Category Archives: Bolivia

A Contented Traveller (part 2)

Top Experiences

Many people have asked me which is my favourite place on this trip, and believe me it is very difficult to pinpoint one! The emotions, encounters and weather at that place at a particular time or season also affects the entire experience. So how about I give it a go with “Great Experiences” instead? And this time, with photos.

In no particular order:

1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

There may be a bit of bias with this choice since the Galapagos had been my dream islands for years. But many people whom I later met and who had also been there couldn’t get enough of it either, so I really don’t think I’m over-hyping this. Apart from being pampered on a relaxing cruise and visiting pristine islands where animals frolick about in their daily activities oblivious to the snap-happy human visitors, the climate was another surprising factor: not too hot and not too cold in July. The scenery was also more beautiful than I had expected.

It would be a mistake just to use mainland Ecuador as a hop-over point to the Galapagos: Ecuador is a beautiful country with warm & friendly people and relatively good infrastructure. As a visitor, the biggest observation is how family-oriented Ecuadorians are. I did not encounter any difficulty at all travelling solo in Ecuador.

 

Isla Santa Fe, Galapagos

Galapagos wildlife. From bottom left (clockwise):Galapagos penguin, land iguana, blue-footed boobies, sea lion, giant tortoise

 

Foreground: tiquila cacti. Background: Volcan la Cumbre. At Punta Espinosa, Isla Fernandina


2. San Pedro de Atacama & around, Chile

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest in the world and is prime spot for star gazing, both for professional astronomers and amateurs. You could see the Desert from the bus on the way from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro). I loved how San Pedro itself does not have paved roads, preserves the older adobe houses made of mud & cactus branch with little roofing and only minimal street lights at night. During the day, the town itself is a base for venturing into the outlying natural wonders and those that I’ve visited include: Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerte, Piedra del Coyote, the Altiplano lagoons, Salar de Atacama and El Tatio Geyser. At night, just lift up your head and you are treated to more spectacular wonders even with just the naked eye: the cloudless night sky is the perfect canvas for the milky way and the planets of the solar system.

Although San Pedro and the outlying sights are very popular with tourists, the town itself is still very laid-back and a nice place to relax and chill. One simply could not say the same of other popular tourists sites.

 

 

Top: Laguna Chaxa Bottom: Salar de Atacama

Top: Volcano Putana Bottom: church at Macucha Village

 

3. Salar de Uyuni & Reserva Fauna Andina Eduardo, Bolivia

This region is one of the most visited places in Bolivia, and with good reason too. I went during dry season and the expanse of the salt flat’s whiteness stretches far beyond the horizon. You would think it is a snow-covered desert, except that if you lick the ground you will know it is not.  This region is also rather close to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama of Chile, so there are some similarities in landscape, but there are simply no two identical lagoons, geysers, mountains or salt flats; both regions are rugged and dramatic in their own way. A lot of the sights on the Bolivian side are on higher altitude and are not accessible by paved roads, so travel by land-rovers/jeeps are absolutely necessary. Expect an adventure when in Bolivia; you won’t be disappointed.

Sadly too, the Bolivian side lacks proper management and the environment runs the risk of being overburdened. The social atmosphere of the region in the two countries is also very different and if you have the time to spare, you should still try to visit both. Money should no longer be an issue as you would have expended so much just to get this part of the world that in fact, it makes more sense to visit both. Border crossing by land from Bolivia to Chile and vice versa in this region is possible and can usually be done within half/1 day.

 

Photo taken on Isla Incahuasi. In the background, the Uyuni salt flats.

Near Laguna Canapa

 

4.Flying above the Andes in South America

Secondary school level Geography hardly serves any practical purpose in most people’s adult life. But stripped of all the dry facts that one is forced to commit to memory for exams are glimpses into age-old, far-flung, exotic places that are nature’s greatest gifts.  Even though Geography text books then hardly came with much photos, learning about the Andean range left a deep imprint in this ex-school girl’s mind.

