Last Friday was my first full day in La Paz, the economic and cultural capital of Bolivia. Early in the morning I was awoken by the sound of fireworks at 6 in the morning, as someone was clearly ready to start the weekend early. Apprehensive about my friends Ryan and Tim arriving, I tossed and turned for the next few hours, unable to get back to sleep.
By 8:30AM the two freshly minted American imports arrived, having traveled all night but nonetheless eager to start exploring Bolivia. Over the hostel’s free breakfast we mapped out what we would try and do over the next 10 days. Our fearless threesome started by hitting the streets of La Paz, taking the steep uphills slowly. Perched in an Andean valley at 3600 meters in elevation, Ryan and Tim had just been transported to an altitude higher than many mountaintop summits in the states and were slowly acclimatizing.
When all is said and done, La Paz might go down as the one city I’ve visited in my travels that denies any comparison. Sprawling throughout a massive area and chaotic beyond belief, during our first few hours of walking around we stumbled into a never ending series of street markets. Lining every street and disrupting traffic were multitudes of markets and vendors, spanning for blocks on end and packed with Bolivian women hawking fresh vegetables and chopping meat in broad daylight.
From the first market we trudged uphill to find yet another, this one equivalent to an outdoor shopping mall in that it featured copious amounts of cheap clothing in every type imaginable. But surely the most famous and most jarring of La Paz’s markets is El Mercado de las Brujas (The Witch’s Market). Heralded by the smell of incense burning and the sight of tiny petrified baby llamas carcasses, this stretch of shops and outdoor stalls is something you have to see to believe.
Each one is staffed by a traditionally dressed Bolivian woman who holds elixirs, natural medicines, and charms that can bring either luck or harm, depending on what you’re after that day. I was surprised to find most of the shops were occupied with witches performing blessings and divinations for locals, proving the sight isn’t just a tourist spectacle.
Friday afternoon we retired back to the Wild Rover hostel for an afternoon nap to help the guys acclimatize, but seeing as all three of us were relative newbies in Bolivia, we hit the streets that night with the intention of experiencing some local culture via live music. Unfortunately, both Lonely Planet and a local’s recommendation steered us wrong, and our attempt to find a Peña, one of La Paz’s local music venues, wasn’t fruitful. The street we thought would be bustling with people and lined with Peñas was oddly desolate, without an open shop in sight. Nightlife not exactly meeting expectations would end up being a recurring theme in the city.
Mystified yet still eager to enjoy ourselves, we decided food was the top priority and popped into a restaurant. Although none of us could come close to understanding the waitress, we eventually ordered the set menu and I delighted in watching Ryan and Tim’s eyes pop open as they realized the beauty of dining in countries with favorable exchange rates. For just a dollar we were treated to a three course meal that satiated our hunger.
As night fell the city’s streets grew quiet, but the bar at Wild Rover hostel never stops pumping out jams. A mix of backpackers from all over the world shot pool, played drinking games on the bar, and danced the night away. Although Ryan was feeling the fatigue after a long day, Tim and I made some new friends and reveled in the party atmosphere.
Saturday we operated slowly at the start, trying to ease into the elevation gain a bit more. Unsatisfied with the free breakfast offering of bread, bread, and more bread, we set off in search of some street food, finding three distinctly different empanada stands. Each one was delicious in its own way, but the clear winner was surely the empanadas mixtos at Plaza San Pedro, stuffed with meat and egg and topped with a spread of sauces and fresh veggies. While I was chowing down Tim went off to buy a water and ended up meeting “Crazy Dave” an American and former inmate at La Paz’s famous San Pedro prison.
Made famous by the book Marching Powder, written by an Australian backpacker and a must read among travelers, in order to understand San Pedro prison you’ll have to forget everything you know about prisons and accept that the phrase “Bolivian judicial system” is something of an oxymoron. Entire families, including the wives and children of incarcerated prisoners, live inside the prison, where cops almost never enter and anything goes. Dave told us that currently there are three separate cocaine manufacturing facilities inside the walls and it’s the source of some of the world’s purest and cheapest cocaine.
