100 days in South America. Six countries with two official languages, three flights, three ferry trips, a few days of 4WDing and many MANY bus rides later we’ve totalled around 154 hours of long distance travel over 10850km. Lots of food and drinks, meeting a few work colleagues and new friends, and seeing what is here.

Wow. Just wow.

First one hundred days

It’s unimaginable that we first landed in São Paulo fourteen weeks ago, and are now in our last stop in Peru, leaving the country to cross into Ecuador and onwards. There is so much we have seen, but so much we have not had the opportunity to see here - we’re already discussing which places we want to go to on our next trip to South America. We’re a bit behind on blog posts, so we haven’t blogged about everything yet - sorry for any spoilers!

Some of the highlights have been:

  • Seeing the Iguassu falls, both the Argentinean and Brasilian sides
  • Hiking the Inca Trail (43km and 14000 stone steps) to get to Machu Picchu
  • Dee riding down Death Road and flying over the Nazca Lines (the latter of which James had already done)
  • Dune buggying across massive sand dunes in Huacachina
  • Seeing Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf in Rio, as well as visiting Copacabana and Ipanema beaches
  • Crossing the Atacama desert and seeing the Salar de Uyuni
  • Drinking freshly made juices of many types of that we had not seen before
  • Eating lots of types of barbecue, and other local foods
  • Trying a multitude of beers and cocktails
  • Meeting a great bunch of people along the way, some of whom we’re run into multiple times.
  • Not dying of altitude sickness, death road, plane crash, any crazy drivers, or street food! :)

According to Dee’s FitBit (before the cable disappeared) and our iPhones (after that), we have walked around 900km (1.32 million steps) since we arrived in South America, including around 80km across our first 5 days. 9km of walking a day is a fair bit, given that on some days we spent 12 hours on a bus with almost no walking!

Starting in Brasil was a hard introduction to the continent for us. We knew some Spanish and thought that would help a bit with the Portuguese, but it barely did. Although the grammar is the same and some words are similar, the pronunciation is so different that we struggled to pronounce words written in front of us on a menu! Knowing a few Red Hat people here was amazing, and we got shown around cities and everyone helped so much more than we could expect.

Brasil is an amazing country, with great food and drinks, but as a tourist we felt like we needed to constantly be on alert for pickpockets, scams and other traps. We didn’t expect many people to speak English, we were surprised how little there was in places like Rio that hosted the Soccer world cup and will have the Olympics in the middle of the year. If you come, don’t be like the two American girls who sat behind us in a resto-bar, who were vegetarian and didn’t bother to learn the words for “beef”, “vegetable” “chicken” or “vegetarian” - South America is not the easiest place to avoid meat, but you can if you make a bit of effort.

The beaches in Brasil are famous, but honestly they don’t have anything on Australian beaches. Copacabana and Ipanema weren’t bad, but not any better than those at a random seaside town on the East coast of Australia. We could however learn a few things from people taking the opportunity to sell you anything and everything. You can hire beach chairs and umbrella, with waiter service for alcoholic drinks, and roaming sales of ice creams, barbecued prawns or cheese, biscuits, sunglasses, clothing, hats, swimwear, and even painted art! In Australia there would obviously be problems with liquor licencing, but surf life saving clubs having beach chairs for hire and the occasional walking salesmen for ice creams and soft drinks would be awesome.

Unfortunately the people in Brasil, aside from the Red Hat colleagues, did not seem quite as friendly as the other South American countries, especially in Rio where there was little to no patience with people who are not fluent Portuguese speakers. Restaurant and bar staff weren’t too bad, but the supermarket checkout staff were terrible. Every Brasilian we’ve met in Australia has been awesome, so we don’t know if it’s the ones who travel are like that or whether it’s us and the language issues. Brasil does make up for it with handsome guys and stunning girls (and James thinks so too), so spending time at the beach had some good sides ;)

The food in Brasil was fantastic, lots of delicious meat and tasty fresh fruits, with plenty of cheap drinks. The churrasco was as good as we hoped, and plenty of deep fried snacks for when you’re hungry (or hungover). The only down sides were too much sugar (which seems to be a pattern in South America) and the pizza not being great despite many claims that they have some of the best in the world.

There is so much of Brasil we didn’t see (it’s 20% larger than Australia), so it would be great to some back and explore more, but we’ll definitely need to learn some Portuguese first!

Quiz time! (for English speakers): Words ending in -ria mean “place of” in Spanish and Portuguese. Which of the following are correct translations?

  • Pizzaria - place that makes pizzas
  • Paneria - place that sells kitchen equipment
  • Cervezeria – place that brews beer
  • Bruncheria - place to eat brunch
  • Fereteria - place that sells small animals

We did not spend long in Uruguay, but there was meat - oh so much meat! Uruguayan asado is similar to the Argentinean one, with lots of offal meats and sausages, cooked directly over charcoal. To be honest, we don’t know what other local foods they have besides meat - we just ate that and the common dishes you get everywhere. We were quite surprised with the Uruguayan wines, since we didn’t know it produced any but the reds we had were quiet decent for the price.

Being in Uruguay was much easier than Brasil since we speak some Spanish. That alone took away a lot of the every day stress, and made us feel a lot more comfortable here.

It’s hard to say whether we’d want to come back to Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento, there wasn’t much more to do, but seeing more of the country’s interior and the Gaucho lands, as well as the beaches of Punto del Este and Punto del Diablo would be nice. We probably wouldn’t have a trip just to see Uruguay again, but definitely would visit if we were in the region

While we love it over here in South America, there are some things we really miss from home. Good Asian food and good coffee are two of the big ones. Peru has had a lot of Chinese immigration for a while, and there is a Peruvian-Chinese fusion cuisine called “Chaufa” or “Chifa”, and signature dish being a variant of fried rice. Unfortunately it isn’t anything like the food we get at home, since we are now so spoiled with good Asian foods; here it is very westernised Chinese food like Australia had in the 80s. We’d love to have some pho and rice paper rolls, but the chances of finding a good Vietnamese restaurant are pretty slim in any of the countries in South America.

Argentina was a very varied place: the gaucho influences in the middle, the Andean influences in the north, and everywhere we didn’t get to see sounding like they would be different too. The country definitely has some bucket-list places we missed out on such as Patagonia, and the wine country near Mendoza would definitely be worth a visit. Given it’s the size of Western Australia, there will be even more places to visit we haven’t even heard of.

The people in Argentina were quite friendly, although we sometimes struggled with how fast they spoke their Spanish, especially in Buenos Aires. We unfortunately also missed the good weather, as the cold front heralding the arrival of late autumn appeared a few days before we got there.

One thing we didn’t think about being a big problem in South America was the size of notes you get from ATMs. On one side the largest note in Argentina is the 100 pesos note, which is worth about $9.50 Australian dollars, so when paying for anything of high value you need a big wad of notes. On the other end, most ATMs in Peru give you 100 Soles notes (although larger ones exist), which are worth about $42 Australian dollars, and people really REALLY don’t like you trying to pay with them. Many places don’t accept them at all, and even if they do they probably don’t have change. There was a restaurant where we owed 90 soles for an extended lunch with several drinks, and we got a scowl for trying to pay with a 100 and get 10 change.

We can’t really comment much on Chile since we only saw one very small town, but San Pedro was a fun place to visit. There were lots of unique things to do and see, so anyone who is in the area should come for a visit, and look at the stars and landscape.

Bolivia is full of markets sprawling on to the streets, friendly people, and not enough air. Unfortunately, because we spent longer than planned in Brazil, we had to drop some places we wanted to visit from Bolivia so that we would make it to Cusco and our Inca Trail tour in time. The parts we did see were chaotic but fun, and if we were to come back then we’d love to visit the other two cities on the gringo trail, Potosi and Sucre, and go down from the highlands to the Pampas and Amazon regions. We know a few people who visited and said it was an experience worth having.

There was not a lot of memorable food and drink in Bolivia (apart from food poisoning) and except quite unexpectedly pizza. The best pizza was not in Sao Paulo with it’s 8000 pizzarias, or Buenos Aires with it’s large number of Italian immigrants, but instead in the Andean highlands. Why? Nice thin crispy bases, a small number of high quality and fresh toppings.

One mostly great thing over here has been the road naming and numbering system, which is really helpful when you don’t know the city. Road names are unique in a given city, not just the suburb, so if you say you want to go to “Calle San Martin 432” a taxi driver should know where you want to go. The street numbers are also designed with each block starting at a multiple of 100 and the remainder in meters. So that address would be 32 meters along the 5th block of the street.

The down side of the naming is that because they need to be unique, street names are also quite long with full names and titles. They are almost always abbreviated on signs and maps, and the abbreviated versions are unfortuntately not unique. One of the full street names would be “Calle General Jose de San Martin, el liberador”, but if you just know “San Martin” it may be that, or the Avenida (avenue) rather than the Calle (street) with the same ending, or one of the ones named after someone else with the same surname – that can be a major problem if you end up kilometres away at the wrong street.

