Tag Archives: Bolivia

Lake Titicaca

Bolivia is a country of surprises and superlatives – it is the southern hemisphere’s highest nation with the world’s highest capital city. It has some of Earth’s coldest, hottest and windiest places. It is South America’s poorest country yet rich in natural resources.

Our final experience of this remarkable country was exploring yet another superlative: the world’s largest high altitude lake…with the world’s funniest name.

For fact fans:

  • 3810m above sea level
  • 8560m2 total area
  • 4996m2 on Peru side
  • 3564 on Bolivia side
  • 281 m maximum depth
  • 71km of islands
  • 896,000,000m3 volume of water

After a short minibus ride from La Paz, we had to hop on a ferry to cross a small stretch of water before we could arrive in Copacabana, a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

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We climbed on a tiny dinghy while our bus and all the luggage drove onto a larger barge. Luckily this system runs smoothly and we were reunited with our bags after a few minutes waiting on the other side – just enough time to buy some snacks from this little cutie.

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Thanks to Lake Titicaca’s bountiful supply of fish, we ate the best food we had in Bolivia in this area. Dinner in Copacabana was this grilled trout “a la inglesa” – apparently people in South America think we Brits smother everything in a cheese sauce.

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The quinoa fritters we ordered as a side dish were a treat I will definitely try to recreate in the UK.

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The next morning we took the 1h 30min boat trip to Isla del Sol, one of the most important areas for Andean culture. Inca mythology says the sun was born here and many people travel to see the footprints he left behind.

Andean/Amayran cultures believe there are three levels of existence: the lower level, often depicted by a snake, is where Pachamama resides. The upper level, portrayed by a condor, represents spirit life. The middle level, depicted by a puma, represents powerful human life.

Although it didn’t stop us giggling like the puerile idiots we are at any mention of “titicaca”, we learnt how “titi” is Quechua for “puma” and “caca” means rock – Isla del Sol is home to a famous puma shaped rock which gives the lake its name.

Isla del Sol was pretty close to my idea of paradise: gorgeous views, vibrant colours, fresh air and peaceful tranquility.

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We cheekily hijacked a guided tour and overheard a lesson about moonya, a local minty, citrussy herb which helps with altitude sickness and nausea when sniffed or brewed into tea to drink.

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Near to the puma rock or “titicaca” were pre-Inca structures, including a stone table used for sacrifice rituals – I was reminded of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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We meandered along the path from the north to the south of the island, a lovely three hour walk with plenty of photogenic vistas along the way. But no trees along this route meant no shade from the sun, made fiercer by the 4,000m altitude!

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We realised we hadn’t eaten since early morning so decided to follow some locals to find a good spot for a late lunch.

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Our llama guides did well, leading us to a picture postcard spot where the specialty was, of course, fresh trout.

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Tummies full, we found a lodge to spend the night which had a wide terrace, perfect for watching the sunset along with a bottle of Malbec saved from Mendoza.

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I could easily while away days on end on this island – it is an ideal spot to get lost in some good books or take up painting. Sadly we had a bus booked from Copacabana to Cusco via Puno the next day, so had to get back on the ferry in the morning.

Puno let us see the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It is famous for the Uros community: several hundred people who live on floating islands made from layers of reeds, which you can visit by boat.

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While this was a good way to pass the few hours before the next leg of our bus journey, Mark and I felt a little uneasy about the blatantly touristic and voyeuristic setup.

Although some debate that the steady flow of visitors to these areas ensures that this way of life is preserved, to us it seemed forced, false and borderline exploitative. The villagers sang snatches of songs to please their international visitors; “row row row your boat” followed by “sur le pont d’Avignon” and then a Japanese ditty while I cringed inwardly.

It seemed a world away from the peaceful authenticity of Isla del Sol, where visitors mixed quietly and respectfully with the farmers and fishermen.

World’s Most Dangerous Road, Bolivia

written by Mark

Don’t tell Leila’s mum, but one of our highlights of our time in La Paz was cycling down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (a.k.a. “Death Road”, whichever makes you feel more comfortable). The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but we heard that on average around 13 people died each year when the road was the major route over the mountains to La Paz.

Thankfully, they built a new road in 2007 so this old 64km WMDR route is only used by cyclists, tour buses and the odd other vehicle. Still, our guide Jubi was aware of about 24 cyclists who had died in the last 14 years, so the name “Death Road” is no false moniker.

So, armed with this information, our group was just itching to set off.

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Given the infamous WMDR history, safety is given the utmost priority. Barracuda Bikes gave us high quality Kona steeds with hydraulic disk brakes and full suspension.