San Pedro also might be the only prison you can leave wealthier than when you entered, as the cocaine production is the backbone of an entire internal economy. Prisoners have to purchase cells and can operate stores or restaurants to generate an income, which is necessary as pretty much everything from food to clothes costs money. However, some of that income should be stashed aside for bribing the judge assigned to your case, a practice that’s extremely common in Bolivia.
Although San Pedro gained immense popularity when tourists were allowed to enter and go on tours that enabled a day-long glimpse of prison life and a taste of the world famous cocaine, the government finally cracked down a few years ago and stopped letting outsiders in. Dave walked around the San Pedro square with us, talking in a ridiculously rapid New York accent about the history of the prison and how he ended up broke, homeless, and shoeless on the streets of La Paz. He definitely had a flair for entertainment, weaving intricate stories and making sure we were keeping up by occasionally interrupting himself with a “ya follow me?” In return for the performance, Dave asked if we might reimburse him with some cereal and we kindly obliged, but not before he tried to throw in a massive tub of powdered milk as well. Finally we escaped the madness and walked away, shaking our heads in disbelief.
One of La Paz’s most impressive feats of modern engineering is the new cable car line, which rises to a ridge line on the outskirts of the city and offers a glimpse from above of all the chaos on the ground. With the exception of a downtown area lined with skyscrapers the city is an unending chain of brick houses and apartment buildings, none rising more than a handful of stories. Outside of the city center the poverty rapidly becomes apparent, as more often than not the houses we peered down on from the teleferico were in a state of disrepair or continual construction. Hemmed in by scraggly cliffs and within sight of the Cordillera Real mountain range in the distance, the panorama view offered a sense for the city’s sheer scale.
On Saturday we also finalized our plans for the upcoming week, confirming a packed 6 day itinerary to make the most of my friends’ short time in South America. We spent the afternoon preparing, first strolling through the streets on the prowl for hats, gloves, and alpaca sweaters, then stocking up on snacks in the likely scenario the provided food is sub par.
As night fell on La Paz, we ended up corralling together a group of nine people from the hostel to hit the streets of Sopacachi, La Paz’s popular bohemian neighborhood, to escape the comfort of another english speaking gringo-only night at the hostel. Again the guidebooks failed us, directing our group to a bar that had recently closed. The streets were again strangely quiet and I was just about ready to pack it in when we happened across a dive bar popular among young residents of La Paz.
Immediately upon entering I was welcomed by Gonzalez, who offered me some of his beer while i waited to order and engaged me in conversation on how I was enjoying his city so far. Gonzi, as he’s known among friends, was soon joined by two of his girlfriends and the trio of hospitable locals offered us a peak into their weekend nightlife. First, we bonded over a few American drinking games that Ryan and I explained in broken Spanish, then they invited us to a nearby club, La Merienda.
At 11:50pm we arrived and were ushered into the ten person line, but there must be an unwritten rule that the party truly starts at midnight because 15 minutes later young Bolivians eager to dance stretched 50 long on the sidewalk waiting to get in. After two days of mostly failing to uncover the city’s nightlife, La Merienda delivered far beyond our expectations. Packed to the brim and overflowing with energy on the dance floor, the club is the most popular spot in the city for locals to spend Saturday night. The entrance of three gringos towering over the crowd definitely drew some stares, but with the help of our local ambassadors and just enough Spanish to get by, we had no problem making friends and having a blast late into the night.
Not even three hours after hitting the hay we were up, packed, and checked out of the hostel on our way to bicycle down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Originally open to traffic but the cause of hundreds of death every year, the precipitous cliffs on the way from La Paz to Coroico have transformed into one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions. Everyday north of a hundred adrenaline seekers strap on helmets and protective gear and hop on a mountain bike down the thin, windy road. My quick nap on the bus was abruptly interrupted by our arrival at the starting line, a mountain pass at 4700 meters with stunning views of snowcapped mountains.
The ride is primarily downhill and on bumpy dirt roads, but the first section was on a paved road shared with cars and trucks. Just a few pedals got our momentum going and after that it was pure acceleration, with the asphalt whizzing by below our feet as we passed slower trucks and carved through a series of turns. We quickly learned to draft off fellow bikers to buffer the strong winds and compress ourselves into aerodynamic shapes to gain speed and ensure we’d never have to pedal.
