Salar de Uyuni

After a more than 3-hour bus ride from Potosi, we finally arrived at Uyuni at 11pm. As soon as we got out of the bus, a few people from different travel agencies tried to convince us to book Salar de Uyuni tours with them. We were not easily convinced and decided to go to one of the main avenues “Avenida Ferroviaria” of Uyuni where most of the hostels, hotels and travel agencies are located. One of the travel agencies was still open, it’s called “Uyuni Tours” and the place seemed pretty legitimate, even with good Trip Advisor reviews.

Jose and I ended up booking the 2-day tour for 800 bolivianos. It included transportation, food, accommodation for one night and the tour of Salar de Uyuni, Cementerio de Trenes and Tunupa Volcano. There are many hostel options around and we stayed at “Hotel Avenida”, a decent hotel that is next door from the travel agencies.

The tour started at the next day at 10am. We boarded a Toyota Land Cruiser with 5 more people who were part of our tour. A French and Australian couple and a Peruvian guide who was training in Bolivia. The first stop was at Cementerio de Trenes, a place of 19th century abandoned steam locomotives and trains.

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Cementerio de Trenes

Afterwards, we started entering the Salt Flat, the largest in the world and at the beginning you can see small mountains of salt production where large amount of lithiums and sodiums will be extracted. As you ride on the jeep, it seems like a never ending white desert. We stopped to take a few pictures of this beautiful place that makes you feel tiny yet lucky to witness this wonder and to be alive.

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The salt hotel “Playa Blanca” was the next stop where we had lunch cooked by our tour guide. It’s also a good place to rest and use the bathroom. This hotel was built with salt and outside of it, there are flags of countries around the world and a huge monument of the Dakar rally since Uyuni was part of the route.

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After an hour or so of driving, we arrived in Atulcha. In this small and remote town, we spent the night. There was time to visit a small arqueological museum, located inside caves where you can see mummies in their original poses of past civilizations that used to live there.

The next day we woke up at 5am in order to see the sunrise from “Isla del Pescado”, somewhere in the middle of the salt flats of Uyuni. I can honestly say that this was one the best experiences from this trip. It was just breathtaking to witness the sun slowly coming up in the middle of Salar. It was a moment of total distraction and peace, surrounded by natural beauty.

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The final stop of the tour was at Volcan Tunupa. At an elevation of more than 5300 m, this colorful volcano will reward you with an amazing view of Salar de Uyuni. It’s a relatively easy climb, at least to the point where the tour guide allows you to. Good hiking shoes for the entire tour is a plus!

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After spending 2 days riding through this majestic place and making good friends, we were able to experience one of the greatest places not only in Bolivia but in South America as well. Salar de Uyuni is definitely worth visiting and I’m sure that I will be back one day but not yet, not yet…

Next stop: Cayambe Volcano.

Cheers!

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Mine Tour, Potosí

Potosí is located in the south of Bolivia and is a city in which many people depend of the harshness of the mines to make a living. It has an elevation of about 4,090 meters, making it one of the highest cities in the world.

After an almost 3-hour bus ride from Sucre, we reached Potosí at night. Friends of us recommended Koala Den Hostel and that’s were we stayed. It’s a simple yet convenient hostel with reasonable prices and located close to the main plaza of the city (Plaza 10 de Noviembre).

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Catedral Basilica of Potosí
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Casa de la Moneda

Through the hostel, we were able to do the mine tour with Koala Tours at the next day. Most of the tourists did the guided tour in English and our guided tour in Spanish was more personalized. It started at around 8:30am and the first stop was to get the equipment for each person (helmets, flashlights, boots, jackets and pants).

The next stop was at the miners market. We were advised to buy some gifts to them as in good gesture since they were letting us in the mines (ideally they preferred coca leaves or alcohol) and we chose the former. It’s a crowded market where you can pretty much find everything. There was a lot of alcohol being transported up to the mines since at that moment, miners were doing the llama sacrifices ritual or “Wilancha”. During this tradition there is a good amount of alcohol consumption.

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Llamas being transported to the mine

After this, we did a quick tour of the mineral factory in which you learn the process of mineral purification after its extracted from the mines.

Finally, the group went up the hill where the mine was located. Just outside of the mine, many miners were drinking and about to do the ritual in which llamas are sacrificed. The blood of the llamas is spread on the bodies and faces of the miners and inside the mine. Some organs are buried to honor the Pachamama or mother earth in order to be prosperous and to be safe when working at the mines since accidents can occur. This ritual is not something that I would not have liked to witness but it was part of the experience.

