We saw wonders in Bolivia, a remarkable plain of salt, the capital of an ancient empire, rare birds. In between those high points we flew around La Paz in a gondola, then drove across miles of altiplano where we passed quinoa fields, grazing herds of cows, horses, sheep, llamas, alpacas, vicunas and even pigs. We saw an Andean condor with its 8-10 ft wingspan as well as the bird I called a “flying peach”. We had one of the best dinners of our lives in La Paz and ate as much excellent Bolivian chocolate as we could in Sucre. Why do I plan never to return?
- Altitude. More than half of Bolivia is tropical, but the best known part of Bolivia is the altiplano, a grassland area between 3500-4000 m above sea level, about 11,500-13,000 ft. My head ached most of the first week. Jonathan’s asthma made him short of breath. We both had trouble sleeping. Adjusting to high altitude takes time and flying from Lima at sea level to the El Alto airport in La Paz (4,050 m), in less than two hours, was a huge shock.
- Getting to the wonderful places in Bolivia takes a lot of effort. Our usual scheme of renting a car and driving around was perfect when we wanted to pull over at a shallow lake and look at birds, or stop to check out ruined chullpas, ancient burial towers. Driving in major cities was nerve-wracking and it was very nearly impossible to find our way. Maybe we’re just getting too old for this. We hate the thought, but it’s out there. By the end of our trip we were both tired, ready for a well-seasoned, properly cooked meal where the hot dishes were hot and the cold dishes cold followed by a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed–one of life’s great pleasures that is not usually available on the road.
Good Things About Bolivia
Cell phone service and data worked very well and cost us about US$10 each for a month of service, a bargain. We used Entel because it appears to have better coverage in Bolivia and had no trouble. We didn’t make many calls, but used the data for mapping our routes.
Gasoline was inexpensive, where else can you say that? The Bolivian government subsidizes gasoline, and resists making regular increases. We spent less than US$20 to fill the tank of our rental RAV4. It costs about triple that to fill up in Peru.
Food costs are low and there is a wide variety of products available, many coming from the lowland portion of the country that is focused on agriculture (and removing tropical forest…).
Textiles. If you want weaving, Bolivia is for you. We found the most interesting and highest quality weavings in Sucre and the Tarabuco market, in the Tarabuco and Jalqa styles. There are many other styles from different regions. Typical of Bolivia, there are specific markets and towns that sell the greatest variety of each. There’s a lot of travel involved.
Wildlife. We saw vicuna grazing by the side of the highway, and a lot of other animals, too. You have to be careful not to hit them with your vehicle. Bolivia has a tremendous variety of birds, too. There is lots to see every day, and specialized tours for anything specific you want to find.
- The google maps algorithm for directions works very poorly in South America so far. In both Peru and Bolivia, it sends us on unnecessarily complex routes and detours. We have to critique and second-guess every route that is not highway point-to-point.
- There is no international mail service. I took my postcards to the Post Office and the man behind the window looked at me blankly. “We have no directions for this process at this time.” What? No international mail.
- You have to give your name and passport number every time you get gas, part of a vain government effort to prevent smuggling of petroleum products.
- To pay for a service by putting money in a specific bank account, a common practice in parts of South America, you not only have to provide your name and passport number, but an explanation of what the payment is for (e.g. lodging), but also where the money comes from. I had to explain that I am retired and receive a pension.
- US citizens require a visa. Don’t forget to fill out the forms and pay your $160.
- The final indignity was having our luggage stay behind in La Paz when our flight left for Lima. Two days later it all turned up safe. Just one more Bolivian moment.
We couldn’t help but notice the houses built on top of apartment buildings near the airport in El Alto, on the plain above La Paz, Bolivia, since they are brightly colored and decorated like casinos. The more we found out, the more fascinated we became. These buildings are considered “Neo-andino” architecture by some, and are credited to a single architect, Freddy Mamani Silvestre. Mamani also paints and sculpts brightly colored works that we saw in several places in La Paz.
