Visiting Oruro outside Carnaval – YES OR NO?

Oruro. A name not as well known as La Paz, a city high up in the mountains and Governmental Capital of Bolivia, only to be followed closely by Sucre, the actual Capital of the country. Besides that, places like the Salar de Uyuni, Copacabana and Lago Titicaca score high on the ‘which-places-do-I-actually-know-in-Bolivia’ list. Only when it comes to celebrating carnaval in Bolivia, it appears that people start to recognize the sounds of its name. Oruro. Capital of Carnaval and Folklore in Bolivia.

I have to admit that I didn’t know why I went to Oruro. At that moment, I was still preparing to go to Sajama – Mountain in the East of Bolivia, close to Chile, seems to be extraordinarily beautiful, but hard to get to and I sadly didn’t make it there. It’s settled on number 1 to do when and if I get back to Bolivia. -, wether it would be alone or with a travel partner I’d found along the way, I wasn’t sure yet. I had no clue as to what to do once there, the only thing I knew about Oruro was its association with Carnaval. With 3 months to go until february, Carnaval would be a no-no. Having looked online and found none of the ‘usual’ hostels – Even when I don’t like staying in party hostels for example, having them in a city means you have a backpacker crowd + things to do and people to meet – it meant the city obviously wasn’t on the usual backpacker’s route, making it all the more interesting to visit for me.

After a long busride from Potosi to Oruro, arriving in the dark at Hostal Graciela was a blessing. Mainly because of the small Mexican restaurant right next to it, serving the best Mexican food – besides the flautas Ale made for me in Quito, a story I haven’t told you yet – I had since leaving Mexico. – Okay, I admit, a Mexican restaurant in a Bolivian city is not a reason to visit said city, but it definitely helps knowing you can find some decent foreign food. – I was hungry and it made me all the happier to know that Alejandro, the manager of both restaurant and hostel, offered a ‘Free Walking Tour’ of the city the next day.

Jezus and his Monsters…Painting inside the Church of the Virgin del Socavón

GIANT ANTS, DANCING DEVILS AND THE VIRGIN

Most of the history and legends of Oruro I’ve got to know is thanks to Alejandro and his tour that day. I loved it, I loved the city for it and in hindsight I wish I spent a bit more time there before rushing over to La Paz. Oruro is a city filled to the brim with local legends and folklore, situated on the Altiplano, about 3700m above sea level. The Uru Uru tribe lived in there long before the Incas ruled the area. After the Spanish colonialists arrived, they took the land and founded a city that got quite wealthy through tin mining – Until the biggest tin mine ran out of tin, that is. -. Up until now the local economy is still based upon the different mining activities in the mountains surrounding the city, which is named Oruro after the Spanish mispronounced the old Uru Uru’s name. – So far the history lesson, I’m not an historian, so hopefully I could somehow summarize centuries of history in a couple of sentences. – Just to give you a quick idea what to expect when visiting: a ton of indigenous influences, a city filled with hills, which can leave you out of breath if you’re not yet accustomed to the high altitude and Oruro is very proud of it’s cultural heritage, a mixture of old legends and Christian religion.

Traditional costumes for upcoming Carnaval
Masks and costumes for Carnaval

One of the first things I saw and visited with Alejandro, was a mural about the 4 plagues that threatened the city after the Urus stopped to pray and obey their gods: giant Hormigas (ants), a giant Sapo (toad), a giant Vibra (viper) and a giant Lagarto (lizard). Luckily, the city was saved by the Virgin del Socavón, Mary of the Mineshaft, who was warned by Chiru Chiru – a Bolivian Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave it to the poor, with his hiding place in the mineshafts around the city -, she turned the huge beasts into creatures of sand and stone. Even now you can visit their corpses, the Ants being Los Arenales, a type of Sand dunes at the northeast, the Serranía de Asiruni being the body of the Viper in the south, you’ll be able to find the Toad in the north and the Lizard is the rock formation at Cala Cala to the east. The mixture of legends becomes even more interesting when you know that Chiru Chiru has been guarded by the Virgin del Socavón until he died. Being stabbed in the heart while robbing one of his victims, he escaped and dragged himself to safety into one of the mineshafts. The Virgin came to his side and stayed with him on his deathbed. Later, when miners discovered his corpse, they saw the image of the Virgin above him, becoming the Virgin del Socavón – Socavón literally means mineshaft – which you can still visit in Oruro. To honor him, the miners dressed like Devils and went around the shafts – the Devil is the watchman of the inner earth according to Aymara beliefs -, giving birth to a tradition that is repeated in the Diablada, the traditional devil dance during Oruro Carnaval. With giant Ants and Vipers, the Virgin of the Mineshaft and Devils, you know now what to expect: Oruro is filled to the brim with street art, depicting their local legends. – The worst thing is that I enjoyed my walk around the city so much I forgot to take pictures… – Around every corner you’ll find murals and paintings of monsters and devils. The city has built a new cable car up the mountain where one of the biggest Virgins of Latin America stands – of course, what did you expect? –, with the interiors of both stations decorated completely with dancing devils when you start your ride at the bottom, to arrive and see angels at the top. I absolutely loved it.

