A Travellerspoint blog

Lake Titicaca

all seasons in one day 17 °C
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Lake Titicaca is a dark blue expanse of water set with verdant green agriculture and terracing around the shore and located amongst snow topped peaks. Other than the raw beauty of the place the main attraction on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is Isla de Sol which is the accepted birthplace of the first Inca, Manco Capac and the subsequent civilisation. The island is only accessible by boat and so our first stop was the lakeside town of Copacabana where we planned to spend two nights before taking a ferry to the island. To get there involved taking a bus from La Paz and at one point getting off the bus while it was loaded onto a rickety old barge and ferried across a narrow channel of water with us following in equally rickety old speedboats.

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Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca and while it does boast a beach, it is a far cry from it's Brazilian namesake. The beach (like any lake) is mostly stones, is covered in hundreds of unused paddle boats (potentially they get more action in high season) and has a distinctive smell potentially relating to the sewerage system.

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While the beach could definitely do with a facelift Jess and I had a couple of nice nights in the town. The accommodation we had there was excellent, bar the first lunch we had some good food (including the local Trout) and the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria was being celebrated while we were there which meant there was a buzz in the air and the locals were out in force.

For the festival it seemed that every man, woman and child who could dance, play a trumpet or shake a tambourine had been conscripted into a marching band or dance troupe. The only locals who didn't seem to be involved were the street vendors who were doing there usual best to hawk llama jerseys to the tourists.

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The next day we took a taxi to a town called Yampupata at the end of a nearby peninsula and walked back to Copacabana along the lake shore through a string of local farming villages. The walk was extremely peaceful – perhaps because everyone in villages was in town celebrating the festivals leaving their fields untended and only a few llamas and donkeys to keep Jess and I company. Each bay (and village) on the peninsular was separated by a hill and while climbing and descending these provided some amazing views, the fact that we were around 3,800 – 4,000 metres above sea level meant that Jess and I were exhausted by the time we made it the 20km back to town. However, it was probably the highlight of Lake Titicaca for us.

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The following day we took one of the local ferries out to Isla de Sol for another two nights. The place is overly touristy but because it was low season it didn't feel overcrowded. Other than Jess and I, the main visitors seemed to be hordes of Argentinian hippies who were camping at the northern end of the island. Despite having tents they generally seemed woefully under prepared for the rainy season, seemingly having spent all their money on llama jerseys and brightly coloured Bolivian pants rather than a decent rain jacket. We saw a number of them drenched to the bone when boarding the ferry.

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We actually had pretty good weather and while it rained most days in the mornings and evenings, we were able to trek around the island in the middle of the day and visit the ruins at the northern and southern tips of the island. It's a beautiful island, very peaceful and as you can basically camp anywhere on the island, I can see why the hippies think it's a good a place as any to kick back, relax and dance naked around totem poles. However, despite taking lots of photos, as short term box ticking tourists, Jess and I were a little underwhelmed, as despite being pretty, Isla de Sol didn't really impress to the same extent as some of the other things we have seen.

Our next destination is sure to overwhelm and with high expectations we boarded our next bus and left Bolivia behind, heading for Peru, Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Posted by mwalmsle 19:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

La Paz

semi-overcast 15 °C
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La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and is a large city squashed into a small valley, high up in the mountains. With no where else to go, houses cling to the valley walls in the most precarious of positions. It seemed as if a large city had been dropped from the air into a much smaller space and many of the buildings had been forced to land in places totally unsuitable for any kind of construction. It's also set at 3,600 meters above sea level which means that climbing even small hills really knocks you about and many who have not had a chance to acclimatise before arrival come down with mild altitude sickness.

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Known as the best place in Bolivia to party there seemed to be little else on offer in the city itself. One mooted attraction that I had been looking forward to was the so-called “witches market”, which was touted as a street emporium of witch doctors and occult produce. Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of dried llama fetuses, it ended up being just like every other market in Bolivia, that is filled with countless knitted and woven products incorporating a variety of llama motifs.

That said, La Paz lives up to its party reputation and there are also plenty of tours agencies that can arrange a multitude of adventure activities outside the city for relatively bargain prices. For example, five of us went quad biking in nearby Valle de Luna for 2 hours for a total of around A$125, which included 5 bikes, protective gear and 2 guides.

