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Before arriving in Bolivia, we barely knew anything about the country except for the salt flats. I had done some high level research about La Paz and Sucre while planning the trip, but didn’t really know what to expect from the country or its people otherwise. We decided to learn as we go and let the journey shape our perspective. 

And so it began, from the Peruvian border south of Puno, taking us to Copacabana, La Paz, Sucre, Uyuni, and all the way down to the Chilean border in the Atacama desert.

Feeling our lowest in the highest capital city

La Paz, perched at a dizzying 3,500 meters above sea level, is the highest capital city in the world. I was eager to experience the city's extensive cable car public transportation system and to see the entire city from above. However, we had arrived late at night, so we had to wait until the next day to try it.

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That night, we got a bit panicky during our taxi ride. The driver seemed to be driving away from our actual destination. Even when we showed him the route on Google Maps, he simply ignored it and kept going. We finally had to force him to stop the vehicle and pay attention to the map. As it turned out, he did not have any malicious intent. He was given the wrong destination by the local who helped us get the cab earlier. He also wasn’t a map person, and our attempts in Spanish weren't getting through to him.

After that taxi scare, we checked into our Airbnb and pretty much immediately crashed for the night thinking we'll start our exploration the next day. Unfortunately, both of us woke up feeling pretty sick, probably an aftereffect of our multi-day hike in Peru, or something we ate the day before. Our stomachs were upset, we had no appetite, and were quite exhausted. We ended up staying in bed all day. For the first time during our entire trip, we really missed home.

When we finally stepped out a day later, we decided to take the customary walking tour of the city. During the tour we encountered not one but two protests close to the Congress - teachers were demanding better working conditions, while another group was calling for their census to be expedited. Apparently, demonstrations like these are not uncommon. While walking through a market, our guide mentioned the strong dislike locals have for tourists taking pictures of them. We didn't think much of it at the time. But later that day, a bus driver waved his pocket knife at us for taking a photo of his colorful minibus stopped in traffic. Message received, but that gesture was totally uncalled for.

While La Paz was not known to be physically unsafe, these string of not-so-pleasant experiences left us feeling restless and uneasy. When we finally took that much anticipated cable car ride, we were wary of taking pictures. We had our guards up the whole time we were inside, not knowing whether to smile or nod, especially as local commuters stepped in and out at stops. We had never felt quite this uncomfortable while traveling before.

That night, we even wondered if we should have come to Bolivia in the first place. We left La Paz feeling low and somewhat unwelcome.

Believe me, this is Bolivia

Anusha Sekhar

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Contrasting capital cities

Interestingly, Bolivia has a second capital city. Sucre is Bolivia's judicial capital, while La Paz is its administrative capital.

 

Getting into a taxi from the airport, we still held onto our apprehensions from the La Paz experience. We had our eyes glued to Google Maps throughout, though our taxi driver drove really well, and got us to the exact location without a hitch. It wasn't until we got out of the car that we noticed he had a disability. He got off and helped us with our bags too. We felt awful about distrusting a person trying to make an honest living. 

We were then greeted and welcomed by our super friendly Airbnb host, Cristina. She immediately made us feel at home in her beautiful colonial house with a large courtyard. She was well-traveled, enjoyed chatting with us, and offered great local tips. The city in general had a peaceful vibe to it, with lots of pretty colonial buildings, clean air, and very walkable streets. The weather was great too, and we really enjoyed exploring the city on foot.

One evening, as we were walking back to our Airbnb after a satisfying meal, we reminded ourselves that the pocket knife incident in La Paz had happened just five days ago. Clearly, we had put that behind us. That’s how calm and relaxed we felt in Sucre.

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A Jurassic Park of a different kind

I've always associated Jurassic Park with tropical rainforests. I’m guessing most of us do, thanks to Steven Spielberg. So, when Suhas and I took the Dino Bus to this site 5 kms away from Sucre to see real dinosaur footprints, I wasn’t expecting to see a no-frills park.

It definitely was not tropical. In fact there wasn't a single tree in sight. It looked like a large, boring stone quarry, which is what it was. I didn’t think much of the park until we saw markings on a near vertical rock face in the distance. You could see the tracks going up and across as though they were left by someone (or something) climbing a wall. Turns out these were footprints left by dinosaurs some 68 million years ago which got hardened and covered by sediments. They somehow remained well preserved for millions of years until people discovered them under layers of rock while quarrying for limestone in the 90s. Equally incredible was the fact that what was once likely flat land around a lake, is now almost a vertical rock face, thanks to millions of years of tectonic plate activity.
 

Among the four types of footprints we saw, three belonged to herbivores (ornithopods, ankylosaurs, and sauropods) and one to a carnivore (theropods). Some of the footprints were ten times the size of my palm.

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As our guide kept speaking, it was hard not to imagine what might have transpired here. Millions of years ago, dinosaurs, large and small, would come to the lake to drink water. They would then stop by some trees to snack on leaves, nod to their pals and get on with their day. Occasionally a carnivore would show up at the lake and give the others a good scare. This goes on for a while until one day, they all disappear. Leaving their footprints behind. Climate changes, the earth moves, and over time the footprints get buried. Fast forward some 68 million years, a group of people breaking down a limestone hill discover weird shapes underneath the surface. Paleontologists show up and identify them to be fossilized dinosaur footprints. The government decides to build a park around it. And now, here we are.