The buildings and bright colors are an expression of Aymara pride and economic power that has developed since Bolivia elected its first Aymara president, Evo Morales, in 2006. (He’s just been elected for a third term.) Mamani says he is inspired by Aymara folklore, colorful dance costumes, bright textiles, and archaeological symbols from both Tiwanaku and the Inca. His buildings have been criticized as kitschy and overly decorative, but he claims that his intention was to liven up the brick expanse of El Alto, where he grew up. El Alto began as an overflow suburb of La Paz populated mostly by indigenous people. Today, it is Bolivia’s second largest city. La Paz is located in a valley that is completed filled with houses up to the edge. El Alto is where housing spills over onto the altiplano where there is the potential to expand away from La Paz for miles.
Newly affluent Aymara families in El Alto have adopted Mamani’s style. The overall plan is for a family to create a business and living space. The ground floor has commercial spaces, while the second floor is an event space to use or rent for weddings, quinceaneras, and other events. Some of these are double-height ballrooms decorated like the inside of a pinball machine. Higher floors are offices or apartments for family, while the top floor is the “cholet” (from “Cholo chalet”), a house, often with a gabled roof, on top of the structure. Who lives in a “cholet”? A Cholo and a Cholita.
“Cholo” is one nickname for indigenous people. Sometimes people call themselves cholos, and in El Alto and La Paz, a “Cholita” is a woman of means who continues to wear traditional dress of many skirts, or pollera, an elegant shawl with very long fringe and a bowler hat that may be decorated with an elaborate metal ornament to match her shawl pin. You can tell a Cholita from a country woman by the fact that she usually carries a bag or briefcase and not the striped aguayo, the square of cloth that Bolivians use to carry everything. She may be hailing a taxi rather than boarding a bus.
There are detailed photos of Mamani’s Neo-Andino houses in El Alto in this book:
We drove from Sucre to Colchani, a settlement near the Uyuni salt flats/Salar de Uyuni. We stayed at the Palacio de Sal, a hotel made with a lot of salt mined nearby.The domed ceiling of our room was made of blocks of salt We went on a day-long tour of the area around Colchani with a driver, Orlando, and guide, Edson. What started as a lark proved to be a rare experience. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flats (110 x 90 km), approximately 120 m deep. As you drive out into the salar, the surface turns from slushy gray to bright white. You lose all sense of perspective because there are no objects in the background–it’s all white. It’s a very weird environment, and the white all around you flattens perspective until you look like cutouts on a plain background. We had lunch all by ourselves in the middle of the salt flats, feeling akin to extras in a Fellini movie.
Like traveling in the desert, you need a driver who knows his way on invisible roads. Orlando claimed to use the hills and mountains in the distance to check his location. At one point we drove for more than an hour across the salt (no road) without reaching the edge of the salar. The salt is mined for consumption within Bolivia but not exported. From a distance the salt looks like snow on the ground. It looks a bit like that up close, too. Where the salt has been scraped from the hard surface, you can see a network of hexagonal cracks. Underneath the salt, water bubbles up. The boiling water looks like it would be hot, but it is ice cold and very salty. Salt crystals form inside these bubbling holes (called ojos/eyes). Edson reached into one and pulled out a clump of crystalline salt. During the rainy season, runoff from rivers turns the salar into a shallow lake. The water can be up to a meter deep, and vehicles avoid the deep spots during those months (Dec.-Feb). We visited Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the salar, home to several species of birds and lots of cactus. It’s completely surrounded by salt.
We stopped at what looked like a ski lodge, the site of the first “Palacio de Sal” hotel that was almost completely made of salt. It was moved when the pollution from the hotel (water, trash, sewer) made it clear that building out on the salar itself wasn’t a good idea. The ruins of the hotel are now a lively way station on the largely featureless salar.
When there is shallow water over the salt, up to about 2 cm, it’s possible to see exact reflections in the water. The rainy season is over, but we found a patch that was still reflecting.
We ended the day watching the sun set over the salar with glasses of Bolivian wine (Campos de Solana). We’d never heard of Bolivian wine, so it was a pleasant surprise and capped a truly remarkable day.
There are tours that last 2-10 days and circle southwest Bolivia, visiting farflung corners of the salar, unusual stone formations, lakes of different colors, remnant volcanoes and archaeological sites. Our day trip was wonderful, but there is much more that can be seen.
