When I first decided to travel to Bolivia, many peoples’ first reaction was to say “Why would you want to go there?” My response: “Well, I’m not sure yet, but I intend on finding out.”
For those of you who have read my previous blogs, you might remember that I work on board cruise ships. Every time I am on contract, my company flies me to my joining port of call, wherever that may be in the world. Since I am flying back and forth across the planet so many times per year, I take advantage of this incredible opportunity to travel by flying in early (or home late) and touring a country or city for one to two weeks on either side of my contract.
This contract, I was on board a ship in South America, where I ended in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Instead of boarding a flight the same day as my disembarkation to my hometown in the United States, I decided to deviate my return and spend two weeks in Bolivia. Going back to the ‘why would you want to go to Bolivia’ question..
The truth is, I don’t put a whole lot of thought into deciding where to travel to. While I am working on a ship, the only countries I visit are along those along the oceans, meaning I never have the opportunity to visit a land-locked country. So when I am deciding on where to go, I look at the map and find a country or place I would never be able to access while on board. Then, I book my flights.
When I travel, I enjoy going to the places where no one expects me to or thinks to go themselves. I love arriving in an airport, off the beaten path, where tourists are few and far between. Where the local culture, not tainted by commercialism, is overpowering and enriching. I love traveling across a country not knowing why I chose to go there in the first place, but looking back on it by the end of my journey and feeling as though that place has not only shaped me as a traveler, but also my perspective on the world.
After spending nearly two weeks in Bolivia, I can confidently say that it was everything I hoped it would be, and more. As I said previously, I don’t tend to book or research too much in advance. However, I always book my first two nights in a hostel, and go from there. From some browsing on the HostelWorld, and reviews by Lonely Planet, I chose Arthy’s Guesthouse as my hostel, for several reasons. The first is that it is conveniently located on the main street in the heart of La Paz, just several blocks from the main square. This was extremely handy for exploring the city, getting transportation and finding delicious cafes, restaurants and bars. The next reason I chose Arthy’s Guesthouse was the free luggage storage. This may not be as important if you are traveling with only a backpacking backpack, but as I was coming from a four month cruise ship contract, I had two pieces of luggage I just wouldn’t have been able to keep on hand at all times. Lastly, the hostel had a midnight curfew, which drives away all the tourists who are simply there to party all night long. Since I had tours lined up every day, I needed a calm, safe and quiet environment to recharge in the night time. I loved Arthy’s Guesthouse so much that I ended up booking a room there for all of my nights in La Paz, and for only 70 BS (or 10 US) a night, I was hardly breaking the bank.
Since I only had two nights of accommodation, my first day in La Paz, I was on a mission to book tours for the rest of my time in Bolivia. After stopping off at a few agencies near my hostel, I found Vicuña Travel & Tours, where I ended up booking three separate excursions:
Lake Titicaca, Copacabana & Isla del Sol (2D/1N; 650 BS or 95 US) : After hearing so much about the beauty of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest and largest navigable lake, I definitely had this tour on my bucket list. From my hostel, I walked about 10 minutes to the La Paz bus terminal at around 6:30am. Normally the tour departs several hours later than this, but there were demonstrations and protests scheduled that day in the city, so to make sure we didn’t get stuck in the traffic, the bus left before the commotion began.
For two hours, the bus drove through the Bolivian countryside, passing local towns, markets and stores. A bridge has not been built at the Strait of Tequina, which meant that all passengers were required to disembark the bus and board small speedboats across the water and to the other side. The bus made its way across the water on motorized canoes. We were told by our guide that it isn’t completely uncommon for the canoes to sink with the buses on them, so taking the speedboats was much more safe. Once across, we re-boarded the bus and continued our journey to Copacabana, a vibrant tourist town on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
After exploring the town for several hours and eating lunch, we then boarded a speed boat which traveled an hour and a half to the famous Isla del Sol, or ‘Sun Island,’ a charming bit of land in the center of Lake Titicaca, characterized by Incan ruins and walking trails. Our hostel for the night, called Intikala Hotel, was situated at the very top of the island.
The high altitude combined with hundreds of steep stairs and a heavy backpack made it a very difficult climb, but once at the top, the views were more than worth it. Sitting on the bed in my room, I had a 270 degree view of Lake Titicaca, the mountainside and various farms and villages scattered along the hilltops. As the sun set, the sky changed to beautiful colors of pink, red and orange, contrasting the deep blue waters below and rich green countryside. The sun disappeared and from my bed, I watched thunderstorms light up the night sky. Intikala Hotel truly had some of the best views I have ever had throughout my travels, and I wished I could have stayed more than just a night. However, it was time to get back to La Paz so I could experience other parts of the country.