Welcome to Jurassic Park! 🦖

Nosotros estudiamos español (We studied Spanish)

We had a few hours to kill at the Cochabamba airport before flying into Sucre. In my usual “Things to do in Sucre” research, I learned that taking Spanish lessons was quite a popular thing to do here.

So I looked up a few classes around our Airbnb. I emailed one school that I was interested in, but never heard back. We even went there in person to see if we could get in, only to learn that the place was permanently closed. We then rang the bell at another Spanish school nearby, waited 15 minutes, but no one opened the door.

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Just as we were ready to give up, Suhas suggested we walk to the ‘Me Gusta’ school that we had seen earlier in the day. We decided to check it out. Fernando, who owns the place, welcomed us in, and spoke really good English. Normally, they offer month-long Spanish courses, but we were only in Sucre for a few days, so we asked if there was a one-day crash course instead. When he said he could make a four-hour private lesson work for the two of us for a reasonable price, we put down a deposit immediately.

 

Suhas and I had both taken Cantonese classes in Hong Kong before, so this wasn't the first time we'd be taking a language class together. In HK though, we were both novices, whereas here, I had a 400+ day Spanish learning streak on Duolingo compared to Suhas' 50+ day streak. I knew I was going to ace this!

Our instructor taught us how to introduce ourselves, strike up a conversation with new people, ask for directions, place an order at a restaurant, buy groceries etc. Suhas was surprisingly good at picking up new content though he didn’t have my 350 day advantage. At times, he even seemed to be doing better than me. It was a pretty close competition, which made it fun.

At the end of the class, Fernando said he was really impressed with our ability to learn quickly. We enjoyed being in a classroom again, and found the lessons quite useful as we navigated the rest of our South American adventure.

Otherworldly Salar de Uyuni

The day had finally arrived! We were going to see the one place we decided to come to Bolivia for: the vast, otherworldly Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

Picture a white endless expanse stretching out under a clear blue sky. Now, place an island full of gigantic cacti right in the middle of it. Then, imagine pouring water onto that white expanse and see it transform into a 360° mirror. And finally, when the sun begins to set, imagine purple and orange hues in the sky, until it all goes pitch black.

It's really hard to imagine or explain what we witnessed and experienced at the salt flats. So I’ll let the pictures do the talking instead.

 

Fun fact(s): Several movies have been filmed on the salt flats, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And specifically for any Indian movie enthusiasts out there, be sure to catch actors Allu Arjun and Rakul Preet Singh dancing on the mesmerizing salt flats in this music video!

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When frustrating events lead to fantastic outcomes

The first and only cancellation we had on the trip was a twelve-hour bus ride from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Only two bus companies operated that route and they both had canceled all their scheduled buses for the next full week. We had to get to San Pedro within the next two days to keep the rest of our itinerary on track.

Our only option was to sign up for one of the multi-day tours with a drop off in San Pedro de Atacama. We hesitated - it was much more expensive than the bus ride and also meant having to extend our one day tour to two and a half days. We didn't have another option so we begrudgingly went with it.

 

This extra day and a half was beyond anything I could have pictured. While figuring out how to describe what we saw, I half jokingly asked ChatGPT to write me a poem about it. It was so good I had to share it.

From Uyuni's salt flat splendor, we did part,
A drive to the Chilean border to start.
In a trusty 4x4, we ventured afar,
Guided by Alejandro, our shining star.

Through desolate landscapes and formations strange,
Our journey took us to places of a wide range.
An active volcano, its presence austere,
We marveled at lagoons as we ventured near.

Wild Andean rabbits we chanced to see,
Flamingos and ostriches roaming free.
Llamas and vicuñas, their elusive kin,
In this wondrous land we found ourselves in.

At sunrise, the steaming geysers unveiled,
A breathtaking sight, our spirits regaled.
This drive through Bolivia's captivating land,
Showed us its beauty, both simple and grand.

In case you are interested, this is how I was planning to describe it: We saw desolate landscapes, otherworldly rock formations, an active volcano, steaming geysers at sunrise, and colorful lagoons teeming with flamingos. We also spotted wild Andean rabbits, ostriches, llamas, and even their elusive cousins, vicuñas in this beautiful part of the country.

ChatGPT - 1, Anusha - 0

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I’m glad ChatGPT called Alejandro a shining star though. He must be one of the nicest people I have ever met. Aside from sharing his knowledge of the landscapes, Bolivian politics, and people, he also made sure we were comfortable and felt safe throughout. He even stayed with us until we crossed the border safely into Chile.

 

As we were leaving Bolivia, I kept thinking about that uneasiness we had felt in La Paz. 

 

We hadn’t just moved past that feeling, but were also reminded by Alejandro, Fernando, Cristina and everyone else we met along the way that there are more kind people in this world than otherwise. 

 

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With its odd attractions, surreal scenery, and beautiful people, Bolivia has to be on everyone’s South America travel itinerary.

Believe me, Bolivia is truly unbelievable!

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