Otherworldly Uyuni

There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.

Zen

We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.

The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.

Train conductor on a ghost train

Horror train

After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.

Salt reflections

Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.

On the tripod

Kiss kiss

Big cactus

Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.

A flamingo

Layers of colors

Mathias on his stone

Tuva and the stone tree

The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.

The milky way

The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.

All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.

Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!

Cars in the desert

Posing by the green lagoon

A llama

Salt desert jeep

Shadows in the salt

Interesting stone

Flamingos fighting

No fly zone

Mirror mirror

Thermal pools and the Milky way

See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.

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Bolivians are loco!

Before we came we’d heard rumors about La Paz being a big city like nowhere else, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw as we came driving over the Bolivian Altiplano by bus. The city is located almost 4000 meters above sea level in a huge bowl/valley dug out by a (now underground) river and houses cling to the surrounding hills all around. Just the fact that someone would build such a big and important city in a place like this says a lot about Bolivians, not to mention that the name La Paz (“the peace”) has a stark contrast to its rather violent history of power struggles, dictatorships and coups.

Clinging to the valley

Another thing you recognize pretty fast is that the streets are death traps for pedestrians, and you are best off taking every precaution before crossing the rather narrow and always car-filled roads around the city. Bolivians drive like crazy as if their life depended on getting somewhere before everybody else. If you take a look up from the streets you see a spaghetti mess of power lines going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Being an electrician in Bolivia is probably more like being a brain surgeon with no eyes..the possibility of screwing something up when changing the power lines is almost 100%, and that’s probably why they just keep adding more lines instead of fixing the ones that are there.

Streets of La Paz

Wires

Bolivians seems to be a rather superstitious people, with religious roots to Pachamama mixed with Catholicism. One can clearly see this when visiting the witches market in La Paz, where they sell everything from lucky charms to magic powders (ex. to keep you husband from cheating on you) to dried lama fetuses that they bury under the construction of a new house for good luck. We did the very excellent Red Cap free walking tour and were told that for bigger constructions they use live cows/oxen and supposedly for the most important buildings/constructions (like a bridge) bury live humans (like drunks that no one will miss)…go figure.

Dried llama fetuses

Owls

We were also told some other interesting stories about the infamous San Pedro prison. In this prison the guards only control the outer perimeters and the prisoners themselves control the community within. They are allowed to have wives and kids inside (who go out daily for school and work), and they have housing markets, restaurants and shops, all controlled by the inmates. If you are rich, this is a very good prison to stay in, as some of the best “cells” have 5 star accommodation with several floors and internet among other things. On the darker side the prison is a big producer of cocaine (said to be the best quality), which they manage to get out by bribing the guards. It is also a nesting place for scams on the outside, and the corruption goes right into the local police (and maybe higher up) in order for them to get away with it. There used to be tours in the prison for tourists, but not anymore as a lot of the prison secrets came out with the tourists. It is still possible to visit, but you are not sure to get out (yikes!).

Okay, so Bolivans are pretty crazy, but they are also really nice and we had a good time walking around the streets of La Paz looking at all the wackiness. We also found our favorite lunch food, the salteña, which is very similar to empanadas, only the dough is a bit sweet and not fried, and the inside is like a stew with chicken or beef or vegetables. We found the best salteñas at Paceña la Salteña in Loyza street and ate there everyday for lunch. This is definitely a food we will be making when we get home!

Salteña

Plaza Murillo 2

Guards

Burglar or jewelery salesman?

Heavy load

Colorful shoes

Sleeping beauty

More photos from La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can be found here.

Welcome to the jungle – adventures in the Bolivian Amazon

“Welcome to the jungle” was the first thing we heard as we stepped down from the little propeller flight that had taken us over the Andean mountains from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall and the difference couldn’t have been bigger from chilly and dry La Paz at almost 4000 meters above sea level to hot and humid Rurrenabaque at about 400 meters.

Rurrenabaque is a starting point of many jungle and pampas tours in the Bolivian Amazon. We booked a tour with Mashaquipe, a community-based tour operator, for 3 days/2 nights at the pampas first and 3 days/2 nights in the jungle after. The pampas is very flat with moderately vegetation. It is very dry in the dry-season and flooded in the wet season. The jungle has denser vegetation, more hilly terrain and a big river flowing through.

El mirador

To get to the pampas lodge we had to drive 3 hours on a very bumpy and dusty road that seemed to be almost impossible to drive without a good 4×4 in the wet season. The lodge is situated on the shore of a little river, and we were met by pink river dolphins playing in the river just outside the lodge!

