We heard from many fellow travelers that Bolivia is a tough country to crack. We were told the landscape is untouched, the economy is backward and the locals are not the friendliest. When, we got to the inland country and experienced it ourselves, we had a different opinion.
The majority of the population in Bolivia is native and they tend to be more reserve than the people of the neighboring countries. They haven’t seen much progress yet. But, if you were to put in the effort to break the ice, possibly by offering coca leaves, the Bolivians have plenty of stories to tell. And one of the hot topic is their current Prime Minister Evo Morales. The reason for the rise of the native economy in the country.
The country is at a high altitude that requires acclimatisation. Also, get used to not seeing lots of trees around! There are plenty of bushes and vast lands where llamas, alpacas and vicunas graze. It provides the perfect setting for a nature-lover to be submerged in the raw beauty of high mountains and red farms of quinoa.
Not to forget, Salar De Uyuni is a must visit destination. Only an overnight bus ride away from La Paz, you wake up in a small town where plenty of 4×4 cars are driving past swiftly. That’s when you realise that the salt flats are the bread and butter for so many!
Bolivia Travel Map
Though we only spent less than a month in Bolivia, we were lucky enough to indulge in quite a few experiences. Here is a map that pins out all the locations we visited within Bolivia.
Once we were done with the Uyuni tour, we headed to La Paz for a few days of rest and then planned to move on to Peru via Copacabana.
We took a bus from La Paz to Copacabana which was supposed to take 4 hours but took close to 6 hours. It was my dream to visit Lake Titicaca, the highest navigatable lake in the world, and it finally came true in Copacabana. In fact, there is a point where everyone has to cross a small section of Lake Titicaca on a boat, there is no road. We took the boat across while the bus got on a slow barge.
The cost of the bus was 30 Bolivianos per person, USD 4, which was comparitively expensive but we got told the prices were high due to the fiesta starting the day after. “A fiesta” we thought “that should be cool”. For the first 2 hours in Copacabana it was anything but cool!
We entered Copacabana without a hotel reservation. That never seemed to be a problem, we usually got to places and then went looking around for a place to stay. But due to the fiesta we walked from hotels to hostels with no relief. All of the places could only let us stay 1 night and then we would have to check out for the subsequent night. We offered to pay more but to no avail. We finally decided to take a room for the night, leave our bags and go hostel hunting in rest of the town.
Hostal Inka Roka was in a small alley away from the main square. Normally, we wouldn’t have even noticed it but we were desperate and had asked over 30 hotels already. The little lady walked out of her room and said she had a room for the next night. The cost was 50 Bolivianos per person, USD 7, which was a real bargain given the conditions. We reserved it and breathed a sigh of relief. We had initially planned on staying 3 nights but that wasn’t to be. We changed our bus ticket to leave Copacabana one day earlier.
Sunset over Lake Titicaca
After the pain of walking around trying to find a hotel, we walked along the shores of Lake Titicaca with some peace of mind. All the restaurants on the waters edge were offering happy hour all day and night long so we sat down and chilled while watching the sun go down at a lake at 3900 meters. Paradise!
Isla Del Sol Tour
One of the highlights of Copacabana is the Isla Del Sol and Isla De La Luna. The islands of Sun and Moon are important in the Aymara and Inca traditions. To this day, people still follow the traditions and give offerings on these islands.
We paid 50 Bolivianos for both of us, USD 7, which was a bargain and got on the ferry by 7:30am. The ride was slow but picturesque and we started with the north of Sun Island first. There was an added charge of 10 Bolivianos per person for a guided tour. As we ascended the island, we could clearly see the Cordillera Real range in the distance. What a sight!
After hiking for 1 hour, we arrived at the Puma Rock which is very important to Inca and Aymara cultures. The guide showed us the rock carvings of Condor, Puma’s head and Serpent which are the symbols of Sky, Earth and Underneath the Earth. We all made a wish in this place and then moved on to the mesa or the table.
The mesa was where the Incas and Aymaras gave offerings to the Gods or even sacrificed animals. A shaman there explained the history and would be blessing people if they wished. We chose not to do it.
The next stop were the Ruins of a Temple overlooking Lake Titicaca. It was a beautuful sight and the temple was somewhat of a maze. We took a few shots and then descended to the pier.