Traditional masks for the Diablada dances
The Virgin looking down upon us…from the highest viewpoint in Oruro
Tons of viewpoints throughout the city

Besides street art depicting monstruous beasts, Oruro has a ton of squares dedicated to Bolivian history. Sitting on a bench, you can watch and read about several historical battles, the loss of their coastline being the most important one. The Bolivians still didn’t get over the fact they’ve lost their coastline to Chile, nota bene on the day they celebrated Carnaval and nobody had a clue what was going on – read: too drunk celebrating – until it was too late. One of the squares is known for different street food stalls selling delicious llama chorizo – only llama chorizo, no options for vegetarians/vegans I’m afraid – which is worth the stop. Bolivia being quite cheap for somebody that had the luck beeing born in Europe, it’s a pleasure eating and drinking in a city like Oruro, where tourism is non-existent and you’re able taste local delicacies for very little money.

Oruro surrounded by the altiplano
More Oruro
The brand new Teleferico leading up to the Virgin viewpoint
Devils dotting the walls of the Teleferico Station

Surrounded by Devils in this city
Be carefull with long dresses and cats on the escalator

Another highlight is the local market next to the church of the Virgin del Socavón. It is huge, stretching over several hills and a place where you can literally buy everything, from televisions to fruits to toys to llama fetuses. Yep, also here you’ll have the local witch market and on the contrary to the one I’ve visited in La Paz – not even sure if I visited the right one – there were no other foreigners in sight. Alejandro asked to stay respectful and keep facial expressions under control, as this is the genuine belief of people, how strange and revolting it can be to others. Also here I didn’t take any pictures, out of respect for the local believes and because I tend to forget thinking about my camera when I’m fascinated – or having fun or making memories – by the things I see. Living in the moment, I guess.

Instead of guiding us around the city in a normal hour-and-a-half tour as most free walking tours do, Alejandro guided us around the city for FIVE hours. I learned a shitload of facts and figures about Bolivia, got fascinated by local beliefs and the mixture of ancient and new religions mingled together, ate delicious food, saw all the main sights and had. so. much. fun. If you want to get a feeling of the real Bolivia and stay for away of tourist crowds, this is it. Oruro is waiting for you.

Altiplano around Cala Cala
Little walk over the altiplano
Rock paintings on the altiplano

ANCIENT PAINTINGS ON THE ALTIPLANO

I’m one of those travelers that doesn’t leave the home without a travel guide. I know, internet is there to guide us all, travel bloggers have been roaming around the globe providing us with free information just one click away. Still, I can’t withstand the urge to leaf through a guide and start dreaming about all the possible adventures I could have in my destination. But mostly, the guides cover places you haven’t read about before. So, the first thing I checked in Oruro was my Lonely Planet: what have we got here? Apparently, there isn’t written much about this city outside of Carnaval, but the name Cala-Cala came up and got me triggered. Visiting the altiplano, seeing some ancient Llama murals…yep, that sounded like I had plan.

The only problem was getting there. Again, a destination not covered by hordes of travel influencers means there’s very little information available about how to visit these murals. Apparently, you had to take a taxi to the village of Cala Cala, ask around at the village for the lady with the keys of the fence – to get to the murals, duh -, pay the entrance fee and you’d be ready to enjoy some ancient paintings. Which leaves you with a bit of a problem if you can’t find the lady with the keys, because who’s going to let you in? We – Magali and me, an Argentinian girl I’ve shared the room and the walking tour with – were doubting what to do, when our hostal offered a solution: Louis, born and bred in Oruro, wanted to show us around for a bit extra, providing us with a small guided tour and a back up plan in case we couldn’t locate the lady-with-the-keys. Well, better than not to go, I suppose?

