Fish Out of Water: Tales of The Writer's travels through South America: Part 2 Bolivia

Chapter 1: South American bureaucracy.

The first day of our adventure was quite uneventful. It involved us going from Sao Paolo airport to the hostel to crash and prepare for our flight into Bolivia the following morning. The next morning we got up bright and early to have a simple breakfast. We had strong Brazilian coffee, toast and cereal and some fruit. Then we proceeded towards the airport via the remarkably efficient metro system and bus system. The metro in Sao Paolo, during the peak hours, has an efficiency of running a train almost every one to two minutes. The buses to the airport were running every ten minutes, which for an airport service is quite fast. After the hour and a half bus ride we soon arrived at the airport. Then we had to wait to check in to our BOA (Bolivia’s national airline) flight to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. What we didn’t realize was that we would be in for a long wait as the airport had put two separate waiting areas. The airport staff had put one right in front of the counters and the rest of the people would have to wait in a completely different area. After we spent a solid hour waiting we cleared Brazilian immigration and went straight to boarding.

The flight was quite uneventful till Vinay and I found out that Ethan was not the biggest fan of flying. As we were two caring friends we did the decent thing and used this as a source of entertainment for the next two hours. On the flight they gave us some snacks, which included yoghurt, soft drinks and some pastries. We found that while our yoghurt packets had the same packaging and the same flavour, they were all different colours. Nevertheless it was quite tasty and kept us nice and content.

Soon we landed in Bolivia which was a source of worry for Ethan and myself for one reason. The reason why it worried us was because Singaporeans needed a visa for Bolivia and we were unable to acquire one prior to coming. We were forced to get a visa on arrival. For people living in Singapore, the nearest Bolivian embassy in the Beijing which is in the People’s Republic of China. Vinay was not worried at all as he had an Australian passport which did not require any visa for Bolivia. We had researched what we had needed to bring to the Bolivian immigration officers in order to acquire a visa. The process was laborious, to say the least. We had to bring a photocopy of our passport, passport sized photo, proof of when we’re staying and proof of us leaving Bolivia. We also read that we had to be prepared to pay more than the standard $30 USD fee for the visa. I was expecting the fee to roughly $50 or $60 USD but no, we ended up paying $100 USD each for the visa. The best part was that the visa for Bolivia turned out to be a sticker. The officer wrote the cost of the visa, in the local currency of Bolivianos, and the validity of the visa.

After the hassle that was Bolivian immigration we were finally in Bolivia and now the adventure could really begin.

Chapter 2: Journey to the Andes.

After we had landed and cleared Bolivian immigration we got sim cards, then proceeded to go in town to find our hostel. This was where we first got a glimpse of the culture of how to use public transport in Bolivia. When we took the bus we found that people can just get on whenever and wherever the bus takes them and people can flag down the buses like a taxi. Soon we arrived at the hostel and we then proceeded to relax with a couple of beers and a friendly game of cards.

The next morning we got up and packed our stuff for the long 14 hour bus ride in the late afternoon to Sucre, Bolivia. This gave us the opportunity to explore one of the biggest towns in Bolivia. We stored our large bag and set out and went towards the town square. It included many government buildings and beautiful Spanish colonial era churches. I hadn’t realized at the time but on this trip I would be seeing scenery which you would find in other countries around the world.

Typical house in Sucre
Typical house in Sucre

The first of many churches we would be seeing in South America
The first of many churches we would be seeing in South America

Charming artwork
Charming artwork

More charming artwork
More charming artwork

Even more charming artwork
Even more charming artwork

After the rather pleasant afternoon we proceeded back to the hostel to collect our big backpacks and set forth towards the bus terminal. After a while of figuring out how the system worked we eventually collected our pre-booked bus tickets and boarded the bus. The bus as it turned out did not have any air-conditioning and the outside temperature was about 35 degrees centigrade. We were in our own little sauna for the next 14 hours. While we started to climb into the mountains the roads started to get incredibly dusty. The dust started to come in the window and on to me. However I couldn't close the window as that was the only way to get fresh air in. In short, I had only roughly 3 hours of sleep on that bus.

Eventually after the dusty and shaky sauna that was our first bus ride in Bolivia we arrived in the charming town of Sucre. The town is also home to some parts of the central Bolivian Government which is why it is one of the most important towns in this country. After walking in the gorgeous weather that the lower Andes had to offer we soon reached the hostel.

