Unforgettable Experiences in Bolivia

Unforgettable Experiences in Bolivia

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Not so long ago, as we were putting together our itinerary for Peru, I received an email from Kerstin’s great aunt. The lady is in her 70s, but keeps roaming the world despite the many illnesses she has. And when she’s not traveling, she’s likely sitting at home recovering from a surgery AND planning her next trip. The email I got from her was full of beautiful photos of breathtaking landscapes around the world. Among the must-see destinations to be added to our already-too-long-bucket list, there was a picture of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It took us less than 5 seconds to decide to visit Bolivia as well, after exploring Peru.

 

Walk on the moon in the Valle de la Luna

 

 

When we landed in La Paz, the seat of the government and the capital of Bolivia, we were a bit shocked by the  size of the metropolis. So, to avoid the crowds on the first day, we first headed to the Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley), located about 10km from downtown La Paz.

 

It was already in the late afternoon when we reached the Moon Valley. And from the outside we didn’t see much. But once we stepped through the entrance gate, we were mesmerized to see hundreds of tall spires made of eroded sandstone and clay. We strolled through a maze of canyons, down to narrow and tricky paths, and up to bizarre geological formations.

 

Suddenly we heard the sound of an instrumental music… When we looked up, we spotted an indigene facing the sunset from the peak of a limestone tower. He was playing a pan flute. The almost spectral music was resonating all around the Valle de la Luna. We listened to the mystical flow of sound that already summoned up moon-lit nights and forbidden love.

 

See the true face of La Paz

 

 

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Unforgettable moments do not have to be marvelous moments. It is their intensity that truly makes them unforgettable. A misadventure is still an adventure. And an authentic traveler has to make the best out of mishaps. La Paz is a huge city, so traffic is crazy and air pollution is almost unbearable. On the day we left La Paz, it took us almost 2 hours to get to the airport instead of 30 minutes. To avoid traffic jam caused by a car accident on the freeway, our driver Raul had to look for an alternative way, or even several alternative routes…

 

We drove past the most opulent neighborhoods of La Paz, where gigantic villas with lush lawns remind us of immaculate suburbs in Southern California. But we also raced through many deprived areas, where poverty is truly critical, past slum housing, mountains of trash and dead dogs along dirt roads… Naturally, we ended up missing our flight. But the ride through La Paz revealed the true face of this metropolis: a city of contrasts. A city that takes your breath away. Literally.

 

Hop on ancient trains at the Train Cemetery

 

 

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In the 19th century, railroads were built to carry minerals from Bolivia down to Chilean ports on the Pacific Coast. When the mining industry declined in the 1940s, many trains and train stations in Bolivia were abandoned.

 

At the brink of Uyuni, dozens of old engines and locomotives are scattered around in a “train cemetery”. What makes for a weird atmosphere is that they look like they were still waiting to be picked up one day… Completely rusted out and corroded by the salt blown over from the nearby salt flats, it’s likely that these engines are going to degrade in situ forever. Today, this train graveyard is a minor tourist attraction in Uyuni, and we had an excellent time climbing inside and on top of the abandoned trains.

 

Drive though the Salar de Uyuni where Heaven meets Earth

 

 

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Sometimes we are very eager to visit a place. But upon our arrival, we get disappointed because the destination does not reach the level of our expectation. Before traveling to the Salar de Uyuni, I was afraid that we’d be disappointed, and that the photos we fell in love with were more impressive than the reality. But to our surprise we experienced the opposite. The Salar de Uyuni really is mind-blowing, and what we lived onsite was much more remarkable than what I had hoped it would be.

 

As we drove into the world’s largest salt flats, we felt like reaching paradise. No words can describe the beauty we saw. It was wild, freezing, unique. Simply magical. Heartachingly magical.

 

Hike amongst giant cacti on Isla Incahuasi

 

 

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After driving through miles and miles of salt flats and seeing nothing else but white salt as far as the horizon, we suddenly caught sight of dozens of tall cacti. Viewed from afar, it looked completely surrealistic. And once we step foot on the islet, we felt like entering a Dadaistic painting.

 

Located in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, Isla Incahuasi is in fact the top of an ancient volcano that submerged about 40,000 years ago when the salt flats were a giant prehistoric lake. It’s about 25 hectares large and hosts hundreds of gigantic cacti. To get a better view of the surrounding salt flats, we hiked up to the top of the islet, and sat down on a rock behind tall Trichocereus cacti, looking out into the endless sea of salt.

