Boliva Pt V: Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni was the main reason why we visited Bolivia. I only learned about it through Milesglu’s excellent trip report and Ying was sold immediately after I told her about its existence.

Our tour operator Red Planet Expedition had arranged a taxi to meet our flight (30 BOB) but its office wouldn’t be opened until 8am. The taxi driver dropped us outside a cafe where we would spend the next hour or so. I noticed quite a few familiar faces from the flight.

Breakfast (35 BOB for both of us)

After breakfast, we made our way back to Red Planet’s office.

Weird sculpture in Uyuni

Red Planet’s office

We paid the tour fee (1200 BOB each) and were told by the staff that the tour would leave at around 10am. We had the option to explore the town but chose to stay indoors due to the low temperature outside.

Ying getting some warmth

Ying managed to entertain herself by playing with the staff’s daughter.

Pic 1

Pic 2

When the temperature became more bearable, Ying and I went out to pick up some supplies at the supermercado. By then more tour participants had arrived and the office was getting packed. Those who traveled by bus had an interesting tale to share; there was a blockade and the bus couldn’t be driven into the town. The passengers had to trek around 15 minutes to reach the office. Our decision to fly was vindicated.

At the end of the tour, the tour participants could either choose to travel on to Chile or return to Uyuni. For those returning to Uyuni, they could store their bags at the office. We were traveling on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile so our bags got up to the top of the vehicle instead.

Preparing the vehicle

There would be a total of seven of us in our jeep. I would get to know them better over the next couple of days.

  1. Ever, our Bolivian guide/driver
  2. Babar, Lucknowi chemical engineer based in Houston (who used to work in Singapore)
  3. Sanaa, Babar’s Mumbaikar other half who’s moving to Detroit
  4. Kelli, American graduate student in Rio de Janeiro
  5. Johannes, German graduate student from Munich
  6. Ying
  7. Yours truly

Ever hard at work

Selfie

The first stop of every tour was the train graveyard located just outside Uyuni.

Setting off

There used to be a railroad which connected the silver mines in Potosi to the Chilean port of Antofagasta but it was no longer in use. The locomotives were all rusting in Bolivian altiplano now.

Abandoned trains

Abandoned trains

Abandoned trains

Of course there were obligatory tourist pictures.

Trying to break Olympic record

Swinging

Swinging

Standing on the tracks

The next stop was Colchani, an hour or so away. We passed through Uyuni again and got chased by wild dogs just outside of it.

Outside of Uyuni

Wild dogs

We also saw vicuñas

Crazy gringos cycling through the inhospitable terrain

We were given a tour of the salt-refining process at Colchani before settling down for lunch.

Colchani – the buildings were made of salt

Colchani

Ever explaning how salt was processed

Local man demonstrating how to seal the packet of salt with open flame

The man would take a long time to pack this hill into packets

While Ever went to prepare the food with the other guides, we spent some time wandering around.

Wares for sale

The cyclists had caught up with us – respect!

Old truck

Honestly we were blown away by the quality of our lunch. There were pasta, potatos, chicken and we even had cupcakes for dessert. The food turned out to be consistently good throughout the entire tour.

Pretty awesome lunch

Minutes away from Colchani was the beginning of the salt flats. We stopped at the mounds of salt where tourists would stop for photographs.

Entering Salar de Uyuni

Checking the salt out

Kungfu panda impersonation

One leg standing

Driving through the salt flats

The next stop was the abandoned salt hotel. There was a giant Dakar Rally logo made of salt that was built to commemorate the event which took place in January 2014.

Dakar Bolivia

Salt hotel

Flags

No Singapore though

The next part of the tour would be pretty fun; we could do all the funny pictures that all tourists would take.

Crystallised salt

Apparently there was a sandstorm not too long ago and the entire salt flat was covered in sand. Hence the colour of the salt seemed a bit off.

More brown than white

Ever helped us take some group photos before letting us to experiment ourselves.

Jump shot

Chased by dinosaur

Holding hands with Patrick

The making of the following picture:-

End product:-

Thanks Babar!

Ying balancing on my head

The final stop of the day was at Isla Incahuasi, a former island in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. It was famous for the giant cacti which grew on it. There was an entrance fee of 30 BOB and we spent around half an hour exploring the place.