Coffee naming can also be confusing, for example what a “Café Cortado” is. It literally means “short coffee” and I think it’s supposed to be a shot of espresso with some but not a lot of steamed milk. However as James’ coffee of choice over here since flat whites don’t exist, there have been a lot of differences in what turns up - from what he knows as a macchiato (espresso shot with a tiny dash of milk), to what was essentially a cappuccino without the sprinkle of chocolate powder on top. Still both better than the time he ordered a cappuccino and someone attempted to steam powdered milk! :(

Perú has some of the iconic destinations people think of when you say you are going to South America, Machu Picchu first amongst those, but the country is so much more. There are many more sights and places worth visiting, but the country itself is worth experiencing.

The people here are very friendly, and there are a multitude of cultures (the Incas were just the last before the Spanish came) that still exist in daily life, especially in the highlands. Those old cultures mesh in with the fanciness of Lima and the many migrant cultures, to make a country where you should get to know the people.

Amazing food and drink is just an everyday part of visiting. Fresh fruit to eat or juice, good seafood dishes such as ceviche, some barbecued meats from the street, around 5000 types of potato, and some chilli if you want it, makes it all so delicious. You can wash it down with a pisco sour, chicha (corn juice), one of the many, many craft beers they have from local breweries - just don’t drink the tap water!

Our trip through Peru has mostly been the extended tourist trail. We could spend months more in Peru, seeing the Peruvian Amazon, more of the mountains (Salkantay trek anyone?) and the less travelled inland areas. After five weeks we are looking forward to some new things (maybe less potato and rice), and can’t wait to see Ecuador.

Although there are a lot of things that are the same as James’ last visit, there are some noticeable differences, with places being a bit more ready to handle tourists, but on the flip side some areas being a lot more overrun with tourists. There are more walking tours of cities, more English around, and fancier bus services between cities.

Over the 100 days we’ve seen a lot of quirky things. These have included signs with pictures of llamas on them asking you not to use flames inside (llama also means flame apparently), a lot of weird fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of manky bathrooms. Something Dee didn’t realise before coming across to South America is that flushing toilet paper down the toilet is a definite no go area. If you do flush toilet paper down, you risk flooding the bathroom (fortunately this did not happen!). Most places have signs in multiple languages informing you of the protocol, and a bin next to the toilet which is generally overflowing and ridiculously smelly. If the bin gets full, nobody offers to let any of the cleaners know, instead throwing their paper on top of the pile, or just leaving it in the corner on the floor. If this image isn’t appealing to you, wait until you see some of the toilets! Toilet seats don’t exist in half of the toilets, in Brasil the toilet seats existed but were a weird memory foam, and in Argentina the front part of the toilet seat is missing altogether. In the middle of nowhere the toilets have two sections to do your business, and you need to wash it down with a bucket of water; or in one case, the toilet had no seat, no water, no toilet paper and no roof, this one cost $2aud to use. It has been one hell of an experience!

To go with the rest of the random statistics and countless beers/barbecues we’ve experienced here are a few more:

  • Distinct car alarms heard: 1 (they are all identical… every single one!)
  • Number of packets of Club Social biscuits eaten: 36 (these are a cheap snack and easy to take on the buses when they forget to feed you… or when you’re hungover and fanging for food!)
  • Number of craft beers drunk: you seriously don’t think we’ve attempted to count every single beer do you? Oh right, there is an app for that - Untappd says James has recorded 56 unique beers since being in South America - this does not include the ones that Dee has drunk
  • Number of Telefericos (cable cars): 3
  • Number of times we’ve heard Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil: 58 - this is a very popular song here apparently
  • Second most popular song in South America behind Beds are Burning: Guantanamera

On that topic, there are some distinctive sounds we’re heard in South America. Aside from the frequent identical car alarms, in a number of cities the garbage trucks are musical. Similar to how an ice-cream van sounds. It drives along the street playing really loud music, sometimes featuring songs like Greensleeves, or Thomas the Tank Engine. We once heard a bus playing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer so that people would get out of the way as it’s maniac driver ploughed through the streets.

After all we’ve seen in 100 days outside Australia, imagine where we could be after 200 days! If your imagination isn’t good enough to think of somewhere, how about the Moroccan desert?

Quiz answers:

  • Pizzaria – correct: place that makes pizzas
  • Paneria – incorrect: bakery: not place that sells kitchen equipment
  • Cervezeria – correct: place that brews beer
  • Bruncheria – correct: place to eat brunch (this may be made up through)
  • Fereteria – incorrect: hardware store, not place that sells small animals

¡Hola! Copacabana, we’re still not quite North of Havana, or in Brasil, but we are still in Bolivia!

Known for its fantastically cooked freshwater trout, as well as lots of religious celebrations, Copacabana is a small town nestled against the shore of Lake Titicaca and is one of the smallest places we are likely to visit, with a whopping population of 6000 people. The name Copacabana is from the Aymaran phrase “kota kowana” and means “view of the lake”. Initially inhabited by the Incas, this little lakeside town is the original Copacabana, lending its name to the famous beach in Rio.

Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and is highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at 3812m above sea level. The lake has a surface area of 8372km2, is home to six islands, holds nearly 900 cubic metres of water and has a maximum depth of 281m, in short it is massive!

Sight from the viewpoint

Catching the bus in from La Paz we wove around a huge number of hills to get to a small river crossing in the middle of nowhere. The everyone on the bus piled onto a tiny boat, while the bus itself was put onto a dodgy looking barge and transported to the other side. Waiting for the bus to cross we stopped briefly and bought a few snacks, risking our lives (or stomachs as it were) with a bit of street food.

The bus on the barge

Weaving a little more through mountains and around the lake, we arrived into Copacabana mid-morning and found our way up to the hostel. We learnt that one should look at the topology of towns before booking really cheap hostels that appear to be walking distance from the main street. With around 20kg of luggage each, at 3841m above sea level, the one kilometre walk up the giant hill wasn’t an easy ten minutes; the walk may have been filled with a small amount of choice language.

After recovering from the walk and settling into our hostel we headed back down toward the lake we met up with Josh and Kristy for lunch and then wandered around the to find ourselves a tour to Isla Del Sol. Like any other tourist place, you couldn’t walk two metres down the street with out being chased down by someone trying to sell you a key ring, a tour, a llama jumper or jamming a menu in your face at any hour of the day; even if they just saw you eat and walk out of another café. After getting the few jobs that we needed finished, we eventually settled in at a café for the afternoon down near the waterfront for some of their two-for-one cocktails. We got to know the owner Barto, from Chile, and spent the afternoon watching the beautiful sunset over the water, complete with Pisco Sours. A few too many of these later we had a late dinner at ‘La Orilla’ and ordered ourselves an extra hot and extra delicious chicken curry, washed down with a glass (or five) of wine.

White anchor at the wharf

Sunset over lake titicaca

Our hostel wasn’t bad to stay in, though the ‘features’ listed on Hostelworld and what the hostel had available didn’t quite match up. Our cement like bed and lack of curtains in the room made for an earlier start than intended on Friday morning, coupled with the lack of breakfast that was supposed to be provided and cold coffee, it was a bit of a rough morning. Deciding we might be able to do breakfast ourselves, we investigated the “kitchen”, a 1.5mx1.5m room with a portable gas cooktop on a rickety wooden table, no fridge, and a laundry sink… we opted for breakfast downtown instead. We needed to be at the wharf near the town’s white anchor by 7:45am to catch our boat across to Isla Del Sol, arriving a little late we were both worried that we might have missed the boat… forgetting that of course, it’s South America – we departed half an hour later than we were supposed to.

Isla Del Sol, “Island of the Sun”, is situated on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and has a very rough terrain; it is home to a lot of Eucalyptus trees – something we weren’t expecting to see many of in South America. The island has been occupied since 2200BC and is home to a host of historical ruins and artefacts. There are currently around 800 families living on the island with most of its economy relying on tourism, fishing and agriculture.

Beach on Isla del Sol

Three hours on the boat later we arrived at the Northern end of Isla Del Sol, we were given instructions in some rapidly spoken Spanish then sent on our way. We knew we needed to pay a ten Boliviano fee somewhere on the island and that we needed to be back at the boat by 1pm. Confused as to what was going on, we nearly wound up on one of the expensive walking tours (that you could do yourself for free), and couldn’t find the place where we had to pay the fee. Eventually we walked down one of the tiny dirt side streets and were directed into a mud brick hut by a man, who wouldn’t let us pass to the nicer side until we’d been inside the hut – we then found out that was where we needed to pay, we weren’t being accosted, robbed or kidnapped. Armed with tickets and backpacks we were on our way to the nicer part of the island, where Dee stayed at the beach and enjoyed the sunshine. James decided that, although we were at stupidly high altitude, he was going to go for a walk further up the hill to find some religious monuments – nothing is signed on the island and he was given some very vague directions. About an hour later James returned, unsuccessful in his quest to find the monuments, hot and irritated… He should have stayed down at the beach. Grabbing a quick drink of cold water then chilling out down near the boat, we ran into Alice, who we’d met at our trip across the salt flats. Whilst chatting and sharing our adventures so far, James managed to get sunburnt on the back of his hands…

Donkey at the dock

A beautiful cove

Hustled back on to the boat it was time for us to head to the southern end of Isla Del Sol; we did have the option of doing a three hour walk from the northern side to there but we decided against it… the altitude was taking it’s toll. After an hour and a half on the boat we’d arrived, we only had an hour so we decided to walk up the hill and stairs get some lunch, feasting in on a bit of trout, rice and chips. Every meal we’ve had in Bolivia seems to come with a double load of carbs, it’s either rice and chips, pasta and chips, or some kind of chips with another type of potato served with them. We took in the beautiful view from the top of the hill and coupled our meal with a glass of wine and a beer. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon! Back on the boat again, we opted to sit on the top deck this time around as it wasn’t as cold as it had been in the morning. We took in the vastness of the lake and watched as the sun and the little bit of cloud around reflected on the still water of the lake.