While it is a lot cheaper to travel in South America by bus (especially if you have the time to spare), I would certainly recommend flying some legs. Conveniently, my round-the-world ticket allowed me to fly quite a few segments in South America, and the domestic flights in some countries are very reasonably-priced. The view over the jagged peaks of the Andes – the spine of South America that stretches from the south in Chile all the way to the north in Columbia & Venezuela – evokes a sense of humbled awe, high-spirited imagination or just simply more wonderful day dreams.

 

Chilean Andes

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

 


5. Scotland, UK

Scotland itself has so much to offer, so justifiably I should have a sub-category of “great experiences”! It is one of the few places on this trip that I would like to visit again, not least because it is closer (more or less 13 hours flight), but also because there are other parts of Scotland that I’ve yet to explore.

On this trip, I would say some of the best moments are:

(1) Walking through glens and along the lochs and simply just enjoying the fresh air & scents from trees & flowers.

 

Top: Glencoe Lochan Bottom: Glenfinnan

 

(2) Rocky boat ride to Islet of Staffa – Fingal’s Cave. It was costly to travel to Staffa, but the sight of the hexagonal basalt columns rising vertically out of the emerald waters is worth it. And dolphins somehow never fail to cheer people up even in bad weather. Would have loved to spend more time on the islet if the weather had permitted. Not the season for puffins-sighting, but was already very contented with the visit.

 

Walking on islet of Staffa

 

Hexagonal basalt columns rising out of emerald waters to form this Fingal's Cave.

(3) Driving around & exploring Isle of Skye. Skye is rated by National Geographic as one of the best islands in the world for sustainable tourism. Do not expect resorts a la Banyan Tree style – this does not Skye maketh. Instead, look forward to rugged dramatic natural beauty.

 

and last but not least,

(4) Chatting with friendly down-to-earth Scots!

 

Thistle, national flower of Scotland

Of course, this list of “Great Experiences” is non-exhaustive. The list of wonderful places that I have been to on this 4-month trip goes on, including the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, Lake Titicaca in both Peru & Bolivia, the great Machu Picchu as well as all the people I’ve met who made up the entire experience.

Till the next trip. Right now, my heart is warm & contented.

May I wish everyone of you find and pursue your dream adventures. Happy travels!

09.08.10 – Leaving the land of the Andes

Happy birthday, Singapore!

Oh by the way, today I flew from Antofagasta to Santiago, where I now wait for the flight to Madrid.

Outside the embarkation lounge, the pink hues of the setting sun is reflecting brilliantly off the snow-capped mountains.

Fare thee well, oh mighty Andes, I had the pleasure of seeing your many faces, ranging through four different countries. Hope to see you again, soon.

03.08.10 – La Paz to Arica

Took a 6am bus from La Paz to Arica, which is in the north of Chile. Kind of missing La Paz and its chaos a bit as the bus drove up to Alto city, where I catch one last glimpse of the Bolivian capital down in the canyon at dawn.

The bus drives through flat plains on comfortable paved roads passing by vistas of snow-capped mountains. By 930am, we reached the Chungara border. Chilean customs are known for strict controls, but I managed (with some kiasuism) to clear immigration and customs earlier than the rest of the pack. While waiting for the rest, I busily took photos of Chungara Lake, Parinacota Volcano and hungry gulls. At 4517m above sea level, Chungara is one of the highest lakes in the world, even higher than Titicaca Lake (although Titicaca is supposed to be the highest navigable lake).

While waiting, I also spent my last 5 Bolivianos on a sopaipilla (a fried dough that is a typical Chilean snack) and a mate de coca.

But the wait turned out to be more than 2.5 hours because a passenger’s belongings were being subjected to tight scrutiny. Dude, is this your first time travelling to Chile?

The bus tumbled pass dramatic gigantic arid mountains, with not even a blade of grass in sight. So uninhabitable, inhospitable and starkly different from the Andes range I have seen in Ecuador. And yet at the end of the journey is the populated seaside city of Arica, Chile’s northernmost city.