Incahuasi

Incahuasi

Lots of cacti

Give us a wave please

Prickly

Direction lady

Salar de Uyuni from Isla Incahuasi

Salar de Uyuni from Isla Incahuasi

Hole

Toilet

We were rotated to the rear of the jeep and it was really tight. All of us would take turns sitting there.

Rear

Photo stop

Sunset

We would reach our accommodation for the night shortly before dark. Ying and I shared our room with two other tour participants.

Basic

My bed for the night

There was an attached toilet in our room but the showers (10 BOB) were outside. Both of us would utilise it and Ying was shivering after that.

The rest of the evening were spent chit-chatting over meals (tea and then dinner) before we turned in for the night.

Dinner

The thermal sleeping bag from Red Planet worked well and I had a relatively comfortable sleep. We were also introduced to dulce de leche, a ubiquitous South American confectionary.

Accommodation for the first night (taken next morning)

Poster for Dakar Rally

The scenery was different from the previous day’s.

Mountain

Mountain

A view point overlooking Ollagüe volcano was our first stop of the day.

Playing with filter

Jeeps all parked

Ollagüe

Portrait

The guides suggested that we had an early lunch because the original location would be too windy. Lunch was awesome as usual and we had new friends who joined us.

Rocky outcrop where we had our lunch

Vizcacha

Bird

Lunch – chicken and pasta

The next stop was Laguna Canapa, the original place for lunch. It was indeed too windy.

Laguna Canapa

Like out of a painting

Brrr

Vicuñas

Another lake: Laguna Hedionda or smelly lake.

Flamingos

Patrick’s happy to see other pink animals

Windy!

Sign

Out of this world

There was a hotel near the lake and there was even an advertisement for WiFi. I recalled that the fee to use the toilet was exorbitantly expensive.

WiFi in the middle of nowhere

Hotel

No idea what’s what

Giant Bolivian flag

We were back on our way through the desert and even saw a furry friend.

Culpeo

Desert

Snow from two weeks earlier

Like a painting

Árbol de Piedra or Stone Tree was our next stop.

Tree with no leaves

Portrait

Messy hair

Shadow play

Back on the road

After more time on the road, we would reach Laguna Colorada, where the entrance to Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve was located.

Laguna Colorada

Patrick excited as usual

The white stuff on the surface was borax

Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve

View point of the lake

Inside the building were some information on the flora and fauna of the region.

We had seen some of the animals

After enough photos, we were driven to the park office when we would pay the entrance fee of 150 BOB to the nature reserve. We were also asked to indicate if we would be moving on to Chile or returning via the same way.

With the sun low, Ever informed us that we would be visiting the geysers before going to our accommodation for the night. The geyser wasn’t much to see though.

Geyser

Geyser

Somehow I didn’t manage to take any photographs of our second night’s accommodation. I did take a picture of the sunset outside the accommodation.

Sunset

There was a hot spring outside the accommodation and Ying and I went to check it out before dinner. There was this guy of African descent already in the hot spring and he joked that he would have to charge us 10 Bolivianos before we could go in. Funny.

Ever suggested that we could go to the hot spring after dinner and we did just that. It was amazing dipping inside the hot springs while looking at the stars. Definitely one of the most surreal experience that we ever had. The wind was really brutal though when we were getting out.

The accommodation on second night was newer but there was no water in the toilet and was pretty disgusting to use. The six of us shared a room and Ying complained that it got stuffy in the middle of the night. It wasn’t so bad though since the next day would be a short one.

It was really cold the next day and there were stops where all of us were fine with taking pictures from the car.

Salvador Dali Desert

Mountains in the background

Beautiful

The final stop of the whole tour was Laguna Verde, with Licancabur in the background. Apparently it was very toxic with lots of chemicals in the water.

Laguna Verde

Enthusiastic despite the early hours

Covered with chemicals

Group photo

It was a short drive to the Bolivian border post. We bid farewell to Babar and Sanaa who were returning to Uyuni with Ever.

Migration Bolivia

Both Johannes and Kelli had gotten their exit stamps at Uyuni; we hadn’t and needed to go to the building to get them. There was a stamping fee of 15 BOB and it caught the tourists in front of us by surprise.

Sign indicating it’s Chile

There were no toilet facilities at the area and we would need to do our business in the open. Just as we were done with it, the buses from Chile had arrived. The price of the ticket was included in our tour fees and we were soon on our way.