Soup and wine

As we arrived back to Copacabana we headed to another of the bars that had two-for-one cocktails; this one was a themed football pub called Manchester. This time we watched the sunset from the second floor and enjoyed the nice breeze coming across the lake although, as soon as the sun sets the temperature instantly drops by 5 degrees. It doesn’t seem much but hit with the altitude and a quick temperature change the body goes into a little bit of shock. After sorting out some warm clothes for Dee (who is an absolute wuss with temperatures below 15), we headed up the tourist stretch to see which place would accost first for dinner. Deciding that pizza was the go for the evening, we settled on a place that had a few little less traditional pizzas listed on their menu – including a trout pizza. Strangely, even though Brasil continually claims to have the best pizza in the world, Bolivia has definitely got that title under its belt. A nice thin and crispy base, a good scattering of toppings, generous with the trout and chicken, and not too much cheese to overwhelm the other flavours, we were happy.

Waking to another ridiculous o’clock start because of the beautiful sunshine beaming through our curtain less window, we decided that both of us were in need of a decent coffee. Most of the coffee we’d come across in Bolivia so far has been instant, and although we try not to be picky about it, instant coffee with powdered milk is not a favourite for either of us. Finishing our coffees and another of the standard jam and bread roll breakfasts South America is becoming famous for; we headed up the hill behind our hostel to check out the local markets and the Cathedral.


The Copacabana Cathedral, “Basilica of our Lady of Copacabana”, is one of the oldest churches in Bolivia, it had finished being built in 1576. The cathedral is one of only two primary sacred places that hold importance to both the Indigenous and Catholic communities; it is based at the bottom of Cerro Calvario. Around the outside fences of the Cathedral are street vendors selling incense, wines, candles, rosary beads and many other religious symbols to offer to the image of Bolivia’s patron saint. Above the alter in the cathedral is a statue of Camarin de la Virgen de Candelaria, carved by Francisco Yupanqui in 1583; the statue is reputed to have miraculous healing powers and is one of the many reasons for Bolivians to make the pilgrimage to Copacabana.

Moving on from the Cathedral and the markets we took our time to walk up Cerro Calvario (“Calvary Hill”). From the shoreline you can see a number of crosses up the hill and a shrine stationed on the end. Walking up there are 14 Stations of the Cross, leading to the stations of the “Seven Sorrows of Mary” and then to an altar with a depiction of the Jesus’ crucifixion. Holy Week is the busiest time of the year to walk up this hill, and there are many brick tables around the shrines for people to complete religious ceremonies, there is also the standard collection of ladies selling knick-knacks and candles at the top.

View from the hill

Other view from the hill

James, struggled with a blocked nose (which seems to be happening a lot on this trip), but half an hour or so later we’d made it to the top, sweaty and dripping off the last bit of sunscreen we’d scraped together. While walking we passed many people praying at the Stations of the Cross, we also passed many older people struggling up the uneven stone blocks to the top – their determination was admirable! The view from the top of the hill was absolutely beautiful, we looked down onto the Copacabana town and then on the right were able to see a few of the smaller towns close to Copacabana. The Titicaca Lake is large enough that you are able to see the water meet the horizon.


Wandering back down the hill, sufficiently sweaty and nearly out of water, it was time to look for lunch. We’d been recommended a place called Kilometre Zero for drinks and food, it serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and then turns into a nightclub… it also offered two-for-one cocktails all day. We dropped in here for the menu del dia of vegetable soup, trout and fruit salad, coupled with a few Maracuya Sours. The Maracuya Sours are similar to Pisco Sours, but instead use a fruit similar to a passionfruit – they are delicious! After eating enough food to feed a small army, we walked around for the afternoon, people watching and looking at all of the market stalls where the locals sell both imported and handmade goods. Unfortunately we don’t have much in the way of space to buy souvenirs, and after investigating the price of sending things back home we decided against post – it is close to $15 to send a package less than 100g from Bolivia, and that’s providing customs don’t get a hold of it and charge duties and taxes! A little exhausted and suffering from a lack of sleep it was time for an early night, and hopefully a sleep-in that didn’t involve church bells and a howling dog, or a rooster crowing at 3am.

Hooray for packing day! Neither of us has been particularly happy about packing every three to four days but I guess that’s the joy of travelling right? Managing not to have an argument about who needs to pack what and in what order, we handled the last few jobs we could get done on the dodgy hostel internet. We popped our bags into the storage area and eventually got ourselves organised enough for breakfast. We took our time taking a last little look around town and getting a few more photos of bits and pieces.

Along the edge of the lake there are a myriad of little tent restaurants run by the locals. All of the restaurants have the same menu, just in slightly different colours – the specialty here is trout, which you can order in almost every way imaginable. Many of the menus here have pictures to help out the non-Spanish speakers who visit the town, or they have an “English” version of the menu. Both of us can competently read and understand the Spanish menus but have asked occasionally for the English translation for a laugh more than anything else – the English menus have become very difficult to read in some places, Google Translate is not always the most reliable source of translations. One hilarious example we came across was in one of the tents advertising their house special: “House Especial. – trout speak wrapup in fail poper, onion greenpepper, lemon”. The wrapup in fail poper did look quite good but we instead opted for ‘trucha a la plancha’ (grilled trout) and ‘trucha del diablo’ (literally translated as trout of the devil – it is grilled trout with chilli). Being in Bolivia these obviously came with both chips and rice, as well as a giant container of salsa picante (spicy sauce), and a sugary drink made from some kind of mystery fruit. Our meals together cost a total of $2aud and were great value. If any of you reading this come to South America, please don’t be scared by the dodgy looking street restaurants, many of the councils have made it easier for locals to sell their food by providing running water and electricity… these little spots have been by far some of the best food we’ve eaten on our trip.

Bad menu translations

Trout lunch 1

Trout lunch 2

Crawling back up the hill to our hostel to get our bags, it was time to get on the bus to head to Cusco. Once we had ourselves sorted and settled on the Bolivia Hop bus we headed toward the border to Peru. It was time for another border crossing! The guide on the bus was fantastic but was slightly confused when Dee asked about taking food and drinks across the border. Having not travelled much over borders on buses, and some places physically inspecting and x-raying bags, as well as having food and drinks confiscated, Dee thought it wise to ask what we were allowed to carry across. The guide took it as a joke and made a bit of fun at us; then we explained that we can’t take fruit between states in Australia and that it was a genuine question. The border between Bolivia and Peru was much more relaxed than others that we’d experienced.

Changing buses at the border and checking out the pimped up tuk-tuks we arrived into Peru!

Go see all the photos from Copacabana and Isla del Sol

La Paz, formally La Ciudad De Nuestra Señora De La Paz (“The City of Our Lady of The Peace”), is the highest administrative capital in the world. Not the highest actual capital, since Sucre is legally Bolivia’s capital, but it is the one where the government is.

The overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz was pretty uneventful, most of the trip was us attempting to sleep through the numerous stops on the way, with nothing much to look at. The bus was supposed to arrive at the main terminal in La Paz at 8am, but it arrived much earlier than planned, and came in at 6am instead. Normally, arriving ahead of schedule would be a good thing, except that this time it was much too early in the morning for us to be able to check in to our hostel. Sometimes the private rooms we have booked are free so they let us go in early, but this time we had chosen to stay in a dorm room.

In La Paz, we chose to stay at one of the larger hostels chains in South America called “Loki”, which is well known for partying and mayhem. Before heading there, we thought we should have a coffee at the bus terminal, which turned out to be one of the worst instant coffees we had experienced in South America, the flavour of cold watery dirt.

The arrival at Loki’s reception was a descent into chaos, full of people trying to check out so they didn’t miss their bus to other cities, people checking in, people waiting to go on tours, and some that just appeared to be too drunk to remember where their room was. There was not enough staff there to deal with everything that was happening, so we had to wait in what could be loosely termed a line - if you tried drawing that line after three bottles of whisky and some Bolivian marching powder.

We eventually managed to talk to one of the staff, after being cut off by a few groups of people pushing in, and were asked to go up to the first floor to put our bags into the storage room and wait until check-in at 2pm. Loki had the largest luggage storage area we have seen anywhere, about 10 meters by 15 meters, with floor to ceiling racks holding backpacks, and piles more on the floor. We put ours near the door hoping that would help us find them again, and then headed up to the bar-cum-restaurant on the seventh floor to get some breakfast.

There was quite a large menu to choose from, although not that cheap, and since we didn’t get much sleep on the overnight bus, and we couldn’t shower (as our bags were packed), we decided to spend the day admiring the view from the top of the building. Definitely admiring the view, and not making friends over a beer or five (surprise!).

