Buenos Aires – one week in the spectacular Argentine capital

Buenos Aires is an amazing city with a great energy and culture about it. Founded in the early 1500s, the city has a deep Spanish history and long tradition of immigrants from all over Europe, making it the “melting pot” of South America.  
I arrived in BA from Ushuaia in the early afternoon on a Friday and spent an entire week in that great city. The districts are so varied and each have their own little culture and style. It’s a very walkable city, though the metro and bus systems are so cheap and easy to navigate it’s hard not to use them! Since I spent a while here I’ll split it into chunks to make it easier to read (and write!). 

  • Buenos Aires has a number of free walking tours that are excellent. I did two with the same company and had a great time on both. The morning tour went through the Recoleta district, while the second focused on the centre and the classic sites.    
    National Congress Building
      
    The obelisk from near Plaza de Mayo
      
  • The Recoleta Cemetery is a large and gorgeous cemetery in the fancy Recoleta district. The mausoleums are all for the rich and famous, including the former president’s wife Eva Peron. This is probably the #1 thing to see in BA. I spent a good amount of time looking at the large graves (and inside the ones that were cracked open!).   
    Recoleta cemetery
      
    Grave of Eva Peron
       
  • Buenos Aires has the largest number of bookstores per capita in the world.  It’s easy o spend a day popping into the many used bookstores around the city.  My favorite was El Ateno Grand Splendid, which is housed in an old theatre!   
    El Ateno Grand Splendid
  • Plaza de Mayo and the nearby area has a lot of the main attractions of the city, such as the Jesuit church and the cathedral. I managed to accidentally attend the beginning of a mass in the church when trying to see the inside (but the Pope used to live here, so that’s cool).    
    The Pink House
      
    Buenos Aires Cathedral
      
    Jesuit Church in Plaza de Mayo
     
  • The La Boca neighborhood is the colorful part of the city always shown in postcards. What they don’t show, however, is how disgustingly touristy the whole area is. I didn’t particularly care for it, but unfortunately the surrounding area is so dangerous it’s not possibly to explore the less traveled parts to get a true feel for the district.   
    The famous Caminito
        
    Tourist centre of La Boca
     
  • If you need to change US Dollars to Pesos, Florida Street is the place to go. Just talk to the least sketchy person yelling “cambio, cambio” and they’ll take you into a little kiosk to change money. At the time of writing the Dolar Blue rate was 15.86 to $1, which is way better than the official 9.33 to $1.    
    Florida street
     
  • The hipster Palermo district is the place to be if you’re looking for good food and bars in Buenos Aires. The old part of the city is really nice with its quirky cafes and cobblestone streets. I spent an afternoon walking around the district and it was a nice way to spend a relaxing day. There are a large series of parks that connect Palermo and Recoleta that are great to wander about for an afternoon. The Japanese Garden is especially nice. There’s also a park with a metal sculpture shaped as a flower which supposedly opens/closes during day/night. 
    Palermo street art
       
  • The National History Museum in San Telmo (in Spanish only) was nice for killing a bit of time in the neighborhood. I went on a Wednesday and it was free, though the 20 peso entry fee isn’t too bad for the days it isn’t.   
    National History Museum
     
  • The San Telmo district, like Palermo, is also really nice to wander around. There are lots of antique shops around, and every Sunday there is a huge weekend market where you can buy anything old and vintage.  
    Shops in San Telmo
      
    San Telmo Market
     
  • For a piece of BA history, spend some time in Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. The submarino there was excellent, and they have free wifi! I wouldn’t recommend having lunch there, but it’s great for a hot drink and a dessert.     
    Cafe Tortoni
     
  • If you want a cheap and excellent Argentine steakhouse, you must go to Las Cabras in Palermo. I went twice, first alone and then with friends. The first time I had the “Gran Bife Las Cabras” which was a steak with all sorts of sides like pumpkin, rice, and fries. The second time, I came with a friend I met in Puerto Varas, the German guys I saw everywhere, and an American girl from my hostel. Three of us split the parrillada completo, which had a number of steaks, chicken, sausages, blood sausage, intestines, liver, and a side of fries. While I wasn’t a fan of the innards, the rest was amazing and totally worth ordering.   
    Gran Bife Las Cabras
      
    Full Parrillada
     
  • Burger Joint in Palermo has amazing burgers for a really great price (60 pesos for a burger or 90 for a meal). The goat cheese and arugula burger was amazing, as was the Jamaican. 
    Burger Joint
       

I didn’t do anything particularly touristy in Buenos Aires, and visited almost none of the famous museums, buildings, or theatres, but I had an amazing time. I could very easily see myself living in this city at some point. Unfortunately I’m at the end of my trip, so I have to say goodbye and head to my 25th country, Uruguay!

