BOLIVIA (Bulivya Mamallaqta)
When you've racked up a few countries, people often ask 'where's your favourite place?' It's difficult to answer, but Bolivia is usually at the top of the list. I found it to be a great country, full of beautiful scenery, enchanting hospitality and wonderful people. From the older woman that helped me through the border and into Copacabana, before realising I was an ateo (atheist) and suggesting a trip to the local church would change me. To the crazy driver in the Altiplano volcano parks. Visiting Bolivia was nothing short of a positive experience, and I only visited one side of the country, I didn't even go into the lowlands of the Amazon. I suppose one has to leave something to return for.
I travelled Bolivia from North to South by land. As mentioned, crossing the border near Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, and staying in the town. Boats on the beach in the morning left for the Island of the Sun and a relaxing cruise out into the lake. From there one travels to San Pedro, where things get interesting. There is no bridge across the lake to Jancoamaya, instead, the bus is put on a precarious looking raft, and sailed across. Passengers take another ferry across the strait. It's an odd site, but only adds to the charm of the place. We then passed high peaks shooting up from the flat altiplano on the 70mile trip to La Paz. La Paz was how one always imagines South American cities, busy, choked, office blocks that don't fit their surroundings, hustlers, bustlers, small markets tucked down narrow alleys. Thankfully I was already used to the altitude, so the 3500 metres above sea level didn't bother me. I visited some of the highlights and bought a train ticket to Uyuni. Passing through the desolate landscape of the altiplano here wasn't in anyway boring. Having seminal movie 'White Chicks' playing on an old TV set in Spanish certainly was though. Uyuni is a one horse town, with sparsely populated buildings on cold windswept streets, where hot water is a luxury. One would never suspect that from here it's possible to see some of the great wonders of the continent. The Salar de Uyuni (salt lake) and the volcano park, a major highlight. Taking off in a 4x4, with a driver and cook, and a couple of rounded up tourists. One heads off across the salt lake, taking in a hotel built of salt, and then you rise up into the volcano park, the landscape constantly changing. The final night is spent in a metrologists lodge at 4500m, with temperatures of -20c at night (see pic below taken above the lodge). The next morning you go of in the dark up to 5000m to see geysers at dawn, then drop down to relax in warm hotpools as the sun slowly rises over a small lake. The icing on the cake is at the border crossing, where you pass the green arsenic lake, Leguna Verde, with the picture perfect symmetrical Licancabur Volcano in the background.
Currency: Bolivano (Bs.)
Visa: Most Western and nations from the Americas can obtain a visa on arrival. The USA has different arrangements and requires a visa.
Plug: Bolivia uses the two flat prong USA plug, as well as the European two round prong plugs, 220v
GMT: GMT -4
GDP Ranking (IMF): #121 £3,000 (similar to Mongolia and Morrocco)
Communications: Country code is +591
Health: Ensure you're vaccinated against Yellow Fever, and carry your certificate with you. Malaria is prevalent in the lowlands, as is dengue. Altitude will also be a factor, with La Paz at 3,500 and the airport at 4000m.
When to Visit: Late June to Late September are the peak tourist seasons, and also when the majority of festivals and celebrations are held. November to April is the summer rainy season, where the lowlands are the most difficult to traverse.
Personal Safety: Maintain extra awareness in big cities, especially at night. If using public transport, keep an eye on your possessions at all times, theft is common. Protests are common in Bolivia, avoid getting involved. The main rising risk to tourists, particularly those travelling independently, are so called 'Express Kidnappings', where people are held until their bank accounts are empty. F&CO Advice here.
Getting Around: The main transport method for those not hiring cars and motorbikes, is by Bus. If possible, try to use the better bus companies and avoid night bus routes. Bolivia's rail networks are based around the altiplano and lowlands, with La Paz and Santa Cruz as the main start points. Lines then run south and on into other countries. Internal flights are viable for those looking to save time. For some hard travelling and stunning scenery, the Ferrobus runs from Arica on the coast to La Paz at less than 20mph overall.
What to see/do: A trip out to the islands from Copacabana is highly recommended, as is a trip to the town itself. The best highlight in my opinion, and Bolivia has a few, is a 3-4 day (do as many days as you can) tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Volcano park. A mindblowing trip that will last in your memory banks for ever. Be sure to bring props to take the famous perspective photos on the salt lake! Something I intend to do if I ever go back, is the 'death road' on mountain bike, a road that descends from the altiplano down to the lowland jungle, via a treacherous road. La Paz has a number of markets to explore, the most famous of which is the Witches Market. Near La Paz can be found the Valle de la Luna, a landscape similar to what one might expect to see on the moon. The similar el Valle de las Animas (the Valley of the Souls) is also near La Paz. Potsoi is one of the highest cities on earth, and is surrounded by silver mines and rather unpleasant stories throughout their history. It's possible to visit the cooperative mines, where conditions haven't changed in centuries. The Casa Nacional de Moneda is a recommended museum in Potosi. Tiwanaku features remnants of a Pre-Inca civilisation and is UNESCO listed.
Food & Drink: What to eat: Pique a lo macho is a typical Bolivian dish, involving meat, potatoes and a lightly spiced sauce with onion and tomatoes. Silpancho is another similar dish, with the beef pounded thin and served with potatoes and rice, usually decorated with an egg. Salteña is a common starter in the morning with tea or coffee, a pastry filled with meat or potatoes. Similar to Salteña are Empanadas, equally popular in Bolvia. Tucumana are another variation of Salteña, only fried and served during the middle of the day. Cuy (Guinea Pig) is common in smaller towns, and the countries national animal, Llama, can also be found on dinner plates. It's sometimes served ground as a burger, and also a tough jerky chew. Non-alcohol based drinks to sample include Mocochinchi (peaches and spices) and the corn based Api. The region around Tarija produces award winning wines and Singani is a type of grape based liquor usually mixed with a soft drink. Bolivia doesn't have stand-out beers, but Paceña Pilsener La Paz is drinkable, as is the sweet and low alcohol El Inca Bi-Cervecina. The latter being perfect for those wanting to drink but have just arrived at altitude.
Other notes: If landing at El Alto Airport (La Paz), ensure you allow a few days to acclimatise to the altitude. Take it very easy and drink Coco tea.