Peru had been an absolutely epic adventure, but it was time to move on and explore new territories. Taking a bus through the mountains, I was on a journey to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Whatever I thought I knew about South America was going to be challenged by what I was about to see across the border.
In order to cross the border, I booked a seat on Bolivia Hop which is a really affordable bus service that takes you from Cusco to La Paz, with stops along Lake Titicaca. Most of the people on the bus are fellow travellers and backpackers, making it a worthwhile time to get to know people who are probably on similar trails and willing to explore with you.
The bus makes a stop at Puno early in the morning, which is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water body on the Earth. Altitude is still high, so expect to see mountains all around and still have shortness of breath. The lake is absolutely beautiful and supports so many people. What’s really interesting though is the Uros Floating Village, a village made on reeds that sits in the middle of the lake. The people were escaping from the Incans and formed a defensive settlement on the lake so they could move quickly.
The islands are stable, housing ‘communities’ which are a couple of families pooling resources together to live on an ‘island’. The Uros start new islands normally when marrying out or wanting to start a new chapter of their lives, and the process takes a long time. The amount of reed needed is incredible, and the politics of it all is pretty interesting. The Peruvian government has committed to respecting indigenous populations and supports the Uros, even providing solar panels if you look closely enough, to ensure a basic standard of living. A lot of critics say that the Uros these days only live as such as a way to earn money from tourism, sharing that it’s kitschy. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I definitely found it interesting that such a way of life even existed and that there’s more to South America than just grand civilisations and beautiful landscapes. Indigenous people add to the flavour.
From Puno, you’ll cross to Bolivia, which has quick border crossing process. People joke that it’s like stepping back in time, but honestly it’s not that bad. The visa process is a bit of a struggle, so I do recommend planning ahead for it, but Singaporeans get to go for free if you go to an Embassy or Consulate before crossing the border. To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to go to Bolivia was to see Uyuni, which ended up falling flat for reasons I’ll share later, but I was about to discover some interesting sights. For one, Lake Titicaca is more beautiful on the Bolivian side, and Copacabana which is the city on the lake in Bolivia gives you access to more parts of the lake.
One of the things you must do is to take a boat out to Isla de Sol, which is precious in Incan and Ayamara history as the birthplace of civilisation. It’s a small island and takes a hike to get around, which is difficult given the altitude. There are a couple of things to see on the island, including the famous but small Sun Temple, but the real prize are the views out from the island.
One of the best views are of the Cordillera Real, a beautiful snow-capped mountain range that just takes your breath away. Seated in the foreground is Isla de Luna, the sister island to Isla de Sol.
The Yumani village is situated on the island, and there are donkeys, alpacas and lots of hard labour. The woman are incredibly strong and visibly present carrying loads up and down the hills, while the men work on construction activities or are smoking outside. It’s quite the sight, seeing the villagers just live.
Of course, while in Copacabana, you should try to get Trout which is caught from the lake. It’s fresh and delicious, and if you find the right local restaurant you can get the above meal for 2USD.
After Copacabana, I made my way to La Paz, which is the seat of government of Bolivia. It’s a chaotic city, with noise and confusion everywhere. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes travelling around it slightly dangerous and sketchy. On the bus ride, we had to go through El Alto which is where most locals live (La Paz is more of an urban work area). The roads were horrible and you couldn’t help but get scared as you went through it, but I guess that’s why they tell you not to go there.
One of the best things to do in La Paz is to take the cable cars, which is a form of public transport in the country and therefore only costs 3USD for a two way trip lasting 20 minutes. Locals actually use it to commute, but tourists are allowed as well. The views of the city are stunning and remind you of how many people actually live and work in La Paz, and how chaotic this sun-baked city is.
Now La Paz has a lot of history. It was the heart of a lot of revolutions, especially with the Spanish. The Ayamara, which is the indigenous civilisation before the Spanish, still have a large presence. The city was divided between the rich Spanish and the simple Ayamara, making city tours a diverse walk through two concurrent histories. The picture above shows the typical garb of a cholita which is an Ayamaran woman. The bowler hats are quite the sight.
Calle Jean is a neighbourhood in the Spanish side of the city that’s colourful and full of art galleries and shops. It’s said to be haunted at night, but there’s also alternate explanations that describe how secret conversations of revolt happened here, sparking some of the biggest moments in Bolivian history.
Another good sight in La Paz is the Witches Market, that’s in the Ayamara side of the city. It could make you a bit queasy, with all the strange smells and sights including Alapaca carcases, but it’s an insightful look into local culture and traditions.
A lot of what I loved about Bolivia was the food though. It was exceptionally cheap, simple but delicious. Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, is a local favourite and is a slightly peppery concoction that fills you up well. Llajuita is a good chain restaurant that serves local dishes in a clean environment so go there.
Silpanchos were one of my favourite meals, made up of rice and potatoes with a large thin piece of meat and egg over it. It’s really tasty, but very greasy. Silpich is where you want to go for this for a clean and cheap meal.
Of course, you can’t go to Bolivia without trying Saltenas. They were my favourite snack and I had so many. The chicken one comes with an egg in it, and while it’s similar dishes around the world, what makes a saltena stand out is its mix of spices and sauce that bring out so much flavour. The famous ones come from Pacena La Saltena and they’re really cheap and quick. Add some peppers for a strong kick.
Bolivia doesn’t use Uber so walking is probably your bet for getting around, although cabs so exist. I only used it to go to the airport, so I think you’ll be good with walking.
TIGO should be your choice of SIM Card, costing only 5-6USD for a comprehensive data plan for a whole week, and I’d recommend going straight to their HQ building to set up your phone.
Be careful of ATMs in Bolivia, because they have heavy transaction fees and also some of them run out of cash but don’t tell you until they return your card. Some have been heard to even deduct the amount from your card without giving you money so go to banks to get money from the ATM and make sure you can talk to someone in case things don’t work out.
Be prepared for unexpected changes in your plans to Bolivia though, as protests happen frequently and they mean business. My trip to Uyuni had to be cancelled as they shut down the town and had gun patrols blocking travellers going in or out. I met people who had to sneak out at 2am under the cover of darkness and walk for 20KM before reaching the nearest town to take a bus out. Don’t plan for more than the next day.
As for safety, practice regular safety habits and you should be fine. Go where there are a lot of people, and eat at places where there are lines. A great hostel to stay at is Loki Hostel, which is admittedly a party hostel but a great community. I have a lot of memories at their rooftop bar that has a beautiful view of the city and some of the craziest party animals.
Next post, I’ll share about my time in Salta and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Look forward to it!