The southern part of the Island was a bit less interesting. For one, it was a steep hill only metres from the pier and we couldn’t see any ruins. Instead of walking uphill, we took photos of llamas and donkeys whose job it was to carry the luggage upstairs. The only highlight of the South end of the island was the mountains were even closer here and it again made for great images.
Now that we had a room, we could enjoy the fiesta. As we returned from the island, the fiesta was in full swing. Shruti took shots of grandmothers dancing, men drinking and dancing, people drinking in the street and dancers with the most immaculate outfits as well as masks. That night the fiesta parade went on til 7pm but we could hear drums and music till 2am. People say Bolivians are a quiet inward people but give them a fiesta and watch them become friendly.
Being brown, we didn’t have this experience but we heard many white people say that the grandmas and gradmas yelled “Gringo!!!” while drunk and made them drink. The next morning the story was no different except Inka Roka had a whole troop of dancers staying there. The entire army had to shower and then practice their songs. We heard every bit of it!
As we went out at 9am for breakfast, we realised that the party had moved higher up the town. We followed the noise and sure as hell people were drunk and dancing at 10am. The parade was in a different part of town and we saw lots of people participating in the parade with their suits, outfits and masks. They were singing songs that were anti-society and waving their noise making tool. We were really lucky to witness this event!
Copacabana Fiesta Video
Virgin on the Hill
The Virgin of Copacabana resides on top of a hill and is never moved from there. We decided to take a break from the parade and climb the hill. As we were halfway, we noticed that there were shamans for hire making offerings for people. That was a bit strange at a Christian site.
As we reached above, the view was breathtaking, Lake Titicaca could be seen to the end of the horizon. At the highest point on the hill was the Virgin of Copacabana who is very famous in the region.
To take in the view, we sat on a rock, bought a beer and decided to relax before heading down. Words cannot desribe the beauty of the place and it will be a memory forever seeing Copacabana beach from the top.
Yet again, we saw shamans doing offerings with beer and small models of wishes like car, house, baby etc. We concluded that as with many other sites in Bolivia this was a pre-Christian site and the people somehow mixed religions when they converted.
Copacabana is a small town but very touristy. This means that there is variety of food but it didn’t feel very Bolivia. Luckily, due to the fiesta, lots of people brought out their food carts and I managed to try some of them. It was a great experience!
We took the 6pm Lake Titicaca bus to Puno, Peru. The border process was pretty straightforward and we had no issues whatsoever. The only issue was where to change the money. Copacabana town was a bad place with 2.35 Boliviano for every Sole. I managed to bargain down a guy at the border who gave me 2.20 for a Sole. On the Peruvian side, it was slightly better at 2.16-2.18 depending on your bargaining. That ended our trip in Bolivia for the exciting Peru!
If you Google must visit places in Bolivia, or for that matter, in the world, Salar de Uyuni will definitely be on the list. Our plan to visit Bolivia was simply for the salt flats. Who doesn’t want to check off a must visit destination, especially when you are in the neighbourhood!
We had only just got off the bus when a lady approached us regarding Uyuni tour. We had inquired about the tour in La Paz and from there it costed about 800 Bolivianos, ~ USD 116. The tour itinerary was almost the same as we had heard about earlier and it costed 750 Bolivianos, ~ USD 109, each. The only bonus was she offered us a cheap hotel room for the night, just 100 Bolivianos, USD 15. At least we didn’t have to go looking for a place to sleep. We rested that night and were ready for our pick up from our hostel the next day.
We were picked up from our hostel Sajama at around 10:30 am. As we boarded the 4×4, we met a few other companions on the tour. A few minutes later, the four wheel drive was full with people. There was Ettore and Lina, an Italian-Spanish couple, Swantje and Eerie, two German girls, Iris, Dutch girl, our guide, cook and driver, Quentin and us. It was a multi-national group but somehow we got along very well, very quickly.
Day 1 – Graveyard of Trains
Uyuni has a train line which was supposed to continue until the coast of Chile. For some reason, the line was abandoned and so were the trains. As all groups from Uyuni start the tour at 10:30am, and the graveyard is the first stop, the site was full of tourists! Nevertheless, the sight of the trains in the middle of the desert was beautiful. We jumped on top of an engine and clicked some photos of us and surroundings.