When two o’clock finally rolled around and it was check-in time, we headed back down to reception, only to be told that our room hadn’t been cleaned since the old residents had left and we needed to wait longer. With no specific time to wait, we did the only sensible thing and headed back to the bar. Checking in periodically (about every second beer), our room continued not to be ready, until finally at 6pm we could go and see what our first dorm stay of the trip would be like.

Numerous trips up and down the stairs does not sound that hard, but we were exhausted and at 3650 meters above sea level, every flight of stairs takes it out of you; the elevator was often full and it stopped at the second last floor as well.

On many one of the trips down to reception we stopped in to the tour desk, so that Dee could organise to ride down Camino de Muerta (“death road”) on a mountain bike the next day. The last time James rode a bike he was about 8 or 10, so thought that if he tried then the name of death road could become a reality for him or someone he ran into.

After the big day of doing nothing, we decided to have a quiet night in with dinner at the hostel, or as quiet as Loki ever is. For the poor people on the floor below the bar on the sixth floor, the quiet probably began around 2 or 3am. Luckily we were on the fourth floor, so our issues with noise were from our roommates, who at midnight decided to turn all the lights on and have a very loud conversation for the next hour. At this point, we started to wonder if the foray into dorm rooms was a bad idea.

James visits El Alto

Monday, our first full day in La Paz, was one of the few that were spent almost completely apart - with James exploring the city and Dee riding down Death Road.

After a late breakfast at 9am, James headed out of the hostel and up to La Paz’ teleferico (cable car), to get a nice view from the city of El Alto. The map only shows the station as a short walk from the hostel, and the 8 blocks isn’t that far, except for the fact that it is all walking up-hill at altitude. The teleferico is a great idea, providing cheap transport (under $0.60 AUD) for the locals in the city, and a great view for tourists. So great is the idea, that they are have already started construction for the expansion from two lines to five.

Teleferico and view over the city

El Alto (“the high city”) is the main conurbated city of La Paz, and as the area is very flat as compared to the valley of La Paz, it is where the airport is located. Being over 4000 meters above sea level means that the runways are over 4km in length and it still cannot deal with large aircraft like 747s. Taking off from the airport, as James did in 2010, is an interesting experience and may not be enjoyable if you are scared of flying.

When you arrive at the teleferico station in El Alto, you walk out onto the street and immediately feel that you are in a true Bolivian city. There are cars all over the place and piles of rubbish sitting there, everyone is trying to sell you things, and locals are rushing around going about their business. Near to the station is the location of the El Alto black market, but unfortunately we missed it since it is only on Sundays and Thursdays. That may not have been such a bad thing, since the market is not a safe area for tourists, with many reports of pick-pocketing and aggressive robbery, and that happened to two people we met.

Tiny bell-tower

As a tourist, there is not very much to do in El Alto, apart from take a few quick photos and walk across the road to see the view over La Paz. There are no constructed viewpoints, so you need to stand on the side of the highway going out of La Paz with barely anything stopping you from falling down large cliffs.

Heading back down the teleferico (another whole 60c!), James went for a walk around the inner city to see what it had to offer. For whatever reason, all the shops that sell one kind of item or service are located near each other, so he headed down bed linen street, turned down chicken street, and then along mattress street. Going past our hostel (on optometrist street), he went over the main road through the centre of La Paz and ended up at the Plaza de Armas. In the block approaching the plaza, there were large fences guarded by military police. We have no idea what they were guarding against, but it obviously wasn’t inquisitive tourists. The plaza was nice, and we learnt more about it the next day. James headed back to the hostel, and quick beer, to wait for Dee to return.

Dee rides Camino de la Muerte (Death Road)

For Dee, the morning didn’t start quite as late or relaxed as James’. The alarm was set for 6am so that I could get to the restaurant where I was to meet the tour group. I’d organised with Kristy and Josh, whom we’d met across the salt flats, to go on the same tour as them so that I had a little company since James apparently doesn’t know how to ride a bike (I secretly suspect that he does, but just doesn’t want to!). Tucking into some eggs and a bucket of coffee at the restaurant, we were gathered into groups and put onto minibuses stacked with our bikes. We drove for half an hour or so to a dirt patch on the side of the road with a lake and a brick wall, disguised as a toilet. The bikes were unloaded and all necessary adjustments made, including a quick change of sides for the brakes. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road here, the brakes on the bikes are on different sides as well… on top of this, the drivers in Bolivia are completely insane and have no care for anyone else on the road whatsoever. Our tour guide, Gus, gave us a quick crash course on how to use the bikes, explaining the suspension system and the sensitivity of the brakes. We then needed to pray to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for our safety, included in this prayer was a quick sip of 90% alcohol to calm the nerves, not quite the start we were expecting to the 58km journey we were about to embark on.

Dee praying to Pachamama

Dee praying to Pachamama, post-alcohol

Dee making llama ear sign

The ride started on a 22km downhill run on asphalt, this part of the trip was not quite death road but the nerves of it all were starting to kick in. Trucks, buses, insane car drivers and the occasional other bike group fly down the mountain; the other bikes would let us know they were coming, the vehicles on the other hand seemed to try and drive as close to us as possible. Stopping at a few points on the way for a little information of what to expect next, water and a couple of photos, we eventually made it to the beginning of Death Road. Fortunately all of our group were able to listen to Gus’ instructions before heading down the hill, particularly the part about making sure we don’t hit the brakes too hard otherwise we’ll flip over the handlebars… a lady in another group didn’t fare as well on the asphalt; having come off her bike, breaking her jaw, losing a few teeth and hitting another cyclist who then broke her arm. One would hope they had travel insurance!

Dee on the edge of forever

It took me quite a while to get my nerve up on the bike and start heading at a reasonable pace to keep up with the group. Although it hadn’t been too long since I’d ridden a bike, I had never dealt with the maniacs that are Bolivian drivers, or a proper downhill mountain bike on the road. Once arriving onto Death Road we were given very specific instructions not to ride against the cliff wall, instead to keep left: directly beside the multimeter drop-off that gave death road it’s name. Heavily armed with a bike helmet and kneepads (I can assure you, these weren’t going to save me going over the edge), it was time to fly down the rocky narrow road, and hope that no cars would be travelling along it.

Welcome to Death Road

Downhill run

On the trail down we narrowly avoided larger rocks on the road, travelled around tight corners with hidden holes to the emptiness below, through waterfalls and down a few steep bits, stopping every 4-5km to regather our thoughts. Along the way we learnt about the numerous deaths on the road since it had originally been built; though it’s not used much by cars anymore as another more sensible road had been built, there are still deaths occurring, the most recent in March this year. The importance of listening to the instructions was highlighted by a few of the stories Gus shared with us along the way.

The group on top of a huge cliff

Here was the point that our group had realised how steep the drop was from the road… we were told to sit on the edge and hang our legs over. This particular ledge was one that many people in either cars or bikes had falled off the edge of - including a bus of 18 school children and their teachers (this may not have been precisely at this point, but the rest of the road was just as narrow and as steep as this spot). Hanging our legs of the edge here was slightly terrifying.

The road shrouded in green

Where they filmed part of the Top Gear episode

Where they filmed part of the Top Gear episode

Crazy hairpin switchback turn

Yes, that’s a cray hairpin switchback turn, and everyone was close to dying.

A total of 36km of down-hill mountain biking later, we’d made it into a small town at the bottom where we were promised a shower and lunch. By the time we’d made it, majority of us were starving, sweaty and covered in mud. After getting cleaned up it was well and truly time for a beer to sort out the last of the nerves and the adrenalin running through my body. As a group we sat down to a meal of soup and pasta with a bit of chicken, a fairly simple affair but filling.

End of the road

This meal lead to food poisoning :(

This meal lead to food poisoning :(

It was time to get back on the bus for the four-hour trip to La Paz, unfortunately we needed to stop a few times along the way back to get more beers (such a shame!), as well as a few toilet stops in the middle of nowhere. The drive back was nearly as dangerous as Death Road itself, there was little visibility due to a large amount of fog rolling in, as well as the usual trucks and buses driving on the wrong side of the road. It was definitely time for bed when we’d arrived back into La Paz; the ride was amazing but very exhausting!

Back to La Paz

On Tuesday we were greeted with new roommates, and thankfully it appeared that they were much more considerate than our previous ones; although La Paz is not somewhere that you can easily sleep in past 6am. Most buses either arrive or depart sometime around then, and many of the day tours offered also start before 7. For most of Tuesday we spent time at the hostel, chatting with people, catching up on admin work (planning and the blog), and for Dee recovering from Death Road - there was definitely a bit of sore bum happening! For lunch we decided to visit a Mexican place with Kristy and Josh; it wasn’t the cheapest of places but had good recommendations and pretty delicious food.

