Friday 8th – Monday 18th February
And so onwards to Bolivia, the first stop is Copacabana. We bus over the border, and it is fairly straightforward but brings about the greatest test of my Spanish so far…trying to explain what/where Scotland is. The immigration officer had never heard of it. Needless to say I stopped short of discussing Independence referendum dates. That will teach me for being patriotic on my immigration form!
Copacabana is a sleepy little town on the south western banks of Lake Titicaca, serving as a jumping off point for many of the nearby islands. So after a little mosey around the town, I head out onto the Lake once more, this time to Isla Del Sol.
There are differing schools of thought amongst the indigenous people on how the lake was created, depending on who you talk to. The Tiwanaku people thought that the Gods had cried the lake when they saw the plight of the people they had created, saving only his son Inti to bring civilisation to the land. The Incas thought that the daughter of sun God Viracocha had been running carrying a pail of water, and when she fell it changed the landscape. Either way, it is a beautiful walk from Challapampa in the north of the island up to the site. My guide Juan Carlos greets everyone he meets in Aymay, which joins Quechua and Spanish as the languages spoken on the island. The views from the mountain as we escalate are stunning.
When we reach the top, we find the Puma Stone (which is basically the translation of Titi Caca in Quechua) The puma is a significant symbol of power for the Incas, so this stone is revered by their people.
The next day I am greeted by this beautiful view from my bedroom as I am set to spend my last day by the lake. One of my good friends, and top notch travel buddies Tree is getting married in Scotland on the same day. So I need a view like this to keep me from being glum about not being able to be there.
La Paz, highest capital de facto city in the world, is the next stop. At 3650 metres above sea level, it is the seat of Bolivian government and its second largest city. By this point, I really have gotten used to the altitude so this doesn’t feel nearly as tough as arriving in Cusco did.
On the bus, I meet a lovely Northern Irish lass called Johanna who lives round the corner from me in Wood Green! It really is the same small world at our heels. We end up travelling together, getting to know the city before heading down to Uyuni to tour the salt flats. Also on the bus, we have to jump out to cross the lake once more. The passengers jump in speed boats while the vehicles are put on these particularly high tech car ferries…
The Feria is on whilst we are there which is a very important carnival in the Bolivian calendar. It is celebrated by kids dressing up, taking part in processions…and pelting people with water balloons and silly string. As gringos, we are prime targets so we take refuge with the other backpackers in the Adventure Brew Hostel’s Sky Bar to watch the madness from a safe distance.
Of course this leads to quite the party as almost every backpacker piles in, and free shots are doled out. We hang out with lovely Bryan and Leslie who live near Seattle and will be back there by the time my boat rolls in.
Dring the Feria, everything is closed for three days and there are no buses out of the city…so there is nothing else for it but to head off on a mountain biking tour of ‘Death Road’ which is around 35 miles north east of La Paz in the Yungas region. Around 300 people die on it every year, so it has been called the World’s Most Dangerous Road. You start at 4650 metres above sea level, up in the clouds, then descend over around 40km in distance to 1200 metres in altitude. In some places, the width of the road is only 1.5 metres, it is covered in sizeable boulders too, for you to navigate over and around, and there is a sheer drop of hundreds of metres on the left side. Sounds easy right…right?
Our group were a grand bunch, lots of Aussies, a few English people and Spanish too.
You’ll probably notice at this point that I am a bit light on photos of this experience. Frankly, staying on the bike was difficult enough with both hands on the handlebars…never mind shooting at the same time! Before we start, we bless the bikes and ground with pure alcohol, offering a swig of it up as a nod to Pachamama, a goddess revered by the Andino people. Pachamama translates as Mothr Earth…so I am all for having her on our side.
We have three incidents along the way, I’m pleased to say all were relatively tame on the injury front. However I can count myself in that number as I had a spectacularly girly fall just after we started. Bruised knees were my only complaint…and perhaps a little dent in pride at being the first off the bike. There is a couple with us called Tim and Naomi from Melbourne. Within about 500 metres of the starting blocks, Tim comes off his bike and drops spectacularly over the edge on a sheer drop into the undergrowth, his bike flying a good 15 metres in the opposite direction. He is a very very lucky boy, and had only a few scrapes to show for it managing to walk from the crash site and get straight back on his bike. Natch, we rebrand him Timvincible, and I was really amused to recently hear another backpacker recounting the story to me as it had been passed from backpacker to backpacker and has since become the stuff of legend.
This fall sets the tone for the rest of the day and we mostly, particularly me, take our time on the way down. One of the English guys Jon also has a fall, and ended up in A&E. So, I am pretty happy to have escaped with my extremities in tact! It is certainly one of the moments where you look back and wonder what the hell you have signed up for. It was a great day out though with good people. And I hope to see Tim and Naomi when I get to Vancouver in May as they are moving there.
Having survived Death Road, the Feria and an almighty hangover, it is time to see some of the rest of the country, so Jo and I make a beeline for Uyuni to see the world’s largest salt flats, situated in South West Bolivia and known locally as Salar de Uyuni. Having come from Peru where the buses were perfectly acceptable for those inter town trips…the buses in Bolivia were a rude awakening. We rattle along on the night bus for 13 hours, often not even driving on roads, the driver opting to cut through fields instead!
When we arrive in Uyuni, we meet our guide and tour group. It is a 4×4 tour so the group is small, made up of three Canadians (Sean, Josh and Cody), Aussie Owen, Jo and myself. First, we stop off at a train graveyard in the desert. Here there are tens of old steam trains, originally built in Sheffield, that now rot in the desert. Apparently, the steam trains struggled at this altitude in terms of the conditions required to create the steam therefore making them redundant. It is an odd stop on the tour, but interesting enough to kick us off.
Then, we drive onto the nearby market village of Colchani where we learn more about how the salt is extracted from the salt flats, and how it manifests itself as a source of income for the local residents. The Salt Museum is full of sculptures fashioned by the locals, like this lovely little Llama.
Then, we head on of the the flats themselves and it absolutely blows our minds. The sky is reflected completely in the layer of water sitting above the salt, and it is genuinely hard to see where the ground stops and the sky begins. It is stunningly beautiful, but it messes with your perspective so we had a little fun with the photos…
We spend the coming days touring around, exploring the lagoons and rock formations in the Atacama desert where it borders with Chile. Talking of rock formations, we also manage to fit in a night out to a local gig.
In the evenings, we drink rum and play cards….the obligatory game of Shithead, but also a new game we were taught called Presidents and Assholes (sorry Mum, sorry Dad…very blue names but I didn’t name them I can assure you!)
On the final day, we are up and out jumping through warm volcanic fumaroles and bubbling lava pools at sunrise at 5000 metres, then we plunge ourselves into the hot springs nearby to keep the blood pumping. It is seriously cold at those heights.
Then our guide Oved takes up back to Uyuni, and we get another death defying night bus, this time bak to La Paz, where there is time for one more night out at Loki hostel with our new tour buddies from the Salt Flats and the Death Road biking. It is great to get everyone together again before I flit off to Ecuador and it is certainly a memorable night sampling the La Paz culture. I don’t think I will be back to Bolivia though, as beautiful as it is I feel like I have seen enough. It is definitely edgier than any of the countries I have visited so far, but what would life be without a challenge right?
Special props to the Adventure Brew Hostel for this hilarious poster in reception…
And the soundtrack was:
Beatles ‘Here Comes The Sun’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
M83 ‘Midnight City’
Modest Mouse ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’
Minnie Ripperton ‘Les Fleurs’
The National ‘Boxer’
The Strokes ‘This Is It’