Blazing through Bolivia
Itinerary: La Paz > Death Road > Salar de Uyuni
Brief but unbelievable.
Bolivia is one of the few places in South America that requires a visa for U.S. citizens. And it ain’t cheap either. (All the gory details are in my Titicaca post.) I had less than a week to wander through on my way to meeting family in Buenos Aires. Which raises the question, why bother?
For me, the Bolivia detour was merely a daydream inspired by a trip (and pictures from said trip) that some college friends took years ago. I really wanted to get to Salar to Uyuni, but given the cost and time crunch, I wasn’t sure it was reasonable, feasible or worthwhile this time around. After mulling over my timeline and debating the age-old travel quandary breadth vs. depth, I decided to go for it.
My quick stint started in La Paz. Before even beginning to explore the city, I booked a bike ride on the ‘world’s most dangerous road,’ the North Yungas Road aka Death Road. And despite being a top tourist attraction, it was a fantastic trip and surprisingly not crowded. Which is ideal, considering you’re riding on a thin road that received its reputation for the hundreds of lives lost over its edge.
Once a deadly thoroughfare for truckers and other transit, the road is now primarily used by tour operators and thrill-seekers. Although quite narrow for a car, and certainly far too thin for two to pass in certain spots, the road is quite wide by mountain biking standards, and makes for a relatively relaxing downhill coast, if you don’t mind the constant rattling over rocks. Of course there’s still the inherent risk — just ask your tour guide if they’ve ever lost anyone…or maybe don’t — but all-in-all, a perfectly doable activity, even for those who are not incredibly confident bikers.
I booked with Space Biking, which offered competitive pricing, good equipment, and great guides. The day started with a van that picked me up from my hostel, with the bikes strapped to the rooftop. After about an hour’s drive out of La Paz, the van pulled over along the road, and my fellow riders and I enjoyed a light biscuit breakfast before suiting up. The ride kicked off on a paved section of the Yungas road, allowing us to get comfortable on the bike before the bumps began. It was misty and a bit rainy when we got to the unpaved portion, so we missed out on some of the sweeping cliffside views, but it made for a cool, and a bit eery, ride. The whole ride only took a few hours, including breaks and a snack stop. We were treated to a filling late lunch at a nearby lodge with a pool to cool off and relax by, before returning to the van for the long drive back to the city.
The following day I explored La Paz, starting with a Red Cap Walking Tour of the city center. We wandered through the Rodriguez Market, streets and streets of stalls and stands selling a variety of produce and other products. Just as I was beginning to feel decision anxiety by the overwhelming options, our guide explained that locals build a relationship with a vendor, always going back to the same person, and in return, earning a few freebies for loyalty. However, if they break that loyalty by shopping around, they should prepare for the social backlash of a vendor scorned — camaraderie and complexities missing from the typical Western supermarket experience. We continued onto the Witches Market where llama fetuses can be purchased for ancient Aymaran offerings and rituals.
Then onto the San Francisco and Murrillo plazas, where we learned about Bolivian politics and the curious clock on the congress building. As part of an identity initiative to promote “southerness,” the clock runs backwards, an homage to how sundials work in the southern hemisphere.
From there, I ventured above the city via the mi teleferico cable car and stumbled upon the massive El Alto flea market, sometimes referred to as the black market — you can truly find the most bizarre odds and ends here, and local folklore maintains that anything stolen in La Paz ends up here for resale.
And finally, I finished off my day with a cholita wrestling match. I don’t consider myself a big wrestling fan, but I’ll admit it was entertaining to see the women in traditional attire (bowler hats, full skirts and braided pigtails) theatrically battle it out in the ring. Best to just pick a favorite and cheer her on!