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Miners with their families outside of the mine. Photo by Jose Luis Toral

Once inside the mine, you realize how hard and sad the conditions are for miners to work there. They risk their lives everyday day in return of a low wage but at the end of the day, that’s how they make a living and bring food to the table. It’s a good idea to bring handkerchiefs or something to cover your mouth and nose as the mine has a lot of dust.

Our tour guide himself was a miner and he explained to us how some miners can purchase small sections of the mine. This will give a miner the opportunity of being the only one who can extract minerals from that particular section.

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Walk inside the mine. Photo by Jose Luis Toral

Inside the mine, miners perform rituals to ask “El Tio” – a statue that looks like a demon – for protection. The miners would try to make El Tio happy by talking to him, drinking alcohol with him and leaving him some coca leaves. Our tour guide gave us a shot of alcohol (96 degree) that burned inside of you for a couple of minutes while he was explaining to us about El Tio.  He told us how each miner would try to take care of his coworkers. If one of them had family problems or was somewhat depressed, his coworkers would not let him inside the mines as full concentration to work is needed and there is no room for mistake.

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“El Tio” next to our tour guide. Photo by Jose Luis Toral

As we kept going forward after a tiring walk and finally saw the light at the end of the mine, I could only think the respect that I have for these miners. The mine tour in Potosí is definitely a tough experience for anyone to see but it’s a reality for many people who struggle and risk their lives at work everyday.

Next stop: Salar de Uyuni.

Sucre, the capital city

As the historic and constitutional capital of Bolivia, this city is abundant with colonial style streets, churches and chapels.

After a 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, we finally made it to Sucre. The bus terminal was located just 15 minutes away from Kultur Berlin hostel in the historic center of the city. Kultur Berlin is a nice hostel to meet other backpackers from all over and also a good place to party! It’s mid May and the weather is warm during the day, so we decide to walk around the main plaza of Sucre where you’ll find the Metropolitan Cathedral, museums, shops and restaurants.

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Metropolitan Cathedral
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Streets of Sucre

Our First stop was a “Casa de la Libertad” museum. This museum is a must for those who like history as this is the place of Bolivia’s birth where the declaration of independence was signed. At the museum you’ll also find portraits from Simon Bolivar (liberator of Bolivia) to Evo Morales, the current head of state. The entrance fee is 15 bolivianos or $2 USD and the guided tour can be completed in less than an hour.

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Casa de la Libertad

After having some decent pizza at Pizzeria Napolitana Restaurant (I say decent because with pizza it can always be better!) we took a long walk to the top of Sucre to visit La Recoleta Museum. Rather than recommending visiting the museum that even today still serves as a convent, Plaza Anzures is definitely worth visiting as you’ll find great views of Sucre while having a beer at Café Gourmet Mirador.

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Museo de La Recoleta
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View from Cafe Gourmet Mirador

As I mentioned in my previous Bogota story, going to a soccer or football game in South America is a must! Usually most league games are played on the weekends but sometimes there are games during the week as well. We went to see the local team Universitario against Nacional Potosí at Patria Stadium and although the stadium wasn’t packed, many goals were scored as the game ended 3-3!!

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Estadio Olimpico Patria

Sucre is a beautiful city with lots of history and it can easily be covered in a day or 2. Is the perfect example of a colonial style city in South America.

Next stop: Potosí.

La Paz in 24 hours

At an altitude of around 3650m above sea level, La Paz is one of Bolivia’s most populous cities that is home of the central government. Is a city that seems to move quickly with people living their own fast paced lives, vendors crowding the thin streets and car and buses stuck in a never ending traffic. Yet, the location of this city surrounded by the altiplano, its people and buildings makes it a unique and incredible place from a touristic perspective.

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Plaza San Francisco

After a 4-hour bus ride (including a 20-minute ferry ride) from Copacabana to La Paz, we arrived in the main terminal of the city. We grabbed a taxi and made it to our hostel late at night. Based on our good Cusco hostel experience, we decided to stay at Wild Rover La Paz. A twin room with a bunk bed started at 198 bolivianos or around 29 USD. The hostel is located close to some of top tourist attractions in La Paz.

We decided to start the next day with “Mi Teleferico”, an aerial cable car that can take you all the way up from La Paz to El Alto. There are 3 lines, Red, Yellow and Green. The yellow line was our choice and once you are at the top, you’ll see some of the most incredible views of the city.

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View of La Paz from “Mi Teleferico”

Our next stop was at the crowded Plaza San Francisco. There are walking tours that leave from here every hour for only 20 bolivianos per person.