Pretty high altitude
Walkway surrounding the painted walls, with magnificent views
llama’s!!!
The Lady-with-the-keys wanted a picture with us
Teaching us about the altiplano
The entrance of the Cala Cala cave paintings. We kind of skipped that part…

Instead of Luis, Alejandro’s dad – you know, Alejandro who guided us through Oruro – accompanied us over the altiplano, to the village, asking around for the lady, not finding her. We left anyway, driving up to the fence and entering through a hole cut in the side, close to the wooden walkway leading up to the walls and rock where we’d be able to see the paintings. – Remembering the free hot-springs in Costa Rica I once visited…free because there was a hole cut into the fence protecting it. The ideal way for locals to enjoy those springs without paying exorbitant fees. – Once on the wooden walkway, we could enjoy the wall and cave paintings up close: mainly llamas and stick figures, probably made during rituals preformed during the Inca reign. Or maybe older, nobody knows for sure who painted them… Anyway, ten minutes after we climbed through the fence, a dusty cloud indicated a visitor coming to the entrance. A quite agitated Doña Marta, we learned later on. First she was upset when she saw us there, but after she realized we did went around the village asking for her first – how could she otherwise know we were there? – she softened up and started explaining more about the paintings and surrounding nature. She seemed quite happy to have some foreign visitors and posed for a picture with us, which I needed to send her later on through Whatsapp. End good, all good. We had a small walk on the altiplano afterwards, before driving to the remnants of the Giant Lagarto. – It is a rock. Not even a pretty one…but hey, it’s a nice story – Hungry, we went for lunch in a local village on the way back, where I’ve felt like the only white-non-latina person who set foot in the village ever before. Tasting a local BBQ under suspicious stares of the locals before heading back to the city after our little adventure outside.

ORURO: YAY OR NAY?

Oruro surprised me in so many positive ways, even though I didn’t spend that much time inside the city. I was seriously doubting to spend some time there at all, mainly because the lack of information of what to do and see outside the Carnaval period. As you’ve already read, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and hope that, after reading this, you might consider giving Oruro a chance. And maybe taste some delicious llama chorizos while doing that. – Or one of Alejandro’s tasty quesadillas… I still feel ashamed promoting a Mexican place in Bolivia, but can I help it that nothing beats Mexican food? –

Tupiza to Uyuni – More than the world’s most famous Salt Flats

I guess you’ve seen them already. The pictures. Blinding white landscapes as far as the eye can reach. Octangular shapes, endlessly repeated until they disappear in the horizon. A dinosaur chasing 4 terrified people. Some warmly clad humans entering a packet of chips. The Salt flats in Uyuni have been the adult playground of travelers and backpackers since year and day. It won’t surprise you then to say some places can be quite ‘busy’. Hurdes of tours groups doing the same route, day in day out, and hey, why not? It’s worth the view after all. Not only to take those funny riding-a-giant-llama photos or carry yourself to the top of Insla Incahuasi to be the first to see the sunrise over that huge sea of salt. Actually, it’s the road towards the world’s most famous Salt Flats that let me fall completely and hopelessly in love with Bolivia.

Salar de Uyuni in the early morning light.

Most tours – Yep, you need to take a tour. High altitude and no real ‘villages’ with a constant food and water supply means it is not recommended to DIY in the area. You’ll probably get lost too. – start in Uyuni, let you discover the Salt Flats on the first day and continue the next day and a half through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – quite the mouthfull – with hot springs, geysers, lakes at high altitude and tons of flamingos. All tours will stop at the same points, which means that the chances on having a bit of alone time with Mother Nature will be close to zero. Yes, I know, Bolivia is a country not yet on the masstourism radar, but places like this are well known and, well, basically everybody visiting Bolivia wants to go and see the Salt Flats in Uyuni. Bummer. Or not?

Tupiza – Landscape at the Puente del Diablo.

WILD WILD WEST VIBES IN TUPIZA

Doing my research, I stumbled upon an alternative. The city of Tupiza, a.k.a. The Wild Wild West of Bolivia, is another startpoint for tours to the Salt Flats. Even more, they have an extra day included in the tour, making it a 3 nights 4 days instead of the standard 2 nights 3 days trips leaving from Uyuni. The tour itself is a bit more expensive, since you pay for one day extra driving, the guide, food and a night extra. You’ll visit a part of Los Lipez and the Pueblo Fantasma – a deserted mine village at 4690m altitude – which is not included in the tours running from Uyuni. The biggest advantage for me, however, is the route: you visit the most famous sites on different times than the fleet of 4X4’s coming from the opposite direction. Less people is always the better option in my opinion, one of the main reasons why I decided to start the tour in Tupiza.