El Calafate and Ushuaia – five days in Argentine Patagonia 

El Calafate is a town in Argentina known for one thing – Perito Moreno glacier. This is the world’s only glacier which is not shrinking, but rather at a state of equilibrium. At the far south of the country lies the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth. In contrast to the rest of Patagonia, Ushuaia was covered in a thick layer of snow and slush. Because of this, during the winter months the town is alive with skiers and snowboarders from around the world.  
My first sight in Argentina was the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had to take a tour to the glacier from Puerto Natales, Chile, in order to see it at all, as I had to change my plans due to lack of buses. This involved a 7 AM bus, a very easy border crossing in the middle of nowhere, and a very long and convoluted route to El Calafate before continuing to the glacier.  

 

Chilean border office
  
Crossing into Argentina
 We got to the glacier at about 3 PM and had two hours to wander around the many boardwalks and viewpoints. Since I brought lunch with me, I went straight for the boardwalks instead of eating in the very overpriced cafeteria attached to the visitor centre, and it was perfect. Just as I made it to the first viewpoint, I heard a large crash and saw a huge chunk of ice calving off the glacier and fall into the lake below. It was impressive, especially since the snow was falling so hard I could barely see the glacier in the first place, but this part was crystal clear. The snow cleared up after about 40 minutes, showing much of the 14 kilometers of ice behind the front cliffs. In warmer and clearer weather, I think that 2 hours would not be enough to enjoy the entire area, but with cold and snow it was plenty.  

 

The barely visible glacier
  
Perito Moreno glacier once the snow let up
  
The boardwalks
  
The ice is extremely blue
 The bus left for El Calafate at about 5, and we made it back a little after 6. I was the only one who was staying in the city, so I got dropped off at the gas station and walked to my hostel. I stayed at America del Sur and it was incredible. They have heated floors. HEATED FLOORS. After freezing in Bolivia and then again in Patagonia, heated flooring was pretty much the greatest thing. The staff was great, breakfast was included, and it was so warm. When I got here, I also ran into my French friend from the previous two towns and the Brazilian guy from my hostel in Puerto Natales.  

 

Shops in El Calafate
 
I spent the last hour of daylight walking around the downtown area of El Calafate. It’s super touristy, but unlike Puerto Natales, it was actually open! There were lots of crazy overpriced tourist shops and restaurants, but the area was nice enough to make up for it. I went back to the hostel after dark and then went to dinner with my Brazilian friend at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by the hostel. I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant in a few weeks so I was ready so spend a bit more than normal. The place we went was the #1 in town and quite upscale, and the food was incredible. I had a huge portion of Patagonian lamb in a calafate sauce (it’s a local berry). By the time it was all said and done I spent 300 pesos ($20 at the blue dollar rate) but it was worth it!

 

Patagonian lamb dinner
 
The next afternoon, after dealing with the hassle of cancelled flights and talking with customer service in Spanish, I flew to Ushuaia. The flight was short, though it was almost prolonged due to a snowstorm at the airport when we were about to land. We ended up landing 20 minutes early somehow and I made it to my hostel by 4. I just walked around the centre for a bit and saw the city for the first day, which was quite nice. The “Fin Del Mundo” sign was only 2 blocks from the hostel, so it was very conveniently located for walking about. The park along the waterfront was really nice, though my photos kept getting bombed by ski teams from random countries (especially the Polish team) who were in the city for a competition.  

 

Lago Argentino from Above
  
Ticket vendors along the Ushuaia streets
  
It’s the End of the World!
 
The next day I decided to go winter hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the way to the bus station, I had my passport stamped with an “End of the World” stamp at the information centre near the port. The bus to the park was an outrageous 300 pesos ($20 at the blue rate) though it was only 15 km. However, the park was worth the cost. When I arrived, it was snowing quite hard but it quickly let up, with only random heavy downbursts of snow throughout the trek. I spent most of the walk with an older Argentine couple who both had studied some English and wanted to practice, so we had an interesting talk in basic English with Spanish to fill in the blanks. The hiking circuit took about 3 hours, at the end of which was an overpriced cafe for the cold and wet hikers who spent the day in the park. I caught the next bus and made it to the hostel by 4, where I spent the rest of the day keeping warm in the lounge area. I also met a group of Filipino travelers at the hostel and spent most of the night hanging out with them.  