After eating our weight in Mexican food, we walked to the witches markets that were only a few blocks from the hostel. There were a lot of weird and wonderful things at the witches market, including llama foetuses (a little creepy), many herbs, and a multitude of crazy ladies trying to sell tea, assorted types of powders, and incense sticks. Along with the crazy shops, there were a few people walking around selling street food (usually empanadas or hamburgers) and different types of juices. Bolivia is a place where street food is readily available and it all looked amazing; we had however been warned that the lack of running water, electricity, and any kind of safe hygiene practices, which could reek havoc on backpackers. We decided that while we were in La Paz, we should play it safe and eat at proper restaurants in an attempt to avoid too many upset stomachs. Unfortunately for Dee this tactic worked against her, by the end of the day something had curled up and died in her stomach. Thankfully Dr. Deb the travel doctor gave us a pile of amount of stomach bug killers and other bits and pieces to help out.

Witches shop, including llama foetuses

Dried llama foetus

On Wednesday we decided to ignore the fact that both of us had gotten very little sleep, and head out on a free city walking tour. Most of the major cities we have been to so far offered free walking tours (on a tip basis), and were usually fairly informative and interesting.

The walking tour started with the San Francisco cathedral, the oldest in La Paz. Rather than dominate the locals as most groups did, the San Franciscans tried to make friends with the locals, and invited them to help construct the church. This lead to some quite unusual features, such as a naked woman giving birth beside San Francisco (fertility is important to the indigenous cultures), and there being a set of staring faces carved near the entrance. The faces are the spirit guardians for the church, and there are also coca leaves carved next to them to keep them awake and ensure that the church is not left unprotected at night,

San Francisco cathedral

The altar

When the indigenous people chose not to convert to Catholicism, the Spaniards decided that more persuasive means were needed, and constructed a large alter containing mirrors that they imported from Spain. They told the locals (who had never see a mirror before) that their souls were now trapped in the church, and that if they did not come pray every day, their souls would not be released upon death. The original 14 meter gold altar is still in the church there, and is worth around $40 million US dollars. Unfortunately, Dee had not recovered from here stomach issues of the evening before, so decided to head back to the hostel.

The tour group then went for a brief look at the Witches markets, which we had seen previous day. The local belief is that the God of Thunder and Wisdom grants knowledge of magic, so to become a witch you have to be struck by lightning and survive. It can also be passed down to the first-born daughter, so if you asked a female witch if she was struck by lighting and says no, then she much be a first daughter of a first daughter up the line to someone who was. If you find a male witch, then they have to be struck personally so would usually show you the scars to prove it. One of the most important things that they sell are dead baby llamas and llama foetuses, which are supposed to die of natural causes. The most important ceremony they are used in is to bless a new house. Even if you do not believe in witch magic, you must have the ceremony performed; otherwise the workers who do believe will refuse to build your house.

Around the city there are a lot of Cholitas, women dressed up in “traditional” costume. It is not actually an indigenous costume, but how the aristocratic Spanish women dressed during the period of colonisation. Any indigenous women who had enough money to do so chose to dress like them, so as to appear wealthier. Spanish fashion changed, but the Cholitas kept wearing the same style of clothing. A good quality outfit can easily cost $6000 US dollars, with the hat alone being over $400.


Our guide told us that the unions in Bolivia are extremely powerful, and every job has one - even the shoe-shining children who are below the legal working age have their own union. An example is the union for people who sell clothing and trinkets to tourists, and they have two important rules. First is that they cannot lie about the quality and makeup of items, if they get caught claiming that a jumper is 100% llama wool and it’s only 50%, the union will shut down their shop for a few days as punishment. Second there are minimum and maximum prices for items, and although tourists obviously pay more than locals, there are limits and if someone is caught charging tourists too much, they will be fined and shut down for a few days as well. The idea of those two rules is to prevent tourists from being scammed and then telling everyone not to buy things in La Paz.

Another unusual fact is that due to the number of markets and street sellers, there are virtually no supermarkets. Greater La Paz has a population of 2.3 million and only 20 supermarkets, and the city of El Alto has only one single supermarket for it’s million people. Consumers and sellers form strong bonds here, if you buy some kind of fruit such as a few oranges from one lady, you don’t dare buy some fruit such as bananas from another one (at least not within line of sight). After a while you refer to your vendor as “casera” (meaning you consider them part of your home life) and you can get better deals. Food is the one thing you don’t barter price on, since it is almost always grown or produced by the seller, and so saying that it is not worth the money would be offensive. Instead of bartering for a better price, you instead ask for “yapa” and get a bit extra for free.

The tour then walked down to the San Pedro square, adjacent to the infamous San Pedro prison that became well known from the book “Marching Powder”. The prison is unique in that the government lost control of it in 1982, and it has chosen to let the prisoners remain in control since that day. There are guards outside to ensure no-one escapes, but none inside in the prison. The prisoners elect their own mayor every two years, the prisoners pay “rent” for their cells (from 50Bs/$7US a month for tiny shared cells, to $1500USD for fancy ones with a hot tub), and they produce craft items that their family sell on the outside. Aside from not costing the government any money to run, it also appears to teach the prisoners how to behave in a society. As a result, they tend to merge in well when released and be much better behaved than those who are kept in other prisons.

The traffic in La Paz is a bit crazy, especially around the city centre, but the last time a pedestrian died was in 2001. The guide said that the government started paying 15-year-old children to dress up as zebras to teach people about “zebra” pedestrian crossings. Due to the levels of corruption, police here are not well respected, so if they catch you crossing against the lights, people make up an excuse of being busy and keep going. If a “Zebra” sees someone jay walk it, they tell them off, then everyone will stop and not cross - the children dressed up as Zebras have much more respect from the locals than the police do!

Next we went up to the main square, which at one stage was the main square of the Spanish Empire in South America. Overlooking it is the Congress building, which has an unusual clock that runs anti-clockwise. The government made the change without any announcement, and noone knew why it went backwards for some time, with several government ministers giving made up explanations and conflicting stories. Finally the government gave the real reason: in the Southern hemisphere sun dials go the other way, so clocks should too. They asked the other governments in South America to do the same, and they got laughed at. The only one who made a similar change was Venezuela, which doesn’t even make sense because that country is in the Northern hemisphere.

Backwards clock

The square

The old presidential palace also looks over the square, but no president has lived there since 1946 due some very nasty events. The government at the time was repressive of the people and there were many protests and riots going on, which were usually squashed with extreme violence. One night a group of protesters broke in to the palace and murdered the president in his sleep, and then dragged his body outside to the square and hung it from a lamp post for 10 days as a warning to future presidents not to oppress the people of the county. Since then the president has lives 2km away, obviously with much better security.

Presidental bust

On the buildings are three flags, the main Bolivian flag, Wiphala, which is the flag of the indigenous people, and the Bolivian Pacific Department flag. Bolivia lost it’s coastline in the war with Chile over 100 years ago, but they are still fighting Chile in international courts to try to get the Pacific port which was promised to them in the peace treaty. The International Court of Justice ruled last September that Chile had to give Bolivia the port as promised, but Chile just moved army troops to the border and said “you lost your coast in a war, if you want it back then you’ll need another war”. Since Chile’s armed forces are several times more powerful than Bolivia’s, Bolivia obviously chose to pursue this through international legal means rather than fighting. Bolivia is unusual in that both the main flag and Wiphala are official flags, which means that it is the only country in the world with two official ones.

The main cathedral of the city also overlooks the square, and parts of it keep falling down. After reconstructing it 8 times, they gave up and left it broken. Years later Pope John Paul II came to Bolivia, and the government thought it should repair the building yet again since a pope visiting was such a great honour, spending a lot of money in doing so. The pope arrived, looked inside for a few minutes, and then left in his pope mobile. The people were so angry that they had made such an effort to fix the cathedral for a 5 minute visit, they added a satirical plaque announcing the work put in for such a short visit by the pope. When Pope Francis visited recently, he knew the history of this and gave a three and a half hour mass inside, and on the way out stopped to read the plaque and laughed out loud.

Finally we walked past the base camp of a protest group, which is a very common sign in Bolivia. There are on average 8 protests a month in La Paz, with lots of fireworks and tiny TNT charges being set off. In most countries people try to negotiate with the government, and then protest if that fails. Here they protest for a few days, and then sit down to negotiate with the government second.

Once James arrived back into the hostel, we decided that we probably needed to start packing as our bus the next morning was due to leave at 6:30am. As we’d finished packing we were greeted with another new roommate, Gary, who had just arrived back from volunteering at an animal refuge. We decided to head upstairs and grab some dinner whilst sharing stories of our trips so far, including all of the funny bits and pieces we’d seen or learnt along the way.

Cruising in for another early night we set the alarm for stupid o’clock and called lights out. We were more than prepared for the bus trip by the time morning came; we’d even managed to get ourselves checked-out in a reasonable time. We have become accustomed to the buses running on South American time on this trip (so somewhere between 15min and 1.5hr late), it was a surprise to have the Bolivia Hop bus turn up at exactly 6:30 - unfortunately not everyone else going on the bus was so organised, so we were delayed by 20 minutes. We jumped on, got some of activities and plans with PeruHop sorted out and got ourselves excited for another Copacabana (not the one in Rio!).

Go see all the photos from La Paz and Death Road

Goodbye Chile and hello Bolivia! Welcome to border crossings, 5000m altitude, geysers, snow, desert and salt flats.