Day 1 – Entry to the salar
After leaving the train graveyard, we headed towards the Salar. From the highway heading to the salt pans, we could see the distant white plains shinning in the sun creating a mirage. We headed into a salt mining village with touristy salt rooms and salt llamas while the villagers sold cheap woolen clothes.
Next, we drove to the edge of the salar with little ponds of salt and small mounds of salt. The villagers harvest these mounds of salt for commercial salt. We didn’t really understand how the process works but the mounds on the salar made for some great shots.
Day 1 – Salar de Uyuni
As we drove from the edge, our driver told us that the salt was few metres thick in some places. The landscape was white as far the eye could see with reddish brown mountains and hills in the distance. We could see other tour cars in the far distance doing exactly the same thing we were. Despite there being plenty of 4×4 drives, we could only see a handful which indicates how huge the Salar is.
Shruti and I had been contemplating how to best photograph ourselves in the Salar as the perspective changes due to the background. We spent some good time trying to get our perfect shots.
We enjoyed our lunch from the back of our 4×4 drive, outside the Salt Hotel near the Dakar Rally Memorial. Once done, Shruti suggested we take some group shots as well. After trying to figure out what we would do, we ended up with these! Definitely fun day at a go.
Our next stop was Isla de Pescado, a green hill island with cactus rising out of the salt. The cost to climb was 30 Bolivianos per person and as a group we decided it wasn’t worth it and walked around the island instead.
It was free, beautiful and an unique experience. We had visited Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India, but it was nothing like this. That was at a much smaller scale and no cactus. We were walking around as if walking down the road on salt crystals. In my case, I was occasionally snacking on the natural salt too.
We kept going on the Salar until around 4pm when we eventually headed towards the mountains and our accommodation for the night. Though it only makes up 3-4 hours of the entire journey, Salar de Uyuni leaves a great mark on you. A must do bucket item!
Day 1 – Salt hotel
Our hotel for the night was ‘The Salt Hotel’ in the village of San Juan. The whole thing was made of brick and then salt added over it. The bed and dinner table were made of salt and concrete. It was an interesting experience for sure!
As it gets really cold at night in this area, the group decided to get a couple of wine bottles to go with the dinner. It ended up being a great night with new friends and the conversations and laughs went long in the night.
Note: Due to the cold and having to pay for hot showers, it is entirely possible to not shower for a day.
Day 2 – 3 Lagunas
The first part of the day started with seeing incredible scenery on the way to the lagoons. As we drove in the middle of no where, we were surrounded by high mountains all around us. As the car kept driving, the cameras were clicking in all directions.
We stopped at a volcanic rocks area for a short break. It was a very picturesque landscape but most of us could only think, ‘behind which rock do we pee?’
Upon driving another hour we reached Laguna Cañapa. It was incredible. There were flamingos and mountains on all sides of the lake. It was very cold and windy but we managed through it.
The next lake was Laguna Edionda which means stinky lake. The name was a bit strange as the lake was stunning. There were flamingos enjoying their meal.
Walking a bit towards the car park we realised there were few shops. Turns out, there were toilets and and internet. Yes, in the middle of no where. We enjoyed a nice meal prepared by our driver Quentin overlooking the best location for lunch.
After lunch, we were heading towards another lake. On the way, we encountered a wild Andean fox, same as the one we saw at Volcan Chimborazo. The guys from the other tourist car threw some chicken bones at it. It was the wrong thing to do feeding a wild animal but we were happy to get a shot of it with breathtaking surroundings.
As we reached the next lake, no one was in the mood to feel the cold and everyone took photos from the car. The driver was a little surprised and told us that the next stop is a couple of hours away. That didn’t bother us, we didn’t get out!
Day 2 – Laguna Colorada
If you Google Uyuni Tour, most times a photo of pink lagoon comes up. That lagoon is called Laguna Colorada and is part of the National Park. The entry fee for the foreigners is 150 Bolivianos, USD 22, and it is not included in the tour cost. That is a bit steep but I hope the cost goes to conserving the natural environment. Plus, we got a stamp on the passport :P
We checked into our dormitory type hostel where the whole group had to sleep in one room on single beds. Luckily we got along and was not a problem for anyone. Once settled and before sundown, we headed towards to the Laguna Colorada Mirador (view point). It was ridiculously cold and we had to wear all our winter gear. Having said that, the view was totally worth it. The national park had constructed the mirador like glass room with 180 degree view. It really made the 45 minute walk worth it.