Scenic view of Sucre

An example of Spanish colonial architecture

We were brought to our room and it turned out we had been placed in a nice small room. We were sharing a room with a 22-year-old German student called Leia. Leia was traveling all through Bolivia and was working in the hostel. We found out that she was actually spending three weeks working and learning Spanish in this town. She also then suggested we follow her and some of her other friends from Germany to this market in the neighboring town of Tarabucco. We had to take a small bus there and it turned out to be Nissan Supercarry, a small van designed to only carry about 9 passengers and a driver. However the driver ended up packing in about 21 passengers so in the end I ended up in a clown car. While the drive was long it allowed me to capture some of the mountains which surrounded the area. The surrounding landscape provided for some awesome sights.

Examples of Andean plains

When we reached the village we separated from Leia and her friends and we set forth on an adventure not knowing what we would be doing. The market sold a variety of items ranging from exotic looking chilies to home furnishings to clothes and crockery and construction equipment. The town square also featured some interesting artwork which was rather puzzling. Some artwork included a graphic image of a villager with a lot of blood on himself over the corpse of what appeared to be an enemy solider.

The main square in Tarabucco

The aforementioned graphic artwork

Beautiful chillies that filled up the stalls in the market

More views of Tarabucco

More views of Tarabucco

After the visit to the village, the three of us then proceeded back to the main town to grab a small bite to eat. We then we went to explore a small castle that was reccomended to us. The castle turned out to be located inside a military base just south of Sucre.

After the small visit to the castle we went back to the hostel to freshen up and have a relaxing night in.

The next day Leia told us about a place called the Seven Waterfalls. We found that not many people have climbed all the way to the top and all go to enjoy the cooling pools. After spending a morning finding groceries to cook lunch, we proceeded to the location.

Main church in Sucre

Christmas Zebras

The first of many meals that we would be cooking on this trip

The location almost reminded the three of us of our Ladakh trip from 5 years ago, it had similar landscapes and textures all around. Soon we descended into a valley to get to the waterfalls and then we started our climb up. Initially the climb wasn’t too bad but I had to remain cautious of my troublesome left shoulder. I had dislocated it four months prior to the trip and it was occasionally causing problems. After some adolescent antics we soon reached the top and my god the thrill was simply exhilarating. After capturing some fantastic GoPro footage we then proceeded back down. Climbing down involved me diving into some of the pools. It was an exhilarating feeling going into these pools from a great height. Afterwards we climbed back up to the top of the valley and caught the bus back to Sucre. In the evening we went to a look out point which overlooked the entire city. The grid formations of the streets looked amazing from the roof tops.

View from the top of Sucre

Another church square in this beautiful city

Christmas fair in the main square

All in all we quite enjoyed Sucre. Everybody had been very friendly we saw amazing sights. One of them was a Christmas party in the town square where they had a live band and people dancing. The culture was something I had never seen before and I was intrigued and fascinated. Soon it was time to rest and pack for tomorrow as we would be traveling to the town of Uyuni, which is famous for the large salt flats.

Chapter 3: Salt Flat Shenanigans

The following morning we woke up early and Leia was up too as she wanted to wish us well on our future travels through this amazing country. As we walked to the bus station we noticed the sky was not looking friendly, it seemed that rain was coming our way and sure enough it was. We had boarded the bus just in time as it was pouring by the time we left the station. While the weather this time was not atrocious like our first bus journey the bus did have some of its own faults. It kept leaking and made funny noises every time we went over a bump which was quite frequent. However as we made the journey further north the roads and the scenes were getting more staggeringly pretty.

After a 4 hour ride we reached the town of Uyuni, Bolivia and it looked like a scene out of a Clint Eastwood western. I could hear “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” theme playing in my head. The town is quite empty from what we saw and everyone who comes to Uyuni comes just to see the salt flats. After a pizza dinner we crashed to get up for the early morning tour of the salt flats.

Some rail themed artwork on main street

Main street in Uyuni

The salt salt tour consisted of seeing a train cemetery, (a place which would’ve cause 5 year old me to weep). Then a place where they processed the salt the locals mined from the salt flats and the salt flats themselves.

We soon got into the car with our guide and soon met some of our fellow participants for the tour. There were three others with us. Two were Canadian university graduates, Stacie and Marika. The other was a lady who was traveling all through this continent by herself and ending her trip on Antarctica. Her travels gave me the inspiration to convince my mother to do such a holiday. My mother at my age never got the chance to do an incredibly adventure like the one I’m doing so my aim is for her to do a similar trip in the future. The tour started with a short drive towards the train cemetery. On the way we learnt that huge trains used to traverse the Andes transporting salt throughout Bolivia. A lot of the trains were of British origin as evidenced by the distinctive construction and shape of the locomotives. The three of us had fun looking around and climbing on top of the trains. We almost felt like kids again just playing on top of the trains. It was a great change from just a couple weeks before when we are all in still in the service.