 

See the milky way

 

stars above

 

The sun already started to set when we were leaving the Salar de Uyuni. When we reached the end of the salt flats, a security control stopped our car and asked to view our passports and the driver’s documents. Unfortunately, Richard forgot one of the authorizations that they wanted to check, so we either had to drive all the way back through the salt flats where we just spent the whole day, or he had to call his boss to fax him the requested document. The security guys did not joke, so we got a little bit nervous when Richard tried to contact his manager.

 

In the meantime, the sun had already set, and we were sitting in the dark, waiting for our driver to find a solution. One of our jeep’s windows was not completely closed, so we felt the temperatures drop from minute to minute. When Richard finally returned to the car, we were relieved and happy to be able to leave. The drive to our hostel took an eternity. There was no road sign, no light, and it was already around -5 Celsius.

 

When we eventually pulled into the hostel’s driveway, we were shocked to see that it looked desolate and very austere. Inside, most rooms were indeed dormitories, and there was no heating, nor hot water, and the lightbulb in the bathroom was broken. Had it not been for the space sheet we brought along, we probably would have fallen sick that night. The next morning, we got up at 4am, and headed to our next destination. When we realized that the outside temperature was -15 degrees, we both shivered even more.

 

But above us, the starry sky was clearer than ever. And we have never seen so many shooting stars. We soon forgot about the freezing temperatures and the horrible bed we had slept in. Being able to see the milky way in such detail turned the harsh night into one of the most remarkable experiences in Bolivia.

 

Jump through geysers at the Sol de Mañana

 

 

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Growing up in Luxembourg, we’re both used to winters. However, we had never driven through a path in the middle of a desert with almost one meter-high snow and ice on both sides of the trail. Our driver turned the heating to the maximum, but our hands and feet were still frozen. Since it was still dark at 4 am, our driver Richard also had difficulties to maneuver the jeep through the ice peaks. So, we rode slowly, very slowly… In the horizon we could see an orange line lifting up behind the mountain range.

 

When we approached the geothermal area of Sol de Mañana (Morning Sun), we caught a glimpse of hot steam ascending from behind a hill and embracing the sky. A few jeeps came out of nowhere and headed to the same direction as we did. Soon, we spotted several steam pools behind which the sun was rising. Perfect timing to arrive at the “Morning Sun”…

 

The strong smell of sulphur hit us as soon as we stepped out of the jeep. The Sol de Mañana is located at about 4800 meters in altitude, and still has an intense volcanic activity. At 200-250 degrees Celsius, the hot steam of the geyser can reach heights of 10-50 meters depending on the pressure. After the freezing night and morning drive we had, we were happy to jump through the hot pressured steam. An adventure hard to forget!

 

Watch pink flamingos in Laguna Colorada

 

 

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There’s more than the salt flats in Salar de Uyuni. As we moved further south through the Bolivian altiplano and drove past desert plains and smoking volcanoes, we were suddenly struck by the sheer scale of the place. But the natural scenery in this area close to the border of Chile, which is also known as Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, got even more awe-inspiring once we faced the actual laguna.

 

The Laguna Cañapa was already breathtaking. But the Laguna Verde, the Laguna Blanca and finally the Laguna Colorada were simply majestic. I had seen several photos of red and pink lakes and had always thought that they look disturbing… like a sea of blood. But seeing one in real is absolutely mind-blowing. It touches your soul with its grace. And at that moment we truly believed that not only this planet is beautiful but that we, as humans, are actually capable of treasuring and celebrating this beauty.

 

 

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The red color of the Laguna Colorada comes from a type of algae and other microorganisms which live in the lake’s water. And the white pools floating on the lake’s surface are not patches of ice or snow, but huge borax deposits. Combined with the volcanic mountains behind the lake, and the pink flamingos strolling elegantly in and around the lake, the landscape at the Laguna Colorada were simply a feast for the eyes.

 

We could have stayed there for hours and days, taking in the magnitude of Bolivia’s nature and wildlife. Hoping that this diffuse consciousness of the sheer beauty and glory of nature will inspire us for many years to come.

