The first night after my return to London was strange. I kept waking up, wondering where I was and getting scared – before inevitably understanding that I was at home. I would breathe a sigh of relief – each time noting with thanks how full of oxygen the air at sea level was – and go back to sleep, only to repeat the same sequence minutes later.
Being back in London was truly worlds apart from the place where I have recently returned from: Bolivia.
Believe it or not, I was originally going to travel to Turkmenistan (of all places!) for this holiday, but was eventually put off by the idea of having to follow an organised tour. Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in the world which restrict travellers in this way. After visiting Bhutan last year, I found the idea of a mandatorily attached guide extremely cumbersome (albeit sometimes helpful!) and turned my plans around to travel to Bolivia instead. For one thing, there are no imposed organised tours in Bolivia.
BOLIVIA: TRAVEL PLANNING
My time in Bolivia limited to 16 days including travel, I chose to stick to the well-trodden “gringo trail”. I would start in La Paz, visit Lake Titicaca not far away, continue by bus to Sucre and Potosí, travel to Uyuni to visit the world-famous salt flat and cross the border to Chile. Yes, following my excellent trip to Chile earlier in 2016, my mind was absolutely set on seeing another region of this superb country, if only for two days. Besides, connections to London from Chile were substantially easier than from Bolivia.
My original itinerary underwent some changes closer to the trip. Firstly, having sought opinions, I opted not to rush and spent two nights on Isla del Sol in the Titicaca lake. Most visitors are rushing to head across the nearby border to Peru and tend to stay for only one night, or skip overnighting altogether and take a day trip from Copacabana instead. Having more daylight hours on Isla del Sol allowed me to explore the entire island without rush. Altitude is a major hurdle for hiking activities, and I could not have walked as much without the fall-back of the second night.
Secondly, I decided to fly to Sucre from La Paz instead of taking the bus. While I sadly missed out on the scenery along the way, flying meant saving in excess of 10 hours – and gallons of traveller dignity, for what it’s worth. Bolivian buses are not the world’s newest, cleanest or fastest, and, given how ridiculously tired I was after my bus journey to La Paz from Lake Titicaca the previous day, it proved to be a great decision.
Finally, I decided to visit the Uyuni salt flat on a jeep tour from the town of Tupiza rather than Uyuni. While the Uyuni-originating trips are very much popularised in the “gringo world” and offered by numerous companies, there are only a handful of Tupiza-based agencies offering the same. Most visitors head to Uyuni almost by default, such a staple such tours have become. I longed for something different and headed to Tupiza – a town somewhat out of a limb close to the Argentine border, 200km southeast of Uyuni.
This probably proved to be the best decision I made on the entire trip, for numerous reasons: (i) the Tupiza trips are 4 days and 3 nights long while the Uyuni trips are shorter at 3 days and 2 nights, meaning one could see more; (ii) Uyuni jeeps are stuffed to the brim with 6 people in an 8-seater car, while Tupiza companies top the number at 5 and it is possible to pay up to reduce the number of companions (I ended up in a jeep with only 3 other travellers); (iii) since Tupiza travellers are heading in the opposite direction, the arrival times to sights of interest are different, and it is helpful to avoid crowds of Uyuni tourists at every step; (iv) Tupiza tours visit the Uyuni salt flat in the better sunrise light while Uyuni tours get there during the day.
BOLIVIA: ARRIVAL IN LA PAZ
My point of entry into Bolivia was La Paz’ El Alto airport. I landed around 1am and was immediately hit by the local altitude. At 4,061.5 m, El Alto is the world’s highest international airport and the fifth highest commercial one. I would not advise anyone coming from near sea level to make La Paz their first stop in Bolivia. Ideally, one would start their journey somewhere lower and gradually ascend the altitude overland; sadly, taking a short holiday from my full-time day job, I did not have the luxury of time on this trip.
Given the extreme differences in altitude, time and weather between La Paz and London, I understandably was not in top form the following day. I spent the day riding the city’s cheap cable car network (Mi Teleférico) and managed a walk through the city centre. My tiredness was quickly exacerbated by the hilly layout of La Paz. Every flight of stairs left me panting, with tears in my eyes – me, a gym freak back in London! – and the long ascent to Mirador Laikakota forced me to take an hour-long break on the bench before deciding to call it a day at barely 4pm.
