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Bolivia – X’s Most X-est X

BOLIVIA | Monday, 12 September 2011 | Views [1577]

Nerdiest graffiti artest ever

Nerdiest graffiti artest ever

Bolivia is a pretty unique and mind-boggling place – a land of extremities if you will. South America’s Poorest Country, South America’s Richest Country in Resources. It has the World’s Highest City (La Paz), is South America’s Most Indigenous Country, has the World’s Biggest High Altitude Lake, the World’s Largest Lithium Supplies, the World’s Most Dangerous Road, the World’s Largest Salt-flats, the World’s Highest Geysers, the World’s Highest Scuba Dive and the World’s Deadliest Mine (Potosi). During our first trip to Bolivia (we’ll be returning after Peru), we were able to encounter some of these varied superlatives.

We arrived in Bolivia via a 3 day 4WD trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, with four other Australians (Mike, Dani, Shaun and Mel/Amy/Melamy). The border crossing was pretty awe-inspiring but also an effective way of reminding us we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto. The high altitude crossing consisted of a basic shed that looked like it belonged in the former Soviet Union, with snow drifts on the ground, and surrounded by snow covered mountains on a flat plain. We were lucky enough to get paired with an English speaking driver, the always slightly impatient but friendly Eddie.

Not in Chile any more... 

The drive through the Altiplano highlands and the surrounding mountains was truly spectacular, with occasional spottings of vicuñas and llamas. Our first stops were at the icy Laguna Blanca and the beautiful Laguna Verde. It was pretty chilly, so warming up at a beautifully warm thermal pond was a real treat (if having to get out afterwards was less so). The final stop on the first day was Laguna Colorada, the red lake, home to thousands of pink flamingos. After a spectacular sunset, we had a poor, cold sleep courtesy of the altitude – at over 4,200m above sea level and 20C below zero, everyone was feeling it a bit, and I think I was lucky enough to suffer the least of most of the people on the trip.

The next morning, we saw the world’s highest geysers – an amazing spectacle. Although there was less than a metre separating ponds, they were completely different colours, completely different viscosities. It was a painters pallet of colour: reds, greys, greens, blues and everything in between. Throughout the day, we visited the Stone Tree, where we played with icy ponds (spot the Australians…) and played lizards on sunny rocks; visited the three altiplano lakes, complete with more flamingos; and passed through a few small villages en route to the Salar. That evening, we stayed at a Salt Hotel at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat. A salt hotel is exactly what it sounds like – a hotel where the walls, beds, floors, tables and almost everything else, is made of salt.

We rose early, and watched the sunrise over the salt field. After breakfast, we loaded up the 4WD and we were off. It was an eerie experience driving over the featureless white landscape – it was almost impossible to judge distance. One ‘island’ that looked about 5km away was actually 120km from us! Our first stop on day three was at the Isla de Pescado – a small island jutting out from the featureless sea of white, covered in countless cacti over thousands of years old and 12 metres tall, and home to two friendly llamas.

Llamas and cacti

At lunchtime, we stopped in the middle of the salt flats and took advantage of the lack of depth perception from the perfect white base to take some trippy photos. Over time, we thought of more and more concepts to try and photograph – our favourites were eating tiny people or blowing them over. Great fun. A couple more less inspiring stops (although the train graveyard did have some of the better graffiti I’ve seen – first time I’ve seen Einstein’s and Newton’s equations tagged) we were in uninspiring Uyuni, before getting a night-bus with our new Australian friends into La Paz.

In La Paz, we stayed at a Brewery with Shaun and Melamy. We arranged for the 6 of us to do the World’s Most Dangerous Road (aka the Death Road) Mountain Biking trip. The WMDR is around 64km with a total descent of over 3550m. The route is an unsealed road with virtually no barriers and cliffs over 600m deep. It gained its moniker as a result of the huge amount of fatalities from when it was a main road between two towns, which resulted in the regular loss of cars and the occasional bus over the edge. It’s since been replaced by a new, much wider sealed road: this has been plagued by constant rockfalls and other issues associated with building a road next to a steep, unstable mountain in a high rainfall area. Even though the WMDR is no longer used by general traffic, it still claims a few cyclists each year. The trip started up in the clouds, and after a bit of a practice ride to become accustomed to the bikes, we were off. It was a really spectacular ride: neither Bron nor I had virtually any mountain biking experience, so it was challenging enough to be good fun, whilst still feeling pretty safe. The cliffs were pretty awesome, and once we dropped down below the clouds, we got some brilliant views of the valley. To cap off the afternoon, we headed to a local restaurant for celebration cocktails, a shower, and a delicious buffet lunch.

Not dead yet!

The other main highlight in La Paz was the Witches Market – a collection of Alpaca clothing, souvenirs, coca leaves and preserved llama foetuses. Colourful, odd, cheap and just the tiniest bit gruesome. The nearby Oliver’s Travels was a nicely done Gringo pub with a good sense of humour. Described by the Lonely Planet as ‘The Worst Cultural Experience in La Paz’ – their retort is ‘If you want culture, go to a museum’. I was relieved to find a beef and ale pie on the menu, and at the end of the meal, Bron and I decided to share our first Deep Fried Mars Bar. It was distressingly not terrible…

Everything set for that romantic dinner: bottle of wine - check. Lollies - check. Picnic basket - check. Llama faetuses - check. More witches market fun.

Our last stop in our first jaunt through Bolivia was in Copacabana, on Lake Titicaca, the world’s biggest high altitude lake. We arranged to meet up with some friends we met in Costa Rica, and we headed out to Isla del Sol: in Incan legend, the birthplace of the sun. The views around Titicaca are nice, and I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I left feeling a little underwhelmed. There was a nice sunset, and to be fair, we couldn’t explore Isla del Sol as much as we’d like because Bron was a bit unwell, but yeah, I wasn’t really blown away. Maybe the Peruvian side will be more impressive.

So Bolivia: pretty cool. The people are friendly enough; Uyuni is incredible; WMDR is a trip. On the flip side, the food will probably make you sick (over half our hostel was out of it one day); people urinate on the street pretty much wherever; the traffic is insane; and there are quite a few beggars.

Tags: bolivia, desert

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