The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast with the view, trekked back down the mountain and back tracked to La Paz the way we came, via boat and then bus. If traveling in the area, I would highly recommend stopping off at Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol. Many backpackers I met used it as the gateway into Peru, where they continued their journey to Machu Pichhu.
Chacaltaya Mountain & Valley de la Luna (1D; 90 BS or 13 US) : I chose this tour primarily because I wanted a single day tour exploring some of the outer reaches of La Paz. The bus picked myself and all other guests up from their respective hostels around 9am. From there, we drove nearly two hours to the top of Mount Chacaltaya. The road to get there was quite frightening, a narrow dirt road characterized by tight turns with no fall barriers. I expressed my concerns to the tour guide, who simply smiled and informed me that they drive this road several times a week, and to not be scared. After his reassurance, I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Once at the top of Mount Chacaltaya, we paid an entrance fee of 15 BS (2 US) to hike the last 200 meters to the summit. Two hundred meters didn’t sound like a challenge to me before the tour, but at 17,800 feet in elevation, every step seemed impossible. I was glad I hadn’t needed to hike the whole mountain, that’s for sure! The views at the summit of Chacaltaya took my breath away. Patches of snow coated the ground, fresh water lakes spotted the valleys and in the far distance, the city of La Paz could be seen, tucked away in a dip of the landscape. Settled on the cliff side rests a ghost of the mountain’s past – a resort which used to cater to skiers, coming from all over the world, to take on the slopes of the mountain.
Unfortunately, as the years passed, the snow fell less and less, and the vibrant, social ski resort withered away. Now, it is simply a passageway for tourists climbing those last 200 meters, and the chosen lunch spot of miners working within the mountain. After taking in the fresh air and stunning scenery, I headed back down the mountain to rejoin the group and head to our next destination – Valle de la Luna.
Located approximately 45 minutes south of La Paz, Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, is a geological phenomenon. Due to erosion, the mountains in this area have worn away, leaving a maze of tall clay spires. The network of spires reminded me of my childhood on the beach, where I would drip wet sand to create similarly designed sand castles. Our guide informed us that the area used to be much larger, but was torn down for construction purposes before the government stopped them and declared the area as protected, adding walking paths and an information center.
Pampas del Yacuma (3D/2N; 2100 BS or 300 US) : The highlight of my trip to Bolivia was definitely my three day, two night trip to the Yacuma Pampas. In order to get to the pampas from La Paz, I would need to book a flight to Rurrenabaque, the town acting as the gateway for the tours. When it came to booking, I had read about two options – one was to book flights and tour separately, and the other was to book them together. I was expecting to pay about $100 US per flight and $150 US for the tour itself, totaling $350 US. When I stopped by Vicuna Tours in La Paz and they offered the tour and flights as a package for $300 US, I jumped at the opportunity.
The morning of the tour, I awoke and took a taxi from my hostel to the El Alto airport, approximately 45 minutes away. An hour and a half early to my flight, I stood in line to check my bag, then made my way to the gate. The flight lasted only 45 minutes, via Amazonas Airlines. The plane was very tiny – only 20 people – which allowed us to stay low in the sky and get very close views of the Andes Mountain Range.
Once landed, I immediately felt the difference in climate and atmosphere. Less than an hour previously, I had been in the high, dry and cold climate of El Alto. Now, I was in the lowlands, the humid, hot and damp rain forest. I collected my bags from the tiny airport terminal and met a taxi, who took me to the agency where I met the rest of my group and the tour began.
From Rurrenabaque, our group traveled two and a half hours by car to the Yacuma Pampas, where we boarded our canoe and met our guide Tony. We threw our belongings into the boat, climbed in and began sailing down the Pampas towards our lodge. Along the way, we spotted many monkeys, birds, caimans, turtles and other native animals basking in the sun. About an hour and a half later, we arrived at our lodge, a hostel on stilts above the water, with antagonistic caimans lurking below.
After claiming our beds and freshening up a bit, we headed out for more wildlife watching and sunset watching. On our way back to the lodge, we slowly creeped down the waterways, shining our headlamps in the vegetation to spot caimans and crocs prowling in the night.
