We are currently one country down in our two-month, six-country trip. Due to its proximity to Chile, Bolivia was our first stop and also (probably) our shortest, as we spent a total of five days there.
American travellers beware: there is a required $160 visa fee to be paid upon your arrival.
We divided our time in Bolivia in two: La Paz and Lake Titicaca, where we later crossed over into Peru. Seen from above, La Paz is a spectacular city which invades the valley where it is located with its characteristic brick structures. The first thing you notice after landing in La Paz (or actually El Alto, where the airport is) is the altitude. Located at over 13,500 ft (3,800 m), you begin feeling the effects of the altitude just seconds after stepping off the plane. It can be recognized by shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, and nausea. El Alto is an interesting airport to visit since it is one of the very few airports in the world where you won’t see people running around. Just climbing a few stairs feels like Mount Everest.
La Paz is a busy city where there’s always something going on in the street. It actually reminded me a little bit of Morocco because of its large amount of street vendors – they’re everywhere. No matter if you want to buy street food, crafts, or even DVDs, you will find what you are looking for just by walking around downtown La Paz.
La Paz’s light brown color comes from the multitude of unfinished buildings that populate the city. You can find 3, 4 story buildings that have not been finished yet, showing their orange brick skeleton. This, along with the multitude of people walking around, usually at a faster pace than tourists, can give you the false feeling of danger. However, it seems to be a not-so-dangerous city as long as you don’t make any rookie mistakes, like leaving your belongings unattended or getting in a taxi without asking how much the ride will be (most of them don’t have taximeters). These are some things we recommend to see and do:
The witches’ market is one of the highlights of La Paz. Located in the downtown area, it can easily be confused with a souvenir market, since the original witchcraft stores have been surrounded by small businesses selling alpaca sweaters and local souvenirs.
The actual witches (or witchcraft stores) can be identified by items such as dried llama fetuses, potions (for money, love, health… anything you might need) among many other statues and small totems. Far from being a touristy attraction, Bolivians do believe in their witchcraft, and they perform many rituals for different occasions and purposes. The witches’ market is kind of a supermarket where they buy all the necessary supplies.
They also have their own medicines and pharmacies within the market, where they sell the above mentioned potions, that are believed to cure anything from back pain to romance problems.
San Pedro Prison
San Pedro Prison is the largest in Bolivia and is located in the downtown area. The reason behind being so is that at the time it was built it was located in the outskirts of the city, but La Paz kept growing until it was absorbed.
DISCLAIMER: It is illegal to visit the prison. Although it was kind of allowed for a few years, the Bolivian government now prohibits it. You can only visit the outside, and look through the main gate where you will see inmates hanging out in the main patio. Over the past couple of years, some tourists ventured inside by bribing the gate guards, only to end up getting mugged inside the prison and even getting locked down inside for weeks. Don’t be one of these people.
Originally planned to host about 400 inmates, this population quickly grew to its current 1,500 inmates. One of the particularities of this prison is that it is being run by the inmates themselves, electing their governors in a “democratic” way. Interestingly, the inmates that run the prison are usually the wealthiest ones. This leaves the prison practically unattended, with only 4 to 6 guards located in the main door.
Every inmate has to pay a monthly rent for their cell, the richest ones having big cells with jacuzzis and private entry door to the outside world (yes, they could just walk out if they wanted to). On the other hand, the poorest inmates have to share a king-size bed sized cell with 15 other inmates. To pay their bills, inmates have to get jobs inside the prison at the restaurant or small convenience stores.
Copacabana: Bolivia’s Beach Town
After life in the big city, it was time to see some of Bolivia’s more natural beauty and head over to the highest altitude lake in the world – Lake Titicaca. Although La Paz and Copacabana (the town on the lake) are only separated by about 96 miles (155 km), the journey took just over 4 hours including the boat ride near the end to cross part of the lake before arriving in Copacabana.
Copacabana itself doesn’t have much to offer aside from the abundant tour operators offering trips to Isla del Sol and other attractions on the lake. For being such a touristic town, we were pleasantly surprised with the very reasonably priced accommodation and food options available. We were able to find a hotel to stay at for a total of about $12 a night. Although it was pretty obviously an older building that hadn’t been maintained quite as well as maybe it should have been, our room was spacious, had a private bathroom, cable tv, and amazing views of the lake. We even had a continental breakfast included!
Prices for meals in Copacabana varied quite a bit as there were plenty of places catering to tourists and serving burgers, pizza, etc. However, right next to these places you could also find traditional Bolivian three course lunch menus for just under $3 a person.
In terms of tours, we kept it to the two main sites: the floating islands and the Sun Island.
Las Isles Flotantes (the floating islands) are just a short boat ride away from Copacabana and are exactly what you’d expect-small islands made out of reeds floating near the shore. Here we found small restaurants and shops, but in other parts of the lake, many locals actually make their homes on these floating platforms. It is a strange sensation to actually be on one of these islands because you truly feel like you are floating on the water. The platforms are flexible and actually roll with the movement of the lake.
Isla del Sol
After exploring these islands we decided to step it up a bit and do an eight-hour tour of the Isla del Sol – the supposed birth place of the sun according to the Incas. After a rough two hours on the boat, we finally arrived at the island and were greeted by our guide, a local Tiwanaku man who had lived his whole life on the island. He led us to the northern edge of the Isla del Sol which had stunning views of the lake and its surrounding mountains. Here we also saw some ancient Inca ruins, a sacrificial table which is still in use today (supposedly only llamas are sacrificed here nowadays), and also a sacred rock thought to give the Inca’s strength.
After the guided portion of the tour was finished, we began our three-hour hike to the south end of the island to catch our boat back to the mainland. Although there were some amazing views, hiking at more than 13,400 ft (about 4,100m) is no easy feat. The sun is intense and even the slightest incline gets you out of breath. Needless to say, we were looking forward to relaxing a bit back in Copacabana before catching our night bus across the border. Bolivia had treated us very well, and we were excited to see what Peru had in store. Delicious food and Machu Picchu, here we come!
Until next time Bolivia!