We spent three nights in Sucre. The Hotel Monasterio used to be a monastery and still has some great decor–Bolivian Baroque? It was comfortable and placed us in the heart of Sucre. We walked down to the central plaza for dinner each night and found good places, La Taverne (French-Bolivian), Cosmo Cafe, and Cafe Florio (Dutch-Bolivian).
During the day we visited the central market
The ethnographic and Indigenous Art museums.
We happened to be in Sucre on the day of the Tarabuco Market 65 km from Sucre. We hired a driver to take us there, wait three hours, and return us to Sucre (300 Bolivianos). The market is known for textiles and there were wonderful items all over the place. We looked at rugs, ponchos, wall hangings, table cloths, bags and lots of other things. There was a regional gastronomy competition. The dishes seemed to consist of potatoes, wheat berries, broth and chili peppers, though I don’t think it was very spicy. There was chicha to drink, but neither of us are fans of fermented corn. Most of the women wore traditional dress to enhance their presentation.
We strolled the main plaza and side streets looking at weavings.
I tried on one hat that looked like it escaped from a marching band.
Another is modeled after Spanish conquistadors helmets. Both men and women wear them.
We bought a bright red patterned rug and a salmon-colored tablecloth as well as a crocheted hat for me and a suitcase to carry it all home.
After Tiwanaku, our goal for Bolivia was to see where Red-Fronted Macaws live in the wild. We drove to Cochabamba, setting out the next day for the Red-Fronted Macaw Lodge. At Aiquile, we turned off the Cochabamba-Sucre road and continued for 40 km on a road under construction until we reached Perereta, a hamlet beside the Mizque River. The landscape is dry and stony with steep cliffs and prickly vegtation. It reminded us of northern Arizona. Our local contact, Don Filemon, was out in his fields when we arrived. It appears we are the first tourists of the season. After a few minutes of uncertainty, a young neighbor showed us where to park. “No one will touch your car,” she said. We left it behind the house of Don Filemon and walked us across the suspension bridge and out to the lodge. We’d brought backpacks with a minimum of clothing for our three nights because it was a 2 km walk to the lodge. We crossed the suspension bridge over the river then cut through fragrant fields of oregano.
We watched others disappear into cracks in the cliff where their nests are located and we heard lots of their bass squawks. The night was impressive too. There were no outdoor lights and we could see the Milky Way looping across the sky. It was spectacular.
The next day we walked along the river, adding more birds to our list. In the afternoon, we walked the edge of the oregano fields. We identified many birds while sitting on the porch of the guest bungalow. This is definitely our kind of birdwatching, sitting at a table with a cold drink and binoculars, sighting new birds both mundane (woodpecker, hornero) and spectacular (blue and yellow tanager). The blue and yellow tanager has a Day-glo orange patch on its back, while the Purple Throated Euphonia looks like a flying peach. We loved it. We managed to keep busy for our two night stay despite the absence of an internet connection. Our birdwatching was successful and we left with an appreciation for this region of dry scrub, red cliffs, and rivers, managing to see twenty-two more species of birds most of which we had never seen before.
The Red-Fronted Macaw Lodge is a hostel type accommodation on the edge of a small refuge that includes the largest remaining breeding area of red fronted macaws, a critically endangered species. The refuge is a project of the civic association Armonia.com in association with local communities including Perereta and San Carlos. The goal is to help the communities benefit from tourism and give them a reason to preserve these birds. Sales of birds to the pet trade is a major cause of this species’ disappearance. They are also considered a pest by corn and peanut farmers. Without advocates, red fronted macaws will disappear.
We went out of our way to visit this reserve because of our own pet red fronted macaw, Simon. He was bred in Florida from birds taken from Bolivia in the 1970s. Based on our experiences, we can attest to the annoying traits of these birds, but Simon is also playful and curious. I no longer think that having a tropical bird as a pet is a good idea. Yes, they are beautiful, playful and intelligent, but they are also easily bored, often neurotic in captivity, plucking out their feathers and screeching incessantly. Most refuges for abandoned tropical birds in the US are full as people realize that their bird is going to be annoying forever. There is no humane way to get rid of them.