01.08 – 02.08.10 – La Paz, Coroico

La Paz is truly a city in a league of its own. Massive and yet compact, with about one million people squeezed into narrow streets, sharp corners, steep slopes, high traffic amongst the dust and noise. Taxis are abundant, but so are micros and colectivo vans that are relatively inexpensive and easy to hop and off while you navigate through what seems to be a chaotic city. Don’t be afraid to take public transport, for after 2 days in the city, you would have accumulated sufficient bearings to know how to get around.

Some say La Paz is a scruffy city, the unkind say it is a dump. But beneath the outsiders’ perception of unsightly mess, lies a city bustling with energy, character and full of life which I would miss by the time I leave tomorrow. One sight that should be seen to be believed is the city’s labyrinth of street markets (and not just the touristy ones at Hechiceria), spilled from corner to corner, occupying permanent places even in the winter cold, serving the city dwellers’ shopping needs, from clothes, shoes, food, toiletries to tools and hardware. I will also miss having freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice from roadside carts (pure juice from one whole grapefruit costs US$0.30, cheaper than bottled water and a perfect thirst quencher), snacking on yummy and filling saltenas and then working off those calories by walking up and down those steep impossible-looking slopes.

To escape from the city buzz, take a day trip to Coroico. Most tourists go to Coroico on a bike tour down the so-called “World’s most dangerous road”. Taking a minibus from Villa Fatima in La Paz (the “minibus” I took is actually a van packed with 15 passengers), you get to see others do the bike tour and enjoy the scenery without worrying about the bike brakes. I still think the road to Macchu Picchu is more treacherous (see earlier blog entry). Still, the scenery along the way to Coroico is interesting: from La Paz, the roads wind down about 2500m above sea level, changing the landscape from dry highlands and the winter cold, to luscious green forests with banana plantations and milder climate. Coroico is a small town, and on this trip, I have discovered my travel likes: walking slowly around a small town on my own, taking photos of exotic plants, grabbing any chance to interact with locals where my language proficiency permits and food-tasting at a local eatery.

29.07 – 31.07.10 – 3 days of natural wonders and new experiences – Salar de Uyuni and Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa

Reached Uyuni – a small town that serves as a tourist jump-off point to the famous salt flats – at just before 8am. This was after some delayed departure of the bus from La Paz due to a puzzling police “investigation” which took at least 1.5 hours. Thereafter, there were some rumours that the route to Uyuni may be closed due to some farmers’ protest, and if so, the bus may take an alternative route and only reach at 12 noon! This wouldn’t go well with most passengers as the Uyuni tours usually start at 10. And as the bus travelled in the night, by 4am there was still that possibility of an extended delay when the bus conductor chased us down at a rest stop, in the cold, to stock up on supplies in case the journey takes longer than estimated.

But all that precaution was just precaution, and the bus reached Uyuni just before 8am. But the early morning cold at that rest stop was a sneak preview of what was to come.

After an unintended hearty breakfast (how was I supposed to know that when I order bread and eggs, that comes with THREE eggs?), and a somewhat delayed start to the tour (the driver’s timing is very “elastic” as we soon found out), we were off on our tour. All the tours are done on 4-wheel drives, because of the unpaved terrain. Most cars are Toyotas but ours is the odd Lexus.

The first stop is the cementry of trains, old rusty tins left abandoned on old rail tracks which now serve as perfect photo-snapping opportunities for tourists.

After a brief stop at a town that processes raw salt, it was the famous salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, reputedly the world’s largest salt flats. One big pile (50kg) of salt is worth only 8 bolivianos (US$1.14) but so much work goes into it, often involving a whole family. Beneath the salt flats is a lake, and we were standing on / driving on a thick crust of salt with jagged hexagonal edges.

While salt is abudantly cheap, it is indispensable, as Shakespearean as that sounds. And for lunch, we had table salt as condiment, although scraping off some salt from the ground is not impossible (yes, it is just as “salty”). Lunch was a picnic at Isla Incahuasi, the “island” in the middle of the salt flats, with giant cacti and strange coral-like stones. This was to be one of my favourite spots during the excursion and the midday weather was pleasant with plenty of sun. Spent the whole afternoon after lunch walking on the island and taking in the vast white salt flats surrounding the island.

