Base Camp La Paz, Bolivia
When Ol realized that it was Valentine’s Day and all I wanted was a hot shower, he knew that he was getting off cheap. When we reached La Paz, after leaving Carnaval in Oruro, we checked into a boutique hotel which was a converted old convent in the historic city center. Our last hotel had a great balcony, but hot water was a luxury. All I wanted was a shower and an English speaking television station.
We checked in, showered, and cleaned up. We then sent our laundry out to be dried. Our last hotel washed and folded our laundry, but everything was still noticeably damp, and all of our clothes are made of quick dry material! Maybe a little Carnaval got in the way.
While waiting for something to wear, I turned on the computer and started researching the places we wanted to visit while in Bolivia.
On our journey we have met many people who have said that a visit to Uyuni and the Bolivian salt flats is the highlight of their South American trip. When I made our original itinerary, I decided that I wanted to visit the salt flats during the wet season. The salt flats are beautiful all year long, but during the rainy season (February) the salt flats produce a mirror effect. I knew that Ol would want to visit for the photos. Instagram is loaded with some of the amazing photos that can be taken there.
We also wanted to visit Lake Titicaca, and Isla del Sol (the birthplace of the sun for the Incas) just a few hours north of La Paz. Ol also wanted to ride a bike down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (yes, I am the sensible one on this trip), and I wanted to visit a few of the national parks that boast the best viewing in the world for jaguars and puma’s and other big animals (okay, who is the most sensible is clearly up for debate).
We also needed to visit the Brazilian embassy in order to get the visas that we paid for in Quito, Ecuador. We needed to obtain the visas if we were going to make it to Rio before we head to Buenos Aires, Argentina and our flight home.
The first thing that I decided to do before booking any tour was to check the weather. I decided to do that after being rained out in “the driest place on earth”. It appeared that during our detour to Carnaval in Oruro, Uyuni and the surrounding area had a chance to dry out. We picked the first sunny days in the forecast for our salt flat tour. I then selected dates for Lake Titicaca and a visit to the Amazon. If all went well we would finish our trip in Bolivia from Santa Cruz and a few of the surrounding national parks and we would see some big cats in the wild.
La Paz would be our base as the flights to the rest of the country are frequent and inexpensive. I also wanted to avoid taking buses if I could help it. I also took the time to contact the agency that sold us our Bolivian bus ticket to complain about being abandoned at the border.
After reading dozens of reviews of tour companies, I settled on Kanoo Tours and contacted them about dates and possible itineraries for the tours we were interested in. They were one of the few companies that handle everything, including flights, ground transportation, guides, and lodging, and they can be booked on the internet. They had packages for all the trips that we were interested in. By using them, I could take the next few weeks off from travel planning. I selected the package tours, gladly typed in my credit card, and hit send.
Ol and I now had the next few weeks planned. During my research I learned more about all the amazing things to do in Bolivia . Bolivia is considered one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world, and it has areas that are so remote they are just now being explored. I lost track of time reading a National Geographic article on all of the new plant and animal species being found in Madidi National Park. Madidi is where we were planning our visit to the Amazon.
During my research I discovered several tours that simply sounded amazing. One tour company that kept getting rave reviews was Nick’s Adventures. Nick is a native Australian who has settled in Bolivia and conducts Eco tours that help protect the wilderness and the wild animals. I quickly jotted off an email in the hope that we could join one of his tours.
We consolidated all of the gear that we needed for our tours into one bag. There was no need for both of us to carry luggage when everything would fit into one bag. We then decided to enjoy a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner after our clothes came back warm and dry. We felt relaxed and rested after spending the day in our hotel binge watching CNN International.
We ventured across the street from our hotel to the five star El Presidente hotel. We enjoyed a three course dinner with a 360 degree view of the city. We also had a view of the giant Jumbotron in San Francisco Plaza and got our first view of the Winter Olympics. Our view included the San Francisco Cathedral, plazas, squares, and a few ornate colonial government buildings that we would explore over the next few days. Ol thought that it was appropriate that our hotel was located directly across the street from Bolivia's Supreme Court, the Palicio de Justicia.
The next two days we took it pretty easy, we slept in and explored the city. We toured the area around the Presidential Palace and San Francisco Cathedral. We visited the famous "Witches Market" and were grossed out by the ingredients for spells and potions and mummified baby animals that were for sale and hanging in the doorways. I did look for a potion that could make our children call more often.
After a few days we came to the conclusion that we prefer the modern areas of the city rather than the city center of La Paz. The city had some interesting street art and beautiful people, but it just needed a good cleaning and a few coats of paint.
