Bolivia travel advice

Another of those random straight-from-the-unsorted-chaos-of-my-memory-to-the-unsorted-chaos-of-the-intertubes advice/tips-and-tricks posts.  Feel free to skip if you don’t have a trip to Bolivia potentially pushing its way into your not-too-distant future, especially since there aren’t even any pretty pictures to distract you with.

Altitude

Most of Bolivia is high.  (Insert inevitable drug reference here.)  There are bits of it that are at, shall we say, normal altitudes (below two thousand metres) – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that two-thirds of the country is lowlands, and the lowest point is a delightfully oxygen-rich 90m above sea level.  But except for the areas you might visit to see the Amazon jungle, the bits you’re likely to encounter are all at three thousand metres or higher.

La Paz is the world’s most up-there (de facto / administrative) capital city, at 3650m, and when you fly in, you actually land at El Alto, La Paz’s higher next-door neighbour, so that you’re touching down at 4060m.  We came to Bolivia from Cusco and Machu Picchu, so had acclimatised to altitude a little – and our previous experiences with oxygen-deprivation in Nepal gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the thinness of air.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t expect still to be puffing and panting our way around, and we were definitely on the money with that assessment.

Other likely destinations in Bolivia are not going to offer much respite:  sure, Sucre is lower, at 2750m, but at 3840m, Copacabana is even higher than La Paz, and the Uyuni salt flats are La Paz’s equal, at 3650m.  (The 4WD tours you do from Uyuni will have you sleeping above 4000m, and visiting as high as 4800m, so you want to be coping well with the elevation by the time you embark on one of those bastards.)  While we didn’t go there, you could get a bit of relief in Cochabamba (2570m), but don’t expect any such kindness while visiting the silver mines of Potosí, which at 4090m is one of the world’s highest cities.

So come to Bolivia expecting that altitude will affect pretty much everything you do:  walking up hills will be hard, and won’t be made any easier by the polluted air from the bus/truck thing that is having just as much difficulty ascending as you are.  Hell, even taking a hot shower will leave you short of breath by the time all the steamy goodness of a well-enjoyed hot water service takes over half of your lungs.

Long story short:  be prepared for shortness of breath, and make sure you know a bit about altitude sickness.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to have some Diamox with you, just in case, and you should definitely be willing to change your travel plans and seek out some low-lying rest stops if you start suffering the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness.

Cross-country transport

I get the impression that this has improved markedly in the last couple of years, but be aware that buses in Bolivia are, well, crashy.

Stories of drunk or drugged-up bus drivers abound – one girl we met on our tour of the Uyuni salt flats seemed remarkably sanguine about having just survived an overnight bus trip which included a group of other passengers having to force their way into the driver’s compartment at 4am when the driving became erratic, to discover that the driver had pissed himself, vomited, and more or less passed out behind the wheel.  It all ended well, with a replacement driver installed and the original shoved unceremoniously into the baggage compartment for a not-so-well-deserved nap.  But it’s one of those stories I’d rather hear than experience nonetheless.

If you’re bussing between La Paz and Uyuni, the Todo Turismo bus – while expensive by Bolivian standards, at Bs 230 (£22 / $US33) per person – is basically the only acceptable option.  It’s a perfectly comfortable trip, and nothing to worry about.  The alternatives, not so much.  Todo Turismo’s offices are at Avenida Uruguay #102, in a blue building basically across the road (and down a little) from the Terminal de Buses in central La Paz (not the one in El Alto, which Google Maps will happily direct you to if you’re not careful to distinguish).

After our salt flats tour, we took an overnight tourist bus from Uyuni to Sucre – there are a number of operators on this route, and we just went with the one that our salt flats tour company booked for us (6 de Octubre, I think it was).  Probably should have researched that a little more beforehand, but it was fine, and I get the impression that that route isn’t typically a problem.

We ended up flying from Sucre back to La Paz – partly to avoid yet another overnighter with little sleep, and partly because the research I’d done suggested that the buses on that route are historically more problematic.  If you’re going to bus it, there’s a few recommendations on this Lonely Planet thread (check out comment #10 in particular).  With little more to go on than appearance, I’d back the suggestions there:  of the bus fleets we saw, El Dorado and Bolivar did look to have the nicest buses.

Bussing between La Paz and Copacabana doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a problem as other destinations:  it’s a shorter trip (three to four hours), and the buses run during the day.  We did have one nervous nitwit on our bus tearfully imploring the bus driver to slow down, citing fearfulness due to an overturned bus he’d come across elsewhere in Bolivia (he even had a photo on his camera to show the bus driver), but actually the driving was perfectly safe and reasonable.  We went with Diana’s Tours (getting there) and Tur Bus (coming back) – but basically any of the tourist buses would be fine, I’m sure.  I can’t vouch for the collectivos going from the cemetery area, but plenty of people out there on the interwebs do recommend them as a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

4WD tours of the Uyuni salt flats

Again, do your research to avoid drunken and drugged-up drivers.  There are plenty of horror stories out there:  crashes, drivers drinking while driving, drivers too hungover to drive the next morning, drivers too drunk to bother preparing meals, cars constantly breaking down, wheels falling off, etc.

Chris came prepared with a list of four of the more reputable companies:  Red Planet, Quechua, Cordillera, and Empexsa.  They all have their fair share of atrocious reviews, but they seemed to have fewer than the rest…

We ended up going with Empexsa, since we were hunting around on the morning we got to Uyuni and wanted to leave that day.  We were incredibly lucky:  we not only had a very safe, sober and reliable driver (Johnny – thanks, mate!) but we also had a great group of people in the other four passengers (a big thanks to you lot, too!).

So I can recommend Empexsa, especially if you have Johnny as your driver.