Along the way the scenery was downright ridiculous, changing from the icy mountain peaks to a valley hemmed in by fertile green cliffs.
After trying yet failing to break the land speed record, we bussed to a turnoff point for a dirt path. Here was where the real fun began. For the next two hours we bumped downhill, losing feeling in our hands and arms from the intensity of rolling over rocks at such a high velocity. On our left the entire time lay vertical drop offs, some hundreds of meters to the bottom. Despite the initial trepidation of knowing that one wrong move could be our last, we started getting more comfortable and accelerating into the steep turns. Soon we were gaining speed with reckless abandon, all the while trying to sneak glances at the mountainous scenery.
Every 20 minutes or so we stopped for another viewpoint or group picture, taking our time to get down into the valley and thoroughly enjoying the surprisingly warm weather. The last half hour was an absolute delight, as the dangerous cliffs ceased and we were able to ease off the squeaky breaks and pick up plenty of speed downhill. Exhausted and in need of a good meal we finally reached our destination, where beers, relaxing, and a buffet lunch were in order. Sleep-deprived the entire time, our tiny little lunch oasis featuring a swimming pool and hot showers was the perfect spot to refresh and recover. Then the bus ride back to town yielded some jaw-dropping shrouded mountain views.
On the way back to La Paz Tim started feeling sick, alternating between chills and sweating, his immune system probably not aided by three hours of sleep. We got dropped off at the bus station, where we met our tour operator who furiously rushed us to our overnight bus to the town of Uyuni. Once on board Ryan and I discovered the first and only rule about night busses: if there is a baby, he or she will definitely be sitting right next to you. Miraculously the night onboard was mostly devoid of crying, but the Bolivian road certainly had its share of unpaved stretches as we worked our way South through the barren environment.
Just before 8AM on Monday morning we pulled into Uyuni, our mouths parched after the change in climate from the fertile valleys of La Paz to the rugged desert of Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano region. Uyuni is one of Bolivia’s top destinations because of its proximity to the world's largest salt flats and for the next few hours we wandered around the dusty streets, taking in the scene. In the tiny town there are somehow over 80 tour agencies, each one offering the same three day “Southwestern Circuit” tour at various prices and quality.
In town we grabbed some breakfast and after a couple of false starts found a place with functioning internet so Tim could put his out of office email responder up before going off the grid for the rest of the week. By the time we purchased some last minute supplies (props for taking photos on the salt flat) and Ryan daringly downed a bowl of Llama churrasco, it was time to take off.
Seven of us piled into the signature car of every tour agency, a Toyota Land Cruiser, and met our driver and cook for the next three days, Teo. Representing Germany, Canada, and the states and ranging in age from 23 to 25, the group got to know each other on the short ride over to the first attraction: Uyuni’s train cemetery. Constructed in 1827 yet abandoned for a newer set of tracks in 1972, the train line is now littered with rusted out cars and spare parts. Packed with 25 jeeps all starting their tours, the gringos climbed on top of the train cars, jumping across the roofs and swinging from ledges.
From there we raced across the flat landscape completely devoid of life towards the Salar de Uyuni, one of South America’s most otherworldly sights. Spanning a monstrous 12,800 square kilometers and stretching farther than the eye can see in every direction, we drove straight into the middle of the flats surrounded by nothing by the white salt and perfectly blue sky. Formed by the evaporation of a lake that had access to the salty Pacific 25,000 years ago, the vast area produces 28,000 tons of salt each year.
For lunch we stopped in at a restaurant where everything was made of salt, including the walls, tables, and chairs. Teo decided to avoid the 10 Boliviano charge to use the indoor table and instead served us up a hearty buffet in the outdoor sun. Soon after we were off to the first stop smack dab in the middle of nowhere, where we experimented with the tricks of perspective on the empty, flat landscape. Throughout the entire area of the Salar the elevation only changes by 1 meter, making it the perfect place to take some trippy photos.
