Tag Archives: bolivia

Dried llama fetus? Special love potion? This is La Paz


La Paz (where we were last week for about five days) is curious mix of entertainment and fun with a dark, impenetrable undertone to it. The city gathers South America’s backpackers in its arms and doesn’t let them go easily – if you don’t have an exit plan when you arrive in La Paz, it’s likely that you’ll stay longer than originally planned. 

We were some of those travellers, naively thinking that we’d spend two days there before crossing over to Peru. How wrong we were. The first two days consisted of recovering from our Salar de Uyuni trip and a third day was to recover from a night of 3-for-2 mojitos at an English-style pub. That was when we realised we needed to stay longer in order to see a bit more of the city, so naturally we checked ourselves in to La Paz’s most renowned party hostel – the Irish-run Wild Rover

Did we see much of the city? No. But we did meet some very cool people and had lots of fun. We met an energetic 58-year old woman from the Gold Coast who wasn’t shy in letting the bar know what she thought of the football players on the TV: “Aw, stop whinging and get up ya bloody sheilas!” And we were treated to a lively karaoke rendition of Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival) by a new Irish friend. There was music, there were shots, and there were boobs on the bar (not mine, just so we’re clear). 

The two days went by in a blur so it shouldn’t come as a shock that we really did not see much of the city except for:
  • The Witches Markets – where women sell strange love potions and dried llama fetuses
  • The Coca Museum – in informative journey through the history of coca-growing in Bolivia and subsequently its evolution to becoming cocaine. (Apparently Coca-Cola is still a large buyer of Bolivia’s coca but uses it for flavour only)
The rest of our time was spent catching up on sleep, meandering through the steep market-filled lanes of the city and sipping on the excellent smoothies at 100% Natural. My only conclusion of La Paz in the five short days we were there is that this fiery city unquestionably possesses a cryptic, secretive spirit – one that will take another visit in order to decipher. 
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What happens to people and things at high altitudes

Last week during our Salar de Uyuni tour we reached heights of up to 5,000 metres above sea level. At these heights, many things can happen so here are some recommendations:

  • Nails become very brittle so use nail strengthener if you don't want stumpy fingers (two of mine snapped off).

  • Your skin and lips will be ultra dry due to both the dry climate and the wind, so take a good quality lip balm and some moisturiser.

  • Take a few rolls of toilet paper with you.

  • The nights are very cold. Pack thermals, long socks and a wooly hat.

  • Everything in tubes squirts out all in one go (like my foundation), so open them every few hundred metres as you climb.

  • You may get a wild headache – I tried Ibuprofen and Aspirin but I believe this only fades with acclimatisation (apparently about 15 days).

  • Further to that, I've been told that garlic can help, so pack some garlic pills.

  • You feel more tired and it's harder to climb up hills, so avoid alcohol, sleep more and walk slowly.

  • Batteries wear out faster so take spare batteries and keep them warm (I slept with mine).

  • Finally….static electricity is created merely by getting in or out of your sleeping bag so don't be surprised if you see and hear sparks in the middle of the night!

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Southern Bolivia in a 4×4


Last Monday we embarked on our Salar de Uyuni four-day tour. However, the tour name is inexact as the Salar (salt flats) is only visited on the final day – the other three days are filled with similarly breathtaking but extremely varied landscapes of southern Bolivia.

We left Tupiza with Grano de Oro tours after hearing several positive reviews from other travellers on the way. Our guide and driver was Ruben, our cook was Rosemary, and a French couple on their honeymoon, Lea and Xavier, were our trip buddies.



As we steeply climbed out of Tupiza for four days of unpaved wilderness I thought, “Hmmm, there is not much between our vehicle and the bottom of these very deep gorges that seem so close to the gravel tracks.” I felt my palms go clammy as I held on tightly to the door-handle, while wondering what would be the best position to adopt if we did take a tumble a hundred metres down one of these drops just inches away. Thankfully, we passed this first part of the drive with no incident, thanks to Ruben’s fast-paced but careful driving. The first day consisted mostly of driving, with short stops for photos and lunch. The final stop of the day was a very basic mud hostel where we spent our first, freezing night of the tour.

I cannot describe how cold this place was. The high altitude contributes to a very cold, dry environment. Four layers of clothing, a sleeping bag and four blankets could not stop me from shivering as I tried to fall asleep. To make matters worse, the toilet was outside across the courtyard and there was a horrific stuffed puma nearby that looked like a very amateur taxidermy attempt. Needless to say, I held on till the morning.


On the morning of our second day I welcomed the sun’s warming rays with open arms. What a relief! My favourite lake of the day was Laguna Verde (Green Lake), which takes its colour from a combination of arsenic and sulphur. Fascinatingly, you can find fossils of corals in a large part of southern Bolivia as many millions of years ago it was all underwater. To Ruben’s excellent soundtrack of 80’s love songs the other highlights of the day included geysers, red deserts and a thermal pool – apparently the highest in the world at around 4,000 metres above sea level. When we arrived it was already overflowing with other enthusiastic travellers but with the crisp air temperature and sharp breeze, I wasn’t game enough to take a dip.


