnel under the building
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Santa Clara Church

The following morning I went to have breakfast in a cafe along the main square when I ran into two people from my hostel in La Paz/Death Road tour. They joined me for breakfast before heading back to their hostel to rest after the bus from La Paz. After breakfast I went to the Anthropology museum, which had a really great physical anthropology section with a large selection of annular and tabular shaped human skulls, as well as a few mummies. I really enjoyed the museum as they had great displays and information about the skeletons and skulls which were exhibited, which is something I rarely see in museums.  
On my way back to the hostel after visiting the museum, I stopped by Saint Francis Xavier University, which can be found on the Bolivian $100 bill. The building is in an old colonial style with a large fountain and a steeple like projection from the roof. I took a few pictures before going back to the hostel and hopping on the bus to my next stop, the Cretaceous Park.  
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Mummies in the Anthropology Museum
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Saint Francis Xavier University

The Cretaceous Park is located about 5 km outside of the city, and is easily accessible by public bus. The site is the world’s largest paleontological site and is home to hundreds of dinosaur tracks on a vertical wall coming out of the ground. The museum has many life size replicas of dinosaurs which are very well made. The guided tour lasted about 30-40 minutes, after which was free time to wander around and explore the exhibits.   
Dinosaurs in the park
  
Dinosaur tracks
 
When I returned from the park, I decided I needed to get a haircut while in Sucre because my hair was getting too long. Thanks to a recommendation on the SucreLife website, I found a place that did a great job for only $5 and took to time at all. The guy was really friendly and nice to chat with for a bit while he was cutting off the ridiculous amount of hair that had grown since I’ve been here in South America.
Once I lost a few pounds of hair, I went back toward the main plaza and visited the Morbid Anatomy museum. I was the only non-medical student visiting at that time, which was amusing. The museum featured all the best things one could want in a museum — skeletons, plasticized bodies, jarred organs, etc. I spent a while looking through the collections before heading to another part of the city before nightfall.  
I walked toward another park and plaza near my hostel which housed an old theatre and the Bolivian Supreme Court. The park was lovely and had a small river and Eiffel Tower replica inside of it. There were women selling delicious pieces of fried dough covered in honey for 1Bs (14 cents). I stayed and watched the colors of the sunset change the white churches an orange color before finding food and getting an early sleep for the first bus to Potosi the following morning. DSC_0360

La Paz – Bolivia’s bustling and chaotic capital

I’ve spent a great deal of time in La Paz, generally doing nothing interesting or useful, but for the past few days I’ve been able to explore the city in a way I never was able to during my many previous visits. I really enjoy the chaos of the Bolivian capital, with its constant touts for minibuses and shoeshines battling it out for business on the sidewalks and plazas. The city is full of contrasts, old and new, loud and quiet, young and old.  

 

Street Art near the Witches Market
 
During previous visits, I went to places like the San Francisco Church and Witches Market, but little else. San Francisco church is a colonial church located along the primary street running through the core of the city. The church itself is generally not open for visits, but the connected museum tour is an excellent way to see the inside of the church complex and hear the history of the church and the city. The Witches Market, located in and around Calle Linearas, sells good luck charms (like llama fetuses!) and elements for Aymara rituals, called ch’allas. The entire area around the church and market are really touristy and are the most popular parts of La Paz for visitors.    

San Francisco Plaza
  
Dried llama fetuses in the Witches Market
 
During this longer visit, I went to all the traditional tourist attractions as well as as few not so popular destinations. Kirsten and I arrived in La Paz on Wednesday afternoon after a crazy trip to the city from Copa during a snowstorm. When we arrived, we checked into a hotel along El Prado and grabbed some lunch before returning to the hotel for long overdue hot showers – nothing feels better than a hot shower with good water pressure after two months without either. Afterwards, we took a cab to the La Paz International Book Fair, located in a conference center type building in the south of the city. We shared a cab with a lovely Mexican family from our hotel who happened to have already been heading in that direction, which was great. The fair itself was fantastic and there were two giant floors of booksellers selling books about every topic imaginable (I found a book on Bolivan a Forensic Anthropology!). We stayed for about an hour and a half before heading back to the hotel for dinner. We met up with a friend at Pollos Copacabana, a La Paz fast food chain with really great fried chicken (I ended up going back twice more).   
The Book Fair
 