Thereafter, we checked in to a “salt hotel”, more like a hostel that is mostly made of bricks and a little bit of salt. It is a very basic hostel with only 4 electric outlets in the entire hostel for charging electronic appliances, and electricity is only switched on for a few hours during dinner time. While waiting for dinner, some of us played cards and we were also served hot drinks and biscuits. Also darted out of the hostel once in a while to capture the pink hues of the sunset. But nobody could stay outside for long in the windy cold.

As starters for dinner, there was home-cooked quinoa and vegetable soup that was very tasty. For mains, it was a big platter of grilled llama meat. I had opted for vegeterian meal but nonetheless had a piece of llama meat from one of my group mates just for taste. Very chewy and rather tough! There are showers and hot water could be turned on for Bs. 10. But most of us were either too cold or out of Bolivianos to go for a shower. This was to be the only shower facility for the entire 3-day trip.

Overslept until one of my group mates came to wake me up. Was too comfortable in the rented thermal sleeping bag, plus I was making up for the lack of sleep on the overnight bus from La Paz.

On the second day, we cruised on the 4-wheel drive through more dry flat lands – the Salar de Chingara – and passing by Volcan Ollague, mountains on the Bolivian-Chilean border as well as the famous rail tracks to Calama in Chile and sightings of graceful vicunas. But before all that, a flat tyre happened, followed by a swift tyre change by the driver.

Stopped at Laguna Canapa for picnic lunch. But it was so windy and cold that all of us ate inside the car to hide from the wind, while the gulls and flamingos frolick in the semi-frozen lagoon in the background. There is no toilet facilities and finding a big bush in such dry lands where plants are typically low-lying is impossible. But if you have to go, you have to go, even if the wind is blowing in your behind.

The next stop was Laguna Hedionda, where even more pink flamingos pottered around in the icey lagoon in near distance, against the perfect backdrop of a conical mountain. How do these slim and fragile-looking creatures withstand the cold remains a mystery to me.

By 4pm we reached Laguna Colorada, also known as the Laguna Roja (because it is supposed to be red) and inside the national reserve. Checked into one of the infamous basic hostels in the national park, where there isn’t even running water, just a big barrel of stale water for washing down the toilet which does not have a flush. There is also no electric outlet, so make sure you bring extra batteries. It was only 4pm but very cold and windy so we huddled inside to play cards as well as killed time with tea, biscuits and beer. My groupmates are a fun bunch and laughter is really a good relief in the cold. Our group consists of a Frenchman, a German guy, a girl from England, a Japanese lady, 2 girls from the Basque country and me. Talk about multi-nationalities! A Brazilian from another group gate-crashed, but all the more fun.

In such basic conditions, dinner was rather basic too: spaghetti with tomato and onion sauce. But at least there was a comforting hot vegetable soup to go with it. And one of our groupmates remembered that the tour promised a bottle of wine and reminded the driver about it… otherwise who knows, the driver may just have taken it and drank it himself!

Tried to get some sleep at around 930pm but it was so cold that I was shivering even in the thermal sleeping bag. Perhaps it is the altitude as well – 4278m – that it took me some time to fall asleep. Before turning in, I stepped outside to brush my teeth with my bottled water (since there is no running water of any sort inside the hostel). And up there in the clear skies is the bright streak of the milky way. How lovely, and yet too cold to be outside admiring for long. I will remember this image for a very long time.

The next morning, we were supposed to get up for breakfast by 530am, but those of us who were awake noticed some commotion going on amongst the drivers. Eventually our breakfast only came at 730am. No proper explanation was given by our driver of the delayed start to the tour. Was he drinking the night before?

