Bolivia – a truly Un-Boliviable experience.
I was recently asked to write a post to be featured in another blog series about places we’ve disliked in our travels. It was just meant to be a short blurb but since I wrote so much I thought I may as well put it to use and post it here. So here it is, my first travel post on this blog, about my Un-Boliviable experience. Just a shame it had to be about a place I didn’t like, but I think it’s an interesting read so hope you share my thoughts.
“We heard gun shots and people there just weren’t nice like everywhere else. They’re way behind the times compared to the rest of South America. Good to see I guess but definitely won’t be rushing back here.”
This was a Facebook comment I wrote earlier this year in response to someone else’s comment on a post I made about finally leaving Bolivia. It was such a disappointing end to an otherwise incredible holiday, from New York to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Peru.
When we booked our holiday I didn’t really know much about South America, except that I wanted to go to the beaches in Rio and hike the Inca Trail in Peru. The friend I was travelling with had a lot more knowledge and had set out exactly what she wanted to do. I trusted her judgement and enlisted a travel agent to book an itinerary based on what my friend wanted.
We were going to Bolivia to see the salt flats. Admittedly when I read our itinerary I thought it sounded pretty amazing so of course I thought we were going to end our trip on a high.
“Enter a world unlike anything else as we drive across the salt flats..” it said, “the piercing blue sky contrasts against the blinding white of the flat salt beds. Take memorable photos of the unusual landscape complete with mountains, active volcanoes, geysers, and boiling mud pools.”
Whoever did the marketing for this tour could probably sell ice to Eskimos.
Although I must say, looking back at my photos, I can see how someone would fall for this sales pitch.
Images of the salt flats – that piercing blue sky does contrast against the salt beds pretty incredibly.
Pre-holiday, the only thing I knew about Bolivia was what I had read in Rusty Young’s famous account of San Pedro prison. And in a way I was kind of hoping I might be one of the lucky tourists that still managed to gain entrance into the strange place to take some candid photos.
This idea quickly faded when we arrived in La Paz.
From the moment we landed in the airport I felt uneasy.
The people didn’t seem as friendly as they had everywhere else and the airport was very official and scary. We went through normal baggage checks, followed by the narcotic checks (just like in the Marching Powder book). When I pictured this in my mind I thought it would be exciting going through this knowing I had nothing to hide, but in real life I was petrified.
I was so happy we had pre booked a driver so we went straight to find him and were on our way. As we drove across the city I noticed the vast poverty and how run down everything was, but the thing that stood out to me most was these weird puppet people that were hanging all over the place. When I say hanging, I mean noose around the neck hanging from lamp-posts or buildings. When I first saw one I thought I imagined it, first I thought it was a real person, but then I kept seeing them. I was too scared to ask what they were about so I just kept my thoughts to myself, but I knew I wasn’t going to like this place.
N.B. These photos are taken from a google image search as I was too scared to take photos of this site while in the presence of my Bolivian taxi driver, but this is exactly what I saw.
An hour later we’d finally made it to our accommodation. It was nice enough and the ladies that ran it were lovely (I can probably count the nice people on one hand). I’m not sure where it was in relation to the main drag as I didn’t even want to take the chance of venturing too far from the hotel.
The streets were packed with markets, cars and people. You barely had room to move.
Everything looked the same, there was very little space to walk, and no-one spoke nicely or let you through. We got settled in our room and went to explore the Witches Market which was just down the road. It really was like a black market full of weird and wacky goods and I didn’t like it at all. Plus it was starting to get dark and I had a bad sense things were going to get worse so we quickly made our way back to our street, ate some pizza at a restaurant two doors down from the hotel, and called it a night.
We had one full day to spend in La Paz before our Uyuni Salt Flats tour. I decided to book a day trip to Chacaltaya and the Moon Valley as there was no way I wanted to be spending any more time than I had to in that horrible city centre. The day trip was alright but after all the other incredible places I’d already seen, I just couldn’t get excited. The mountain was nice and I got to hold snow and the view was pretty, but it had nothing on other places I’ve seen. Then the Moon Valley was pretty much just a valley of weird shaped rocks. It was interesting but again, not amazing. We got back to the hotel, ate another pizza and had another early night in preparation for our early morning pick up to go to Uyuni.
Turns out the first day of the tour was actually just driving across Bolivia to get to Uyuni – haven’t they heard of planes? I’m all for road trips, I actually love them, but the reason I love them is because of the amazing scenery you would otherwise miss out on.
Well let me tell you, all you see when driving across Bolivia is dirt and the odd run down town and some coloured rocks here and there.
It’s good to gain perspective on how lucky us Westerners are. But when you’ve got seven people crammed into a four-wheel drive with no space, and only one of them is your friend, and you’re angry at her for making you come here in the first place, it’s definitely not enjoyable. I pretty much slept the entire day just to make the time pass quicker.
Our experience of the salt flats wasn’t that great either. We clearly must’ve picked the wrong tour company as we were with older people and didn’t get to stop and take those fun reflective photos, which seems to be the only reason anyone actually visits the salt flats. It literally is just plains of white salt as far as the eye can see and a bit of water here and there. In the middle of it all there’s the odd building made completely of salt and that’s it.
On the way to the salt flats you get to stop at some run down train museum, I’ll admit this was pretty cool for photos. You also get to stop at an island full of giant cacti, also kind of cool. But when I think about having to spend two full days in a car to get to and from this, and two days in La Paz either side of the tour, do I think it was worth it? Definitely not.
Usually I’m the type of person that goes on holiday and never wants to leave but I could quite happily have skipped Bolivia to come home after Peru and been extremely satisfied with my holiday.
The day I left La Paz to fly to Santiago (my transit city before heading home) I was so happy.
The driver I met in Santiago was so kind to me and ended up giving me a mini tour of the city since he knew I had very little time there. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of the previous 5 days and then meeting someone so kind, that I cried from happiness. He must’ve thought I was so strange.
Looking back now, the fact it was Australia Day probably contributed to why I hated Bolivia so much. I was stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do at night and all I wanted to do was be back home sitting by a pool with my friends, a barbecue, beers and the hottest 100. At that moment I couldn’t comprehend the fact I’m so lucky to actually be able to travel the world when others are fighting for their lives on a daily basis and trying to get let into countries like ours.
On the other hand, a place that is famous for some flat salt lakes, a cycle track known as Death Road, a weird prison and a Witches Market, sounds interesting, but is most definitely not for me. I wil be sticking to what I said in January and you definitely won’t catch me rushing back there.
Well that’s enough about my Un-Bolivable experience. Would love to know your thoughts.
Have you been? Did you love it, hate it, have similar or completely different experiences?