Lake Titicaca

Our final stop in Bolivia was Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world set at 3,800 meters above sea level. Home to a number of beautiful islands with breathtaking scenery, trekking opportunities and a chance to meet the local communities inhabiting them, it was a place we were very much looking forward to exploring. From La Paz we took a ‘Collectivo’ (a cheap minivan that takes groups of around 12) that wound through the mountains of northern Bolivia, and after a short ferry crossing we arrived at the lakeside city of Copacabana.


Copacabana is a small, picturesque city situated on the south of Lake Titicaca, nestled amongst two mountains and with a long, thin beach lining the waters edge. It is also the main city from which to explore the beautiful Isla Del Sol, or Island of the Sun. We arrived late afternoon and settled into Hostal Florencia, which was fairly basic but good value, and boasted a great view of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana. 

We decided to visit the famous Cerro Calvario hilltop to get the best view of Copacabana. Feeling adventurous we took the 'off road' path which, retrospectively, wasn't a wise choice as we weren't feeling 100% due to the altitude. Although short, the hike was steep and challenging, but after a lot of panting and feeling faint we finally reached the top. We were greeted with an amazing view of the entire city; it was definitely worth the effort. It was great to get an idea of the sheer size of Lake Titicaca from above, a mass of water that spans over 8,000km.

We spent half an hour or so at the top to catch our breath before taking the much easier and gentler route down via the stone steps on the other side, leading us back down to the city square. We then visited the main landmark of city, the ‘Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana’. We’d seen quite a few colonial churches whilst travelling South America, but this one stood out with a strikingly colourful ceiling inside, painted in reds, blues and yellows (quite rare for a catholic church!). After walking around the courtyard and taking in the beautiful interior we headed back to our hostel for a rest after an altitude-intense day!

We had read great reviews about the food at Hostal La Cúpula, so that evening decided to pay it a visit. As it was so popular, we had to wait a while on their outside terrace for a table, and although it was pretty chilly out we loved taking the interesting architecture and bespoke design features. We ordered the freshly grilled trout (famous in Lake Titicaca) with native vegetables, which was delicious. By chance we saw a Welsh couple that we had previously met in La Paz, so once finished they invited us to their table and we spent the evening exchanging tales and swapping travel tips. We took their advice and booked into a hot tub next to the restaurant, and spent an hour watching the stars from our own private hill top pool.

Isla del Sol

The next morning we were up early to pack our light day bags, and boarded the 8.30am ferry to the north side of our first island visit in Lake Titicaca: Isla del Sol. The journey was slower that we were initially told (taking around 3 hours) which was a bit tedious, but on board was a girl we had previously met in Florianopolis, so we passed the time catching up on our travels since we had left Brazil. The weather was perfect for hiking, and as we pulled into the docks we started to see the beautiful rugged landscapes of Isla del Sol.

After landing and buying an entrance ticket we set off with a small group of others to trek from the north to the south side of the island. Along the way we were treated to views of crystal clear waters, green mountains and beautiful white beaches. The air temperature and water were colder than it looked due to the altitude, but once we got going it was perfect hiking weather. 

We reached the look out point to get some photos of the view, and visited the Palacio del Inca ruins, a maze of stone walls also known as the Labyrinth. We also saw the Titi Qala, or Mountain Cat Stone, a large outcrop with a crag where at sun rise the sun shines right through. The Incas believed that this was the birthplace of the sun, hence the name Isla del Sol, and was therefore a frequent pilgrimage destination for the Incas. We then continued onwards uphill towards the south side of the island.

Our travel companions we're catching the 4pm ferry home, so once we reached the south side, they had to race down to try and catch the boat before it left. Luckily we had decided to spend the night on the island, and so checked into a hostel that we had researched the day before. The hostel was very quiet, and there was a lovely Cholita host who led us up to the top floor room that boasted amazing views over the lake. 

We wanted to finish the hike so we headed down the steep steps (Escalera del Inca) towards the harbour, walking past the gently flowing Inca stream and taking in the small southern village of Yumani. We then shared a cheap lunch on a water-side restaurant watching the local girls loading up donkeys with supplies. 

As our hostel had an amazing location situated at the top of the island it mean we had to take the steep path back up to the top, which was pretty tiring after a full day of trekking. There were no roads or cars on Isla del Sol, only cobbled paths, and as we continued we started to get out of breath it became clear how vital the donkeys were for carrying produce up and down the steep hills. 

We reached our hostel just before sunset, wrapped ourselves up in a warm blanket and watched the sun set over the amazing Lake Titicaca. It was that moment we fell in love with the island; there was barely a sound apart from the occasional disgruntled Mule, and there was not a person in sight as we watched the sky turn orange over the tranquil turquoise water. 

We were keen to visit the best restaurant on the island, Las Velas (the candels), which was hidden in the nearby forest. After getting completely lost in the dark for over 20 minutes, we eventually found the small homestyle restaurant nestled amongst the trees. It was wonderfully rustic, and as the name suggested, was only lit by candle light with two 'gourmet chefs' in their simple domestic kitchen.

