Breathless in Bolivia

When you talk to people about visiting South America, they immediately ask if you’ve visited Machu Picchu in Peru, or trekked through Patagonia, or posed with Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro. Bolivia is still not on the tips of people’s tongues as a go-to destination. Back when I was on my own tour of Peru, a couple I met was describing their next destination, the salt fields in Bolivia, and after showing me some pictures, I knew I needed to go someday. 

I’m actually a bit surprised I followed through on it. After that same trip, I remember saying to anyone that asked that I would hesitate to ever go back to a place where I felt a general sense of having the flu the entire time (some effects of altitude sickness are nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, etc.). Bolivia is pretty damn high.

I stepped off the plane at El Alto airport with the usual excitement that enters your step when you get to a new place, and immediately felt like I couldn’t breathe, never mind walk at a pace faster than leisurely. I saw a kid in front of me struggle and remembered that I’d just hit a wall of low oxygenated air, what with the airport being the highest commercial airport in the world at a height of 4,200 meters. But this time around my blood was already pumping some good ol' Acetazolamide to combat the effects of altitude, so my transition to being relatively acclimatized was pretty quick.

I booked this tour with Intrepid travel and it included both Bolivia and Argentina, with a little extra solo leg added at the end. I’ll cover Bolivia in this post, and this is a pretty good route to follow even if you opt out of a tour. 

Day 1- 2 La Paz

La Paz is a vibrant place full of life. Packed with people and music and smells (mostly good). I spent a day exploring the squares and shopping streets and pretty much everywhere on foot, in between moments where my breath escaped me and my heart started to beat at frightening speeds, forcing me to take a seat. The people are warm (everyone says good morning etc.) but it’s so crazy packed that it’s a bit uncomfortable when you’re used to order. And traffic signals. The mail system is also broken (say what you will about certain governments, but listen to someone talk about the government in Bolivia and you might just feel grateful for what you have). There are often strikes that shut down the city. And the list goes on. 

Before meeting my tour group in a cold and heartless hotel in the busiest and dirtiest part of the city on my second day, I did pick a winner of a hotel for my first night called El Consulado. It was a boutique hotel in an old colonial style house and the price was right. It was, of course, old but crazy charming and full of the friendliest owners/staff you could meet. I love when a place and the people make you feel like you have a home when you are far away from home. 

Day 2 was a little bit easier as I spent three hours riding over the entire city in a cable car. A beautiful, new and fancy ski-resort-style cable car. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in a city. Sort of like their version of the subway, making the hills and great distances that surround this traffic-dense city no longer an obstacle. Seeing a city from above, especially one where a lot of life is lived on rooftops, was literally awesome. Laundry hanging. Massive graveyards. Soccer games. Markets. Building roofs painted in rainbows, and art deco cubes, and sometimes just graffiti. I also heard squealing at one point and discovered in a green patch 5 feral dogs in the process of tearing apart a live pig. It was like peeking into a life not normally seen from any other angle. Like a doll house from above. It was built in the last five years, so I’m sure a lot of folks were a bit unhappy that their homes were made part of the “attraction.” I also hope they can sustain this network. It's really quite complex and impressive, but not overly busy. It makes me wonder how they are recouping the huge investment in a place where even the 2 dollars it costs to ride this alternate transit is still a lot in the grand scheme of an impoverished life.

The traffic in La Paz is the craziest I’ve ever seen, very similar to some of the SEA countries I’ve been to. It takes about 30 mins to travel 1k. There are these comedian-like people dressed in  zebra costumes that go around the city and, in a humorous way, try to get people to follow the traffic “rules.” Based on my experience, their impact is minimal. 

On day two I also visited Moon Valley just outside the city. A valley of rock-like formations that look sort of like ashy stalagmites, formed from rain over many years. There are lots of other day trips to take from La Paz that would be worth your while if you were there for a bit more time (Lake Titicaca, Biking up North Yungas Road, Ruins at Tiwanaku and the list goes on). Day two was also Museum Day in La Paz and it’s a big deal. All the museums are free after a certain point and live music abounds around the city. It’s a real celebration. They celebrate a lot in this country, which makes it a happy place to be. 

Day 3-4 Sucre - A white-walled Unesco heritage site

Sucre is a truly beautiful town. All of the buildings are painted white and it encircles a beautiful square that is mad busy. While we were there they were preparing for their independence day, so we got to see a lot of bands and dancers practicing in the square or in parades around the city. Sucre also houses the world’s largest number of dinosaur footprints. They were discovered by a mining company in the late 1800s and travel up and down a hill. But as they “funny” tour guide reminds you...they are not spider dinosaurs. Sedimentary layers were forced upwards during a tectonic shift creating the mountain and pushing the formerly horizontal footprints vertical. 

You can also head out of the city for a little Inca-like fun by trekking on a pre-Inca train through the Andes. I will say that the Andes look very similar no matter where you go, but they are consistently beautiful. And it’s always good to get out of the city (Just bring your dust mask!). The hike was quite picturesque and the path very old, which is always awe-inspiring. The trails are much less busy than the trails you’ll visit in Peru (at least during this shoulder season from summer to winter), making for a pleasant half-day.

Day 5-6 Potosi

My overwhelming memory of this city is of diesel. Black smoke billowing out of cars and overwhelming my already oxygen-deprived senses. We even stayed in a charming hotel whose lobby doubled as a diesel all night long baby. Potosi is centered around a silver mine that had its heyday in the colonial period when silver was mined at 60% quality (good). Today the yield is 0.02% (piss-poor) and the mountain is filled with tunnels. Locals wonder if one day it will just collapse with it's swiss-cheese like consistency. That and my guides instruction that you shouldn’t go in if you are at all claustrophobic (I am very), that the miners have pretty terrible lives, and that it’s full of dust led me and most of my group to not take the tour. 