The following morning we headed to the Ethnographic Museum near Plaza Murillo. This museum is probably one of the best museums I’ve ever visited anywhere. The displays were fantastically put together and very modern. There was one section on the various dances of Bolivia that was especially amazing. The museum is huge, we ended up spending quite a long time inside. When we finally left the museum, we headed back to El Prado via Plaza Murillo. Plaza Murillo is home to the Bolivian Presidential Palace and a Catholic Church. The Presidential Palace is interesting as it is home to the Clock of the South, Bolivia’s response to a perceived colonial imposition of clock direction While there are a number of problematic issues related to colonialism still facing many countries, clock direction is not one of them – changing it just confuses everyone.  

 

Clock of the South in Plaza Murillo
 
Once we made it back to El Prado, we had a quick lunch and went back to the hotel to grab our bags and check out. We shared a cab to our next destinations, Kirsten to the airport for her flight home, and me to my new hostel located further up the street up from the San Francisco Plaza. Once I got to my hostel we bid each other farewell and I began my 5 weeks of solo travel across southern South America. I stayed at the Adventure Brew hostel, located only a couple blocks from the bus terminal. I picked the 8 bed dorm and ended up having the whole thing to myself during my entire stay, which was both great and boring. 
For the rest of the day, I visited the museum along the old colonial street of Calle Jaen. This street has a four museum combo ticket available for 10 Bs ($1.40). The museums are located in old colonial homes, and include a Costume Museum, the Murillo House (one of the men who conducted the overthrow of the Spanish rule and was executed), the Museum of the Bolivian Sea (they’re still bitter and want it back), and the Museum of Precious Metals. Of these museums, only the Precious Metals Museum is well put together. I visited all of them in about 30 minutes and then carried on in other places. I returned to Plaza Murillo, where a very large number of pigeons had congregated in a very unsettling fashion. I returned to my hostel soon after and then met up with a friend for dinner before returning to my hostel to get ready for my morning bike trip down the Death Road.   

 

Calle Jaen
 
When I went down to the lobby the following morning for my tour, I was told it was cancelled due to the weather. I was both disappointed and relieved, as I had been up since 3 AM with some food poisoning-like stomach issues and wasn’t ready to bike anyway. I went back to bed to recover from the sickness and then ran around the city reorganizing my trip schedule for the Death Road trip the following day. After rebooking the trip, changing my bus ticket to Sucre, and booking another night at my hostel, I took a local minibus to Valle de la Luna, located about 10 km south of the city centre. The ride down took about an hour and a half and cost a whopping 35¢. 

 Valle de la Luna (entry 15 Bs – $2.14) is a canyon which was carved out by the many rivers which flow through this part of the city. There are two trails available to hike during the visit, a short 15 minute walk or a 45 minute hike through the canyon. I chose the latter and was not disappointed. The landscape is beautiful and feels like a completely different world than the bustling city located so close by. There were very few other visitors when I was there, which made it so much better as the atmosphere felt more desolate and isolated. I stayed for over an hour before heading back to the city on a micro and grabbing an early supper at Pollos Copacabana so I could rest for the next day’s activities.  

