Revisiting the Bolivian Altiplano

We left San Pedro in Chile at 8.15 and made our way to what might be one of the highest  border posts in the world.   It was a 90 minute wait – so long in fact, several of the neighbouring vans got out tables and thermos and made breakfast.   After finally leaving Chile we drove a few km to enter Bolivia.
Road to Bolivia after the check point

It took five minutes to clear Bolivian immigration, we didn’t even see the immigration people – someone took our passports to get stamped while we transferred our bags into Don Emilios lovely 4×4 Lexus which we had for the two of us.  Last time I was here I was squished in with six tourists like sardines – the joys of having a full time job mean that I spend a bit more these days.

Last time I was in Bolivia, it really was a bit like the Wild West.  I have vivid memories of Potosi – where you could buy sticks of dynamite to blow up in the desert, and Tupiza where butch and the sundance kid made their final stand.  I was hopeful that these traits had stood the test of time and we weren’t going to be inundated with WiFi :-).   I guess importantly last time I was here, I was unaware that in a few short weeks I would meet a lovely French dude on a bus in Peru and end up marrying him.  I quite like the symmetry in us returning here on holiday.   Hubby has always meant to come in any case as 25 years ago he worked in the Bolivian embassy in Paris.  Anyway, enough with the reminiscing….

Lagunas in Eduardo Alvarez park….

Five minutes after leaving the border we checked into the Eduardo Alvarez national park.  First stop the stunning Laguna blanca – white with Borax and fed from subterranean springs.  The reflections of the surrounding volcanoes were amazing.



We meandered a bit further, passing some hardy motorcyclists who were getting a great arm work out on the rough road to Laguna verde.  Perhaps more aptly names ‘once was verde’, as given some volcanic activity she is more brown these days with the majestic Licancabur volcano towering behind.

Laguna Verde with Licancabur in the background
We drove on through the amazing high plains landscape, steep mountains wit swirls of red, white and black from the minerals and passed the Dali desert – largely man made as these are remnants of former buildings.
We passed a few hardy solo Cyclists.  That’s gotta be a tough gig, Cycling in this terrain would be tough enough, but combine the altitude and the infrequent access to water, I don’t know how they do it!

Steaming at 4200m in the hot springs

We stopped at Laguna salada for a dip in the hot springs of Termas de polces, which I had blissfully to myself for 15 minutes before the horses arrived and then we had and a pretty decent lunch of chicken, pasta and veges.
In the hot springs
After that we went to check out the geysers and fumaroles at Sol de Manana at 4900m – it was headache time!
Sol de Manana

Vivid red (the lake) and out of breath (me) at Laguna Colorada

We descended a little to the Laguna Colorada – a place that I still had vivid memories of 20 years later.  There are less flamingos than before but the colour of the water is still a stunning vivid red.   Strolling was challenging and I was having to take extra deep breathes to try and get some oxygen in….. at least we walked some, lots of people barely struggled past the first mirador.



And then we went to check out the rocks at Arbol de piedra, which was overrun by tourists, including some lovely Japanese tourists in dresses and prada flats – an excellent outfit for downtown London, a bit less excellent for the windy freezing altiplano.

Arbol de Piedra

Headaches in the desert – humans weren’t designed for this altitude

We got to the Tayka Desert hotel around five – it was actually quite nice, and had WiFi and a hot shower.  Both hubby and I were struggling with the headaches!   I don’t normally suffer from altitude and hubby is allergic to diamox (the pill you take to avoid altitude sickness) so that is not ideal either.  Oh well, we had a nice but fast dinner watching the sun go down and we were in bed by 8pm.   Neither of us had a great night sleep.  I kept waking up struggling for air and feeling like my head was in a vice grip.   We survived but it wasn’t pleasant.   It was exactly like a terrible hangover – horrible head, nauseous and very dry mouth –  a good reminder of why I barely drink these days.   Neither of us could even get much food down the next morning (and everyone knows how much I can eat).  Others had suffered as well and apparently a couple of the guests had gotten oxygen in the middle of the night!   We probably should have… time!   We were looking forward to sleeping at a lower altitude the next night!
View from Tayka Desert Hotel

Descending through the lakes

We set off around 8, and the light on the desert and mountains was lovely.  It was a lazy morning driving through some lovely altiplano lagunas –  Honda, Chiakota, Hedionda and Canapa  -all of which had lovely flocks of flamingos!   We really are in the middle of nowhere… just a bunch of dirt tracks which the locals know well enough to navigate.   The only thing out here is 4x4s with tourists…. and you can see them in the distance with the dust rising up behind them.



We headed over to the Chilean border to take a look at the ollaygue volcano but the clouds had rolled in so we couldn’t see anything.   Next up rock valley, which was the final straw in my toilet paper annoyance for this trip.   I won’t rant mid blog, but feel free to see my rant at the bottom.  Almost every bush had dirty toilet paper on it – bloody tourists!