Nonetheless, we managed to see the geysers even if for a short while in the crazy wind. Then we head off to Polques, where there was a hot spring. There isn’t a changing room. Stripping and changing into swim wear in the cold with occasional wind is quite an experience, but so worth it once you are in the thermal waters. Who cares if most people in the pool haven’t showered in the past 2 days and the germs are probably having a nice sauna bath. The spring waters are soothing and soaking in it when the icey lake is within hand’s reach is an experience not to be missed. It was so comfortable that I didn’t want to get out of the pool.

Once we were told to move on though, I had to bid farewell to my group mates, all of whom were continuing on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile (I’ll be going there later on, but through another route). We exchanged emails and hugs and I was ushered into another car. To my horror, I found out that the people in the other car had already visited Laguna Verde 2 hours ago, and the car was heading back to Uyuni! So I didn’t get to see Laguna Verde, which was a pity. But the passengers in this car – a Venezuelan couple – were nice and showed me the photos of Laguna Verde. The lady spoke English and offered to translate the driver’s explanation in Spanish to me. Obviously, I missed Laguna Verde because of my driver’s inexplicable delay. I will spare the details of sorting this out with the agency later on, but this goes to show that just as all the guidebooks say, these tours are not without problems. But is the tour nonetheless worth it? Absolutely. The past few days have been days of magnificent feasts for the eye and interesting adventurees to last for quite a while.

Anyway, I am blessed enough that the return trip to Uyuni was peaceful and it was through a different route than the one we came in. The driver was also very careful. This time, we passed through the other side of Laguna Colorada and from this point or view, the lagoon is indeed red-tinted. Also stopped at Valle de Rocas, a valley of strange rocks, that were formed as a result of volcano magma, and naturally sculpted by the erosion of wind. And unusual sight indeed. Spotted more llamas and alpacas, as well as cute alpaca-crossing signs. Also stopped at San Cristobal, which is supposedly the world’s largest silver mine.

All in all, in spite of the hiccups, the past few days have been nothing short of new experiences and natural wonders. No wonder this circuit is the most visited site in Bolivia.

27.07.10 – La Paz, Tiahuanaco

Joined a guided tour to Tiahuanaco and prayed that the guide would be informative since I know zilch about this civilisation.

Along the way, we passed by a viewing point for the Cordillera Real, or the Royal Range. Another magnificent view of the great Andes.

Tiahuanaco was an important indigenous Andean civilisation in this region, with its influence eventually extending to south of Peru, north of Chile and Argentina, that could be distinguished by 3 periods: “village” (which is pre-Christ), “classic” (A.D.) and “expansion”.

There is an interesting museum which exhibits, amongst other things, a mummy in foetal position. If I remember the explanation about the foetal position correctly, the Andeans believe that in death they return the way as they arrive. While the Incan civilisation is the most well-known of the Andean civilisation, their practices are not necessarily unique and are influenced by earlier civilisations, e.g. Tiahuanaco.

At the archaeological site itself, the guide explained about the significance of astronomy to the civilisation and, typical of Andean tradition, the importance of the winter solstice. There was also a statue – an Andean emblem – that was strangely marked with a cross, and apparently this was an act of exorcism by a priest when the conquistadores (and consequently, Catholicism) came.

All in all a very informative session, so didn’t regret going for the tour at all. Had trout (again!) for lunch.

Got back to La Paz in the afternoon, and walked around a bit as well as visited the Museo de Coca. An interesting glimpse into the history and Yunga tradition of chewing coca leaves. Apparently, while Catholicism (when it came to the continent) considered coca leaves chewing to be diabolical, it was eventually still permitted because it was thought to improve the productivity of slaves! How utilitarian. However, the museum also exhibits studies that indicate that coca leaves do not actually improve work productivity; rather, it makes it easier to tolerate harsh working conditions. A sad but true fact that exists till today, apparently in the mines of Potosi.

There are also very informative studies of how cocaine came about, and how it is actually produced. While Bolivia is a large producer of coca leaves, and coca leaves itself provide the raw base for cocaine, chemicals are needed to make consumer cocaine and these chemicals come from outside Bolivia, particularly western countries, and the illegal cocaine industry is controlled by foreigners. So says the museum’s exhibits. But I am inclined to believe it: if cocaine is indeed as lucrative as they say, then why is Bolivia still such a poor country? Anyway, drinking coca tea – a form of green tea but with a fungus-y taste – is not going to make you high, nor infuse you with cocaine in your blood stream. Locals use it as a remedy for altitude sickness.