In the wild red fronted macaws are beautiful, flashing their olive green, blue, orange, and red feathers as they fly. They are relatively large birds and fly high above the valley floor into their nests in crevices in the stony cliffs. Their distinctive voice, a deeper and louder call than other parrots, echoes across the valley. In such an open space, it doesn’t bother you as it might from inside a cage in your living room.
Though we were enchanted by the opportunity to see Simon’s family in the wild the Red Fronted Macaw Lodge is best visited on a birding tour. When we arrived the housekeeper made us lemonade and asked us which bedroom we wanted, then made up the bed. We were given soap, toilet paper and towels when we asked. Our ability to speak Spanish helped things along. The bed was comfortable and the hot water in the shower worked. The downside to the refuge was the complete lack of information about the refuge, its size, age, how the community partnership works, where trails are located. There is no indication of how the $100 per person per night is used, whether a portion is tax deductible or how it is divided with the community. It was obvious that very little of the fee is used to maintain the guest quarters. That’s why I’d recommend visiting with a birding tour rather than independently as we did. It’s a place best experienced on a tour with a good guide. (The photos of birds are from the internet.)
Most people visit Tiwanaku on a day trip from La Paz, spending about two hours at the site. We set aside two and a half days. After talking to visitors in our La Paz hotel we wondered whether we’d regret booking two nights at the Akapana Hotel around the corner from the site entrance. We could have used another half day beyond the two days we were there. We stayed at the Akapana Hotel, a block from the site. Our room was fine, the top floor restaurant was (grilled llama one night, trout the next). The enclosed parking is a must for us, and we were very comfortable in this miniscule town.
Tiwanaku was an ancient empire that controlled southern Peru and northern Bolivia for centuries (AD 400-900). The capital city lies on the altiplano, a high altitude (3850 m) open plain on the south shore of Lake Titicaca. The lakeshore has receded from the site leaving the gigantic buildings stranded. We began our visit in the afternoon of the day we arrived, starting with the ceramic museum and then following the path to the large pyramid in the center of Tiwanaku, the Akapana. The Akapana looks like a natural hill though some of the terracing used to build it has been reconstructed. From the top you can look out over the other structures. From the ground these are not immediately impressive but they make a satisfying meditative stroll. The upper picture is a reconstruction of the step-sided Akapana. The lower picture is a photo of it today. We followed the paths out to smaller areas, enjoying the view across the landscape and imagining what it was like when it was first occupied. The modern town of Tiwanaku lies on top of what was the living area of the site in ancient times, so not much is known about daily life.
The next day we visited the large enclosure called the Kalasasaya a low platform that was originally walled. On one corner is the best known artifact of Tiwanaku, the Gateway of the Sun. This portal was originally a massive piece of stone heavily carved and inscribed on one side. It was identified in the mid 19th century, already broken into two pieces as it is today. No one is sure where it was originally located and 19th century drawings show that it has been broken into two pieces for at least the past 150 years. The carving is quite detailed, showing the Andean deity often called the Sun God. The image can be traced back through many ancient Andean civilizations.
Tiwanaku is known for a number of monumental stylized human figures, El Fraile and the Ponce Monolith among them. The biggest and best preserved is the Bennett monolith. Identified by the American archaeologist Wendell Bennett in 1932, this statue is over 20 ft high and so impressed people that it was carried off to La Paz and set up in several locations between 1932 and 2002 when it was returned to Tiwanaku. Today it can be seen in the Lithic Museum at Tiwanaku where it dwarfs the room that houses it.
Both the Bennett and Ponce Monoliths (R, L) have fine designs carved over their entire surface, like the Gateway of the Sun.
La Paz has terrible traffic. We picked up our rental car less than 1 km from our hotel and drove back to the parking structure. Sunday morning we planned to drive to Tiwanaku. Google Maps and our phones suggest a route crossing the heart of the city. We opted for the slightly longer highway route that circle the city center. Sunday’s are often a good day to drive in large cities. Traffic can be lighter because it’s not a work day.
