Welcome back! For those of you who have just joined in the fun, just hold up there a sec! Have you read my previous blog ‘The South American Gringo Trail – Part 1’? If not, you should definitely jump on over and read that first before delving into this juicy blog. So hh hhmmm *clears throat*, where were we?
Eventually we had to say ciao to Santiago and get our butts up to Northern Chile. San Pedro de Atacama to be exact. As far as I was concerned, this was the REAL Chile, where the desert meets the snow-capped Andes. Where a sand storm would take just 5 seconds to cover everything in its’ path in a browny-red dust. Where a tiny town is made up of mud and clay houses with thatched roofs. When I imagined Chile, this is what I pictured. My advice is to MAKE TIME for this place. We spent 5 days here before venturing off to the salt flats in Bolivia and it was so worth it. We really could have hung out here for longer if we had the time. There is so many activities on offer and they all vary immensely. You can go star gazing, visit geysers and natural hot springs, watch flocks of flamingos dance around a deserted lake, go sand boarding and visit sites with names like ‘The Valley of the Moon’ and ‘The Valley of Death‘. And how could I forget ‘Salar De Atacama‘, a salt lake where it is impossible to sink, just like the dead sea. Something to be mindful of is that the weather in San Pedro de Atacama resembles that of a bi-polar tiger. The days can be scorching hot and the nights freeeeezing cold. Be sure to pack for every season and occasion i.e. a jacket, windbreaker, raincoat… or even better ONE coat that has all three of these elements. Although the tours are incredible and not worth missing out on, be prepared for early morning starts and long drives. But please don’t let any of this put you off doing these tours or visiting San Pedro for that matter, I am purely sharing this with you so that you can be a little more organised then we were. One great idea we did have was investing a few dollars in one of these (see picture below), which you can pick up from one of the many artisan market stalls in the town. Come at me dust storm…..
So with all this adventuring you’re going to be doing, don’t forget to nourish and fuel your body….with a drink that sounds so weird in theory, it seems fitting that only a place like San Pedro can really claim it as their signature drink. It’s called a ‘Terremoto’, which in English translates to ‘Earthquake’. I’m not even going to explain the ins and outs of what’s in the drink, that would be ruining the surprise. You can’t know EVERYTHING about your travels before going otherwise what’s the point in going?! All I will say is that this drink has been given this name for a reason!
So depending on whether you travel from the North of South America to the south or vice versa, you’re not going to want to miss out on a 3 day 4×4 tour across the Salt Flats. Doing this tour is the easiest and most enjoyable way to cross the border between Chile and Bolivia. As we were heading north, it was time to wave goodbye to Chile and say ‘Hola Bolivia!’. We pre-booked our tour while in San Pedro de Atacama. We only booked it about 3 or 4 days prior so this is not something you need to have pre-organised way in advance, although we were travelling in the low season so for you peak season travellers, you may want to look into pre-booking as it is such a popular tour. We were also lucky as we were travelling with two other Irish couples we had met on our travels so we made sure that we would all be travelling together with our driver. We had also made sure that our driver could at least speak SOME English, or at least we thought. Like anything in South America, people will often tell you what they think you want to hear! Actually that reminds me, this is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you..
Hot tip #654: When you ask a local for something and they don’t know the answer, they are too proud to just admit they don’t know. So instead, they will just make something up and deliver it to you in the most convincing manner, as if they’re all over it and they know exactly what you’re asking. For example “Donde esta el stacion de buses?” (“Where is the bus station?”) – “En la esquina giro a la izquierda” (At the corner, turn let). When in reality, the bus station is 3 blocks away towards the right. This happened ALL THE TIME! So when it does happen to you, just laugh it off and appreciate the culture you’re surrounded with. This is why we travel in the first place right? To get a feel for life in a culture that is nothing like what we’re used to.
