Bolivia South America Travel

That Time We Accidentally Smuggled Our Friend Into Bolivia

Who knew 7 nights and 6 days in Bolivia could be such an adventure? With the help of Lonely Planet’s: South America on a Shoestring book (now referred to as the bible), I managed to get a glimpse of 3 main highlights of Bolivia: Isla Del Sol, The Yungas and the Salt Flats in less than a week. Our trip began when our group of 7 English teachers and friends rushed to the bus terminal in Cusco after work to catch our 10pm night bus to Copacabana. All was well and we were more then thrilled when we arrived at the border early Wednesday morning. Without any instruction from our bus driver, we realized we needed to deboard the bus and cross the border on foot. Amongst all the excitement we failed to notice that our dear friend Sara was missing. After about 30 minutes, and no sign of Sara, we began to grow concerned by her absence. Meanwhile Sara, whom had been in the bathroom, was still on the bus, which had crossed the border into Bolivia- unbeknownst to her or the bus driver. Luckily we were all reunited briefly after this mishap and had a good laugh about the accidental human smuggling incident.

Isla del Sol
The next hiccup occurred when all 7 of us failed to remember the time change and consequently we missed the last ferry from Copacabana to Isla del Sol. Ironically, we had arrived in-time to make the ferry, but were under the impression that we had enough time for a relaxed lunch after we purchased our ferry tickets. Fortunately, we were able to hire a private boat to take us to the island and arrived a swift two hours later, seasick but ready to explore. We were greeted by stunning views and children A.K.A. eager porters whom wanted to carry our bags up the steep 200 stair climb that is necessary to enter the island. After overcoming obstacle number three we proceeded to find a hostel with a picturesque view of Lake Titicaca and the surrounding islands. We indulged ourselves with trucha (trout) and wine in one of the several quaint cliffside cafes and reveled in the beauty of the sunset.
Day 2 began like most days, taking in the sunrise over the snowcapped Mountains bordering Lake Titicaca on the terrace infront of our hostel, watching llamas graze in the fields below and the locals of the small 70 sq km island wandering by with donkeys in tow. After a solid “Americano” breakfast consisting of eggs and coffee we set off on a leisurely stroll to some ruins located on the South end of the island. Unfortunately, we had to turn back before making it there, but we did manage to catch a glimpse of them on the ferry ride back to Copacobana.
Isla del Sol
La Paz

Once back in Copacabana, we caught a bus to La Paz.  La Paz is an extremely beautiful city from afar, however its beauty is overshadowed by chaos once you are in the center of it. Despite the endless traffic, and imminent fear of being robbed, the city has a certain charm similar to Cusco. The snowcapped mountains peak out beyond the infinite hills and not a single spot seems to be uncovered by some form of architecture.

La Paz

Coroico
After eventually finding our way to the correct bus terminal, we managed to ensure a private ride in a combi (taxi-van) to The Yungas (the valley) where we stayed in Coroico a lovely town located near the jungle. The weather was agreeable and a nice change of pace from the chill of Cusco. We stayed in a nice hostel with a balcony and a view of the quaint tropical town. We were also able to witness what appeared to be a festival (drunk gringos dancing in their underwear in the plaza). In the morning we hiked to the Tres Cascadas (three waterfalls) on the outskirts of the town and were welcomed by a view of construction. Despite the scattered tractors, and whistling men in the passing combis, we enjoyed a swim at the base of the falls.

Two of the Tres Cascadas in Coroico (The Yungas)
After an exhausting day of hiking, swimming, and traveling back to the capital, we arrived in La Paz at nightfall frantically searching for a bus to our next destination. We managed to hop on the last night bus just as they were pulling out of the lot. We were so pleased with our luck that we hardly cared that the conductor didn’t give us a receipt. Little did we know that the next 12 hours would be a new kind of freezing, bumpy hell. We were abruptly woken in the middle of the night by two Quechua women and a new bus conductor lady whom demanded to see our tickets that we did not have due to the circumstance of our arrival on the bus. After a good five minutes of arguing half in Spanish and English, we were able to secure our seats and continue on our journey to Uyuni. In addition to the fact that we were ill prepared attire wise, the bus company purposefully oversold tickets and the aisle was full of people, therefore blocking the path to the bathroom. After what had to be off-roading for the last several hours of the ride, we made it to Uyuni, an odd ghost-like touristy town near Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). Moral of the story: don’t choose the bus company “Panasur” for your transportation needs anywhere, especially from La Paz to Uyuni.
Uyuni/Salt Flats
Uyuni is a strange town with an eery feel that you’ve just walked onto the set of “the Hills have Eyes.”  We spent the day relaxing in our hostel where we finally got to save some money and cook our own food and take a hot shower. Then we made the mistake of paying 100 Bolivianos to get to some nearby “hot springs” which consisted of a concrete walled off area full of dirty water and naked locals. Needless to say we chose to pass on them and climbed some nearby hills instead. Despite the odd vibe of the town it is worth the stop to see the visually astounding salt flats that are nearby.

The next day we set off on our one day salt flats tour with visits to salt mounds that look like giant ant hills, a cactus island surrounded by salt, several wide open spaces where you can see salt for miles, and a train cemetery. The only obstacle was when our car broke down due to an unexpected llama crossing and we spent 40 minutes patiently waiting for our driver to fix it. Luckily we had some alcohol and the comedic relief of our friend Audra. The rest of the day was surreal and felt like we were on another planet. After hours of photoshoots of some successful and some failed optical illusions we called it a day and headed back to La Paz on yet another night bus.

Salt Flats in Uyuni:
Train Cemetery (Uyuni)

After our previous night bus experience, we decided to splurge a little and swing for the comas (fully reclining seats). Unfortunatley the better seats came at the price of having no bathroom aboard. This made for an interesting bonding experience when we stopped in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom break and all the girls did their business behind the bus and the boys to the side.

Once back in La Paz, we spent the day wandering around the city and visiting the witch market where they have an assortment of taxidermy llamas and preserved llama fetuses. In the afternoon we boarded our final night bus back to Cusco.
Overall, Bolivia was very similar to Peru in architecture, clothing and souvenirs, however there was noticeably more poverty. The Yungas were a pleasant change of pace, and Isla del Sol was a dream that reminded me of a latin version of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. The Salt Flats truly were worth the several night buses it took to get there and were an excellent finale to our adventure. I can’t wait to visit Bolivia again and get my money’s worth of the $135 visa!
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Anna French

Anna is an optimist with pessimistic tendencies who enjoys making a short story long, her coffee black, and watching Friends re-runs. These days you can catch her in her natural habitats wandering through forest roads in her van or hiking to a waterfall.

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