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.

img_7194

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.

img_2736img_7204

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.

img_7198

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.

img_7189original_url: 63ADC0C6-8913-439A-99B4-8FC9E263CB52

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!

img_3119

img_7190

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.

img_7197

img_7192

img_7195

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.

img_2872

img_7188

img_7206

img_2853

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…

img_2855

img_7200

img_7205

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.

    img_7207

    img_7208

  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.

    img_7196

  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!

    original_url: 70011BBE-918D-4202-BF58-601801F5142B

  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.

    IMG_7209.JPG

  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!

    img_3118

 

Untouched Timor Leste

Landing in Timor’s capital Dili was exciting! You tend to wonder, who in their right minds would venture out here – a war torn nation that’s merely 10 years old which seemingly lack the most basic modern comforts like running water, electricity and paved roads! Apparently there aren’t many crazy globe trotters like Pramodh and I.

Entry visa for all nationalities can be obtained at the airport – Whoop! Whoop! – this usually never happens to Sri Lankan passport holders, hence the jubilation. 

Waiting outside to pick us up at the airport was Ali, our driver for the next 5 days.

Dili is a small city, with no high rises and traffic. Glimpses of Timor’s troubled past is still visible in some buildings decorated by bullet holes. The UN has just left the country but there were still a number of NGOs and aid workers who are not very welcome by the locals. Lets just say the hefty salaries and hardship allowances that exapts get paid can create some animosity. There was a slight feeling of tension as we drove around Dili visiting some of its tourist attractions like Christu Rei and the Tais market, but this is a country awakening, trying to find its identity after years of war, so it deserves some leeway.

photo 2 10276981_10152451348912853_4922720990196780749_n


We drove east of Dili to Baucau, Timor’s second largest city on a breathtaking road – for the most part it’s by the sea or on cliffs overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. There seemed to be so many sea bathing or snorkeling stops and fishing villages, which I could have photographed forever, but of course Pramodh refused to stop.

10313375_10152451349522853_6420261365776125919_n16585_10152451349107853_3964919119297231179_n

10273776_10152451347612853_3863788333938621819_n 10301300_10152451348402853_4988882646742183794_n

1012565_10152451348427853_171982780805428774_n


3.5 hours later we arrived in Baucau and spent the night at Pousada de Baucau an old very pink Portuguese mansion now turned hotel. Baucau’s surrounding beaches are beautiful, but we were here only because it was the mid-way point to our ultimate destination.

photo 1

10313229_10152451348027853_6191587507802417525_n


The next day after breakfast we set off to Tutuala the entry point to Timor Leste’s crown jewel – Jaco Island, but not before running into someone who seemed to be the mayor or some VIP of Baucau. His armed guard with their very visible weapons and back up ammunition were our breakfast companions!

Our 5 hour drive was eventful to say the least. To give you a summary, here is my list of incredulous and spectacular things that happened:

1. We were given attitude from a herd of goats on the road – yes goats! Seeing animals blocking the road is not a new sight to me, but it’s never been like this – this heard of goats formed a line in front of our car and just refused to let us move!

10259775_10152451349812853_1898330627103567737_n 10306083_10152451349872853_5503530149166116147_n

2. We witnessed some amazingly constructed traditional Timorese houses. These houses are built on stilts with high roofs adorned with beautiful ornaments and decorated with wood carvings. Why houses on heels? To protect people from crocodiles! Did I forget to mention the crocodile infestation in Timor? My apologies, apparently there are many salt water crocs in the surrounding waters. Timor even has a folklore of how a the island in the shape of a crocodile!

10302110_10152451353542853_810943597153194982_n

10291843_10152451353452853_6379977350790137178_n

10308339_10152451353592853_1288111058088846097_n

3. Paddy fields on the beach – this may not be weird in some countries, but coming from Sri Lanka both an island and a place filled with rice plantations I had never seen one on a beach, right next to the gushing sea waves.

10254015_10152451349597853_7507080278077334170_n


4. The road from Tutuala to Valu beach – or the lack of it. There is an 8km stretch which is pure jungle! We met a convoy of 3 land cruises just before Tutuala and followed them all the way to Valu beach. There really was no road and if not for the invention of 4WD, we’d probably have to walk through thick bushes and jump over large rocks. The ride was bumpy and there were areas that didn’t seem to support a vehicle, however, eventually we got there in one piece and were rewarded for our troubles. As we reached the edge of the jungle, there waiting to greet us was this breathtakingly beautiful view.

10271502_10152451350317853_6191343108623200143_n

10250158_10152451351777853_8095328361506195893_n


Jaco is a sacred island on the eastern most tip of Timor Leste. Timorese believe in an ancient legend in which a young boy saved a crocodile’s life and in return when the crocodile died, he turned into an island (Timor) to create a home for the boy. The head of the crocodile is Jaco Island which makes it sacred for the local people. The easiest access point is Valu beach on the mainland. Since it’s sacred, no one lives there and you can only visit it during the day. Valu beach itself was amazing, we couldn’t wait to cross the small straight to get to Jaco.

There were fishermen with boats lazing on the beach and for $10 one of them agreed drop us off in jaco and come back to get us a few hours later.

10310546_10152451350452853_1073259531348395654_n 1972511_10152451351042853_5664623268890756853_n 10256103_10152451351272853_7879418127442892063_n


Jaco by far is the best beach that I have seen. Ever. Period. It is the definition of pristine. The sort that you see on travel brouchers but can only be obtained after heavy photoshopping, but this was the real deal. The only visitors here are the expats who make the occasional weekend trip from Dili. We had the entire island to ourselves with the most perfectly long stretch of beach and aqua waters. 

10246478_10152451351307853_7562562401478198986_n

I was sceptical about getting in the water, what with all the crocodile stories, but I ignored the images of Lake Placid that were flashing in my head and got into the true blue waters and snorkelled for hours. You don’t need a lot of gear to see corals and fish, just peer into the water and you’ll see plenty.

When visiting Jaco, however, there aren’t very many accommodation options to select from. There are two very basic guesthouses that offer a roof over your head, a much needed mosquito net and some basic food. There is no running water and I wasn’t brave enough to explore the toilets, the sea had to do. I was somewhat mentally prepared for this, so we didn’t mind it.

10294515_10152451351027853_1097790655163337703_n

10301421_10152451350922853_8472104139567295830_n

We spent the day lazing around, reading, taking long walks on the beach, collecting shells, star gazing and waking up to a stunningly gorgeous sunrise.

10177352_10152451352702853_1616015988930845837_n

10256890_10152451352832853_8252241903598656911_n 10171635_10152451352977853_8833767620855019148_n 1555281_10152451353052853_8973096993233374815_n


The treacherous road back to Dili awaited us, but the beauty and peace of Jaco was well worth our troubles.

10309337_10152451352257853_2403280709948005112_n

The trip to Timor was an eye opening one for us. Coming from a country ravaged by war, I felt for the Timorese and their struggle. Yet it’s a country with immense natural beauty and culture waiting to be discovered.

Hope you’ll let the world discover you Timor Leste, hope you heal.