Thankfully, I did not feel I was missing much. La Paz had a typical feel of a large South American city without quite the charm of the likes of Buenos Aires or Medellín. I certainly spotted some interesting colonial buildings in the city centre, but the majority of buildings in La Paz were made of red brick without any attempt of outer finish, dotting the hills like nearly identical puzzle pieces. Add to this choking traffic and obvious poverty spilling into the streets of a big city, and I was finding it very hard to fall in love with La Paz.
TIPS: I stayed in the Sopocachi area of La Paz, which was a perfect compromise. It is a reasonably safe lower middle-class area with easy access to the central El Prado street. There is a bustling square called Plaza Abaroa, with numerous restaurants around. Sopocachi station of Mi Teleférico is a short walk away. By far the best way to see La Paz is from Mi Teleférico which so far only has three lines (seven more are in the making). Yellow and green lines are the most accessible to visitors. For panoramic views, I found Mirador Laikokota viewpoint underwhelming but hear that Mirador Killi Killi is the city’s most impressive. I was too tired to eat in a sit-down restaurant but street food in La Paz is great, including ubiquitous salteña pastries. There are several user-friendly supermarkets in Sopocachi. For a quick bite, I also recommend “chifa” restaurants which serve a blend of Chinese and local food – the result can be quite interesting.
BOLIVIA: JOURNEY TO LAKE TITICACA
Many foreign visitors take the so-called “tourist buses” from La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia’s gateway to Lake Titicaca. Such buses tend to call at several central stops and hotels in La Paz, finally stopping at the central bus terminal before continuing to Copacabana. The alternative, local buses, depart from the Cementerio General area of La Paz, which is outside the centre, reportedly somewhat dodgy by night and could be inconvenient for most travellers. At least in theory, tourist buses are supposed to be of better quality than the local buses and to make fewer stops en route.
With this homework in mind, I, too, booked a tourist bus through my hotel, with a company called Vicuña Travel. The result was somewhat unexpected: the tourist bus was old, freezing cold in the early hours of the morning (some dusty blankets were provided) and with one window smashed to tiny pieces still magically holding together. The journey to Copacabana took a whopping 5.5 hours over a distance of 150 km. This could partly be blamed on the terrible state of roads and ongoing construction works, but – running somewhat ahead – I took a local bus for my return two days later for comparison purposes and found it better, faster, cleaner and substantially (2.5 times) cheaper.
Every bus journey from La Paz to Titicaca involves crossing the Tiquina strait between the villages of San Pablo and San Pedro: passengers are carried on smaller motor boats while vehicles cross on ferries. “Ferries”, of course, is a very strong word for what those floating vessels really are: most are floating wooden platforms with engines. Seeing a whole bus (full of people’s various possessions) make the crossing is nothing short of entertaining. The strait crossings provide a major source of livelihood to the locals and the year-long idea to build a bridge between the two villages is quite unpopular here.
The remaining 1-hour journey from San Pedro de Tiquina to Copacabana pro target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”vides spectacular views of Lake Titicaca and the snowy mountain peaks in the distance. Copacabana itself is an overgrown village catering heavily to travellers headed for Titicaca’s various islands and the Peruvian border – the latter is less than 10 km away. There is little to see in Copacabana itself: I enjoyed seeing the 16-century Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, the city’s principal cathedral, and the small market area, but otherwise felt like heading to Isla del Sol as soon as possible.
There are numerous companies offering identical 1.5-hour boat journeys from Copacabana to Isla del Sol, all departing at the same time. Boats first stop at Yumani in the south of the island and then continue to Challa and / or Challapampa settlements in the north.
The elevation here reaches 3.8km
Note: Having experienced both, I would recommend taking a “tourist bus” from La Paz to Copacabana and (unless you are continuing to Peru) returning with a regular local bus. Avoid the Cementerio General area of La Paz in the dark and only get licensed taxis to wherever you are headed next. Both sides of the bus have views of Lake Titicaca but I found I preferred the views to the left of the direction of travel best. In San Pablo de Tiquina, do try a snack of grilled fish – offered by numerous local ladies by the waterfront – before crossing. Last sailings of the day from Copacabana to Isla del Sol are at 13:30. Groceries will cost more in Isla del Sol, so stock up in Copacabana before you travel.
