Cold. I can’t say that I was used to it anymore. Except for the few days in wintery Nevada back in February, temperatures have probably not gone below 15C at any point over the last ten months. As a consequence of the destinations I chose for my trip, I expected to experience a year of summer (or at least summery spring). And those expectations were entirely fulfilled, until I crossed the Bolivian border.
The east of Bolivia is a high up part of the world. Elevations of over 3500m are the norm, thinning the air to a crisp, sparse breath containing considerably less oxygen than usual. The difference in temperature under sun or shade is remarkable, which makes for reasonably pleasant days yet dreadfully freezing nights. Add to that the fact that the southern hemisphere celebrates Winter Solstice on the 21st, and you have a recipe for shivering. My modest traveling wardrobe did not contain much thermal underwear or thick jackets for obvious reasons, but fake alpaca wool clothing shacks suddenly appeared all around. As always, where there’s a need, there’s a business catering to it. Regardless, the night I spent on the beautiful Isla del Sol was bone-chillingly cold, while the days were absolutely stunning. Near-360-degrees of the perfectly still lake of Titicaca, lama’s and locals strolling around going about their lives, and small stone-stepped roads leading up to miradors that literally took my breath away. A nice repose at 4000m altitude, with views of ice-covered peaks over 6500m.
Then there was La Paz. Highest de facto capital in the world, I could say I had an everything but peaceful time here. The city is not an extreme marvel, although the sheer drops and light-covered hills are mesmerizing to look at by night. There’s a cable car that carries you from low to high, a witches market where lotions and potions can be bought to mend or improve any impediment imaginable; lack of any kind of appetite, lack of sleep, lack of focus, lack of sanity, lack of belief in questionable medicine. Improvements in sexual prowess, endowment and performance are prominently advertised, but that should not come as a surprise. The city is also home to one of the most surreal prisons in the world, the San Pedro correctional facility, a 3000-inmate containing city block with guards posted only at the entrances, basically rendering it a mini-society of its own, where prisoners live with their families and have laws of their own. Walking around anywhere comes at considerable effort due to the elevation, and while not at all unsecure, I often found myself feeling a little uneasy browsing empty streets at the fringes of town.
For one week I stayed at the Wild Rover hostel, known as one of the most hard-partying backpacker spots in South America. Differently themed parties every night, rocking bar, and a never-ending stream of young travelers looking for hedonist debauchery. Probably one of the last real party hostels I will stay at, this place lived up to its reputation that I’d been told about since Lima. But to be honest, as well organized as everything was and as much fun as I did have, I realized the longer I stayed there that the prevailing superficial and somewhat insecure vibe was something I was kind of fed up with at this point. That doesn’t mean I didn’t meet some great people, in particular Jorrit the Dutchman and the jolly band of four Irish guys with names as wild as their approach to partying (PD4540157). They’ll forever be associated with my time there, and then some.
The highlight by far of Bolivia for me, as I assume is the case for nearly everyone that visits, were undoubtedly the salt flats in Uyuni. Many places on earth are spectacular, yet far fewer are truly unique and Salar de Uyuni was definitely the latter. Miles and miles and miles of white expanse, as flat as a penny, disturbed only by an infinite expanse of polygonal crusty patterns formed by convection cells between the salty bottom and water from the past rain season. This monotony, and the lack of any landscape features that would otherwise provide a size reference make it the ideal place for taking the surreal faux-perspective photos that have become so popular here. An eerie, alien world might not have looked much different. It’s a place that has to be seen to be believed.
And it’s a place you need to bring warm clothes to. The 15C sunny days are contrasted by the -15C equivalent nights, and even though I didn’t overnight on the flats, I suffered on the night buses that took me there and back. The cold I contracted those days has still not passed, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I’m now in Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, though not very remarkable at all. After the two highest week of my life I’ll take the so-called Death Train to the eastern border tomorrow. Contrary to some misconceptions, this name originates from its initial use of transporting yellow-fever patients which usually had a poor chance of survival. It will bring me into the last country on my journey, the vast and epic nation of Brazil.
I’ll spend three weeks there, passing through Iguazu, Sao Paolo along the way, and finally, as a fitting last stop, Rio de Janeiro.
June 27th, 2017