The story of how we entered Bolivia is a wild one that I kept to myself until we left the country, just in case there were legal implications that would get us in trouble while we were there.
- Days 1-3: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia desert tour
- Days 4-7: La Paz, Bolivia
Dates: March 18-25, 2019
For the record, we are very organized travelers. We always research visas well in advance, plan ahead for cash, and even have a spreadsheet where we track itinerary and budget. But sometimes even we drop the ball. Which is how we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere in the desert at the Chile/Bolivia border, begging to borrow cash from strangers, and hoping to be able to get a visa to Bolivia (which is surprisingly complicated for US citizens).
The Border Crossing Ordeal
We were crossing into Bolivia from Chile as part of an organized tour of the southwestern corner of Bolivia and the Uyuni salt flats. The day before, Tim and I reviewed the trip info from the tour company, and Tim double checked visa requirements on a website. Note that this was NOT the official US government website that details entry requirements for US citizens to every country in the world. This was a big mistake – you should only ever use official government websites for your country to research your entry requirements.
The website we read said US citizens only needed a yellow fever card. We have that in our passports so we thought we we good! We had enough cash on us to tip our guides and drivers, and so we set out that morning for Bolivia thinking we were in pretty good shape!
Unfortunately, we learned at the border crossing – literally a shack in the middle of an empty desert – that US citizens not only need a visa, but that it costs $160 USD per person and that you must present about a dozen items in paperwork (things like bank statements, a tour itinerary, photos, etc.). With the exception of spare passport photos, these were all things we did not have. We didn’t even have enough US cash on us to pay for the visas!
We ended up having to ask the other people on our tour (at this time total strangers) if we could borrow cash to pay for the visa. After scrounging up $320 in US cash (about $80 of which we had ourselves), we were so relieved, certain we’d actually be able to enter Bolivia!
Another woman on our tour, Laura, helped translate for us inside the office, which is how we learned about all the paperwork requirements. With yet another hurdle to overcome, we were once again unsure of we’d be able to get into Bolivia, even though we at least had the money now.
As we rode this roller coaster of emotion, the immigration officer made a proposal.
For $200 per person instead of $160, he could make all of these paperwork requirements “go away”. If you’re thinking this sounds like a bribe, you’re right.
Tim went back around to our tour mates and managed to borrow $80 more to make an even $400.
To be clear, bribes are illegal and I definitely do not officially recommend them. But I’m also very practical and sometimes you just do what you need to.
So that’s how we got into Bolivia. The whole ordeal only lasted about an hour, but you know how after a stressful situation, the adrenaline sits with you for a while? Yeah, I was feeling anxious for a few hours after.
Bolivia Desert Tour – Day 1
Thankfully, after getting into our 4x4s with our driver/guide and hitting the road (less a road and more just wide open spaces) the amazing views and various lakes we saw on our drive helped replace anxiety with excitement at being in this part of the world.
The three-day tour through this area of Bolivia is a classic route that most people traveling in the country do. The itinerary is pretty standard across companies, with routes starting and ending in the town of Uyuni or starting in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and ending in Uyuni (this is the option we did). We traveled with Cordillera Travel, who specializes in routes starting in San Pedro de Atacama.
Our first stop was to the Laguna Blanca, which gets its white color from the high concentration of minerals in the water. Most of the lakes and lagoons in this arid area are very salty, and the diversity of minerals makes them all kinds of colors, like the Laguna Verde that we visited next.
The “Green Lagoon” is separated from Laguna Blanca by only a thin isthmus, yet the mineral composition is unique enough to make this lake a pale green color. It sits at the base of two volcanos – snowcapped Licancabur on the border with Chile, and Juriques. This makes it wildly picturesque.
Leaving these lakes behind, we then headed to what people call the “Salvador Dali Desert” – so-called because of the surrealistic formations wind erosion has created in the desert rocks. I honestly didn’t find it very interesting – it looked like a miniature version of the Monjes de la Pacana that we had seen the day before in Chile. Plus, we could only see the formations from the road, unable to get closer for a better vantage point.