Bus to Chile

The facilitator informed us in Spanish about the Chile’s customs requirements; apparently one couldn’t bring in agricultural products and drugs into Chile. He told us that if we had any, we would have an hour to consume these items before reaching the Chilean customs.

Referring to where the governments were leaning?

There was a world of difference between Bolivian and Chilean roads. After two days of bumpy Bolivian tracks, we were all happy with awesome Chilean tarmac. I saw quite a few Paraguayan trucks which were transporting cars from Chile’s Pacific ports to Paraguay.

Paraguayan trucks transporting cars

An hour later we would reach San Pedro de Atacama, our only stop in Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama

The tour with Red Planet was pretty awesome. Ever was a reliable driver and a great guide and at no time I felt unsafe. While the accommodation was pretty basic, the food on the other hand was really good. The sights were amazing and I was really glad that I managed to see them with my own eyes.

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Boliva Pt IV: Z8 300 LPB – UYU

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Amaszonas

To get from La Paz to Uyuni, the starting point of salt flats tour, we had the choice of either taking a bumpy 10-hour overnight bus with Todo Turismo (250 BOB) for or a 45 minute flight with Amaszonas (914 BOB or 133 USD).

We decided to take comfort over cost and opted for the flight. Initially the flight was scheduled to be at 6.20am but on the night before the flight, we were informed over e-mail that the plane would depart at 5.35am instead. We were also reminded to be at the airport to check-in at least one hour before the flight departure, meaning that we would need to reach the airport by 4.30am.

To play safe, we were up by 3.30am and it happened that there were new guests checking in at that time. We bid farewell to Raul and took the cab to the airport. Instead of going by the expressway, we used the twisty roads up to El Alto and the cab dropped us at the airport arrival area in around half an hour. The ride cost us 60 BOB.

A short walk past the arrivals and we found ourselves at the check-in area.

Check-in

I had to show the credit card that I used for booking the ticket but the process was painless enough. The security weren’t open yet so we had to wait at the check-in area.

La Paz El Alto Airport

Passengers checking in for AA flight to Miami

Ying had a instant Nexpresso for 12 BOB at the airport before the security for domestic flights opened.

Gate 7A

Boarding commenced at around 6am and I had seat 7F by the window.

Flight: Amaszonas Z8 300
Depart: La Paz (LPB) – 05:35
Arrive: Uyuni (UYU) – 06:20
Duration: 45m
Distance: 286 miles (461 km)
Aircraft: Bombardier CRJ-200
Registration: CP-2762
Seat: 7F

CP-2856

Being in row 7 meant that we were exactly in the middle of the flight. It appeared that most passengers were tourists like us.

Cabin shot

Crew giving safety instruction in both Spanish and (incomprehensible) English

The take-off roll was probably the longest that I had experienced. The airport’s high altitude meant that even a small plane like CRJ needed a long take-off as well.

Despite being such a short flight, the crew went around distributing drinks. Impressive.

Drinks cart

As usual, I checked out the seat pocket content.

Awesome sick bag

The in-flight magazine was Spanish-only.

Focus was on World Cup

World Cup mascots over the years

Amaszonas’ route map

We arrived on time at the windy and freezing Uyuni and all of us rushed into the airport as soon as we disembarked from the plane.

Blurry image

I really admired the guys who were working in the freezing conditions to deliver our bags to us.

Our tour company had arranged for a transfer for us and the taxi driver was already waiting for us at the arrivals by the time we got our bags.

Although it was only a short flight, my impression of Amaszonas was quite good. While I didn’t really like the late notice about the change in departure time, the flight was actually quite pleasant. I didn’t expect a drinks run and the crew was quite friendly despite the early hours. Would definitely recommend it over taking the bus despite the relatively more expensive price.

Boliva Pt III: Walking Tour of La Paz

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La Paz from Killi Killi

Raul from our accommodation suggested that we could join the free walking tour on our only day in La Paz.

It would start at 10am from Plaza Murillo, located 25 minutes’ walk away from our accommodation.

We decided to set off early as we would need to get more Bolivianos. There were exchange offices on the way to Plaza Murillo and we exchanged 450 USD for 3105 BOB at one of them.

It was a tough uphill walk from the main thoroughfare of Avenida 16 de Julio to Plaza Murillo and both of us felt the effects of altitude.