Not for us. Today was the first Sunday closing of the highway to permit its use by cyclists. It was only supposed to have closed a single lane, but the entire area was blocked off, so we gritted our teeth and followed the directions on Google maps. What a disaster! Who writes the algorithms that send you from a blocked highway into a Sunday market! We were trapped in a maze of streets as we very very slowly worked our way around a large area blocked off for the day. As we felt our way along the edge of the market, we crossed intersections that let through one car on each green light, another in which all streets were one way the wrong way because the market had closed off the only through street. We fought taxis and combis (van buses) to turn back at two dead ends, waving back the cars coming toward us to the same fate. We seemed to have made it to the far side of the market area after almost an hour and our directions sent us up a hill. The street was open as we started up but there was only one lane, the rest of the street was taken up by parked cars. We got half way up and cars started streaming down. We held up opposite an empty parking space so that vehicles could get around us, waiting for another gap to get the remaining half block.
Car after car funneled into the street. After ten minutes or so, I said, I’ll go up to the corner and stop traffic. Jonathan encouraged me to wait. After all, the street was empty when we started up. Five more minutes and the street was full up to our front bumper. I was getting a bit worried. Just then the front corner of a full-sized bus began to emerge from the right and turn into our lane. I got out of the car and ran the half block up the hill. I forgot we were over 12,000 ft and by the time I arrived in the intersection, panting heavily, the bus was already inching toward Jonathan. Cars were barely moving. I began waving my arms. “Stop! Stop! No! Back!” I shouted at them. I yelled that a car had to get out. No one wanted to stop but I stood in the intersection. A cab tried to get around me, but I stepped toward him waving my arms and using my mom voice. He was going to create gridlock in another few seconds. “Back, back up!” I stepped toward the front bumper of his black station wagon taxi still creeping forward. “BACK!” He began to reverse. Another car began to pull ahead and I waved my hand and shouted “NO.” Then a car indicated it wanted to pull away from the mess in the direction we ultimately wanted to go. I waved them on. Another followed. I looked back down the street. The green and yellow bus was still choking the street, a giant inchworm trying to move ahead. There was some movement, though slight. I turned my head back to the intersection still waving and shouting. Two cars back, the honking began, but I waved my arms, “No, No, Not until it’s clear!” The bus had begun to worm its way past Jonathan. He was almost clear, so I kept shouting.
Two women at a sidewalk stall were grinning at my antics, some crazy foreigner shouting at the traffic in Spanish. Then they pointed and shouted. Jonathan was finally coming up the hill. He stopped in the middle of the intersection, I opened the door, got in and shouted my thanks as we drove off. The ladies waved.Waving my arms frantically and yelling at two lanes of oncoming cars is hard work at 12,000 ft and the second I sat down in the car, I wilted, my head began to burn with a full-on migraine, and I grabbed a bottle of water. It was just overexertion at altitude and in a few minutes my blood pressure was back to normal and we were climbing up the side of the valley away from the city center and on to Tiwanaku. At that point, I opted to pop a mouthful of coca leaves and some activating ingredient, which put my mouth immediately to sleep and then miraculously cured my headache. Some traditional medicine is worth its weight in gold.
Postscript: We may be dumb but we’re not stupid. We are never driving in La Paz again. We’re parking our rental at the airport and taking a taxi in. We learned our lesson.
Jonathan likes markets, and as Thursday is the El Alto market on Av. 16 de abril, we decided to go. When we went to the hotel desk to ask about getting a taxi, one of the bellmen suggested we take a taxi to the main aerial tramway station and ride the tram to El Alto. The ticket is three Bolivarianos a person, about fifty cents, and you get off in the middle of the market. He went on to say that we could make the return journey to the hotel completely by aerial tram, circling the city. It sounded like a bit of a headache, but he said we could buy all the tickets at the start of the journey so we didn’t have to stand in line at each station. We would ride the red line back from El Alto to the end at the central station, the take the orange line to where it ends and then the white line to where it ends just below our hotel. We’d save money on the taxi fare, too.
