We spent an amazing two weeks in Bolivia and feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface! In all our travels, we’ve been looking for a place we’d like to return and live one day and Bolivia just may be it! The country is so diverse! Between the lakes, mountains, deserts, and salt flats, we just don’t know what we loved the most!
For ideas on where to visit before Bolivia, please read out post: Seven Days in the Northern Deserts of Argentina and Chile.
- Prepare to encounter high altitudes, so you may experience high altitude sickness. To prepare, plan for slow adjustments, buy altitude sickness medication, hydrate, and chew coca leaves.
- You will be hard pressed to use a credit card without paying an additional 5%, especially outside of La Paz. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, prefers cash but the ATMs are famously unreliable or empty. In Uyuni and Tupiza, the only brand that worked for us was Banco Union and they didn’t even charge a fee! Pro Tip: If you ask for Spanish language instead of English, they will increase your withdrawal limit.
- Until December 20, 2019, Bolivia required that US Citizens apply in advance for tourist visas that cost $160 each. Then, at the time of our entry in March 2020, Citizens could enter the country for free with visa on arrival at any entry. We bought our Visas the previous last May. Sometimes it pays not to be prepared!
- For most of our trip we used our Skyroam, but it did not work for us in Bolivia (even though Skyroam insists that it should, much to our chagrin). Instead, we easily bought cheap Entel SIM cards and they worked great!
- Uber works in La Paz, but the traffic is VERY busy in the city and you may find it fastest and cheapest to use a combination of walking and cable cars to get around!
In Bolivia, we found that most outlets are universal and include a 2 prong American option. However, if you need to plug in a laptop, be sure to bring a converter. We travel with a Universal Converter and have found it helpful everywhere.
Three Day Uyuni Salt Flat Tour
We began our tour of Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a very popular starting place for a 3 day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats. There are DOZENS of tour companies in San Pedro and they all offer the exact same tour. Pro Tip: All the San Pedro companies will tell you theirs is the best and might say theirs is more expensive because they have better cars, but they ALL contract with the same Bolivian companies. When you show up to the border, it’s a crap shoot as to which one you get; they just load you into cars! So, just go with the company that offers the cheapest option. For us, that was Stars Travel. For an idea of a very basic itinerary, check out this online option, but don’t buy it! It’s twice as much as what you would pay in person!
We began our first morning with a 6am pickup in a minibus that shuttled us to the border where we were fed breakfast and separated into groups of six with Bolivian tour companies.
We luckily had already bonded with our group on the shuttle: two young couples from Canada and Switzerland. We didn’t know it, but our driver Franc turned out to be the BEST! He’s the leader of our caravan of four vehicles and runs a tight ship!
We visited multiple beautiful spots over the course of the day, stopping regularly so the drives never seemed too boring or long. Highlights included lagunas…
…stops at a thermal springs…
We stayed overnight in a small village and lucked out with a private room since we’re married. Our non married friends were offered a room with bunk beds. Before and after our lovely dinner our group played cards until we were instructed to go to sleep.
We were allowed a bit later of a start today with 7:00 breakfast and 7:30 departure for a day with multiple scenic stops and tons of breathtaking scenery as we made our way across this remote part of the world.
Quinoa is one of the most important exports for Bolivia. They are especially proud that their plants are entirely organically grown (unlike their Peruvian neighbors). Conservation of the earth and animals is very important to their culture.
Highlights of the day included the continued bonding between our group and driver (he really was the best…he other groups were jealous!!)…just look at him rock climbing!
…short hikes/climbs in rock valleys…
…drinking cactus, quinoa, and coca beer…
…and staying overnight in a hostel made of salt bricks!
Today was an early one with a 5am departure to be on the salt flats for a sunrise mirror effect…and it was worth it! The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world at nearly 13000 square kilometers!
After sunrise, we traversed the seemingly endless flat towards Colchani, stopping to take fun photos and videos that played with perspective since the flats are so…well…flat!
After that, we stopped quickly for a train cemetery and lunch before saying goodbye to our new friends and heading off on our next adventure in Tupiza: a 3 day horseriding tour through Bolivia’s “wild west” (except it’s east).
On a final note, we were told to expect the food to be subpar…but it was anything but! We were fed LOTS OF DELICIOUS FOOD!!
