Brenda and Brent - Bolivia

Uganda map Our Bolivia time was spent in 3 places, plus travel (all by car).
  • La Paz for two days getting used to the altitude.
  • Altiplano the high desert area in south western Bolivia, including the Uyuni Salt flats.
  • Lake Titikaka and the Isla del Sol.


Aside from the scenery and the people, visiting Bolivia is about the altitude. Adapting to the altitude means getting used to being short of breath. It can happen even while you are not moving. I hold my breath when taking a picture to reduce camera shake (even though my camera can compensate for some shake). This would leave me panting.

Even when moving slowing up a slight incline, you take 30 steps then suddenly start panting.

The final thing is that the air is dry as well as thin. This can have an effect on your nasal passages - a continually stuffed nose for example. I also developed a cough - a tickle in my throat - that gradually worsened until I had to take a cough suppressant.


While temperatures are apparently reasonable - between 10C and 20C during the day, much cooler at night - the reduced oxygen level in the air seems to mean a reduced ability to generate internal heat. Bring lots of layers to help keep comfortable.

The hotels we stayed at in the countryside were unheated. In fact, most included lots of provision for ventilation. This means that in the morning the room would be 13C, gradually warming over the day but not getting over 20C. They provide 3 or 4 wool blankets, so staying warm at night is not a problem.

La Paz lapaz city pan This is a panorama taken from a viewpoint overlooking La Paz. The downtown is surprisingly modern, with lots of nice medium-rise buildings. This panorama is about 3 screens wide - you will have to mouse around a bit to see it all. At the far right you can see the typical red-brick buildings that people live in.

La Paz is expensive by Bolivian standards - many people live outside the city in cheaper areas and use public transit to get into and out of La Paz.

Montezuma's revenge rendered me hors de combat for the first day here. Brenda explored with Merrilee and reported there was lots to see on foot from our hotel.

We did one dinner at restaurant that featured Andean music (3 different groups) and folk dancing (many different types of dances). The show was great, the food not so good. They underprice the show and overprice the food. If you think of it all as the cost of the show and the food is free, it is a good deal.

demonstration Political Problems

On our way out of La Paz to the desert areas, we passed this small demonstration.

Bolivia has political problems common to other poor South American countries. It has rich and poor, as well as non-indigenous (European, originally mostly Spanish but others as well) versus indigenous. Most of the poor are indigenous. The indigenous outnumber to non-indigenous.

The current president is a populist, following some of the ideas of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. His policies will result in a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. They may also have the effect of further impoverishing Bolivia - already the poorest country in South America.

The latest example concerns vegetable oils. Bolivia produces 3 times more than it uses with the farms (canola and soy) mostly owned by the middle and upper classes. These oils were always priced at world prices and that was no problem until the US decided to push bio-fuels. The world price of all vegetable oils jumped, the Bolivian domestic price jumped with it. The Bolivian president banned the export of vegetable oil. What happens to the excess production? What happens to the farm owners and the exporters? What happens to the President?

In any case, the demonstrations are orderly and have no effect on tourists. The underlying tension is unnoticeable unless you talk to a middle class Bolivian whose economic future is affected. The middle class has been watching Venezuela closely - they are not happy with developments in Bolivia.

vehicle La Paz to Uyuni It is over 500 kilometres from La Paz to the desert area southwest of Uyuni we were going to explore. We decided to travel by car so we could stop and look at whatever interested us. This is the vehicle Bolivian Specialist provided. Right now it is stopped while the drive replaces the flat tire. The vehicle is a noisy diesel with no shocks. We were travelling on paved roads at this point so it was not too bad. The second half of the trip is on dirt roads and it was terrible. A total of 13 hours on a vibrating chair.

I still think car is the right way to do this trip. If you decide to do it like this, insist on a vehicle with shocks. I can't understand why Bolivian Specialist would make a blunder like this. Cars with shock absorbers do exist in Bolivia - the vehicle we have for the next 5 days had decent shocks.

The Altiplano

altiplano route The main goal of our time in Bolivia was to the the high plane and the salt flats.

On this marked up map, I have shown our approximate route in blue and the places we stayed in green.

  1. Uyuni - at a nice small hotel. This is the main tour start point for the area.
  2. Hotel del Desierto - more below, a community owned hotel in the middle of nowhere.
  3. Hotel del Desierto - again.
  4. Salt Hotel - a newer version of the original salt hotel.
  5. Uyuni - ended here, then the long drive to Lake Titikaka.
vicuna There are 4 camel type animals in Bolivia, two that have been domesticated (llama, alpaca (a small llama), two that are wild (vicuna and guanaco). We saw lots of these vicuna during the next few days. We saw no guanaco.

This is typical grassland - typical good grassland. A few very low shrubs they don't appear to eat along with some grasses you can hardly see that make up their diet. If you are watching you will see a small herd every 10 to 20 minutes along a drive. They are skittish though, often running off as soon as the vehicle stops.

Oruro At the town of Oruro we left the paved road and started of 7 hours of gravel road.

This town is near a tin mine. This big tin miner's hat is a bit of an oddity.