Anyway, where were we… ahh yes, the Salt Flats. So over the next 3 days we covered plenty of kilometres, had plenty of laughs and saw some of the most majestic landscapes of my entire life! It was about the end of June when we did this tour, so more or less their winter months and boy did we feel it. The nights’ would drop to zero or below and there ain’t no heating in a salt house hostel. Even in the summer months, the night temps can really drop so be sure to pack warm gear and probably aim to wear every piece of clothing you own when you go to bed.
Here are some pictures from our time on the tour. I won’t list every sight and landmark, again, I don’t want to ruin the surprise but I can guarantee that this will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
The drop off point at the end of this tour is a tiny little town called Uyuni. There is really nothing super exciting there, so no need to spend any more time there than you have to. From Uyuni, we were headed to a place called Potosi. The whole reason we were going there was because of me. Potosi is a smallish town perched about 13,420 ft (4,090 metres) above sea level and is famous for it’s underground mine tours. No one else in our group of amigo’s was keen to do it except me but I had convinced them to get on board and just embrace it! Plus, my sister had done it about 12 months before us and raved about it! Yes, South American safety standards are not up to Australian standards but this was all about the experience. You can’t live your life under a sheltered rock. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any report or recommendation of this tour as we never got to do it. Yes we made it to Potosi, but after I contracted a serious bout of ‘Bolivia Belly’, which left me bed bound for the next 24 hours, the rest of the group decided “screw this, let’s go to Sucre”. The tribe had spoken! I’m sure they all felt terrible that we had to miss out on the tour too (haha, did you pick up on that sarcasm?).
Welcome to Sucre, where we were virtually back to sea level and where the temperature had literally increased by like 15 or 20 degrees. I couldn’t believe it, we left Potosi in jackets and jeans and arrived to a hostel in Sucre where everyone was in singlets and shorts! And it was only a 2 hour drive away. Go figure! Sucre is an awesome town! There is plenty to do and lots to see. Here is a wrap up of what we got up to:
- Visited the Parque Cretacico (Dinosaur Museum)
- Did a walking tour
- Stayed at an awesome hostel called The Celtic Cross
- Visited the local food market every.single.day for a freshly squeezed juice for $1
- Enjoyed happy hour at La Vieja Bodega
- Lived with a Bolivian family and did a weeks’ worth of Spanish lessons
- Partied in a dodgy nightclub where songs by Craig David and Ja Rule were in full swing
- Checked out an awesome water and light show on at the main plaza
Sucre is a such happening town and you can really lose track of time here. Everyone is so happy and cheerful and are just a pleasure to be around.
Handy Tip #54 – Sucre, and Bolivia in general is one of the cheapest places to do Spanish lessons. We organised a weeks worth of lessons through Sucre Spanish School and it averaged out to be about $4 per class or $10 a day including board with a local family and 2 meals a day. Winning!
The next stop on our South American gringo trail adventure was up to the capital city of Bolivia, La Paz. After a 12 or 14 hour overnight bus ride, we arrived into the city and couldn’t believe how big and spread out it was! We stayed at a Wild Rover Hostel which you will become familiar with during your SA travels. These hostels are renowned for their party vibe. We were lucky enough to score dorm beds at the very back of the property so we could party in the bar area, but also get some sleep at night.
La Paz has an awesome walking tour which begins at the main plaza right next to the famous San Pedro Prison. If you haven’t heard of this prison, I highly recommend you read a book called ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young. It’s pretty surreal to see the prison in real-life after knowing what went on inside there from this book. This is not like most other prisons, but I’ll let the book tell the story. For those who are familiar with the prison… please do NOT attempt to go inside. Yes, you’ll probably hear stories of travellers who made it in and got out ok but there are way more stories of people who aren’t so lucky. My guess is you’ve still got a lot of travelling and things you want to accomplish in your life time so just don’t risk it!
Here are some other great things to do in La Paz:
- Urban Rush – Walk (or run) down the side of a 50m city building!
- Valle de La Luna – Walk through Valley of the Moon
- The Witches Market – AKA El Mercado de las Brujas (so cool!)