After ordering we were given card games to play while we waited for our food, and we sampled a bottle of the local Bolivian wine, which was surprisingly good. We ordered the pizza and trout, which were both great, and as we were last to leave we enjoyed chatting to our cook afterwards. We headed back through the forest to our hostel under an amazingly starry sky with total silence around us.


After a final night in Copacabana we took a cheap bus across the Peruvian border, aided by a lovely bus conductor who advised us to change our Bolivianos at the border for a very reasonable rate! We passed by green and gold fields and more stunning blue lake as we approached Puno, the first Peruvian city of our trip. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived in Puno and checked into a hostel we realised that the food (we suspect the trout!) at the lovely Las Velas restaurant had given us dodgy stomachs, and so we had to spend a couple of days recovering, watching films and eating chicken noodle soup. We actually welcomed the down time, as it had been quite intense travel over the past few weeks.

Puno itself isn't known for its sights, and is mainly used as a launch pad from which to visit the nearby islands, and so we were surprised to find a pretty square with a nice church. After scouting out various island tours we decided on the one offered by our hostel, and once everything was sorted we took the chance to relax for a few hours. That evening we went to Mojsa Restaurant, arguably one of the best in Puno, and got a balcony table overlooking the main square. We had excellently prepared Chimichurri steak and (fresh!) grilled trout with native vegetables, and after feeling well fed we headed back to the hostel to get a good nights rest before our trip to the islands.

Uros Floating Islands

We were picked up from our hostel around 8am and headed in a cab to the docks to board our tour boat. Within half an hour of setting off we were surrounded by the intriguing floating islands of Uros. The islands themselves were constructed from the native totora reeds and were originally built so that they could be moved when under attack, mainly during the Spanish colonisation. Now-a-days there are 42 islands, all of which are still constructed in the traditional way. However, not all residents live permanently on these islands, and many of the locals use them as means of making money through tourism, making them feel a little less authentic than we originally thought. 

As we boarded the first floating island, it was very cool to feel the movement of the ground beneath our feet, and the traditional huts looked very quaint amongst the reeds. Our group were given a short but informative presentation on the construction of the islands, which we learnt was made by lashing together 2-meter-thick blocks of khili roots with eucalyptus rods, and placing criss-crossed layers of totora reeds on top. 

We were then split into small groups and taken into the little reeds huts owned by the locals. We asked the locals some questions about their life on Uros, although we realised the main purpose of entering the huts was to be sold textiles and other trinkets they had made. We decided not to buy anything, but offered a small tip to the locals instead.

We then boarded a traditional reed boat (or ‘Mercedes Benz’ as the locals called them) for an extra few Soles, and sailed to the neighbouring island about 15 minutes away. The local kids began to sing different European songs to us for tips (a little gimmicky!) but it was fun to experience an age-old mode of transport none the less. As we reached the larger floating island we found there were small restaurants, reed archways, many trinket sellers, and even a very small trout farm in the centre. 

After exploring the second floating island we returned to the boat, and continued on our tour to the next stop, Amantaní island. We left feeling like Uros was a bit of 'tourist show', and it would have been nice to also see the current, more authentic lifestyle of the locals on the islands, regardless of what traditions had been lost. Overall the floating islands was an interesting experience for us, and we loved seeing the traditional methods used to make the boats, handicrafts and the islands themselves.

Amantaní Island

Our next stop was Amantani island, a 2 hour boat ride from Uros. We pulled up to the island where a group of around 20 traditionally-dressed local women were waiting to take us to our separate home stays. After most of the groups were selected, we were introduced to a young girl called Seneda, who was only 14 years old. We assumed she was the daughter of our host, but after she led us up the hill to a humble but cosy house we realised she was going to be taking care of us for the next 2 days!

After being shown our room, Seneda set about preparing our lunch, and we soon realised that she was more than capable of looking after two travellers by herself. Having never been in a 'home-stay' before we felt a little awkward being catered for, and so went down to the kitchen to offer to help. Our communication wasn't great (our Spanish is still rusty!) so she set us to work peeling potatoes to keep us busy. Without a peeler we were pretty slow, and after her laughing at our attempts she showed us her amazingly efficient knife-peeling technique.

It was a simple but tasty lunch of soup, potatoes, veg and cheese, and after we had eaten all we could we were introduced to Senadas two younger brothers. The youngest, who was 3, was the happiest child we had ever met, and we spent a fun hour drawing, terrorising the guinea pigs (him not us!), playing ball and swinging him around. It was great to be able to meet such a fun little character during our stay, especially as the language barrier wasn't an issue!

Senada then led us up to the main path of the village to meet with the rest of the group and hike to the Centro Ceremonial Pachatata ruins to watch the sunset. As we waited for the other members of our group we watched the herds of sheep pass, shepherded by the local girls, and once all assembled we started to hike to the highest point of the island. 

It was an easy-going trek that snaked up an old stone path, passing inca-style terracing and farmland, and by the time we reached the top we bought a lovely alpaca wool scarf from a local woman, found a comfortable spot and waited for the sun to go down. Lake Titicaca is sometimes referred to as the 'silver lake' due to the metallic sheen effect created by the sun, and from the hilltop we understood why it got its name. It was another beautiful sunset and great view showing off the ever impressive expanse of water. 

