January 16th - 26th, 2024

Having already spent three weeks in South America, I left the best for the end of my trip. This is my blog post about an amazing trip through the spectacular country of Bolivia, which is a land-locked country with a population of around 12 million. It is one of the highest countries in the world, and I spent almost the entire 10 days in altitudes above 3,700 meters. Despite having one of the fastest growing economies in the region, Belovia remains one of the poorest countries in South America. Although mining is a significant part of the economy, the country's vast mineral wealth is still significantly under-explored.

La Paz
My trip began in one of the highest and most spectacular cities in the world, La Paz. I arrived on a flight from Asunción with a stop-over in Santa Cruz. The El Alto International Airport (which, as its name suggests, is not located in La Paz, but its sister city El Alto), is the highest international airport in the world at an altitude of 4,061 meters (or 13,325 feet). The majority of flights to La Paz are domestic flights on the national carrier, Boliviana de Aviación. Large airliners cannot take off at full capacity from this altitude, and consequently most international flights to and from Bolivia operate out of Santa Cruz. I got a taxi from the airport to my hotel, and had my first glimpse of what an absolutely spectacular city this is. El Alto is located on the high plane, while La Paz is nestled inside the deep gorge below is. As the taxi approaches the edge of the valley, this is the view that greets you:

La Paz has a population of just under 1 million, it is the country's commercial and financial center and the seat of the government, but curiously not Bolivia's capital. That honor is held by Sucre.

On my first day in the city I walked (very slowly, as the altitude was kicking my butt) up to the Kili Kili viewpoint on the eastern side of the valley. It was fairly early in the morning, and I was up there all by myself to take pictures of this stunning view:

The extremely dense neighborhoods of exposed brick buildings seemingly stacked on top of each other on the hillside, are very reminiscent of the favelas in Rio or Comuna 13 in Medellin. The exact opposite to Hong Kong, in La Paz the richest people live in the lowest lying areas. The poorer you are, the higher you have to live up on the mountainside of the valley.

There is one small neighborhood, which had decided to stand out from the rest and paint their houses in bright colors.

In the afternoon I had a guided tour booked through Viator. By now I feel confident enough in my Spanish skills, that I can do these guided tours entirely in Spanish. My guide Yanira was great, and even though she talked a bit fast I did understand most of it. She taught me a lot about the indigenous cultures in the country. Bolivia is the country with the highest proportion of indigenous people in South America (within Latin America only Guatemala's is higher), although the majority of the population are so-called Mestizos, which are people with mixed European and indigenous ancestry. There are many different local languages, but by far the most common is Aymara.

The first stop on our tour was the Valley of the Moon, which is located only 10 km outside of the city. Erosion of the soft clay rocks has created this bizarre landscape of tall spires.

We spent about an hour walking through the Valley of the Moon, before taking a taxi back into the city, where we got onto the Teleferico up to El Alto. Public transport in this steep city is mainly done by cable car. 10 years ago they constructed ten lines of the Teleferico (obviously built by Doppelmayr), which have made getting around this crowded city significantly easier and faster. It is also very cheap and a great way to see the city from above, but you should avoid rush hour in the morning, as it can get very crowded with long lines.

Back down in La Paz, we visited the old Central Railway station. Built in1930 it used to be the end point of the famous Arica-La Paz railway, which connected La Paz with the Pacific coast in Chile. The railway and the station were closed in 2005. After being left abandoned for a few years, the station has now been restored and turned into a museum and shopping mall. Some of the vintage train cars in front of the station have been converted into fancy restaurants.

La Paz was founded in 1548 by Spanish conquistadors at the site of a previous Inca settlement. The city does not have a lot of buildings from the colonial period left. Most of them can be found in the Calle Jaen, which houses several museums and some interesting art galleries.

The other major building from the colonial period is the the Basilica de San Francisco, constructed in the 16th to 18th century. The plaza in front of the basilica is the busiest in the city, full of tourists, street performers and street food vendors.

