Two hours after setting off from the wonderful Titilaka (read about it here), our very comfortable base on the shores of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, we were at the border. Here, all that separated Peru from Bolivia was an archway and after a few stamps in our passports from surly looking men, we were in. Immediately the feeling was like we’d stepped back in time as a local peanut seller set up her stall next to me on the roadside.
Twice the size of France but with a sixth of the population, landlocked Bolivia is a fascinating and exciting country with an astonishing range of natural beauty that runs from the peaks of the Andes to the Amazonian low lands. It has a largely indigenous population that has preserved native languages and much of the traditional way of life - men tend the land growing potatoes and quinoa and herding llamas, whilst the ladies, as wide as they are tall, dress traditionally with bowler hats, long plaits, voluminous skirts and carry children on their backs swaddled in multi-coloured shawls.
THE LESS TOURISTY SIDE TO TITICACA
The Peru/Bolivia border cuts Lake Titicaca in half and in Bolivia we experienced a much quieter and traditional side to the lake. Isla de Sol was a highlight: reminiscent of the Peloponnese with its rugged hills and deep blue sea, life on the island is tranquil - there’s no noise, no motorised traffic and only a handful of traditional communities. Hiking is the way to get round and a friendly lady with her llama is on hand to help ease the burden. It’s here that Inca legend says that Viracocha, the bearded god who created the universe, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun.
CROSSING THE ALTIPLANO
Back on the mainland we continued our road journey to La Paz (the capital of Bolivia) crossing the sparse Altiplano with its big vistas, dotted with traditional villages and backed by the peaks of the Andes which began to be bathed in a honey-coloured light as dusk approached.
LOVING LA PAZ
La Paz will quite literally take your breath away. Not only does it have the highest airport in the world (at an altitude of 4,000m) its location is stunning - set in a huge bowl-shaped valley the city clings to the sides and spills spectacularly downwards in the shadow of the magnificent snow-capped peaks of Mount Illimani.
La Paz is a vibrant mishmash of traditional culture and a city busy transforming itself into a buzzing 21st century metropolis. On the cobbled streets ladies in traditional dress run their market stalls selling everything from local handicrafts, to bowler hats, coca leaves and mysterious potions at the Witches’ Market.
There’s the beautiful colonial cathedral set alongside stately government buildings on Plaza Murillo and the museums on Calle Jaen which offer an insight into Bolivia's colonial and indigenous past.
Contrast this with up and coming areas like Zona Sur with its chic boutiques, wine bars, cafés and Gustu, a gastronomic restaurant set up by the co-founder of Copenhagen’s Noma (widely regarded as the world’s best restaurant), the illustrious chef Claus Meyer. Here the menu celebrates the abundance and diversity of local ingredients combining tradition with innovation, and the food certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The biggest symbol of the city’s transformation is the Teleférico, a cable car system which ingeniously solves the transport issues of a city built on steep hills with a dense conurbation, by ferrying people over the buildings and pandemonic roads instead of trying to build a road network through it. It’s also a great way for tourists to experience the huge city.
From La Paz we flew to Uyuni and on arriving we immediately delved into our duffle bags for as many layers as we could find; it was freezing. We’d come to see the largest and highest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. At over 12,000 sq km and an altitude of 3,656m, this is one of the most unique, strange but also beautiful landscapes on the planet - in the dry season (when we visited) the desolate salt-encrusted plains are an expanse of blinding whiteness whilst in the wet season they become a vast mirror fusing land and sky into one.
Seeing the Salar had been on Julian’s “must see” list for years and for once, I really didn’t know much about it. But, after a day exploring I can say that the experience was nothing short of mesmerising and full of surprises. First off was the eerie sight of hulking train engines and carriages silhouetted against the bright blue skies; abandoned after the collapse of the mining industry, they have been left alone to rust in the “train cemetery”.
Next we sped across the crystallised landscape, passing mounds of salt, waiting patiently to be collected.
The landscape then opened out in front of us like a giant ice rink. Nothing can quite prepare you for this extraordinary sight and we gawped open mouthed trying to take in the vast whiteness listening to the sound of silence - you really could hear a pin drop.
Emerging like an oasis from the horizon, Isla Incawasi is a rocky island of fossilised coral studded by gigantic cacti and climbing it gives you impressive 360 degree views of the Salar.
Flamingos inhabit the area but you are more likely to see them further south towards the Chilean border - we were very lucky to see a solitary one that had obviously got lost.
Then like a “Blockbusters” game board, the surface transformed into a lattice work. Although it appears cracked into thousands of hexagonal shapes, it’s actually where the salt comes through the cracks and then dries in the sun forming random patterns.
Next it was time for the fun pictures - it’s good to see who’s boss!
Staying on the edge of the salt flats in a hotel actually constructed of salt, we were treated to a stunning sunset and the clearest view of the Milky Way.
Leaving Uyuni our tyres were pumped up at the local garage (?!), to adjust from driving on salt flats to normal roads. The driver cranked up his stereo and luckily the Bollywood style Bolivian music from the day before was replaced with some 80’s Rock as we sped off on the highway through the bleak but beautiful landscape with nothing to stop us except heads of llamas.
DIGGING THE SILVER MINES OF POTOSI
We were heading to Potosi, a place most people have never heard of, but one which is actually Bolivia’s most important historical city. Not because of its amazing sights but because in the 17th Century it was one of the richest cities in the world. Here, under the Cerro Rico (“Rich”) Mountain that dominates the town, lay unfathomable amounts of silver. For the Spanish Conquistadors, Potosi became something priceless as they exported thousands of tons of silver to Spain at the cost of thousands of slave miners’ lives.
Around 6,000 miners still try and scratch a living in the mines; not for silver (which is now exhausted) but for tin, zinc and other minerals. A visit to a mine was a truly eye-opening experience, as we entered the warren-like innards of Cerro Rico and experienced the medieval working conditions which are no better today than they were in Colonial times - I’m not entirely sure the “Dangerous Sports” clause in our Travel Insurance covered this. Inside we discovered “the Devil” lurking in an alcove - a red horned figure with a sinister smile and huge penis! Known as “El Tio”, he is worshipped by the miners with cigarettes, pure alcohol and coco leaves whilst they pray for their safety in the mines. Then one of the miners surfaced, and for a litre of fluorescent fizzy pop and a bag of coco leaves, he happily posed for a photograph.
SERENE AND STUNNING SUCRE
From the lofty heights of Potosi (at over 4,000m) we descended in to a lush warm valley and the elegant whitewashed city of Sucre - instantly you can see why it is deemed to be the most beautiful city in South America.
The centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s grid of narrow streets are lined with pretty colonial buildings and ornate churches that seem to appear on every corner. The atmosphere is genteel and refined but with a youthful buzz thanks to the large university which is the continent’s oldest. In Sucre, you really do get a feeling of being in an Andalusian village.
BOLIVIA IN A NUTSHELL
Compared to its South American neighbours Bolivia is a poor country, but what it lacks economically it more than makes up for in terms of striking landscapes, strong indigenous cultures, Spanish colonial cities, Inca ruins, colourful markets and unique people. In just a week, Julian and I experienced so much variety but with a fraction of the tourists we’ve encountered in other South American countries.
IS BOLIVIA FOR ME?
Bolivia isn’t for everyone - it doesn’t have the standard of hotels you get elsewhere in South America and the infrastructure can be challenging - but if you’re looking for something different then it should definitely be on your list. For more information, please do get in touch.
[Images - Julian and me]