Once it started to get dark we headed back down to our little home for dinner, and were told we needed to get changed into traditional clothing for a small party that evening! It was fun being dressed in their hats and ponchos, even though we felt a bit ridiculous, but as we walked in the pitch black to the local village hall, thankfully we realised all the other tourists were dressed the same. We then spent a slightly awkward hour attempting to follow the Peruvian dance moves to a very repetitive local band. Fortunately the dancing didn't last long and after a little while of chatting to other travellers in colourful hats, frocks and ponchos we headed back for bed.

The following day Senada was up early to make us breakfast, and by the time we were up and ready her grandmother and mother had arrived at the house. After meeting her mother we were really pleased that Senada had been our host, as we doubt we would have had as much fun if her mother had been looking after us. After our goodbyes, and big hugs from Senada’s youngest brother we were led back to the harbour and waited for the boat to pick us up. 

Taquille Island

After leaving Amantani we headed to our final stop, Taquille Island. On the journey there our guide explained the differences in the clothing between the island's residents; on Taquille the women wore black dresses with colourful embroidery, and the men wore colourful hats with pom moms (the larger pom moms indicated a single man, smaller pom pom indicated married). Our guide also explained how the men of the island wore intricately hand-woven belts by their wives, with embroidery communicating the story of how they met, and actual hair of the woman interwoven into the fabric. On arrival we started to see the locals in their traditional clothing dotted around the island, and after a short hike to the top of the hill we wandered around the market stalls in the main square.

We then continued to a small hillside restaurant where we were given a short demonstration of the how the locals extracted soap from the native plants, and used it to turn brown alpaca fibres used in many of their textiles to a brilliant white. After the demonstration we ordered from the lunch menu, chatted to the other tour members and basked in the sun until it was time to leave. Once we got back in the boat we dozed off during the 3 hour journey. We were woken abruptly about 10 minutes from Puno as the steering of the boat had broken, resulting in us crashing into the side of a floating island! It took a little while to correct our positioning, and the captain had to use long poles to push us away from the bank, before using the back rudder to steer us safely back to Puno. 

The scenery, traditions and local people of Lake Titicaca were pretty much unknown to us before we set off on our trip, but after visiting both the Bolivian and Peruvian sides of the lake we were so glad we had included it in our itinerary. From hiking through the peaceful Isla del Sol to floating on the reeds of Uros, making ourselves at home with a local family on Anamtani island to seeing the traditional clothing of the locals on Taquille, our visit was both varied and rewarding in terms of landscapes and culture. Our next stop was Cusco, and it was satisfying to leave Puno with an initial understanding of Peruvian culture before our trip to the ever popular Machu Picchu. 

Bolivia — Wild Pampas Waterways

Travelling to Bolivia gave us our first opportunity to experience South American's Wildlife. With La Paz as our starting point we had 2 choices: visiting the Amazon basin or the pampas lowlands. Both sounded great, but only having a few days available we decided on the pampas, primarily as the wildlife is more accessible over a shorter time frame, and there was the opportunity to swim with pink river dolphins! We boarded the 45 minute flight on a tiny plane from El Alto (the worlds highest airport) and flew over incredible snow-topped mountains before descending into Rurrenebaque once we could see the lush green jungle and river below.


Situated in the North of Bolivia on the Beni river, Rurrenabaque is the launch pad town for the pampas. With quaint shacks, tropical weather and boats pulling into the harbour with fresh bananas, it was a town we instantly warmed to. The only other way to get to the town from La Paz (apart from by plane) is a cheap but dangerous 20 hour bus ride. After getting there in under an hour, we were glad we opted for the shorter and safer journey!

We had decided to get a taxi from the airport with another couple who recommended us to stay at Hotel Orient, right on the main square. It was a beautiful little hotel, with many tropical plants and hammocks, and as the rates were reasonable we quickly checked in to a double room and spent the afternoon chilling in the peaceful gardens surrounded by birds and greenery before our tour the following day.

Day 1


Early the next morning after the best nights sleep we'd had in weeks (being out of the altitude) we packed up small day bags, leaving our big packs at the hostel, and set off to the Indigena Tours travel agency who we'd booked with through Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. The rest of our group's flight had been delayed so we killed time by having a delicious fresh juice at the local market with a free refill!

At 9am we set off in a scruffy 4x4 Jeep along a straight but very bumpy and dusty road. We stopped for a quick lunch of soup, rice and alpaca in a small village where we found some ridiculous fluffy chickens! After 3 hours of driving and very numb bums we finally arrived at the starting point of our tour, the pampas waterways.

No sooner had we stepped out the jeep, pink river dolphins were in sight! We couldn't believe how quickly we saw them, and after we boarded the long boat and set off the dolphins started to follow us, much to our excitement. Within minutes we spotted our first caiman, hiding amongst the riverside grasses, and then shortly after we were inundated with various birds including cormorants, anhinga (snake birds), hoatzin's (punk chickens), turns, kingfishers, hawks, stalks and herons. We started to realise the abundance of wildlife in the pampas, and we were in for a treat.