The walk started at the Witches Market, a place like I’ve never seen before. It’s a market around different streets where you can find traditional crafts, souvenirs, medical plants, ingredients and dried llama fetuses that are used for rituals. I must say that it was a bit shocking and disturbing to see the dried llama fetuses yet it’s a normal tradition for locals to perform rituals where they bury the llamas for good luck under new homes or business to the goddess Pachamama or “Mother Earth”.

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dried llama fetuses

 

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Street art around the Witches Market

The next stop was at Plaza Murillo. As we were approaching the plaza, we saw many police personnel with riot gears and barricades surrounding the plaza. Our group was able to get in because we were tourists. The protest was from disabled people demanding a monthly subsidy of 500 bolivianos from the government.

Arguably Bolivia’s most important plaza, its surrounded by the presidential palace “Palacio Quemado”, the Cathedral of La Paz and the national congress.

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Palacio Quemado

San Pedro prison was the next stop of the tour. A prison like no other, it’s known for having a society within the walls, where inmates can live with their families while they do their sentences. Although we did not go inside for obvious reasons, the prison is also known for it’s vast amount of cocaine trafficking and for having “wealthier” and “poorer” areas within the prison.

The final stop was at Apolinar Jaen street. The most beautiful street that we saw in La Paz, is narrow yet rich in colors and surrounded by shops and restaurants.

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Apolinar Jaen street

Although we did not have time to cover other important places like “Death Row” or the Moon Valley, we were able to have a good grasp of this unique city in 1 day.

Next Stop: Sucre.

Isla del Sol and Copacabana

As our Peru adventure in Cusco and Machu Picchu took an end, a new one started in Bolivia.

The bus ride from Cusco to Copacabana is around 8 hours with 1 hour and a half lay off in Puno. You have the option to see Lake Titicaca both from Puno (Peru) as well as Copacabana (Bolivia) but we chose the latter based on friend’s recommendations.

Many countries don’t require a tourist visa for Bolivia but depending on your nationality, a visa on arrival might be applicable. After crossing the border to Bolivia and going through immigration for about 40 minutes, we finally made it to Copacabana!

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Copacabana

Our first stop was at Manchester United café bar, located in front of Lake Titicaca and the docks. I highly recommended the traditional Trucha (a la diabla) with a Paceña beer. After lunch, we walked around town and the central market and bought bus tickets to La Paz for the next day in a travel agency (there are many around the shops and restaurants) for 25 bolivianos each or about 3.60 USD.

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Trucha a la diabla

We were told by the travel agency not to pay for boat transportation in advance so we walked around the dock and received different prices for one way tickets to Isla del Sol north (400 bolivianos at one point! This is obviously way overpriced). We ended up paying 40 bolivianos each (6 USD), a very reasonable amount. The point is to ask around to find the best available prices, don’t just buy it from the first person that offers you a boat ride!

Isla del Sol has a south side and north side and we decided to stay in the north side. The boat ride to Isla del Sol north was about 2 hours and during the ride, you can see the beautiful Andes on the background. We finally arrived to the island late in the afternoon during the sunset.

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Isla del Sol north with the Andes in the background

Isla del Sol north is a relatively small in terms of infrastructure and population, with just a couple of hostels and restaurants. We saw some people that would camp by the shore with their own tents, so that’s another option that you have. We decided to settle with Hostal Cultural. A clean room with a private restroom and 2 beds started at 40 bolivianos or about 6 USD per person.

The next morning and after a quick breakfast, our 4 hour walk from the very north of the island to south was about to begin. The boat from the south side was leaving to Copacabana at 3:30pm so we started the walk the earliest possible.

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As you walk up the hill, some of the most amazing views are there for you to contemplate throughout the trail.

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Once you make it to the very end of the north side, you’ll stumble upon some ruins that worth checking out for a bit. Throughout the trail, you’ll be charged with fees when going to the ruins and crossing from the north to the south side. So it’s a good idea to carry some bolivianos with you.

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North side ruins

After walking for a little over an hour through the trail, you’ll start seeing changes in vegetation that provide a perfect contrast of the lake and the island.

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The walk is long depending on your pace but I would say that the average time is about 3 hours and a half. It took Jose and I about 4 hours because we were carrying all of our backpacks (you can leave your luggage in a storage room in Copacabana, some hotels provide this service). Make sure to carry sunblock, plenty of water, a hat and comfortable clothes.

As we finally arrived in the south side, we felt relieve, yet we knew that the long and tiring walk has been worth it.

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Isla del Sol south

When we took the boat back to Copacabana at 3:30pm, our bus was scheduled to depart at 6:00pm to La Paz, our next destination.

Contemplating Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol is a truly beautiful experience that I hope to repeat it one day.

Next Stop: La Paz.

Cheers!