Preparing his script

Shoeshine guy in ski masks

Plaza Murillo

Statue in the middle of Plaza Murillo

We were among the last people to join the tour and our guide Jorge got us to introduce ourselves. There were more than 10 of us at the start and we recognised some of our fellow residents from our accommodation.

Jorge gave us some background information about Plaza Murillo. La Paz is the de facto capital of Bolivia and Plaza Murillo is its political centre. Both Parliament building and Presidential Palace are both on the plaza.

Presidential Palace

Parliament

From Plaza Murillo, we walked downhill to Iglesia de San Francisco. It was famous for its Baroque facade, mixed with indigenous symbols.

Iglesia de San Francisco

Jorge telling us the history of La Paz

Indigenous symbols adorned the outside of the church

A short walk up was Calle Sarganaga, La Paz’s main tourist street. Our bus from Copacabana had dropped us there the day before and many tourist facilities such as restaurants, hotels and travel agencies were located around there.

Around Calle Sarganaga

Scary looking power lines

Jorge brought us to the Witches’ Market where there were many shops selling items for offerings.

Hanging llama

Baby llama foetuses

Drums

Not all shops were selling these stuff. There were of course shops catering to the tourists.

Fancying a llama or alpaca t-shirt?

We were brought inside a shop and Jorge explained more about the locals’ traditional beliefs. Despite Bolivia being a Catholic country, traditional beliefs still exist side by side with the church. Many people still burn offerings to Pachamama, the mother goddess.

Offering

Their rituals reminded me of traditional Chinese folk religion where one would burn offerings to gods and spirits.

Offerings

Love potions

Bolivian God of Fortune

Plants for cleansing?

After the tour of Witches’ Market, there was a brief stop at the shops which were selling the cholitas’ dresses. The bosses weren’t too friendly though so we refrained from taking photographs.

For our break, we would walk to a indoor market where there were stalls selling local snacks and fresh juices.

Mural

Shoeshine boy at work

Indoor market

Juice stalls

Local snack with banana and meat filling – not really impressive

After the pitstop, we walked to Calle Jaen, one of best-preserved colonial streets in La Paz.

Calle Jaen

Transported to the colonial era

Museum of Musical Instruments

Calle Jaen

Calle Jaen

The final place that we visited was Mirador Killi Killi, a viewing point which overlooked the city. To get there, we had to make a steep climb up the hills. We were truly killi-ed by the time we reached there.

View from Mirador Killi Killi

Ilimani in the background

High-rise

Obligatory picture

The walk down was far easier compared to the climb up. Jorge invited us to their travel agency and gave us a postcard each as souvenir. We passed him a small tip for his time and took a taxi to our accommodation to rest for the day.

Back at Plaza Murillo

Old and noisy American buses plying the road of La Paz

The tour was five hours long (from 10am to 3pm) and it required a lot of walking and climbing. La Paz was definitely not a city built for walking tours. Would I recommend the tour? Only if you are extremely fit!

Boliva Pt II: LANDSCAPE B&B Home – Room #1

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Illimani from our room

The taxi driver took some time before locating our accommodation which was located in the nice neighbourhood of Sopocachi. It was one of the top listings in La Paz on Airbnb and we booked two nights there for S$82.

LANDSCAPE B&B

The friendly staff on duty Raul welcomed us warmly at the door and gave us an introduction to the rest of the guests lounging in the living room. It was a big house with five guest rooms and there was also a large kitchen and dining area. The roof top was an open terrace where guests could chill out. We love the place immediately.

Living room

We love our room too. It looked exactly like in the pictures on Airbnb.

Bedroom

TV

Ying and I decided to self-cater for the first night and Raul offered to bring us to the shop nearby. As it was a Sunday, many shops were close but luckily our host knew of a place where we could get some pasta and sausages. We shared some of our laksa pasta with Raul and in return he insisted on helping us with the dishes. Thanks Raul!

There were two couples from New Zealand traveling separately staying at the house as well and one of the ladies was a chef. She decided to roast a chicken for the party and we were invited to partake as well. Pretty interesting conversation with them, ranging from Bolivian strikes to the intricacies of South American guesthouses.

Breakfast was also included and we had toast, fruits and juices every morning.

Dining table

Toast and juice

If there was one thing that could be improved, it was the number of bathrooms. There were two but only one had showers. So one may had to wait before he/she could take his/her showers.