Even though it is very small, the museum is very informative and has explanation booklets in a variety of languages. It even has a coca cafe, kinda geared toward tourist with coca-flour baked cookies. But if you want to buy coca leaves, just walk outside to the streets, and you can easily buy a bagful, as this is very much part of Bolivian life.

Walked a bit more thereafter, passing by more souvenir stalls, hoping to find the Witches’ Market, just to realise that street was it! Slightly disappointed as I thought the Witches’ Market was for locals, but it really felt touristy, even though the dried llama foetuses (and the stench!), talismans and strange aphrodisiacs were curiosity-inducing.

For an evening snack, I had a cheese empanada and api, a typical Bolivian purple corn hot drink with herbs, and it tastes so familiar. Trying to recall where I had a drink that is similar to this before!!!

26.07.10 – Copacabana to La Paz

Had the whole morning since my bus to La Paz was departing only at 130pm. Unfortunately there are no separate boat trips to Isla de la Luna. But I was fine just having a late breakfast (the breakfast in the hotel is enough to last you till lunch and tea) and trying to finish my book, which is just taking too long to read.

Sat at the park in front of the church and read my book in the sun, as well as eyeballing at the rows of cars parked in front of the church: these cars are being blessed by some church people who were sprinkling holy water (I think) whilst the owners adorned the car with flowers and splashed it with champagne. Some other owners took the opportunity to light fire crackers. So much happening in front of a church in this small sleepy town!

The bus ride to La Paz winds pass more lakes and postcard-perfect sceneries, and at one point there was a ferry (actually, more like sampan) crossing since there was no bridge. We had to get off the bus to take a separate boat, whereas the bus rolled onto a spartan boat that looked a bit small for the gargantuan land vehicle. Someone commented that all our luggage is actually on that bus, floating vicariously across the lake. After the crossing, bus continued on the high plains, and before long we were in Alto city, with the view of densely-built La Paz right below in the canyon.

And what a sight it is: with Mount Illimani in the background, buildings are cramped packed into the city, with not a single inch wasted. After settling down my luggage (that is, after much time, since I didn’t have a hotel reservation) it was already dark. But I was hungry! So walked around and stumbled into a local eatery (I was to discover that small eateries are a bit hard to find in fast-food obsessed downtown La Paz). And there I had a Bolivian dish called majadito! It is yummy flavoured rice with beef jerky (which I opted not to have), a fried egg and fried bananas. I’m still trying to find out what goes into the rice.

After that, I was still hungry (my excuse being I didn’t have lunch) and stumbled across an empanada shop. Had a baked empanada roja (which has pepper and onions) and a mocachinchi, a typical Bolivian sour peach drink.

Continued walking in this lively city as the stalls open till late night. Walking through what I thought is in an interminable pasar malam, I was beginning to like La Paz and its dusty chaotic mess that is cramped into narrow traffic-filled streets, so full of people and full of life.

Then, I heard a beautiful voice singing through a loudspeaker. Was about to try and ask the man manning through loudspeaker what music it was, that I suddenly realised a lot of people were crowding in front of the loudspeaker. Some were standing in circles chatting to each other, some were seated on the pavement with blankets on their laps. Is this a queue for some concert? But then I also saw armed policemen circling the area although nothing serious seems to be going on. After walking in and out of the crowd, I decided to ask the man manning the loudspeaker what is going on. He rattled off a whole bunch of things but I gathered this is a street protest related to work. I said but the music is beautiful, and apparently, the music is part of the protest too! How cute! If only my Spanish was good enough to converse more with him since he seemed very eager to tell me more.

By the time I walked back to the inn on steep slopes at about 930pm, the crowd – nor the traffic – has diminished in downtown La Paz. What a happening place!