Bolivia “Salt Flakes” Tour Heaven

After three days driving through remote Bolivia, we arrived to a hostel in the middle of nowhere, made entirely of salt. We queued for a much needed hot shower — the first in three days — while rumors spread that the water was almost out. With roughly ten different nationalities represented among the 20+ of us queued, I wondered if an international incident was imminent. Fortunately we all behaved.

Ten year old Lupe manned the shower entrance and we had to pay her 10 Bolivianos for the privilege and an additional 20 for a towel. Later that evening, Lupe came over to observe our game of cribbage, catching on quickly, even switching teams when she realized Kyle was winning. She also joined a game of UNO and showed us no mercy. Made me wonder what a whip smart young girl grows up to do in rural Bolivia.

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The Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia are on the wish lists of most intrepid travelers. We see the amazing perspective pictures where the ground and sky seem one in the same. A popular way to visit the salt flats is as part of a 4-day jeep tour of the Bolivian SW outback. I came to see the salt flats, but my understanding of what earth looks like was rocked by the landscape that came before.

There is no question that those four days will be in the top five experiences of our eight months abroad. The landscape was surreal. One sight we saw was the Dali desert, named after Salvador Dali and that gives you a hint of the otherworldliness of what we saw.

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First things first, you have to pick a tour and they run the gamut from very high end to what were you thinking. There’s an awesome string of reviews on TripAdvisor about a horrible tour company, in which one person after another talks about their driver being drunk, their life in danger, a tourist being left to die at the side of the road with altitude sickness….and this company is still in business…who doesn’t read TA anymore?!

Well we did and we ended up with mid-range Tupiza Tours, which starts in Tupiza and ends in Uyuni. Tupiza limits to four people per jeep, which is best as you will become one with that jeep for four days…it will bounce your skeleton all over the place and you will likely leave a few breakfasts on its floor. Trust me, it’s worth it. Once we learned the secret of kicking off our day with 1/2 a Dramamine, we could relax in the jeep and just enjoy the beautiful scenery.

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Our driver was Wilmer and our cook Maria. They spoke Spanish, my family speaks English and I speak Spanglish. It forced me to improve and Wilmer was very patient with me. Tupiza had four jeeps heading out that day and you travel as a caravan across the desert with many other tour jeeps criss crossing around you.

We were glad we had conditioned ourselves to the altitude in Northern Argentina as you sleep above 4,000 meters and reach over 5,000 meters during the four days. We experienced slight headaches but were fully functional.

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Maria whipped us up a daily breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.  She surprised the kids a few times with chocolate treats as we hurtled through the desert in the jeep. We had our fill of fruits and veggies and meats. How she produced this fare from the back of a jeep, I’ll never know. She kept us warmed against the chill and altitude with cinnamon and coca tea. Ahhh, Maria.

The accommodations were actually better than we expected…cement rooms with four cement beds, a thick mattress and loads of blankets. We shared one bathroom among 12 people. No showers…too cold to undress anyway except the aforementioned third night.

What did we see that was so amazing? Multiple volcanoes, one spewing steam. Candy colored lagoons — blue, red, pink, green, white. Three different types of flamingoes, up close and personal. Stinky hot hurtling geysers. Pre-Inca deserted towns. Mountains of dazzlingly colors. Deserts that never end. And the smooth, white salt flats that seem to be at the end of the world.

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The Wonderfully, Unique La Paz

Before arriving to Copacabana, we spent three nights in La Paz, enjoying the beauty of good wifi. La Paz surprised us. We expected not to like it. Our tendency is for small and quaint, not sprawling and chaotic. But the city was unlike anything we’d ever seen…a deep valley surrounded by jagged, rust mountains with thousands of small red brick angular homes built on every possible spot. When you first see La Paz, you think “there better not be earthquakes here.” And there’s not. But flooding slowly erodes part of the city each season, with some homes being abandoned with the threat of landslides.

Basilica with Catholic & Aymara Symbols, Sprawling La Paz, Spanish Town

Basilica with Catholic & Aymara Symbols, Sprawling La Paz, Spanish Town

We had purposely booked a hotel at the south base of La Paz, in an effort to sleep at 10,000 feet vs 14,000. Calacoto, the embassy district, had coffee shops, Japanese food, and loads of wonderfully green parks. Our time was brief…two full days…we should have spent much longer.

We spent a day with Sergio of Banjo Tours, a private tour company that purports off the beaten path tours. Kyle said it was the best tour we’ve been on during our rtw trip because he didn’t see a single tourist the whole time. We met at the Basilica San Francisco where Spanish Catholicism and Native Aymara is uniquely melded in a way that must be unparalleled. We walked up to the Spanish section of town with its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. We stopped to try salteños, Bolivia’s version of the empanada, and despite warnings from Sergio, dripped it all over our chins and shirts. It was worth it.

La Paz Scenes

La Paz Scenes

We stood in the public square across from the infamous jail and heard its unique history…where inmates run the show inside with hot tubs and big screen TVs and endless drug parties, while the police guarded the outside. This jail for years offered tourists tours and drug parties. And even on this day, we watched as three young backpackers with plastic bags of toilet paper, bottled water, and other things they thought might be useful to the inmates, stood looking on, hoping that they would still experience what was on the inside. This jail, in the center of the city, at the edge of a beautiful plaza, would be closed down in two months time and parents of foolish traveling youth should be grateful.