Otherwise it was perfect stay. A special thanks again to Raul who was always happy to deal with our requests. The team was certainly doing things right and it wasn’t surprising that its listings are among the top in La Paz on Airbnb.

Boliva Pt I: Puno to La Paz via Copacabana

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Peruvia-Bolivian border at Copacabana

After yet another sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, we grabbed a taxi (5 PEN) to the bus station for our 7.30am departure to La Paz. The hotel staff had arranged the bus ticket for us at a reasonable price of 30 PEN per person; the later departure at 2.30pm would cost 35 PEN.

Paying the departure tax (1 PEN each)

We were only allowed into the boarding area after showing both our tickets and the departure tax receipts.

Huayruro Tours

However boarding didn’t commence immediately and we had to wait in the cold. It seemed that most of our fellow passengers were tourists like us.

On-board the bus

The bus took over two hours to reach Yunguyo, one of the two Peruvian border towns with Bolivia. At the border, we were asked to disembark with our bags at the Peruvian side and get stamped out of Peru.

Peruvian immigration

There were two buildings; we needed to queue up at one to get our passport scanned first in the right building before we could go to the actual immigration building to get stamped out.

After getting stamped out, we would make our way across the no man’s land to Bolivia.

Except that the no man’s land was full of people that day.

Bolivia lies beyond the arch

It appeared that there was some ceremony and student bands from both sides were performing between the two countries.

Peru

No idea what the ceremony was about

We didn’t linger on and found our way to the Bolivian immigration. Crossing the border also meant that we set our clock one hour forward, making us exactly 12 hours behind Singapore.

Following the sign

Initially there was only one official on duty which meant that a long queue had formed up.

Long queue

Singaporeans need to pay 55 USD for the Bolivian visa-on-arrival and there was a separate counter that we had to go to. On hindsight, we should have gotten our visa before joining the queue for immigration.

Still queuing

There was a moneychanger to the right of the immigration building and I exchanged my remaining Peruvian soles for Bolivian Bolivianos (99.4 BOB for 41.2 PEN).

The total process of crossing the border took us over an hour and we were glad to go back to the bus.

Another 8km to Copacabana

Just before entering Copacabana, someone came up to collect an ‘entrance fee’ of 1 BOB. We were dropped outside a travel agency Diana Tour and were informed that the bus to La Paz would depart around an hour later.

The bus to La Paz

Instead of exploring the town, we were happy enough to grab some lunch at a cafe instead. A burger and a bottle of Coca Cola set us back around 40 BOB (around 8 SGD).

Cafe in Copacabana

At 1.30pm Bolivian time we were back on our way to La Paz. The Bolivian bus wasn’t as nice as the Peruvian one but still was decent enough. It was quite a scenic drive along Lake Titicaca.

Copacabana

Andes in the background

Around 40 minutes later, the bus came to a halt again. There wasn’t a bridge between the two sides of the Strait of Tiquina and vehicles would need to take a raft across. Us the passengers had to disembark and took a separate ferry across for 2 BOB.

Vehicles ahead of us

Our bus loaded up

Going across

Our ferry

Although we departed later, the passengers would arrive at the other side earlier. We took the opportunity to visit the bathroom (1 BOB) and we spotted an interesting vehicle after that.

All the way from Colorado

We had a short chat with the girl who was in the vehicle; the owners were Americans who were on their way to Brazil for the World Cup. They had set off in February and being football (soccer) coaches, they gave clinics to children along the way. Pretty interesting way to go to the World Cup.

The scenery after Tiquina was similar to Peruvian altiplano.

With Andes in the background

Entrance to a military camp

It was a smooth journey until we reached El Alto where our bus got snarled into a really bad traffic jam. I suspected that many people were returning from the weekend trip on a Sunday.

Street art in El Alto

It took us more than an hour to get through the traffic and what I saw in El Alto along the way didn’t impress me. It was dusty and generally lacked charm.

El Alto

El Alto

Strangely the traffic jams disappeared after we went up the expressway to La Paz.

Going down to La Paz

Evo welcoming us

Our bus would drop us at Hotel Sagarnaga, located where most of the guesthouses and hotels are.

Hotel Sagarnaga

However, our accommodation was some way away but luckily a kind staff from Hotel Sagarnaga helped us get a taxi there for 15 BOB.

Central La Paz – quite different from El Alto

Central La Paz

Map of our journey:-