After our photo shoot, Teo whisked us away to Incahausi, an island dotted with massive 12 meter high cacti that Incas used for a long break to relax and recover on their multi-month overland journeys from Bolivia to present-day Chile and Argentina. While the other four on the tour made their way to the top, Tim, Ryan, and I decided we didn’t want to pay the entrance fee and instead explored the exterior of the island, finding a good spot to experiment with some more depth-defying photos.
From the island it was another 2 hours to escape from the Salar and find our hostel for the night, bumping along ribbed dirt roads and getting jostled in the back of the car. Upon arrival we gratefully found the proprietors sold beer and Ryan immediately bolted for the nearby basketball court.
With views of nothing but barren hills and the endless salt flat in the distance, it was a beautiful setting to shoot some jumpers and then climb to a nearby hill to take in the eery sunset.
As night fell the temperature dropped precipitously and we retreated to the refuge of the small hotel where the seven of us engaged in a heated game of cards over tea and dinner. After the plates were cleared we busted out our bottle of cheap Bolivian whiskey, the perfect companion to keep us warm and knock us out for the freezing night.
On the first day of September we arose to views of a deep red sunrise with our breakfast, the color slowly giving way to bright orange and yellow as the sun began to illuminate the stark landscape. Our car pulled away before 7AM, leaving behind a perpetual trail of dust behind us on the ridiculously rocky road. As the sun’s rays began slowly creeping across the sky we were introduced to our landscape for the day: a barren expanse of endless plains and volcanoes in the background.
That morning Ryan inherited the symptoms Tim had been exhibiting the night before and slipped into his own personal hell as the crowded Jeep set off an a never-ending stretch of bumpy “roads.” Throughout the day we would end up driving almost 200 kilometers, never touching asphalt yet being treated to a series of eerie sights, each one unlike anything I had ever seen before in my life.
Our first stop of the day was a volcanic rock formation. Formed by the lava flow of a nearby volcanic explosion, the deep red rocks formed a series of domes and creates perfect for exploring and climbing to take in the views.
It was another rough ride to our next destination, a pair of laguna ringed by mountains and dotted with pink flamingos. Unperturbed by humans, we were able to get up close and personal to the flocks of flamingos, observing their stick-thin legs, hooked beaks, and gorgeous bright pink feathers.
Although the wind was bitingly cold at over 4400 meters in elevation, the view of the laguna and the fresh air outside of the Jeep rekindled our spirits. After lunch we rose further, climbing to an elevation of 4800 meters for a panoramic view of the surrounding mountain range, the most spectacular of which was surely the “Mountain of Seven Colors.”
As we descended for the next few hours we might as well have been on the Mars rover. All around the car there was no sign of civilization or human life, just rolling hills of pure red volcanic soil and wide swaths of open trails that we criss crossed. After so many hours getting bounced around in the car I was starting to feel pretty exhausted, but our last stop of the day was definitely the most exhilarating. Strewn in a valley between two mountain ranges lies a collection of rocks in a series of bizarre shapes and monstrous sizes. The most famous of these is the Arbol de Piedra (The Tree Rock), which stands in defiance of everything you think you know about gravity.
Within walking distance are more rocky formations, seemingly built by mother nature for the sole purpose of climbing to the top and taking in some great views of the area.
By 4pm we rolled into our digs for the night, which were adjacent to the Laguna Colorada, a lake vastly different than any other in the world. Tinged in a deep maroon, the lake stretches a couple of kilometers across and is also home to more hordes of bright pink flamingos. For sunset we ventured out towards the vantage point of La Montaña Negra, the perfect lookout. Framed by the volcano in the distance and complemented by the afternoon rays angling off the rust-colored surface, we basked in nature’s glory.
With spirits high, our group took the opportunity to start an impromptu rock collision contest, pretending to go skeet shooting and trying to knock large rocks out of the air with smaller ones. That night was cold but Teo kept us warm with a serving of hot soup and a bottle of wine to accompany dinner. As we ventured outside to purchase some snacks for the following day, Tim and I were greeted by nature’s ultimate light show. At an altitude above 4000 meters and hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest town, neither of us had even seen the spiral of the milky way galaxy or the thousands of stars in such stark clarity.