But one final word of warning:  even being selective about the company you book with might not be enough.  Companies will regularly offload their passengers into another agency’s car when they don’t have the right number of passengers to fill a car themselves – so the car you actually end up in might not belong to the agency you booked with.  Not really sure what you can do about that, other than book at the last minute, like we did, with an agency that’s looking to fill the last few spots in their car.

Internet

Bolivia has terrible internet access.  A fair number of restaurants and cafés do have the wi-fis, and almost all accommodation will too, but speed and reliability are nowhere to be found.

There’s enough that you’ll be able to touch base every so often and do a little bit of online research when you need it, but good luck trying to get a Skype call going.  And if you happen to be the narcissistic sort and have a travel blog, good luck getting new posts up – especially if they involve pictures.  (Sigh.)  Similarly, your legions of Facebook friends may have to wait until you make it to Chile or Argentina or Peru or wherever else you happen to be going next to see yet another picture of perspective feats and weirdness with giant toy dinosaurs on the Uyuni salt flats.

When you’re doing your normal research for accommodation, it’s worth seeing what the reviews say about the wifi.  And when you’re planning your trip, it’s worth saving information offline (on your phone – say with Pocket and/or Evernote and/or emails to yourself – or on your laptop) for future reference.  Don’t rely on being able to get it back out of the cloud when you get there.

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Copacabana and Isla del Sol

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

After Sucre, we didn’t have a lot of plans until our upcoming flight to Argentina to start exploring the eastern side of the South American continent.  But we did have some extra time in Bolivia, since we’d allowed plenty of buffer for potentially difficult transport issues and delays and hadn’t needed any of it.  It seemed silly to spend it all in La Paz – there wasn’t a lot else that we wanted to do there.  So even though it’s normally visited as a pitstop on the bus from Peru into Bolivia before proceeding on to La Paz, we headed down to Copacabana.

No, by the way, it’s not that Copacabana – the world-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.  Interestingly, though, the one in Rio is actually named after this town (or, more specifically, the cathedral in this town, which is historically important – and architecturally so as well, I’m told), so there’s that…

Copacabana is a tourist town on the side of Lake Titicaca, so at the very least, the trip would give us the opportunity to make juvenile jokes about the name “Titicaca”.  At the risk of continuing an already not ecstatically enthusiastic set of blog posts about Bolivia, though (except for Uyuni), it just isn’t a very interesting town.  Cheap, yes.  Pretty, reasonably.  Full of hippies who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their time there, tick.  But nothing particularly setting off my fun-o-meter, I’m afraid.

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

One of the must-dos from Copacabana is a boat trip across to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), one of the oldest holy sites of the ancient Incas.  Unfortunately, that too was a bit boring:  the ruins are really not much to look at at all, and I really didn’t feel that the fact that they were older than many other sites made up for their lack of, well, content.

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma.  It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol.  Exciting stuff, no?

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma. It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol. Exciting stuff, no?

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left)

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left). Unfortunately not really worth the trip, I’m afraid.

And that’s about it, really, sorry to say.  Copacabana gets a thumbs-down from me:  unless you really want to see the cathedral, find somewhere else to spend your time and money.

Sucre

In hindsight, visiting Sucre was a mistake, really.  It’s not that it’s not a nice city.  But when we booked our tour of the Uyuni salt flats, we needed to tell the travel agent which bus we wanted her to book for us for when we returned, and it was either off to Sucre or back to La Paz.  We didn’t really know much about Sucre, but we hadn’t been there yet, whereas we’d been to La Paz (and were going to be back there again), so why not something different?

It was a mistake, though, because contrary to the picture I had in my mind, Sucre is actually not in any way on the way back to La Paz, and so for all the upside of visiting yet another random city, it actually meant more hassle than it was really worth figuring out how to get back to La Paz.  (We ended up flying – easy enough, but more costly than we would otherwise have bothered with.  Let’s be realistic, this is Bolivia, so we’re not exactly talking piles of cash here.  But still…  It was a bit of a waste.)

That said, just because it wasn’t worth it, doesn’t mean that it was terrible.  In fact, Sucre is a lovely city – cleaner and prettier (and lower!) than La Paz, and with a nicer collection of restaurants and cafés.  Actually, it’s a city that a lot of tourists find themselves spending a lot of time in:  if you’re looking to find a nice (and cheap) city to just relax in for a bit, or maybe for somewhere to learn Spanish, or maybe to find a place to volunteer, then Sucre would be a great spot.

It’s just that if you’re coming through in the hope of finding interesting attractions to go visit or unique experiences to be had, well… there are better alternatives.

One of the higher-rated attractions, for example, is the 15m model Eiffel Tower in Simon Bolivar Park.  Which is not particularly attractive, and doesn’t much look like the Eiffel Tower (albeit that it was in fact designed by Gustav Eiffel and shipped over from France).

Not the Eiffel Tower

Not the Eiffel Tower

Sucre is a hilly city, like most others in Bolivia, and so a decent lookout – in this case La Recoleta – provides a nice panorama.  But in the end it’s just a city.  (Albeit one that strangely reminds me of Sarajevo, of all places.  Not quite sure why…)

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

But actually the thing I will most fondly remember from Sucre is the pedestrian crossings in the main plaza, Plaza 25 de Mayo.  We first saw them after we’d sat in the plaza on the Sunday morning of our arrival, waiting for something to open that could serve me some form of bacon and eggs.  (Our bus from Uyuni was an overnighter that arrived at 3am – it parked on the side of the road once we got there and they let passengers sleep on the bus until 6, but then we had to find our own place to plonk our behinds, so we taxi’d to and sat in the square for a few hours reading while we waited for the city to come to life.)  They were people in zebra costumes, policing the zebra crossings.  (Well, traffic and pedestrian lights, but you get the point.)  And they were loving it.  Prancing and dancing, gesticulating madly at cars to stop and go, and escorting pedestrians across the street.  Somehow, it was actually a quite mesmerising scene.