Next up: Uyuni, the town on the edge of the salt flats. I took the night bus from La Paz, arriving early in the morning. I wandered around the deserted town for a bit and booked a day trip to Salar de Uyuni with Hodaka Tours as soon as they opened. I should say that most people opt for a multi-day tour of the area, which gives you the full immersive experience with beautiful lakes and flamingo sightings. Being that I was tight on time, I was relieved when a bunk mate in La Paz recommended just doing the day trip, which includes sunset, and the separate sunrise tour. I also found solace and my tour operator recommendation from this blog post about opting for the one-day tour.
The first stop on the day trip is the train graveyard and a souvenir shopping stop. Then onto the pièce de résistance, the salt flats. We made various stops for photo ops and had a nice lunch at the salt hotel/museum. After some funny perspective pictures, we made our way to the flooded portion (which I didn’t realize was seasonal and really lucked out!). The reflective landscape was by far my favorite part — a very surreal experience. And thankfully Hodaka provided rain boots to use in the (freezing!) ankle-deep water. I still managed to splash myself a bit and ended up with some salty stains later… Sunset was a riot of color. I can honestly say the pictures don’t begin to do it justice.
After a few hours sleep, I bundled up with several layers (and I was still cold!) and snuck out of the hostel for my sunrise tour the following morning. Even with the moon making for less-than-perfect stargazing conditions, the night sky was stunning. I had some fun messing around with my headlight, trying to stay warm while the water sapped my body heat through my rubber boots. Sunrise rivaled sunset in beauty, and I was left feeling satiated and satisfied in a way that only nature can provide.
So was a mere few days worth it? Worth the pricey visa and overnight buses and general hustle? Hell yes.
Next Stop: Argentina
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
What I DIDN’T See
A lot! I could fill several paragraphs and multiple pages. As I mentioned in the Titicaca post, I skipped over Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of the lake. And as I touched on above, there are many multi-day options for visiting Salar de Uyuni, which are highly recommended. I also really wanted to see the ‘white city’ of Sucre but decided it would be overambitious with my timeline. When I was exploring what to do with my precious time in Bolivia, I found the Along Dusty Roads blog and thought their Bolivia guide was incredibly helpful.
Border Crossing from Bolivia to Argentina
Less stress without visa concerns, but definitely bizarre. (There used to be a reciprocity fee for Argentina but fortunately no more!) I took the 8 p.m. night bus from Uyuni to Villazon, the border town on the Bolivian side. The bus arrived around 3 a.m., but the border doesn’t open until 6 a.m. Luckily, I met a nice U.K. girl making the same crossing, and together we napped for a few extra hours in the bus — definitely would not have wanted to sleep in an abandoned bus at the bus station on my own, but better than camping out at the border, trying to stay awake! We split a cheap cab from the Villazon bus station to the border, arriving in a matter of minutes. TO NOTE: Argentina is one hour ahead of Bolivia, so be sure to book your Argentina bus accordingly, or just buy your ticket when you arrive in La Quiaca. We crossed the border at approximately 6 a.m. Bolivian time, and even with the time warp to 7 a.m. in a matter of steps, we were able to make the 8:50 a.m. bus from La Quiaca bus to Salta. The bus station is an easy walk from the border on the Argentine side.
Restaurants (La Paz)
- The Writer’s Coffee — a cute coffee-shop-slash-office-supply-store really close to the political Plaza Murrillo. Good WiFi!
- Antigua Miami — a recommendation from Along Dusty Roads, this is a really cool cafe tucked into a quiet courtyard with yummy espresso and even better food!
- La Paz: Wild Rover Backpackers — I usually avoid hostels with a party reputation, but this one was actually quite nice! Clean bathrooms, hot showers, comfy bunk beds, and good lockers — including separate ones for charging. I will say, however, that my room was blissfully far from the bar, so the noise level could be worse in other rooms.
- Uyuni: Piedra Blanca Backpaskers Hostel — A little way from the main strip, but not a bad walk, and worth it. Very nice atmosphere and clean facilities. Pretty bomb breakfast too! They charge for little add-ons, such as early check in or late check out for night bus travelers, but all within reason and worthwhile.