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Bolivia

February 2015

From the vast and unreal Andean mountain range with dozens of active volcanoes, through the Altiplano high plateau, along Lake Titicaca, down to the urban jungle of La Paz and further on to the real jungle of the Amazon: Bolivia is one of the most diverse and most fascinating countries in the world.

Isla del Sol

We started our trip through Bolivia where our tour through Peru ended: At Lake Titicaca. Just two short nights and a day of overland bus traveling were between finishing the Inca Trail and crossing the Bolivian border. Our feed and backs were desperate for some relaxing days – and we found our perfect retreat on the 'Island of the Sun'. From the buzzing town of Copacabana, where border crossing backpackers trip over each other in search for the best bargain, a one and a half hour boat trip took us into a different world.
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You can't keep your eyes away from the calm waters of Lake Titicaca reflecting Andean mountain ranges and heap clouds. The crystal clear view at 3.800 meters altitude makes you lose every feeling for space and distances – especially at the island's north-western peak, where clouds touch the water almost endless far away. The island is surprisingly green, dotted with eucalyptus trees and Inca ruins witnessing more than 5.000 years of civilisation. However, not just the Meditteranean landscape makes you feel more like in Italy than in an Incan Empire – the omnipresent pizzerias do their part as well. And as elecricity is a scarce good on the island, you can be sure its a bellissimo stone oven pizza!
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Donkeys and rowboats replace cars, busses and motorbikes on Isla del Sol. Only a handful of rocky trails and notorious Inca stairs connect the small villages of Yumani and Ch'allapampa with some scattered houses, beaches and jetties. The only motorized vehicles are the small ferry boats connecting the island with Copacabana.
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Most of the 2.000 islanders make a living from agriculture, fishery or tourism. While agriculture is not much more than subsistence economy due to the rough and hilly landscape, fishery is suffering from the invisible pollution of Lake Titicaca. Tourism helps to compensate for that – but was barely visible when we visited this tranquil island end of January.
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To La Paz

After a short and rainy boat trip back from the island to Copacabana (nope, not the one in Rio) we took the bus to La Paz. Even though there would be a shorter road through Peru, the buses to La Paz usually take the all Bolivian route crossing Lake Titicaca. Once again we got on a little foot ferry, while our bus was transported on an adventurous barge.
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Camino de la Muerte

As I love cycling, I could not hesitate to go for one of the top tourist attractions around La Paz: the Death Road. A little bus brought us on top of La Cumbre pass at about 4.650 m, where we started on the newly built main road in heavy rain and clouds. After a few "warm-up" kilometers on the bike, that were actually freaking cold, we turned right into the old 'camino': a three meters wide gravel road winding down from Andean heights to the Bolivian jungle at 1.200 meters. Around 50 kilometers, all downhill, along vertical drops of some hundred meters. Instead of guardrails, you pass dozens of crosses along the road. Before the new highway opened, approximately 200-300 people died on that road – per year. On a bike and with nearly no motorized traffic, it's all easy today – despite our bad ass looking clothes.
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Coca Land

While driving down the 'Camino de las Yungas', as the road is officially called, you pass nearly all climate zones of South America. From the cool Altiplano terrain and Andean mountain ranges down to the Amazon rainforest. The Yungas forest area is one of the main regions for coca production world wide – harvested leaves are drought right next to the road.
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Bus rides

Puh… We did a lot of crazy journeys with a lot of fucked up vehicles around the world, but Bolivia topped them all. While the trips from Copacabana to La Paz and further on to Uyuni were comparatively luxurious, the final stage from Uyuni to Tupiza was completely messed-up. Briefly: Night, starting at 3.800 meters altitude, heavy rain, crazy roads, water running down on the windows' inside, flooded floor, wet shoes, desperately trying to keep everything else dry, shaky seats moving in every direction, ice-cold wind drafting through leaky windows, a perceived temperature of about -10°C, ten hours instead of five… And the only good thing about not having a toilet on board was, that I looked so miserable while asking for a "baño natural" in the middle of nowhere, that the driver actually handed us some blankets…
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Uyuni

Uyuni is a small desert town that, for tourists, mainly serves as a starting point for tours to the famous salt flat and the Andes. For the locals, it's a market place for the region's two major products: Quinoa and salt. The 'superfood' Quinoa is skyrocketing so fast in hipster supermarkets around the world, that the local farmers can't keep up with delivering enough of their new top seller. While the grain has at least the potential to significantly improve the people's wealth, they can barely live from salt. About 25.000 tonnes are mined every year, all manual labour from shovel work to packaging. In Colchani, home of most salt workers, even houses are built with salt blocks.
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Salar de Uyuni

Irony of fate, that the salt flat in fact contains a much bigger treasure: Lithium. It is the most important element of the battery powered age and the Uyuni Salt Flat the biggest reservoir in the world. However, any efforts of the Bolivian government to mine this valuable resource came to nearly nothing so far. One of the richest countries in South America is actually the poorest…
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Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa

A long, but surprisingly comfortable 4x4 ride southwards brought us to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. It's not a national park like one might expect, as there still is agriculture, power generation and even some mining going on – but nevertheless an amazing piece of Andean landscape. Like a few kilometers across the border in Chile, flamingos populate the various lagoons – even though not all survive the extreme conditions of 3°C average temperature, barely any rain, high salt concentrations and just a few nutrients.
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Weather changes

Between 4.000 and 5.000 meters altitude, weather changes extremely fast. A cloudless bright sky, warm sun, heavy rain, thunderstorms, snowflakes – everything is possible within just an hour.
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Volcanism

It turned out that our half year travel around the world coincidentally also was a tour along the Pacific Ring of Fire – from Japan via New Zealand to Chile, Peru and finally the volcanoes of Bolivia. At the Sol de Mañana geysers and the nearby hot springs it was time to say goodbye to this geological wonder.
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Southern loop

Passing the Salvador Dalí Desert, the Lagunas Colorada, Salada, Blanca and Verde brought us to Licancabur – a volcano at the Chilean border, whose opposite side already dominated the view from our hostel window in San Pedro the Atacama a few weeks earlier. We were passing the highest point I ever had my feet on the ground – at about 5.000 meters altitude, where snow never melts – before we followed the small Rio Mallcu to the oasis of Villa Mar and further back to Uyuni.
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Tupiza

Our last stop before crossing the Argentinian border was the small town of Tupiza. With cactuses scattering the colourful, rocky landscape under a perfectly blue sky, the area reminds a bit of these good old, slightly over saturated western movies. We discovered the area on some old mountain bikes and by foot, following a crazy hand drawn map without any proportions. The landscape is amazing, completely different from all the other parts of Bolivia we have seen so far. Just overlook the waste dumps here and there…
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Carnival

Ay caramba! We were too late to make it to the South American east coast, or at least Paraguay, were people are crazy about carnival. But guess what? In Tupiza, they are, too! From kindergarten classes to military police, dozens of groups danced their way through town. Meanwhile we were more than busy fighting a gang of kids, whose biggest joy was to test their latest water pistols on us. The perfect way to end a stunning trip through Bolivia!
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© 2017 Benedikt Altschuh