Tupiza Town.
Street art in Tupiza Town.

When in Tupiza, Lorena – the awesomest Colombian travelpartner, I met her in Sucre and we travelled together for about 2,5 weeks – and I went ‘tour-shopping’: we literally checked every tour agency in the area, asking the prices for the 4-day tour to Uyuni and what would be included. Be ready to negotiate, especially if you’re a bigger group and willing to book another tour: you might be able to get more bang for your bucks. In the end we got a nice deal at a small, independent tour operator: for 1275 BOB we had the 4day/3night tour from Tupiza to Uyuni and a 4×4 and Mountainbike tour through the beautiful red rock landscape surrounding Tupiza. If you know that every tour operator offered us the 4day/3night tour for at least 1200 BOB, we did get a nice offer. 1200 BOB is about 150€, knowing that one of the girls on our tour paid 200$/175€ only for the 4-day tour – which she booked online and took together with us – we knew we did the right thing.

Lorena (left) and me ready to discover the landscapes of Tupiza.
Interesting red rocks.
Reddish landscapes and cacti all over the place.
Enjoying the view of El Sillar before cycling back to Tupiza.
View from El Sillar.

First: our cycling adventure through the dusty red landscapes of Tupiza – only the second day we would be making our way to the world’s most famous Salt Flats -. Names as El Puente del Diablo. Valle de los Machos. Cañón del Inca. El Sillar. Places that don’t say much to you now, but watch the pictures and you’ll see the typical landscapes of Tupiza: dusty roads, dry red rocks, cacti all over and just. So. Many. Incredible. Views. We had a lot of fun taking pictures, mountainbiking down from El Sillar back to Tupiza – Of course, I was the slowest…didn’t like going too fast with the option making a free fall if I would miss one of the curves. Lorena however is a monster on the bike, she loved speeding down.

Anyway, there are no reasons not to stay in Tupiza for a while, before you hop in the jeep to do your tour. There are plenty of things to do, sights to see and Tupiza town is way prettier than Uyuni itself!

First llama’s of the trip!

TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 1

Eight o’clock in the morning: our backpacks ready on the roof of our jeep, the bananas for breakfast still being chewed in our mouths and we had a small bag filled to the brim with food and snacks to for the four days inside our 4X4. We were more than ready to leave, only needed to wait for the cook and our two fellow travelers to arrive. Which they – obviously – did, one by one, on foot, with a backpack, as ready as Lorena and me where. Day 1 is the day with most of the driving: past the famous view of El Sillar, which we visited the day before with the bike, higher and higher up, until you might be happy to chew on a couple of coca leaves offered by your guide. The altiplano, vast and wide planes at high altitudes, llama’s and vicuñas chewing intensely at the side of the road. Lunch at a tiny village, almost solely catering to people on their way to Uyuni.

Our jeep at the first stop.
Views on Pueblo Fantasma.

After noon, the landscapes became even more wild, more mountaineous, while we drove higher and higher, until we reached the ‘Pueblo Fantasma’ – the Ghost Village – in the Los Lipez area. The village is an old miner town, once used by the first Spanish settlers in colonial times to suppres the local community and exploit them working in the mines. At the height of 4690m altitude, only the walk to the village can leave you gasping for air. Imagine doing extremely heavy work, as a slave, in those circumstances… . Now long deserted, it became a rather eerie place. A real Ghost village. To shake away the negative spirits, we drove further, until we reached the highest point on our trip: Laguna Morijon, a stunning 4855m high. If I’ll need to write one thing: the landscapes are just incredible. I have no words to describe them, but I can still see them vividly when I close my eyes.

Views from Pueblo Fantasma.
Signage to the old church.
Laguna Morijon.

The day finished in Quetena Chico, a tiny village within the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, West Bolivia, close to the border with Chile. The guest house were we’d spend the night had three other groups located in there, all as tired and famished as us. After dinner, the whole lot went to bed as soon as possible, too tired of the past day.

TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 2

Our guide warned us the next day that we would be the first ones to leave Quetena Chico, so at 6h30 in the morning our Jeep was already on its way to our first stop: Laguna Hedionda. This day is by far my favorite, I still can’t get over the fact you can see that many breathtaking views in one single day.

Laguna Hedionda, with flamingos.

Laguna Hedionda is a huge lake, consisting of Borax and different other minerals that give it a typical white with pink colour…imagine this in the soft morning light with a bunch of flamingos sleeping standing in the water. Magical views. As the other jeeps left later than us, we were completely alone and could enjoy our small walk around the lake to the fullest.