BOLIVIA: ISLA DEL SOL AND LAKE TITICACA
Visiting Isla del Sol was one of the most memorable experiences on my Bolivian trip. The island is perfect for hiking north-south (there are two trails overlapping in parts) and provides a wonderful glimpse into the simple life of the islanders whose main source of livelihood is farming. The island was populated as far back as 3rd millennium BC and has numerous Inca ruin sites.
I stayed in the island’s main northern settlement, Challapampa, in a simple hotel on the northern beach. The location was perfect for the starting point of the stone trail to Chincana ruins further north. The views along the hike were spectacular, especially when sunset started to fall. It is important to bring a torch in case one is caught out after sunset as there is not a single light around. Also, air temperature drops dramatically after dark and very strong night-time winds are common in the early spring (September). I was most grateful for the layers of clothing I had brought.
On my full day on Isla del Sol, I hiked from Challapampa to Yumani via the coastal route and back on the ridge trail. Most travellers prefer to carry their stuff from Challapampa to Yumani and depart the same day. This is perfectly reasonable if you are in a rush, but I enjoyed having more time on the island, not having to carry more than a daypack and generally seeing more. It is also important to respect the altitude of 3,812 m above sea level and not overestimate one’s strength. I took numerous breaks on the hike and felt wiped out upon return to Challapampa. After another long rest, I wandered around the settlement in search of good sunset shots – this is the time when many locals lead their cattle home from grazing, which is fascinating to watch.
Note: I recommend staying at least two nights on Isla del Sol to do the island justice. The facilities and comfort are generally better in Yumani, but Challapampa is quieter, more authentic and conveniently located for the start of the trail to Chincana ruins and sunset viewing. Do not miss the local meal of fried trout (“trucha”): I can recommend restaurants La Ñusta and Arenal, both in Challapampa (the latter has a great beach view). There is little to no phone reception on Isla del Sol (little in the south, none in the north), but several places in Yumani offer wifi connection. To return to La Paz at a reasonable time, take the 8:30 boat from Challapampa to Copacabana and connect with the 11:00 bus, arriving in La Paz around 15:30.
Sixth largest city in Bolivia, Sucre is defined as the country’s capital in the national constitution. It is certainly Bolivia’s prettiest city and features some of the country’s finest colonial architecture. The altitude of 2,810 m is much friendlier than that of La Paz or the nearby mining city of Potosí, making Sucre a welcoming stopover in-between those physically challenging locations.
The road between La Paz and Sucre (Ruta 1) is definitely not the worst in Bolivia and is paved the entire way. I could have easily undertaken this journey by an overnight bus (12+ hours over 700 km), but instead flew to save time – and was happy I did so. First, I was completely exhausted after the return bus journey from Titicaca to La Paz, and longed for some comfort. Embarking on another bus straight away for the whole night would have wiped me out. Second, the one-way flight with Amaszonas cost less than 50 pounds – I know this is shockingly expensive compared to the bus fare, and probably not in the spirit of a barebone budget trip, but, again, I longed for some comfort. I was on holiday, after all!
After the sprawling La Paz, I found Sucre wonderfully relaxing. It is without doubt the most beautiful Bolivian city I have visited, with a wealth of colonial buildings for architecture enthusiasts to admire. I could have honestly spent a whole week wandering around Sucre’s pretty streets, observing local life and admiring the stunning architectural pieces on every step. My favourite examples were the Cathedral, Convento de San Felipe Neri and the inner patio of the main University building.
Note: Sucre streets being irresistibly pretty, I found the best way to see the city was from the various rooftops. I climbed atop two religious buildings: Templo Nuestra Señora de la Merced and Convento de San Felipe Neri, and highly recommend both views. The third stunning view was provided by my guesthouse, Casa Al Tronco in the Ricoleta district, where I not only had a spectacular view from my top floor room but also had access to the equally amazing view from the common terrace. There are only three rooms at Casa Al Tronco and I highly recommend travellers booking early to secure a place. I found Farmers’ Market (Mercado Campesino) somewhat underwhelming, with some vendors visibly hostile to a visitor with a camera. Central Market (Mercado Central) was more manageable, with two rows of excellent fresh juice stalls actively frequented by locals. A superb local snack is stuffed potato (“papas rellenas”), a kind of croquette popular in many parts of South America and offered by several vendors in Parque Simón Bolívar in Sucre.