La Paz & Uyuni

Crossing the border into Bolivia was a bit of a mission. It was supposed to be a 7-hour journey but ended up being closer to 11. The reason wasn’t the border crossing, which was relatively painless but the non-disclosed stops along the way.

From Puno, we crossed the border into Bolivia and arrived in Copacabana. Here, you have to pay a tax to enter the town. It wasn’t explained why. We were also told that we’d be stopping for an hour as it was lunchtime so we could go and explore and get a bite to eat. This wasn’t expected but OK, it was nice to stretch the legs!

Coca-Cola is King in South America – most tiendas are brightly painted with Coca-Cola murals

After lunch, we arrived at Tiquina where we had to pay another tax to enter the town (again, no explanation), get off the bus, and take a small speedboat across a river, which we had to pay for (of course). We waited for another 45 minutes for the bus to be transported across, all the while being hounded to buy some locals to buy their street eats or cheap trinkets. Oh, how we will not miss that.

To top it off, we arrived in La Paz around 6pm to manic traffic, so bad that we couldn’t make it to the bus station. They ended up dropping us off further down the road.

We had an Air BnB booked in Sopocachi, a bohemian neighbourhood in the central part of La Paz. Having an apartment to ourselves for 4 nights was great and we made ourselves right at home.

Of course, we did a walking tour. It was alright, as far as walking tours go, but not the best we’ve been on.

We started at San Pedro prison which you may have heard of if you’ve read Marching Powder by Rusty Young. It’s a large prison, containing 2500 inmates (including wives and children), renowned as being a society within itself where the inmates are governed by their own rules and laws. Divided into 8 “districts”, some more affluent than others, the inmates buy or rent “cells” from other each other. The whole operation of the prison is run by the inmates, not by any prison officials, of which there are only 14! They have jobs in the prison and the more you earn, the nicer your cell. Some are multi-story and have luxuries like cable TV, private bathrooms, and kitchens.

There are canteens and market stalls inside, owned and run by inmates too. Some food giants have a monopoly of trade in the prison, like Coca-Cola, who have a deal with the inmates that only their products are advertised and sold and rival brands are banned. As I said, Coca-Cola is everywhere.

Wives and children are allowed to come and go as they please, with the children attending school just across the plaza. Many of the families could not survive in the city without the income of their husband, so they choose to stay in the prison.

Once upon a time, tourists were able to pay to enter San Pedro prison like a museum but after reports of the rape of some female tourists, tours are now illegal. Although, many people still gain access by bribing the guards. You’ll often see locals wandering the plaza outside the prison too, approaching tourists with an offer to take them on a tour. We had no such offer…but I’m not sure we would have accepted anyway.

During the walking tour, we were told about the cholita women. Their fashion, which was once an object of discrimination, is now a source of pride. They don bowler hats, layered skirts, and brightly embroidered shawls. They appear strong and tough with years of hard work etched into their faces. The hats were apparently introduced by the British when, at the turn of the 20th century, a large shipment of hats was ordered from Europe for railway workers, but they were too small. Rather than send them back, the hats were given to the local women. If the hat is tilted to the side it means the woman is single and straight up, she is married.

The skirts are said to hide the sexiest part of the woman, the calves, but they also wear many layers of skirts to make their hips look bigger as this denotes fertility; bigger hips for bearing children.

It’s hard to get a photo of the cholita women as they’re camera shy.

Our guide took us to a few markets where he introduced us to his casera: a lady that you will always buy your produce from. The markets are social places where people come to lunch and learn the latest gossip from their neighbours. In the centre of the city, there are hardly any supermarkets because mercados are preferred by the locals. It’s a tradition they don’t want to see lost to big business.

The penultimate stop on the tour was the Plaza de Armas where we were shown the cathedral built in 1835 but not completed until 1988! The Pope was coming to town so they rushed to finish the build but when he arrived, he didn’t even step inside for fear that it was unstable. 

The Cathedral

The old and new Government Palace.

We ended the tour at a bar where we were given a free shot of some Bolivian drink which I can’t remember the name of. It was kind of like mulled wine, orange flavoured, and much stronger. In the privacy of the bar, we were told about the president of Bolivia. According to our guide, Bolivians believe that he’s brought some good but equally as much bad to the country. For example, he’s ran for three terms, despite only being to only run for two; he changed the law so it was possible for him (he literally re-wrote the constitution) and changed the name from the Republic of Bolivia to the State of Bolivia. He’s also known to say a few stupid things in public (sound familiar?) causing uproar and protests from different groups across the country. Bolivian’s LOVE to protest.

From La Paz, we headed South on the Gringo trail to Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat. We had to take the overnight bus, arriving at 5am to an icy cold Uyuni. We were immediately greeted by people asking if we want to join their tour. Ugh. We already had one booked and what we wanted then was more sleep.

However, one nice guy guided us to the only place open for breakfast at that time in the morning and we warmed ourselves over coffee and scrambled eggs. We had some hours to kill before our tour began so like real hobos we found a park bench to snooze on as the sun came up and further warmed our toes.

Our tour with Andes Salt Expeditions was great! There was a small group of us; a sweet couple from South Korea, a Mum, her son from Peru, and us. It was a long day out on the flats with a lot of time spent driving (the salt flats span 4000 square miles) but cruising across the extremely vast, blindingly white landscape is fascinating and you don’t get bored. It’s also very disorientating. We wondered how the guides knew where they were going as GPS doesn’t work out there and it’s not like there are any road signs or even roads for that matter.

Our first stop was a deserted train cemetery. There was once a railroad used to transport minerals between the Andes mountain and the Pacific Ocean but now it’s a playground for tourists. 

As well as the getting the cliche distorted perspective photos, we made some other stops around the flats. Isla Incahuasi (Fish Island) is a huge mound of cacti and coral which you can spend an hour walking around, finding further elevation for panoramic shots. We opted to walk around the base of the island as at almost 4000 metres high, we felt our energy had dropped and were short of breath! The sun is also really strong so you have to be careful to stay hydrated.

We also stopped at some random villages which just appeared on the horizon, one with a small museum and another where we were shown the tombs of an ancient tribe that had once lived in the hills surrounding the salt flats. It was a tad awkward poking your camera into the tombs but we were encouraged to. 

Although the Salt Flats are super touristy and full of gringos being shipped around in Toyota Land-cruisers, we don’t regret visiting it for a second. It’s a surreal and incredible place and the tour completely met our expectations.

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