Awake and raring to go on another adventure we sat outside in the hostel courtyard on Wednesday morning, waiting for the bus to take us on the next part of our trip. Danielle, Paul, Dennis, Holly and the two of us were more than prepared, carrying at least 42 litres of water between us, a couple of kilograms worth of snacks and more warm clothes than you could poke a stick at. Our bus came to collect us from the hostel and we were taken a few kilometres down the road to go across the Bolivian border, and then climb into our Landcruiser to get going across the Atacama. The adventure was on!

Until we stopped… Apparently there was a “problem” with some “snow” at the border. By problem they meant arguments between some immigration officials, and by snow they meant the border had been sealed.

Waiting for the bus

We sat around for a few hours outside a building in the middle of nowhere with some fairly questionable toilets, fairly questionable “coffee” and breakfast; consisting of the standard jam, butter, bread, and a “meat” that the locals call jamón (pronounced hamon, which is supposed to be ham), it definitely was not the ham we were used to.

After about three hours we were back on the road again, stopping at the 4300m above sea level border for another stamp to add to the collection in our passports, some morning tea and the transfer into what was going to become our home for a few days: the white Landcruiser.

Our landcruiser

Snowy border office

View from the border

We were lucky enough to be in the leading car (there were four cars and twenty-four people in total) with our fantastic Spanish-speaking guide, Selso. Between the six of us we had enough Spanish to be able to hold a half decent conversation and understand the information about what we were going to see.

In the landcruiser

From the border we headed to the Bolivian high plains visiting the first of the Salt Lakes, Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon).

Laguna Blanca

The lagoon is located at the entrance to the Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and lies at the foot of the Lincancanbur Volcano. The lagoon contains borax; giving it a white reflective type surface. Piling back into the 4WD it was time to head to Laguna Verde (the Green Lagoon). Equally as picturesque as Laguna Blanca, the Green Lagoon contains copper, arsenic and a long list of other mineral sediments.

Lagoon and volcano

The Lincancanbur Volcano dominated much of the scenery of the first day; standing at 5920m above sea level it holds one of the world’s highest lakes. Yes, my friends, we saw a volcano!

Us in front of the volcano

From left to right: Holly, Dennis, Dee, James, Danielle and Paul posing with Lincancanbur Volcano.

Getting colder as we ascended the Atacama, we clambered back into the Landcruiser with the promise of a warm salty surprise at the next stop. We drove through the Salvador Dali Desert, named after the famous artist because of its extreme barrenness and its resemblance to Dali’s surrealist style paintings.


Pulling into a small village we were greeted by the Termas de Polques (Polques Hot Springs), as well as ladies trying to sell knick-knacks and toilet paper (this was the warm salty surprise - maybe without the toilet paper). The natural springs sit at a constant temperature of around 30 degrees Celsius and contain minerals that are thought to relieve symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. Unfortunately our togs were packed away and we couldn’t embrace the freezing, windy conditions to hop into the water. Such a shame when it was a warm five degrees Celsius outside.

Hot springs

Our next stop was a little bit of a drive away, still ascending we reached 5000m above sea level and stopped in a snowy geothermal field, ‘Geisers de Mañana’. Despite their not actually being any geysers there, the field had a lot of steam and the distinctively pungent smell of sulphur.

Steam vent

Dee in front of a vent

James and Dee at the geyser fields

The field is full of mud lakes and pools of boiling mud, as well as fumaroles (massive cracks in the earth) that emit pressurised steam. Beyond freezing at this point, and spending a grand total of maybe five minutes outside of the car, it was time to get moving again. Thankfully, after reading stories of people getting horrific burns from the geysers (this could well be from their own stupidity), we were all safe and mostly well… the altitude was not helping some of us.

The last stop for the afternoon was supposed to be at Laguna Colorada (the Red Lagoon), the decision was made to postpone this stop until the second day because of the “snow” that had occurred that morning. Instead Selso took us to our accommodation for the first evening, a little brick building in the middle of nowhere.

The refuge

The refuge

Bracing ourselves for no electricity, no showers and potentially squatty potties we were ready for a very rustic experience. Arriving first, Selso ran in and claimed us a room, then directed us to the lady with the sleeping bags (there are only a limited amount and we definitely didn’t want to miss out!). We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of our ‘refuge’; there were flushing toilets that we didn’t need to pay for, toilet paper, large beds and electricity. Between the four blankets on the bed, the sleeping bag, the sleeping bag liner, beanie, gloves, socks and a pair of thermals each, we were almost guaranteed to be toasty warm. It was going to be an early night for all of us, we’d seen so much during the day and the altitude was taking its toll on our bodies. Spoilt with a three-course meal of warm vegetable soup, pasta and fruit for dinner, we made our way to bed and set the alarm for 5am, ready for the next day’s adventures.

Sleeping in -10 degrees and at over 4000m above sea level is not something either of us would like to do regularly. Fortunately neither of us was having issues with altitude sickness; however, Dee woke up having succumbed to a cold she’d been fighting off for a week or two. Loading up with pseudoephedrine, a roll of toilet paper and a heap of warm clothing we were ready to conquer day two, after breakfast and coffee of course.

Dinner at the refuge

Our first stop was the Red Lagoon, the main nesting centre for over 30000 flamingos. The lagoon is filled with a particular type of algae that makes it red, coincidentally the algae is what the flamingos eat, and this my friends, is why they are pink! The pinkness of the flamingos changes with the seasons and the depth of colour of the algae, we only got to see a little bit of pink.

Laguna Roja

Flamingos from a distance


Panorama of the lagoon

A flamingo up close

Along the trip we saw a large amount of random animals, including a rabbit like creature called a Bolivian Vizcacha:

Bolivian Vizcacha

Culpeos (a kind of fox):


We couldn’t get a picture of the fox because he was a little sly about things.



and quite a number of Vicuñas (they are from the llama and alpaca family):


It’s amazing to think these animals can live at such high altitude.

From the Red Lagoon we started our decent to the vastness of Desierto Siloli; arriving at one of the many scattered rock formations for a few photos. The rock formations are created from sand and wind erosion over time and are an absolute masterpiece.

Rock formation

On top of the rock

From here we drove onto the high plain lagoons stopping at Honda, Chiarkota and then for lunch at Laguna Canapa. Taking in the beautiful landscape we were spoilt with another brilliant meal from Selso, rice and salad (and even the option for a glass of coke!).

Laguna Canapa:

Laguna Canapa

One of the lagoons:

A Lagoon

A lagoon with some flamingos:

A lagoon with some flamingos

After lunch and another round of pseudoephedrine for Dee, it was time to keep moving. Our next stop was to view another volcano but this one was active, complete with steam and everything! After being overwhelmed with a huge amount of information in the last 48 hours we both forgot the name of the volcano (sorry!); it was however really cool to see.


James trying to touch the volcano:

James trying to touch the volcano

Not far from the volcano was a single train line, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Here we were able to see a little of what was to come on the salt flats, there were small patches of dried salt sprawled around the desert.

Train line

The train line seemed to stretch as far as we could see; unbeknownst to us when we’d arrived it is still in use.

Train line

The railway had originally begun being built in 1873 and runs from Antofagasta in Chile all the way to La Paz in Bolivia; a total of 1537km. A quick random Sheldon fact for the Big Bang Theory followers; the railway catered for luxury passenger trains in the early days, it was one of the few trains in the world with a 762mm gauge that had dining cars and sleeping carriages. There are no longer passenger trains passing on the railway, with it now being used for its original purpose of transporting minerals, or perhaps tourists taking ridiculous photos.

Us on the train line

Promised with a shop for a few more snacks, and maybe a sneaky beer or two, we jumped back in the 4WD and started heading to our next destination: the Salt Hostel in San Juan. We did; however, need to stop briefly along the way because there was a train, and a rather large one at that! The train was very long and carrying massive drums of what we think might have been lead, as it had Pb (the chemical symbol for lead) written on the side of each drum. Who knew a bunch of adults could get so excited about seeing a train! So excited that we forgot to get a picture…

Arriving into San Juan it was time to stock up on a few supplies and a quick toilet stop for Dee, surprise! This stop would have been made much easier had we had Boliviano coins, and not 100 notes. Loaded up with beers, water, chocolate and who knows what other snacks, we headed to our hostel and were greeted by double beds and the option for having a shower; it may or may not have been cold, neither of us were game to try it. The Salt Hostel was exactly that, entirely made of salt. The walls were made of salt, the floor was made of salt, the tables and chairs were made of salt, the bed frames were made of salt - the mattresses, pillows and blankets were not.

Salt hotel

Downing a beer or two we sat and chatted with the rest of the group, watched the sunset and got ready for another delicious dinner: warm vegetable soup followed by chicken and chips. Unfortunately the poor hosts at the hostel didn’t appear to quite understand the difference between Vegetarian and Vegan - the Vegan option for dinner was eggs.

Cruising to bed far too late (somewhere past 10:30pm), after some poorly attempted Spanish conversation with the drivers, we were extremely excited for our adventures the next day. Our alarms were set for 4:45am, a time that should not exist, ready for a 5am departure to see the sunrise across the salt flats. Armed with Selso’s choice of music (a mixture of Adele, Bolivian keyboard classics, metal and the occasional hit of 80’s classics), we were off and going. Along the way we needed to stop as a different company’s Landcruiser was broken down.

