Leaving Bolivia

After the hustle and bustle of La Paz, we decided to take a detour via Copacabana (not that one) and Isla del Sol before heading up to Peru. We´d passed through Copacabana on our way down to Bolivia and liked the laid back hippy feel, but we´d heard even better things about Isla del Sol, so decided to stay there.

Inca EscaleraIsla del Sol is an island on Lake Titicaca – which Incan mythology believes was the birthplace of the sun – and it looked like the perfect venue to kick back and relax before our Inca Trail adventures. However, before we could do any relaxing, we had to climb up the Inca stairway which connects the port to the main town, Yumani. Climbing over 200m with 205 steep steps, we were ready to collapse by the time we eventually picked a place to stay. Even the donkeys looked knackered. However, watching the sun set that evening from our high viewpoint with a beer in hand, it was well worth it.

We had one full day on the island, and so Paul and I, being a bit thick, thought ´what better place to sunbathe than on the island of the sun, this ridiculously hot island at over 4000m´. So we promptly found a beach and after about an hour realised that we were absolutely frying, and our 20 factor sunscreen was doing nothing. Safe to say we were in no state to do much else after this, and were ready to return to the mainland (and clouds) the next day.

I´m aware that pretty much every blog I write includes a section on some sort of bus adventure, but interesting things do seem to happen, so here´s another. We booked an overnight bus from Copacabana to Cusco. As we crossed the border into Peru it felt like a storm was coming, and sure enough, as the bus went up to Puno and beyond, it was soon dodging massive rocks and stones in the road. When we reached Puno, the rocks and stones were joined by fires burning in the streets, which felt a little odd, but we didn´t think much more of it. However, after asking around in Cusco, it turns out that this was all part of a strike taking place. It seems that the strategy is to cause as much disruption as possible, which probably would have worked had our bus driver not been so skilled at driving off road. Bizarrely, on this occasion, our bus even arrived one hour early, though this wasn´t much use to us as we sat on the street at 5 in the morning waiting for our hostel to open. We now had 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise before setting off on the Inca Trail.

La Paz: Death Road

El Alto Above La Paz

To look at, La Paz is an amazing city. Its heart is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains all around. As the city has grown, it has creeped up the sides of the mountains, to the extent that when you’re in the valley the whole landscape has been taken over by orange houses as far as the eye can see. At the very top of the mountains, a distinct city of El Alto is now recognised, although it is fully integrated with La Paz. We were reliably informed that the higher you get, the more dangerous the area, so we decided to stick to the centre of town when exploring.

The first time we arrived in the city, we saw everyone in the hostels wearing ‘Death Road Survivor’ T-Shirts. Asking around about the road, I knew I did not want to miss this experience. The road in question was labelled ‘The Worlds Most Dangerous’ by a company who were researching the feasibility of a new replacement road based on the amount of deaths per year, on average one per day (this is before the biking started). One example was a truck full of 100 football fans, the driver had to back up to allow the traffic coming up to pass, lost his rear wheel over the ledge and the whole lot went over to their death, grim.

There are many companies doing the tour but Gravity was the one that kept coming up on everyone’s recommendations, the key parts that got me were the other companies cheap out on reused brake discs and only Gravity have rope access trained instructors if anything goes seriously wrong. Sold.

Bikers & The Road AheadThe full 64k route starts about 4000 meters above sea level, the first 22k is part of the new road, on Tarmac, and a fun way to get used to the heavy bikes. 8k of the route is an optional uphill cycle – we didn’t come here to sit on a bus and pushed ahead along it.

Arriving at the start of the 42k decent over gravel, this marks the start of the ‘old road’ and where the fun begins, curves and curls around barrier-less sections. We got great instruction, plenty of stops for food and tips on what to expect. We quickly noticed the other cycles flying all over the road with no control, and our guide rightly warned us that the biggest risk to us was other cyclists.

It’s a fun day and really not as extreme as it sounds, overtaking vehicles and other bikes did provide a good adrenaline rush but usually I was happy just to get to each checkpoint unharmed.

Animal Sanctuary Birds
At the bottom we finished with a swim in the river and a few beers with lunch at an animal sanctuary, sadly our tour of the monkeys was cancelled due to “Willy” the female hating monkey being on the loose, damn! Annie got bit by a friendly parrot which was rather funny.

Bolivian Salt Flats

Heading from Puno, we crossed the Peru/Bolivia border and arrived at the town of Copacabana (not that song). We left the bus and were told to come back in 30 mins for the next bus. We were then moved on to what appeared to be a local commuting bus (read tiny and cramped with no air conditioning). Not ideal but will do the job.

Bus CrossingAbout an hour in, we were woken up by everyone being told to get off the bus. Totally unaware of what was happening, once we’d gotten off we saw our bus head towards a strange floating boat with our bags loaded on it. Turns out we had to get a different passenger boat to cross Lake Titicaca. After we had paid our fare, our boat followed it over before rejoining the bus and heading onwards, all very bizarre.

Heading in to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I was reading the Lonely Planet, which I’m quickly going off as they are so inconsistent. After praising the country at the start of the book, the following is highlighted for La Paz:

La Paz is not a safe city, especially at night. Violent attacks, including strangling victims and assaults with weapons like clubs, is on the rise.

In the last few years there have been many incidents of ‘express kidnappings’ by taxi drivers, where the driver and his accomplices (who board later or jump out from the trunk) kidnap and beat you until you provide your ATM PIN details.

Not surprisingly, this put Annie and I on high alert, and our first impressions of a ridiculous traffic jam (due to, inexplicably, a lane of our motorway being taken over by on coming traffic) and then a lady peeing in the street where our bus dropped us off, didn’t help. However, this is not a true reflection of the city. Although El Alto, the city just above La Paz, can be dangerous, speaking with locals, they said that there isn’t that level of danger in the main city, and it did not feel any less safe than any other part of the continent.

Salt Flat Jumping

We came to La Paz to get through to Uyuni and see the Salt Flats, something that everyone kept saying is essential viewing. It’s a three day tour and a bit of a journey for us to squeeze in, but we thought it would be worth doing. Arriving in Uyuni early in the morning we caught up with our tour group. We initially tried to get on a tour with an English speaking guide, but this was not going to be an option. These tours come with a jeep and a tour guide who is also the driver, mechanic and cook. The rest of the group were not native English speakers, which initially was disappointing but turns out they were a great bunch of people, all dual or tri lingo, putting us to shame.

Uyuni Train Grave Yard

First stop was the train graveyard just outside of the town. A desert area filled with old abandoned trains for climbing around, plenty of ways to hurt yourself, great fun.

Crossing the land we passed plenty of Llama’s before getting to the Salt, massive deserts of white salt as far as the eye can see. Due to the white flat, this is where everyone plays around with their cameras and perspective shots, took us a while to get the idea (I won’t post the photos that didn’t work) but with a little guidance from the tour guide, we got there.

The next day we headed to see Flamingos in a large lake, which in season can be as many as 30,000 – just now there was a lot less on display, but we got close enough to snap some pictures and soak up the views.

More driving and seeing lakes and massive views, a stop at the Tree of Rock was a nice highlight, more time to climb and explore.

Hot SpringsThe final day started at 4am; before sunrise, we headed up to 5000 meters above sea level to the hot springs and geysers, after three nights without a shower this was an amazing start to the day, 30 degree spring water to clean and sooth. The geysers were strange, hot natural gas pouring out of the ground forming a misty cloud around the area.

Finishing the tour, we headed back to Uyuni and then back up to La Paz for more fun and games.

Full photo set (there are loads) are here on Flickr.