We had been warned that the second night is incredibly cold. The group discussed this the first night and agreed that we needed some alcohol for the second night. A bottle of Bacardi was bought to help us handle it. After dinner the group did a big salud to each other and the trip. As it was an early morning the next day, other groups went to sleep early. We stayed long into the night, got abused by other groups, had a lot of fun and were still first out the door. Take that boring people!
Day 3 – Thermal Springs
We drove out at 4:30am with everyone except the driver asleep. We reached the thermal springs while it was dark. It took us a good half an hour to muster the courage and dress down to swimmers. It was extremely cold but a great feeling getting in the naturally hot water. Moreover, no one in the group had showered since the start of the trip so it was a hygienic feeling as well.
Day 3 – Laguna Verde
Our next stop was Laguna Verde. Our guide/driver told us that it appears green due to the sediments. We were all excited to see it but what amazed us even more was the landscape on the way to the lake.
Upon arriving at the lake, we were stunned. We had been on the road for 4 hours now and it was turning out to be the best day. Laguna Verde with the volcano behind it was picture perfect. Additionally, there was a Laguna Blanca just adjacent and it looked breathtaking as well.
Day 3 – Chilean border
Our trip would end back in Uyuni as we weren’t crossing over to Chile unlike 3 of of our group members. It was only a short drive to the border and as with everywhere around it the scenery was stunning. We said our goodbyes to Ettore, Nina and Iris and headed back towards Uyuni. At least we saw Chile!
Day 3 – Drive back to Uyuni
The drive back to Uyuni went through some not so stunning landscapes when compared it what we saw in last 3 days. However, it was still beautiful and our lunch spot was incredible on a beautiful stream with llamas in the distance.
Señor Quentin was our guide/chef/driver for 3 days. He was a rotund quiet Bolivian man who concentrated on his job. We were never late anywhere and he served amazing lunches and dinners. We are very thankful to him for keep us safe and sound during the trip.
Things to understand
The Salar de Uyuni trip is actually Salar on the first day (last if you start in Argentina or Chile). There is very little walking involved and most of the trip is in the car. It is an incredibly cold area with mountains and glaciers everywhere. The area is very high in altitude and being in Southern Hemisphere, it starts to get very cold from May till August. Also, the mirror reflection only happens during the rainy season.
Mirror reflection or not, 3 days Salar de Uyuni tour is a must do trip in Bolivia. The scenery is some of the best in the world and if you are lucky, plenty of chances to see llamas, vicunas, fox and rabbits in their natural habitat!
After spending a few days relaxing in Cochabamba, we decided to head to Potosi. We agreed to skip Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, as it was more of a city with a national park nearby that had dinosaur footprint. That didn’t wow us much. Instead, Potosi is known for the mines and is on the way to Uyuni, our main destination in Bolivia.
Getting to Potosi from Cochabamba was a challenge. There were no day buses when we arrived at the terminal at 8am. Therfore, we took a bus to Oruro from Potosi which took around 4 hours to reach there. Oruro’s terminal was like a village terminal in India with people carrying huge cartons of luggage everywhere.
We bought a bus ticket for the next bus at 3pm for a 4 hour bus journey. Before this, we had heard about Bolivians protesting all big and small things by blocking roads. However, this time there was talk in the terminal that the main road was blocked. The bus would go from a longer route through the desert.
The bus journey took 8 hours but the bus went through some incredible landscapes. We saw lakes, mountains, small salt flats, sand dunes, llamas, vicuñas and quinoa fields. We reached the hostel at 10:30pm and were a bit groggy the next morning.
Hot Showers At Last
Hostel Casa Blanca Potosi was one of the more expensive hostels in Potosi to stay at. However, our hostel in Cochabamba had a suicide shower (you have the choice of showering cold or getting electricuted while showering warm) and we chose cold showers for a few days.