The nearby Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace was built in the 19th century in the neo-classical style. The Plaza de Murillo in front of the cathedral is surrounded by government buildings, and has a statue in the center dedicated to the local hero Pedro Domingo Murillo, who in 1809 started the revolution which eventually led to Bolivia's independence in 1825.

Our last stop on the tour was the witches' market, which sells all sorts of items a witch would need, I guess, including mummified llama fetuses. Yanira told me a lot about the indigenous beliefs and religious practices. The main deity in the indigenous religion is Pachamama, a female fertility goddess, who during Inca times, was believed to sustain all life and was responsible for good harvests, as well as earthquakes and other natural phenomena. Pachamama continues to be worshipped by many people here today, and rituals usually involve food and alcohol offerings.

On my last day in the city, I went back up to El Alto on the cable car. It was a beautifully clear day, and I got some more great shots of this spectacular city. Just behind the city looms the snow covered peak of Huayna Potosi (6,088 meters).

The huge cemetery of La Paz is a slightly bizarre place, since the bodies of the deceased are not buried here, but instead put into narrow shelves stacked on top of each other and then bricked up. The shelfs are full of flowers, mementos and little offerings, and a significant number of them contain bottles of beer, whiskey and various other alcoholic beverages.

Lago Titicaca and Isla del Sol
The next day I had an overnight trip from La Paz to Lake Titicaca, which I had booked through Viator again. I was picked up very early for the 3.5 hour drive to the lake. We spent the first hour or so in crazy traffic in El Alto, because it was a Thursday. And Thursdays is fair day in El Alto, which means thousands of vendors from around the region come the city, to sell anything you can imagine in street stalls set up on all the main streets. The rest of the drive was fairly relaxing, except for a crazy Canadian conspiracy theorist on the bus, who insisted on telling everyone about how the world is run by a secret cabal of 13 (mostly Jewish) men. He also made the whole bus smell like garlic, since he was eating raw garlic the entire time, which he believed would protect him from people who had been vaccinated against Covid.

When we reached the lake, we first had to cross a small inlet by ferry. We got off bus, because the bus was transported separately in a tiny barge, which looked rather perilous.

An hour later we reached the town of Copacabana, where we stopped for lunch and a couple of hours of rest.

Copacabana is the largest Bolivian town on the lake shore, and most of the city seems to consist of restaurants, bars and tourist agencies, that offer trips on the lake and bus rides to other parts of the country and across the border into Peru. The main site in town is the Basilica of our Lady of Copacabana, which is a large and elaborate 17th century shrine that houses the image of the Virgin of Copacabana.

After lunch we set off in a small boat for the one hour trip to the Isla del Sol. We were dropped off at a small pier beneath Inca terraces, which seem to cover large parts of island. We climbed a few hundred Inca stairs to get to the Templo del Sol. The sun temple was an important shrine for the Incas, but is actually believed to have been constructed during pre-Inca times. There is archeological evidence for continuous human settlement on the island since the 3rd millennium BC.

It was about a 30 minute walk from the temple to the village. Along the way we came across a lady with her alpaca, who charged a small amount for taking pictures of the view with her beautiful animal.

Nestled between Inca terraces, the village of Yumani is the largest settlement on the Isla del Sol. About 800 families live on the island permanently, the majority of them are working in farming. Except for the beautiful little church, almost all the buildings in the village are either small hotels, guest houses or farms.

There are no paved roads on the entire island, and no motor vehicles are allowed, but you do encounter a lot of donkey and sheep traffic along the steep cobblestoned paths.

With its surface at an altitude of 3,812 meters (12,507 feet), Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. It has an average depth of over 100 meters, while its deepest point is almost 300 meters. The lake is fed by five major rivers, and remains quite cold throughout the year with water temperatures never rising about 14 degrees. The border between Peru and Bolivia runs through the whole length of it. The Isla del Sol is the largest of the lake's 41 islands, and is located in the south-eastern corner on the Bolivian side. Towards the east across the lake you can see the northern parts of the Cordillera Real, with the peak of Ancohuma - the third highest mountain of Bolivia at 6,427 meters.