 

Tierra del Fuego National Park
  
   
The following morning, I slept in way longer than anticipated, but when I finally made it to the lobby, my German friends I had run into so many times were checking into the hostel. Since they showed up, we ended up all trying to hike to the Glaciar Martial but had to turn around near the top due to the weather and the sun going down. The walk wasn’t bad though, just a bit slushy in the streets. We made it back by nightfall and I went to bed early, as I had an early flight to Buenos Aires the following morning.  

 

Shopping streets
  
Stranded ship in the port
  
Mountainous landscape surrounding the city
  
So close to Antarctica!
 

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales – five days exploring Chilean Patagonia 

Punta Arenas is the gateway city to Chilean Patagonia.  The city is the southernmost in Chile, and is the capital of the Magellanes district.  It has the only airport in the region, making it the first stop for anyone flying into Chilean Patagonia. Puerto Natales is a much smaller town located just north of Punta Arenas, and is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and the rest of the trekking opportunities in Chilean Patagonia.

I arrived in Punta Arenas  after a three hour flight from Puerto Montt.  Getting to my hostel, Hostal 53 Sur, was easy with the cheap transfer bus at the airport.  The staff was really friendly and the hostel was wonderfully warm – much unlike the cold and windy weather outside.  Since it was late, I cooked dinner and went to bed early, as I planned to see the city the following morning before heading to Puerto Natales.
I was pleasantly surprised by a pancake breakfast in the morning, apparently included in the hostel fee for the night.  I also met up with a French girl who was also staying in the hostel and we ended up touring the city together.  After we bought our bus tickets to Puerto Natales, we first headed toward the viewpoint of the city.  We ended up missing the main viewpoint, but found a different one that was still really nice.  From here we walked toward the cemetery, stopping in a cathedral along the way (where we accidentally let some stray dogs inside).
Downtown Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is known for its interesting cemetery, which has a wide variety of families located inside.  Interestingly, the main gate is closed permanently at the request of the woman who financed the cemetery – she wanted to be the last one to enter it when she died, so there is a side entrance now.  Since the city was heavily populated with people from all over Europe, the names on the gravestones are extremely varied.

Colorful gravestones in the cemetery
After the cemetery we went toward the seashore to walk along the coastal sidewalk.  The wind was really intense there and was almost strong enough to hold you up if you fell into it.  We walked along the water toward the city centre, where we went to escape the crazy wind and to see the last part of the city.  The centre is a really nice area, with many statues and memorials scattered throughout its many plazas.  The centerpiece of the Plaza de Armas is a large statue of Ferdinand Magellan, who the region was named after.  I walked back to the hostel from here to make lunch, splitting from my friend who went to buy some food, and ended up finding the actual mirador along the way.  The view was really nice as it was aligned with the streets, giving a better view of the buildings and the ocean.  In the late afternoon, I caught the bus to Puerto Natales, located 3 hours to the north.

Monument along the seashore

Monument of Magellan in the Plaza de Armas

Punta Arenas from the mirador
I made it to Puerto Natales fairly late in the evening and walked to my hostel, The Singing Lamb.  The place was pretty empty the entire time I was there, which was kinda weird but the hostel was really nice so it was fine.  The next day I set out to explore the town.  There really isn’t much to it, other than the main plaza and the seaside walk.  Most of the stores and hostels were closed for the off season, making it seem very dead during my entire visit.  The waterfront, however, was absolutely stunning and worth spending a day there just to see.  The wind was really strong (as in all of Patagonia) so the waves were quite large.  The water is overshadowed by large snow-capped mountains and the ever changing sky.  I spent hours along the water listening to music and relaxing, at least until I froze from the wind.  Later in the afternoon, I managed to run into the German guys who were on my Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia a few weeks earlier – they were staying in the same hostel as the French girl from Punta Arenas, which was crazy. I ended up spending the evening having dinner at their hostel and chatting until fairly late.

Ship docked in the waters off Puerto Natales

Broken ship on shore outside of town

The old dock in Puerto Natales

Gorgeous sunset along the ocean
Early the next morning I took a day tour to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most famous places in Patagonia. Unfortunately, just before my hostel pickup came, I had a catastrophic incident with my camera which left it unusable (in case you didn’t already know: DSLR + water = bad time for everyone).   It wasn’t a very great weather day to visit TdP, so while the tour was incredible and the landscape gorgeous, I was only able to see the famous towers for about 5 minutes of the whole day we were there.  The waterfalls and glacial ice were really great though, and the place we stopped to eat lunch had a  spectacular view of a lake and the mountains.  On the way out of the park we went to Mylodon Cave, which is a giant cave where they found remnants of the Mylodon (a giant sloth like creature that lived in Patagonia until about 10,000 years ago), as well as evidence of prehistoric human occupation in the region.  The stop wasn’t too long but it was quite interesting nonetheless.  As soon as we arrived back in Puerto Natales, I made supper and then had an intense conversation about archaeology, anthropology, and everything else with a girl from Germany – which is exactly one of the reasons I love traveling so much.