Zebras at the zebra crossing

Zebras at the zebra crossing

So, good work Sucre.  (Although we later saw the exact same thing in La Paz, where it was just as entertaining.  So actually, good work Bolivia.)

Even better, we could all this from our favourite location in Sucre:  Abis Café, on Plaza 25 de Mayo, where we spent far too much time drinking their coffee and milkshakes, and eating their fantastic breakfasts and salads.

Other than that, we spent our time relaxing and figuring out what else to do in Bolivia, and our only other particularly entertaining experience was the process of buying a plane ticket out of there.  It was just like the olden days:  you go into the airline’s office in town, talk to the nice friendly gentleman behind the counter, and buy your ticket for tomorrow, paying a fixed price (no extra “but you talked to a real live person” charges), and watching the dude use an old-fashioned slidey-style credit card imprint machine, etc.  It sounds silly, and it was, but that was actually a highlight for us, given how often we buy plane tickets, and how much time we spend hunting around online to find the best price, and the airline which will charge you the least baggage fees, credit card surcharges, etc., and whose prices will vary the least between when you first look for it and when you actually book.  It was a strikingly simple process, and we boarded our plane the next day reflecting on how different airline travel typically is these days.

Touring Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats)

Any farmer will tell you – I presume;  it occurs to me while writing this sentence that I don’t actually really know many farmers all that well, come to think of it – that a large amount of salt is one of the most thorough ways to render a tract of land completely useless.  And yet the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia are one of the country’s biggest money-earners.  It would be a little harsh to claim that as emblematic of Bolivia’s position in the world:  that the country’s best (tourist attraction) is other countries’ worst (threats to sustainability, etc.).  But there you have it…

The Uyuni salt flats

The Uyuni salt flats. Not the most riveting photo, I’ll agree – but it’s basically a big sheet of white. What did you expect to see?!

Aka Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are just that:  large expanses of salt – as far as the eye can see.  They’re up in the Atacama desert, in Bolivia’s south-western highlands.  And are the highlands ever high:  our four-day tour had us sleeping above 4000m every night, and cresting 5000m on a couple of the days.  My lasting memory of which is going to be the observation that there’s a lot more high altitude snoring that goes on when unacclimatised.  (Not that I’m claiming that I was magically unaffected by this, of course.)

Touring the salt flats is a little bit surreal, to be honest.  Basically, you’re being driven around the desert for several days so that you can see (a) some salt, (b) some rocks, and (c) some lakes.  Still, they’re all much-vaunted features of the Bolivian landscape, and so it seemed silly not to go see them.  And they were very pretty.

We got to Uyuni on an overnight bus, and spent the morning shopping around the various tour agencies for a tour which satisfied our two primary criteria:  first, was it leaving today;  second, was there a high likelihood that we would return alive and uninjured.  (Bolivia does not exactly have a reputation for great driving conditions – nor for great drivers – and many a salt flat tour has ended very unhappily for those who have chosen their provider poorly.  See upcoming post for recommendations on avoiding that fate yourself.)  Finally we found one and set off, discovering as we did that not only did it seem like we’d picked the tour operator well, but also that we’d been particularly fortunate in the travelling companions who’d chosen similarly – the four others in our 4WD were fantastic company for the time we spent with them.

Actually only one of the days of the tour is about the salt flats.  Probably a good thing, too – as fun as it is taking fancy photos playing clever tricks with perspective, it’s an activity which I imagine you’d tire of pretty quickly if you tried more than a couple of hours of it.

Perspective tricks on the Uyuni salt flats  (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Not sure which of these two girls is the angel on my shoulder and which the devil… (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Because of course part of the point of the salt flats is that they’re so surreal, so unusual, so uniform, that you lose all sense of perspective.  Which means you can play fun tricks.

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

So, once we’d done that, what else was there to do with our three days?  Well, there was a train graveyard, there were flamingo-filled lakes, there were beautiful sunsets, there were colourful lakes with mirror finishes beautifully reflecting mountains in the background, there were cool-shaped rocks in the desert, there were…

Well, there were lots of pretty things.  Which I guess means they’re better looked at than described.  Uyuni – and all of southern Bolivia – is most definitely a visual sort of area.

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake in southern Bolivia

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise in southern Bolivia

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise

A great spot for a hot spring bath in southern Bolivia

A great spot for a hot spring bath

Driving through the desert in southern Bolivia

Driving through the desert

La Paz and the Death Road

Bolivia is an interesting place.  Unlike most of the rest of South America, it has a predominantly native population throughout – most of the rest of South America has a much higher proportion of Latinos (European ancestry) and mestizos (mixed European and native ancestry) than does Bolivia.  I’m sure I’ve been told several times that it’s the only country in South America with a non-Latino head of state, too – though I can’t claim I actually know whether that’s true.  Through most of South America, the Latinos and mestizos tend to be better-off, and more centred in urban areas, and the natives tend to be poor and rural.  This is very much the case in Peru, for example, with a very obvious ethnic divide between Lima and, say, Iquitos or Cusco.

Perhaps Bolivia is where this difference is most clearly illustrated at a country level:  as a country-wide generalisation, it’s overwhelmingly populated by people who are both native and poor.  It’s perhaps South America’s least developed country.  For the tourist, this means two things:  it’s cheap (yay!) and it’s harder to get around safely and reliably (boo!).

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

We came to Bolivia after our Machu Picchu trip, and really our only major plan was to see the famous Uyuni salt flats.  (Bolivia’s other main tourism drawcard is the Amazon jungle, but we’d already done that in Iquitos, Peru, so we weren’t so interested in going to the effort of doing it again here, as fantastic as it had been the first time around.)  We allowed ourselves a couple of weeks, knowing that there was a significant possibility of transport delays (aka less than trustworthy buses), and wanting to make sure that we minimised the risk of missing our flight to Argentina on March 20.