 

Valle de la Luna
 
I spent all day Saturday biking the Death Road, which has already been written about elsewhere. I grabbed supper in the local market afterward with a few guys from my hostel who were also on my bike tour and then passed out from exhaustion not long after returning. Sunday was a slow day in terms of activities, as everything still hurt from the bumpiness of the biking the prior day. After enjoying the all you can eat pancake breakfast at the hostel, I went to the Altitude Biking office to pick up the photo CD that was included with my tour and then walked toward the Sopocachi Teleferico station. Along the way, I stumbled upon San Pedro Plaza, home to the infamous prison. As I descended along the street, the general atmosphere changed from the familiar chaotic Bolivia to a calm and upscale feeling. Along the walk, the frequency of people walking small dogs in sweaters increased exponentially, as well as the number of fancy restaurants and bars. In one plaza I stumbled into a festival for dogs where there were dog sweaters for sale and puppies up for adoption.  

 

San Pedro Plaza
 
I made it to the Teleferico station, which is located at the top of a very large hill, not long after finding the dog festival. The station is part of the Yellow Line, which I had not previously used. I took the cable car up to Estacion Mirador in El Alto to see the cityscape as I ascended the hill. Once I reached the top I wandered around El Alto in the parts surrounding the station to take photos of the city below. From there I took the Teleferico back down across the rest of the city to the Green Line, which is connected to the Yellow Line for access to the districts of Obrajes and Calacoto. I took the Yellow to the Green Line until it ended in Calacoto.  

 

La Paz from Mirador Station in El Alto
 
The Calacoto district is a bizarre section of La Paz which feels like it could be SoCal in an alternate universe. As soon as I stepped out of the station I was greeted by a donut stall and a snow cone vendor, two things I hadn’t seen in Bolivia before. As I wandered through the streets of this clearly upscale neighborhood, I stumbled into a supermarket where I found all the things I hadn’t seen in the two previous months I’d been in Bolivia. After succumbing to the call of a large chunk of smoked provolone cheese and aloe vera juice, I continued to explore the district for a bit longer. I had lunch in a random kebab place which had really cheap gyros (13 Bs, $1.85) and caught a micro back to my hostel, where I spend the last couple hours charging everything for this ongoing overnight bus ride (it didn’t do much, the phone died already and it’s only been 3 of 12 hours). Anyway, the next destination is Bolivia’s first capital city, Sucre! 

Calacoto from the Green Line

El Camino de la Muerte – Biking Bolivia’s Infamous Death Road

I’m writing this post from the bus back to La Paz after doing the 63 kilometer Death Road bike tour. The North Yungas Road, more commonly referred to as the Death Road (El Camino de la Muertes, runs from outside of La Paz to the town of Coroico. It was named the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995 due to the large number of deaths which occur every year on its sometimes only 9 ft wide path. In the early 2000s it was replaced by a newly paved highway between the two areas so use of the Death Road has greatly declined. Today, mostly bike and ATV tours use the road on a regular basis. 

 

The Death Road
 
I had intended to take this tour yesterday, but it was cancelled due to a snowstorm in the area.  The tour (which I took with Altitude Biking, highly recommend) started at 7:30 this morning with a pick up from my hostel in La Paz. I was at the last hostel for pick up so after me and the two others at my hostel were picked up we headed toward the beginning of the tour. The road to Coroico is stunning – it looks just like a scene out of Skyrim with its stunning snowy mountain landscapes. It took about an hour to get to the beginning of the tour, a place called La Cumbre. At this point we all got out of the vans for photos, the explanations of how the tour worked, and to split into groups, as Altitude had a number of buses there.  My group was made up of mostly Brits, a couple of Aussies, a German guy and one other American.  The ground was covered and snow and it was pretty chilly at this spot. Even so, we got our bikes here and began the first 20 km of the ride.  

 

View of La Paz on the way to the road
  
The start of the trip
  
“Only God Can Save You”
 
The landscape here was absolutely amazing; we started at 4,600 meters above sea level and quickly descended downward along a paved highway as we got used to the bikes. The entire section was downhill so it was completely unnecessary to use the pedals, only the brakes. The amount of speed you could gain here was amazing. As we went down the road, the climate and vegetation slowly changed – first from low brown grasses to more green and lush plant life. There were signs along the road that said things like “Endangered Bird Zone” and “Bear Crossing,” among other things.  
When we reached the bottom of the paved road, we had to stop at a checkpoint where there is a 25 Bs charge for biking the Death Road. Once we paid this, we loaded the bikes up in the car and took the van to the beginning of the Death Road, as there was an 8 km uphill section of the road.  