Stop number two and three were another lake filled with Borax and the Salar de Chalviri, a small salt flat, much less famous than the one we would see two days later. We passed Laguna Chalviri, were we would return to after the next stop.

Laguna Verde. According to our guide, the lake changes into the most intense green around 11 o’clock in the morning and no way we wanted to miss that. Incredibly beautiful, with the volcano Licancabur in the background and right at the frontier with Chile. Honestly, I can’t say anything else besides the landscapes seemingly being from another planet.

After a small stop in the desierto de Dali – Dali’s desert, only named because the landscape looks a lot like it could be painted by the famous artist…not that he ever visited the place. – we drove back to Laguna Chalviri, to warm up inside the hotsprings bordering the lake. With views on a bunch of wild vicuñas roaming the waterside. Could it get any better?

Wild Vicuñas at the side of Laguna Chalviri.
Desierto de Dali.
Laguna Verde with volcan Licancabur in the background.
Lorena (left) and me enjoying our time at Laguna Verde.

Apparently, yes. After lunch at the hotsprings, one stunning view after the other got followed by a visit to the badly reeking but fascinating Geotermas Sol de Mañana, geysers that left your clothes smelling like sulfur. Last highlight of the day, however, was the Laguna Colorada. You would say, after seeing that many lakes in one day, the last one wouldn’t really impress me anymore? Wrong at that. The lake is gigantic, with almost all colours of the rainbow, tons of flamingos living on the water and llama’s roaming the sides to get their daily amount of grass chewed away. Stunning. Breathtaking. Magical. I guess my English vocabulary isn’t enough to describe the natural beauty I’ve seen that day. For this Natural Reserve alone I would already take the tour again.

Me at the hot springs, looking over Laguna Chalviri.
The four of us, sharing this amazing tour together.
Geysers with all the colours and smells you can think of…
Laguna Colorada.
Eating llama’s at the side of Laguna Colorada.
Baby llama’s!

TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 3

After hot showers and a breakfast, the whole Jeep was ready to start part 3 of our trip. We left the Reserva and had again, another type of landscapes ahead of us. Volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes, llama’s and ostriches all over the place and a guide that liked to take all the pictures. I’m not really the one for posing too much, so I left my group and went to walk around a bit by myself, to join them later on when Lorena convinced me to take pictures at some natural windows in the rocks. With plenty of chinchilla’s, jumping fast when they saw us approaching. The whole day was lighthearted, with less dramatic landscapes and more laughs of having fun outside. Laguna Negro – another lake, yes, still different – surrounded by another canyon, proved nice to have a walk to the lake and try to count how many chinchilla’s were hidden on the rocks. We lost count. The Anaconda Canyon, with the river coiling like a snake through the landscape. A lovely pick nick outside.

Window posing.
Different landscapes. Again.
Laguna Negra.
Anaconda Canyon. Can you see the snake?

The afternoon was one long ride towards our Salt Hotel at the side of our final destination, the Salar the Uyuni. One small stop at a village where the people solely lived from money made by salt extraction. With one tiny bar offering local quinoa / corn / potato beers. At 3 pm we finally reached the hotel, installed ourselves and had some time to relax after three hectic days on the road. Some of us slept a bit, some went to have a walk between the cacti and I just took some pictures and drank tea in the living room. Pure bliss for the introvert inside of me. Later on we celebrated our last evening with a huge lasagna and a bottle of wine between the four of us and our guide. Not too late however, we had to leave at 4 am in order to see the sun rise over the Salt Flats.

Village close to the Salar de Uyuni.
Landscape before reaching our Salt Hotel.
View from the hotel.
Our hotel, literally made out of salt. Yes, I licked the floor. Just to make sure.

TUPIZA TO UYUNI – THE DAY OF THE SALT FLATS – DAY 4

An early start, but what a start. We took off at 4.30 am and were affraid we would miss the sunrise: a slice of light was already visible at the horizon. A small stop in the middle of the vast Salt Flats was necessary so we could enjoy the starts before racing to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of cacti in the middle of the Salt Flats and by far the best spot to enjoy the sunrise. We arrived just on time and ran – well, the others ran a bit faster than me, I still wasn’t too good at exercising at that altitude – to the top. Besides us, another jeep with four Dutch girls arrived, so both our groups made it in time to see the sunrise. Silent. Peaceful. Until our peace got broken by another two, three groups, entering loudly and spreading out, trespassing the signs that indicated you to stay on the trail. NOT OK. – Please, if you are visiting Isla Incahuasi, stay on trail. No need to pass between the cacti, signs are there for a reason. To protect the area. Show some respect. – Gone was our peace, but still, it didn’t stop us to admire the views and enjoy the Salar de Uyuni, our final destination after spending 3 days together in a small jeep.