While we watched, a small bronzed, barefooted man with a decidedly New York accent came up to us introducing himself as David from the Bronx and claiming that he just got out. Our guide later told us that he’s not really sure David was ever in the jail but looks for tourists to tell stories to for tips. A career path that never occurred to me.

A New Fruit and Landscape of Homes

A New Fruit and Landscape of Homes

We went to El Alto (the tall) neighborhood at the top of the city and took in the endless views of La Paz, as well as the produce markets where we tried a new fruit, tumba, and Julia determined she must start an import/export business to bring this sweet but sour fruit to the states. Our last stop was the witch market…this being the locals market vs the tourist market back in the center. Sergio explained that offerings are a daily part of Bolivian life, modern family or not. The fetuses of llamas, pigs and birds hung dried above our heads. Kits of molded sugar with different themes…a new car, money, a house, love…piled high. Had we purchased a kit, we would have then taken it a street away to the witch doctors, who would burn it for us and add their own power to make our wish come true. As we couldn’t come to terms with burning an animal fetus, we simply met a witch doctor, who of course looked like a college professor who just happened to have a human skull on his desk.

He read my future with coca leaves and accurately captured both my personality and my likely trajectory in health, work and love. Time will tell his accuracy.

Witch Doctor Rituals

Witch Doctor Rituals

I was able to get my requisite political conversation in…always a little touchy and requires judging your audience. Especially considering strained political relations between our two countries (nationalizing industry and diverting planes sort of leads to that). However Sergio was game. We’d heard time and again that Juan Evo Morales, the first Aymara President, was immensely popular among the people due to his Robin Hood focus. Expanded healthcare and schooling was pointed to as much improved under his terms. Similar to the U.S., the Bolivian constitution calls for two 4-year terms max per President. Mr. Morales is finishing up his 2nd term…and then running again. It was explained to me that a new constitution was created in 2006 during his first term and thus that term didn’t really count. The people and the military appear to be behind a seemingly well intentioned and effective president. But there’s always a minority and here it’s the rich, and even if you’re Robin Hood, thinking you’re the only one for the job is a dangerous path.

Our last day in La Paz, we took a short cab ride from Calacota to the Valle de la Luna, the valley of the moon. The mountains here have eroded into eerily gothic spires which reminds one of…the moon. Of course, Sean took exception with this..stating that the real moon is actually flat with craters. Ha, La Paz, trying to pull a fast one on this kid.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon

The Other Copacabana

This is our perch in Copacabana, Bolivia. Kyle sits in a hammock, sketching furniture. I am reading a treasure of a used book find, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Considering I traded an awful Robert B. Parker mystery for it, I scored big.

While enjoying this beautiful view, we can’t breathe in too deeply because a family of pigs is directly below us.  In addition to their smell is a constant chorus of contented grunting, which is rather meditative.

Vistas & Swines

Vistas & Swines

Bolivia has been a surprise. After Argentina, it was hard to imagine the natural beauty that awaited us here. I believe I’ve been on another planet these past two weeks.

I’m behind on posts. I should share our views on Salta and northern Argentina, but I want to be in the moment and that is here in Copacabana. A four hour bus ride from La Paz, on Lake Titicaca, it’s a small town with an amazingly large 1640 Spanish Basilica. The town has given way to tourism, with hostels on every corner, tourism outfitters all variations on the name Titicaca, and restaurants boasting things gringos like….hamburgers, nachos, vegetarian food.

Copacabana Scenes

Copacabana Scenes

Yesterday we, and every other tourist here, boarded small boats for the two hour ride to the Isla Del Sol, an island of Inca history.  We paid $25 Bolivianos (US$3.50) per family member, even though I was sure I’d just heard the boat captain charge the people in front of us $20BS. I asked twice and then let it go…maybe my Roche Harbor baseball cap exuded wealth.

Upon disembarking at Isla Del Sol, local tour guides stopped each group to give them rules of the island and try to secure that group to guide. We are perpetual loners and escaped on our own. I had read of multiple entrance fees for trail upkeep and indeed there were three along the way. I expected the first $10BS and then the $15BS, but by the time I got to the $5BS check point, I felt a bit used. I had to remind myself, it’s US$4.00 at the end of the day and the hike was truly stunning.

Isla Del Sol

Isla Del Sol

This was our first high altitude hike, an easy 4 hour meander if not for it being at 12,600 feet. So while our hearts beat loudly, we took in a landscape that seemed reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Rocky paths, wild flowers, the occasional sheep and the never ending Lake Titicaca stunned. The Inca ruins were fun to see but not spectacular. It was the natural scenery that took our breath away.

When we reached the south end of the island, it was more built up with hostels, restaurants and amazing perches above endless views. I could see spending a night here simply sipping a beverage while never tiring of the vista. The backpackers were endless and some of them I absolutely love but you’d have to find the “fanciest” accommodations of the island to avoid smoke and noise…unless that’s what you’re seeking!

Isla Del Sol Scenes including Captain Foot

Isla Del Sol Scenes including Captain Foot

Returning by boat there’s a 3:30PM and a 4:00PM for $20BS, all of which make a brief stop at the ruins on the south end of the island and then take an hour to reach Copacabana. It was a beautiful day.

The following day we slept in, then climbed up to the Stations of the Cross outlook behind our hotel, The Cupula, where we focused on one step in front of the other, breathing hard…would we ever get used to the altitude? I think if I could train myself to run a few miles here, I could be a great athlete when we return home. We admired the views and then decided to spend the rest of the day perched above Copacabana, good book in hand, listening to a choir of pigs make their music.