Desolate Pueblos in the desert

We stopped in a small place in Alota for lunch – again way too much food.   The highlight was seeing a Japanese tourist in high heels and a shawl….not sure how she was walking around the rocks in those shoes.  Alota really feels like the arse end of nowhere – completely desolate, with mud constructed houses.  It feels bleak now, and it is mid summer, I can’t imagine what it is like in the winter.  We were cheered up though by some of the ‘graffiti’ on the houses reminding us not to ruin the planet



After that it was a long drive to Uyuni.  We stopped in the small pueblo of San Cristobal and had a wander around.  It was very traditional with lots of little ladies in traditional hats and skirts.  But  what warmed my heart was when we saw a bunch of young girls in smart soccer uniforms.   We followed them and watched a petty aggressive girls five a side game that almost the whole village was watching!   Excellent !!!  I love seeing young women given the opportunity to play sport.

The cemetery of trains

Fortunately we were descending all day, and by the time we arrived in uyuni we were at 3600m and we were feeling energetic enough to clamber all over the old trains at the train cemetery, which is a fun place to visit.




Uyuni train cemetery

On the moonscape of the Salar de uyuni

We made it to our exceptionally nice hotel by 5 – the Luna Salada – which is made out of salt, and more importantlyis lovely  and  had pretty decent WiFi until the power went out.  Dinner was a decent buffet of spicy chicken and llama.  We were entertained by an incredible thunder and lightening storm outside.  The down side of this means we might not be able to drive over the Salar the next day.  Fingers crossed 🙂



after another enormous breakfast, Don Emilio collected us and we headed towards the Salar. The Salar is apparently best visited in the dry season. However, it can be spectacular in the rainy season as there is a thin layer of water on the salt which reflects perfectly like a mirror. The worst scenario is if there has been a lot of rain, and in our case it had rained all night. It didn’t start off well, it was grey and gloomy and the Salar appeared to be more muddy brown than white, but the sun came out eventually and we were half blinded by the glare. It’s hard to describe but being on the Salar is quite otherwordly…. we stopped for lunch (an elegant affair that Emilio put together) and it was like being alone in the universe with nothing as far as the eye could see apart from the vague shadows of the mountain ranges in the far distance. It was definitely worth a revisit even if the weather wasn’t optimal.



Warning – wear sunscreen, as neither of us realised how burnt we were getting, until we saw our faces that evening

Next up, the obligatory visit to the artisan market. I genuinely don’t know who buys woolly hats with llamas or jewellery boxes carved out of salt, but I did support the local commerce by buying some bath salts, which at least I will use.

Checking out the sights of uyuni

In many ways uyuni is still a pretty small town…. and it hasn’t changed much over the years apart from a couple of streets squarely aimed at tourists, restaurants with prominent WiFi signs and pretty uniform menus of Mexican, omelettes and variants of meat and chips. We wandered around town, marvelling at the goods on display in the market, and eventually retreated to the ‘best cafe in town’ for a truly awful coffee! We made it to the airport with time to spare, billed as an international airport, it’s truly tiny. But 45 minutes flying to la Paz beats 12 hours on a freezing night bus with no heating and broken windows, which was how I did it last time.


Quick tour of la Paz

Amaszonas had helpfully moved our flight to Asuncion forward several hours, so my planned day of wandering around la Paz went out the window. But we got up early and managed to see the major sights in town for a few hours before heading the airport.




La Paz street art

Our favourite was the Mercado Rodriguez, bustling at 7am on a rainy Saturday morning….with many of the cholitas protecting their bowler hats with plastic bags. We also popped in for a quick mass at San Francisco. A lovely way to spend the morning. Next stop Paraguay

La Paz, December 30, 2018


Additional notes

* you can book a cheap and rough version of this trip for 150-200usd locally, and can go in either direction (San Pedro to uyuni or vice versa ), and there is always space, tonnes of tours leave every day (there are literally swarms of 4wds at the main sites) – expect it to be basic.

* We paid considerably more than that for a private comfortable four wheel drive with Ruta verde and the nice hotels – the taykas which have hot water and proper rooms and decent food. Having done both versions, I was happy I paid more

* Getting there – You can drive to uyuni from la Paz in four hours or fly in 45 minutes. And you can get to San Pedro from Calama in an hour (shuttles at the airport), and calama is a two hour flight from Santiago.