You can see the head and one hump of a sea serpent as well - in the desert? That bit of the imagery escaped us.

farm This is a typical farm residence on the high plateau. One small rectangular house per family, usually made of adobe - mud and straw. The small building in the middle with the round roof is the oven - used to make bread.
sunset The sun is setting and we are still driving along the dirt road in the old Toyota Land Cruiser with no shocks. We had only one other problem with the vehicle - a reported failure of a spark plug wire. Do diesels have spark plug wires?

Llamas in the foreground, some wind eroded rock on the right, some snow-capped red peaks in the background lit by the setting sun.

It is a beautiful area, if your tastes run to deserts.

sunset No one can see, or take, too many sunset pictures - can they?
train graveyard The smallish town of Uyuni is the standard home base for exploring the area. The first stop of the tour is the train graveyard just outside town.

They used to export minerals by rail to the ocean from here. That stopped when Chile occupied the entire coastal section of Bolivia in the late 1800s. The Bolivians put the trains out in the desert until they got the land back. They are still negotiating and the Bolivians are hopeful (after 130 years!). Remarkably little rust - it is very dry here most of the year.

bird nest We did spot a use for these train skeletons though - a bird had a nest in the cab of one of the locomotives. (A Bright-rumped Seed Finch).
llama feeding We happened on this llama feeding its young. We saw a number of very young llamas. Perhaps they have young at the end of the rainy season.

All the llamas belong to some farmer. The threads in the ear identify the owner. Most llamas out here seem to roam free. Most are used only for their wool, which is taken every second year. Closer to towns, llamas will have a herder near by and be moved into an enclosure every night.

wild potato Our driver was hunting around while we were looking a birds near a small boggy area and came up with this wild potato. The ground where he was hunting look barren. He looked for a slight circular lifting, perhaps caused by the sprouting of the potato, then dug down about 10 inches to the plant.

His explanation was unclear, but it appears that the pink part is the new plant while the brown part is the potato. They do not eat the pink part, just the actual root.

canyon Our next stop was this fabulous eroded canyon. Lava from a nearby volcano (there is always a volcano nearby in this area, although almost all have been quite for the last 30,000 years) capped sandstone and delayed erosion of areas around the rim.
This is the wind eroded rock they call the tree. Mouse back and forth to see the tree and the desert in this area - it looks almost lifeless. the tree

It looks at first glance that there is nothing growing here at all. However, if you hunt around you will find a few tufts of grass. It is enough for the Vicuna to live on, provided there is water within a day's walk.

Andean Flamingos Laguna Colorado

The birding highlight of this area is the alkaline lagoons filled with Flamingos.

The guide books differ on plumages, but this combination of lots of red in the lower half of the throat with the very black rear section (it is wing feathers, not the tail) means these two are Andean Flamingos.

Although the three species can be found in the same large lagoon, they tend to stick together by species. This suggests that they are feeding on different stuff.

Andean fox While we were looking over the flamingos, trying to find some Chilean Flamingos (the least common in the lagoons we stopped at), this Andean Fox trotted by.

It checked us out, but did not seem too concerned. Nor were most of the birds too concerned by its presence.

The main prey of the Andean Fox was the chinchilla. However, the capture of chinchilla for fur coats all but exterminated them, with a resulting collapse of the fox population.

llamas, fox However, this small group of llamas, which included 2 or 3 young, was not taking any chances. They formed a ring around the young and sent one out (presumably the male) to challenge the fox. You can just see the fox in the bottom right of the picture.
Laguna Verde

This lagoon is famous for its colour - the result of a high concentration of arsenic! Not much wildlife around here. Laguna Verde

Laguna Colorado Laguna Colorado

Here we are back at the Red Lagoon with a picture to show how red it gets.

You can tell from the jackets and hats Brenda and Merrilee are wearing that it is windy and cool here. It is around 4PM, the wind has come up (as it did almost every afternoon in the high plateau) and while not actually cold, the combination of dry air, low oxygen and wind made it seem very cold to us.

farm This is the Puna Flamingo. Less black at the back, a few red feathers back there, less red in the neck, but some on the upper breast, are the best field marks at a distance (at least for the birds we saw).

These birds are supposed to have pale red legs. However, this pair was wading in very deep grey clay, so the red hardly shows.

Hotel del Desierto We spent two nights at Hotel del Desierto. It is near a junction in the desert roads called Ojo del Perdiz, but tourists would be hard pressed to find the junction - there is nothing there at all.

You can see there is almost nothing around the hotel as well.

The hotel is owned by a local community, or will be once they pay off the development bank. The hotel has only rooms and a dining room. Not bad food, not great and almost no selection, but considering the location ok. Most tourists in this part of Bolivia are backpackers who would not pay for such palatial accommodations. The remaining tourists are older Europeans who want a little more than sleeping in a bunkhouse. They will come here.

The little building on the left is not an outhouse - each room is fully equipped. The hot water is solar heated - shower in the afternoon or not at all. Electricity from 7pm till 10pm.

