We have travelled to over 60 countries in the last 15 years, from Greenland to French Polynesia, but when I think of a journey of a lifetime, our trip to Bolivia comes to mind for several reasons.
For starters, till a few years ago, one couldn’t get a visa to Bolivia from India at all as they had no embassy in India (now it is visa on arrival for Indians); for seconds, the Bolivian landscape is unparalleled around the world; thirdly, it is one of the few places in the world still far enough from commercialisation to have retained its original character to a very large degree. Oh, and finally, we also had some of our craziest adventures there.
But let’s start at the beginning. Five days in Bolivia were a part of our month long travel plan across South America. We were starting out from Chile, and since we had to apply for our visa in Santiago, we had two itineraries ready — one for if we got the visa to Bolivia and one for if we didn’t. I had taken a three-month course in Spanish before the trip and it came in handy while explaining to the authorities that we did not intend to make home in La Paz (clearly with our minimalist luggage it looked like we could make home anywhere). Visa in hand, we flew to San Pedro de Atacama and took a 4WD tour from there to Uyuni, driving through and staying in the salt flats for two nights to start the epic journey through Bolivia.
Salar de Uyuni is one of the few places in the world where one can use the adjective “awe-inspiring” in the truest sense of the term. Most people do this three-day tour starting on the Bolivian side in Uyuni, but we went from San Pedro to Uyuni, making the ride marginally cheaper. Day one was spent exploring the colourful side of this incredibly large area — we saw the Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorada — white, green and colourful lakes in that order. Against the stark blue of the sky and grey of the mountains, the lakes stood out like beautiful oases. Laguna Colorada had wild flamingos basking around and their beauty was doubly enhanced by the stark background. Unfortunately, it was extremely windy and in the sub-zero temperatures of winter, I could barely stay out of the vehicle long enough for a quick photo op, this despite wearing all the clothes I owned! We moved on to a small house at a height of nearly 4,500m for the night. This was, by far, the most isolated stay we had ever had. With no electricity, deathly cold, altitude sickness and insomnia, we passed the night swapping travel stories with the French and British couples (who we were sharing the 4WD with) over endless cups of ‘MATE’ te the coca. Morning bought in some unexpected hardships. We woke up to zero drinking water as the bottles had frozen overnight. After a breakfast and loo break near some mud pools and a chance to soak in a hot spring (I was shy enough those days, not to go in) we visited the Salvador Dali Desert — called so because of the odd shapes that the rocks have been whipped to by the winds. The landscape was every photographer’s dream.
Our next night was spent at a farm stay and we got a full meal after nearly 24 hours. With such little rest and a 4 am start to the third day, I expected to sleep through the first few hours of the drive. But that was not to be, thanks to the dramatic change in the landscape. From the colourful lake area, we had moved to the bare, white and endless salt flats. The wind was down to a breeze, and, all around, the white salt hexagons were spread out like a sheet for endless miles. But nothing could compare with the sight of the rising sun in the salt flats. We saw the sun rise from our shadows that extended threefold in length. The bare spread of white, with nothing in the background to give a sense of scale, became our happy hunting ground over the next few hours. All six of us went crazy clicking perspective photos of each other. The vastness of the salt flats was emphasised by how tiny the big 4WDs looked from on top of the island.
A break in the blindingly white landscape comes from the Isla Incahuasi – Fish Island. No one had any idea why it was called that, since all that the island had was giant cacti. A quick visit to the Salt Hotel (at Colchani) later we were off to the last of the wondrous sites — the train cemetery near the town of Uyuni. This is the place where trains too old to be used were dumped. Littered with rusty monstrosities, the vast brown land gave us another round of amazing photos inspired by the famous last scene of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge!
Our tour of the salt flats over, we decided to skip staying in the town of Uyuni and take the night bus to La Paz. It turned out to be a journey quite like the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. The road was extremely bumpy and it felt like the bus was jumping a few feet in all directions. The windows rattled and let in chilling drafts of air and fine dust. We reached La Paz after 10 hours with rattled bones and inch-thick dust all over ourselves and on our baggage.
Having not really made it to the commercialised era, La Paz retained a strong flavour of its own that can range from the dangerous to the bizarre. Apparently, the most dangerous pass in the world is the Paso Peligroso, a narrow half-tunnel like road hugging the mountains on the outside of La Paz, famous for being featured in one of the Bond movies. We gave it a pass. On the bizarre front, the locals believe that burying a llama fetus in the foundation of a building brings good luck, so we saw a street full of just that — llama fetuses.
Of our adventures I will speak another time, but suffice it to say that we were abandoned not once, not twice, but almost three times in the crossing of Lake Titicaca from Bolivia to Peru and our threats to defame the perpetrators on social media fell on deaf ears. It was 2009 after all. The only social media around then was Orkut and the bus’s passengers were barely literate. Internet access seemed to be the last thing on their minds.
Bolivia is not for the faint-hearted, but it is precisely for this reason that it should make it to your bucket list.
Marketer by day and blogger by night, backpacking mama Pooja Sardana travels to exotic destinations with toddlers in tow. She blogs at thebackpackingmama.com