On the 8th of November I took a bus, with the Bolivian company Trans Copacabana, from Puno (Peru), headed towards the government centre of Bolivia, La Paz. About five minutes after the departure I noticed that it was raining inside, exactly above my seat and my head. The water was filtered in the ceiling of the bus the night before, and now it was dripping from a crack on me, and on the man’s feet sitting behind me. After telling the driver about it three times in an hour, his buddy gave me a tape to tap the gap. They never would have stopped to solve the problem.
In the meantime, the water had begun to drop on top of many other people, running along the crack in the ceiling. After a few minutes we managed to stop it by papering the ceiling of tape.
This was the first taste of “Bolivia” .
A few hours later I arrived at the destination, passing through El Alto, the city that rises on top of the hills that surround the valley of La Paz. I had already seen photos of La Paz on the internet, of course, but it was absolutely impressive to see that absurd amount of houses and buildings, perched on each other across the valley, as far as the eye could see.
Arrived at the Terminal de Buses, however, things began to surprise me. The city in the centre was beautiful. After having been in some “ugly” Peruvian cities (Puno and Huaraz above all), I expected disorder and dirt in Bolivia, since it is much poorer than Peru.
Instead, I immediately realized that my prejudice was wrong, as is often the prejudices are. Sure, there was a mess, the streets were not as tidy and organized as in modern cities seen in Australia or New Zealand, but La Paz immediately appeared to me very similar to the big cities of the old world.
The central avenue that went from the Terminal to the south – towards my hostel, in the Sopocachi neighborhood – was wide and clean, with decent side buildings, and in the middle a large traffic island with gardens, trees, benches and people walking.
Above me were passing various cabins of the Teleferico, the modern funicular line set up by an Austrian company a few years ago, which carries Bolivians and tourists throughout the metropolitan area, with seven different lines for as many different colours for distinguish them (each travel costs 3 Bs = 0.40 € approximately).
During the three days in the city I explored the area by foot, and of course with this Teleferico cable car, reaching El Alto to observe the city from above, with the hills that became mountains and then even Andes in the background, up to the peak of the beautiful mountain Illimani (6,462 m).
La Paz is considered the highest metropolis in the world, rising at more than 3,600 m, thus holding the record for many “highest thing in the world”, such as the highest pub, the highest stadium, the highest Burger King, and so on. However, the city is visibly poorer going further north and towards the El Alto district. Up there, the degradation prevails, and so does the huge number of people, stray dogs, malodorous alleys and random street vendors.
The city centre, however, it is full of museums, beautiful squares (especially Plaza Murillo), the great church of San Francisco – that from outside is nothing special, and I have no idea how is inside – and the picturesque Calle Jaen. Then there is the so-called “Witches Market“, (so called because of the ancient sale of spices), which is nothing but a small alley full of stalls, now dedicated to gadgets for tourists and some craft items.
I left the city after three days to reach Cochabamba, which is sister city with “my” Bergamo, in which there is one of the largest statues in the world, the Cristo de la Concordia, which with its 34.20 meters of height also exceeds the most famous Cristo Redentore in Rio de Janeiro (plus it has a base of over 6 m).
The bus departed at 8:30 from La Paz should have arrived at 15, but it broke down halfway. So the driver told us to get out and, after fifteen or twenty minutes, a passing van picked up some of us and took us to Cochabamba, leaving the others to wait for other vans or passages.
I arrived in the city much later than expected, and having only one night in the city I decided to go quickly to the hostel for check-in, and then to Christ. Walking towards the distant statue, I realized that I would not have had time to take the Teleferico to go up the hill, then I stopped a taxi that took me to the cable car station. It was 6:08 pm and the last trip upwards was at 6pm. So I had to walk the 1,399 steps up to the statue of Christ. And I’m an atheist. Indeed, the statue is impressive, and even more beautiful was the view of Cochabamba at sunset.
The next day another bus took me to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the most populous city in Bolivia, and also the most modern and westernized. This fact is noted in the prices and the quality of the premises (bars, restaurants, pubs) in the historic centre, and especially near the huge and beautiful Plaza 24 de Septiembre.
Also the climate here changes a lot. After the cool Peru, and the fresh La Paz, in Santa Cruz the climate has suddenly become tropical, also because of the huge jungle (and National Park) that stands immediately next to the city, and that I crossed by bus from Cochabamba. The wet heat of the day, which I was not used to for almost a year, made me gasp for a few hours, but all in all I preferred it to the cold of the Peruvian Andes.
My plan for those days was to find a tour with which to visit the Amborò National Park (you can’t access it without a certified guide), spending a couple of nights in the forest, and then admiring plants and animals never seen before (by me, at least). Unfortunately, being off season, there were no people available to share the tour on those dates, and the price for going solo with the guide was around 700 USD (with six people the price would have be 180 USD per person), so I reluctantly skipped the tour, keeping in mind the expensive main goal of my journey, which is to reach the “Fin del Mundo”, Ushuaia.
In the hostel, anyway, I met a couple of Swiss-Italian girls, M. and S., with whom I went to the Inca ruins of Salmaipata, two hours from Santa Cruz. After two days of sun and heat in the city, that day it rained a lot. So much that on the way we met a river that had decided to have enough of its banks. The fat driver managed to get out of the water with some smart maneuvers, and he brought us safely back to the city. Samaipata is very nice, even though we only stayed there for a few hours, including the two-hour visit to El Fuerte, the Inca ruins I was saying before. The site is very big, and well maintained, with a one-way path that leads you through the ruined city, but is not comparable to Machu Picchu.