The taxi ride to the main station convinced us. Traffic was heavy, inching along every street. It took almost a half hour to get to the station. The aerial tramway is a different world. It is new, uncrowded, and clearly marked, with lots of staff. There was almost no line and you get in your eight person gondola while it shuffles along at a snail’s pace. At the end of the runway you swing out and up and you’re over the city with a breathtaking view both down into people’s backyards and out across the valley. I looked up at the valley rim and thought, “We won’t go up there.” We touched down at a station and changed direction, but my smugness evaporated as we swung up and over the edge of the valley into the next valley that holds El Alto, Peru’s second largest city. By the time we arrived in El Alto we were sold on returning by air.
The market was huge, full of every imaginable household item. I bought a nailbrush. We would have bought one of the brooms they sell for sweeping sidewalks made of a bundle of reeds tied together, but neither of us thought we could get one through Peruvian customs.
We followed the suggested plan, paying for the six tickets we needed in order for both of us to get back to the hotel. The ride was spectacular. From El Alto you can see snowcapped mountains ringing the valley, while back in La Paz, Illimani is a single huge beacon over the city. We could see the whole bowl of the city with it’s patch of twenty story buildings right in the center. It was easy to change from one line to the next. There are elevators and elevated walkways that meant Jonathan could avoid stressing his knees. Those who’ve ridden subways know how rare it is to find a seamless system without stairs. Our swing around La Paz, literally, was a good way to get a sense of the city.
Note: The young man at the ticket booth in El Alto didn’t give us all the tickets we paid for. Whether it was an error or by design, count your tickets and your change and politely ask for what’s missing if necessary. To save face, most people will comply.
Whatever I was expecting from LaPaz, it wasn’t the brilliant blue sky capping the overflowing natural bowl that encompasses the city. From our window in the Hotel Stannum we see the snow-covered peak of Illimani southwest of the city center and the houses under construction farther and farther from the center, rising like the foam on a pot about to boil over.
Our trip started with two goals, as archaeologists we must visit Tiwanaku, and after that we wanted visit the last place where red-fronted macaws can be seen in the wild. We have a pet red-fronted macaw currently living with our very generous daughter Amanda. Simon was bred in Florida from birds probably exported from Bolivia in the 1970s. Once we found he was from a critically endangered species, we decided that if the opportunity ever came up, we’d go see his extended family. This is another of the many reasons that no one should have these birds as pets. Too much work, too much guilt. Simon may live to be forty and he’s only about fifteen now.
We found we could round out our visit to Bolivia by stopping in at the Uyuni salt flats. It’s possible to take a tour that lasts four to ten days around the Uyuni area but we are just going to have a look.
I’ll confess to a lapse in planning in that I didn’t realize we needed visas to visit Bolivia until the day before we were leaving. In a panic I called the consulate and found that if you have your paperwork in order and crisp bills to pay the fee of $160 per person fee, you are able to get a visa upon entry, especially at larger crossings like the El Alto airport in La Paz. I hustled around and printed the online-only form, copies of our passports, itinerary, hotel reservations and yellow fever vaccination just for good luck. When we arrived with all this information neatly clipped together, we were rapidly given our visas. The line was short at 12:30 am. Legally in the country, we headed for the hotel, where the full extent of the next cruel lesson hit me. Eat lightly if you are going from sea level to 12,000 feet in two hours. We had dinner in the Lima airport before our 10 pm flight and I did also eat a morsel on the plane. It was a big mistake because my salad in the Lima airport gave me food poisoning. The worst didn’t start until we were at the hotel, so perhaps I have something to be grateful for. Sparing you the details, I spent the next day lying around waiting to feel better. This is why we booked four nights in La Paz at the start of the trip, to acclimatize. I really needed it.
The Stannum Hotel occupies the upper floors of a multiplex/mall/office building. The staff are helpful and their English is very clear, which we appreciate even though we speak Spanish. The kitchen staff even sorted through their cutlery to find the travel teaspoon they inadvertently collected with other dishes. It was easy to find, it’s stamped SWISSAIR. The decor is contemporary and a bit nightclubby, though I enjoy trying out all the unusual shaped chairs. There is a comfortable couch and chair in a small “library” of coffee table books about Bolivia. There’s also a small internet pod on our floor where I can slide the doors shut and make a skype call without awakening my napping husband. Room service was handy when all I could get down was chicken soup. It’s the perfect starting point for us.