The next stop was an opportunity to dip into some natural hot springs. Not having any cash on us after our earlier fiasco, we couldn’t pay the entrance, but we found the surrounding landscape and hot water lake much more interesting. The bacteria and algea in the water created swirls of red and green sludge interspersed with thin paths of salty ground. The array of naturally occurring colors was fascinating!
From there we drove to our highest point, at about 5000 meters, the Sol de Manana geyser. The ground is full of steamy vents, bubbling mud pots, and geysers. It’s a completely wild area, with no infrastructure like boardwalks or trails that you find in other geothermal places in the world like Yellowstone in the US or Rotorua in New Zealand. Accidents can and do happen, often resulting in death when people aren’t looking where they are stepping wild taking pictures or selfies. Our guide told us about one visitor the week prior who had fallen into the water and couldn’t get out so she boiled to death. I couldn’t find anything online to confirm this story, so it could be rumor, but still. Yikes.
We ended our day with a visit to Laguna Colorada, the last of the colorful lagoons. This one is red than to all of the krill in the water, which attracts flamingos to the lake. Flamingos eat krill and this is what makes them pink!
We spent the night in a basic but very cute (lots of colorful decor) accommodation with dorm style bedrooms. Everyone in our vehicle shared a room, and the larger group of us (about 30 people) shared afternoon tea and dinner together in the dining room. I was so impressed with the food and how well they took care of us. We had plenty of hot water to make tea (including coca tea!), yummy cookies, and an abundant multi course dinner. I later learned that in Andean cultures of Peru and Bolivia, a soup is served with every meal before the main course, and a piece of fruit is customary for dessert.
Bolivia Desert Tour – Day 2
The next morning, we were up early to visit another section of Laguna Colorada. Of all the lakes we visited on this tour, this one was my favorite. The vibrant crimson color contrasting with the white of the borax created a surreal foreground for the mountains beyond. Getting to see hundreds of beautiful thriving flamingos certainly didn’t hurt either!
From there we continued to the Siloli Desert at 4,550 meters (allegedly the highest and driest in the world) where there are a set of rock formations as a result of wind erosion. We had fun exploring the area and taking photos with the unique shapes.
From there we continued on to a series of more lakes, starting with Laguna Honda, a lake of light blue water set amidst the surrounding volcanos.
We then proceeded to Laguna Chiarcota, where we had lunch overlooking the flamingos in the lake!
The last was Laguna Cañapa before getting to the town of Culpina K, where we would be staying for the night. We were all excited to learn that we’d actually have private rooms here, and Tim and I even had our own bathroom and shower! This was quite the luxury in a party of the world as remote and wild as this!
To Sunrise, or Not to Sunrise?
Unfortunately the evening wasn’t as relaxing as it could have been, because our drivers and guides gave our diverse group a choice to make. Should we wake up to see sunrise over the Uyuni salt flat, or not?
It’s a simple enough question, and if everyone was free to decide for themselves, it wouldn’t have been a problem. For some reason, though, the group had to go with the majority vote. The majority was not interested in going to see the sunrise, and I was both very surprised and honestly deeply disappointed. Several others were as well.
We couldn’t understand why we couldn’t organize some jeeps to take those who wanted to see sunrise, and others to take those who preferred to sleep in.
It ended up taking two hours of heated discussion over dinner, where I think everyone felt pretty uncomfortable, to convince the guides to go with a proposed solution. Since there were 6 of us who wanted to see sunrise, and 6 people fit in one vehicle, that one vehicle should go to sunrise and meet up with the other groups later at lunch.
Grateful for a solution (mostly thanks to Laura, the same Colombian woman who helped me and Tim at the border!), we went to bed for a short sleep before our early morning.
Sunrise on the Salt Flat
The Uyuni Salt Flat covers over 4000 square miles, making it the largest in the world. It’s twice the size of the state of Delaware, and almost as big as Connecticut. Even more astounding to me, the salt flat is 120 meters thick.
