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Breathtaking scenery

It is no exaggeration to say that travel to parts of Bolivia will take your breath away. Bolivia is a very mountainous country and no amount of travel advice prepared me for the effect it had. Altitude sickness tablets are essential and allowing time for recovery mandatory. What you will find though is a very natural and genuine country that has not been spoilt by mass tourism to the extent I found in travels to neighbouring Peru.

La Paz

After an uneventful stopover we landed in the world’s highest commercial airport, La Paz, at a breathtaking 4058m above sea level.  No reading can prepare you for the feeling you get when you get off the plane.  If you are a skier you will understand the crisp light air when you get out of your vehicle on the mountain.  Multiply that.

Pre-warned I was swilling back altitude sickness tablets for the few days prior and would hate to think how I would have coped otherwise.  My travel buddy was more determined to try the natural route but we were quickly looking for the makeshift pharmacies along the street as she struggled with the altitude.

So it’s in this state we climb into the van for our trip downhill to the city.  As you sweep around the bends views across the city open up.  It’s very monotone.  Brown to be precise. Another reminder of the altitude we’re at.  The hotel is uphill slightly from the centre of the village but comes well recommended.  As we walk in it’s very woodsy.  This is a new word I’ve invented to describe this clean but folksy hotel.  We are shown to our modest rooms, which require a stair climb. No problem we think.  Wrong.  By the time we get ourselves up there a rest is required.  Same with the walk down.  Signs this is going to be a bit harder than we think.

We’ve pried open the coco leaf jar and munching as much of it as we can in the lobby when a grin-clad American notices our struggle and announces us straight off the plane.  He reassuringly tells us within a couple of days we’ll be fine.  Advises us not to fight getting the oxygen bottle from reception.  Good advice and I would say do it even if you are bulletproof and not struggling.  We’re hoping maybe he’s exaggerating about the recovery time because we’re booked to do the Mountain Bike of Death in a couple of days.

The first venture out onto the street was a fascinating look at life in Bolivia.  It’s market day and lucky for us the street turns into the market for the day.  Villagers from all around bring their wares in to town to sell and the city is alive with their buzz and chatter.  Sanitation isn’t great so it’s not going to look or smell like a trip to Woolies or whatever your local supermarket is.

The dress of the women is amazing.  Because of the altitude, and of course its winter, it’s cold.  The ladies are wearing heavily layered bright coloured skirts.  The colours are, of course, fairly similar to local dyes and the tailoring is reminiscent of a 50s frock with a twist.  Think Grease without pastels and Sandra Dee.

The other oddity is that most of them wear hats and many of bowler hats.  Yes black bowler hats that make you think they raided a museum.  Local legend is that a shipment was brought out in the days when South America was being colonized for the men.  They didn’t take off at all but a myth developed amongst the women that the hats would aid in fertility.  They have now become part of the local custom and many have probably forgotten the origins.  As you move around both Peru and Bolivia you’ll notice hats play a big part in the cultural distinction and often denote both the village and the age of the wearer.

One of the must do streets to visit is the witchcraft street.  Heavily superstitious the locals have many customs and rituals and this street sells many of the artifacts used.  Dried lama fetuses hang from hooks.  We’re told that it is good luck to have one buried in the foundations of the building.  If you can, find a guide to help explain some of the stories behind these amazing rituals.

Having read Marching Powder a true story by an Australian writer called Rusty Young, I was curious to go and try to visit San Pedro, the famous prison.  This is a story about he friendship with a convicted English backpacker who was running tours through the prison.  It tells of a cutthroat society in which you buy your cell and can own and operate business’ within the jail.  While families live in there and in fact there’s a school.  There are no longer official tours and the government don’t encourage guests but it’s an interesting read and proves truth is stranger than fiction.

It’s well worth strolling around the hills in the city because there are some amazing plazas and colonial buildings to be seen, reflecting a wealthier time.  The bars, cafes and vibe of this town is very relaxed and hippy like.  You get the feeling the dreadlocked expats who have settled here have found a cheap haven where they can live an alternative lifestyle in peace.  While having a reputation for production of cocaine we always feel safe and there is no menace in the air.  Saying that it’s not always the case so check on the political and safety aspects as I have met travelers who disagree with my experience.

We stayed at Hotel Rosario which is probably the only hotel of the ones I stayed at that I would recommend.  They were friendly and had some good advice around town. Also a good option for eating in the hotel in case you run out of gas for walking up those hills.