The wet season had just ended, so the pampas was flooded with water and we didn’t get to do any walking on the large plain, instead we relaxed riding along the rivers on a long and skinny boat watching for different monkeys (spider, howler, capuchin, yellow squirrel), pink river dolphins, alligators, caimans, turtles, capybaras (the largest rodent in the world, the size of a pig!), toucans and an abundance of other birds. Our guide, Ismael (or Negro for short (yes, seriously)), put his foot in the water and the dolphins came over to nibble at it gently. We even got to swim in the river with the dolphins, although they weren’t in the most playful mood (it was mating season).  All in all it was pretty darn relaxing..

Cruising on still waters

Stoked to be swimming with dolphins!

Our guide put his foot into the water to play with the dolphins

Yellow squirrel monkey

One of the highlights was the night-trip where we used our flashlights to find caymans and alligators in the river. Their eyes light up in green, yellow and orange, and it was pretty exciting driving up to them and seeing them up-close. We drove back to the lodge in the dark watching the perfect starry sky and listening to the sounds of the amazon, it was magical!

We also had a try at fishing piranhas, using beef as bait. Only the guide did have any luck and caught two small ones, but it was nice just sitting in the lagoon an watching the sun set on the pampas.

Fishing for piranhas

Sunset over the Pampas 1

Stars over the Pampas 1

From the pampas we drove the three hours back to Rurre (that’s what the locals call Rurrenabaque), and continued with a 3D/2N jungle trip the next day, starting with a 3 hour boatride up the river Beni to the Mashaquipe camp inside the Madidi national park.

We spent the days sneaking around the jungle with our guide, Rodolfo, trying to see monkeys, birds and other animals before they saw us, but mostly we only saw a lot of plants and trees, looking up trying to see something move. Often times Rodolfo got really excited because he had heard a sound or could smell something (pipi of monkey, pipi of wild pig (chanchi), odor of puma, …). He was also really excited about all the plants and trees, especially if they might contain some larvae that we could eat, and had a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of the plants in the jungle.

Inside a 500 year old tree

Tarzan in the jungle

Sangre de torro

The jungle is densely forested and it is very difficult to see the animals even if they’re close, and he told us it is easier to see the animals in the dry season (August is best)! What we did see a lot of was assorted bugs, especially ants (and some are huuuuuge and dangerous!), spiders and tarantulas, birds, a snake, and a lot of medicinal plants that was quite interesting. We got to smell, taste and feel a lot of plants and fruits!

Itsy-bitsy spider

Giant ant

Tarantula - our next door neighbour

We spent one night in the main camp and then one night in a “tent”. It was a plastic tarp stretched over a basic frame, and we slept on the ground with just a mosquito net to protect us from all the animals of the jungle (including jaguars, pumas, snakes and wild pigs! Not to mention all the bugs and ants!). It was fine for one night, and definitely an experience listening to all the sounds of the jungle, but one night was enough though. We were basically eaten up by all the mosquitoes during the night. In addition to Rodolfo we also had with us a cook, Wilson, who managed to cook some delicious food in the very basic outdoor kitchen. He was also a very jolly guy and good to have aboard!

A pair of macaws!

A single macaw

Wilson and Rodolfo

Near the campsite was a lovely viewpoint were we could see the beautiful red and blue macaws, as well as a big part of the Madidi. We saw some tayras when walking to the river (weasels), and some huge tarantulas at night. We ended our jungle trip with making a balsa raft and rafting down the river to the lodge. A wet experience but a quiet and great ending to our jungle experience!

Some travel tips to the Amazon

  • The pampas and jungle were two very different experiences and we’re glad we did both. If we had to choose one it might be the pampas, as it was very relaxing at we got to see a lot of animals and birds from the boat.
  • The best time to go is in August when it is at its driest, and you have best possibilities of seeing the animals. The seasons are about the same for the whole Amazon (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil).
  • What’s nice with the Bolivian Amazon is that it’s pretty reasonably priced, not too crowded and the area around Rurre doesn’t have malaria (we started taking malarone pills, but quit because there have never been malaria there). 
  • Choose travel agency wisely. Many of the cheaper companies take shortcuts, are not as environmentally conscious and have large groups, so it might be worth paying a little more for the better companies. We were very happy with Mashaquipe: good guides, good food, good program, responsible, the community gets a part of the profits, and we were only 2-5 people in the group!

Sunrise

Another toucan!

Take-off

Capybara

Turtles taning

The only cat we saw in the jungle..

Relaxing on the river

Cacao fruit

See more pictures from the jungle, pampas and the rest of Bolivia here.