The next day, our driver took the sunrisers to the part of the Uyuni Salt Flats which is covered in a thin layer of water during the wet season. Already, the landscape was otherworldly as we couldn’t quite tell the ground from the sky due to the reflection in the water.
The effect only became more and more dramatic as the first light of day began to appear. Then, once the sun began to rise, we had two suns – one in the sky, and one in the reflection.
Though it was beautiful, I was glad once the sun came up because standing in the thin pool of water made my feet so cold!
We warmed up over breakfast at the original salt hotel – which is exactly what it sounds like. Today, the structure is a museum and picnic spot, rather than a hotel. There are other salt hotels near Uyuni, though, that operate during the dry season!
After breakfast, we continued to the dry part of the salt flats, where we played with perspective to make fun photos where we look smaller than the props. For example, we used a toy dinosaur to look like he was chasing us, and a pot to look like we were about to be eaten!
Eventually it was time to leave this incredible place behind.
We still had a few stops before the tour was over, however. We visited a small town that harvests the salt, and then stopped by a fascinating “train cemetery”. In this unique place, dozens of retired train cars sit exposed for people to explore and take photos.
At lunch, we reconvened with the larger group who hadn’t done sunrise who was already at the lunch spot when we arrived.
Tim and I had booked an overnight bus to La Paz (Bolivia’s capital city) for that night, but after 3 super busy days driving around the desert, we were eager to get somewhere we could relax. On a last minute crazy decision, we went to the airport and booked a flight an hour before its departure! A one hour flight (rather than 10 hour bus ride) later, we were in La Paz and heading to our Airbnb.
When we checked in, we were delighted to see how well-decorated and comfortable the unit was. It was perfectly clean, colorful, and in a great location walkable to everywhere in the city.
Overall, the highest capital city in the world took our breath away (literally – thanks altitude!). It’s situated in a bowl surrounded by snowcapped mountains, making it very unique.
La Paz is home to a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity, which we got to experience via a day trip to the ancient archeological site of the Tiwanaku, plus Red Cap Tours’ free walking tour, deep dive city tour, and food tour (yeah, we liked that company – the free tour was one of the best we’ve ever had).
Bolivians today are mostly Catholic, but they also still practice ancient rituals, especially those which they believe will bring favor from Pachamama (Mother Earth, and the most important god in indigenous beliefs). Pachamama loves candy, alcohol, and, apparently, the fetuses of miscarried llamas. These items are readily available in the Witch’s Market. Rituals usually involve burning the offering with the help of a shaman who can make your request to Pachamama.
Even the main church in San Francisco Square pays homage to indigenous beliefs, combining colonial architecture with indigenous symbolism.
Oh, and this same church square is home to many street performance acts. We had a great time watching 3 teenage boys duel it out in a rap battle before a food tour we took.
Gender roles also seem to sit somewhere between traditional and modern. Some women choose to carry on the traditional lifestyle and fashion of the indigenous culture. These women are called cholitas, and they primarily work in markets.
But some of them also kick ass in the wrestling ring. Yep, they are cholita wrestlers, and we got to watch them on a deep-dive tour we did with Red Cap Tours. By the way, this is just like WWE – there’s a story line, everything is staged, no one gets hurt, and it’s classic slapstick entertainment.
Another place of contradiction, the La Paz cemetery looks like many others in South America at first glance. Take a walk down some of the aisles, however, and contemporary surprises await.
Beautiful murals by local artists portray their interpretation of Bolivian rituals around life and death. Each one has a unique perspective and style. I especially love the one of the girl holding the dead bird that has new life in the form of trees growing from him.
One last contradiction is the city itself. It has no urban planning, so the streets are crazy, but a hypermodern cable car system connects the city. And then there’s the obvious paradox of having a city at such high altitude, surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the Andes. It’s a fascinating city, and really unlike any other we’ve visited before. We definitely want to go back!