We started and ended our Bolivian travels in La Paz – and having left ourselves that buffer time and in the end not needed it, we actually had a decent amount of time to kill there.

La Paz’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest capital city in the world.  It’s kind of a bullshit claim to fame, because although it’s where most of Bolivia’s government is, actually La Paz is not legally the capital of Bolivia:  Sucre is.  Hence the weasel words when La Paz is described as the world’s highest “administrative capital” or the world’s highest “de facto capital”.

Still, the point is it’s pretty high.  Its airport, technically in the neighbouring city of El Alto, is even higher.  Entertainingly, at over 4,100m, El Alto is actually higher than the effective altitude of normal cabin pressure on a passenger jet.  This is most entertaining when you fly out:  the 2L water bottle I carried onto the plane kept imploding from take-off until we reached our cruising altitude at around 12,000m, since after take-off the plane will actually be increasing the cabin pressure to reach normal levels.  (Landing in Lima the difference was noticeable too.  After spending two weeks in Bolivia – all of it in the highlands – breathing felt like drinking oxygen soup.  Very invigorating!)

Anyway, La Paz…

As I say, we spent a decent chunk of time there, but to be honest, we didn’t do all that much with it.  Recent travel had been hectic, and we appreciated some time not doing a whole heap.  We caught up on sleep and washing.  We enjoyed good food – fairly easy to do when even the budget Western traveller can take their pick of some of the country’s pricier restaurants.  And we spent some time figuring out what the hell we were going to do once we got to Argentina.

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

As far as, y’know, actually doing something in the place we’d expended money and effort to get to goes, our main goal was to cycle the Death Road – aka El Camino de la Muerte.  It’s a winding cliff-sided road down through the mountains near La Paz, and it’s famous for the number of fatalities it used to cause when it was the main route between its source and destination.  (They built a safer bypass years ago, so now although the road is still in use by the few locals who live along it, its primary users these days are tourists like us.)

Before it became a tourist attraction, it had turned out that having trucks and buses passing with only centimetres of clearance on a poorly-maintained road with a vertical drop-off on one side was not as conducive to road safety as would be ideal – hence the road’s reputation.

More of the Death Road

More of the Death Road

Even now, it’s still a regular – if much less frequent – cause of tourist casualties.  But at this point I should quickly get in a “don’t worry, Mum”:  while it’s true that a number of tourists have still died while cycling down it in recent years, a bit of asking around quickly leads to the conclusion that in every case, this was a result of someone doing something stupid and riding well beyond their ability.

In any case, the ride starts early and high – very very high, at around 5000m above sea level, if I remember rightly.  At that time of day, there was a tonne of cloud about, making for some beautiful scenes of the road disappearing off into the mist.  As you slowly – or quickly, depending on your levels of confidence and recklessness – make your way down (your altitude by the end is only about 1500m above sea level, so there’s quite the drop in store!), the mist lifts, and the cold makes way for sweaty, humid heat.  But the views down the valley remain beautiful throughout, and the dirt and gravel road remains entertaining to ride the whole way.  The roadside waterfalls help with the heat, too:  especially on those occasions when they’re not so much “roadside” as “water falling onto the road”.

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

On a recommendation from a traveller we’d befriended earlier in our travels, we found a reputable and not unreasonably-priced tour company, hired our mountain bikes, and thoroughly enjoyed our ride down the hill, arriving unhurt with neither Chris nor I having had any incidents.

With only four people in our group (we were very lucky:  the previous day had been a busy one for our guides, with thirty-odd people doing that same thing with the same company!), it was a fantastic day.  Fun mountain-biking, picturesque views, and a nice leisurely beer or three at the bottom.

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

(For anyone wanting to cycle the Death Road themselves, we went with Barracuda Biking.  I’ve recommended them to several others since, and had satisfactory reports back from those who have been trusting enough to take my word for it.  Your main concern evaluating an outfit is obviously the quality of their bikes – Barracuda’s are not new, but instead are good condition hand-me-downs from their much more expensive sister company.  The bikes are only a couple of years old, and most importantly, they’re well maintained.  Regardless of who you’re with, though, you want to have a very careful look at the brakes of whatever bike you end up on.  It’s all downhill, so if your gears aren’t perfect, that’s not a problem – you’ll hardly be doing any pedalling anyway.  But you’ll be using a lot of brakes, sometimes pretty hard, so you need ones that can take a bit of punishment.)

Besides that bike trip, though, there wasn’t much about La Paz to really get our pulses racing.

And it has to be said that a lot of the time La Paz isn’t necessarily a hugely pleasant city.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s a poor city in a poor country – Bolivia is another data point bolstering the apparent correlation between poor countries and friendly, outgoing locals.  But that said, the level of substance abuse amongst those on the street was a particularly ugly side to the poverty:  wandering out to dinner at 8pm on a Sunday night, it did look remarkably like the national drink might be some kind of industrial solvent (admittedly it was St Patrick’s Day, although somehow I doubt that was the inspiration).

Aside from the Death Road, the other two noted tourist attractions are the Witches’ Market and the San Pedro prison.

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

The Witches’ Market is your run-of-the-mill street market, but includes a few slightly more bizarre products in most of the stalls:  embalmed llama foetuses, primarily.  That’s a bit odd, definitely.  Apparently they’re there because of an old superstition that has them ceremonially buried for good luck when christening (well, obviously not ‘christening’, but you know what I mean) a new building.  Though for all I know, they’re there because snap-happy tourists find them entertaining.