Handy Tip #584 – When taking photos of locals, their surroundings or both please be polite and ask for permission first. No one likes a camera being shoved in their face so even if you don’t know how to speak Spanish, use body language. Point to your camera and then to them and SMILE. 9 time out of 10 they probably won’t mind and they would even get a kick out of seeing a photo of them self. You may even just make a new friend in the process.
- All the other food and goods markets around the city
- Plaza Murillo & The Presidential Palace – you will most likely visit these places on the walking tour
and of course…. Death Road! I have to say that this was one of my favourite tours of the whole trip! I couldn’t believe I had never thought to go downhill biking before. Although there are minimal restrictions on who can and can’t do the tour, here are a few pointers that you should consider:
- Be confident on a bicycle and know how to ride a bike but don’t get TOO confident either, it’s not a race
- Use your common sense and stick to the side of the road the guides tell you to (as vehicles still use this road as well)
- DO NOT try to take photos or selfies while you are riding, just don’t do it!
- Leading on from the above point, be 100% concentrated on the task at hand and don’t get distracted
Smile and enjoy the ride!
Onto the last stop of our Bolivian hop, we bused it to a tiny little lake side town called Copacabana, situated on one side of the ginormous Lake Titicaca. The bus ride is about 3.5 – 4 hours and includes a ferry crossing. The main attractions of Copacabana are those that aren’t in Copacabana itself. Isla del Sol and Isla de la luna. Generally speaking, most travellers will catch the boat over to the north side of Isla del Sol (called Cha’llapampa) and walk across it from one end to the other before camping the night at one of the local hostels on the south side and returning home the following morning. The only mode of transport around the island is by foot as well as the use of donkey’s to transport goods and supplies from the boats up to the villages. For some epic views that stretch for miles, make sure you don’t miss out on this experience! And make sure your camera battery is charged.
Copacabana also has some awesome pop up restaurants, right along the beach. Talk about ocean front dining! Each restaurant’s name is just a number. We were repeat customers at #13 and #11 from memory. Mmm, mmmm! Another great (free!) activity is to take a walk up Cerro Calvario. It’s about a 40 minute walk depending on how much you struggle with the altitude, but it is well worth the shortness of breaths for some stunning views of the town and the lake.
Now if you just happen to be in Copacabana around the middle of July then you are in for a real treat. While we were there we had been told by some of the locals that the annual bull fight would be taking place at the local bull ring. A reporter from the BBC was there to document the event and we were even told about one man who walked over 100kms to have his bull participate in the competition. That’s dedication! I do want to be clear that no bulls were harmed in the making of this epic event either. It just so happened to be our friend’s birthday on the day of the fight so we headed down there to check it all out and it was seriously one of the most spontaneous and fun things we got involved with on our trip! We bought a seat each on some guy’s rooftop for about $2 each and he brought us beers on request for $2 a beer. It was a great day! Some other memorable moments of the afternoon was watching one of the bulls accidentally let loose amongst the crown (don’t worry, no one was hurt) and Michael my friend and I jumped in the ring with all the action! That was certainly an adventure I won’t forget in a hurry.
After 3 magical days in Copacabana, it was now time to say ciao to Bolivia and make our way to a country so diverse, it has everything from the Amazon, to big cities, to coastal beachy towns, an oasis in the desert and one of the greatest wonders of the world. Yep, we were now settled in for a 12 hour overnight bus ride where we would be waking up in yet another amazing South American country, Peru! See you on the other side amigos…
Part 2 – In a nutshell:
San Pedro de Atacama:
Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna)
Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte)
Salar de Atacama (Chilean Salt Flat)
El Tatio Geyser & Machuca Village Tour
4×4 Salt Flat Tour into Bolivia
Parque Cretacico (Dinosaur Museum)
Local Food Markets
Spanish Lessons (Daily Lessons or Opt for a Home Stay)
San Pedro Prison
Free Walking Tour
Death Road Bike Tour
Urban Rush (Abseil down a city building)
Valle de La Luna
The Witches Market (El Mercado de las Brujas)
Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon)
Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun)
Cerro Calvario (Hill climb)
Street food stalls down by the lake