Rail line going into the distance

A British-made locomotive in the train cemetery

The first of many shenanigans

The inside of one of one the many train "corpses"

The boiler remains of one of the many train "corpses"

After the train cemetery we proceeded to a small village just outside of the main town where the salt that is mined from is processed. We learnt that the salt extracted from these vast salt flats is for the domestic market only as none of it is exported outside of the country. We also found that the bricks used to construct the houses were also made of salt. They’re a mixture of salt, water and mud molded into the brick shape. We had a short break at this little village while our guide prepared a lunch, which turned out to be quite extravagant. This gave us time to explore the super touristy stalls. The three of us came across some wonderful facemasks which made us look like proper banditos. We then purchased the masks and proceeded to joke to our families. We messaged them saying that we have abandoned all hopes of going to university and have chosen to live a life of crime.

Freshly mined salt

Refined salt

Salt bricks

Alternative carrer paths

Soon it was time for lunch and our guide had really surprised us. He provided both a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian option. For the vegetarians he prepared a fritatta along with pastas, salads and cupcakes. For the non-vegetarians he also provided two whole chickens which Vinay dove into.

After the extravagant lunch we set forth towards the vast desolate expanse that was the Uyuni salt flats. The salt flats are said to be around 12000 square kilometres. Till these salt flats, I never really had a grasp of what emptiness felt like. It was incredibly surreal and there was a sense of beauty in the emptiness. I provided not only for some awesome photos but also for an unusual experience which is hard to describe. I learnt one very important thing on this trip. I learnt that while the photos are great, it doesn’t capture the excitement and feel you get when you’re actually at the location.

First glimpse of the salt flats

Salt mounds

Friends who hang on to each other on mounds of salt stay together

Vast emptiness

Desolate plains

We then spent about 35 minutes having fun doing interesting photos. We played around with perceptions and distances.

The shenanigans continue

After the salt flat shenanigans we proceeded to a place called Fish Island. Fish Island is one of the only few places on the entire salt flats where there is life. We climbed to the top to get some awesome views of the surrounding and to try and see some local wildlife.

Fish Island

Sadly the most we could see was a couple of insects. After taking more gorgeous photos it was time to head back to Uyuni. We had to catch the overnight bus to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. We found out that Marika and Stacie were staying in the same hostel as us in La Paz and we agreed to meet up once we reached there.

Soon we boarded the long overnight bus to La Paz and soon we’d be coming to the end of our Bolivian antics.

Chapter 4: Death road mishaps.

The journey to La Paz was reasonably uneventful; It was mostly mundane to us. We had already experienced the worst that Bolivia had to offer in terms of buses. The Bolivian capital was also the worlds highest capital city. It was situated at an altitude of roughly 4000 odd metres above sea level. It was also the base for our death road cycling trip which was easily one of the highlights of this trip. Our first day of La Paz involved us walking on the hilly streets of this city towards our hostel, the famous Loki Hostel. Ethan had specifically booked this place as it had a great bar, which was popular among travellers. After settling in to the place we met some Argentinians and Spanish tourists who were sharing our room. They were only touring Bolivia and Peru but for about 6 weeks. We then went to the bike shop to prep. We were instructed to go to the bike tour shop to check in and give the tour guides a chance to understand what they would need to ready the bikes. After meeting with the people who operate the bike tours, we had a chance to go and explore the city. One of the many sights in this unique capital city is the witches market. The witches market is famous for selling stillborn Llama babies. These llamas are used for ceremonial and celebratory purposes.

The famous products at the Witches Market in La Paz

The main church in La Paz

Afterwards I had to go towards an area filled with sports stores as I needed new trekking shoes. It turned out that the shoes which I was wearing all this while was breaking apart. It started to break apart in Santa Cruz and by the time we got to the Uyuni salt flats, the sole had completely come off. After a solid hour I finally found a pair of shoes that would carry me for the remainder of this trip. After an incredibly filling pizza lunch we proceeded towards a nice local park which offered some great views of the city.

City exploration

More exploration

Even more exploration

We settled down for a friendly game of cards. At the time we didn’t realize that we had started a recurring theme of playing cards in places with rich backdrops.

Soon night had fallen and we had reunited with the two Canadians we had met on our salt flat tour. We joined them at the bar which turned out to be amazing, it had great food and very nice prices for drinks. The three of us agreed to get an early night as we had the death road cycling, however we ended up joining one of the hostels themed parties. The party theme for that night was a toga party and it was great fun. While I looked ridiculous I got to have some fun which I haven’t had in a long time.