Potosi used to be one of the richer towns in Bolivia. Now it’s considered one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world. It has character but this is a sad fact.

There are so many churches. Religion rules the day. We visited a beautiful convent from back in the day and learned how incredibly difficult the life of a nun was in those times. Sent to the convent if they were born the second daughter at 15 and never seeing outside of the convent until the day they died. The artwork here was amazing. Mostly dowries when the nuns entered and married

Potosi also used to be the highest city in the world. But more recently a small mining town has surpassed it. Nothing lasts forever. When the sun goes down, things get pretty frigid. Apparently all the time. Central heating (which isn’t in most places here) is a genius invention. 

Day 7-9 - Four-wheeling through the Desert
And now for the main attraction. One of the main routes to get to the salt fields involves a stop in Uyuni, which will definitely remind you of a tumbleweeds ghost town of the wild west. Truly a stopping point for tourists, our guide informed us that the only thing she recommended eating in the town was pizza at a bit of a famous pizza shop. It was really good pizza so I was okay with that. "Pizza is life" as some say.

Train graveyard

Every single tour group heading out with their four wheel drives for the desert trek stops in the nearby train graveyard at the same time. So you basically spend your short stop there avoiding getting shots of renegade tourists climbing abandoned, graffiti-covered trains to get that perfect Insta shot. Ah the world we live in. I love it ;).

Train travel for passengers is not really a thing anymore in Bolivia, but there are still trains that bring goods through to Chile, and subsequently the sea, as Bolivia is a land-locked country due to a long ago war with Chile. 

Salt fields

From the trains, you head out to the Salt fields and they did not disappoint. Salt. Overwhelming amounts. For as far as the eye can see. If you ever want to visit a landscape that's a visual representation of a deep breath of cold, clean, air, this is it. Bolivia boasts the world’s largest and highest salt field in the world. Salt is raked into little piles that dry, then they are moved to dry more. Then they are ground or left as rough sea salt, and then packaged to sell. The field is the result of a long ago saltwater lake. You speed across the salt in your jeep with the wind in your hair and some tunes on the radio.

We visited a hill that was once an island covered in cacti and petrified coral. Hiking up it provides a great vantage point for salt for as far as the eye can see.

They warned us that sleeping in and around the salt fields was going to be cold and unpleasant. But we were pleasantly surprised by our first night’s accommodation in a salt hotel at Chuvica. Located at 3600m, the salt is meant to insulate and warm you up. It was still cold, but also charming as all get out. The walls were made of blocks of salt and the floors were a bed of salt. Ironically there was no salt out on the table for dinner. We were offered complimentary bottles of wine with dinner that night. It's like the tour company has decided prep us for what was to come.

The second night was so terrible I'm still trying to forget about it. Dinner was fine as we were all huddled together. We stargazed and visited the coziest little one room bar in the desert you ever did see, with a fireplace and disco ball just for us. And then we retired to sleep under about 50 blankets a piece. And I have never been colder in my life. I also couldn't’ move because of said blankets, and we had about 1 working toilet for the whole building, so that was also a fun middle-of-the-night situation. I slept about 1 hour according to my fitbit.

The next morning we thankfully left at 4 am and headed straight to some hot springs, which warmed my soul and the soles of my feet in which I had lost all feeling. 

The final leg of our trip was a beautiful drive from the salt fields to the Chilean border through the desert. Travelling overland gives you a definite appreciation for a country's landscape. From active volcanos to Llamas, alpacas, foxes, pecunias and flamingos, geysers and hot springs and desert roads.

Day 10 - A day to warm our souls in Chile

Once we crossed over to Chile everything changed. Roads were paved, not dirt and we finally started to descend to proper oxygenated air. 

San Pedro de Atacama is a bit of a stopover town between Bolivia and Argentina. We only had a day to enjoy. Had some delicious ceviche and Chilean wine and took a stargazing tour to learn all about astronomy. It has a true backpacker vibe and the main road is flush with people at all hours.

A note about the altitude
You think you’re fine, and then you try to climb up a hill and feel like you’re heart/lungs may pop out of your chest. And the sun is sooo strong. No sunscreen equals a burn for sure. So I really recommend taking the pills, drinking your water, taking lots of rest breaks and just generally being prepared. It’s no fun travelling while feeling sick. 

Feed me baby!

You can find some really amazing local cuisine, but you are always warned to not eat anything that’s not cooked (so salad becomes the devil). This results in eating a lot of delicious empanadas and pizza. Pizza is everywhere. To the point where I even got sick of it. So make sure you bring your walking shoes and up those steps between those rest breaks.

Final Notes

Bolivia is both beautiful and depressing (the poverty). Fascinating and overbearing. I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for something that’s still on the half-beaten path. One of the most interesting things are the people. As with most countries, there is an indigenous population that was treated terribly. Without going through the entire history here, I’ll note that there is a real pride in that community reflected in the fact that they still wear the “traditional” dress of a pleated skirt (pollera), European bowler hat, and a silky shawl. According to the ever brilliant wikipedia, the pollera was originally a simple Spanish dress that colonial authorities forced Spanish people to wear. The pollera is now a symbol of pride for the indigenous people who live in La Paz, and for people in rural areas. It makes the visual landscape beautiful and varied and it’s another real highlight for me on this trip. A lowlight...the toilets. But sh*&t, what can you do? 

Onto Argentina...


Unknown said…
A great summary -and a good read. I wish I could write like you. Best Stephen
Thanks Stephen! I wish we could all grab a pint and catch up!!!
Anonymous said…
Very insightful. I went to Cusco, and loved it. Considering La Paz.