The San Pedro prison is famous not just as a really particularly corrupt version of corrupt third-world prisons (it was one with a fully functioning internal economy, where prisoners had to buy their rooms – which weren’t really cells – etc), but as one which a certain Westerner imprisoned there used to exhibit (by bribing guards, etc) by guiding tourists through.  You used to be able to pay him money to stay overnight in the prison, in his room.  If you want to, you can read his story about it in Marching Powder, a book which I saw gestured to on many an ereader during my conversations with other tourists in and near Bolivia.  (I subsequently read it, although I was perhaps a little less shocked by its content than I expected to be, given other people’s reactions to it.  Gee golly, it turns out there’s a lot of corruption in a prison in a very poor country, and that that corruption means that the prison functions very differently from those in more, err, well-regulated countries.  Who’da thought?)

Anyway, we didn’t bother to visit the prison – the tours a la the book no longer exist, and while others have sprung up, they’re not exactly a great idea (tour-takers who spend a night within the prison walls these days are typically doing it not of their own free will:  there have been a few kidnappings and other unpleasantnesses reported in the last few years).

Kind of an anti-climax to end on for La Paz there:  something that we didn’t do.  (Woohoo, great blog you’ve got here, Sam!  Real fascinating.)  Oh well.  The fun stuff in Bolivia was always going to be the Uyuni Salt Flats, and you’ll have to wait for the next post to get to that.  And the anti-climax kinda sums up La Paz a bit for me anyway, so, really, I’m gonna call it even.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu.  As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu. As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu is one of those destinations.  An iconic fixture of bucket list itineraries the world over.

And yet, this isn’t going to be a post about the historic details of the site itself…

The buildings are famed for the precision of their stonework:  apparently the perfectly fitting interlocking masonry (sans mortar) exhibited in some of the temples is an incredible display of workmanship not frequently seen elsewhere in the world.  But to me it looked more like evidence of patience rather than technology – and I couldn’t help but laugh to overhear a nearby tour guide claim that modern-day stoneworkers are not capable of such feats, when surely what he actually meant is that modern-day stoneworkers have better things to do, given that there have been a couple of advances in construction techniques in the last few centuries that have rendered such approaches somewhat pointless.  So the actual manner of construction of the site didn’t interest me much.

The terraced agriculture is well-known and much-vaunted, too.  And I’m sure that’s very interesting to a subset of visitors not including me:  for the possibility that Machu Picchu was a testing ground for new agricultural techniques and approaches to crop management, as well as for the more mundane earth-moving stability of the terraces and the effectiveness of the underground drainage mechanisms.

As for any other fascinating insights to be gleaned from a detailed examination of the ruins:  well, no one really knows much about Machu Picchu – why it was built, what purpose it served, whether it was even important to the Incans – so it’s kind of hard to get carried away with thousands of words of explanation of its historic significance.

Instead, Machu Picchu was cool for me because it’s pretty.  So I’m going to show you some pictures.

And because it’s a destination that’s special to a lot of globetrotters – one of the ‘must sees’ of the world traveller’s itinerary – I’m going to mix together a predictably incohesive account of what we did in our time in the area, and some mundane details that might help someone looking for some advice on doing it themselves.

(You’d think the internet would’ve covered the Machu Picchu advice category fairly thoroughly by now, but actually it took me a while to piece together the info we were after before we travelled.  So you can think of this as my half-arsed attempt at a slightly more one-stop shop type of how-to affair, deliberately-ish written in somewhat more rambling style so I can pretend there’s some sort of almost narrative.)

And because it’s me, well, that’s going to take a few thousand words.  Sorry about that.  Complaints to someone-who-cares@samroberton.com.

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

To get it out of the way, let me start by saying that we decided not to do the Inca Trail, or for that matter any of the other treks in the area:  partly it seemed overly touristy (it doesn’t strike me as a good sign that they’ve had to close the pub at the final campsite on the Inca Trail because people were too busy getting shitfaced on the third night of the trek to allow anyone else to have a reasonable sleep before their pre-sunrise start for the Sun Gate), partly it would have been expensive, partly it would have meant delaying other parts of our trip a little more and rushing through Bolivia (the Inca Trail is closed all of February, and we would therefore have had to push our plans back a crucial few days), and partly because we already did Everest Base Camp on this trip last year, so already had some creditworthy trekking under our (now slightly looser-fitting) belts.  And on top of all that, we were visiting at the end of the rainy season, and were a little paranoid that our probably-not-to-be-repeated trip might be rained out.  So we traded off time getting to Machu Picchu against time actually spent there, and bought site tickets for two days, separated by a gap day in the middle.  With any luck we wouldn’t have rain three days in a row.  (As it turned out, we were actually very lucky with the weather – it rained only on our gap day, saturating us nonetheless, but not in any sense ruining our trip.)

Since we skipped the Inca Trail – and similarly any of the other hikes in to the area, such as the very cool sounding Salkantay and Choquequirao treks (I’d have loved to do that last one, actually, but oh well) – I can’t tell you anything of use about any of the other Incan ruins to be seen along the way into Machu Picchu.  (I’ve heard they’re pretty cool.)  And of course you’re free to argue that having not done the Trail, we didn’t do Machu Picchu “properly”, and so I can’t tell you anything of use at all.  Hell, we didn’t even hike the train tracks in like real backpackers – we caught the damn tourist train!  Good for you.  Pat on the back.  Feel free to move on.

(That said, for all of the people we’ve run into insinuating that they did it properly because they did the Inca Trail, we haven’t run into anyone else who’s climbed Machu Picchu Mountain or Putucusi Mountain, barring the ones we passed on the way up and down each.  And there weren’t an awful lot of people we saw climbing up or down the hill between Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, either.  (It’s a nice climb, by the way – about forty minutes up if quick-marched, and thirty minutes down.  Be prepared to be drenched in sweat by the time you make the top, though.)  So I guess we’ll have to square off our hardcoreness-of-visit credentials and just put that all to one side as we proceed…)

So anyway, many lengthy paragraphs of prefacing aside, let’s have a look at Machu Picchu, shall we?

