This photo pretty much captures my impression of Bolivia, after spending a short, but long week there. Breathtakingly beautiful, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Worlds colliding. I used that phrase more than a few times last week.
For a country that is expecting its biggest tourism numbers ever this year, it is surprisingly difficult to get a Visa, an exploit I shared in a past post. It took more than a week, three people, four computers, and still an assist from an employee at the Bolivian consulate in Washington before I was could even send off my application with my $160 (!) fee. This was only the first example of a sort of push me-pull you attitude. Wasn’t that animal actually a llama? Appropriate.
I figured that since I was getting in to La Paz’s El Alto Airport (the highest in the world, at 13,300+ feet) at 1:30 in the morning, I’d not risk finding a cab. A little too spooky, even for me. I signed up for a private transfer with a Bolivian travel company, which was helpful and mostly responsive ($45 for a driver to my hotel. $90 if I wanted him/her to speak English for the 20 minute ride). My driver was there waiting, and he was friendly. But his car wouldn’t start. He got it going, and then it died while we were going down a big bill with barrels on the side of the road. He maneuvered the car (160,000 miles, I noticed) through the barrels on to the shoulder and hocus pocused it back to life. He was apologetic (in Spanish, since I didn’t spring for an English speaker), and eventually did get me to the hotel.
In case you’re wondering why I chose such a random vacation spot, my niece, Jen, is working with NBC during the Olympics in Rio and took the summer off to traipse around South America. As I’d never been to South America, I invited myself along to share a week between my trips to DC. And Bolivia was what fell into place.
We started our adventure with a Red Cap Walking Tour. It’s advertised as free, but apparently, other tour companies complained, so now the guys feel they need to ask for a donation, so it’s NOT free. Still, it’s an amazing bargain. It was three hours long, and I highly recommend it. Chris and Jorge were funny and informative and easily herded the 30 or so of us around La Paz’s markets and government plazas. And the Witches Market, where we were warned not to take pictures of the women, because they’d put a curse on us. But it’s also a place you can get a dead baby llama for good luck if you’re building a new home. (The llamas, of course, all died of natural causes since Bolivia’s winters are cold. Of course.)
Just as we left the Witches’ Market, a spontaneous parade, complete with band and zebras (they are part of La Paz’s traffic and pedestrian control program. Really.) smooshed us in to an alley. The parade ended with a street buffet, which all of a sudden was ok for us to eat (not), since it’s festive. The best tip Christian and Jorge gave us (besides not to photograph the witches) was to realize that to Bolivians, traffic lights are just Christmas lights. If you want to cross a street, just look for an opening between cars and RUN.
Jen and I then chose not to ride a bus for nine hours, instead hopping on a 50-minute flight to Uyuni, home of the world’s largest salt flats. Now, I have been to the salt flats in Bonneville, Utah, where they set all kinds of land speed records and shoot every car commercial you see on tv. I wasn’t sure how impressed I’d be or how we could possibly spend three days there, but I was game. (Just say Yes!!) We met up with folks Jen had been traveling with; Barry and Laura from Dublin and Shaun from London. Let me say here, that there is an entire sub-population of people 25-35 years old, mostly from Europe (plus Jenny from the block in America) that is wandering around South America. From what I experienced in eight days, they run in to each other with regularity, traveling together when they are going the same direction. Anyway, this trio was loads of fun; there was a LOT of laughing despite some fairly gnarly conditions.
They chose a tour company called Estrella de Sur to take us to the Salar (salt flats) and to mountain lakes and the alleged only hotel made entirely of salt (really, how many could there be?). I’m not a good negotiator, but the other three were, and they saved us some bolivianos. Our driver, Ruben, took us straight to the Salar, which is practically indescribable. More than 4,000 square miles of salt, 100-times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. We had some fun with perspective and scale. And a small dinosaur. And a llama.