Waterfall on Rio Paine

Torres del Paine

Suspension bridge on the trail to Lago Grey

Ice from Glacier Grey in Lago Grey

Mylodon cave

Mylodon statue in the cave
The following day I had planned on leaving to Argentina, but due to bus scheduling problems (i.e. there are no Sunday buses), I ended up doing nothing but rest and catching up on things like blog posts for the entire day.  I had to book a tour to Perito Moreno glacier from Puerto Natales rather than taking the normal bus due to this problem, leaving me with an extra day and nothing to do (especially since literally everything else was closed since it was Sunday).  It all worked out though, and the next morning I was on the bus to El Calafate, Argentina!

Santiago – The highly underrated capital of Chile

Santiago, Chile, is generally not at the top of any list of best cities, but I loved it. The city doesn’t really have any amazing sites nor is it very pretty, but it has some intangible spirit that makes it fantastic. The atmosphere of the city is addictive and draws you in. I regret only spending three days in the city, as it doesn’t do it justice.

Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal

I made it to Santiago after the short bus ride back from Valparaiso. I stayed in a hostel only a few metro stops from the bus station so it was really easy to get to. After I checked in and dropped off my stuff, I rushed to the centre for the 3 PM Tours4Tips walking tour, where I met up with another friend who I met in Bolivia that lives in Santiago. This tour went to all the traditional locations in central Santiago, such as La Moneda, the Ministry of Justice, the Plaza de Armas, and various central neighborhoods. When we reached La Moneda, the guide gave us a history of Chile and its coup d’état which occurred in the 1973. The country is still recovering from the decades of military rule under Pinochet, whose regime killed and tortured thousands. The tour ended soon after this talk, and my friend and I headed to her apartment to play Dutch Blitz and eat. Along the way we stopped at a sopaipilla stand, which is a disk of dough that’s deep fried and covered in sauces (spicy salsa and garlic sauce are the best). After playing cards we went to a sushi bar to have dinner which was a fantastic surprise after not having sushi in months.

La Moneda
New York Street
Sopaipilla with spicy salsa and garlic sauce
Salmon tempura and shrimp sushi

The following morning I went to the 10 AM Tours4Tips walking tour, which went to the non-touristy parts of the city. This included visiting the various markets of the city, such as the Mercado Central seafood market, La Vega, and Little La Vega. After the markets we headed to the cemetery to hear the history of the city, see the grave of a local “animita,” and visit the grave of Salvador Allende, the president who was overthrown in the coup d’état in 73. Here again we had a history lesson about the past few decades. The tour ended here and I went with another person from the tour to have lunch at Mercado Central. The food here was spectacular – fresh seafood for reasonable prices. I had Machas a la Parmigiana, which was razor clams covered in parmesan cheese and baked. When we finished lunch we returned to the centre and parted ways, as I needed to return to my hostel. I attempted to go to Cerro San Cristobal a few hours later, but missed the last tram by 5 minutes. I had my second Chilean food staple on the way back though, the completo. This is a hot dog covered in generally obscene amounts of mayonnaise, avocado, and tomatoes. Thankfully the place I ate had a reasonable amount of all of the toppings so it was actually not too bad. Later I met up with my two friends again for cards that night and had more sopaipillas, before having to take the metro back to my hostel.

Seafood for sale in Mercado Central
Fruit vendor posing for a photo in La Vega Market
Ornate masoleums in the cemetery
Machas a la Parmiagana
My first “completo”

My last day in Santiago was the busiest. In the morning I walked from my hostel to the Plaza de Armas to visit the history museum, which described the early history of the country until 1970. After visiting the museum I walked across the river to Little La Vega to buy a fresh cherimoya-mango juice in the market and then walked to Cerro San Cristobal. This hill is the largest in Santiago and has the best viewpoint of the city. Since it was the weekend, the tram to the top was double the price and extremely crowded, so I chose to walk to the top. It took about an hour but the view along the way wasn’t too bad. The views of the city and the mountains from the top, however, were spectacular. The city was weirdly smogless that day, so the whole skyline was visible under the clear sunny skies. After climbing back down I walked to another hill, Cerro Saint Lucia. This hill is much shorter but has a great viewpoint from the castle-like building located on the top. From here I walked back to my hostel, stopping in the parks and interesting places along the way. I went to the bus station a little early to meet up with my friend one last time and have a churrasco, which is the third popular Chilean food. This is a beef sandwich with tomato, avocado, and mayo (very popular on everything here). We parted ways just before my bus left and I got on my overnight bus to Puerto Varas, located in the south of Chile in the Lakes District.