Morning view upon the Salar de Uyuni, from Isla Incahuasi.
Cacti on Incahuasi.
Time for breakfast.
Isla Incahuasi.
Salt crystal.
Having fun on the Salt Flats.
Our jeep, minus the guide that was taking the picture.
All the flags of the world. Well, almost.
Train Cemetery. Didn’t find a spot without trash.

With the sun up and shining, the time had come to eat our breakfast and explore the Salar. We walked a good part on the salt flats until the otherside of the island, snapping pictures and enjoying to be there. In the spot. Our guide picked us up and sought a good spot for us to start taking the obligatory but not to be missed perspective pictures. Remember, the dinosaur eating humans and the four people walking into a bag of crisps? Yep, those pictures. We had so much fun, saw the sun rising higher and started shedding clothes the hotter it became. We had a blast. – Don’t forget to rub sunscreen on your face…mine got the tint of cooked lobster after two hours on the Salar. Not such a good idea… – Our time together in the jeep was slowly coming to an end. After a visit to the biggest Salt Hotel and the space where everybody planted his flag, we reached the other side of the Salt Flats, almost reaching the city of Uyuni. One more lunch break and a small visit to an arts&crafts market later, we visited the Cemeterio de Trenes. Our last stop. Which was according to Lorena and me a waste of time, with some rusty trains between a bunch of pastics of the nearby dump. We took some pictures, but were definitely underwhelmed after all the natural beauty we witnessed the past days. Bummer.

TUPIZA TO UYUNI – WORTH THE EXTRA DAY / MONEY?

Hell yeah. I would do it again, in a heartbeat. Tupiza is a much nicer town to spend a couple of days in if you need to wait for people to fill up the jeep, with plenty of things to do and see. The Pueblo Fantasma is eerie, but interesting to see. The lack of other tour jeeps doing the same route – we only had three or four that we saw each day, mainly at different times and at the end of the day – garantuees you a less stressfull visit, with more time at each side and no people ruining your pictures. Overall, if you want to see the Salar de Uyuni, you have the time and you don’t want to miss out on some otherworldly landscapes on the way, take the route from Tupiza to Uyuni. You won’t regret it.

Tupiza to Uyuni - More than the world’s most famous Salt Flats. What a 4 day trip through Bolivia’s West can do to you.
Tupiza to Uyuni – More than the world’s most famous Salt Flats. What a 4 day trip through Bolivia’s West can do to you.

3 months in Bolivia – what to expect

Hello there! Yes, it’s me, still alive after a couple of months of silence on this blog. Not that I was sitting still or got caught up in this thing called ‘life’. Well, maybe a little bit. The life thing at least. Since this blog mainly talks about my travels, I guess it’s more than fair if I take some time off once in a while. Just to have some adventures to write about. What happened during my months in Bolivia for example. How about a tiny little stop in Paraguay? Maybe also a couple of weeks in Argentina. – Okayyyy…I know I’m months behind on the next posts of my time in Colombia and Ecuador. I will write them. Eventually. I promise.

Whenever I decide to plan a trip, I start reading. Blogs, guides, (old) travel magazines, you name it and I will have read it. Most of the information you find is up to date, relevant, useful. Well-known places and things you just can. not. miss., like the Salar de Uyuni, definitely the most visited ‘tourist’ attraction in Bolivia but living up to it every second. Sometimes I stumble upon some rather questionable advice and some people just plainly warn you not to go: you’ll be robbed, local people ignore you and you’ll probably end up dead in a ditch somewhere. – maybe a bit exaggerated, but still – A lot of the things I’ve read didn’t make sense at all. So, writing as a solo female budget traveler who’s just spent almost the full 3 months in Bolivia, here’s what to expect when you visit Bolivia for the first time.

BOLIVIA LEAVES YOU BREATHLESS

Literally. Especially during a climb of some steep hills in La Paz or when admiring the mirrored surface of the Salar de Uyuni during rain season. A lot of what’s hot in this landlocked South American country will take place at high altitude, wether it is walking towards the Maragua crater on a two-day hike, taking pictures of some ancient murals on the altiplano or just having a fresh orange juice at the market in El Alto. The Andes hits ‘Bolivia’s top 10’ at least a couple of times.