 

Brief stop halfway down the paved road
 
As the van began down the road, clouds began to fly up the side of the mountain cliffs to our left and zoom overhead. The view was incredible. We got back on the bikes and began riding the first 12 km stretch of the road, which was the most narrow. There were many sections of road which were only 3.5 meters wide (about 11 feet). While this was perfectly fine on a bike, I’d never want to drive down it with a car. Many parts of this section had drops which were probably 2000 ft down. There was still traffic along the road, though only a handful of cars were not associated with a tour of some kind. We made our first photo stop after the 12 km stretch at one of the most famous parts of the road.  

 

The beginning of the Death Road
  
Chilling on a cliff
  
A bus going down the road
 
From here we continued onward for another 10 km before stopping again. All the smoothness of the paved road was but a distant memory by this point. The road was extremely bumpy and rocks would regularly shoot out of under the tires. At one point a girl on my tour slipped on the rocks and fell into the cliff face on the inner portion of the road (she was fine and this was the only incident, she was going slow and stayed on the bike the whole time – she mostly just tipped over). This part was also completely downhill, so pedals were still rarely used. On part of this section we drove under a waterfall, which was pretty cool. 

 

Biking down the road
 
The next chunk was a bit more challenging, as it went from completely downhill to having a bunch of flat sections. At this point I made it to the front of the group because I had less trouble with the flat parts since we were at a low altitude and I hadn’t encountered such oxygen levels since May. We stopped for a long break at the tourist center and this part of the road before finishing the last 20 minute ride to the end. It was sweltering at this place and we were able to take off the protective pants and jacket they gave us for the first part of the ride and we could change into more comfortable clothes. After the stop we continued on the last section of road, which took us to the village of Yolosa. There were substantially fewer cliffs on this section but I thought it was the most difficult, as the rocks in the road were larger and there were lots of ruts from water draining down the middle of the street. There was one place where I thought I might fall into the wall because I hit a rock, but it ended up being fine and no incidents were had.   
View from the penultimate stop
 

When we reached the end, located at 1100 meters, we received an “I Survived the Death Road” shirt and then took the van to a hotel where we had a buffet lunch and could go swimming. The buffet had a weird assortment of food (fries, spaghetti, fried chicken, etc.) but it was wonderful after 63 kilometers of biking. The swimming pool was freezing, so I didn’t use it long. The weather at this place was gorgeous though, and the gardens around the pools were great – lots of tropical flowers and some coconut trees. We stayed for about two hours before starting this car ride back to La Paz (which will probably take about 3 hours).  

 

Tropical paradise at the end of the ride
  
I Survived the Death Road and have the T-Shirt to prove it
 
This trip was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done and I would absolutely do it again if given the opportunity. It wasn’t the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve experienced, but the change in landscapes and climates along the ride, which dropped 11,500 feet in elevation, were stunning. I highly recommend anyone visiting La Paz to take a day to do the ride, it was incredible and probably will be the highlight of my time in Bolivia, and maybe in South America.

Me not dying on the Death Road

Copacabana, Bolivia – Two months living on Lake Titicaca

Copacabana, Bolivia is like my home away from home. Having lived here for an entire summer two years ago, it felt great to come back for another summer. After a bit of effort at the border to get Kirsten’s visa, we made it to Copacabana around lunchtime and dropped all our stuff off at our home for the summer before wandering around town for a bit. We arrived about a week before our professor, so we had plenty of time to rest and see the sites around town before things got busy. Since we’ve now been here about two months, I’ll list the highlights of our stay here and the general things to do in Copacabana when visiting.

