A hostel made of salt, volcanic geysers, and a night on Lake Titicaca…. my continued adventures through Bolivia and Peru

An endless expanse of blue sky, and white so bright it burns your eyes, there’s literally nothing for miles around… and it’s bloody cold. The Uyuni Salt Flats are the main reason so many travellers (including me) are keen to include Bolivia in their travel bucket lists. I’ve been lucky to see some mind-blowing places in the last few years, but the landscapes of Bolivia are like another planet.

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If you’re going to go, there’s no point doing the one day Uyuni tour that only includes the Salt Flats. Like so many of these things (like the Taj Mahal for me in India), sometimes when you have seen a dramatic picture a thousand times, the main event is actually less exciting than the surprisingly incredible side-show. So it was on the Uyuni tour, where, fantastic as the salt flats are, for me they were overshadowed by the spectacular lagoons, crazy cactus island, wildlife, and volcanic geysers.

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Getting the famous mind-bending perspective shots on the salt flats is actually harder than it looks. Our lovely guide Herman, while thankfully not a drunk-driver (apparently a common problem on these tours- so beware!)  was also the world’s worst photographer, and it was kind of hilarious as much as it was frustrating that between all of us we found it literally impossible to get both us and a plastic dinosaur/beer can/hat in focus at the same time. Here are some terrible examples:

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Never mind. I was never going to be the type to get insta-famous anyway. We watched the sun disappear into the salt flats, and then drove on a few more miles to our hostel… which was made of salt. The floor, the walls, the table and chairs… one of the weirdest places I’ve ever stayed.

There are so many mind-bendingly beautiful lagoons in Uyuni, surrounded by mountains, each glowing their colour namesake ‘azul’ and ‘verde’, reflecting the minerals that are rich in their make-up.  Without a doubt the highlight is ‘Laguna Colorado’, the red lake. Inhabited by flocks of flamingos, it really was other-worldly, and I had to stop for a long time to remind myself it was real.

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The place we stayed that night was pretty bleak. It was so far in the middle of nowhere, and they only get electricity for two hours a day. Having worked for the last three years at the awesome international development charity, Practical Action, which amongst many things seeks sustainable solutions to ensuring off-grid electricity access in rural and impoverished parts of the world, I finally got a genuine glimpse of what that means for the reality of people’s daily lives. People were so poor here they apparently couldn’t afford plates from which to eat breakfast, and there was only one place in the village that evening that had heating… a bizarre little shop/pub in the middle of nowhere. We bought an incredibly bottle of disgusting Bolivian wine and tried to warm up around the wood-burner…

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On the last day of the tour, you wake up at 3 am. I’m not generally happy to do this for anything, but the chance to see volcanic geysers at sunrise is a good incentive. I feel like I’ve said this a lot about Bolivia, but it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen… getting out of the car felt like landing on Mars, if Mars smelt like the unique evil of  post-egg curry farts. The ground was alive… literally belching and rumbling underneath us. As we peered, fascinated, into the bubbling pits, we were warned not to breathe too much sulphur and to walk on the right side of where wind was blowing boiling steam into the atmosphere, or risk being burned.

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Bathing after in a hot spring fuelled by the volcano has to be the best view I’ve ever had while taking a bath.

After briefly returning to the city of La Paz, and stumbling into the Gran Poder carnival (picture below) I continued towards Peru and Lake Titicaca, ‘the world’s highest navigable lake’.

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From the Bolivia side, you can visit the lovely but unremarkable ‘Isla del Sol’ from the little sunny town of Copacabana. The experience from Peru, in my view, though, is much more exciting.

Most visitors come for one day and experience only the Uros ‘floaitng islands’. Here, 1200 people live on 87 floating islands that are literally made of reeds. Three metres of reeds are constantly replaced as the bottom rots away, and they use sticks to anchor themselves in position. These people fled the shores of Lake Titicaca to form this bizarre existence in order to escape colonial violence, and have been there ever since, now living only from hunting, fishing, tourism, and selling textiles. They have been adversely affected by climate change, as our very wet experience of the ‘dry season’ demonstrated, but even there they have made attempts towards a better future- with solar panels installed in the reeds in order to power the radio. It’s an awesome thing to see, but no doubt somewhat Disney-ified, and incredibly touristy.

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If you have more time and want a more authentic experience, take the boat a further three hours to Amantani Island. Here I stayed, with two friends, with an Amantanian family overnight on Lake Titicaca. Staying on this unspoilt island is like stepping back into the 1950s, and provides excellent hiking opportunities, if you can hack the altitude, to the shrines on top of the hill to ‘Pachamama’ and ‘Pachatata’. In the evening there was a live band playing Peruvian music, we were encouraged to dress like the locals (see Mel and I looking bangin’ below), and spent one of the most bizarre nights of my life with about 50 people (locals and tourists) doing a kind of high-speed sideways conga to Peruvian pipe music, fuelled by local beer… we slept well.

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Watch out for my next blog as my adventure continues through the west coast of Peru!

Vegetarian Bolivia

Before going travelling, I spent three months as a vegan- having tried Veganuary, found it surprisingly easy, and decided to carry on. I’d been a veggie for 16 years- having given up meat at 9- but had only just made the connection and the next step- to cut dairy and all other animal products. Lots of people asked me ‘are you going to continue when you’re travelling?’ and I said that I would try to do so most of the time, but suspected I may need to revert to vegetarianism at some point.