After seeing more caiman and turtles, we parked up next to a group of thick trees where a family of squirrel monkeys were peeking through the branches. As it was against the park rules to feed the monkeys, it was nice to see how friendly they were without incentive; they even started to board the boat! As we continued we sat back and enjoyed spotting the wildlife, soaking up the sunshine, and cruised down the river whilst running into more pink river dolphins along the way.

Our boat pulled up to the basic but picturesque riverside lodge, and on arrival we were really excited to find a 6ft caiman chilling out under the hammock. We were able to get pretty close to it to get some photos. It was a great reminder of how protected the wild pampas grasslands really were; nature clearly ruled here. It did mean, however, that we were less than keen to take a swim in the water in front of our lodge!

We settled into our room and had time for a quick relax before we boarded the boat once again and headed to a small shack where various tours had congregated to drink beer and wait for the sun go down. We bumped into a couple of travellers we'd met in Patagonia, and had a great hour or so catching up on their journeys and adventures. The sunset over the river was beautiful, with oranges, pinks and yellows reflecting off the still, dark water.

After it got dark we headed back to the lodge for a dinner of rice and vegetables with our tour members. Once we’d finished we were told to put on plenty of mosquito repellant as we were about to set out for a nighttime boat ride! As the rains had just passed the day before there was not a cloud in the sky, giving a spectacular view of stars and Milky Way. Our guide turned off the boat motor and we drifted down the river, gazing in silence up at the most incredible night sky.

Our guide then told us to get out our torches as we were about to go caiman spotting. Finding them was relatively easy as their red eyes reflected off the torch light, but the real challenge was to spot baby caiman that had just hatched. We were shocked at how quickly our guide was able to spot them, as they were only about 20cm long. There was something even more exciting about finding the babies than seeing the adults, and after getting our snaps we headed back to the lodge for a decent nights sleep under a well made mosquito net, pleased with how much wildlife we'd seen on our first day.

Day 2

We awoke around 6am to the sounds of animals all around us, in particular the really loud howler monkeys who sounded more like King Kong than an average sized monkeys! We had a quick but filling breakfast (pancakes were on the menu!) before picking out some wellies as it was time to go anaconda spotting in the swampy grass land. We knew our chances were slim but set off with excitement none the less.

After 3 hours of wading through knee deep swampy water, and only managing to find some birds eggs, we realised an anaconda sighting was unfortunately not on the cards for us. We had given it our best shot and it was still exciting none the less. We headed back to the lodge for lunch to rest our legs and have a quick siesta; something we considered a huge luxury!

Feeling rested we headed off at 3pm for more wildlife spotting and piranha fishing. After many attempts with small chunks of steak and a rather large hook, we weren't successful, but one of the girls and our guide were able to catch two of the five species of piraña that live in the pampas (blue and gold), as well a dogfish. The fish were released quickly after being caught, and although we hadn’t got anything ourselves, the experience was still fun.

We then headed further into an open area of the waterways where there were taller, exposed trees, and we were able to get a glimpse of some capuchin monkeys and our first sighting of blue and yellow macaws. It was awesome to see these beautiful birds in the wild, and we could even see a couple that had paired for life, preening each other.

Many other birds started to fly over us, and as the sun began to set bats started to dart around the boat, eating as many mosquitos as they could; we learnt they can eat as many as 1000 per night! We were treated to a fantastic sun set on our way back to the lodge, and after being served up another simple but tasty dinner we headed off for an early night before another early start.

Day 3

After getting up early to watch the sun rise over the peaceful misty river, we had our final breakfast, and set off on the boat to swim with pink river dolphins. We reached a calm, wide section in the waterways, and almost instantly around 6 dolphins arrived. We had got there earlier than the other boats, and we're keen to get in before it got too crowded. It was a little unnerving at first as the water is completely brown (as well as infested with piraña and caiman) but we were assured that if the dolphins were around, nothing would harm us.

As we swam to the middle of the lagoon we started to see the dolphins move closer, and then one by one each of us would get brushed up against by them. They were very friendly, and we were even able to ‘surf’ on top of them, as well as swim at their side. They even nipped at our feet a few times, and we were glad the guide had told us to wear socks! Once the other boats arrived it got a bit noisy, which annoyingly seemed to disperse the dolphins, but we felt incredibly lucky to have had an intimate encounter with such an inquisitive wild animal. We only wish our footage captured just how amazing this experience was. 

After an hour or so of swimming our tour was unfortunately coming to an end, and we wound our way back through the network of waterways towards our original starting point. To our luck we spotted a capybara out in the open grazing on a patch of land, and were able to get really close to this fantastic creature and the largest rodent in the world. It was a great end to what had been an incredible, nature-filled tour.

Once we reached the end point we docked up for the last time and got into the 4x4 Jeep for the 3 hour bumpy ride back to Rurrenabaque. On arrival we checked back into Hotel Orient, and spent the remainder of the afternoon swinging in the hammocks and lapping up the heat. We had heard that there was a great little restaurant called Juliano’s close by, so after our basic jungle food we decided it was ok to pay it a visit. With a huge steak and a seafood paella followed by a creme brûlée, it was a perfect end to our stay. 