After an “Arrivederci” to the two funny travel companions, the next day I took the umpteenth bus, this time for fifteen hours of travel to reach the capital of Bolivia: Sucre.
Sucre is not only the Bolivian capital, but it is also the most beautiful city in the Country and, in my opinion, the most beautiful city seen in South America (at least in Peru and Bolivia).
The center of the small town is quiet, clean, well maintained, and white. All the buildings in the historic center are painted in white, and it seems obligatory to repaint them every year and keep them immaculate. All this because since the early 90s the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it wants to stay.
Very nice the mercado, where you can find all kinds of food, including two of the South American dishes preferred by me and other vegetarians: the empanadas de queso (3 Bolivianos one) and the delicious cuñape, balls of fried dough filled with cheese, which cost 1 Bs each (1 Bs = 0.12 € or 0.21 NZD).
As always there is the beautiful central square, which is called Plaza 25 de Mayo, with its Cathedral and the “Casa de la Libertad“, where the Independence from Spain was signed in 1825.
Noteworthy, both for aesthetic quality and for the menu, also the pubs and restaurants that swarm in the historic centre, both for carnivores and for vegans and vegetarians. This is exceptional, because in Bolivia it is almost impossible to find restaurants that do not cook chicken, or meat. Of the ten restaurants that you come across while walking through their cities, 9 are “pollerias” (chicken restaurants).
After two days in the beautiful Sucre I headed for my last Bolivian stop, the city of Uyuni.
Uyuni is famous exclusively for being the access point to the world famous Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, with an area of 12,000 square kilometres, also visible from the Space.
Obviously I was there for that too, which was in my “bucket list” since at least five years. I had booked two nights in a hostel, ’cause my bus arrived in the city at 6pm, and I planned that the following morning I would look for a three-day tour of the Salar, which would finally take me to Chile.
So I did, but I happened casually in an agency where they told me that from there in half an hour a tour with the English speaking guide would have started, and the next day it would have been only in Spanish. Plus, to fill the 4WD car at the last minute, I would have a discount of 200 Bs, bringing the total price to 1,070 Bs (136 €, or 230 NZD, including the transfer over the border). I accepted immediately, ran to the hostel to take my backpacks, paid the night just passed and jumped on the SUV.
On the vehicle was the Bolivian driver, the Bolivian guide (who spoke excellent English and also some Italian, for having lived ten years in Europe), two English girls, C. and J., and a couple of rich 60-year-old Hungarians in the middle of their world tour.
With this strange team we set off for the Salar, stopping first at the Train Cemetery, just outside the city. From there the stops were many, as were the hours of driving in the Bolivian desert, where I lost myself observing the incredible landscape from the window. Shortly we reached the town of Colchani, where they refine and pack salt, then the salt restaurant/hotel, where we had lunch (included in the tour) seated at a table of salt, and then finally the centre of the Salar.
For me it is difficult to describe with words the natural spectacle that surrounded me: a blue sky dotted with distant clouds, which broke off the horizon to become a flat expanse of white salt, which continued uninterrupted in all directions around us. The car could run everywhere regardless of roads or paths, allowing us to stay away from all the other off-road vehicles that ran around, loads like our car with backpacks and tourists. We stood for half an hour taking pictures, listening to the explanations of the guide, and playing with perspective and some objects we interacted with.
In the afternoon we went to the Incahuasi Island, which stands in the middle of the Salar and is covered exclusively by cacti (or cactus). Obviously the salt flat had been a sea, millions of years ago, now evaporated. The proof lies in the geology of these islands, like Incahuasi, which are formed of calcified corals.
After a breathtaking sunset on the Salar we went to the Salt Hostel just outside the salt flat, where we spent the first night.
The following day the Salar was now behind us forever, but the tour continued in the desert of the Bolivian Altiplano, where we saw a necropolis of pre-Columbian civilizations with a couple of mummies, numerous lagoons populated by flamingos, and other desert lunar landscapes. The second day ended at the incredible Laguna Colorada (or Red Lagoon), so named because of the various colours given by algae and micro-organisms that live in there, along with a large population of flamingos and some lamas.
After another night in an absolutely basic hostel in the desert, the next day, the last one, we went first to see some spectacular geysers, at almost 5,000 m of altitude, then we crossed the Dali Desert, and reach the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), under the huge Volcano Licancabur.
Just beyond the volcano we got to the Chilean border, which we would have passed in a couple of hours, towards San Pedro de Atacama, a town located in the homonymous Chilean desert.
My first quick passage in Bolivia was over, for this time.
Total days: 13
Accomodations: 481 Bs 61 € – 102 NZD
Buses: 578 Bs 73,5 € – 123 NZD
Taxi/Uber/Teleferico: 193,5 Bs 24,6 € – 41 NZD
Food: 677,5 Bs 86 € – 144 NZD
Tours: 1353 Bs 172 € – 288 NZD
Extra: 322 Bs 41 € – 68,5 NZD
Total cost: 3.605 Bs 458 € – 767 NZD