Our second night was more comfortable temperature-wise, but because we had reached 5,000 metres above sea level I had a horrendous headache and consequently had very little sleep. Luckily we had our own room that night, so I was able to mutter away angrily without bothering too many people!

The morning of our third day began with a relaxing stop at Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake) where we watched hoards of flamingos and a few llamas starting their day. We couldn’t help but sit silently and watch, as if in fear that our sounds would disturb the scene.



We continued along the red desert toward one of the main attractions in the area, the “rock tree”, a strange formation shaped by thousands of years of wind erosion that stands in the middle of a flat desert plain. Many more strangely coloured, beautiful lakes paved the way as we crossed remote railway tracks before arriving at out final overnight destination – a salt hotel near the Salar. 


Up at 5.30am the last morning we left to see the sun rise over the the vast, white surface of the Salar de Uyuni. The sky turned from black to a medley of blues, purples and pinks, all mirroring on the patterned salt surface to make for a dreamlike scene.

Breakfast was served at the base of the Salar’s most central island, Inca Huasi, and then it was time for the fun part – an hour of the obligatory depth-perception “trick” photography.


After a day of hearing the slat crack beneath our feet we left the Salar for the closest town of Uyuni. We arrived exhausted but with our memory cards and minds filled with scenes of beauty. We had several hours to kill before our 1.45am train to Oruro, so we checked in to a hotel for a rest. As I lay down I thought about why more people haven’t been to this part of the world. Here is probably why: It’s not easy – it’s cold, the altitude can be demanding on your body and the basic facilities leave you craving familiar, homely comforts. The tracks are not paved and the distances covered each day are considerable – an average of 10 hours each day.

But here’s why more people should do it: the landscapes are utterly unbelievable and that simple fact makes every moment of night-time shivers and squatting behind rocks completely worth it. 

Grano de Oro – email elgranodeorotours@hotmail.com (Sylvia (the owner) can understand English)
Price was USD180 per person for 4-day tour, including all accommodation meals and water but excluding National Park entry (30 Bs) and hot shower on the final night (10 Bs). You can also hire a sleeping bag for 50 Bs.
My recommendation is to depart from Tupiza instead of Uyuni so you can see the Salar at sunrise on the final day rather than in the afternoon of the first day.
Note: other tour companies start and finish in different locations including San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

See my next blog post for tour and altitude tips. 






All images appearing on this blog (solange.posterous.com) may not be reproduced, copied or manipulated without the written permission of Solange Francois© 2010



Crossing the border into Bolivia with altitude sickness

The day we entered into Bolivia was a long one. Up at 5.45am, we were collected by a cab at 6.30am after rapidly inhaling some breakfast. Our bus from Salta to La Quiaca left at 7am, and after countless stops in small towns and villages, we arrived at the Argentinean border city at 2.30pm.

This is where it got a little confusing, and perhaps the altitude was getting to me by this stage. We actually left Argentina without realising (and thus, without getting an exit stamp) so we had to go back to the Argentinean side to get our stamps before entering Bolivia. The Bolivian border city is called Villazón and here we filled out our forms in a little room inhabited by more flies than people, then changed some cash over, put our clocks back one hour and caught a cab to the train station.

The magic that is the World Wide Web had advised us that at least in southern Bolivia, the train is preferable to the bus so we bought our tickets in first class to Tupiza, put our bags in the hold and hopped on a carriage that was filled solely with foreigners, including two Australians that had been at our hostel in Bariloche. The 2 hours and 45 minutes on the train only cost us 51 Bolivianos each which is roughly $10, and included a sandwich, a bottle of Fanta, a long-drop onto the train tracks, The Perfect Storm on the TV and the first glimpses of spectacular Bolivian landscapes.

By the time we arrived in Tupiza the dull ache in my head and my tired, droopy eyes were enough to be putting me in a little bit of a grumpy mood, but after a solid 8-hour sleep the only remnant of altitude sickness was breathlessness from walking around*. At 3,650 metres above sea level the air is thin.

*Note: I spoke far too soon – more on altitude sickness to come in an upcoming post

The following day was a lazy one – all we did was sleep in, book our Uyuni tour and wander around the town. Here are some fun facts and a few hints about Tupiza:

  • There are 4 sizes of pizza: Small, Medium, Large and Gigantic

  • They don’t have the cocktail ‘Sex on the Beach’ but they do have ‘Sex on the Glacial Lake’

  • Most of the restaurants appear to be Italian

  • You can get an entree, main dish and a soft drink for about 20 Bolivianos (or NZD$5)

  • When you go to change currency, change only half of what you want to change and see if they offer you a better rate if you come back and change more the next day

  • That being said, change your money at the border because you’ll get a better rate than in the smaller cities

  • Further to that, ensure you have cash (Argentinean Pesos, USD or Euros) as there are no ATM’s in Tupiza and only one in Uyuni (which apparently doesn’t always work)


    All images appearing on this blog (solange.posterous.com) may not be reproduced, copied or manipulated without the written permission of Solange Francois© 2010


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