Bolivia: The “road” less traveled

~By: Amanda and Julie

When booking anything in a third world country you must take everything as “alternative facts”. Things get lost in translation, drivers veer off on personal agendas, and pictures on pamphlets rarely meet expectations. That being said, it’s almost always worth it and the experience will often exceed your expectations in ways you’d never comprehend.

A couple of weeks ago we were going through the extensive paperwork process of crossing by land from Peru to Bolivia as U.S. citizens. We booked a 3-Day Salt Flats tour from our hostel in La Paz and the only expectations we had were 3 meals a day and accommodations on the tour.  Beyond that, alimg_5217l we knew is we would see the Uyuni Salt Flats and we were promised pink flamingos.
We took an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni and arrived around 5am where a man with a sign appeared out of no where in the dark with our names, escorted us through the empty town to a tiny cafe for breakfast. It had spotty wifi but the breakfast was filling and most importantly a wall filled with outlets to charge everything we owned, since electricity would be scarce the next three days. We basked in the heat of the fire burning oven and drank copious amounts of coca tea to prepare ourselves for the journey with no seeming itinerary.

 

IMG_9714Around 10am a lady from the travel agency next door came to find us, escorted us to our 4×4 jeep and introduced us to our driver. He was less than pleased that we showed up for a three day trip with our large backpacks filled to the gills for an entire month of traveling. He had to tie our big backpacks to the top of the jeep; we hadn’t been informed to pack lightly or to leave our bigger bags behind. Julie explained to him our dilemma and after many under the breath remarks about packing gold bricks, he tied down our bags under a tarp on top of the jeep. Plan to leave your larger backpack behind, stashing everything you will need for the tour a day pack. Our simple packing list includes:

 

  • Three days worth of warm clothing, we highly suggest packing layers.
  • Comfortable running shoes or hiking boots
  • Flip flops for the salt flats, the white salty residue stains.
  • Warm clothing for sleeping, no electricity means no heat. Our accommodations did provide warm bedding.
  • Back up chargers fully charged, we did not see electricity for over 48 hours.
  • Gallons of sunscreen
  • Toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was not typical to find a bathroom with toilet paper or a sink
  • Swimsuit for the hot springs
  • Maybe some Xanax or melatonin

 

We all piled into the Nissan 4×4 with only a hint of our itinerary, we knew our first stop was the Cementerio de Trenes (the train cemetery). Expecting an hour drive, we were surprised when we pulled up 10 minutes later. Several rusting steal trains lay in the sand, like an abandoned children’s toy. Our driver warned us the structures were not exactly stable and to use caution. This did not stop us from exploding out of the jeep and running towards the trains like a bunch of 5 year olds who had just be released for recess. With a ‘Carpe Diem’ attitude we immediately threw caution to the wind and jumped on to the warm steal. Climbing the old trains was no easy task, however we were able to get several amazing pictures and laughs. Our 20 minute time allowance closed all too soon and we headed back to the jeep; next stop, the salt flats.

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A couple of years ago I found a picture online captioned “where heaven meets earth”. I immediately clicked on the link and learned it was the Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats of Uyuni) located in Bolivia. My research began here, it would be a journey, but it was promptly moved to the top of my bucket list. As we headed out of town we spied hints of our impending destination, floating mountains and mirroring pools of water in the distance. Pulling into the salt flats, my heart skipped a beat… I had made it.

We scrambled outside, excited for our first view, ready for our feet to touch the sparkling white ground. This is where I believe our driver’s feelings for our group changed from unenthusiastic to the beginnings of a new friendship. He knew we were ready to fall in love with his country and now he was excited to show it. For our tour we had selected to only use a Spanish speaking local guide, an English speaking guide would have set us back an additional $75 each, definitely not in the budget. Luckily, Julie is perfectly fluent in Spanish and was able to translate the important information and facts. If no one in your group has a decent grasp on the Spanish language, I would recommend springing for the English guide.

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Our first stop was a brief one, our guide knew we were itching to get our first experience inside the flats. He showed us where the clay underneath the salt flat was “breathing” as it bubbled up to create pools of water; it felt like we were on another planet in a far away galaxy. Our guide promised after lunch he would take us to the best locations on the flats to get those amazing pictures we had been planning for weeks, so we begrudgingly got back into the jeep.

We soon arrived at the hotel where we would have lunch, settled in the middle of the salt flats. It was an oasis surrounded by miles of white. The tour drivers bring and prepare all the food for the three day trip. So we clicked away with the Go Pro, while our new friend, Miguel, set up lunch. At this point the three year olds inside of us couldn’t help ourselves and Anna and I tried a bit of the salt; it was everything we hoped it would be. Julie still thinks we are weird. Inside we found our driver had spread out a feast, including llama steaks, a first for everyone. They are amazing and my taste buds compare it to a gamey steak.