 

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Unforgettable Experiences in Bolivia © Travel with Mei and Kerstin www.travelwithmk.com

 

Unforgettable Experiences in Bolivia © Travel with Mei and Kerstin www.travelwithmk.com

 

Unforgettable Experiences in Bolivia © Travel with Mei and Kerstin www.travelwithmk.com

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Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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20 Responses

  1. Sage Scott
    | Reply

    How absolutely gorgeous! I’ve been able to see the Milky Way a few times in Arizona, but I imagine it’s even more spectacular in Bolivia where there’s likely less light pollution.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, there’s definitely less light pollution in Bolivia. And somehow the stars and the milky way seemed to be much closer to Earth than in other parts of the world. 🙂

  2. The Travel Bunny
    | Reply

    Bolivia has been on my list of places to see ever since I read Exploration Fawcett. In particular, the town of Rurrenabaque. Mostly, because of the way it rolls off the tongue and its pronunciation stays stuck in my mind for hours. 🙂 But as you pointed out, there are many other places to explore in Bolivia. I just hope I’ll get there someday soon. My cousin took a year off before college and went on a trip to South America. His stories and photos were incredible!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh we’ve never heard of Rurrenabaque! It’s north of La Paz, so the landscape there must be quite different from the ones we saw in southern and eastern Bolivia. Next time we’ll try to visit this northern region too, thank you for inspiring us! 🙂

  3. Karie
    | Reply

    Bolivia is truly underrated. I had no idea there were so many amazing places to visit. I’m glad Kerstins great aunt suggested the place and you got to explore it! Would love to watch the Milky way and visit Salar de Uyuni , gorgeous pics btw! Also those pink flamingos and the pink/ red lakes look interesting and so does the geysers. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Karie. The different lakes we saw south of the salt flats were really wonderful. There’s no word to describe the beautiful scenery we saw in Bolivia!

  4. That’s the kind of trip that takes your breath away. And what an inspiring relative you have – may she enjoy many more stunning miles of spirited exploration. I’m really enjoying your candid pics of the city, and the train graveyard (I stumbled across a smaller version near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and as you say, it’s as though they might start their journeys again). And Salar de Uyuni? So glad it lived up to your dreams. That’s still on my bucket list. Incredible.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks, Bernadette. We definitely recommend you to visit Bolivia soon as it still isn’t very touristy now. Of course, some areas are quite harsh, but the Salar de Uyuni is really breathtaking and totally worth it. We haven’t been to Mississippi yet, but it’s on our bucket list. So when we go someday, we’ll certainly try to check out Clarksdale too.

  5. Yukti
    | Reply

    Wow Bolivia looks great place as it has so many beautiful things to see like the heavenly Milky Way. Also the drive though the Salar de Uyuni where Heaven meets Earth looks very interesting and beautiful and I would surely go for this drive.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, we highly recommend you to visit Bolivia and especially the Salar de Uyuni. Some people go there on a day trip, but to get a better experience, make sure to stay at least 3 days in Uyuni, because the distance between the salt flats and the lagunas is quite far.

  6. travelstoriesandimages
    | Reply

    Wow, this all looks so incredibly beautiful! I love your photos from Salar de Uyuni…and the night sky is just breathtaking! Sorry you had the scare with the security guards leaving Salar de Uyuni – security folks generally don’t mess around, regardless of where you are in the world!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, security guards can be quite tough. Now looking back, we must say that those in Bolivia were not as annoying as some we saw in China last summer!

  7. Wildish Wander
    | Reply

    I always have that worry that we will travel somewhere and our expectations would not meet the photos. Hearing the pan flute upon arrival had to be pretty cool though and that milky way photo is a beaut!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, hearing the man playing pan flute in the middle of the Valley of the Moon was a quite unique and exceptional experience! Bolivia is a country full of hidden gems, and you won’t be disappointed for sure!

  8. Snazzytrips
    | Reply

    Bolivia sounds exciting. I’ve never seen a train cemetery before, how unusual. The salt flats of Salar de Uyuni really do look like paradise, and would be amazing to see. Your video really does look like they are something out of this world.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks dear! We hope you’ll visit Bolivia someday, there are so many breathtaking landscapes!

  9. Danik
    | Reply

    So much to do in Boliva and I cant wait to hit up South America. For me, I would love to check out the Milky Way. There are so many places in Europe, North America etc with light pollution but I have heard a lot of this region that there isnt much light pollution. So really want to check this out. 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, Bolivia is still one of the few countries on Earth that doesn’t have that much light pollution. Some villages are completely dark at night, with barely no street light. We highly recommend you to visit Bolivia while it’s still void of tourists!

  10. pappasw
    | Reply

    I always get worried also about all the photos I have seen and if the places I visit will live up to my expectations. I am glad to know that Salar de Uyuni is just as beautiful in real life as it is in photos. This would be my favorite place to visit.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      I hope you’ll visit the Salar de Uyuni soon! It’s spectacular. Remember to wear good shoes AND bring a second pair of trekking shoes because the salt will deteriorate your shoes quite fast!

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