It’s a cold and miserable winter morning in Melbourne – if it wasnt for the rain one could be forgiven for mistaking this climate for that of Uyuni or Copacabana in Bolivia. I’ve been back home now for a week and it doesn’t feel like much has changed – not that I was really expecting it to. I’m already starting to miss the freedom of travel, the excitement of arriving in a new city and the fun of meeting new people.
It was an incredibly diverse 2 weeks that I experienced in Bolivia. With such variable altitudes, ranging from 90 to 6,542 metres above sea level, I went from extreme to extreme in a country that boasts such vast biologic diversity.
My first stop was the picturesque Lake Titicaca which sits in the Andes on the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is the largest lake in South America and following a very chilly night in the small town of Copacabana I boarded a ferry for the hour trip to Isla del Sol (“Island of the sun”) which is one of the lake’s largest islands.
The ferry ride proved to be pivotal to my experience in Bolivia. Shortly after boarding a couple that I met at the ticket office earlier that morning coincidently sat next to me – Matt and Holly from Seattle in the USA. We struck up some very interesting conversation during the journey where freakishly the couple sitting in front of us joined the conversation and remembered talking to me in the queue to Machu Picchu about a week earlier – Jonas and Elisabeth from Sweden and Germany.
Upon arriving at Yumani and navigating the many steep inca steps to the small township, we all checked into the same hotel (which was an absolute bargain at about US$4 per person) and from that point on I had the feeling we would be hanging out together for a while. Once settled in we went exploring to find some stunning views of Lake Titicaca.
Lake Titicaca doesn’t really boast a huge range of activities but for what it lacks in that respect it makes up for in tranquility and beauty. There is a 4-hour hike, which is best commenced from Challapampa in the north to Yumani in the south with some small ruins along the way. I chose to give that a miss as I was experiencing some residual muscle soreness from my Machu Picchu workout 2 days earlier.
Foodies will also struggle with very little in the way of restaurants or bars but I can recommend one local place called Las Velas. This very hard to find, tiny candlelit restaurant with no electricity specialises in the local trout “Truchas” and is known to be one of the few places where actual wild species can be consumed. We were also aware that the food takes quite sometime to be prepared and 2+ hours went by without any of us noticing, mainly due to a combination of great company and about 5 bottles of local Bolivian red wine. My tip is to get there early as there are limited seats and by the time the tables turnover it will be well past dinner time.
The fish is truly exceptional and well worth the wait. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos due to a few too many glasses of red and a raging hunger by the time the food arrived – but take my word for it.
After 2 nights on Lake Titicaca we were ready for a change so the 5 of us boarded a bus destined for the Bolivian capital La Paz. We checked-in to a large apartment together which had the added bonus of a kitchen, so I decided to visit the local market to stock up on some produce and cook a meal – something I had not done for some time.
The next day we wandered through some of the local markets in La Paz and visited The English Pub to watch the first Australian World Cup match against Chile. I must admit La Paz didn’t really offer a great deal of excitement and if it was not for the company of these wacky travellers I probably would have bounced out of there much sooner.
Following La Paz, my original plan was to head to Uyuni to experience the world’s largest salt flats but decided to alter my plans considering the crew were all about to board a flight to Rurrenabaque. Travelling with this type of flexibility just makes for a far better experience as you discover new things along the way as well as cool people who you just want to hang with.
Rurrenabaque is a small town on the banks of the Río Beni in the Bolivian Amazon Basin. It serves as a base for trips to the jungle in the nearby Madidi National Park and pampas tours for which we spent a few hours deliberating. We ended up choosing a 3-day Pampas tour (with Dolphin Travel) mainly for the interaction with native wildlife.
We had an incredible 3 days on the Pampas tour with an abundance of natural wildlife ranging from turtles, anaconda, pink dolphins, capybaras, monkeys, giant ant-eaters, porcupines, toucans, blue and yellow macaws, and sometimes jaguars (which we didn’t see). Bird watchers are spoilt with countless species and waking up to their sounds resonating in the jungle canopy every morning felt so surreal.
The first of my 2 personal highlights from the Pampas tour were swimming with the pink dolphins for which I don’t have any footage but the memories will last forever. They were clearly playing games with us as we kept swimming towards them and they would swim away and surface on the other side of the swamp. The water was so dark and impenetrable by sight, so it was a little weird when a dolphin brushes against you and you can’t actually see it. Holly had some serious reservations about the authenticity of my claims and captured some secret footage which I later discovered on my camera.
The second and most favourite highlight (considering its one of my passions) was fishing for Piranhas. This proved to be a easier task due to their voracious appetite for meat (we were using small strips of fresh beef for bait). Literally as soon as the bait would hit the water the masses of Piranhas would pounce.
After catching about 10 fish we ran out of bait so I decided to use one of the smaller fish for bait which attracted some laughter from the group and our guide. It had only been in the water for a few minutes when I noticed something much larger take hold of it and I was struggling to hang onto the hand line. Unfortunately the larger fish won out in the end and I was devastated I didn’t at least get a chance to see what it was – our guide said it was most likely a large catfish.
With no bait left we decided to head back to the lodge for lunch (which was literally right behind us as pictured above). Our Piranha’s were simply cooked – fried and served with lemon wedges. Luckily we had other food on the menu as each fish only provided a few mouthfuls of meat – which was quite tasty I must admit.
The end of the Pampas tour meant saying goodbye to lower altitudes, warm weather and sadly Holly and Matt whom were destined for Peru. Elisabeth, Jonas and I boarded the next flight to Uyuni for my 3-day tour of the famous salt flats.
Salar de Uyuni spreads over 10,000 square kilometers with an elevation of almost 3,700 meters above sea level. I was informed June (winter) is a good month to visit due to the dry weather but was shocked to learn that the average overnight low is -13°C.
The tour was truly fascinating with such diverse landscape which at times felt like we were on Mars. It was so surreal being literally out in the middle of nowhere and experiencing such varying beauty and wildlife. Some of our tour highlights included the following:
Train Graveyard – a place with a lot of wrecked old steam locomotives.
Isla de los Pescados, or Isla Incahuasi – Island of fossilized coral covered in 1000-year-old cacti in the middle of the Salar. These cacti (the highest of them being 9-10 m) grow at a rate of 1cm per year, so you can easily calculate their age.
Salt-Mining Area – an area where salt is dug from the plane into piles, and left to dry in the sun before transport to a refinery then to your table.
Laguna Hedionda – a lagoon full of flamingos
Arbol de Piedra – a stone tree that has been carved out of the howling, sandy winds.
Solar de Manaña geyser basin (5000m) – a collection of bubbling sulfur pools and a geyser
Termas de Polques hot springs – we took a midnight swim in the 40°c springs which felt like heaven in the outside temperature of around -10°c
Laguna Verde - coloured green by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and other heavy metals with a perfect reflection of Vulcán Lincacabur
Valles de Rocas – many strange valleys of rocks popping up out of the altiplano.
And of course the customary funny photos on the actual salt flats.
Towards the end of the tour I got dropped off at the Chilean border near San Pedro de Atacama and that spelt the end of my fascinating two weeks in Bolivia.
Whilst some of the locals are not the friendliest towards foreigners, Bolivia has far too much appeal to be left off any South American itinerary. Personally, I rated Salar de Uyuni equally with Machu Picchu for sheer wow factor, and the Bolivian Amazon Basin provided me with such intimate interaction with local wildlife.
My next update will cover the final week of my Solo World Tour in Chile – what a surprise packet that turned out to be.
Hasta Luego amigos.