Plaza de Armas
Cherimoya-Mango smoothie from Little La Vega
Cerro San Cristobal
Cerro Santa Lucia
Churrasco

Valparaíso – Seafood, seaports, and street art 

Valparaiso, Chile, is a seaside city with an amazing spirit.  The streets are covered in stunning murals and street art that blend beautifully with the colorful architceture that distinguishes the city from its neighbours.  The city is alive with an energy that is hard not to get absorbed into.

I arrived in Valparaiso in the late afternoon after a totally-not-awful 26 hours on a bus from San Pedro de Atacama. I had hoped to break the trip up a bit but was behind schedule after spending too much time in Bolivia. Thankfully, Valpo made up for it with its amazing atmosphere (and oxygen content!). I took a far too expensive cab to my hostel, Hostel Jacaranda, located on Cerro Alegre, which is the heart of the tourist centre. The hostel is in a well maintained old colonial house in a perfect location for accessing the city. Many of the people staying there were staying long term to study Spanish, one of whom offered to show me around the city.

Corner where the hostel was located

We walked around for about 2 hours, wandering through the streets looking at all the amazing murals and art pieces painted on the walls. The downtown area of the city is fairly small so it’s not hard to get from one end to the other, so long as you don’t mind walking uphill. After going through the Open Air Museum, which features each year’s winning art pieces, we arrived at Pablo Neruda’s home, which is now a museum. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit it when I was in Valpo, but I heard from many that it was amazing.

Samples of Valparaíso Street Art
Samples of Valparaíso Street Art
Samples of Valparaíso Street Art
Samples of Valparaíso Street Art
Samples of Valparaíso Street Art
Samples of Valparaíso Street Art – Pablo Neruda

When we returned from the walk, I found a nice cafe for dinner since I hadn’t really eaten in a few days after the Uyuni food poisoning incident. I splurged on a 3 course meal of salad, grilled whitefish with a lemon sauce and mushroom risotto, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had anywhere, and was only about $11 total.
The following morning I got up early to do the Tours4Tips free walking tour of the city, which started at 10 AM. The tours last 3 hours and take place in either English or Spanish, depending on your choice. The tour started in Plaza Sotomayor, the large plaza near the docks. It covered the history of the seaport, the colonial history, the financial district, and the two UNESCO World Heritage sites of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. Along the way the guide talked about the history and symbolism in the street art which decorates the city, which I found really interesting. The tour is definitely a must do thing when visiting Valpo, especially since it’s based on donations!

Fishing boats at the docks
The Piano Stairs
Old British Homes on a hill
Sunny day in Valpo

The tour ended in the plaza near the docks, near a bunch of seafood restaurants, so obviously I ate at one. I had a 3 course meal which started with ceviche, then followed by fried sea bass and a not so good blue mousse (total price, $5). After lunch I went down to the docks to take a boat tour of the city, which went along the coast to give views of the city from the ocean as well as the large freighters in the harbor. For $5, it was quite a bargain.

Sea lions in the harbor
Freighter from the boat tour
Plaza Sotomayor

When I finished I met up with a friend who I had met in Bolivia a few weeks prior who lives in Valpo. She took me first up an “ascensor” to a viewpoint of the city (ascensors are like elevators that go to the top of the many hills). After spending time at the top we headed to the flat part of the city to have some Chilean dishes. I ordered a personal sized Chorrillana, which is French fries covered in grilled onions, sausage, hot dogs, and steak. The pile was 4 inches deep and took up a full sized plate – I have no idea how a single person could eat one, I got full after a quarter. When we left I went back to the hostel and crashed for the night after the large plate of food.

View from the top of the ascensor

The following morning I attempted to visit the cemetery before taking the bus to Santiago but it was closed. I attempted to take a public bus to the bus terminal, but since I didn’t know where it was exactly I missed the stop and ended up on top of a hill. Thankfully the driver took me to another bus (whose driver let me know when we were there) and I didn’t have to pay again. I got the next bus to Santiago and left about 30 minutes later.

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