 

Driving into the heart of the salt flats was just as it was captioned, straight into heaven. You are surrounded by pure white, the ground covered in salt which reflects off the sun like fairy dust. The entire 11,000 sq km flats is flanked by mountains which seem like a mirage in the distance. Once a prehistoric ocean which had dried up millions of years ago, the salt deposits are all that remains. During the rainy season in January enough water collects to create mirrored surface. It’s incredible the way the sun reflects off the mirror, unlike anything I had seen before.

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Moving on to the dry part of the Salt Flats, it was time to take those crazy pictures. Armed with a Go Pro and an array of props you can use the flatness of the area to create an optical illusion in depth perception. I highly recommend when you plan your trip to utilize google to gather ideas and then bring toys and props to make amazing pictures you could not re-create anywhere else. We brought mini dinosaurs, a corona bottle and a Pringles can, which we danced out of. Use your imagination and get creative. Luckily our driver Miguel knew how to line up the props to create the best photos. Leaving the salt flats with brilliant memories and a slight sun burn (SPF or cover up) my soul was happy.

After a few words in Spanish, we talked Miguel into letting us plug his aux cord into our phones and run our music for a while. Cruising through the mountains we let the breeze whip through the windows as we captured pictures of gigantic cactus as the topography gradually changed.

We pulled into our hostel in San Juan around 5pm, the accommodations were basic and traditional. The walls and beds were made from salt and the roof was covered with straw. Afternoon tea was planned for 5:30 and we settled down to refresh with tea and cookies! Afterwards we were able to pay 10 BOB ($1.45) for a hot shower.  Having not bathed since La Paz and caked in salt, the hot shower lifted our spirits after the long day. Special note if you take this tour, this is likely your last chance at a shower for the next two days. So unless you want to be responsible for the funky smell in the jeep, scrub up!

Dinner was served around 7:30 and both nights included an appetizer of the traditional Bolivian soup. I wish I could duplicate this soup at home… I love soup. The hostel sold beer and wine, which if you know anything about us, its how we start and end the day. After a couple of bottles of red and taking the opportunity to gaze at the stars uninterrupted by light pollution, it was time for sleep.

The continuation of our epic tour  Bolivia-Embracing the middle of nowhere and our other Bolivia blogs

CHECK OUT OUR VIDEO OF THE TRIP ON YOUTUBE!

 

 

Australia Day at the Wild Rover Hostel, La Paz

~By:  Amanda

If you ever have the opportunity to experience Australia Day with Australians, do it, you will not regret it. Planning to meet a friend in La Paz, we booked bunks at the same hostel, The Wild Rover. These dates just happened to fall over Australia Day on January 26 and Wild Rover plans one hell of a party. We arrived smack in the middle of the pre-party on the evening before Aussie Day. We quickly changed and jetted to the bar, ordering several rounds of Bolivia’s finest pilsner.

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The Wild Rover hostel is located in central La Paz and is easily accessible from both the main bus terminal and the international airport. This party hostel is gigantic, with a plenitude of 26 rooms, a bar and three courtyard sections. The hostel offers the typical free breakfast of bread and coffee/tea, WiFi and laundry by the kilo. However, the main focal point is the bar, which offers several happy hour specials. It has an amazing atmosphere and several themed nights to keep everyone entertained. The hostel also offers a full service restaurant until 9pm, with amazing food; seriously, I did not have a bad meal over the 4 days I spent here. The chicken quesadillas are by far our favorite and if you prefer something lighter, go for the chicken soup.

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The staff is more than accommodating, our first night here our friend went missing. Due back from his Death Road Tour at 7:30 pm, he was still MIA after 9. After later finally receiving a phone call that tour group was stuck behind a landslide, the wonderful staff sprung into action calling other hostels to inform them their guests would be delayed. Even when I misplaced my laptop changer (total catastrophe for a blogger), the staff worked together and were able to locate it; hence how I am writing right now. My only complaint would be the lack of power outlets inside the rooms. Wild Rover does offer locked power stations inside the reception, however many of those plugs were stripped. I guess everyone has one tragic flaw.

Now back to Aussie Day, because this was by far one of the most entertaining days of our South America trip. The night before at the pre-party, there was a bomb shot ceremony at midnight where they staged up 118 shots in green and yellow. My primary question is how do they have this many cups? This required 236 glasses to make this happen. I guess they went to IKEA.

Fast forward to the next day, everyone started early, ordering breakfast beers at 11 am. The sun shown bright and at 1 pm the hostel started playing the Australia’s Triple J Hottest 100 list, which apparently is a very big deal. Beer pong lists began to pass around and we entered the tournament knowing we were doomed against this group. Outside on the patio we ate grilled meat ‘on the barbie’ and drank draft beers. Somehow later we were convinced to sign up for some game which involved drinking from a shoe.