The next morning we somehow woke up and got ready for the death road cycling. We met up with our guide William and were delighted to find out that it was only going to be us three doing the tour from this company. All the cycling that we would be doing today was downhill or flat, there was never any uphill bits. We were taken by van all the way to this lake where we tested out the bikes to see if they suited us. Then our guide helped us gear up with pants, jackets, full-face crash helmets, gloves, elbow and knee pads. The first part of our ride would take us to the checkpoint of the death road. In between the lake and the checkpoint was a piece of asphalt heaven. It was an incredibly smooth mountain road with sweeping curves, long straights and stunning Andean scenery.

The start of the ride

Beautiful mountain roads

The views kept getting better and better

One of the many narcotics checkpoints on this road

While the journey was mostly without problems we did have one mishap. My dear friend Ethan, who in his infinite wisdom, decided to try his hand at doing a jump on this small dirt path where there was a dirt mound. He ended up flipping head over heals but thankfully he was all right. As we continued to the checkpoint our guide was keeping a close eye on Ethan. In the meantime Vinay and I were enjoying ourselves on this mountain road. As I was going down this road I had the Matt Monro song from the original Italian Job movie playing in my head, it just felt so right.

After going through the checkpoint, we loaded the bikes back onto the van which would take us on an 8 kilometre bus journey to the start of the worlds most dangerous road. When we got to the road, there were clouds rolling in making the atmosphere very spooky and ominous. The road was very bumpy and at times it got quite steep. What made it scary was that the fog was making everything wet and it was covering how high the drop was over the edge.

Eventually after some fast riding and a little bit of racing from Vinay and myself we soon reached the end of the road. We soon took off the jacket and pants to inspect the damage and we found that we were absolutely covered in mud and rain. Thankfully the guide was bringing us to a nearby hotel to have a spot of lunch and a well-deserved shower.

The start of the road

Some of the daring photos we took

Some of the daring photos we took

Some of the daring photos we took

The result of hours of biking

After all the freshening up we had lunch and proceeded on the long drive back to La Paz. We managed to get some stunning go-pro footage and our guide was able to take some great photos of us and eventually gave it to us three on a CD. Soon we headed back to Lokis and another night at the bar and this night was relatively tame compared to the other night so it was more relaxed. However things got heated up. Vinay had entered himself into a Snooker contest against some tourists from Spain. It ended up becoming quite exciting, Vinay ended up winning most of the games. After the excitement at the pool table we retired for the evening to have a relaxing day tomorrow.

We woke up on our last full day feeling relaxed and soon after a quick shower we set out to find breakfast. We went to a café popular with tourists called Café Del Mundo and we managed to get ourselves an incredible breakfast. Vinay got himself 3 pancakes drowned in maple syrup and butter with bacon and a big chicken sandwich. Ethan got himself some pancakes with a bit of fruit. I went for the “basic bitch” option of a quinoa burger with avocado and a latte. The breakfast/brunch managed to last us for pretty much the entire day. Then we heard of a place called Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon. With a name like that we simply couldn’t refuse the opportunity to visit it.

We boarded one of the many public buses that populate the streets of La Paz and set forth for this interesting location. After about 15 minutes we soon arrived and saw a sight that looked like something out of a science fiction film set. We then found the ideal place to continue our newfound tradition of playing cards in the most exotic locations.

Valley of the moon

After roaming around and playing cards for about 2 hours we then decided to head back into the city. One of the must-dos in La Paz is taking a ride on one of the many cable cars that traverse over the city. These cable cars are identified by their colours and there are 4 kinds; red, green, yellow and blue. We were told by some of the people are the hostel that the red or yellow lines offer the best views of the city. We decided that we would go for the red line, as the end of the line was close to our hostel.

It took us roughly an hour to get to the cable as the traffic was fantastically appalling but it was worth it. The clear skies not only gave us an incredible view of La Paz but also the view of Huyana Potosi. Huyana Potosi is a 6000 metre tall snow-capped volcano that overlooks the city.

Views of La Paz from the cable car

Huyana Potosi

The many brick houses in the city

All in all the views were the perfect way for us to say goodbye to this amazing city.

We returned to our hostel to pay for our bill and pack our bags but we decided to spend one more night in the bar. This time we ended up doing a drinking challenge with our new German friend Jan. The hostel has a drink which is called a Blood Bomb and it had two components. The chaser is a large glass of red bull and in the shot glass there was vodka and grenadine syrup. The bar also had a board where a number of countries were listed. The list was to represent how many people of those countries had taken the shot. The three of us noticed that Singapore was no where to be seen so we made it our personal mission to put it on the map for a long time. In the end we ended up doing a large number of those shots and it became incredibly fun.

After the evenings frivolities the three of us retired for the night and prepared for our last Bolivian bus journey. We would be traveling to the lakeside town of Copacabana right on Lake Titicaca.

To be continued in the Journey into Peru.