  • First and foremost, El Condor and the Eagle Cafe and La Orilla are two must-try restaurants in town. The former for breakfast and the latter for dinner (especially the pepper steak). We ended up having dinner with a writer for Lonely Planet there a week ago which was pretty awesome.
  • The Basilica of Copacabana is a huge pilgrimage site for Peruvians and Bolivians, and you can watch cars get blessed and purchase holy water if you do so desire  
    Basilica of Copacabana
     
  • Intinkala is an Inca site of unknown purpose located near the center of town. There’s not much information known about it but entry is free so it’s worth checking out for a few minutes. 
    Carved rocks of Intinkala
     
  • The Calvario is the mountain on the edge of town which has a Catholic shrine on top. The climb up the stairs is brutal but climbing up the dirt trails on the side is really nice.   
    Stations of the Cross on top of the Calvario
      
    Copacabana from the Calvario
     
  • Horca del Inca is another Inca site located on the opposite side of town from Calvario. It was an Inca (and probably earlier) astronomical observatory used on the winter solstice (June 21). We met some fellow Americans during our visit here who were great and we ended up hanging out with them in Copa for a few days.   
    Horca del Inca
     
  • Baño del Inca is located about 2 km away in Kusijata, and was a former Inca bath there pilgrims would have to purify before being allowed to enter Copacabana. There’s also a natural mummy in the small museum here, though it’s degrading due to water damage in the case.  
    Baño del Inca
     
  • Boca del Sapo is another religious site which is in the shape of a frog. People throw champaign bottles at it for good luck.   
    Boca del Sapo
     
  • Salteñas are available in the main plaza for 4 Bs and they are amazing. The only downside is the olive hidden somewhere inside.

Copacabana is quite small and everything can be visited in a few days. The charm of the city is its lakeside town atmosphere and laid back vibe. It’s not just a place to spend a day on a trip between Cuzco and La Paz, it’s a destination in its own right. If in the area, try to spend a few days in town to visit the islands and relax in this chill lakeside town. Take a stroll down the beach or climb one of the surrounding hills. There are lots of options for activities, especially on the weekends when tourists from La Paz also come to visit the town.   

The Milky Way over Copacabana

A short post about Copacabana sunsets

This post diverges from the usual trip report type entries I usually post, but I have to acknowledge the gorgeous sunsets that I’ve seen for the past 2 months in Copacabana. I’m lucky enough to have a stunning view of the lake out of my bedroom window, so I’ve been spoiled with the magnificent array of sunsets that occur every evening. Sunset is probably the most beautiful time of day in Copa, and if you visit you must watch the sun drop below the lake from one of the rickety docks along the shore, but I digress. Anyway, here are some pics of the amazing sunsets over Lake Titicaca!

 
     
    
   

The fair of Copacabana – Bolivia’s largest Independence Day celebration 

The fair of Copacabana is a week long celebration for Bolivian Independence Day. It occurs during the first week of August and lasts about ten days. During this time, thousands of Peruvians come to town to visit the Virgin of Copacabana in the basilica and get their cars blessed in front of the church. The entire city fills with people and stalls selling random junk appear in every main street and both plazas. Each night, tons of fireworks were shot off and lots of love music was played through the night.  

 

Blessed car on the beach
 
It’s generally a crazy time, considering how quiet the town generally is during the rest of the year. There was street food everywhere, as well as miniature ponies and baby alpacas for people to take photos with in the plazas. It’s almost impossible to drive anywhere at this time due to the large number of cars parked along the streets and on the beach. Many restaurants in town close for the week because of how insane the whole thing is. You can buy almost anything you want in the city during that week, including knock off coats, ceramics, kitchen supplies, Bolivian textiles, and dried llama fetuses.  
The most impressive part of the fair is probably the large firework displays which are attached to giant bamboo structures. The fireworks would shoot in every direction or spin around on a wheel attached to the bamboo thing, often right next to the crowds watching. I personally kept a safe distance as the things were terrifying, but fascinating to watch. Regular giant fireworks were also shot up in the air from the same location and would explode right over our heads.  