We had originally planned to continue on to Potosi or Sucre after the Uyuni Salt Flats, but happened to read about the stunning “wild west” landscape near Tupiza, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed, and decided to look into the possibility of some horseback riding! We settled on a 3 day tour with Tupiza Tours and were very satisfied with our choice, though we can’t wait to get back and explore all the areas we missed in Bolivia! (You really do need at least a month…)
To get to Tupiza, you can either take a bus or a jeep. Buses are cheaper but take longer and have a lower safety rating. Once you see the dangerous cliffs en route, you’ll remember I said that. We opted to take a jeep to Tupiza, which we hired through Tupiza Tours. However, when we returned to Uyuni, we took a bus and it was fine!
Over the course of the day, our guide Oscar led us 25km through canyons, over mountain passes, and through small villages as I grew accustomed to my not-that-mindful horse, Saino.
Other staff also accommodated us with a lovely luncheon.
After lunch, we continued our ride through small villages with spectacular views!
In the evening, we were lodged and fed in the humble home of a local villager named Mabel in the cute town of Espicaya.
In this region of Bolivia, they use a slang word (or jerga) for the act of picking fruit off someone else’s plants: cochia. Our second morning, we experienced the world of cochiadores.
Our day began with the picking and careful cutting of the fruits that grow on the tuna cactus…yum! They taste a little like kiwis, but juicier and less sour. We brought them back for our breakfast.
Our innkeeper Mabel was delighted and a little embarrassed by being cochiadores I think because it’s mostly something children do. The photographers who have been accompanying us were nostalgic about it because it was something they did as children.
Later, we began a long…long ride out to see the Canyon del Condors, but we couldn’t go very far into it because the water was too high.
Instead, we ate a delicious lunch of lentils and rice that Oscar prepared for us. Then, we took a siesta in the grass!
While we napped, Oscar went to find some choclo, a kind of sweet corn they grow here, for dinner. He also showed us how to chew the stalks for sweet juices and gave the leaves to the horses.
All day, Oscar pointed out fruits and animals to us… it felt kind of like a very rustic food tour, stopping to sample sweetgum and apple-like fruits on the side of the path.
On the way back, it rained heavily for about an hour, so we were glad to get into dry clothes back at the house. Then, we enjoyed coffee and a siesta before dinner of soup, choclo, and spaghetti!
There’s gold up in them there hills! We started our day by helping Mabel make lunch, eating breakfast, then taking antique gold panning equipment up into the hills to pan for gold.
At first, I thought it was kind of silly, but our new friends seemed excited about it. And… we actually did find gold! Both Mabel and Oscar were BEYOND excited. (Also, I think they may end up together…there was a flirtation…and I asked Oscar about it later and he said…”quizas…”).
After our big bonanza, we tried to ford the river for a different route back to town, but the water was too high.
Instead, we returned the way we came, stopping only for another delicious meal.
We had such a lovely time on this tour! It felt very authentic to meet and see real Bolivians without any other tourists around.
Upon returning to Tupiza, Hotel Mitru (affiliate of Tupiza Tours) thankfully offered us showers before our bus back to Uyuni.
Pro Tip: We opted to take a bus to Uyuni then a plane the next morning to La Paz because the travel time was shorter. On reflection, we would have rather just taken the night bus directly from Tupiza to La Paz. Also, if we’d had time, we would have spent another day in Tupiza itself. It’s a cute city and we hardly got to see it!
Two Days in La Paz
Two days is really not a lot of time in La Paz, though we feel we made the most of our short time. You should plan to spend more time here if you can, especially if you’re arriving from a lower elevation and need time to adjust. La Paz is around 12,000 feet and VERY hilly!
We took a mid morning flight from Uyuni to La Paz with the special treat of more views of the Uyuni Salt Flats during the short 1 hour flight.
The Uyuni airport was the first time we began to encounter people with masks. It was not yet required, but we purchased some from the gift shop anyway.
Upon arrival in La Paz, we Ubered to our central hotel, though in retrospect would have chosen to taxi to a nearby cable car into town. It was market day and the streets were teeming with vendors, making the ride long and expensive, though we thoroughly enjoyed conversation with our driver.
After settling in to our hotel, we set out for a culinary adventure with Danielle in the top floor kitchen of a nearby hostel with views of the city as we made api con pastel and mondongo while sampling delicious local cocktails!