* We were only briefly in la Paz, so opted for a very cheap hotel – the Rosario which was all we needed

* Bolivia is a great place to visit, and I spent a lot more time when I was last here, and would recommend coroico, (cycling the death road to get there), flying down to rurrenabaque to see the Amazon (I saw a jaguar), tupiza, potosi and of course heading overland to Peru via Titicaca. It is worth noting that while there are 100 time more tourists than 20 years ago, it is still relatively quiet compared to other tourist hotspots, so don’t be put off

Toilet paper rant – to be clear, I have no beef with people going to the toilet in the wilderness, nature calls and all that. But, why on earth do people think it is acceptable to leave toilet paper behind – it’s disgusting, it’s bad for the animals, and it ruins places. The altiplano was littered with toilet paper in ever place we went. It’s high and dry on the altiplano so that paper is NOT going to biodegrade any time soon. If you need to go to the loo, go ahead, but please stay 50m away from any water, and if you use paper, then take it with you. A ziplock bag is perfect. Or you can skip the paper and just shake dry. It’s not hard. If you need to poop, then either hold it or dig a proper hole and bury it. Travelling around west Africa on a truck with 10 women, we all got off the truck to pee in the bush, and we all bought our paper back to the truck to chuck in the trash to get burnt – it’s easy. Ok, rant over!!!

Acclimatising in the Atacama

The atacama has changed in 20 years …

San Pedro de atacama has changed a lot in the 20 years since I was last here.  In essence it is still a tiny village of 2500 people, but it is also the most visited tourist town in chile.  Every door front is a tourist agency, a restaurant or a souvenir shop.   It’s nice, but it was nicer before. We are here to acclimatise at 2600m before heading over to Bolivia to the altiplano which is at 4500-5000, and I have learnt the hard way to make sure that I acclimatise first. And San Pedro is a lovely place to spend a few days.
We spent the first afternoon wandering around adjusting to the altitude and finding the best empanada in the town.  We also tried to ignore all the tourists – but it was hard.  It’s been a long time since I have travelled with this many tourists (one of the upsides of travelling in Africa is you don’t have to see tourists with too short shorts and bad tattoos).

Avoiding christmas like the grinches we are…

It was Christmas Eve, and the hotel were somewhat surprised we didn’t want the eight course celebration menu.  I love how we celebrate Christmas – we basically ignore it – no gifts, no stress cooking for lots of people, but we use the money to go and have amazing holidays :-).   We had eyed up a burger place for dinner but sadly it was closed. We tried a bunch of other places, all were full or closed, and ended up at the Adobe which was overpriced but fine.  Hubby* had a healthy poor mans steak (steak, fries for four, and two fried eggs) and I had steak pilpil (with garlic and chilli).   After that we hit up Heladaria Babalu for good local ice cream (although we had been ruined  by Valparaíso where the portions were twice the size for the same price).  We had quinoa and chanar ice cream – not bad, and hit the bed!   Altitude makes me sleepy.

Mountain biking in the devils throat

After huge breakfast with some bizarre raw croissants, but excellent bacon and bread, we summoned our courage and borrowed some bikes from the hotel and headed up to Catapre.   It was a nice cool bike ride along some rough tracks, and when you get there, its an excellent mountain biking track through a long gorge (the devils throat).   Anyone who knows me, knows that I am as uncoordinated as can be (‘unco’ as we say in NZ), so I have never been great on a mountain bike.   Blissfully I didn’t take any major spills though did get some impressive skids in.    At the end of the throat, there was a stunning hike up to a great look out point.  At 2600m, it gets hard to breathe!
hubby in the devil’s throat
hubby in the devil’s throat
me in the devils throat
part of the cycling path in the devils throat
Puddles in Catarpe
We cruised back down the throat and then popped up along to river to see the lovely chapel of San Isidro.   It’s definitely different travelling with hubby as he takes time to take beautiful photos….. I lost him for ten minutes as he was taking photos of the reflections in the puddles :-), and he also takes photos with me in them, which is kinda odd
View from the mirador in Catarpe
San Isidro Chapel

Checking out the Quitor de Pukara

After Catapre we went to see the quitor de Pukara – and old Inca site.  It was a nice well graded 20 minute hike to the top, and for entertainment, I ran down the 1.6k in 10 minutes.   Even running downhill at this altitude had me out of breath.   We came back to town in search of an empanada, but sadly Emporio Andini was closed so we had to make do with Super empanadas (twice the price and half as good).
View down the Catarpe valley from Quitor de Pukara
Face carved in the rock at Quitor de Pukara

Tour to the moon valley

A quick trip back to the hotel and then we were back with the tourists to take a tour to the Valle de la Luna.
View down into the Moon Valley
The tour was my idea of hell!  Too many people and too slow, and it was when I wished we had rented a car.  The guide was terrible, and spent ages explaining completely irrelevant facts in truly terrible English.    Honestly! I got told off at one point for not staying with the group – group tours are not for me.  Fingers crossed we have a different guide tomorrow!!!!    Having a scramble through the caverns was quite interesting
Hubby and I in the caverns

We did have a lovely time at the top of the big dune in the park watching the light as the sun went down.
Sunset on the Dunes
View from the Dunes
Hubby at sunset
We got back to the hotel late so had a sandwich and ice cream for dinner and hit the hay as we had a 6am pick up booked.