 

Anticucho vendor
 
It’s a great time to visit the city, but it’s a completely different vibe than the usual quaint lakeside town. If visiting during this time, be aware that most prices in town are much higher due to the crowds, and paying in Peruvian Soles gets you terrible rates for everything. Also, avoid the street food in the main plaza, only eat at the stalls in front of the local market, as they don’t reuse oil or cook old/questionable meat.  

Terrifying fireworks

Two days of Dance – La Entrada Universitaria and the Day of the Campesino in Siripaca

Every year in La Paz there is a large dance festival put together by the local university, called the Entrada Universitaria. This festival includes dances from across Bolivia which are predominately performed by university students. The dances begin near the bus station and continue downtown along El Prado and Camacho streets, and they last the entire day.

 

Male Morenada Dancer
 
Kirsten and I took the bus to La Paz early in the morning to make it there with enough time to see most of the dances. We got dropped off near the cemetery and had to walk through the cemetery (which was really cool) to get to the teleferico station which went toward the bus station downtown. We made it to the dance around 11 AM and rented a ground level seat in order to get some good pictures of the dancers. The dances are very diverse and come from both the lowland and highland regions of Bolivia. We both much preferred this festival to the Chacaltaya festival we attended a few weeks earlier due to the greater diversity of dances and costumes. The dancers at this festival also seemed to be much more happy to be performimg compared to the other festival. My favorite dance was the Tobas, which comes from the Amazonian part of Bolivia. The dancers carry spears and bows and the costumes feature lots of colorful feathers and skulls. We stayed for a few hours before catching the bus back to Copacabana.  

 

Tinku
  
Waca Waca Dance
  
Diablada
  
Tinku
 
The following day, we were invited to another dance festival in the village of Siripaca, about 30 minutes from Copacabana. This festival was put together by a number of small villages for the school kids to perform various dances for the communities. We arrived just after noon and were treated to a lunch of potatoes, oca, sweet potatoes, and chicken, before the dances began. The kids started dancing about 40 minutes later. One of the first dances involved small children dressed as birds dancing around a large paper egg, out of which an even smaller child popped out of after a few minutes, which was adorable. The dancers got progressively older as the performances went on, and because of that the quality got better. Many of the dances had live bands from their respective villages playing along with the children, though a few just used a CD for the dance track. The dances lasted for about an hour and a half, after which Kirsten and I walked down to the lake to take photos of the mountains and sit in the shade, since the sun was pounding down on us during the dances. We stayed about 2 hours after the dances ended, which was completely unnecessary, but the day was still enjoyable as the children dancing was very entertaining. Overall it was great two days of dance festivals, both urban and rural.  

 

Kids dressed up like birds
  
Lowland Bolivian dance
 

Archaeology on the Copacabana Peninsula

I’ve spent two summers in Copacabana as part of an archaeological field school offered through my anthropology department. Because of this, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of the archaeological sites along the Copacabana Peninsula in Bolivia. This area has been populated since the Preceramic period (5000-1500 BCE), and it houses quite a few sites which are still considered sacred to the local population. There are a number of sunken temples in the area which are associated with a pre-Tiwanaku tradition known as the Yaya-Mama. These temples are located in various parts of the peninsula, generally on top of hills outside of modern villages. Three of these sites have been partially excavated, but the fourth, located in the village of Chi’si, has been fully excavated and restored to its original form during the early 1990s (the project was funded by National Geographic and an article can be found in the March 1992 edition in Spanish). This temple is roughy a thousand years older than Tiwanaku, and is definitely a predecessor to the sunken temple found in front of the Kalasasaya temple at that site. Research conducted on the remains found at the site have indicated artificial cranial modification and trepanation occurred at the site for over a thousand years (see this article in Forbes). This site is open for visitors, and a museum should be open sometime in the near future with the items from the excavations. For anyone visiting the area who is really into archaeology, it’s a worthwhile visit, especially once the museum is ready for visitors.  

Sunken temple at Ch’isi