After hours of messing around ON the salt, we moved IN to it. Lunch in a Salt Restaurant and an evening in The Uyuni Salt Hotel. (Ironically, the food needed salt. Shaun had no problem taking a pinch from the floor and putting it on his food. And really, in this crazy environment, what could possibly go wrong?)
It was cold in the salt hotel, but nothing like what we faced the next night in the concrete and corrugated tin roof hotel at 16,000 feet. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before then, we saw just how stunning Bolivia is. Lakes of red and green water. Free range llamas, foxes, flamingoes on frozen ponds. It was indescribably beautiful. And weird.
Accommodations are rugged up here. This isn’t tourism for most people, I don’t think. We had to pay to use most of the public bathrooms, but they were still “do-it-yourself.” As in, scoop up some water from the barrel and pour it into the tank to make it flush.. And take a look at our hotel for the last night around the Salar.
That last backcountry hotel had no heat. Our mattresses were laid on cement blocks. We had power from 7-9pm (Amazingly, in both hotels, we had power to recharge our smart phones.). We had requested sleeping bags, knowing it was going to be cold, but they never materialized. We confiscated blankets from other peoples’ rooms (not from other people), but still, it dropped to somewhere around 20 degrees that night. It was so cold my insulin froze. And even though I had Diamox with me, for whatever reason, I didn’t take it, and I got a hellacious case of altitude sickness. I had been somewhat worried about the slight nausea my drugs might give me, but didn’t factor in what was real around me, like sudden acceleration from 11,000 to 16,000 feet. My bad. I was pukey with a killer headache until we started back down to 11,000 feet the next day.
We got back to La Paz and dinked around one day, choosing to cap off (we thought) our adventure with a spin down Death Road. It’s a rocky 35 mile descent where you lose about 11,000 feet of vertical. There are cliffs on one side (the side you ride on, naturally) and some cars. 18 people have died on in in the last 30 years or so; many more than that before they put up guard rails. But truly, as one reviewer on Trip Advisor said, you’d have to be an idiot to get killed on this road. We used a tour operator called Gravity. It cost a little more, but you don’t want to skimp on trained guides or bikes or BRAKES on a ride like this. It was the highlight of the trip, for me. I do love to descend, and that’s what we did for a couple of hours.
That we ended in an animal preserve and were WARM was a bonus.
Our plan was to fly out at 3:35 am to Bogota. Jen to stay there, and me to catch a flight to Orlando and on home. But, as was the case with 4 of my other 5 South American flights, this one was late. Two and a half hours late. I’m not exactly sure how that happens to a 3:35 am flight, but no one on our flight seemed very surprised. In any case, I missed my connection, BUT Avianca gave me a room in a great hotel and some meal coupons. We got to relax a bit, take HOT showers, and eat risotto at the Trip Advisor number one restaurant in Bogota… which is in a Marriott. Pimento. It was delicious. Maybe the best risotto I’ve ever had. In a Marriott. In Bogota. Sigh.
What made a little more sense was the amazing coffee shop called Arte y Passion Cafe in the historic La Candelabra section of Bogota. It is a beautiful place where baristas make all kinds of really cool art coffee, for lack of a better description. We dawdled there for a couple of hours.
After our coffee and spending my meal voucher dinner at our hotel, I left Jen to luxuriate in my 4-star hotel instead of her usual $12 hostel and headed back to El Alto Airport. I had a midnight flight to Dallas on American Airlines, actually. It was only a small nightmare navigating the ticket counter. The whole airport is one where no matter what counter you choose, you are at the wrong one. I got there three hours early just in case, so of course everything went pretty smoothly. Except for my plane. There was so much air traffic at MIDNIGHT that our plane couldn’t land for what seemed like a lifetime but was probably an hour. Again, no one in the gate area was even slightly annoyed. I can only assume they are used to this. We finally got on the plane and left Colombia. I can’t recall ever being so happy to see Dallas. Immigration and customs were easy, and look how I wrapped up my first ever trip to South America. It’s a sign, I’m sure, that I need to choose another random country to investigate. Rock on.