We were given a good briefing and even made an offering to Pachamama to bid us a good trip: a drop of 96% strength alcohol for our bikes and the road followed by a drop for ourselves.

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Then we were off. The first 25km or so was down a tarmac road, good to give us all a feel for the bikes.

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Then the 37km down the Death Road itself began. The road is narrow (often only one car width wide, with vertical 200-300m drops on one side and a cliff on the other. The surface is gravel, and loose in parts.

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Those who have seen the Top Gear episode where they drive on this road will know it can easily crumble away beneath the vehicle. For that reason it is the only road in South America where it is customary to drive on the left – so drivers can more easily see how close they are to the edge.

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The dust kicked up by cars was often suffocating; we were caked all over by the end of the ride.

The road is littered with crosses and graves, a good reminder to check your speed.

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We took care to stop for regular breaks and take lots of photos. Jubi was a bit of a joker.

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The ride was great fun, with just enough danger to keep it interesting. I’m pleased to say everyone in our group got back in one piece.

Annoyingly, we left La Paz the next day before we could pick up our “Death Road Survivor” tshirts, but Leila did come back with one souvenir after taking a tumble.

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La Paz, Bolivia

Mark and I were ready to hate La Paz.

Often, after we have spent time in the wilderness soaking up stunning natural landscapes, cities can feel tiresome and unwelcome, even to this diehard Londoner.

But La Paz was a pleasant surprise which made us realise once again how much Bolivia has to offer. It’s such an underrated country with so many misconceptions – their tourism industry needs better PR!

Pub quiz fans know La Paz to be the highest capital city in the world: a nosebleed inducing 3660m. What we weren’t expecting was the way the city’s buildings seem to climb the sides of the canyon with Mt Illamani in the background. Or how varied the different neighbourhoods are. Or just how sweltering it gets in the daytime, especially in contrast to the freezing nights.

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On the map, distances within La Paz don’t look far but the combination of altitude and steep hills is a killer. Wads of coca leaves stayed firmly in our cheeks as we found our way around the city.

One of the first places we visited was Calle Jaén, the oldest street in La Paz which today is a charming collection of higgledy piggledy museums, galleries, shops and cafes on either side of a cobbled road.

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A favourite was the Mamani Mamani gallery, where you could see some of the huge, colourful works of Bolivia’s most famous artist. Our travel budget didn’t allow us to invest in any paintings, but luckily he has also painted murals around the city which can be enjoyed for free.

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La Paz is also a paradise for shoppers, with quality items like baby alpaca jumpers at laughably cheap prices. More unusual goods are also available, particularly in the Witches Market.

For example you can find llama foetuses, which are traditionally buried under the front step of a new house, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth, a venerated spirit in Andean cultures) to ensure prosperity.

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You can also buy all sorts of lotions and potions for a multitude of purposes, from career success to sexual prowess.

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These little chaps are used during the Bolivian tradition of Alasitas, or the “Festival of Abundance” every January. Miniature versions of items such as money, food, cars, houses, diplomas are offered to be blessed, as a prayer that the real, life sized thing will be obtained in the coming year.

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La Paz also has many fresh produce markets, with literally thousands of stalls displaying virtually identical stock, each looked after by a cholita (the Bolivian ladies who wear the ubiquitous style of bowler hats, two long plaits, full skirts and many layers of cardigans and blankets).

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We didn’t understand this initially – surely in such a busy, competitive marketplace it would be best to differentiate yourself and your stall with specialist items or price points? Then we learnt that Bolivians are fiercely loyal to their fruit & veg cholita: generations of the same family will only buy their food from the same lady’s stall. Apparently it is not uncommon to be refused service if you are obviously carrying a bag of produce bought from another stall.

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We also learnt a bit about the etiquette of these markets. For example, haggling over the price of fresh produce is not welcome, but you can get a good deal by asking for a yapa (a free gift of a few extra items to add to your shopping).

Also it is important to ask permission before taking photos as many cholitas don’t like it. Sure enough we spotted a few with bags of rotten tomatoes by their feet, ready to hurl at disrespectful, snap happy gringos.

Some other sights from our wanderings around the city, including politically significant buildings. We learnt a bit about Bolivia’s tumultuous, dramatic history: around 200 changes of government in around 180 years as a republic. The streets and squares of La Paz have seen many protests, marches and riots; some landmarks have visible bullet holes.

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Unbelievably, traffic in La Paz is controlled by people in zebra outfits!