While the hostel was great with a kitchen, breakfast, bar and a great chilling area, we loved the hot showers the most. It was probably the first time we have been picky over something like this. We didn’t regret it and had the longest showers during our time in South America!
A long time ago I saw a documentary or a news piece about mines of Potosi. Each day, tourists go into the mines to see and understand about the lives and work of miners who have been mining the Cerro Rico mountain for over 500 years. It sounds touristy and adventurous but it’s a must do in South America to understand the hardship miners have gone through.
To benefit the miners, we decided to use a tour company whose guides were ex miners themselves. We signed up with Big Deal Tours on the morning of the tour and met other tourists. Though the tour was 50 Bolivianos per person, just over USD 7, more than other tour companies, it allowed us access to the minerals refinery as well as having the tour legitimate and safe.
Our first stop was the miners market where we bought gifts for miners. As we are entering their domain, its best to respect their work and help them out with some juice and coca leaves.
The next step was to get the equipment for safety including waterproof overalls, rubber boots and helmets with lights as well as a waterproof bag for our gifts. We weren’t meant to carry anything on us though I carried my phone and wallet in my pants, under the plastic pants. We set off from the equipment house to the mineral refinery. The refinery looked over Cerro Rico, the main minerals site of Potosi.
Our guide, Wilson gave us the lowdown on the mountain and the mining in Potosi. Cerro Rico has been mined for over 500 years starting with the Spanish. Once they discovered silver in the mountain, they brought African slaves to work in the mines. However, the Africans couldn’t survive at 4000 meters and eventually the Spaniards enslaved native Quechuas who lived in the region. Their story is quite sad as they were fed poorly and given coca leaves which are a hunger and thirst suppressant. This continued until the Spanish rule and also until the silver ran out. Millions died mining for the Spanish and Bolivia never received any benefits. Bolivia tried a nationalized company for mining but it didn’t work out. Today there are many cooperatives for whom the miners work.
The refinery crushed the rocks full of minerals and made it into a paste of minerals for export to China. The amazing thing was that Bolivia is mineral rich but industrially poor. It sends its minerals to China and other countries and then buys back the goods for use. After spending some time at the refinery, we headed towards the mines. Along the way, we took some selfies and photos with the beautiful mountain with a sad story.
As we headed into the mines, the smell of dynamite and chemicals was everywhere. Wilson warned that when we heard him yelling about wagon, we had to stick to the wall of the mine in case a flying wagon killed us. The entrance of the mine was full of water on the ground and smell of chemicals.
As we went in deeper, the mine became darker and the air thicker. We could only see with our headlights. Occasionaly, a wagon being pushed by miners would come and we would all stick to the wall.
During our journey deeper into the mountain, we would see miners heading back to change coca. This meant they had been working for 4 hours and it was time to rest. Wilson would talk to these miners and ask questions and then translate aspects of their lives for us and we would give them the gifts we brought along.
At one point, he sat us down on rocks and explained the cooperatives and the plight of the miners. Cooperatives had several layers of miners. New miners had to work for 3 years to be made full-fledged and could then work the mineral veins which ran through the mountain. These mineral veins could be thick or thin, could be full of minerals or simply rubbish. It all depended on luck and how well you got along with other miners. A new miner who had a fight could be kicked out and an experienced miner who had a fight could be elected out. Wilson had been a miner for 24 years, he had gone up the ranks but his mineral vein had ran out twice making him poor and vulnerable. He told us only a funny miner could survive for long as he would hide his pain and not fight. This explained his funny attitude.
After this we walked from one mine to the other using 3 ladders. We basically escalated levels in the mountains. In a confided space where we could hardly stand up straight, climbing a vertical ladder was a bit of relief. Except we couldn’t watch where we were going, unless we wanted dust and sand in our eyes.
We mainly did this to see El Tio Benito and also to cross the mountain and meet our bus. The miners have a mix of Catholic and indegenous beliefs. El Tio is the God of the mountain and his idol, though a bit odd, is in several places in the mountain. The miners believe that he keeps them alive and gives them luck (fertilises) for minerals. They give him offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves. More importantly, they drink a litre of pure 96% alcohol on Fridays to please him.
On a sad note, we all had a sip of pure alcohol (which tasted horrible) and started to exit the mountain. Along the way, we went through an abandoned mine which is now full of beautiful stalagtites and stalagmites.