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We stayed in La Paz for a total of seven nights, but we met others at the hostel who because of the difficulty of packing your bags and arranging buses with a hangover, had been there much longer – try 5 – 6 weeks. In that time we managed to fit in some partying, subsequent recovery from hangover and eventual illness, the aforementioned quad biking and a trip on mountain bikes down the Death Road – probably La Paz's best known attraction.

The Death Road is the old road into La Paz from Santa Cruz and Cochibamba. The road, in some places only a few meters wide, winds through the mountains hugging up against sheer walls of stone hundreds of feet from the valley floor. When cycling down the road it is almost impossible to believe that as recently as 2003 buses, laden with people would be passing each other with only centimetres to spare. This ridiculous situation, coupled no doubt with the South American penchant for overtaking on blind corners resulted in the road having the highest automotive death toll in the world. In the 10 years before the new road was opened, 4400 people died, slightly more than one per day. Most of the good photos are on a CD that I can't access on my laptop so you will mostly have to rely on the eloquence of the prose for the mental image.

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With the Death Road now seemingly closed to normal traffic, one can hurtle down without worrying about oncoming buses or minivans driven by a recently escaped mental patient. It's truly exhilarating, where else can you ride for 5 hours letting only gravity do the work, dropping a total of 3,500 vertical meters, from 4,700m to 1,200m. Of course, in many places a careless mistake can result in you careening over the edge of a cliff to an almost certain death, so some care is still required, but at least you only need to focus on keeping your speed under control and the other riders on the road. At least 100 people ride the death road each day and in total our guide told us that 18 riders have lost their lives.

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We drove back up to La Paz on the new road, which takes a different route through a neighbouring valley and apparently includes more than 140 bridges. One of the people on our tour made the remark that he didn't know what was more dangerous, riding the death road down or climbing back up to La Paz over 140 Bolivian built bridges.

The night before we left I attended some Bolivian Cholita Wrestling. Imagine, overweight men and middle aged women in leotards and traditional Bolivian dresses pretending to dish out tremendous punishment in an overly dramatic way. It made WWF look like a classy broadway show by comparison.

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Our next and last stop after La Paz is Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world on the border of Bolivia and Peru and apparently a very scenic and relaxing place.

Posted by mwalmsle 16:03 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Salar de Uyuni

sunny 13 °C
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The Salar de Uyuni (the Bolivian Salt flats) are on the itinerary of most backpackers in South America and no doubt you will have seen the famous perspective photos before.

In the city (or town) of Uyuni tour operators for the salt flats are a dime a dozen. We had heard horror stories of those who had gone with a terrible operator and wanted to make sure we had someone professional. We booked a three day tour with one that had English speaking guides and as a result probably paid too much in the process – well too much in the world of the Bolivian currency where nothing costs very much at all.

The tour was basically three days in a Landcruiser, stopping each night to sleep in fairly basic accommodation before getting up before dawn to continue the trip. Each day revealed vastly different but amazingly surreal landscapes like nothing we had ever seen before. Pictures speak louder than words so I'll keep the copy to a minimum and just include lots of pictures and captions.

After a quick visit to a train cemetery the first day of the tour was spent on the salt flats themselves, a sea of endless white where you can take perspective photos to your hearts content.

Day 1

Antique train cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni

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Rusting hulk of an old locomotive

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Jess driving one of the trains

The Salar

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Jess and the dried surface of the Salar

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Jurassic Park special FX

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Jess relaxing on water

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Our big feet on the Salar

Incahuasi Island in the middle of the Salar

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Cacti on Incahuasi Island

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Our Tour Group on Incahuasi

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900 year old cactus

Days 2 and 3

The second and third days were spent driving through high alpine deserts surrounded by extinct volcanoes and interspersed with strangely coloured, amazingly reflective lagoons filled with flamingos. The deserts were covered with strange rocks said to have inspired Dali and in keeping with the volcanic theme we passed geysers, boiling mud and thermal springs.

The Altiplano - Lagoons & Flamingos

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Canyonero!!!

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Vicunas by the Blue Lagoon

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Reflections in the blue lagoon

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Flamingos on the blue lagoon

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Flamingo reflecting in the water

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My favourite photo – The Red Lagoon with storm clouds passing overhead

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Canyonero!!!

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Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Stone)

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Homer Simpson de Piedra (Homer Simpson of Stone)

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Me in hot springs near the Chilean Border

We finished the tour exhausted but happy and got straight on a bus to La Paz. To anyone coming anywhere near Bolivia or indeed South America the salt flats and the surrounding Altiplano are a must see natural attraction.

Posted by mwalmsle 18:24 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

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