As the day bled into night the party moved back into the bar. We finally made it to the number one song, ‘Never Be Like You’ by Flume featuring Kia. The DJ spun into full gear and everyone started dancing. Ended up on the bar, but sometimes that happens. I blame the bourbon shots, but when you learn one of the bartenders is also from Kentucky, this is bound to happen. According to my friends I was doing some crazy dance, which can only be correlated to one of those blow up air signs used for marketing. I blame it on the Aussie surfer boy I was dancing with but I really don’t remember.

My favorite part of this day was being around the Australians. So many quickly welcomed us to our group and treated us as Aussies for the day. Everyone turning their chairs, creating more room, making new friends at every turn. This culture has it down– they accept everyone; nobody is a stranger!

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Check out our other Blogs about Bolivia:

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www.wildroverhostels.com

La Paz, Bolivia

~By:  Damir

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La Paz is a beautiful, historic, and cultural South American city that needs to be on every backpackers’ itinerary during their travels. Walking around La Paz at first might give you the impression that it’s just another large city in South America, but the more you spend exploring the city with its many markets and sights will gain you a realization of its cultural beauty.
Geography:
La Paz is located in the Altiplano (high plain) of west central Bolivia approximately 68km from Lake Titicaca. Many backpackers continue their travels through South America with a bus ride from Cusco, Peru through Puno and cross the border at Copacabana on their way to La Paz; some fly directly into La Paz’s El Alto International Airport. La Paz sits at approximately 3,650m (11,975ft) elevation which can definitely be felt as you walk up and down the steep streets of La Paz. Relax the first few days and enjoy the coca leaves and tea.
img_5217La Paz is nestled into a valley and overlooked by Illimani, the highest mountain in western Bolivia (6,438m / 21,122ft). This area of Bolivia has a highland climate including rainy summers and dry winters. The rain that I experienced while there in the summer is brief but heavy. It doesn’t rain the entire day but during the brief time that it does, it pours so make sure you bring an umbrella. I still remember walking around while it was lightly raining and thinking I would be fine. The rain fell harder and I kept walking down the steps into the city not realizing that I would need to walk back up all those steps both out of breath and wet.
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Government:
La Paz is the legislative capitol of the Plurinational State of Bolivia while Sucre is the main executive and consitutional capitol. It is the third most populous city with around 877,000 residents in the city after Santa Cruz and El Alto although the La Paz metro urban area is the largest in all of Bolivia with a population of roughly 2.3 million residents. The current president, Evo Morales, is in his third consecutive term. This is upsetting to some Bolivian citizens as their constitution allows only two terms. Towards the end of his second term, Morales changed the country name from Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia and was allowed to run for the presidency again as the name of the nation was different and he was never president under the new name.
Speaking of bureaucracy; let’s talk about the San Pedro Prison. Bolivia is a guilty until proven innocent country so if caught you can expect to spend eight years in La Paz’ largest prison, San Pedro, before having a trial. After the trial, the previous eight years does not apply to whatever sentence you get. The jail is run by the inmates. That is correct, the inmates run the jail. They hold regular elections to get representatives for themselves. The prisoners also pay rent for their cells which keep the elected officials maintaining law and order inside the prison. The prisoners have various jobs that allow them to make money in order to pay “rent”. The families of prisoners also live in the cells but the wives and kids are allowed to leave for school and work daily. There are around 1,600 prisoners that reside in San Pedro along with their families so as you can imagine the prison is very overpopulated. Politicians and drug lords can afford luxury cells while the majority live in basic single cells. Many think the prison is a better democracy than the country of Bolivia. Also another fun fact of the prison is that they have a contract with Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola send the prison tables, chairs, umbrellas for the exclusive right to advertise and sell Coca-Cola brand drinks within the prison. I was content with just observing this prison from the outside and moving away from it as soon as possible in order to not somehow end up walking inside it and getting stuck which has happened to other tourists.
Hostels:
The three most popular hostels are: Wild Rover, Loki, and Adventure Brew. We stayed at Wild Rover Hostel and it was a blast. Known as a party hostel, it definitely did not disappoint.
img_5185We were there during Australia Day so the fun was at an all time high every day. Australian passport holders stay for free at Wild Rover on Australia Day which in turn packed the premises with ‘Stralyans. The staff was very nice and accommodating and the bar/restaurant featured plenty of drinks and food (check out the beef stir fry on the menu). Be advised this is a party hostel and it does live up to it nightly. The hostel also offers a “free” city walking tour.
“Free” City Walking Tour:
The term free can be considered an alternative fact. While it was at one point free, the government put a ban on free tourism events so they do charge a very minimal fee and it is aboslutely worth it! Red Cap City Tours do a fantastic job explaining the culture and historical landmarks of La Paz that I will further explain. A guide from the walking tour will meet you at the hostel and then take you to the main sights and explain local culture.
Witches Market:
Referred to as “El Mercado de las Brujas”, the witches market is a popular attraction to many tourists. Local witch doctors sell potions for every possible ache you can think of. Many of the powders ensure luck, beauty, and fertility. They also sell dead llama fetus’. According to old Bolivian native religion, which has a focus on the Earth, for every construction of home or building the builders need to give back to the Earth since they are digging up the ground. When they take a part of the Earth away many people will bury a dead llama fetus to give back. They do not kill any llamas for this, they all die from natural causes. It is definitely a great experience to walk through the witches market. Walking through the witches market, you are not hassled to purchase items. The shop owners/workers simply engage into conversation about how your life is going and what could be better. They help explain absolutely everything from the miniature statues to certain remedies they have that could help you get whatever it is you are seeking. I did not purchase anything as I was just happy to be traveling and did not think I needed any remedies. However, if you do have your eye on a special someone, I suggest purchasing the “Follow Me” dust. Simply follow behind the person you wish to notice you and sprinkle them with your best salt bae impersonation and the dust will attract the person to you. I did not try it as I was confident enough in my alpaca sweater and headband look so I’ll let you be the judge to see if it works or not.
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San Francisco Church:
Located in La Paz’ city center, the Basilica of San Francisco is the main catholic church. Originally built in the 1500s, it collapsed in 1610 and was again rebuilt in 1784. The most important part of this church is that it blends native and Catholic art. The street in front of the church was the divide between the Spanish explorers and the native people of the region when this area was being explored. One side features more Spanish architecture while the other side maintains native culture. When the church collapsed, the rebuilding featured natives and the Spanish working collectively; bringing the area together and creating a beautiful church featuring amazing art. This is a large gathering area in town for locals with many markets and shops around the church.
This is the La Paz-El Alto cable car system. Opened in 2014, it helped lower massive bus traffic between the two cities. Currently it has three lines in operation with several more in the planning stage. It is a very fast and clean energy way to get between La Paz and El Alto. Hop on once and receive amazing view of La Paz from above. A one way ticket will cost you three bolivianos ($0.43 USD). I went on the red line with a group from the hostel just to check out the views of the city and it was a very fun trip. A short taxi ride from Wild Rover Hostel, it is worth it to live the local lifestyle and commute inside one of the cable cars. It takes just a few minutes to get to the top of El Alto and can be an enjoyable sight to see as a tourist.
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For the true adventurers: BIKE THE DEATH ROAD
The Death Road, also known as Yungas Road, is a 64km stretch of road from La Paz to Coroico. In 1995, the road earned the title “world’s most dangerous road”. The single lane 3m (10ft) wide road has very few guard rails with cliffs up to 600m (2000ft) that drop straight down. The road has not been used for vehicle traffic since 2006, because there was a newer, safer, and paved road built from La Paz to Coroico. Many backpackers and thrill seekers sign up with a travel agency to mountain bike down this road nowadays. I did it and it was an amazing mountain bike ride. The first 20km is on the newer paved road which is easy to ride down on. After the 20km paved section comes a short bus ride up a hill to begin the remainder of the old gravel road down. The cliffs, curvy roads, and views are breathtaking. A must do! This was so much fun riding alongside all my hostel mates. Separating from the pack with other guys, since of course we had to turn everything into a race. I still look back on it and agree it was one of the most fun tours that I’ve done in my life. Careful doing this in rainy season as landslides are common. Once we finished biking, we were taken to a hotel for a nice lunch/dinner before driving back to La Paz. On our way back, we were stuck overnight due to a landslide and cleanup efforts under way. Aside from the overnight delay, the bike ride was amazing!
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With its many options for tourists and backpackers alike, La Paz is a very vibrant and cultural city that you can spend a few days in before you head down to the Salar de Uyuni and see the salt flats. Also, as a personal favorite go have a cup of coffee with cake at “The Writer’s Coffee” in La Paz. It’s only a couple blocks away from Wild Rover and it will not disappoint you!
P.S. Americans – be prepared so you do not have a difficult time at Bolivian customs. Print off hostel reservations, flight/ bus information out of Bolivia, itineraries, and make sure you have $160 USD in cash with no cuts in the bills for the visa you obtain on arrival (bring back up $20 just in case, they are quite particular),  extra copies of your passport photo and yellow fever vaccination proof.
More to read about Bolivia, check out our other blogs