The final stretch was the toughest, it was all very short so we had to walk squatting. 10 minutes of this and our legs were smashed. Finally, we were out of the mountain with a greater respect for miners than we had before. A must do in Potosi!
Convento San Fransisco
Another highlight of Potosi was the 16th Century Convent of San Fransico. We took a tour of it for 15 Bolivianos per person, just over USD 2. Our first stop were the catacombs which we saw after the Cathedral of Cuenca. However, these were much older with skulls and bones still on display. It was a little scary and we were happy to get out of there.
Our next stop was the main reason for which we had come to the convent. The tour takes you to the roof of the convent. The domes and spires are tiled and the story goes that the natives who didn’t want to die in the mines came to the convent and worked and lived here. While the domes were beautiful, the best thing was the view of the city and the mountain. The tour is worth for this alone!
We then saw the church with its 12 brick domes representing Jesus and the Apostles. It was one of the first times in Latin America that we saw a Brown Jesus with black hair. This along with some paintings by native artists made us love this convent. The native artists painted all the negative characters in the bible as Spanish. A perfect example of protest in art.
Casa De La Moneda
Casa De La Moneda were the mints set up by the Spanish around Latin America to press coins. Potosi was the most famous of them all as the quality of silver was meant to be the best in the world. We arrived for an English tour to find out that there was none at that time. As we were leaving that day, we refused to come back later. After a long wait, a lady came to give us the tour.
From the start she wasn’t happy to give us a tour as it was only for 2 people. Moreover, The fact that I can speak some Spanish ticked her off even more. Anyway, she showed us the original coins minted here and told us about their value. The most interesting thing was that the letter PTSI were used on top of one another for Potosi coins. Their reputation was so high that to this day, SI on top of one another is used as the dollar symbol.
We saw many more rooms which had printing presses, foundaries, silver presses, silver wares, minerals from the mountain and modern Bolivian coins. The best example of outsourcing? Bolivian coins are made in Chile and Canada as its too expensive to mint them in Bolivia. An informative museum at 40 Bolivianos per person, under USD 7, but certainly an expensive one.
Bus to Uyuni
We took a 1:00pm bus to Uyuni which was meant to be the 12:30pm bus but this is Bolivia and no one complained. As the bus left Potosi, the view became breathtaking. There were mountains and valleys with llamas grazing in the distance. Shruti even managed to photograph a llama crossing sign.
It was only a 4 hour ride but it seemed much longer in good way as we went over canyons, hills and mountain passes. As the bus climbed the final hill before Uyuni, the vast high desert with a city in the middle appeared out of nowhere. It was a lovely sight. If we looked in the distance, we could see world’s biggest salt flats. We were near Salar de Uyuni.
We flew into La Paz from Galapagos Islands on an Avianca Flight which landed at 2:30am. We didn’t have a hostel booked so we thought it was best to wait till dawn and then head out looking for a place to stay. Anyway, Shruti’s visa process took about 40 minutes although we had all the paperwork in order. We thought the visa was USD 55 but turned out to be lot more. And, the immigration officer only excepted Bolivianos, though luckily there was a currency exchange outlet just at the airport. We slept for a couple of hours at the airport. Somehow we got mixed up with time and left the airport thinking it was 6:30am, but in reality it was 7:30! Guess we didn’t hear the air stewdardess announce about the time difference when we landed.
PS:The on-arrival visa fee for Indians in Bolivia is now USD 95. We highly recommend getting your paperwork sorted and getting a visa stamped free of cost at a Bolivian Consulate from where you are flying.
It was incredibly cold outside the airport. The La Paz airport is situated in El Alto, which is 4000 meters high making it one of the highest airports in the world! We could also see a magnificent snow covered mountain in distance, it definitely was a beautiful first sight of the country! The minibus to the city costed only 4 Bolivianos per person, USD 60 cents.
Acclimatising to Bolivia
Generally speaking, the entire country of Bolivia is at an high altitude. Apart from the Amazon Jungle, I would guess the lowest altitude along the mountain range would be 2300 meters, in Cochabamba.