On the other hand, while flying to the town of Rurrenabaque, the mountains quickly make place for a green jungle, a big brown river coiling through the trees like a giant snake. Humidity, mosquitos and heat are just an annoyance when standing face to face with a wild capucin monkey / capybara / jaguar – only if you’re lucky -. Watching the stars when fishing on a river at night, only surrounded by tchirping birds and jungle sounds. The thrill of seeing a tapir, closeby, wild and free. The humiditiy, the feeling of drowning inside a sea of green, green and green. Breathless. The magic of the jungle.

What else? Some big cities, like La Paz and Oruro, a tablecloth of brick buildings that doesn’t seem to stop. Buzzing, thrilling, always something to do. Markets in different parts of the city and on different days, aimed at tourists or just to sell the produce of the day. Superstition has a place on the witches’ market and old customs got a new dress on the Alasitas festival. Traditional clothing is still worn by the locals, representing the area and community they come from. Color is a key word.

A combination of the majestic Andes, the high plains where wild vicunas roam free, the magic of the Amazon with its lush forests and wildlife, together with the chaotic cities and small indigenous comunities living their traditional way of life is why Bolivia deserves your attention. It’ll leave you breathless, maybe even more than you’ll have imagined before.

LONG BUSRIDES. YES, MOSTLY ON UNPAVED ROADS. BUT THEY’RE COMFY.

Now, if you want to take a bus in Bolivia, my best advice is: go to a bus station and ask them when / what / how much on the spot. No need to book tickets in advance – they will be more expensive anyway – or check the timetables, it’s highly likely that the info you’ll find online isn’t accurate or that there are a lot more options than you’ve expected. The rest depends upon you: the comfort you want, how much time you have and, of course, how much bolivianos you can spend on your transport. For the budget travelers among us: yes, Bolivian buses can be very cheap.

Talking about comfort, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere as long as I have a space to rest my head on. Needless to say I’ve never picked a cama-bus or a – definitely more expensive – ‘Bolivia Hop’ option. Semi-cama is good enough for me, declining chairs, a foot rest and a shaking bus made me sleep like a rose most of the time. But, be aware, semi-cama being the cheapest option means there’s no toilet. If you desperately need to pee, just sign the driver and he’ll stop at the side of the road. Yep, you’ve read that well, those Cholita skirts are a practical thing on a long busride. – Fun fact: my first nightbus in Bolivia I didn’t know that ‘you need to ask the busdriver for a toilet break’, I was hoping for a quick stop in a restaurant in order to go to the toilet. Five hours later, I knew I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to talk to the gentleman beside me, in the hope he knew what to do. Friendly as the Bolivians are – they are, ignore what you’ve read on other blogs – he shouted to the busdriver to stop the bus, accompanied by a choir of fellow travelers desperate in need for a wee. I sprinted out of the bus, squatted behind some bushes and…relief. Only for a couple of seconds, until I realized that I was peeing right next to a free running pig. Luckily for me, it didn’t chase me, I could finish and continue my trip with dry panties. – For the more frugal travelers amongst us: if the bus didn’t fill up before leaving, it will stop one block from the bus station, trying to get more passengers at cheaper prices. The driver will wait about half an hour before he’ll start to drive or until the moment too many people start screaming ‘Vamos! Vamos!’ at him.

When you’re not such an easy sleeper like me, you can still go for a full cama trip on a local bus. ‘Cama’ means ‘bed’ in Spanish, so highly likely those seats will recline until you’re lying as flat as in a normal bed. – I never took them, but it seems logic though – Plenty of options, some come with food and at the bus station they can tell you what’s included in your bus ticket. I know I’ve mentioned something about ‘Bolivia Hop’, which is a bus service specifically catering to foreigners, which I also never took because 1. It’s more expensive 2. I can always meet fellow travelers in hostels if I want to 3. the local bus system is pretty good and you’ll find buses to nearly everywhere in the country, so no need for a shuttle service. I just prefer taking local buses at any time, that way you’ll get to know the people better – hurray for conversations with your neighbour, if you speak a bit of Spanish – and you’ll be better off when traveling on the cheap. Also, I love people coming on the bus to sell their food. Empanadas for the win.

