The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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img_7193(I may have gone a little overboard with the Llama pics)

We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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A word about Koreans, who made our trip special

After our trip to Seoul, I was really inspired to write a piece about Korean people. I’m not sure if my experience was a typical one, but we came across so many amazing people that I think it’s worth writing about.

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I was delightfully surprised to find how friendly Koreans were. As a group of 6 brown people we stood out like sore thumbs, so it was easy for people to know we were tourists. Most people were curious to find out where we were from, others wanted to offer us their help to ensure we knew where we were going and others just wanted to welcome us to Korea. Of course most of this was our interpretation of their sign language since most people didn’t speak English.

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Here are some of the people and instances that stood out

Sign language subway lady

We took the express train from the airport to Seoul station which is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. We then switched to the city subway to get to our hotel. Here we met a lady who tried her best to ask us if we knew where we had to get off. It may have been a simple act, but had never happened in our travels before. So it was a great start to our trip and a very nice way to make a foreigner feel welcome.

Coffee ladies – mum & daughter

Berkleys is a small coffee shop in Bukchon. It really is very small and can seat only 5 people, but while we were there we realized it was quite a popular place to grab a coffee on the go. It’s run by a mum and her daughter. While we were contemplating whether to enter the place, they greeted us with a “hello, we have great coffee, wanna try?”. Who’s going to say no to that. Not only do they serve great coffee they make the best sandwich (yes, singular, they have only one option on the menu).

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While we were munching our breakfast they explained the interesting process of cold brewed coffee and offered us some free samples to taste. It’s random seemingly simple conversations like this that made a difference.

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Director, Cameraman

We visited Changdeokgung Palace and it’s beautiful secret garden. Fall definitely is the best time to visit Korea, the foliage was amazing. Tesh and I wanted a typical touristy “jumping picture” with fall colours as our background. While we were attempting the perfect shot, a gentleman with a very professional looking camera walked up to us and started directing how we should pose and jump. All of this was in Korean (which we didn’t understand) and sign language. We tried several times and each time he explained how we could do it better and by the end of it we were surrounded by 5 other cameramen photographing two girls attempting to jump, not so gracefully may I add.

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After the shoot and once the crowd dispersed I wanted to take a shot lying on the leaves on the grass. While Pramodh was taking this picture of me, the same director/cameraman gentleman walked back. He started once again directing the scene. He even collected handfuls of leaves and handed it over to passers-by to sprinkle it on me to get that perfect, natural shot! Lol

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Summer

We spent two nights in a traditional Sopoong Guest House, a Korean Hanok. Summer was the bubbly girl who came every morning to clean the place. We got talking, she was extremely interested in where we were from and what we did. We even managed to induct her to some famous sights in Seoul she hadn’t yet been to before we took a gazillion Polaroids.

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At the end of a long chat on the second day she offered to accompany us to lunch. She took us to a local restaurant, which served the most amazing food, it was definitely one of my best meals in Seoul. We walked about a kilometer from our Hanok along tiny streets and alleyways to get to this place. We would’ve never thought of eating here nor would we ever have stumbled upon the place while exploring the ancient Bukchon area. We only realized how popular the place was seeing the long queue stretching all the way along the narrow winding alleyway. The pepper pork bulgoggi was their specialty (to die for), their bibimbap was also out of this world (worth rising from the dead to die for again).

Summer with the Spicy Pork Bulgogi

Back to Summer..she decided to give us Korean names judging by our personalities and the vibe we gave her. I was named Ji Hei, which meant wisdom; what a very perceptive girl 🙂 The hotel had given us postcards which we were very excited to send back home. She was so helpful and even offered to mail our postcards for us.

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Bubbly Jemma

Given its reputation for great food we thought it would be a good idea to take a food tour. Tripadvisor had great reviews for O’ngo so we decided to try that on our second night in Seoul. Jemma, our guide was one funny, friendly, bubbly person. She gave us a great intro into Korean cuisine and ensured we were all well fed and taken care of throughout the tour.

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We chatted the whole night, well after our tour was scheduled to end.One might say that all tour guides are chatty, fun and helpful, but I’ve been around too many to know that Jemma was one of a kind. She had 20 min conversation with this lovely Latvian couple on our tour to help them find envelopes (yes envelopes are apparently almost extinct and they couldn’t find it for 3 whole days despite searching high and low). DSC_0565

It was hard to pin point what it was about Jemma that made her extra special, it might have been that she seemed to be talking to everyone at the same time about different topics, it could have been how she ensured we all knew what we were eating and more than enough to stuff ourselves or maybe it was because she took a personal interest in each one of us and definitely because she taught us how to take photos “the Korean Style” – i.e. covering half your face with the peace sign to look thinner! Either way, Jemma really made an impression. DSC_0583

Antique hair ornament lady

We spent an afternoon in Insadong, the old artsy area in Seoul. Seeing some beautiful antiques I walked into a store. The owner seeing me exploring her merchandise, grabbed my arm and surprised me by sticking traditional hair ornaments into my hair and taking pictures while giving me a detailed explanation in Korean (did I mention I didn’t understand the language?). I was completely caught off guard; and if it weren’t for Tesh who was with me and explained what was happening, I would have been a little worried.

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Free hug people

Insadong is full of interesting performers, people in costume, promoters of the word of god and tourists. We met a great group of people giving free hugs! It kinda was like a goodbye hug on our last day in Seoul. The hug was accompanied with an interesting chat about everything from where we were from to walking on fire! I suspect they thought all brown people walked on fire. We didn’t mind the generalization, I wish I could walk on fire!

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There were countless others who stopped us to randomly ask where we were from and were generally helpful. I wish I had stopped to take a few pictures with them. It was the people that really did make Seoul special. Farewell souls of Seoul, till we meet again.