Off to the altiplano lakes at 4200m

Early the next morning we were in a van with more or less the same folks, but thankfully a much better guide to head 100km south to the lakes Miñiques and Miscanti at 4200m.  The light was lovely and the lakes were stunning.  We were the first tourists there (though hordes more arrived later).  Felipe whipped us up an outstanding breakfast of eggs, avocado, ham and local toasted breads.   We strolled around a bit, but the local people are doing an excellent job keeping tourists out of the ecosystem.  You have to stay on the paths, and while it is mildly annoying for a second, I am actually very happy with how well they are protecting the landscape (though locals had told me Conaf was more worried about the mining companies than the environment, as 40% of the worlds lithium comes from the region).
Laguna Mimiques
Hubby hiking
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

Flamingos on the salt flats

From there we went to socaire to see the ancient irrigation system and a church, stopped by at the Tropic of Capricorn sign for some obligatory Instagram photos, and then headed to Laguna chaxo to see the flamingos and the salt flats.  I love flamingos!!!!
Tropic de capricorn
Atacama Salt flats
Flamingos on the Atacama Salt flats

Icecream, empanadas and burgers…

We then headed back to San Pedro via Toconao (for quinoa ice cream).   It was a lovely easy day in the back of the van, and tours here are pretty cheap – we paid 40 usd each including a great breakfast.    We had a late lunch at Andino – another excellent empanada, and then we made use of our lovely hotel room by lying down for a couple of hours doing nothing until dinner time.
The burger joint was back in business- and it was a great burger
Next step the salar de uyuni in Bolivia- the reason I wanted to come back, as I am pretty sure the hubby will love it
December 27, 2018, San Pedro de Atacama

Additional info

  • To get there fly to calama airport and then get a transfer with transvip for 12,000 per person or 75000 for a private
  • All hotels are overpriced, especially at Christmas.   We stayed at the Noi which was fine, but we paid twice what it was worth for similar hotels in chile
  • Best empanadas and cake at Emporio Andino,  Burgers at the burger garden were excellent
  • There are multiple day tours.  If you don’t want stress or navigation just take some of those tours.  There are lots of places in biking distances but it is hot :-).

*Note for new readers to the blog, hubby prefers to keep a low profile, so he doesn’t ever get named on the blog….. though I have finally started putting pictures of his face (versus the back of his head) on the blog.

Street art in Valparaiso

The hubby part of the vacation has just started – cue nice hotels, more leisurely days and lots of photos.  We started in Valparaiso – without question,  my (now) favourite city in South America.  Filled with colourful chaotic houses and the most prolific street art I have ever seen, the town won my heart.  Points should be deducted for the ever-present dog shit, too many hippies, and alleys and stairways that reek of cooked piss, but we still loved it.

We spent two days wandering the streets of town, up and down the crazy stair cases (Valpo is built on bonkers steep hills) and meandering from art piece to art piece, occasionally stopping for coffee, icecream or empanadas.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you don’t like street art, you can stop reading here.  The rest of the post is just pictures of street art and houses (with some hotel and restaurant details at the end).

Next stop the Atacama.

Voga Guesthouse
Bread shop
Holding the window
Crazy Cats
Rude Kermit



Stairs Subida Ferrari


View from concepcion
Cultural Park
Almirante Motte
Flowery girls
A bird in the hand
Alien ninjas?
Paseo Yugoslav
Paseo Yugoslav
Paseo Yugoslav
Paseo Yugoslav
French man walking
Old lady


Paseo Pierre Loti
Paseo Atkinson
Cafe Brighton
Stairs Urriola
Papudo stairs


Murdered for being a lesbian – memorial
Museo Cielo Abierto
Museo Cielo Abierto
Neruda College
Neruda’s house – top left
Avenida Alemania
Almirante Montt Houses
Avenida Alemania
Hector Calvo Stairs



Additional notes

We stayed at Voga guesthouse – it was lovely, with an excellent breakfast

We ate at Cafe Entro Cerros (amazing sandwiches and best coffee we had in Valpo), Cafe Plaza Moro (friendly, ok coffee)  and La Concepcion (good ceviche, but overpriced).  The icecream at Emporio La Rosa (multiple locations) was outstandingly good (we went twice)

You can walk every in Valpo no problems


Valparaiso, December 24, 2018

Faces of Afghanistan

Its a few weeks since we have gotten back from Afghanistan, and I shared most of my photos in earlier posts.  However, regular readers will know my hubby is a much better photographer than I am, and here is a guest post of his favourite faces of Afghanistan….