But how about the safety on local buses then? – I can hear you think it. – Personally, I never had any issues on any local buses, but I’ve traveled often in South America and I’m quite careful with my belongings. Your big backpack will go in the storage space beneath the bus, always with a tag on it and you’ll have the other half. My small daypack / handluggage will be or at my feet or on my lap. Never. Ever. Ever. store anything in the compartment above you, you’ll be losing your stuff faster than you can blink. – In some scams a person that seems to belong to the bus company will forbid you to put your bag at your feet, telling you to store it above you. They’ll distract you and you’ll notice your bag missing. Just stand your ground and keep your bag with you. – Most of the time I’ll have a small bag on me with my passport, money and phone; this bag doesn’t leave my body for a second. Be careful with your stuff and you’ll be fine.

Last but not the least thing to say about bus-hopping in Bolivia: the roads. A lot of them have are paved and you barely notice driving from A to B. A lot more of those roads are a bit less paved…or they’re just a big mud pool the bus has to plough through. Hmpf. Keep in mind that traveling in Bolivia will take a lot of time, mostly because the roads are in such a bad shape. The route between La Paz and Rurrenabaque particularly can give you small heart attacks if you pay too much attention to what’s going on outside. ‘Keep calm, close your eyes and try to sleep’ is my advice. Just in case you really really don’t feel comfortable – as I can imagine on the La Paz – Rurre road – consider other options: boat / train / flight, just don’t expect them to be more affordable.

FRESH, LOCAL FOOD. BECAUSE A GIRL GOTTA EAT – AND THE BOYS TOO, YES –

I try to travel low budget. Try to, because on the way you’ll always meet somebody traveling with almost no money – something I highly admire but I haven’t been able to pull off myself -. Low budget in my eyes means: cooking a lot and eating mainly locally, thus getting to know the people and save money. Win-win. When I say locally, I mean: plastic tables at the roadside, street food and market food. The best food, actually.

If you want to cook, there’s no need to worry about a place to cook your own food. A lot of hostels provide equipped kitchens, so the only thing you’ll need is, of course, the food, some cooking oil – you’ll be standing there with all your stuff, ready to prepare a five-course meal and notice there’s no cooking oil – and the spices you’ll need. Many times there’s a free food section too, it’s handy to have a quick look there before you buy another kilo of rice while you only needed to grab it from the shelve. Then it’s up to you to prepare a delicious meal!

When cooking, what’s a better way than to buy your fresh herbs and veggies at the market? No plastic packaging, you only buy as much as you need and the lovely ladies at the market will gift you some extra’s. Just to see your pretty face again next time you’ll do your grocery shopping. In Bolivia, you can find basically everything you need at your local market: fruits and veggies, herbs, eggs, rice, homemade cheese, bread,… Besides buying your food, most markets have a food court where they serve a cheap lunch, called ‘the menu del dia’. – I already wrote about it in my Colombia-posts – For about 8 to 15 bolivianos you’ll indulge in a soup, main course and a drink of the day. Most of them have different options to the menu, giving you the choice between different meats or, if you’re very very lucky, they’ll have a vegetarian option.

Western food and other options are also widely available – especially pizza you’ll find everywhere – but expect also to pay the price – still not comparable to eating out in Belgium, but already four or five times more expensive –. Depending on your budget, you’ll notice if it’s better to stick to the lunch menus or if you can indulge every once in a while.

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS UP TO DATE

Opposite to what I’ve read on a lot of blogs about Bolivia: internet is everywhere. It might not be the fastest netwerk you’ve encountered, but most hostels, restaurants and bars have their wifi ready to be overused by broken backpackers and other travelers. Most travel blogs on the subject have been written a year or two/three ago, so a lot has changed in the meantime. Almost all hostels have free wifi, even the cheaper ones and not too bad either. Seriously, I paid 30 bolivianos a night in Sucre and could still download my favorite series without issues. Or videocall one of my friends abroad when I felt lonely. Campings on the other hand are less likely to have free internet, but then there are bars and restaurants galore to still your need for an online presence. Only when deep into the forest or high in the mountains you’ll have to refrain your urge to post your pictures. No need for it anyway, when enjoying the outdoors.

All in all, what you need to know: Yes, also in Bolivia you can watch your netflix and spend hours on instagram without any issue. You’re welcome.

EXPECT A LOT.

I guess that’s what you can expect from Bolivia: a shitload of activities ranging from museum hopping in La Paz to catching your breath during a hike in the Andes, long hours on not so good roads, eating fresh and locally while you can still videochat your mom if necessary. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bolivia. It is an amazing country and the reason I’m writing this ‘what can you expect?’ blogpost is to encourage you to look past the warnings of people who probably haven’t entered a foot in this beautiful country. Set aside your fears and be ready to read a bit more about Bolivia in my next post: ‘Tupiza to Uyuni – more than the world’s biggest Salt flats‘.