With fantastic weather, brilliant wildlife not to mention the unforgettable encounter with dolphins, the pampas trip reaffirmed our love for wildlife. It made us realise that being out in the wilderness and spotting animals was something that we truly enjoyed, and left us itching for more. Luckily for us we were travelling north, meaning there would be many more opportunities to explore South America's nature in the mighty Amazon rainforest.

Bolivia — Cities In The Clouds

After our incredible 3 day tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni we journeyed up through Bolivia towards Peru, stopping at a few key cities on the way. Bolivia is home to some of the worlds highest cities, many reaching over 4000m. Even though we had been gently climbing in height since Salta, and in the Salt flats we reached 5000m, we were still curious as to how the altitude was going to affect us. We were really looking forward to experiencing the traditional Bolivian cultures, and as Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries to travel in South America, it was a big relief for our travel budget after our relatively expensive time in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.


The first Bolivian city on our list to visit was Potosi, located around 200km north east from Uyuni and positioned at the foot of the famous Cerro Rico mountain, once rich in silver ore. The altitude of Potosi is 4090m, making it one of the highest cities in the world. We arrived in the evening with other members of our salt flats tour group and decided to take the small local bus from the bus terminal to the centre. After cramming onto the tiny bus we made our way to the main square whilst flicking through the guide book for a decent hostel recommendation. As we walked up and down the streets we could definitely feel the altitude, but not long after searching we decided on Hostal Carlos V, which although lacked in atmosphere was still pretty good value.

Potosi has a fascinating history due to the adjacent Cerro Rico mountain, which contained an abundance of silver and tin. Potosi was founded as a mining town over 500 years ago, and by 1672 was one of the richest cities in the world under the rule of the Spanish empire. However, due to low silver prices the mine is now run by a workers collective who extract the remaining minerals from the mines. The working condition are pretty dire, and the life expectancy of the miners isn’t great, yet it has become the main tourist attraction for the city.

We weren’t feeling particularly well due to the altitude, and were also unsure about the voyeuristic nature of the mining tour, so we decided to take it easy and casually stroll around the city, lapping up the beautiful yet run down architecture from Potosi’s glory days. We briefly visited the Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia (one of Bolivia's best museums) where we learned about the historical importance of Potosi’s National Mint where the first coins in South America were made.

We then wondered into the sleepy local market, well stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and watched the Cholitas (traditionally dressed indigenous women) hard at work. We grabbed a quick lunch of freshly made soup and chicken milanesa at one of the small market kitchens, which was tasty despite being the cheapest meal we’d bought in South America (roughly £1.60 for both dishes!).

After lunch we decided to take a tour of the Museo & Convento de San Francisco after reading that there were great views of the city from it’s very impressive rooftop. For 15 Bolivianos each (£1.50) we had a private tour guide who took us around the convents grounds and into the church, explaining the historic importance of the paintings hanging on the wall in broken Spanglish.

After taking in the interiors we ascended to the rooftop and walked along the narrow path that connected the roof to the central dome. Being amongst the domes and tiles was awesome, and we were really surprised to learn about that the curved terracotta tiles had been moulded from thighs of muscular workers! The view of the city was great, giving a really clear panoramic view of the ageing colonial buildings and the once lucrative Cerro Rico mountain.

We then headed back down and visited the catacombs, which had a subterranean river running through the middle of them. It was pretty creepy seeing so many bones and skulls of past priests, but it rounded off the tour nicely, which despite being short had surpassed our expectations for the price.

We found a couple of days in Potosi was more than enough time to recuperate from our salt flats adventure whilst lapping up the atmosphere of our first Bolivian city. The following day our hostel host explained that it was more cost effective to get a taxi all the way to Sucre rather than a bus, and within 10 minutes a taxi driver had pulled up ready to take us door to door. We had to make a stop to find two extra passengers, but after 15 minutes of our driver shouting ‘SUCRE!” 2 others got in and we were off! It was incredible value, working out at around £5 each, and we drove for around 2.5 hours, descending a few hundred meters in altitude to the city of Sucre.


Having read great reviews on Hostel Kultur Berlin we had booked a room a couple of nights in advance, meaning we were able to check in seamlessly on our arrival. Although Kulture Berlin is known to be a party hostel, we were luckily given an amazing little detached studio apartment in the garden area, giving us peace and quiet away from the bar. We spent the afternoon chilling in hammocks, drinking beer, updating our blog and researching the next stretch of our trip.

A few guys we had met on the Salt flats tour had also decided to checked into the hostel on our recommendation, and that night we went out for a simple dinner at the socially conscious Condor Cafe. After dinner we hit the hostels bar and club, which seemed to be one of the most popular in Sucre, with as many locals as tourists knocking back 2-for-one cocktails. It was a great feeling to be able to crash into our quiet little studio right around the corner once we were danced out!