Broken down LandCruiser

Superman Selso jumped out and attempted to save the day for the poor gringos in the other car, providing large amounts of water to pour into their radiator once it had cooled down. Getting slightly concerned we were going to miss the sunrise, Selso pulled the pin, jumped back into our car and kept going, we assume the other 4WD made it to see the sunrise eventually.

Arriving into the great salty void, temperature dropping rapidly and still a little bit asleep we were greeted with a lot of flat ground with some mountains in the distance. It was still a bit dark at this point and we weren’t really sure of where we were, except on the largest bit of salt in the world, somewhere in Bolivia.

Sunrise on the Salar

Salar de Uyuni is 10,582 square kilometres big and sits at 3656 metres above sea level; it was formed as a result of prehistoric lakes joining together. The salt itself is a few metres deep and is exceptionally rich in lithium, holding 70% of the world’s reserves (they are mining it out here in some places). Selso pointed somewhere in the distance and told us what time the sunrise should be and then quickly jumped back in the warmth of his car; it was time for us to hurry up and wait. The early morning wake-up was definitely worth doing, once we’d acclimatised to the negative something degrees Celsius temperature, we were spoilt with a pretty spectacular sunrise.

Mountains at sunrise

Sun rising over a mountain

Sun rising over the salt

We squeezed in a few ridiculous photos of our shadows and us trying to hold the sun as it was rising, ultimately we were getting in some practice for the hilarious photos that would ensue.

Dee holding up the sun

Long shadows

Mitsubishi "Oh what a feeling" jump

Holly doing a back-bend over the sun

Shadow angel

Back into the Landcruiser we got, it was barely 7am and for a few people, it was far too early to be awake without coffee. We stopped at an island full of cacti; plied with coffee, tea, sugar puffs and cake. A few slices of bread made their way onto the table (with jam, of course!), and a couple of tubs of yoghurt to keep us going for the next couple of hours. While some of the group we were travelling with played soccer, we opted for the walk around the top of the cactus mountain, taking in the view from the top; which was pretty much salt for as far as you could see, and a few mountain a couple of hundred kilometres away. By the end of the cactus island, we were pretty eager to get going, there were stupid photos to take and we wanted to be there.

Cactus forest

Sunny cacti

Line of cacti

Dee looking out over the Salar

Back in the cruiser we primed the cameras and got the music pumping, we had no idea where Selso was driving, there were at least fifteen roads leading in and out of the cactus island. We trusted that he wouldn’t get lost, in saying that, the poor man had been subjected to three days of six foreigners and broken Spanish; how he hadn’t gone mad from the barren landscape who knows? On the plus side he did get a large amount of biscuits and lollies from us along the way.

Slowing down to an eventual stop, the Cordillera group had arrived. Twenty-four eager tourists, ready to take photos doing stupid things with dinosaurs, beer bottles, wine bottles, shoes and biscuits. Three days of terrain, desert, beer, a little bit of barbecued chicken and negative temperatures had led us to the most exciting part of our trip. Behaving similarly to schoolchildren when they have coloured clothes day, we jumped out of the cars and automatically started trying to take our awesomely planned perspective photos. There was a slight problem though, the frustration of trying to get things perfectly lined, understanding how the camera works (even if it is a small point and shoot contraption), and the dwindling amount of time we had, meant there were many failed photos. On the plus side we have:

  • James coming out of the top of a beer bottle James coming out of the top of a beer bottle
  • James squashing Dee into the salt James stepping on Dee
  • Holly and Dennis being put inside a beer bottle Holly and Dennis being put inside a beer bottle 1 Holly and Dennis being put inside a beer bottle 2
  • James running away from a dinosaur James running away from a dinosaur
  • James walking on Dee’s finger James walking on Dee's finger
  • James, Dennis and Holly running away from a dinosaur (note James’ enthusiasm!) James, Dennis and Holly running away from a dinosaur (note James' enthusiasm!)
  • James, Dennis, Holly, Paul and Danielle running away from a dinosaur James, Dennis, Holly, Paul and Danielle running away from a dinosaur (again check out the enthusiasm from James - he is the one right next to the dinosaur!)
  • James, Dennis, Holly, Paul and Danielle standing on Dee’s finger James, Dennis, Holly, Paul and Danielle standing on Dee's finger
  • Holly karate kicking Dennis Holly karate kicking Dennis
  • Dee picking up James by the head Dee picking up James by the head
  • James standing on Dee’s hand, going in for a kiss James standing on Dee's hand, going in for a kiss
  • A Lays can covering James A Lays can covering James
  • James eating a giant biscuit James eating a giant biscuit
  • Dennis wearing giant boots (made of money) Dennis wearing giant boots (made of money)
  • Dee drinking from a giant beer bottle Dee drinking from a giant beer bottle

And for the failed photos:

  • Holly and Dennis suspended from a lock (bad focus problems) Holly and Dennis suspended from a lock (bad focus problems)
  • Dennis, Paul, Danielle, Dee, James and Holly walking out of a Lays can Dennis, Paul, Danielle, Dee, James and Holly walking out of a Lays can
  • Dee on James’ hand, going for a kiss Dee on James' hand, going for a kiss
  • James drinking from a giant water bottle James drinking from a giant water bottle
  • Dennis standing on Holly’s stomach (taken off to the side) Dennis standing on Holly's stomach

All in all, the salt flats were pretty freaking awesome. But all good things must come to an end, it was time to go back to the car and head to Uyuni. Stopping by a few places on the way; one included llamas made entirely of salt and a salt covered pool in the middle of them. Salt llama

We also came across the Australian flag at a random museum in the middle of the salt flats, as well as a random monument from the Dakar Rally in 2014.

Australian flag in the middle of nowhere

Dakar rally monument

By the time we’d reached one of the small villages with tourist markets we were buggered. The tourist markets are always nice; however the six of us were travelling for more than a month each and buying souvenirs hadn’t really been on the agenda. An hour or so later we arrived into Uyuni and took a walk around the train cemetery, a deserted bit of land with rusted out trains sprawled around it. The trains had mostly been used in mining and are apparently a bit of a tourist attraction; it was really nothing to write home about though.

Train ride!

Arriving in at the Cordillera office we unpacked the truck and were guided into the restaurant next door to the office. Since we had left early to see the sunrise lunch wasn’t supposed to be included. Given two options of meals for lunch, either steak or spaghetti, we realised that both meals weren’t suitable for our vegetarian friends. Dee, with her perfectly formed Spanish, spent five minutes or so trying to explain to the young lady behind the counter (who might have been 8 at the most), that the meat options weren’t suitable. Rattling off every word she knew for meat (bife, pollo, pescado, carne) the young lady was onto it and quickly informed her mum, the kitchen chef, what the go was. Hooray for Spanish!

We finished lunch and headed to our hotel to settle in and have a shower for the first time in three days. Covered in dust, a lot of sunscreen and slightly smelly the shower was a welcome relief. There was no shower curtain in this one but the hot water was fantastic! We settled in for a little relaxing before heading to a pizza place for dinner with the rest of the group. Surprisingly, the little dirt town, with a grand total of 10,000 people had the best pizza of anywhere we’d been in South America thus far. Perfectly cooked thin base, a spattering of delicious topping and not too much cheese was enough to make us smile. Tucking into a couple of beers and reflecting on our experiences from the last few days, it came time for us to say farewell to most of the group.

The rest of our time in Uyuni was non-eventful, we wandered around town and had a look at a few of the statues made from train parts. We did stumble across a fairly random cocktail bar that gave us a bit of a giggle - menu translations have been a little hit and miss in South America. Though here it wasn’t the translations that made the experience funny, the drinks themselves had some pretty hilarious names.

Cocktail menu page 1

Cocktail menu page 2

A llama sperm shot:

A llama sperm shot

And then we discovered some of the drinks came with hats…

Drinks with hats!

Dee with hats on her eyes

James with hats on his ears

The following day it was time for us to catch the next of our night buses with the crazy Bolivian drivers. Thankfully when James had booked the bus he made sure he reserved the one that included free heating, although the daytime temperatures in Uyuni and the expected temperature in La Paz didn’t appear to be too ridiculous, the night time temperatures were in the negatives again. Time for the bus, next stop: La Paz.

Go see all the photos from the Atacama crossing and Salar de Uyuni and Uyuni

We’re on our way to San Pedro de Atacama; a tiny desert oasis filled with every tourist shop, tourist, and money exchange imaginable, mud brick houses and a lot of dust!

Leaving Salta ridiculously early (we were later going to find out that ridiculous o’clock is earlier than 5am) we were greeted with a late departing bus because of a tour group, heading to San Pedro de Atacama. When we’d booked our bus we were excited to see that we were being provided breakfast, lunch, drinks and snacks. Our bus trips have been about as hit and miss as our cloud viewing at the major touristy sightseeing places. When we bring snacks we get fed more than we could possibly eat, and when we don’t bring snacks because food is being “provided”, we’re not equipped with what have become part of our staple diet, ‘Club Social’ crackers (these are surprisingly not beer or barbecue flavoured but ‘Integral’, which is whole-grain). In this instance the bus breakfast was at the reasonable time of 5:30am and consisted of black flavoured sugar that might have been disguised as coffee, some form of sweet cake dulce de leche stuff, and possibly a piece of fruit. It really didn’t reach the standards that our hostels had been giving us. Neither of us would consider ourselves coffee snobs, if nothing else we will both drink instant and suck it up, but when there is the equivalent of five tablespoons plus of sugar in our coffee there is a small issue; especially when neither of us add sugar to our coffees.