Singani is a grape liquor only produced in Bolivia. According to our new friend and chef, Danielle, Bolivians don’t go anywhere without it!
After breakfast, we began a DIY tour of the city on the breathtaking telefericos up and over the spectacular hills of the city, wondering why we don’t have this kind of transport in the US. The amazingly efficient and clean Mi Teleferico system in La Paz is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. During our tour, we rode 6 out of 9 of them.
For a comprehensive view of the city, we suggest the following order: Blue, Yellow, Silver, Red, Orange, White, and then Blue (back to start).
At the top of of the Yellow Line, you can stop for a coffee with spectacular views of the city.
Then, at the Red Station, you can get out and walk around the massive Alto Market (but be careful; it’s very crowded and prone to thefts).
After our city tour, we returned to center city and explored areas like the Plaza Murillo and Witches’ Market on foot. It happened to be a Sunday and all the museums were closed, otherwise we would have also enjoyed visiting the Museo de la Coca, the Ethnography Museum, and the Museo San Francisco.
In the evening, we were picked up for a super touristy but wicked fun evening of entertainment at Cholita Wrestling! A Cholita is a traditional Bolivian woman, one who dresses very much the same as all their ancestors long past with wide skirts, bowler hats, and long braids. The Cholita Wrestling began as a gimmick sideshow at male wrestling shows but has turned into the headline and something of a feminist revolution.
We had planned to transport there ourselves via cable car and buy tickets like the locals, but our new friend Danielle convinced us to take the tourist bus with free snacks and VIP seating. Pro Tip: take the cable car. We spent an hour and a half picking folks up then sat in terrible traffic for an hour and a half on the way back…BUT…we had a lot of fun!!!
Huayna Potosi is the second highest mountain in La Paz at just over 6000 meters, or 20,000 feet. It is considered to be a good beginner’s mountain due to the non technical route, but is by no means easy considering the altitude, which we can attest to! To climb the peak, you can either take a 2 or 3 day tour.
We opted for the 3 day tour because it allowed for more time to acclimate to the altitude and offered an extra day of mountaineering skills like ice climbing. We also recommend that you start taking altitude medication like Diamox a couple of days before you begin! Pro Tip: You do not need to book in advance. There are MANY companies running tours every day and you can probably get a better deal if you purchase in person. However, we do highly recommend the Jiwaki Company!
We packed up and stored our unnecessary gear at our (highly recommended) hotel before meeting up with Jiwaki Tours (Jiwaki means beautiful in the indigenous Aymara language) for our adventure.
First, we needed to get geared up! The cold temperatures and snow at high altitude require multiple layers, crampons, ice axes, and good waterproof boots!
Next, we drove to base camp, where we met a group who attempted (and failed) the summit today and ate lunch while contemplating the fact that everyone we just met got too sick to complete the hike.
After lunch we packed up our climbing gear for a hike to the glacier. Once at the glacier, our AWESOME guide Juan showed us the various ways to walk on ice with crampons and how to use an ice axe. We have experience, but we’re never too experienced to take safety for granted.
The only other person in our group is a Dane named Tashi. Together, we learned how to walk tied together with rope and then we did some top rope ice climbing! Juan is hardcore. We also met some Cholita Climbers!
After, we returned to base for tea and snacks, followed nearly immediately by a two course dinner I was too full to eat. You will be fed constantly on this tour because the altitude and cold requires a lot more energy than your body is used to!
Then we were sent to bed in our bunks swaddled by blankets for the cold night ahead.
We awoke after nearly 10 glorious hours of sleep with our new friend Tashi at Base Camp and ate a hearty breakfast followed by scheduled resting time then packing time then lunch! As I said, LOTS of eating.
Before lunch, we were joined by a fourth climber doing a two day trek, Chris from Perth. We all made friends over chicken and rice then began our foggy, cold, steep hike up to High Camp.
The trek itself is only two hours but takes you from 15,500 feet to 17,000 feet. Breathing is much more difficult and we chewed lots of coca leaves. Additionally, Tashi, Chris, and I all began taking Diamox the day before we left La Paz to assist in preventing altitude sickness during the summit ascent; Reuben decided he wanted to see how he handled altitude without it (which turned out to be a mistake).
Upon arrival, we were fed snacks and then dinner, with only time for a couple card games in between, and told to go to bed. We had to wake up at midnight to leave by 1am in the morning for the summit attempt.