The next day we headed out with Toby, (a friendly German traveler we’d met during our Salt flats tour) to explore Sucre and learn about it’s history. Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia (La Paz being the administrative capital), home to home to the executive and legislative branches of government and where Bolivia first gained its independence. It was a beautiful city, with most its architecture built from white stone, and we really enjoyed wandering around the pretty streets in the sunshine.

There are many churches in Sucre, so once we were ’churched out’ we headed to the Mercado Central, a popular spot for locals to pick up fresh produce. We decided to sample some of the freshly made juices (cheap and delicious in Bolivia) and spent a half hour or so people watching and wandering around the food stalls.

After another very cheap and cheerful market lunch we walked up to La Recoleta hilltop where we found a peaceful bar overlooking the city to have a few beers and lap up the glorious sunshine. Although we had been treated to sun whilst in Bolivia it had been pretty cold, and we were relieved that the climate in Sucre was lovely and warm. Sitting at the top of the hill in deck chairs, overlooking the city with no real agenda made for a very chilled afternoon, and rounded off our 2 day stay in the city perfectly.

La Paz

After our short stay in Sucre we decided to take a night bus to La Paz. It was a white-knuckle ride (probably the hairiest bus journey we’d had in South America) and we unsurprisingly arrived early at a pretty inconvenient time of 5am. We had decided to book a room in Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz the day before, renowned as the party hostel of the city. After getting a quick cab from the bus terminal with two other travellers who were heading the same way, we arrived at the hostel, a little worried we would have to sleep on some chairs and wait to check in. To our luck the room was already prepared when we arrived, and we spent the morning catching up on some much needed sleep.

After a hearty late breakfast at the Wild Rover bar we decided to take a walking tour of the city. This was provided by the Red Cap Tours (another tips based tour) and we met at the Plaza de San Pedro where we learned about the gritty history of San Pedro Prison, and the corruption and drug trafficking that filtered through it's walls. We had read the book ‘Marching Powder’: the tale of a British drug smuggler Thomas McFadden who had spent time in there, and even personally run tours through the prison up until the early 2000's. It was interesting to see the centrally located Prison even from the outside walls, and although though there were still unofficial tours of the prison available, it was strongly recommended that we didn’t take one.

After passing through the central food market our guides explained to us more about Cholitas: broad, hard working, and fascinating women who are the integral workforce of the city. We learnt about the origins of their their iconic bowler hats, which according to the guides were shipped over from Europe in the 1800s to sell to Bolivian men, but as they didn’t fit their heads the merchants devised a plan to sell them to Bolivian women as the ‘height of fashion’ in Europe, and the trend stuck. We then walked on to the Witches Market, where weird and wonderful medicinal remedies overflowed onto the narrow streets. Our guides explained the reasoning behind the rather creepy dead llama foetuses that were strung up in the stalls, apparently which are used as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and buried under newly built houses to bring good fortune.

The tour ended near the main square outside the beautiful cathedral, and we visited at an Irish bar where we were given a strange Andean drink, and we got chatting to other tour members about their experiences around South America. We found the tour really interesting as it was less about monumental sights and more about the traditions of the people that made up the bustling, culturally rich city of La Paz.

On our second day we decided to take one of La Paz’s brand new bubble lifts to the highest point of the city. As it was another clear day we got great views of the sprawling city and the snow topped Huayna Potosí mountain in the background. Once at the top there wasn’t much to do (unfortunately we had missed the giant El Alto market) so we wandered around and watch more Cholitas hard at work. We had previously learnt that in Bolivia the men tended to be drivers and desk workers and the women are the muscle - this was apparent as we watched a number of Cholitas throwing heavy paving slabs to each other to build a pavement. Overall we found La Paz to be a fascinating city, and a great way to be introduced to Bolivian culture. It was also a great launch pad to do activities such as the infamous Death Road.

Death Road

The North Yungas Road (known as ‘Death Road’) is a popular tourist attraction consisting of narrow, single-lane rocky paths with sheer drops on one side. Its notoriously known as the worlds most dangerous road. Built in the 1930’s, the 69km ‘Death road’ was the only link between La Paz and the Yungus region, and therefore many crowded buses and trucks overloaded with people would fall off the 900m cliffs, with an estimated 300 deaths each year. With the addition of another (safer) road 17 yeas ago, the death toll decreased dramatically, and is now mainly used by cycle tours and a few local daredevils. It’s still treacherous however, and cyclist fatalities tot up to 22 since 1995, the last one being only a week before we arrived. Despite this, we had an urge to overcome our fears and give it a go. We did lots of research on the best tour operator, and decided on Barracuda, one of the longest-running companies.

The following day we were picked up at 6.30am and taken to Little Italy, a small restaurant where we could get a decent cooked breakfast, and checked in with our guide before setting off in a minibus with 7 others. We drove for around an hour, winding up the enormous mountains and stopped at the summit for a rigorous safety briefing. We all got given a bike, which were top of the range with ridiculously sharp breaks and great suspension. Before setting off, we all had to try a sip of 95% proof alcohol, spilling a drop on our tires as an offering to Pachamama (the Andean Goddess Mother Earth).