The whole group was ready and willing to sip whiskey and play cards long into the night, but after being informed of our 4:30AM wakeup call we retired to bed, not before making the loser of the last game sing us a nighttime lullaby.
By the time the sun rose on Wednesday morning, we had already piled into the Jeep and arrived at a set of natural geysers, blasting tremendous fumes of sulfur and boiling toxins high into the air. Our timing was nothing short of perfection: we walked over to the biggest set of fumes just as the sun was rising in front of us. That morning will surely go down as one of the most breathtaking sunrises of my entire life.
Just a few minutes ride from the geysers our tour brought us to a natural hot springs. Three days of cramming ourselves into the car on rough roads had taken its toll; the steaming water was the perfect solution to soothe all our ailments away. With the sun’s light refracting through the steam emanating off the nearby laguna, we soaked our joints for a glorious hour.
After the hot springs the landscape morphed away as we turned North back towards Uyuni. This time we rose to a ridiculous elevation of 5,000 meters, passing snowpacks along the road and glacier-topped mountains on either side. As we finally started the descent Ryan’s appetite began to pick back up, a sure sign he was on the road to recovery. For lunch we stopped in a dusty little village consisting of only a jew brick shacks, but after three days of seeing nothing but Jeeps and desolate landscapes it surely felt like civilization.
The afternoon consisted of a long ride back to town interspersed with some of the coolest stops of the entire trip. First Teo let us loose at “The Lost City”, a set of gigantic rocks allegedly placed in the middle of an otherwise nondescript valley by the same flood that compelled Noah to collect two of every animal. Constructed perfectly for rock climbing with plenty of toeholds on steep inclines, the seven of us had the whole site to ourselves and felt like little kids let loose at recess. We climbed to the top of different peaks to yell across at each other, marveled at the spectacular views, and even teamed up to try and corner one of the large jackrabbits that call the place home.
Finally we stopped at Laguna Negra, an exceptionally calm spot inhabited by a pack of grazing llamas. Here as well the rocks were downright spectacular, as the perfect peaks stretched for miles in every direction. It was a great spot to end our tour on a good note; by the time we all hopped into the Jeep one last time morale was high. As we rolled rock into Uyuni we occupied the last two hours telling riddles and playing inane car games that can only be fun when you’re stuck in a tightly confined space with nothing to do.
Back in civilization (or at least on the outskirts of it) on Wednesday afternoon, Tim, Ryan, and I each had distinct priorities of what we most desired before taking another night bus. Ryan was dying for a hot shower to wash away his sickness, Tim had his eyes set on some wifi to check his frozen bank account, and I merely desired some fresh food after three days of prepared meals and packaged snacks. Thankfully we were able to sneak it all in and then some, grabbing a beer when we learned that the time for our bus tickets was off by an hour.
Thursday morning we returned to our agency’s office to prep and pack for a trek through the nearby Cordillera Real. Although we had originally planned two straight days of arduous hiking spanning almost 40 kilometers, our tour operator took one look at Ryan’s decrepit state and the bags under our eyes and suggested an alternate route that would be more manageable. Initially split on the idea, we eventually sided with his new plan and set off for the mountains. It turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.
After almost three hours we arrived at the trail head, marked by the end of a dirt road and the imminent sight of a steep incline straight in front of us. Our guide Santos loaded up the donkeys with food and camping gear and we set off for the hike to base camp, which we were told would take just an hour or two. 100 yards in we turned around to find Ryan wheezing and sucking on his Camelback for water. “I’m already gassed” he said, shocking Tim and me. I’ve seen Ryan dominate basketball and ultimate frisbee games and he’s training to run a marathon in less than 2 months, but already above 4500 meters, the altitude took ahold of his body and made every step a struggle.
Our difficulties were compounded just a few minutes later, as the light flurries that had been touching down on our noses started multiplying exponentially and turned into a full blown blizzard. With the wind whipping into our faces we trudged uphill, gasping for air and wondering why we had punished ourselves with such a tough trek.