In the late afternoon I walked up to the highest point near the village and got the drone out:

While I was sitting and flying the drone, this lady came up to me to show me her beautiful hand-woven and hand-knitted alpaca scarfs. I bought a little head scarf from her.

In the evening I watched the sunset over the Peruvian side of the lake, while enjoying a nice dinner of grilled trout. Trout is actually an invasive species in the lake, which was introduced in the 1930s. It has killed some of the native species, but it has also become one of the local delicacies here.

My home for the night was a beautiful little lodge (called the Sol y Luna Lodge) at the edge of the village. I was the only guest, and they set up my breakfast on the terrace, so I could marvel at this view while enjoying my scrambled eggs and coffee.

The boat to take us back to Copacabana was scheduled for 3 o'clock in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time for a beautiful hike towards the north of the island. The whole island is about 10 kilometers in length north to south, and about 4 kilometers at its widest. I didn't dare to hike all the way to the north, because I was threatened by this menacing looking thunderstorm with lighting strikes sitting over the lake. Luckily it never made it quite my way, and I got back to the village safe and dry.

The Isla del Sol was truly one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I had ever been. Here is my drone video of this extraordinary place.

The trip back to La Paz was a bit uncomfortable, because the bus was completely full and there was a lot of traffic in El Alto again. I only got back to my hotel around 11 pm, but it was absolutely worth the trip to see the stunning lake and the beautiful island. But, while La Paz and the Isla del Sol, were absolutely amazing, they were not the highlight of my Bolivia trip, which awaited me on my next stop.

I had an early morning flight from La Paz towards the south to the small city of Uyuni. It was a bit complicated to get from the airport into town, since there only seemed to be a handful of taxis, that shuttled back and forth between the city and the airport. Although they tried to squeeze as many people and suitcases as possible into each ride, I had to wait almost an hour before I managed to get on one. Uyuni is a small and dusty town, full of backpacker hostels, small restaurants and tourist offices. There is not much to do and see in Uyuni itself, the whole town is mostly a staging post for trips onto the salt flats. I had a two-day trip booked on Viator, and met my guide at the tour agency's office the next morning. We into a 4X4 vehicle and headed straight out onto the salt flats, which are begin about 30 minutes outside of town.

With a total size over 10,000 square kilometers, the Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. It sits at an elevation of almost 3,700 meters, and is almost perfectly flat (the elevation varies by less than one meter over the entire area). The salt deposits are the leftover from several prehistoric lakes that existed here until about 40,000 years ago. We drove across the entire length of the seemingly endless sea of white, a distance of more than 100 kilometers. But it took only a little over an hour, since the surface is hard as concrete and very smooth, so that cars can drive at over 90 km/h across it.

Our first destination was the huge Tunupa Volcano (5,321m), which looms over the flats on the northern end. After a nice lunch in the little village below the mountain, we started our hike while enjoying the views of the huge white sea of salt beneath us.

This is also a place where you can usually see flamingos hanging out at the edge of the flats. We did see one in the distance, but it was too far away to take a picture. Right at the beginning of the hike our guide lead us into a small cave, to see the Coquesa mummies. There were six mummified bodies, which have been preserved here since well before the Incas.

The hike wasn't very long, about 2 hours, but in this altitude every step is tough. I was struggling quite a bit, but was glad that I didn't give up, because when we reached the lookout at 4,400 meters this was the view of the crater that greeted us.

The second day of the tour started at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am, when we were picked up from the hotel. After picking up rubber boots, we were driven back out only the salt flats. This time we went to an area that was completely covered in a thin layer of water, hence the boots. The sight that greeted us when we got out of the car, was just one of the most mindboggling views I had ever experienced

The layer of water on top of the perfectly flat salt surface was probably less than 10 centimeters deep, which meant there wasn't even the tiniest ripple on the surface. This created a perfect mirror, reflecting one of the clearest starry nightskies, I had ever seen. I had carried my tripod with me on this entire trip, just for this one night. And it was absolutely worth it for this shot of the milky way in a place without any light pollution.