The next day, our agenda was packed with interactive animal activities. First, we boarded our boat and headed to a patch of land known to be home to a classic Amazonian reptile – the anaconda. These snakes are quite elusive creatures, so spotting one is rare. After nearly an hour of wading through the murky, knee high swamps, our guide Tony hollered that he had spotted the snake! We all huddled around to observe the creature in its habitat. Next was what I was looking most forward to – swimming with pink river dolphins! We parked the boat in an alcove and jumped into the water. Several minutes later, we spotted playful pink creatures approaching to see what all the commotion was about. We stayed at the alcove for nearly an hour, watching the dolphins glide up and down the river. To wrap up the day, we threw our lines in and tested our luck fishing for piranhas! However, the Amazonian fish outsmarted us by snagging all of our meat in exchange for only one tiny fish. After our exciting day, we headed back to the lodge for a delicious meal, including the fish we caught that day.
Our final day of the tour, we relaxed in the lodge, packed up our things and made the long journey back by boat and car to Rurrenabaque. The driver pulled up to the airport to drop us off for our flight, which was due to leave an hour later. However, once we arrived, the airline attendant informed us that a bird had flown into the jet engine, and that all scheduled flights for the day were postponed until the morning. In light of this, my group had no other option that to stay in Rurrenabaque for the night until a flight was available. Thankfully, the planes were up and running again by the next day, so I headed back to La Paz for my final two days in Bolivia.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Yacuma Pampas tour. However, it is not for the faint of heart. The conditions are rough – several hours at a time on a boat or in a car, sharing a not-so-clean or comfortable room with other group members and don’t even get me started on the mosquitoes (this can be avoided depending on what time of year you go). However, if you’re interested in getting in touch with nature and off the beaten path, the Pampas tour will provide memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
In addition to the variety of tours leaving from La Paz, there are many interesting activities to do in the city as well. Here are just a few highlights from my time spent in La Paz:
- Cable Cars – This is a new addition to the city, and possibly the most popular activity for tourists to do. There are currently five cable cars, connecting the city from the depths of La Paz to the city in the clouds of El Alto. For only 3 BS per ride, it’s the most comfortable way to view the stunning landscape of the city.
- Red Cap Walking Tour – A great way to see the city and learn both the history and culture of La Paz is to take a Red Cap Walking Tour, a comprehensive course led by local volunteers. The tour used to be free, but the government has since put a restriction on all agencies stating they must charge at least 20 BS, which is what the Red Cap Walking Tour currently runs for (plus a tip for the guides!). Our guides were named Romberto and David, two men in their early twenties, both very charming and informative. The walking tours leave from San Pedro square every day at 11am and 2:30pm, and last approximately three hours.
- Witches Market – Just around the corner from La Paz’s very popular Alpaca Market, where souvenirs such as bags with traditional patterns and the classic ‘gringo’ alpaca sweater can be found, lies an eerie street lined with brujas and their vendors. At these shops, one can find traditional potions, spells and even dried llama fetuses. Whether you’re actually on the search for something in particular, or are simply browsing to understand the culture of the people more in-depth, the Witches Market is worth stopping by.
- San Francisco Plaza – At the base of the popular Alpaca Market lies San Francisco Plaza and Church, a vibrant square which reflects the social atmosphere of the city. During the day time, you can stop by the plaza to try local snacks such as dried plantain chips and empenadas, or grab a freshly squeezed orange juice for 6 BS (1 US). In the afternoon and evenings, street performers will sing, dance or act in the plaza, and a vast array of spectators gather to watch. If you’re lucky, you might catch a protest passing by – the Bolivians love to protest, it’s a huge part of the expression of their culture!
I went to Bolivia with an open mind and no expectations, and was pleasantly surprised in many ways. What I loved most about the country was how undiscovered it felt. When walking down the streets, I wasn’t surrounded by hundreds of tourists, or bombarded with street vendors trying to sell me souveniers. I really felt like I was able to embrace not only the beauty of the landscape, but also the culture of the people, and the country. I was also pleasantly surprised with how inexpensive living in Bolivia is. My entire 12 days in Bolivia costed me less than $500 US, that’s including everything (tours, accomodation, food, etc.) except the initial flight to La Paz from Buenos Aires, which was an additional $350 US.
Whether you’re planning a backpacking trip across South America, or interested in a single destination, I highly recommend including Bolivia. There are so many beautiful parts to the country, which haven’t been influenced by commercialism, tourism and westernization. It is a perfect place to immerse yourself in an entirely unique culture, to better discover the world, and yourself.