After our sensible (ish) behaviour at the fiesta in Puno we headed off to La Paz, a City with an elevation of 3,640 m (11,942 ft) with only slight headaches. We’d booked our bus through the hostel and generally whichever bus company we’d booked with in Latin America, that was the bus we travelled on. (unlike in Asia when it was sheer luck) The lovely looking bus we’d booked was nowhere to be seen and instead our transport was a bit rough around the edges. Apart from my seat being broken and seat-belt not working everything was fine!!
We arrived at the Bolivian border and realised that we (Tom) had lost my exit card from Peru…oops. Thankfully for us the authorities were willing to overlook this in return for a payment of about £6 so all in all it could have been a lot worse. Borders are generally a pain, and apart from the big queues this one was relatively straightforward and within the hour we were back on the bus continuing on with our journey. We stopped at a place called Copacabana and all piled off the bus and were told to meet again at 1pm to continue on to La Paz. Luckily for us Tom overheard the bus worker telling someone else that the time had changed and Bolivia was an hour ahead of Peru. Probably quite a useful thing to tell all the passengers!! That only gave us half an our so we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to the bus.
We’d been on our new bus for about 20 minutes when the heavens opened and a hail storm commenced. Unluckily for us this coincided with the exact moment we reached the Lake Titicaca crossing and had to get off the bus and on to a rickety passenger ferry, it was very much like being back in Asia! The only slight problem being that our waterproofs were under the bus in the hold, aaah. We all huddled under a shop awning, attempting (and failing) to stay dry. As usual there were no instructions from the driver on what we were meant to be doing so we just followed some locals away from our rain shelter and onto the boat for the 5 minute journey across the lake.
As our bus continued on I read up on La Paz. As Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America I wasn’t sure what to expect from the big city but my lonely planet informed me that the initial views were breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude…the book didn’t lie!!
For some reason rather than going into the actual bus station our bus dropped us off just outside on a busy roundabout…why? After grabbing our bags and successfully negotiating oncoming traffic we headed towards the centre. We hadn’t actually got round to booking a hostel but I’d read about one near to the bus station so we decided to try there. It had a pool table, it’s own micro brewery and a free beer each day, you can’t ask for more from your lodgings!!
The hostel was actually great and they even had their own travel company so we could book our tickets for the death road bike trip!! Loads of people we’d spoken to who had already been to La Paz said that death road was a must see and to be honest, I don’t need much persuasion when it comes to extreme activities. There were umpteen companies to choose from for the trip but we decided a bit of research wouldn’t go amiss. Saving a few bolivianos wasn’t really worth the risk as we’d be hurtling down a mountain road at more than 30mph with vertical drops of 600 metres to our left…so we could probably do with a bike with working brakes!!
We finally decided on a company called Barracuda, they weren’t the cheapest but weren’t the most expensive and had excellent reviews. After booking the trip for the next day we headed into La Paz for a look around and to find some food. There was a nice feel about the place and we both liked it immediately. It did feel like a poorer city than ones we’d been to previously in Latin America but at the same time we didn’t feel unsafe. We’d heard reports of it being a bit dangerous but we didn’t get that impression at all. Tom read about a local steak restaurant up a hill so decided to go there and see what all the fuss was about. The steak was amazing and made us even more excited about the food we were going to eat in Argentina, a country famous for its red meat.
The next day was Death Road day and we were both really excited. Death Road was built in the 1930’s and earned it’s notoriety in 1995 after a study revealed that there were between 200-300 deaths a year on the 64 kilometre mountain track. Although a new road opened in 2006 there are still a few lorries and cars to contend with on the sometimes single track road, although not as many as in the past, thankfully. 18 backpackers have need killed since cyclists started tackling its hairpin bends 12 years ago, so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted!! We drove through some incredible scenery to get to our starting point, which wasn’t actually death road. We were going to practise first on a very steep downhill road but without the scary drops at the side!!
It was great fun hurtling down these wide roads but it did make you realise the speeds you could get…we probably didn’t want to go quite so fast when there was a 600 metre drop at the side of the road!!
After the practice section was complete we got back onto the bus and drove up to the start of death road passing a sign with an arrow pointing to “the road of death”, lovely. Our guide was brilliant and gave us information on what to expect from each section along with his golden rule, don’t be a f**king idiot! He told us a story about a couple who’d been taking pictures of each other whilst riding and the girl turned around to smile at her boyfriend and went straight over the edge and died…note to self, eyes on the road at all times!!
The whole day was absolutely amazing and actually wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated. In parts the road was only the width of a single vehicle and was gravelly with large stones and rocks rather than lovely smooth tarmac like on our practice road. At one point a huge lorry sounded it’s horn, which was deafening as it came hurtling around the corner at us, that was pretty scary. There isn’t as much traffic on the road now, thankfully, I can’t even imagine watching 2 cars try and overtake each other. (There was a Top Gear special where they did this) The views along the road were amazing, although I only glanced at them very briefly for fear of ending up like the aforementioned girl.
All on all it was a brilliant day riding through waterfalls and streams along the most dangerous road in the he world. At the end we stopped for some food and a well deserved beer and celebrated surviving a bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road!!