On to the Salt Flats

On our way to the salt flats the next day our driver took us to a large freshwater lake in the hills.

freshwater lake

There was a completely different group of birds here from those found in the alkaline lagoons.

As you can see though, it is desert once you get a few metres from the shore line.

Giant Coot One of the birds on the lake is the Giant Coot.

They pulls weeds together into piles in the middle of the lake for nests.

desert plane We ate lunch at the lake. Nearby were these strange plant/rock formations. The platter on top is a harder rock that is resting on some of the softer, stratified lower rock and the plant.

The plant seems to grow like coral. The inner part is all branches, the outer this solid green mass of leaves.

Mountain Viscacha Almost the only other wild animal we saw up here was the Andean Rabbit or Viscacha. It is not a rabbit at all, but a chinchilla! The viscacha found in Bolivia looks more rabbit-like than the ones found in the Argentine pampas.

It is typically found in rocky outcrops, where it spends a lot of the day sunning itself. If you look really closely at the picture you will see the very long whiskers - which reach almost to its feet when sitting.

The Salt Hotel

BE, the salt Hotel We stayed on night at the salt hotel in the town of Tunupa.

Blocks of salt sawn from the salt flats form most of the structure of the hotel. Instead of a box spring under the mattress, there is a huge block of salt. The walls are salt. Almost everything is salt except the shower - which is faced with a black slate.

Again, this hotel is owned and staffed by the community. Again, inside temperatures track outside temperatures - not getting quite as hot as outside, or as cold. We woke up to 12.5C here. Sounds cold, but it is survivable.

Again, it tries to be eco-friendly. This means it is off the power grid. This means we got 3 hours of electricity from 7 to 10pm.

salt hotel The salt hotel looks conventional from a distance - thatch roof the only slightly unusual aspect.

We are still in the desert - a few bushes, but little or no grass and almost no trees.

mummy cave The next day we head up the volcano to a cave which contains the mummified remains of 7 people.

The body is placed in the foetal position (getting ready for rebirth) and supplied with some small pots of food.

Very interesting.

To top this bit off, while we were in the cave we heard the wingbeats of a hummingbird. Why would a hummingbird be in a cave? We located the nest it was visiting - there was one adult bird sitting on the nest.

The bird was an Andean Hillstar. We got no really good pictures of this bird - it spends very little time at any one flower and no one thought to put out feeders (even the Salt Hotel, which tries to be eco-friendly) had no feeders.

The Salt Flats

salt flats The Uyuni Salt Flats are roughly circular with a diameter of 60 kilometres. The depth of salt varies, from almost nothing at the shoreline to 60 metres in some places.

There is a river flowing from Lake Titikaka to these salt flats, but no exit river. There are a lot of minerals in the surrounding area - the mine Borax in the hills. The fresh water entering the lake area has brought along salt for millions of years. The water evaporate each dry season (it is dry from April to October), leaving the salts behind.

This picture shows the pattern of dried salt - hard to see in two dimensions, but it looks like snow or ice.

salt hexagons The drying process produces this roughly hexagonal shapes all over the surface. Pretty weird.
original salt hotel This is the original salt hotel - not much used now and the only one that is actually on the salt itself.

A local family operates a small store and a kind of salt museum in the almost derelict structure.

Lake Titikaka

reed boat

The owner of this small roadside attraction helped Thor Heyerdahl build the rafts he used in his attempt to sail from South America to the Polynesian Islands.

The reeds, and it takes thousands to make a big boat, all come from the lake.

van on ferry This is the vibrating chair the gave us for a van for the two 12 hour drives. This drive, from Uyuni to Copacabana on Lake Titikaka left me feels completely enervated. I could walk, but not much more than that.

Here the van is on a small ferry to make a short crossing of Lake Titikaka. The land around the Bolivian part of the lake is very hilly - this short ferry ride is the only option.

The ferry is powered by a 40 horsepower outboard. The ferry is locally made, of course. Is BC Ferries paying attention? Their monopoly could be a risk.

Hostel La Cupula We stayed two nights at the Hostel La Cupula in Copacabana. Great food and Bolivian prices!! Others visiting this area stay with the locals - a bare room, no heat, no shower. We really enjoyed this place.
inca altar Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol was one of the sacred places to the Inca. The first Inca was said to have been raised out of Lake Titikaka in around 1,000 AD. The raising was in this area.

isla del sol trail As well as a visit to some ruins and an altar, we walked from the north end of the island all the way to the south end - some 10 kms. Although the elevation gain was not large - 150 metres at most - it was a considerable effort owning mostly to the thin air. We were very tired when we finished. The Inca trail puts 3 hikes like this in a row. We are a little worried.
farm Speaking a ferries - this is the only large boat we say on the lake. Apparently it was built on the Bolivian side by a former Premier of BC. Our guide could not remember his name.

All the local boats used to move people back and forth are much more rustic than this. As well, like most drivers of cars in Bolivia and Chile, they drive much more slowly than we would. Our ferry travelled at about 5 knots for the two hours it took to reach the north end of the island. Powered by two 80 horse outboards in an open well at the back, the engine fumes added to the fun of the slow ride to the island.

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