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

It’s interesting to reflect on why it is that Machu Picchu is so revered by intrepid would-be modern explorer types.  (Including myself – I’m not being pejorative here.  Not yet, anyway.)  After all, it’s not actually very big.  Nor is it historically crucial in the sense of some major function it played in Incan culture:  it can’t be, because, as intimated earlier, no one knows exactly what function it played at all.  For all we know these days, it was just another unremarkable little Incan village on a hill.

Its location is certainly spectacular:  it’s beautifully situated on a ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, at an altitude which means that it’s frequently just on the edge of the clouds.  So there’s that.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

But the real reason that Machu Picchu is special is that it’s the only complete Incan site left:  the only one the Spanish never happened across, and therefore the only one they didn’t destroy.  It’s almost certainly not the Lost City of the Incas (which is what its ‘discoverer’ Hiram Bingham was actually looking for when he mounted his expedition to Peru).  But it might as well be.

Obliquely because of all of the above, you have to be careful with your expectations of Machu Picchu.  Obviously, you’ll hear and read much about it (if you care to – far be it from me to insist that you research the life out of anywhere you travel before experiencing it in the flesh).  On your way through South America, you’ll encounter many breathless tourists eager to know whether you’ve been already (it’s kind of assumed that if you haven’t been yet, it’s because you’re still on your way there), and equally eager to impress upon you how ‘blown away’ you’ll be when you finally experience it.

This may leave you with the distinctly false impression that Machu Picchu is large and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring:  it’s not.  Nor is visiting it even a particularly varied experience – especially since modern historians know so little about it, to the point that they can’t even tell you much about the different areas of the site.  (Apparently this is quite amusing for many Peruvians, who thereby realise just how much of what some of the tour guides tell their avid listeners is completely and utterly made up.)

In fact, touring the whole site – excluding Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain – only takes maybe a couple of hours, which explains why so many people do it as a train-in, train-out visit, arriving from Cusco in the morning, seeing the site, and catching the train back to Cusco again that night, without needing to spend any time in not-so-appealing Aguas Calientes (the town in the valley below).

That’s very handy, as it turns out, although not because I’d recommend doing that yourself.  It’s very handy because the big tour groups tend to turn up mid-morning and be gone again shortly after lunch time.  (Amazingly, that seems at least in some instances to be the case because having come to a once-in-a-lifetime breathless wonder, they walk around for a bit then leave because they’re vaguely hungry, so they decide it’s lunch time, and don’t come back.  Seriously, WTF?  You begged out of part of your bucket list visit because you were a tad peckish?!)

The Inca Trailers arrive at the Sun Gate at sunrise, so the site is busy-ish (and occasionally slightly whiffy and more than a little self-congratulatory) most of the morning, even before the Cusco crowd rolls in.  (Despite that, if you can, I’d still recommend getting there when it opens at 6am – if you’re bussing up, this will require getting on the 5.30am bus from Aguas Calientes, for which you will want to be in line by 5.15am.)  But if you hang around for the afternoon you’ll be rewarded, as we were, with a comparatively empty set of ruins to explore.  You can even wait everyone out while sitting in the actually quite reasonable open café next to (and just down from) the entrance turnstiles before heading back into the site once you’ve seen big hunks of tired-looking lazy people exit.  They’ll let you back in until 4pm (the site closes at 5), so there’s plenty of time for you patient folks after the early afternoon exodus.

(By the way, there is an exception to the morning deluge of smelly hikers, I should mention:  the Inca Trail is closed for the whole of February.  This meant that when we first turned up to the Sun Gate at about 7am on March 3rd, there was no one yet completing the four-day hike, so we had it to ourselves – and, because we got there before the guards who are typically stationed there to prevent you doing exactly this, we were able to go for a stroll down the Inca Trail the wrong way for a bit.  Not that there was much to see there.  But I guess we can always claim that we finished the Inca Trail.)

Anyway, the point is, the site isn’t very big, and doesn’t take very long.

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

What does take a little longer is climbing the mountains.  There are two:  the famous Huayna Picchu (which has its own set of ruins on it), and the not-so-famous Machu Picchu Mountain (which doesn’t – it’s just a big hill with a good view).  As I mentioned earlier, we’d bought tickets for two separate days, to guard against the possibility of a downpour ruining our visit, so as a happy side-effect, we had time to climb both mountains:  you can’t do them both on the same day.  Partly that’s because you’d be expending a lot of effort, but mostly it’s because you have to buy separate tickets.

By the way, this is important, and much of the information out there on the interwebs is out of date in this respect.  It used to be the case that a desire to climb Huayna Picchu required you to be one of the first into Machu Picchu on your chosen day, and then to race across the site to line up next to the might-be-sacred-rock (another one of those things they don’t really know about the place – was this rock actually religiously significant, or is it just a big flat bit of stone?) to be one of the first four hundred in line to be let up.  Sometime in 2011 (I think), someone realised how utterly stupid that was, and the system changed:  when buying your Machu Picchu ticket online (see later), you have to specify that you want a ticket that gets you access to Huayna Picchu as well, and you’ll pay a little more for the privilege.  Sometime after that (I think sometime in 2012?), they decided that money-extraction is fun, and so they’d quite like to do that for Machu Picchu Mountain too.

So now there’s 2500 tickets available for Machu Picchu, of which up to 400 can be tickets that will allow you to Huayna Picchu as well (in two 200-person groups, one entering between 8am and 9am, and another between 10am and 11am).  A further up-to-400 of those 2500 tickets can be ones which let you up Machu Picchu Mountain.  The Huayna Picchu ones usually sell out reasonably in advance (a week or so, earlier in peak times).  The Machu Picchu Mountain ones don’t (although don’t take my word for it – keep an eye on the website linked below to see how many are left for the dates you want).  Anyway, the point is:  you can only go up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if you specifically bought tickets to do so in the first place.  We overhead a couple of groups in the days before we went up talking about how important it was to get to the site early to go line up for Huayna Picchu, and we also saw others disappointedly being denied entry to Machu Picchu Mountain (even though on the day we climbed it, only twenty-odd other people did, out of the potential allocation of 400).  So, y’know, get your shit together and get the right tickets.

