“Go to Bolivia! You HAVE to go to Bolivia” was a statement we heard so often on our way south through Central America. A place not even on our radar when we were planning out trip back in the US last year. Who goes to Bolivia, seriously?! We were going to Bolivia, that’s who. The voices of so many people heading north could not be ignored and really, that is a large part of why we’re doing this anyway. To get out there and see where the world takes us. To change our “plans” because plans are made to be changed. From Peru we decided to make our way south towards La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, stopping to pay yet another $130 “reciprocity fee” as we entered. If you don’t know, “reciprocity fees” are fees that only US citizens have to pay to enter the majority of countries in the world since George W. Bush decided it was a good idea to charge everyone else in the world $160 to visit the US. They are retaliation fees and have cost us thousands already. But I digress. Going into La Paz from beautiful developed Peru was an instant eye opener. Significantly poorer and more “dangerous” (the guidebooks say such things as “don’t go out after dark” and “taxis will often pick you up then take you somewhere and beat you up and rob you”) it took us an adjustment period of a day or two to get back into the third world mindset. Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were months ago and we‘d been spoiled by the modernity and safety of the Costa Rica to Peru string of countries. After a few days though we felt fully comfortable and actually found parts of La Paz quite charming. Though still avoiding certain neighborhoods at night! A few days were enough for us there though and leaving on a 12 hour night bus for the wild southwest, we quickly learned a painful fact about Bolivia… the roads outside of the cities aren‘t paved! Trying to sleep on a bus that is essentially offroading at full speed was impossible and we arrived at the frontier town of Uyuni exhausted beyond comprehension at 8am. I was sick as a dog too. A combination of the uncleanliness of La Paz and the no sleep wild bus ride and I hit the bed of our hostel with a temperature of 102. It was at this point that I discovered a little miracle. The small pizza place in the back of our hotel in knowhereland Bolivia was actually owned by a guy from Massachusetts… that just so happens to have run my favorite pizza place (Antonios) in western Mass throughout my college years a lifetime ago! Seriously, in college I ate at that pizza spot four times a week and now I had access to the same pies in the middle of the Bolivian desert! What are the odds.
Finally getting healthy after a few days rest. We departed on what is commonly known as the Southwest circuit, a multi day jeep tour of the wild and untamed regions in the lower corner of Bolivia near the Chilean and Argentine borderlands. Our first destination would be a train graveyard in the middle of the desert near the old tracks that lead to Chile. It was weird for sure but was just a mere warm up for the rest of the day that would be spent on the mind melting Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Taking off across the seemingly endless white plains, we noticed that it had rained recently and a flat centimeter thin layer of water on the salt reflected the blue sky in a way that left you wondering where the ground ended and the sky began. It was mesmerizing. Our first stop on the flats would be a volcanic “island” that rose oddly out of the sea of white. Climbing onto this island and hiking towards its interior we were stunned to find it completely covered with 10-20′ cacti rising out of the volcanic boulders. This would be the first of so many many surreal and almost other-planetary Bolivian landscapes we would encounter over the next several days. Entering a giant cave we looked out upon the whiteness in awe of the serenity. Later that evening we stopped to watch the sunset reflecting over a shallow pool of water and the stars came out above us amidst the wide open nothingness. Suddenly though the temperature dropped to below freezing (as happens in the desert at night) and it was time to head to shelter. Boy were we in for a treat. That night we would stay out on the salt flats in a rustic “salt hotel”, a hotel made entirely out of salt! Salt block walls, salt dinner tables and stools, salt beds even floors of crushed salt! It was one of the weirdest places we’ve ever stayed and yet somehow seemed appropriate amidst the oddities of Bolivia. It was vaguely insulating though so we didnt entirely freeze to death and after eating some warm quinoa soup and a few hours sleep we woke at 5am to start the next wild day.Salt piles on the Uyuni salt flats
After driving several hours through bizarre fields of giant blue boulders in yellow grass and canyons of layered crushed red rock we arrived at our first stop of Day 2, a lunar landscape of fractured 20′ volcanic rock bubbles. Wandering around the valleys between the giant domes was yet another otherworldly experience and the day was just beginning. We would soon learn that the Uyuni desert is home to various multi colored toxic lakes and our first stop was at a bright green one laced with arsenic and borax and full of a special plankton that makes great eating for hundreds of pink flamingos! Emerging from the desert to a green lake covered with pink flamingos was both unexpected and breathtaking. We had lunch by the lake with our new flamingo friends (we ate chicken, not the toxic plankton though) before heading off to visit other gorgeous mineral laced lakes of blue, red and green. Continuing our drive through the wild a spectacular scene began to come into view. The ¨Dali Desert¨. A beautiful sand vista scattered with giant boulders windcarved into a surreal Salvador Dali-esque landscape. You could almost picture clocks melting off of them and long legged elephants walking by. In this same windswept valley we made our way to a large cluster of 100′ wind eroded boulders and walked through them in awe of the bizarre shapes the wind had honed them into including one known as the Arbol de Piedra, a giant rock that resembles a tree atop a long trunk. Arbol de Piedra
Another night in the frigid desert and we awoke at 4am to head to an active volcanic zone. We arrived to the crater right at sunrise to see the desert begin to glow amid dozens of 100′ steam geysers billowing furiously all around us. What a spectacle. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Nearby we made it to some hot mineral water pools to stop for an early morning swim, a hot water dip in the middle of the cold desert was fantastic. The next day or two would be spent exploring other geologic oddities of the Southwest circuit and we made it back to town sunsoaked, windburned, and stunned by the awesomeness of the natural landscapes of Bolivia.
Leaving the beautiful southwest behind, we hopped on a bus to Potosi, the highest altitude city in the world. Formerly the silver producing epicenter of the known universe, it was said that the Spaniards in the 1600’s could have built a bridge out of Potosi silver from Potosi all the way to Spain and still would have had plenty of silver to take across the bridge. Unfortunately though, all good things must come to an end and as the mines dried up in the past decades (after 400 years of production) the town has fallen on hard times. Continuing on we headed to the beautiful “white city” of Sucre. The cultural and academic capital of Bolivia. The entire city is painted white and we spent several days enjoying its beauty and attending cultural events such as a show of regional Bolivian dances that was spectacular. From Sucre we flew north over the mountains to Santa Cruz where the Andes plateau and the Amazon basin meet. It was hot and humid which was incredibly welcome after weeks in frigid cold. From there we bussed our way south to our real destination, the nearby beautiful village of Samaipata. This quaint and well preserved pueblo is home base for various hikes into the mountains and rainforest and is beyond charming in itself. We decided to take a trek that would take us high into the grass covered mountains before heading down a river that was “supposed” to be ankles deep but was in fact well over our heads at times. Hiking through the grass covered hills
We spent 4 crazy ankle bruising hours river hiking and swimming our way down the river to finally arrive at multiple beautiful waterfalls and thankfully made it out just before dark. An epic adventure to say the least. Samaipata was as tranquilo as it gets and we really enjoyed getting to know the village for several days but unfortunately it was eventually time to move on. A quick flight back to La Paz before catching a flight to Santiago Chile and our amazing Bolivian adventure would come to an end. What a spectacular and diverse country. It DEFINITELY should be added to anyones “must visit” list, especially before it gets over developed for tourism and loses its rough edge. We’ll miss you Bolivia…until next time.