From the diamond white salt flats that meet the horizon, to an intriguing cactus island made with salt instead of water, to the people and bustling core of La Paz, Bolivia is a surreal experience with even more surreal surroundings. Our Flightie Jillian Brown describes just how beautiful Bolivia was on her visit with Intrepid Travel:
Traffic, indigenous women, prison, parks
Welcome to Bolivia! I arrived at La Paz airport at about 3 a.m., after a quick little relationship status declaration for the immigration officers. Married or single? After confirming my status, my group and I were greeted by our driver at the gate and whisked off to our hotel. I originally thought arriving in the middle of the night would be a disadvantage, but after witnessing the traffic in the daytime I recant that thought. With no traffic on the road, we swiftly made it to our hotel.
After a quick nap, a small portion of the group went off to explore the bustling core of La Paz. Before we even stepped out the door we realized that we had some pretty interesting neighbours. It turned out that our hotel was not only directly across the road from a beautifully manicured park but also right next door to the world famous San Pedro Prison. (For those of you interested in learning more, read “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young, a story about an English drug smuggler who got tossed in this unique infamous prison.) San Pedro Prison was made famous by its interesting set up for the inmates and the underground tours led by inmates and admission was a small personal “donation” to the prison guards.
Going past the prison, it feels like I’ve been transported back in time. The streets were lined with women selling everything from their wares, to fresh squeezed orange juice, to tasty dried fruits and snacks, to dried llama fetuses – an exotic item that seemed to be in every stall at the Witches’ Market. Personally, I’m not entirely what they are used for but I can tell you the smell isn’t nearly as nice as the market filled with fresh flowers.
One of my favourite things about La Paz were the people, the ladies’ outfits blew me away. Nearly every single one of them sported a bowler hat of sorts with pleated skirts and brightly coloured shawls. They looked like something out of a dream. Not to mention the most adorable faces peeking out of their brightly coloured blankets on their mothers’ backs. After mastering the skills of dodging buses and cars on the streets that didn’t seem to have sidewalks or at least any space on them to walk we made it back to our hotel in one piece and ready to take on the rest of our tour.
We set off to leave the city behind us and headed towards Uyuni (pronounced oo-yuni) on the edge of the salt flats and the start of the Andean desert. This day was filled with ever-changing scenery and we eventually switched vehicles to four-wheel drive. As we left the paved highway behind to take our team ‘off-roading.’ I’m happy to say that we were some of the last to make it to Uyuni as the Bolivians were in the process of building a highway to help boost tourism. Uyuni is a little town in the middle of nowhere.
Salar De Uyuni
Sparse, beautiful, unforgiving
After a quick walk around town and the markets, we set off into the desert. First stop: the train cemetery. Once upon a time, Bolivia had a bustling trade in mining and minerals. It came to an end, the trains were abandoned and now they just line the horizon. Today they’re a popular tourist attraction.
We set off for our next destination, loaded up our four-wheel drives, and headed off into unforgiving territory – the salt flats. The flats reflected the sun so brightly it played tricks on our eyes. Vehicles in the distance appeared to be floating. On the plus side, there are plenty of photo ops here, especially for playing with depth perception and optical illusions.
“There was something so amazing and surreal about this part of the country. We spent the night in a remote village at the base of an inactive volcano in a hotel made out of salt and watched the sun set on a neverending plane while the colours changed behind the mountain, humbly illuminating an extinct volcano.”
In the middle of the landscape was Cactus Island, an island surrounded with not water but more salt flats, of giant cacti growing out of the salt. It felt like we were smack dab in the middle of a Mad Max movie. The Andean desert is insanely beautiful; just past the red dirt and rocks we came across our first lake. The special part about this was meeting the wild flamingos that live here. We turned in that night at an eco-resort on the edge of the lake… where we could still enjoy the view of the flamingos.
We set off for Red and Green Lake where there were more flamingos by the colour of the water. By the end of the day, we saw the end of the desert and some Mars-like scenery. We ended up at one of the world’s highest cities, Potosi, home to the world’s highest brewery and largest silver deposit.
White-washed buildings, parks, fantastic artisan markets, Sucre is a beautiful city. We spent the afternoon at Cretaceous Park, a massive dinosaur-themed amusement park that feels like a walk through Jurassic Park. We watched the sunset from a monastery in the centre of the city and watched the sun fade behind a distant mountaintop. It was the perfect ending to this trip.
Bolivia and its people have stolen my heart and I cannot wait to return and explore more of its hidden treasures.
Looking to experience Bolivia’s surreal landscapes, wildlife, and sunsets as colourful as its history? Go off-the-beaten-path and experience Bolivia and South America with the Intrepid Group. You can connect with Jillian online, visit her in-store, or call 1-866-420-4410.