The next day we went for a wander around the city. I wanted to go and see the prison (more about that later) and the witches’ market. The Witches’ Market is run by local witch doctors and sells weird and wonderful potions and powders used in Bolivian rituals. The most bizarre thing they sell are dried up Llama foetus which when buried under foundations of Bolivian homes bring good luck, it was so interesting to see. After that we headed to the main plaza where the pink prison was located. I can understand why people may think it’s odd to want to see a prison in Bolivia, but this is no ordinary jail.
San Pedro prison is the largest prison in La Paz and is renowned for being a society within itself. Inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the prison community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children that live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel. Within the prison walls there are shops and restaurants and it looks more like a town square than a prison. If you are rich you can buy a room in the 5 star area which has incredible facilities including jacuzzis whilst the poorer people are in the 1 or no star areas where they share windowless cells. Up until 2013 tourists could have a tour of the prison led by an inmate but this was stopped by the government because it was being used as a way to sell cocaine to tourists. (although apparently they can still happen if you bribe a guard) The weird part about it all is the guards don’t enter the cells. The prisoners basically do as they wish cook their own food and have to pay for everything within the prison. I was ridiculously intrigued by this place so wanted to go and see it. From the outside it didn’t look like a prison (probably because it was pink and right in the middle of the city plaza) and as we looked through the main door into the courtyard we could see a mass of prisoners just wandering around, bizarre.
Our next stop in Bolivia was a place called Uyuni which was about a 15 hour overnight bus ride away. We’d heard reports that the roads were pretty bad and the bus journey wasn’t at all comfortable. We decided to try and counteract his by paying a bit more for a comfier bus but to be honest I don’t think it made much difference. The road seemed pretty similar to the condition of death road, albeit without the sheer drops, and we both got little sleep.
We arrived in Uyuni at 8am and headed straight to the office to pay for our three day two night salt flats tour which I’d booked the day before. This was the main reason we’d wanted to come to Bolivia as the famous salt flats and surrounding lagoons are said to be one of the highlights of South America. The problem was because there were so many people wanting to do the trip, there were tons of different tour companies with varying degrees of safety and reliability. I’d read stories of drivers bring drunk and falling asleep at the wheel, inedible food and disinterested guides to name but a few complaints. After scouring reviews I settled with a family run company called Quechua Connections, and kept my fingers crossed that I’d made a good choice.
First impressions were good and after paying for the trip we headed off for breakfast and to investigate the public shower. Uyuni was a very basic looking town in the middle of the desert so I didn’t hold out much hope for a decent shower in the public toilets, but I was proved wrong. Our standards are so low now that having a wash in an outhouse with stone floors, no roof and insects everywhere was actually an enjoyable experience all because there was warm water!!
Our tour began with with a trip to see 700+ year old cacti and the train cemetery. It was really odd to see so many abandoned trains in the middle of the desert. They were used for transporting mined minerals up until the 1940s but once they were no longer needed they were all dumped in the desert.
From there we headed to the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The flats are 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) and were absolutely beautiful. It felt and looked like we were driving on ice but obviously it was salt. As we were visiting in rainy season we were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t get the funny photos everyone had been showing us, we needed have worried. We started off at the wet ice and it was like looking at a giant mirror. The effect it had on the horizon was amazing and at times it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky began, just beautiful.
After sitting on the beautiful wet salt to eat some food we sat on top of the van and were taken to the dry flats. There, along with two people from our jeep (there were 6 of us in the jeep but a spanish couple didn’t want to take part!?) we spent an hour and a half having great fun playing with perspectives. Luckily for us our guide/driver Dion had brought tons of props and was brilliant at setting up the photos, we had so much fun.
After we felt like we had enough photos we headed off to watch the sunset over the reflecting wet salt flats. Our driver took us away from the crowds and found us a quiet piece of salt with no-one else around and we just sat and watched the huge orange ball disappear beyond the horizon whist drinking coffee and eating biscuits. It was honestly one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen
The pictures honestly don’t do any of it justice and we were all constantly amazed at the vastness and prettiness of our surroundings. That night we stayed at a very basic but rustic stone lodge in the middle of the desert. There were a few other tour groups there and this was when we realised that we really had lucked out with our company choice. Whilst everyone else was eating pasta and sauce we say down and tucked into a 3 course meal with wine and then Dion and the other guide from our group Jose built us a bonfire and joined us outside to star gaze and drink red wine around the bonfire.
The next morning We had to be up at 4.30 am so we could watch the sun rise up over the geysers. Wandering around the smelly geysers was a bit like something from a horror film and I felt like the ground would give way at any moment and I’d fall in to the stinky sulphuric cauldron. Luckily this didn’t happen and we couldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes due to the harmful gases.
From here we headed to the natural hot springs. Our guide told us to go in straight away before all the crowds turned up, it was relatively quiet at this point. It was still only 6.30am and pretty chilly, the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off into my bikini in what felt like sub zero temperatures…but the steam coming from the hot pools was too enticing.
It was like getting into a bath when you’re really cold and the bath is a little bit too hot! Once we’d adjusted though it was amazing, although getting back out into the cold wasn’t enjoyable!
After breakfast and a quick visit to the green lagoon our whistle stop tour of Bolivia was over and we headed for the Chile border. I wish we’d had more time to explore this amazingly beautiful and diverse country but I’m really pleased we had chance to experience what we did. Bolivia may be one of the poorest countries in Latin America but it’s blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.