La Paz is situated in a canyon at 3689 metres. After arriving from the airport, we had to walk uphill with all the bags. The altitude was really hitting us – we were breathing very heavily, the palms were cold though our bodies were perspiring by the time we got to the hostel.
The rest of the time, we had a problem with what to wear. La Paz was incredibly hot, when under direct sun, and cold, if you happen to be in shade, at the same time! For the altitude, we bought coca leaves and lejía and kept it in our mouths everyday. It definitely seemed to help with the breathing.
San Fransico Church
San Fransisco Church and Plaza is one of the main gathering areas of the city. The church is so big that it takes up entire block on the main road of La Paz. The church was built in the Baroque-Mestizo architecture. It is the finest building of this architecture and is made entirely of stone. As with any Latin American plaza, it was full of people sitting, eating and protesting about one thing or another.
El Alto Mirador
La Paz is a city surrounded by mountains and many high areas which provide great viewpoints (miradors) of the city. We decided to visit El Alto to view the mountains for ourselves. Thankfully, we didn’t have to walk up the hill as there is a cable car uphill from Central La Paz.
The ticket was only 6 Bolivianos each way per person, almost USD 1, and at 10am it was mostly empty. The view was incredible as we started ascending. La Paz doesn’t have slums like Medellin. The houses up the hill looked decent and less rustic in context. In Bolivia, people generally don’t paint houses and therefore have a ‘brick veneer’ look.
The view of the mountains though was incredible. We could see Huayna Potosi, Chacalataya and Illamani mountains from the last station at El Alto. While it was stunning, it was also a couple of degrees cooler though it was bearable. For 12 Bolivianos (under $2), not bad at all!
Witches Market (Mercado de las Brujas)
When we initially heard that La Paz had a market of the witches, we were shocked, excited and curious, all at the same time. We ended up visiting the market a few times.
There were 2 streets with around 15-20 shops. Each of them had dead baby llama carcases outside. Additionally, lots of shops had little charm idols representing good luck, abundance, health, love, safety and also had traditional medicines. There were also drinks for offering to Pachamama, the Goddess of Land.
By visiting museums in La Paz and Cochabamba, we learnt more about the rituals and charms in Witches Market. The people in the countryside slaughter pair of llama for Pachamama but people in the city cannot do the same. Therefore, every Friday or before starting a new task, such as, building house or business, they burn offerings for Pachamama. The shops in Witches Market provide the raw materials for these rituals.
The Ethnographic Museum was in the main government area of La Paz. We bought tickets and started walking around seeing the textiles of different groups in Bolivia. As we finished with that section, we go to a room full of masks of Bolivia. Just then, a man approached us about a guided tour. He worked for the museum and the tour was in English and free – of course we said yes.
The guide explained us the meaning of different masks. He told us about the fiestas or dance festivals in Bolivia. This was one of our first days in Bolivia and we were keen to find out the native culture. The masks represented the Spanish conquererors, slaves, Chinese who were brought to the colonies and the Native Gods.
A particular fiesta caught our attention. In some villages, the locals participate in a fiesta to please the Gods and call upon good luck for everyone. But in order to do so, someone from the village needs to volunteer to be the ‘sucide guy’. The constume he wears, especially the mask, for 3 days of fiesta is very heavy. Additionally, everyone drinks with him during the fiesta. Eventually, towards the end of fiesta, he dies either due to alcohol poisoning or by breaking his neck. The people rejoice at his death as it marks a successful fiesta.
As we went further, the guide explained about the Tiwanaku and Inca cultures. While Incas are more famous, Tiwanaku had a larger and longer influence on Bolivia. A large part still speaks the Tiwanaku language, Aymara. Next, we learnt about the Spanish conquest and is sad effects of Bolivia. The slavery of people in the Potosi mines, farming for coca and racially subjugation. Moreover, Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in a war that was funded by British. Our guide felt that Bolivia had been mistreated by foreigners.
The guide told us that conditions in Bolivia turned 10 years ago when Evo Morales, an indigenous person, became the President. He had brought changes to the country which benefited the indegenous people for the first time since the Spanish conquest. Definitely something to smile to at the end of our tour.
The museum had a few other amazing rooms like the native beanies and weapons. There were hundreds of beanies of different tribes. It was a spectacular exhibition. Same with the weapons too. A great visit!