We spent almost 2 hours in the dark admiring the stars, when the first light emerged on the horizon. It created this unreal orange and blue light show, while the stars where slowly fading away.

The sun came up very quickly, and suddenly the whole scene looked completely different, yet equally stunning.

After this amazing but rather cold early morning excursion, we were driven back to the hotel for breakfast and some well-deserved rest. Our guide picked us up again around 10:00 am and we headed to our next destination the so-called train cemetery, located on the outskirts of Uyuni. The train line had been constructed by British engineers near the end of the 19th century, and was mainly used to transport minerals. When the mining industry declined in the 1940s, the trains were left here to rust away. Over the decades many of them have been stripped off their interiors and much of their steel, and are left as empty shells for tourists to climb on.

Before driving onto the flats, we also stopped in the small village of Cholchani. The Colchani salt cooperative has exclusive rights to mining salt from the flats. The history of salt processing in Colchani goes back to pre-colombian times, when salt was transported by llama all over the region and traded with other indigenous communities. We had an interesting tour at a salt factory, where they showed us how they cut huge blocks of salt out of the ground (still done by axe), and then grind it to turn it into table salt.

This small salt processing business in Colchani is currently the only commercial use of the salt flat, but that may change in the future. The Salar de Uyuni contains almost 10% of the entire world's known reserves of lithium, which could turn Bolivia into the Saudi Arabia of the electric car age. However, the government has been very tentative so far in taking small steps towards commercialization. On the one hand it would be a tragedy if commercial mining were to destroy this unique and extraordinary place, on the other hand lithium production could significantly change the fortunes of this very poor country.

We then headed out onto the flats again. There are a number of small islands in the center, which are the top of ancient volcanoes. We stopped for lunch at the largest of these islands, the Isla Incahuasi, also known as Giant Cactus Island. It has a small visitor center and a museum.

The whole island is covered in huge cacti, some of which are more than 700 years old.

We also stopped by the Palacio de Sal, which was a former hotel on the salt flats, entirely built from blocks of salt. It no longer functions as a hotel, but there is a little shop and café inside, and you can see the former bedrooms, which looked rather sparse.

We ended the day at the area covered with water again, where we had some wine and snacks while enjoying the sunset on one side and the moon rise on the other. It was also a great opportunity to get the drone out.

The Salar de Uyuni truly was one of most bizarre, otherworldly and fascinating places I have ever been too. Incomparable to anything else. Here is my drone video:

The next morning I had a car booked to drive me about three hours north through a beautiful and sparse mountain landscape to the town of Potosi.

It is hard to image now, but Potosi was once one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Founded in 1545 it soon grew to a population size of over 200,000. The reason for Potosi's growth and wealth was the hill, that looms right behind the city. The Cerro Rico once contained the largest silver deposit in the world and to this day remains the world's most valuable mine ever found. At some stage silver was so abundant in this city, that they made horseshoes out of it, because it was cheaper than iron.

To get the silver from Potosi to Spain it was first transported by mule or llama to the Pacific Coast, then shipped to Panama City, where it had to be unloaded and carried again by mule overland to the Caribbean coast, before being loaded on ships to Europe. Some of the sliver was also shipped directly to Asia via Acapulco in Mexico and the Philippines and exchanged for Chinese goods to satisfy the great demand for silver in China.

Potosi was the site of the Spanish Colonial Silver Mint. The former Casa Nacional de Moneda now houses a great museum, which you can visit only on a guided tour. The tour takes almost two hours, but it's really interesting and well worth it.

These large machines are the geartrains used to press the silver coins. They were powered by mules on the floor below.

It is possible to visit the mines in Potosi, but it does apparently involve a lot of crawling through very tight spaces, which I thought would not be great for either for my back or my claustrophobia. So I skipped that part of Potosi, and just enjoyed the colonial town. The city is full of richly decorated churches, that show its former wealth.