Just over an hour later basecamp came into view in conjunction with the snow finally slowing down. Ryan immediately collapsed upon arrival, curling up into a ball inside his sleeping bag and refusing to eat or drink anything besides a steaming mug of tea. Tim and I feasted on a warm lunch and just as we were finishing up some sunlight began to shine through the tent. Miraculously, I poked my head outside to find nothing but blue sky. That afternoon we climbed a small hill to get a gorgeous view of the laguna right outside our front door, framed in the background by the imposing peaks of Condoriri and its accompanying glacier. Tim and I found a warm rock to lay down on and bask in the last few hours of sunlight, spelunking rocks into the otherwise eerily placid lake and watching the splashes cause perfectly symmetrical rings to unfold.
Over dinner that night Ryan finally consumed some food, then we all settled into a fitful night’s sleep on the rock hard ground, apprehensive about the following day’s excursion. Over a standing breakfast of bread and mochaccinos (OK fine, instant coffee with hot chocolate), Santos explained our plan for the day: we would hike…upwards…a lot. In the distance we could see a ridge line that seemed to be the top and Ryan decided it wasn’t too hard for him to at least give it a try, but that turned out to be just the first of three summits we would have to master that day on the way to our destination.
Immediately, the elevation took its toll on all of us. Although buffeted by the sun that began to peek over the mountains and warm our tired bodies up, the hike was incredibly strenuous on the lungs. At the top of the first ridge we turned around to see that our tent had shrunk to the size of a coin; Tim and I estimated that maybe we were halfway to the top, but in reality we had barely scratched the surface of what was to come. Up and up we rose, Ryan gamely hanging in there by compelling mind over matter and staring down at his slow moving feet.
By 10AM we were officially the highest I had ever been, passing 5100 meters and sucking for air. We employed the 10 by 10 strategy the rest of the way up: every time you feel like you can’t go any further, take 10 deep breaths and then try to take 10 more steps. Any break longer than that while hiking uphill can take a toll on your legs, making them feel like lead if you sit down.
The trail eventually gave way to an amalgamation of rocks, which made it tougher on the feet and made us slip down a foot every few steps. In the distance behind us we were now eye level with the imposing clouds that obscured the snowcapped mountains, but in front of us the sky became blue and we held out hope for good views from the top.
The last 30 minutes of the climb completely destroyed me. Neither a fat wad of coca leaves nor the ridiculous impending views were enough to propel us to the top, but somehow the three of us all made it, a tremendous feat for Ryan considering how depleted he was just a few hours from before. Gasping for air, we started taking in the panoramas. On the other side of the mountain we had been ascending all morning lay another stretch of glaciers and snow-capped ridges, complemented by a crystal clear lake that stretched below.
In every direction we were treated to stunningly beautiful examples of mother nature’s beauty and in the distance below the clouds we could even see the outskirts of La Paz, the city’s sprawl extending for miles. As accomplished as we felt after completing the difficult journey, the feelings couldn’t ward off our stomachs and heads from feeling horrible at such a high elevation. After snapping a few photos and observing some dangerous looking clouds in the distance, we were eager to set off downhill.
No later than 15 minutes after had we left the top than we turned around to see the summit was already shrouded in clouds, obscuring the tremendous views we had access to previously. If we had taken the pace just a little slower that morning, it all would have been for naught. On the way down blizzard conditions returned, this time coming in stronger than the day before and accumulating a few inches of snow to obscure the trail.
We took it slowly on the way down to try and avoid attracting pounding headaches but by the time camp was in sight we all picked up the pace, eager to chow down on a hearty lunch. We struck camp with the snow still falling steadily, numbing our fingers through our gloves as we packed up the tent. It was another hour to the bottom. Just as quickly as the snow had showed up the ominous clouds passed and the sun shone through just a bit, offering one last stunning view of the white mountains to sear into our memories before returning to real life.
That night was surely the most fun of our entire trip. Knowing he had to leave for a flight back to the states before sunrise the following day, at 9:30 Ryan turned to me and said “I’m either going to bed right now or staying up all night.” Just then the bar announced that happy hour had started, and I’ll let you use your imagination to determine how we spent the next 8 hours until his cab to the airport.