We set off on the first stretch of the ride, and sped down the smooth, winding tarmac road with an incredible view in front of us. The first 15 minutes down hill were very enjoyable, and didn’t seem too scary at all. We then stopped next to a tunnel, and our guide explained that from here on, it was going to be a lot more difficult. The technique we were told involved letting go of the breaks, leaning back and letting the bike glide over the large boulders, a little counter intuitive once the paths got pretty narrow! After 5-10 minutes of riding we realised that it made sense however, as going slowly with the breaks on was a lot more challenging in terms of balance.

Half an hour later were were fully into the misty, treacherous Death Road experience. With 2m wide lanes and nothing to our left side but clouds and 900-200m drops, we definitely started to feel the fear as we descended down the damp path, dodging boulders and roots and trying not to look down! We stopped at 15 minuted intervals to check everybody was still present (!) and give our sore hands a rest from the blister inducing rattle from the handle bars caused by the steep, rocky road.

About half way through we got a bit more confident, and really started to enjoy the fantastic scenery and challenging mountain biking experience we’d set ourselves. We descended through the clouds into the warmer jungle climate, cycling through waterfalls, muddy sections and splashed across foot-deep river crossings, and after 3 hours we finally reached the bottom, relieved to still be in one piece but thoroughly glad we’d pushed ourselves to do it.

We got back in the minibus and drove to a small jungle lodge where we took a quick dip in the (not-so-inviting) river before we tucked into a buffet lunch with the other tour members and given our free Death Road t-shirt. Despite it being the worlds most dangerous road, we realised that the only danger is people being reckless, and if you treat the road with respect, its easy to have one of the best cycle rides of your life. For us it was an incredible cycling experience, although not one we would be too quick to repeat!

Whilst travelling through Bolivia there were a number of times we were caught short of breath; from hair raising road experiences to the exhausting altitudes of the worlds highest cities. Despite this, we found it to be the most culturally rich and authentic South American country we’d visited, and were surprised at how vibrant and bustling each city was. We particularly enjoyed learning about the Cholita culture, seeing the bountiful markets and taking in Bolivia's impressive mountainous scenery. Although the cities of Potosi, La Paz and Sucre felt relatively similar in terms of atmosphere, each had their own individual characteristics and architecture due to their geography, so after visiting all three we felt we had started to grasp an initial understanding of the fascinating Bolivian way of life.

Bolivia — Uyuni Salt Flats

The 3 day Jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni was, for us, one of the things we had been looking forward to most during our trip around South America. After a few days in San Pedro de Atacama we finally decided on a tour company (there are loads to chose from, we went with Atacama Mistica). We had heard plenty of horror stories about drunk drivers, and therefore did a lot of research and asked around to make sure that it was going to be safe. The night before we bought some final provisions for the trip, including snacks and 6 litres of water each, and settled in for a much needed sleep before the adventures ahead.

Day 1

We were picked up from our hostel by our tour bus at 7.30am, and made our way to the border. Only 20 minutes into the trip we were met with complications: it had snowed heavily near the boarder crossing due to the storm the night before, and so we had to wait 2 hours for the snow to be cleared. Because of this we had breakfast early, and took the chance to chat with other members of the group before we were split into 2 separate Toyota Land Cruisers, with our packs and water on top of the roof in tarpaulins. After being introduced to our driver we were finally ready to set off on our 3 day adventure.

After driving through the snow-covered mountains we arrived at the first stop on the tour, Laguna Verde and Lagna Blanco, two beautiful mineral-filled lakes named after their green and white colour. As the lakes were pretty exposed it was quite cold and windy, so we only stopped for about 10 minutes to get a few snaps and continued on our way.

We drove onwards passing the Desierto Salvador Dalí, and arrived at Laguna Polques, a natural hot springs at an altitude of 4400m. We parked up with the rest of the Jeeps, quickly put our bathers on (the air temperature was pretty chilly!) and sank into the amazing hot water that had been warmed by the earths core. With guanaco and flamingos wandering in the lake beyond it was a really special experience. It was difficult to leave the water once we’d got used to the temperature, but after half an hour or so we finally dragged ourselves out and got changed speedily before continuing our journey.

Next on the route were the Sol de Mañana Geysers, natural pillars of steam that shot out of gaps in the earths crust. The entire area was surrounded by warm bubbling potholes of yellow, orange and grey clay; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before! The smell from the geysers was pretty unpleasant (kind of an eggy sulphur), but it was fascinating to be in an area that was so impacted by the incredible activity from the earths molten core.

We continued on our journey until we reached the final stop of the day; Laguna Colorada (or the red lake), a stunning expanse of salt water home to flocks of three types of pink flamingo: the James, the Chilean and the Andean. Seeing such majestic birds up close in the wild was made even more special due to the beautiful surroundings. After about an hour of walking around the lake and taking pictures we headed back to the Jeep and drove to our first nights accommodation, passing a few more wild guanacos on the way. 

We were told that the first nights accommodation would be basic and very cold due to the altitude and remote location. On arrival we found the description pretty accurate as we were guided to our concrete-based beds. Electricity was only on for a few hours, so after our three course meal of soup, spaghetti and peaches (which was tasty considering!) we took advantage of the lights by playing cards and drinking rum with our tour companions (one being a professional poker player!)