The Obelisk on the Plaza 6 de Agosto, with the cathedral in the background.

Since the city's fortunes declined rapidly after the mine started to be depleted, there has not been much new construction in the last 200 years. Thus the whole city center has retained much of its colonial architecture. Walking through the narrow streets flanked by two-story houses, you get the feeling that time has stopped here. The city together with the Cerro Rico was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1987, the first site in Bolivia to receive this award.

I spent two nights in Potosi, and then had planned to make my way to Sucre, from where I had a flight booked two days later. Potosi does not have an airport, and I wasn't able to book any transport in advance, but I thought it would probably be quite easy to either find a bus or a car service for the 3 hour drive to Sucre. Most of time this would have been the case. However things didn't go quite to plan. When I went into one of the many tourist offices to ask if I could book a car to take me to Sucre, the unexpected answer was "No. Not possible, the road is blocked." I didn't quite understand the woman's Spanish enough to understand the reason. (I later found out that the road had been blocked by angry farmers supporting the former president, Evo Morales.) So I thought, maybe I misunderstood something, and tried another tourist office. There the answer was slightly less categorical, but still not good: "Very difficult! The road is blocked, no one can get through, but there maybe someone who can help." He wrote down a name and a phone number on a piece of paper for me, and said call this number. This seemed a bit dodgy, but I gave it a try and sent a Whatsapp message. I received a reply immediately, but it was an audio message in Spanish, so I had to listen to it a few times to understand everything. The women said "No te preocupes" ("Don't worry!"), and assured me that they can get me to Sucre, but the price would be three times as much if the road is still blocked tomorrow. After a little bit of back and forth on Whatsapp, I agreed and hoped that I would still get to Sucre in time. A driver in a rather dirty and old car picked me up from the hotel the next morning. He told me that, although the road was still blocked, he knew a detour. He seemed trustworthy enough, and I didn't really have any other option, so off we went. After driving for about an hour on the main road, he turned off onto a narrow dirt road that took us steeply into the mountains. There were quite a few other cars, including some big trucks on this detour, which made it slow going. We drove through a few mountain villages, were the villagers took advantage of the situation, and set up make shift toll stations to charge all the cars a few dollars for driving through their village. I admired their entrepreneurial spirit. After about two hours on this muddy and rather bumpy ride, we re-emerged on the main road and to my surprise arrived in Sucre an hour later. It was quite an adventure, and one where my newly aquired Spanish language skills turned out to be essential.

Sucre is the official capital of the country, even though it is only the sixth largest city in Bolivia with a population of around 400,000. It is located at an altitude of 2,800 meters, which felt like sea level after having spent 9 days at around 4,000 meters. Sucre is known as a friendly and welcoming city with a low crime rate and a pleasant climate. It has one of the best preserved colonial city centers in all of Latin America, and was awared UNESCO world heritage status in 1991. Dominating the city skyline is the beautiful tower of the cathedral, built between 1559 and 1712.

Right next to the cathedral is the elegant building, which houses the local goverment. It was built after independence and completed in 1896.

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1538, but the area had been densely populated already during the Inca empire. It was laid out in a perfect grid and is known as the white city, owing to the Andalusian heritage of its founders and builders.

Most of the city's wealth was derived from the silver mines in Potosi, as the wealthy Spanish families involved in the silver trade preferred to live here instead of Potosi, due to the lower altitude and better climate. They used their wealth to built many elaborate churches, a beautiful example of which is the 18th century Basilica de San Francisco de Asis.

Sucre has always been the educational center of the country. This is the courtyard of the Universidad Mayor Real y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca, which is the second oldest public university in the Americas.

I stayed right in the historic distric in the beautiful Hotel Monasterio, which has a rooftop bar with great views over the whole city and its many white church steeples and red roof tiles.

I left Sucre the next day in the early afternoon for my flight to Santa Cruz, and onwards from there to Miami, ending what has been one of my most memorable trips. Bolivia is a truly stunning country, that should be high on any travelers bucket list.

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