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Southwest Bolivia tour

Post written by Mark

People often describe the tour of Southwest Bolivia as the “salt flats tour”, but this is a misnomer, as the salt flats themselves are but one of an array of incredible sights on a three or four day jeep excursion. Indeed, at present the Bolivian tourist agency is trying to get one of the other landmarks, the Laguna Colorado (more below) listed as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. The reality is that the real wonder is the range of incredible natural sceneries, each appearing one after the other in the front window of our Land Cruiser.

We chose to do a four day tour starting in Tupiza, a real Wild West kind of town, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed for a short time before being reputedly gunned down a few miles away by the Bolivian army.

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Very quickly the car ascended out of Tupiza (already 3,000 metres above sea level) to pass strange rock formations…

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…marsh land…

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…several llama estancias (the colourful earrings are to help identify the owner of each llama)…

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…and rare wild vicuñas…

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…before coming across a series of beautiful lakes, teeming with flamingos. These photos are from lagunas Cerillos and Polulas.

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(By the way, there are no fish up here – the flamingos eat algae growing in the lake).

First stop on the second day was the Desierto de Dali, a Martian-like landscape, the rocks stained by sulphur from the volcanoes, so named as it resembles the backdrop of a painting by Dali. In fact, some think that Dali must have visited the site as a child, though this has not been proven.

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Before lunch we stopped at an idyllic hot spring for a bath. Our driver was always keen to leave slightly earlier than other tour groups and drove faster, so we had the pools virtually to ourselves.

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We then continued climbing to 5,000 metres (chewing great wads of coca to ward off the altitude sickness) to see some geysers and bubbling mud pools. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The heat of the earth was intense beneath our feet and it was possible to stand directly over the boiling mud pools watching the splatter and steam.

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The day finished at the potential “natural wonder of the world” site, the Laguna Colorado. This lake has, as a result of the mix of volcanic minerals in its water, developed a rare algal bloom that turns the water rust red. Borax in the water solidifies and forms structures that look like ice shelves on the water. Together with the flamingos that enjoyed showing off in front of our camera, the effect was magical.

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Day three contained the Desierto de Siloli with wind carved volcanic boulders and more beautiful lagoons, including the Laguna Negro, named after the black fungal growths.

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Also at the Laguna Negro were these rabbit-like creatures that could climb! This one was about eight metres up!

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The final day was spent on the salt flats themselves. The salt flats are vast, 10,582km square in area, but is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric saline lake, which dried and deposited the salt as it did so. The old lake remains, hidden under a thick crust of salt.

We awoke before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the plains. This is our tour group enjoying the experience but getting very cold in the process!

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Breakfast was had on one of the “islands” in the salt flats. These cacti are several hundred years old and up to 12 metres high.

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We then took the obligatory trompe l’oeil photos. They are surprisingly hard to perfect, but these are our best attempts.

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One of the surprising things to me about the tour was the amount of agriculture and industry that we saw along the route. One would think that in such a harsh environment, where the days are hot and the nights below freezing it would be tough to get anything done. But there were estancias herding llamas for their fur and meat (dried and made into charqui), settlements collecting the minerals from the lakes for export to Chile (borax for porcelain and toughened glass, and another mineral for shampoo), a geothermal power station, mines, and of course the collection of salt for Bolivian and Chilean tables and chemical industries. The salt flats also contain something like 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves. These photos are of one of the early silver mine settlements (with reputedly the oldest Catholic Church) and of the old railway, which brought salt to Chilean markets.

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Our food was cooked by Reyna (who, bless her, burnt her face on the second night when a dodgy gas oven blew up on her). Bolivian food is definitely not the country’s strong point; it is usually very simple, stodgy and bland, although the produce in the markets is often fresh and excellent. While Leila goes crazy for the fruit, a highlight for me was the potatoes. I love a good spud, and in Bolivia there are hundreds of varieties.

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Pique a la macho is a classic Bolivian dish and a good example of the typically rustic cuisine. Onions, peppers, tomatoes, llama meat, garlic and chillies are all bunged into a pot together, then served with hard boiled eggs, frankfurters and chips. Leila was reminded of the kind of “splodge” her father likes to make after scouring the reduced items shelf at supermarket.

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One of the highlights of Reyna’s repertoire was this cute heart-shaped cake – especially since baking is very difficult at altitude!

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She also made us llama lasagne; we began to develop a taste for llama meat, which is like a cross between beef and lamb but much leaner – actually quite tasty. When we arrived in the town of Uyuni after the end of the tour, we couldn’t resist a llama and pesto pizza from the famous Boston outpost, Minuteman Pizza.

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Overall an incredible and unforgettable trip in a beautiful and underrated country.