The mountains are getting bigger


San Pedro is at the north of Chile, which meant that we needed to cross the country border from Argentina. As we headed out, we starting seeing larger and larger mountains, some with unusual rock colours, and a lot of windy switchbacks going up the side, and the occasional llama/alpaca/vicuña. The border crossing at 4800m was freezing cold due to the wind, a little more wind, coldness, and the fact that it was 4800m above sea level. We needed to line up once for an Argentinean exit stamp, with the line starting outside in the cold; then line up again for Chilean entry, starting outside again and finally line up a third time for the Chilean Quarantine, out in the cold. Dee through around some fairly choice words about the weather at this point, sorry Sr. Betty and Pa, but slowly managed to defrost herself upon return to the bus an hour later.

Coloured mountainside


We were eventually allowed over the boarder, this was around the same time the bus realised they had forgotten to give us the 11am snacks, so we got those at the same time as our 3:00pm lunch when we were starving. Severely dehydrated and suffering a little altitude sickness we arrived late in the afternoon into San Pedro and desperately needed to find a money exchange to sort out our hostel and dinner. Needless to say we were buggered and were definitely ready for an early night, so we went to the pub. As we were having a beer, we noticed lots of people going out to look down the road, so Dee decided to be a sticky-beak and find out what was going on. There was an amazingly bright red sunset due to the dust in the air - the first photo was taken in “sunset” mode so it wasn’t quite that red in real life, but still very bright! We headed around to one of the local restaurants who, with the wristbands from our hostel, gave us a free pisco sour and provided us with some pretty awesome tasting ceviche and our first chicken wings since being in South America!

Red sunset



Sunday morning we decided to hit up the Internet for a bit of research about optional tours and stuff to do in San Pedro. The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of things to do; however the surrounding areas are filled with natural formations and pretty spectacular views of nature. There are a million and one tour companies hassling you as you walk down the street with an overwhelming amount of options. We’d met an Danielle and Paul (from New Zealand) while we were deciding what we were doing and coincidentally they were leaving to go across the Atacama the same day as us, along with Dennis from Sweden. We ended up getting our day sorted out pretty quickly: we were going to Valle de La Luna in the afternoon, El Tatio Geysers the following morning and then doing a stargazing tour Tuesday night, and then crossing the Atacama to Uyuni Wednesday morning. Co-ordinating with the hostel reception we managed to get most things booked, then we headed into the Cordillera office (one of the best companies) to book our Salt flat crossing. Armed with five of us and some “hardcore bargaining skills” we got a discount and only paid 118000 pesos rather than 128000 (about $250 AUD) since there were five of us travelling. Hooray for free monies!

The first of the tours we booked was an afternoon trip to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), where some sections have probably not had rain in over 300 years. The first of our stops was the lookout area on top of the rock cliffs. We were only thirteen kilometres out of town and the scenery was completely different to the dirt and mountain views of San Pedro. The view was of a desolate valley, containing nothing but sand and rock formations have been carved by wind and water over time, with the bottom of the formations covered with dried salt lakes. After the obligatory “sitting on the edge” and group photos, we headed on to the next area.

On the edge

Don't fall!


Dead land

Looking out

Back in the warmth of the mini van we were driven to a salt cave, which in some places was had to get on our hands and knees to get through. While it wasn’t completely made of salt, there was a fair bit of it around. We then headed to the “Three Marys” which are now only two and a half Marys due to a tourist breaking one a few years ago. Finally we headed up on top of a ridge to look at the sunset, but unfortunately (continuing our problems with picturesque high places) it was cloudy so we couldn’t see the sunset. As we went to leave, we turned around and realised that all the clouds provided amazing colours in the sky if we looked the other way.

In the salt cave

A bit narrow

Two and a half Marys

Sunset clouds

On the way back to the Hostel, James realised that we were in the Atacama Desert - so the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA radio-telescopes) would be near by, and there might be tours. Once back into WiFi range at the hostel, we found out there were, in fact, free tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. These were genuinely free, not the kind that you turn up then have to give an obligatory tip, James was getting excited! Realising at that point it was Sunday evening, and not having done too much in the morning except book a few bits and pieces the disappointment set in, we were not going to ALMA. There went James’ chance to make the other physics and astronomy people envious! To counteract our lack of organisation and disappointment, we dropped into the hostel bar for a couple of happy hour “Pisco Sours”, or better described as lime flavoured sugar syrup in a pre-mix bottle, then cruised on in for a bit of rest, a tad later than we probably should have.

And here comes ridiculous o’clock! Startled at 3:30am, we were woken to the sound of both phones going off at full volume, and close to maybe four hours of sleep. Not being sure if we were quite ready to embrace the darkness at that hour of the morning, we got our things together for the 4:00-4:30am pickup to go to the El Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world, with our newly found Swedish friend, Dennis. As usual the company we booked through were running on South American time, and did not pick us up until 5:20. We arrived just before sunrise, so the coldest part of the day, and at 4320m above sea level it was a freezing -10 degrees Celsius. Needless to say the breakfast that came with the tour did little to warm us up but was a pleasant surprise to the otherwise miserably cold conditions. Dee spent most of breakfast leaning against the headlights of the bus to try and warm up, and trying to deal with the beginning of a high-altitude hangover with coffee - it actually worked!

James in front of a Geyser


Water coming up

Steamy Dee

We waited around for the spectacular sunrise, but as with the sunset at Valle de la Luna the night before, it was cloudy. The geysers themselves were pretty interesting, definitely worth the trip if you haven’t seen them before. Geysers are apparently a pretty rare phenomenon, they sites are located near active volcano areas and are caused by magma. Water on the surface dribbles down fairly deep into the ground (around 2000m) and then comes into contact with hot rocks, resulting in boiling water and steam shooting up out of cracks and mounds on the surface. The particular field we were at has around eighty geysers and is the largest in the southern hemisphere. Wandering around for an hour or so, watching the steam and bubbling water explosions we came across a thermal spring, with a few crazies swimming in it - we were both still in multiple layers trying to stop our fingers from freezing off, the swim was definitely not an option.

Leaving the geyser field we were transported to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by desert and winding roads. We were invited to try another of the culinary masterpieces on our trip, freshly cooked llama kebabs straight off the grill. These were surprisingly pretty good! They kind of tasted a little like lamb but slightly gamier, and much more tender. We then tried the Chilean version of cheese empanadas, the cheese here is slightly strange… it’s kind of like haloumi but when cooked enough melts like mozzarella. Most of the women over here make their own cheese and then trade it for other foods with their neighbours. After the quick food stop we moved onto a lagoon for a few quick photos and for a look at a few birds, which weren’t particularly interesting. Spotting a few Vicunas on our way home and catching a little shuteye on the bus we were taken back to our hostel for some well-deserved rest in the afternoon.


Llama skewer

Us with the Chilean and Wiphala flags

Back at the hostel we met Holly, another Australian who also wanted to cross the Atacama and the salt flats on the same day as us. She had talked to Danielle and Paul, so went down to the office of the tour company to ask if she could be the sixth and last person in our 4WD. We had a fairly quiet afternoon, but organised to have “family dinner” with a few people at the hostel, since cooking was much, much cheaper than going out for dinner and we had a large selection of leftover bits and pieces from everyone. Dee cooked up pasta and salad, and we all sat and bonded over a few beers and our adventures from the day.

Enjoying a nice sleep in, we went into town for breakfast on Tuesday morning and had more of a look around. While in town we bought supplies for the Atacama crossing - plenty of snacks, 6 litres of water each and some more toilet paper. You can not go anywhere in South America without toilet paper, and a handful of coins to pay to use them. If you are lucky enough, there might be a toilet seat and running water but this is a rarity! Spending the afternoon getting our things together for the following day and making sure we were well plied with food we chilled out back at the hostel and played a few games of cards. It was decided to have another shared family dinner for the evening to cut back on costs a little. The dinner the night before appeared to be successful enough as this evening we had twelve people altogether. Another meal with pastas and salad, plus a couple of more beers, we were able to escape the expense of food in town for a whole $3.80 Australian each. We had enough leftovers for another four people.

That night we were booked onto a stargazing tour; although there a few groups who do it, we were with the best (and most expensive) because they have the best telescope to person ratio and the guide is an astronomer. In all of 2015 the tour was only cancelled 12 night of the year due to clouds, but unfortunately ours was the 6th night in a row to be cancelled - the curse of clouds continues. Although the call to cancel was made at 8pm (for the 10pm tour), by 9:30 it had cleared up so a group of about 20 headed out 500m away from the town to look up at the stars, and have James make use of things he learnt in his physics degree. They were pretty good, although not as great as they would have been a few kilometres away with telescope.

Packing up the last of our things for the early start Wednesday morning was all that there was left to do before crossing the border and heading into the Atacama Desert.

Go see all the photos from San Pedro de Atacama