One of the places I really wanted to visit in La Paz was the Coca museum. As someone who has grown up in the west, Cocaine is a big problem. It makes young people waste vast amounts of money, kills many with addiction and the government spends millions trying to stamp it out. On the other hand, countries like Bolivia and Peru has millions of people using Coca leaves on a daily basis. How can that be?
The coca museum was at the back of an old building. It was a little rustic and involved a lot of reading but it was truly informational. As we entered and paid our entry fee, the owner gave us some coca leaves, stevia and a information book and told us to follow the numbers. The first page had a legend or a poem from the Native Gods about how the white man would loot native lands and use coca leaves to kill people in the mines and eventually will from the coca. Great start!
The museum showed the history of coca in Latin America, its uses in rituals and traditions. Next, it showed how coca is grown and how it was used in a negative way by the Spanish Conquorers. The miners were provided with plenty of coca leaves, which allowed them to work for days without feeling thirsty, hungry or tired!
We also learnt about the various components in the leaf and why people use it. In the Bolivian antiplano, coca leaves are a necessity for the altitude. There is a small amount of cocaine but you would have to chew 4 bags worth to have the affect of 1 gram of cocaine.
The next part involved how cocaine was invented in the West by scientists, used by famous people including Sigmund Freud. Fun fct that we didn’t know was Coca Cola was initially made with cocaine and after the ban, continues to use coca leaves for flavour. The chemicals used in the process of making cocaine were not found in Bolivia but still countries like Peru and Bolivia are blamed for the western problem. As a result, Bolivia had to kill its own people to please USA.
An amazing story especially knowing that Bolivia doesn’t have a cocaine problem but an alcohol problem. People chew coca here like we chew chewing gum. It certainly changed our perpective of Coca. A good place to visit in La Paz!
While staying at Wild Rover Hostel, we stumbled upon the Presidential Palace and other government buildings in La Paz. The plaza is really a square park and there are colonial buildings on all sides. The Presidential Palace has the Presidential Guards as well as the Military outside.
There were a lot of people sitting in the park and the area seemed a nice place to chill. A tall pillar stood in the middle of the park as a memorial. The Cathedral of La Paz was next to the palace. The building was made entirely of stone similar to most churches in Bolivia.
Valley of the Moon
Valley of the Moon is a unique landscape within the city of La Paz. Due to the geological changes within the area, clay deposited in the south of the city but later became a canyon of clay. However, that wasn’t the end and eventually the clay canyon started weathering away making mounds of clay over a huge area.
We could have visited the valley through an organised tour but then we wouldn’t be backpackers. We caught a local taxi to Mallasa area for 2 Bolivianos each, less than USD 30 cents. As we neared the town, we told the driver to drop us at Valley of the Moon. The entry was 15 Bolivianos per person, just over USD 2, we were in the precinct. Our first thoughts were “wow” and “what the hell happened”. The terrain really liked like it could be the moon. It was brown, lifeless and towers of clay everywhere.
We chose to do the 40 minutes walk around the precinct. Some of the clay towers were named such as Lady’s hat and Mother of the Moon Tower. The landscape around was truly something we had never seen before.
We eventually took the trufi (pool taxi) back for 5.20 Bolivianos and returned to centre of La Paz. All for under 40 Bolivianos which converts to $6USD. Gotta love Bolivia!
On our second trip to La Paz, we stayed in the touristy area called Calle Illampu. This part of La Paz has a lot of markets of different things. One day as we were returning from Peru Consulate when we realized that there was a huge food market near us. There were old ladies selling vegetables and fruits on the streets, small shops selling groceries, boiled vegetables, sauces, meat, cheese, bread and even spices.
As we are always looking to save money, this market turned out to be perfect for us! We ended up cooking for next few days – eating cheap and healthy. Additionally, this market also made Shruti and I nostalgic of a time in India when buying groceries meant going to lots of shops and street vendors with mum. It was a great feeling to not buy from a big supermarket for a while.
While we’ve avoided buying a lot of things so far, Bolivia was an exception. For one, it is comparitively cheap and was our second last country in South America. This made it a perfect destination to buy some things for home. We bought gifts small and big for friends and family while helping out small businesses or small vendors.