Bolivia

Bolivia : Land of Natural Beauty and Missed Opportunities

We visited Bolivia in September 2017 as part of a larger trip to the west coast of Latin America including northern Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Trip Summary

  • 2 nights – Lima & Nasca Lines, Peru
  • 1 night – Quito, Ecuador
  • 3 nights – Isla Isobella, Galapagos
  • 4 nights – Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos
  • 1 night – Quito, Ecuador
  • 3 nights – Peruvian Amazon
  • 2 nights – Sacred Valley, Peru
  • 1 night – Machu Picchu, Peru
  • 2 nights – Lake Titicaca, Peru
  • 1 night – La Paz, Bolivia
  • 1 night – Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
  • 1 night – Siloli Desert, Bolivia
  • 1 night – Atacama Desert – Chile

Our trip to Bolivia showed a dramatic country of volcanoes, high-altitude deserts, the extraordinary Lake Titicaca and equally the famous salt flats which are properly and appropriately called Salar de Uyuni a dried salt lake. I hadn’t previously heard of the Siloli Desert but it’s harsh beauty, hundreds of volcanoes, coldness, high altitude and utter silence interrupted only by the calls of flamingos feeding in the salt lagoons gave it a truly other-worldly feel. This is a fantastic country: beautiful, harsh, diverse. It’s really worth a trip, but…

The flip-side of the Bolivian coin is it’s decades-long rotten socialist government and corruption bringing the nation to it’s knees. The people seem to have lost their will to succeed personally instead relying upon state largesse that never materialises.

Formerly known as Alto Peru or High Peru, Bolivia sits mostly on the highest plains of the Andes. The lowlands – less than 2000m altitude – gently slope eastwards down towards the Amazon basin. We didn’t go there but have been told it has the typical high humidity climate you’d expect. It says something about the country that the midlands are between between 2000m and 3500m; that’s 7,000ft to 11,000ft! With the highlands – or alto planico is the major part of the country – going all the way up to 6000m (20,000ft) but typically around 4000m or 13,000ft.

Day 23 – 22/9
Private Transfer and Guide to La Paz (via Copacabana and Sun Island)
Atix Hotel in La Paz http://www.atixhotel.com/
Avg temp: -1 to 16c

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What a journey! I didn’t really do enough research and decided we needed to visit Copacabana beach and Sun Island on our transit to La Paz. Where we wanted to arrive by 8pm latest as we had a 6am depart for an early flight the next day. I’ll gloss over the details but it took nearly 10 hours of driving not helped by a driver who was incompetent. Copacabana was interesting showing how the Bolivians could – if they tried – have a significant tourist industry. Sun Island is for back packers it’s a 1.5hr unsafe boat ride and the Aztec fountain of youth, for which it is famous, is no more than 3 pipes pouring water into a small drinking bath. I couldn’t believe it. Going to La Paz this way means you start the journey by driving onto a barge which unstably takes you over a 2km stretch of Lake Tititcaca onto what is laughingly called Highway 2. It’s slow and for many many miles little more than grit track.

La Paz, at 4000m is the highest capital city in the world. And that’s really the best I can say about it. Our son Henry – who had backpacked through La Paz the previous year – put it succinctly : “It’s shit Dad, you’ll hate it.”

We spent an hour driving around La Paz because the driver had never been there before and didn’t have a map and certainly not a Sat-nav. When he started suggesting we just roll up and stay at any hotel we passed we’d had enough. I got out of the car at Sarah’s suggestion and hailed a cab. I told them where we wanted to go then told our driver to follow the cab. Simples! We were more than 20 minutes away! We got to the hotel at 11:30pm absolutely knackered. Fortunately they were really nice people and organised us a decent quick meal in the bedroom and a sharpener so that we could then shower sleep and get up again 5 hours later. I can’t say we were in the best of moods.

Day 24 – 23/9 Fly La Paz to Uyuni
08:05 LPB – UYU 09:05 Boliviana de Aviación OB302

The following day started fine and our arrival at the salt flats blew all the previous days cobwebs away instantly. Wow!

A short flight took us to the edge of the Salt Flats where we were collected at the Uyuni airport by our guide and driver for the most incredible drive of our lives – driving over 500km off road at up to 16,000ft altitude.

Blog : Salar de Uyuni and The Siloli Desert – 2 Nights & 500km – coming soon

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Our amazing journey through Bolivia ended up in the high desert on the border of Chile’s Atacama desert some 8,000ft below us.

High Altitude : Above 2500m (8000ft) altitude starts to have an effect on our physiology, perhaps that’s why airplane cabin pressures are set at this level. Effects can be no more than mild breathlessness but can easily become more severe with nosebleeds, severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, pins and needles in extremities like fingers and toes. We slowly climbed as we travelled from Machu Picchu to Lake Titicaca to La Paz to Uyuni to the Siloli Desert at 5000m (16,000ft) and we did acclimatise but were unable to ward off the effects. Severe dehydration is very near at these altitudes as your lungs and nasal passages expire so much moisture due to the low pressure and dryness of the air. You will find your appetite is much reduced which is a bonus. Peru is much more attuned to tourist’s needs than Bolivia offering oxygen in hotel rooms for example but good tour companies will have emergency oxygen available. Check. Don’t think because you are young or fit you won’t get it, altitude sickness can effect anyone and, without treatment,  it can kill.

Drink lots and lots of water, 4 or 5 litres a day, avoid alcohol and drink coca tea.

Coca leaves are very much a part of the Peruvian and Bolivian culture. It is a mild stimulant, obviously containing minute quantities of cocaine, but helps the effects of high altitude, keeps you awake and actually tastes quite nice. The processed tea bags of coca are nicer but perhaps less effective. You could buy a bag of freshly picked coca leaves the size of a tin can for less than a dollar. Additionally you may want altitude medication Diamox by private prescription from your UK GP or over the counter in-country (check the sell by dates).