The Road of Death

After a relaxing couple of days we head off for a 64 km downhill mountain bike ride on the road of death.  Definitely chose your tour guide well but its an awesome experience and I know people who describe it as one of the best things they have done in South America.  We jumped on a bus that I had serious doubts was capable of making a journey out of town.  The atmosphere is lively with a slight underlying nervousness.  We have a guide with a sense of humor who decides Highway to Hell is the best song for the trip.

Believe it or not you climb further up from La Paz to 4700 m and are dropped on a very sparse plateau and make a payer to Hochimuma to assist in the safety of our journey.  We will spin our way down over 3000m during the course of the day.  Starting in the mountaintops and ending in the lush tropical Forrest of Coroico.

A new highway has been built diverting most of the traffic away from this dangerous winding road.  However there are locals who use this narrow road and its very unforgiving as there is sharp drops and no guard rails.  Our seemingly relaxed guides take their roles very seriously and boy racers are sharply bought into line.  You’re not here for the race but the experience.

You wheel your way down through some spectacular scenery which will blur past you because the wind speed and chill will literally bring tears to your eyes.  A few uphill stretches act as another reminder that you’re still at a very high altitude.  The young and fit have no problem but the guide shows incredible patience as I cough and wheeze my way to the top of a seemingly small incline.

Slower appreciation was rewarded for my travel buddy who saw a condor floating majestically over the valley just above the bikes.  Having seen a few of these amazing birds they are an amazing wonder.  The Inca’s believe that they carry their spirit high over their lands. What a lovely way to live in the next life.

Relieved to see the lush forests and our final destination we all hop into warm showers and enjoy the food and beers at our final destination.  There is an amazing sanctuary around the café and an excellent opportunity to see some of the local wildlife. A well recommended day with Gravity Assisted Bolivia


We decided to stay and enjoy some of the rain forest while we were there are stayed in the small village close.  By no means glamorous it was a lovely spot to recover and enjoy the lower altitude.  The climate is a microclimate for Bolivia and is warm and humid all year round.  As a result a lot of La Paz’ food is sourced from this valley.  It’s certainly lovely looking out over the valley.  They are burning off after cropping so unfortunately it’s a little hazy.

On return to La Paz we were able to see our biking journey from the comfort of the car.  Amazing mountains surround us. It’s well worth doing the trip out here in a car, if your idea of adventure doesn’t include mountain biking.

Lake Titicaca

Our next adventure takes us on a tour with Crillon Tours to Lake Titicaca and we will be dropped off on the Peru side of the lake.  We’ve up a little about the journey and have decided it looks more authentic on the Bolivia side.  We were richly rewarded for our efforts and this is a must do.  Our guide also answered why so many of the houses seem unfinished.  Simply avoiding the tax required to be paid on a finished house we’re told.

The road to the lakes is awesome and surrounded by some spectacular mountains. When you’re already at 4000m and a mountain looms before ahead you realize just how high they are.  Lake Titicaca is a very spiritual place for both the Bolivians and Peruvians.  It mythically the home to the birth of the Inca and well worth travelling out to Sun and Moon Islands to hear their story.  Its very chilly so extra layers of those woolies will be required.

Our boat took us to one of the minor Uros floating villages where traditionally huts were built on a platform of reeds.  We are shown the fishing & hunting traditions and guided around the huts.  It’s obvious that no one lives like that in modern times but its no less interesting. Our purchase of the distinctive reed hat was well revered by the Peruvians for the remainder of the trip.

A visit to Copacabana was also a highlight.  The Moorish-style cathedral well worth looking inside.  Outside in the street worshippers are sold a box where they select miniatures of their wishes.  If they wish for success in their business there are mini shops to buy, a house, children etc. It’s a very important annual event for many locals.  Our driver in Coroico had proudly announced he had made the journey to bless his vehicle.  Sunday’s is vehicle-blessing day if you are in need of that service.

Isla del Sol was an amazing visit. You arrive on the boat and walk up to the lodge.  It’s rustic but very charming.  Overlooking the lake back to Bolivia and the mountains and those majestic mountains.  Don’t expect gourmet food but you will be well feed and there’s an open fire in the common lounge to share your travel stories in.  You might need it if you hike up to see the sunset, which is well worth the trip through the village alone.

Bolivia left us feeling like there is so much more to see.  Stories of the Salt Planes and the Bolivia jungle left us wishing there was more time.  It’s not as slick or easy to travel around as neighboring Peru but well worth the experience and extremely rewarding.

Travel photographs from La Paz, Corico, and Lake Titicaca. Including the Uros Islands and Sun Island

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