I was right. I know some people manage to just about live as a vegan out here- but it requires serious dedication, pre-planning, and basically never being able to eat anywhere with friends, and sitting in the corner of a hostel eating peanut butter out of a jar instead. As much as I love the last activity, after a couple of days here it became obvious that for me, vegan would be too difficult. Vegetarianism is well understood in South America, but veganism is barely a concept- although there are some great little restaurants and cafes trying to change that. As it is I’ve managed to do vegan 70% of the time, but I have reverted to eating cheese and eggs occasionally… On the short tours I’ve taken (2/3 days exploring the islands of Lake Titicaca, and the Uyuni salt flats) the only non-meat or fish option has been omelette… omelette… more omelette. I have no idea how you’d explain veganism in Spanish, to people with very little means doing what they need to survive, but I think you might starve.

However, I want to write about those little awesome beacons of the plant-based life that are dotted all over the continent to give some guidance to other veggies and vegans travelling in the region. Though it’s usually possible to get a veggie option in restaurants, it tends again to be- omelette. Or tomato pasta. Or pizza. Without a doubt the best  (and usually vegan) food I’ve found has been in the little veggie cafes and restaurants.

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In La Paz I was lucky on the first day to stumble into Restaurante Vegetariano Armonia, a little vegetarian restaurant over a bookshop, in the bohemian district of Sopocachi- all the best things in one place! Armonia only opens for lunch, but offers an incredible buffet between 12 and 2.30pm for just 34 Bolivianos- around £3.84. I ate two huge plates of mixed salad, fried plantain, potato cakes, spinach fritters, and veggie rice, and had to stagger back to the hostel after for a nap.

The other veggie haven in La Paz has to be Namaste, a funky hippie haven easily within reach of the main market. The extensive menu of delicious and healthy options includes tofu and peanut Thai  veg stir fry, empanadas, soy fritters, lentil burgers, nachos, and burritos. I had these gigantic tacos, stuffed with veggie mince, salad, and guacamole. They set me back just 29 Bolivianos for a huge and satisfying dinner.

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I couldn’t help returning the next day for the set menu lunch, which consisted of a salad with the most delicious dressing I’ve ever had, soup, vegetarian lasagna (which I must admit was a bit cold), and fruit in some kind of rice pudding. Again, only 25 Bolivianos- and they do great coffee too!

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In terms of street food, it’s quite disappointing that the local favourite- salteñas- basically Latin American pasties- are mostly full of meat and potato. However, in Sucre there is one place- Salteñeria Flores– that offers a veggie option. Hot, stodgy, and full of beans and veg, it’s a cheap and satisfying-if not mind-blowing option.

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Another favourite street food in Sucre are papas rellanas– which are served everywhere for breakfast. In the week I spent in Sucre learning Spanish, I often went in the morning to the spectacular Parque Bolivar to buy one or two of these treats for breakfast. Con huevos, is basically a veggie scotch egg- a boiled egg wrapped in mashed potato, and deep fried. There is also a queso option which is flat and has chunks of cheese melted into the potato- and again deep fried. You can either eat them there in the park, out of a plastic bowl with a teaspoon, next to all the locals on little stools, or take them away in a plastic bag to eat at home with a good English cuppa. Good for the waist? No. But the soul, yes. And only 3 BOB each- around 32p!

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The other fantastic thing for veggies are the markets- with fruit and veg stacked high and sold so cheap. Best of all are the freshly squeezed fruit juices, which would set you back four times the cost at home and have several times the flavour here, with fruits you’ve never seen before easily there to try. Just make sure you ask for it sin leche as there is a local habit to add milk to juice for some reason (yuk!), and also sin azucar if you prefer your sugar natural rather than added.

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Sucre is a veggie paradise and the one place I think it would be doable to be vegan 24/7. Without a doubt the best place is the Condor Café, which is also home to the Condor Trekkers, an eco-friendly local touring company which is not-for-profit, and puts its proceeds into local projects such as building roofs for schools, and teaching children about health and hygiene in deprived areas. It does dirt cheap and huge cheese empanadas, delicious falafel and avocado sandwiches, and another bargain-a-licious set lunch menu.

Prem is mostly open for lunch times, but serves awesome and huge seitan baguettes, fresh juices, and set menus in a friendly little place just off one of the main streets.

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El Germen is another great find with a huge menu of vegan options, including a ridiculously cheap 12 BOB veggie burger, quinoa soup, veggie lasagne, and veggie curry. I went with the tofu curry, having been missing protein substitutes, though I have to admit it was quite bland and not really what I’d call a curry. Still- healthy, and cheap, and I still went back the next day for a veggie burger which was much better.

In Copacabana, I was extremely surprised to see a vegan food cart at the bottom of the main high street- and sad as it is, could hardly contain my excitement to have hummus for the first time of weeks. Selling veggie burgers, falafel wraps, hummus sandwiches, vegan brownies and flapjacks and energy balls, this cart belongs to Hostal Joshua nearby, which also has a vegan restaurant- though sadly only open until 8 so I missed it the one night I was there, but on the basis of the sandwiches definitely worth checking out if you are there.

Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan women that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise as a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!