Oh yeah, speaking of which:  getting tickets.  Also a bit of a hassle.  You buy them online at the official Machu Picchu site.  In theory, you can pay for them with a credit card.  In practice, you can’t.  (Well, not with a non-Peruvian credit card, anyway.)  What you can do instead is buy them in person at an appropriate government office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.  Which is great, if you’re going to be in either of those places long enough before you reach Machu Picchu that you’re confident that there’ll still be tickets left.  Otherwise:  make a reservation online, print it out, and go stand in line with it outside a Banco de la Nación in Peru somewhere.  Like, say, in Lima, as we did.  Boring, and somewhat time-consuming.  But effective.  (A couple of well-meaning people that I generally trust, interestingly, told us that trying to pay at a branch outside the Cusco department of Peru wouldn’t work.  They turned out to be mistaken:  paying at a branch in Miraflores, Lima, worked for us just fine.)

(I should probably note for completeness that it is also possible to buy your tickets through a travel agency.  This is basically what happens when you buy them through a company organising your Inca Trail trek, if you’re doing one.  So far as I understand it, what actually happens then is that the travel agency gets someone to go buy them in person in Cusco and post them out.  Which is of course fine, but finding a travel agent who’ll do that for you obviously requires a bit of time and effort, and will cost you a bit on top.)

So, where was I before getting side-tracked on all that…

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu:  the llamas are used to keep the grass down

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu: the llamas are used to keep the grass down

That’s right:  we bought tickets for two separate days, with a gap day in the middle.  Meaning we caught the train up from Cusco and stayed three nights in Aguas Calientes.  Not the most interesting town in the world – every bit as much a tourist trap town as its reputation would have it – but we found some good accommodation at Pirwa Hostels, and we managed to find a couple of good restaurants in Chullpi and Toto’s House.  (TripAdvisor also recommended Inka Wasi for pizza – unfortunately that was crap, so I suggest you don’t go there.)

And the climbs up Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu were definitely worth it.  Machu Picchu Mountain has great views:  in particular, with the right weather, Machu Picchu really is a city up in the clouds, and we spent a good half hour just watching the wispy mist wafting around and forming and disappearing and reforming over the ruins – surprisingly quickly, too.  Huayna Picchu is just as interesting as the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins, so without climbing it, you’re missing out on some of what makes the place special.  But I suppose it’s only fair to mention that both are occasionally tricky (and, in the heat of the sun, and with high humidity, somewhat exhausting) climbs.

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

(Oh, one other thing:  for Huayna Picchu, if you want to do the whole circuit and go right round the back to the Great Cavern, be aware that they close off the path from the top at 11am – so you need to go in the first batch of people up the hill.  So far as I can tell, they don’t tell you this anywhere, which is slightly annoying.  We found out when we asked the guards why they were telling us we shouldn’t be going round that way.  Or you need to ignore the guard calling out to you to stop going that way (we didn’t ignore him, though in hindsight we should have).  Or you need to go back to the bit where the Great Cavern trail comes back around towards the exit, rejoining the main path, and be very nice and smiley to the guard there, and explain that you promise to walk/run very quickly and be back – exhausted – at the exit by 1pm, when they close the Huayna Picchu section of the site.  We did that.  Not that the Great Cavern was very interesting.  But hey, might as well do it all, right?)

Of course, most people won’t do it all, at least in the sense that if you’re only planning on one day at Machu Picchu, then you have to pick between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.  I honestly don’t know which to recommend to you there.  Probably Huayna Picchu, I suppose, because there’s a lot more there.  It’s certainly the more popular option.  But Machu Picchu Mountain has better views – especially given that those views are the classic ones with Huayna Picchu in the background.  I guess it depends what you want.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, seen from the Sun Gate

Speaking of which, at the very least you should get a distance view of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu behind it from the Sun Gate. I get the impression that many people don’t even venture out that far; you really do want to.

And aside from all that, there’s one other view of Machu Picchu you should consider getting:  the one from Putucusi Mountain, across the river.  It’s not technically open at the moment:  to wander up, you follow along the train tracks out of town (towards Machu Picchu) until you see the stairs going up the hill.  When we were there, they were pretty easy to find:  they were the ones with the “Accesso Restringido” sign in front of them.  Suffering a convenient momentary lapse in Spanish comprehension, we climbed up past the sign, and followed the steps up a slippery jungle trail towards a newly-constructed – but not yet in use – ticket booth and open gate.  (I have no idea whether it was all empty and with no one to stop us because it’s generally like that, or because it was fortuitously a Sunday.  Your mileage may vary.)  Anyway, beyond that there’s some nice big ladders up a stone wall.

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Once up the ladders, there’s a few other vaguely tricky bits, then there’s the bit where the sky opens up in a torrential downpour just as you reach the top.  But even so, there’s a good view of Machu Picchu.  Unless the downpour also includes clouds obscuring your view.  Which mostly it did, on this particular occasion.

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

But still, it was a pretty view, and a fun climb.  If I’m honest, the rain made it even moreso – especially as we stood at the top, huddling under a tree, popping out for photos every so often when the deluge eased, and marvelling at our amazing luck that the bad weather was only rolling in for our day off, and not affecting our time actually at Machu Picchu.

So that, I think, is basically it for my story and my advice for Machu Picchu.  Congratulations on making it through that many words.  For those of you who did, a helpful summary:  essentially, if you have the time, check it out from every angle:  up any mountain you can manage to climb, across from the Sun Gate, and of course all over right up close from within the site itself.