Day 2

After sleeping better then expected despite the high altitude and below freezing temperatures (thank you rum blanket) we woke early for breakfast and set off in the Jeeps for our second day of adventure. Our first stop was to the Siloli desert where the famous Stone Tree rock formation is found. It stood amongst various other interesting rock formations in an expanse of dusty, exposed desert, and as we were battered by the winds and sand it was easy to understand how after thousands of years of erosion these amazing natural rock sculptures could have been formed.

We then made our way along the bumpy road into the Inca Canyon where we spotted a viscacha (a large rabbit-like animal) hidden amongst the canyon wall, as well as a group of vicuña and a few llamas crossing the road. With snow topped mountains in the distance contrasting with the dry, rocky desert, it made for a very picturesque drive.

After 2 hours of driving we arrived at two lakes, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda. With crystal clear waters, white sands, pink flamingoes and snow topped mountains all around us, it was a total treat for the eyes. We stopped for lunch with the other tour groups at a small, basic shelter not far from the lake. Again the food was pretty basic, but was hot and filled us up enough for the afternoon.

Once finished we got back into the Jeep and headed past more stunning lakes with even more flamingo's and snowy mountains in the distance. With Pink Floyd's Dark side of the Moon playing from our iPod it made for a pretty epic drive as we continued past Volcano Ollagüe and stopped at the mirador. We noticed a dramatic change in the landscape - it was completely covered in volcanic rock. We pictured how thousands of years ago the lava had flown through the land and finally cooled before being battered by the weather to create such fascinating rock formations. 

After half an hour or so it was time to head onwards to our second nights accommodation. This hostel was a bit different however: it was mostly made of Salt! The circular structure consisted of salt rock bricks, a salt floor and salt rock furniture finished in traditional Bolivian textiles. It was a great little space to socialise, drink beer and enjoy talking about the amazing sights we’d seen so far. After another evening of nice hot food, wine, rum and cards we headed to our private rooms for some sleep before our 4.30am start the next day.

Day 3

Getting up at 4.30am was made a lot easier knowing that we were about to visit the main highlight of the tour: the Salar de Uyuni. We piled into the jeep in the dark, still feeling a little sleepy, and drove for around an hour until we started to see the ground beneath us turn white. It was surreal driving in an area so removed from scenery and landscapes, and the ground seemed to go on infinitely, with only the clouds and tiny mountains in the distance marking the end of vast white canvas.

As the sun rose we were treated to a beautiful pink and orange sky surrounded by vast salt desert. It was a magical way to see the salt flats for the first time. As far as the eye could see was brilliant white salt with beautiful hexagonal patterning. We waited for the sun to rise fully, and our cold feet and hands began to regain some feeling as we continued our journey to our next stop, Isla Incahuasi.

After half an hour or so of driving, Isla Incahuasi came into view, an island located right in the middle of the salt flats. Surrounded by giant cacti, we began to climb the stone steps to the look out point. We were told that this entire island had once been under water, and as we walked to the top we spotted amazing fossilised coral and caves that had once been totally submerged by the sea around 40,000 years ago. 

We then walked to the mirador to take in the view and get some pictures. At the top we were surrounded by thousands of huge cacti and had a fantastic 360° view, with only a few tiny cars in the distance revealing the scale of the worlds biggest salt flats.

We then descended back down to the bottom and met our fellow tour members at the ’shoreline’ of the island for some breakfast, consisting of tea and an enormous slice of sponge cake! We spotted an Alpaca (who looked like he needed to be hugged!) and then got back in the Jeep and set off once again into the salt flats. 

We drove for a little while and parked up without a car or person in sight, and were told we had time to take some of the novelty photos everyone takes when on the salt flats. Embracing the cliché we spent an hour messing around with our scale and practising kung-foo moves against the surreal white back-drop.

After a quick visit to the salt museum and the Dakar rally sculpture we headed to the final stop of the tour: the Train Cemetery. We learnt that the town of Uyuni was once a distribution hub for many trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports, but became obsolete after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s, leaving the old trains to rust. We spent a fun half an hour or so playing train bandits and climbing up the rusty old carriages before heading into Uyuni. 

We pulled into Uyuni at 3pm, sadly marking the end of our trip. We had lunch prepared for us while we wandered around the many stalls selling touristy trinkets, and then headed into the town. Despite all the money that tourism brings to the salt flats, the town of Uyuni sadly didn't look like it had benefited much, and seemed pretty run down and poverty-stricken in places. We decided to get a bus straight out of town that evening, and with a few guys from our tour group we boarded a cheap local bus and headed north to the city of Potosi.

Like many of the big sights of South America, theres a lot of hype surrounding them, adding often unrealistic expectations to travellers when visiting. We found the salt flats tour more than met our expectations, with fantastic scenery, interesting wildlife, an excellent driver and a fun group to travel with, making the 4 days a completely unique experience for us. Our highlights included seeing pink flamingoes, swimming in the hot springs and of course the incredible salt flat itself. It turned out to be one of our favourite tours we've had so far, and definitely one that will stand out when looking back on our trip around South America.