We woke up after about 3-4 hours of sleep to eat and prep for our final ascent from 17,000 to 20,000 feet. The goal was to arrive by sunrise.
We set out into what seemed like a blizzard, hard sideways sleet/snow, with low expectations of views from the top but willing to go for it anyway. (Another climber set out an hour after us and got lost for 3.5 hours trying to find the trail under the snow!).
Tashi and Chris were ahead with their guide Johnny, who we discovered later was hell bent on getting to the top first and pushed them hard! We could only see occasional glimpses of their headlamps ahead in the snow.
Then suddenly, the snow cleared to a light mist and we could see several groups heading up the first steep ice climb. As we approached, I could tell it would be the most difficult thing I’d ever tried: a sheer wall of ice maybe 50 feet high at about 18,000 feet.
Also troubling was that Reuben (who didn’t take Diamox) was already starting to have difficulty breathing, needing frequent breaks, and we had to climb together, resulting in my having to hold on to the wall to wait as he caught his breath.
When we finally made it, we both collapsed gasping for the little oxygen that existed in the frigid air. Juan had some hot tea in a thermos for us and we were so thankful to enjoy it with the views of the La Paz lights that opened up for us in the clouds.
But it was too cold to sit long and we continued… and Reuben continued to have trouble breathing…taking bent over stops every 3-4 steps… and Juan and I grew concerned. Juan took his pulse and declared it “not good,” giving us the option to continue a little more or descend. Reuben ultimately decided he was making us too cold with waiting for him and we all decided it was best to turn back.
I mean, we still got to 19,000 feet y’all!!! And Tashi and Chris did take some pictures for us from the top though!
The silver lining was the beautiful sunrise we enjoyed on our way back down before being enveloped in the clouds again.
Once we returned to high camp, we ate lunch then descended to base camp, from which we were driven back to the city (and much needed rest).
Two Days on Isla del Sol
Aside from being super fun to say, Lake Titicaca is the 18th largest lake in the world, roughly 10% the size of Lake Superior. It is also the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet! Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands in the lake and is an amazing place to visit overnight!
We were picked up early for our BoliviaHop bus to Copacabana. The Hop bus systems are designed for tourists visiting Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, offering door to door service with iconic stops and discounts on tours along specific routes. It’s more expensive than regular buses, but we liked the convenience! We were immediately impressed with the handouts they provided with information such as crossing the border easily!
Our (again, highly recommended) hotel prepared us a little to go breakfast!
From our bus window, we got our very first views of the famed Lake Titicaca.
Once in the small town of Copacabana, we had just enough time to eat before taking a ferry (organized by BoliviaHop) to Isla del Sol, where we planned to spend the night!
Upon arrival, we could tell the island was magical, as was the view from our oh so cozy room right by the port! Pro Tip: While it is entirely possible to book a room (for perhaps cheaper) on arrival, we do recommend booking in advance. Our hostel, Hostal Phaxsi, was conveniently located with spectacular views. If you plan to search on arrival, you may end up carrying luggage up steep stairs for a good while before finding a place.
After resting a bit, we set out to explore, intending only to walk enough to get the lay of the land for further morning explorations, but we kept climbing the adorable stone, donkey trodden streets until we found ourselves at the very top on a mirador with 360 degree views.
Isla del Sol invites you to get lost on its streets! However, at the time of our visit, there were difficulties between the north and south ends of the islands, resulting in a blockade. Tourists were only allowed to visit the southern end.
With sunset approaching, we posted up with western views for a delicious trout dinner alongside a couple of new friends we met on our wanderings.
On our second day, we awoke for a gorgeous sunrise before having one of the MOST AMAZING breakfasts we’ve ever had.
Then, we set out to explore further south towards visit the Temple of the Sun.
For lunch, we enjoyed more delicious trout with lake views.
Then, we caught a 3:00pm ferry (arranged by BoliviaHop) back to Copacabana to catch our bus on to Puno, Peru.
The moment we crossed the border, we knew things were changing very quickly with the spread of Covid-19. Before we could enter immigration, staff wearing masks and protective gear took our temperature to verify we didn’t have a fever. Perhaps we should have known our luck had run out on what happened to be Friday, the 13th…and our 13th day in Bolivia.
From this point onward, we were stuck in Peru for a while. Read our next blog to see how that went!