Costa Rica

I have mixed feelings about Costa Rica.  It’s hard to put my finger on, but it felt to me vaguely like the geographical equivalent of the sort of person who’s at ease talking about absolutely anything, comfortably keeping a basically enjoyable conversation going for hours on end, but who, when you think about it, never actually had anything really to say.

It seemed like a nice enough country.  It’s politically stable and safe and traveller-friendly.  It has beautiful rainforests and cloud forests – definitely some stunning scenery – and though we only had a few days there and didn’t get to any of the beach half of the country, I hear that side of it is great too.  All of those are great reasons for tourists to flock there.  And they do.  Which made it a bit harder for me to enjoy…

The natural beauty of Costa Rica:  in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The natural beauty of Costa Rica: in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Partly I think I’ve just become crotchety at the present of large numbers of other tourists around me – viz my hatred of tour groups generally, my tendency to prefer avoiding attractions that sound only OK but are likely to have great flocks of other people in attendance, etc.  But in Costa Rica’s case, there was something more specific than that.

I wonder how I can put this delicately…

It’s fun to criticise Americans for not travelling enough.  (Yes, to some extent that criticism is overblown.  But I’m from Australia – if anything, people keep telling me that we should travel less, please.  So I still have fun light-heartedly getting stuck in.  And of course, I have met many fantastic Americans while travelling – all of whom have been incredibly friendly and intelligent and open-minded, etc., often even moreso than friends from other, more travel-renowned, countries.  Still, you’ve gotta make fun of someone, right?)

And so for all that criticism, it’s good to see travellers from the States getting out and about.  That way I can meet them and make my stupid jokes straight to their face.

But the problem is that precisely because Costa Rica is safe and has beautiful scenery, and obviously because it’s close to the US and that safety feature puts it in stark contrast to the vast majority of other countries nearby… when the less-travelled breed of Americans do head overseas, they all seem to pick the one spot.  Again, that’s not something I can legitimately complain about:  great to see people getting out and travelling, and who am I to complain if they all agree on a destination?

What it does mean, though, is that, demand and supply working as they do, Costa Rica is set up to cater for people not like me.  For people who want package tours.  For people with a slightly less adventurous definition of ‘adventure’ activities;  with a less extreme definition of ‘extreme’ sports.

The tourism industry in Costa Rica is incredibly well developed.  The tour companies there are reputable, have great customer service, and have clearly invested a lot of effort in getting to know their customers and what they want.  But their customers are typically remarkably homogenous, and I’m an outlier for that particular data set.  So I guess a lot of it just didn’t excite me the way it did the other people on our tours.

I liked our whitewater rafting expedition – especially the bit where I got to splash water liberally in everyone’s faces with my paddle as we flew on past down the river.  (Most of the others on the dozen or so rafts in our group were a school group.  I managed to get one of their teachers square in the face with one particular water-slap.  I didn’t see it directly, because I was innocently facing the other way, whistling some innocuous tune and paddling merrily along as soon as my paddle had done its job flicking water in the direction of her rosy visage.  But apparently the look on her face was a priceless mix of surprise, confusion, and surrender to the inevitability that white-water rafting with a group of juveniles – apparently including me – is going to get you somewhat wet.)

Lake Arenal, seen from the Sky Tram up to the ziplining

Lake Arenal, seen from the Sky Tram up to the ziplining

I enjoyed our ziplining trip as well.  But the best part of it was the views of Lake Arenal that you get as you’re coasting along the longer lines.  The actual thrill of the activity itself for me just evidently wasn’t as exhilarating as for most of the rest of the group, who excitedly described it as the most amazing and terrifying thing they’d ever done in their lives.

Arenal Volcano, seen from the café at bottom of the Sky Trek ziplining course

Arenal Volcano, seen from the café at bottom of the Sky Trek ziplining course

I had fun with the bungee-jumping as well (I’d never done it before, and it’s been on the list to tick off for a while) – but I got the distinct impression that that too was supposed to be a life-affirming, self-actualising experience, which I’m afraid just doesn’t describe the slot that it fits into in my life.  Entertaining, yes.  A pivotal life moment?  No.

Bungee-jumping in Arenal

Bungee-jumping in Arenal

We spent most of a day hiking every single one of the trails in Monteverde Cloud Forest, and that was fantastic.  But part of the thing that made that hike great for us was the absence of pretty much anyone else bothering to walk the longer, more distant trails.

Sunlight streams through the steamy air between the trees Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Sunlight streams through the steamy air between the trees Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

A coati (a member of the racoon family) runs across the hiking trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

A coati (a member of the racoon family) runs across the hiking trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

While the guided night walk that we did in Monteverde was nice as well, it lacked the same natural feel when we were surrounded by the murmur not so much of wildlife but of other tourists, some of whom you’d think had never seen any sort of mammal in a tree before.

A tarantula on the guided night walk in Monteverde

For all that whining, the tarantulas on the night walk were definitely cool, though

And unfortunately we didn’t enjoy the mountain-biking transfer we did from Arenal to Monteverde nearly as much as we’d hoped:  the ride was fun, but much shorter and less challenging than we’d been led to expect.  (Partly also the lack of enjoyment was due to a screwup which has us waiting around on the side of a lake for an hour or so until our transfer turned up.  And in fairness, Desafio, the company with did both the rafting and mountain-biking with very quickly agreed to give us a refund, without complaint, and apologised profusely when we mentioned this all to them afterwards – so I’d still wholeheartedly recommend them for any activities you’re planning in Costa Rica.)

So in the end, Costa Rica was nice.  It just wasn’t as great for me as for its intended audience.  Maybe it’s best left at that.  After all, it was always just a pit-stop because in the bizarre logic of cheap airline flights it fitted nicely between our trips to the Galápagos and to Machu Picchu.  And I guess it was always going to suffer by comparison.