Originally not even on our list, Bolivia proved a very entertaining and interesting spot on our route towards the very south of the continent.
Basically, we did this:
- 2 days at Copacabana, Lago Titicaca, Bolivia’s only beach 🙂
- 1 day travelling via La Paz to Uyuni
- 3 days touring the salt flats and Northern Chilean desert
Especially after consulting the Lonely Planet we realized that Bolivia definitely makes for much longer stays, again with great options for outdoor activities, but we postponed those activities (they were still to come in Chile and Argentina). Even on a 6-months trip, time is scarce 🙂
Maybe it was timing, maybe it wasn’t. Arriving in Puno at Lago Titicaca at 6:00 in the morning after 8 hours on the night bus, we found a town with only little touristic, aesthetic or whatever merits. Anna, having been to Puno before, said that it was exactly like she found it 6 years ago: it is very dirty, including the lake’s shore, it stinks quite a lot (sorry to say so but it is true), and there is little for tourists to do. The one tourism banner we found featured four tourist activities: (1) visit the lake, (2) visit the beach, (3) visit the church, (4) and visit the church’s catacombs. Well… 🙂
Therefore, we quickly decided to only visit the Uros islands with the Aymará people and then hop on another bus for 3 hours to go to Bolivia’s side of the Lake. What a great choice!
The ride was smooth and the border crossing without difficulties. (We did have to get out of the bus and walk across the border, alongside our bus.) And we got a bungalow overlooking the lake in the nice hotel that Anna had already seen years back. This way, we essentially spent 2 days relaxing on our lawn, keeping in touch with family and friend via messages and calls, and … not much else 🙂
Uyuni and Atacama deserts
From Copacabana, it was easy to get to La Paz (though with a spectacular lake crossing – the bus takes a different boat than the passengers. Good opportunity for us to buy a new snack: giant corn popcorn) and from there to Uyuni was another night bus. We again tried to follow all the rules of successful backpacking, reading bus company reviews for which one to pick as our experience from Cusco to Puno was mediocre at best: the bus was insanely hot, smelled, and left the lights on at night. Yeah 🙂
This review-finding-price-comparing activity always takes a lot of time. Oftentimes bus companies have gone out of business or agencies simply subcontract. In the end we chose an unknown one (which was among the only 2 where spaces where left – another natural limiting factor ;-)) and were lucky. Great comfy seats in the last row.
In Uyuni, the first exercise was to fight off tour hawkers at 05:30 at the bus station, find breakfast, and more review reading for the tour operator of our choice for the coming 3-day tour. We opted for Quechua Experience and were really satisfied with their services (Bertram even wrote a thank-you email to their office, commending our Guide Gonzalo Gonzalez). The itinerary of the tours is basically the same except for 1 point: where to spend the second night. Quechua and only a handful others camp by the hot springs giving their clients the opportunity to use the hot springs while star gazing. Also, two nice Dutch girls – Ivonne and Annuk – were scouting together with us at the time and as we knew we’d spend almost 3 days with the co-travelers – might as well choose the nice ones 🙂 In short, here is the itinerary:
- Day 1: leaving Uyuni, visiting the old train cemetery, visiting salt manufactures, biking in the salt flats, funny pictures (a lot of them :-))
- Day 2: Different lagoons with different flamingoes, eroded rock formations, geysers, hot springs
- Day 3: Lagoons and off to the Chilean border until San Pedro de Atacama
The tour left at 11:00 and we waited in the tour offices as the first rain of the season was pouring down on Uyuni. We already doubted the success of the trip but… wait until you see the pictures 😉 Bertram and me liked especially the 30 minutes bike ride as it a) was a physical activity an no car sitting 😉 and b) gives one a different feeling for the dimensions and characteristics of the desert! Gonzalo then took us to visit the salt factories, which provide the whole of Bolivia with table salt. The mandatory funny pictures were also worth it, and given the time of our trip (around Christmas) we took lots of pictures with Santa Claus hats. We were, however, incredibly lucky that our experienced guide Gonzalo not only took us to take the typical perspective-defying large-small illusions but also found a spot where the morning rain had formed large pools forming mirrors of the sky and the human objects standing around.
This was mostly a driving day with us getting off and on the Jeep every couple of hours to visit a site. As described in our FindPenguin posts (see here and here), Gonzalo was really tireless to explain flora and fauna (even to other groups :-)), customs of the local people, hardships of life here in the desert. It was great! We used lunch time with our Dutch companions Ivonne and Annuk to walk around and play games throwing stones at targets in the desert. It’s how you pass time 🙂
Our camp was nice again and dinner was keenly awaited – as we could go to the hot springs afterwards. The view of the sky was impressive and we even saw star nebulae which we could never have seen with our light pollution in Europe.
Actually, it really only is a 3-day tour for the ones going back to Uyuni – in our case, leaving for Peru, the third day of our trip was rather short: we visited the last lagoon around 08:00 and then went to to border until 09:00 while the others drove back for 8 hours. Better deal to cross over to Chile if you ask us 🙂
Again, losing another hour in time difference, we arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama around noon.
San Pedro de Atacama
Given the steep prices for almost everything in San Pedro de Atacama, we opted for a camp site near the village center. We liked the hipster feel of the town, enjoyed several good coffees, and hung out on the camp ground reading, charging all of our devices with our solar panel, etc.
One “excursion” we both highly enjoyed was the trip to the meteorite museum – it had great explanations of the various types of meteorites, how they form and finally hit the Earth. The Atacama desert is a great place to find them as its flat and unmoving terrain keeps them on the surface for meteorite “hunters” to find.
The only sporty activity was Anna’s evening run into the Valle de la Luna – 8 very dry, very windy kilometers – but still worth the views 🙂
We are continuing the blog with a post on Chile and Patagonia in the coming days – currently we are still down there hiking, climbing, and exploring 🙂