In the evenings we enjoyed staying in our hotel rather than venturing out in the city. Tour companies with groups staying at the hotel sponsored cultural shows for their guests. The hotel staff invited us down for the show. We enjoyed the local music and dancing and a few glasses of wine. We decided to use the hotel as our base in La Paz and they agreed to store our luggage between stays while we left for our tours around Bolivia.
For our first excursion we headed south to Uyuni to begin a three day, two night tour. Unfortunately, flights were full and our only option was an overnight ten hour bus ride that left at 8:00 p.m. So much for avoiding Bolivian buses.
We had a few hours before we left on our tour. We checked out of our hotel and decided to walk to Kanoo Tours. We wanted to store our backpack and spend the afternoon exploring more of La Paz. The office was a short fifteen minute walk from our hotel.
While at the tour office Ol booked his bike trip. The agent then helped us take our things to the bus company office and even pointed us in the direction of a restaurant that served great American hamburgers and pulled pork sandwiches. She then gave us a few ideas on how to spend the next seven hours waiting for our tour bus.
My idea was to see the entire city of La Paz by riding the Teleferico. The Teleferico is a cable car system that is La Paz’s version of a subway. It is an aerial urban transit system. It is the first urban transit system using cable cars as it’s primary transportion system in the world. It is also the longest and highest cable car system in the world.
This giant cable car system towers over the city’s hills and valleys and operates at over 13,000 feet. It is 17. 3 km long, with 5 different lines utilizing the colors of the Bolivia flag. Financing is in place for five more lines which are scheduled for completion. When the master plan is completed in 2030 it will have a total of sixteen lines.
The Telerfico currently operates between La Paz and El Alto, two of the three most populated cities in Bolivia. The cable cars leave the station every twelve seconds and move 3,000 people an hour through each station. It cut the average commute time from one hour to ten minutes. It is also cheaper than taking public busses. A telerifico ticket costs three Bolivianos. A bus ticket costs five. Seniors, students, and the disabled receive a fifty percent discount. Employing 1,200 full time workers, this state of the art system was built in just under two years for 234 million dollars.
Ol and I enjoyed spending the day riding all the lines and getting a birds eye view of the city. The entire system was cheap, clean, modern, and efficient. It was amazing to see a transportation system like this in a city that is still developing. It seemed much more modern and efficient than can be found in any US city. Why isn’t a system like this being built over the freeways in Los Angeles or Seattle? Ol and I are continually amazed at what the US could learn from our neighbors to the South.
After our day long self guided tour, we came to the conclusion that the cable car system is the only modern thing about La Paz. The entire city feels like stepping back in time.
It was much more fun exploring La Paz from the air. I loved looking down on the balconies and terraces and getting glimpses of everyday life. I enjoyed the rooftop gardens and the pets peering up at us. We rode above the hillside cemeteries and enjoyed stunning views of the snow capped mountain that surround the city. From the street, it is easy to forget that La Paz is the world’s highest capital city at 11,975 feet above sea level.
We knew that we had to start heading back to our tour company at 6:30 p.m. if we were to make it in time for our 7:30 p.m. check in. Our Kanoo agent told us that this would give us plenty of time. She said that there is no traffic in the city on weekends. I decided to pad an extra thirty minutes into that schedule just to be on the safe side, because if we missed our bus we would miss our tour.
We would exit the South side cable car line and take a ten minute cab ride to the Red line. The red line would take us down to within walking distance of our bus agency. We had plenty of time.
When we exited the tram station, a line of taxis were waiting curbside. On this side of town even the taxis are fancier. We hopped in the first one in the queue and asked him to take us to the red line. When this section of the system is complete the entire system will be connected together and there won't be a need for a taxi.
We drove for about two minutes before we slowed to a complete stop. We hit a wall of traffic. No one was moving. After slowly inching forward for fifteen minutes, I got out my Google Translate app and typed in our predicament.
Ol, calm as ever, kept telling me not to worry. I wish that I didn’t own a worry button, but it is not in my nature. I kept checking my phone and watched the minutes tick by. 6:30 quickly turned to 7:00 and then 7:15. I had my wallet out and began offering cash to get the driver to move. Ol was resigned to the fact that there was nothing to be done. I started barking orders. Pull up directions on Google maps! Maybe we can get out and run.
Ol pointed out of the window to the small fires, dirt roads and little shed like buildings that lined the road and asked if I really wanted to get out here. We had no idea where we were, where we were going, and there were no street signs. Also, this didn't exactly look like a pedestrian friendly neighborhood.
Our driver explained in broken English that we were only ten minutes away from the tram station. He said that our problem was that the road bottlenecked. Many roads merged into the main road. He assured us that we would get there. He slowly inched forward. There were now five lines of cars heading in every direction on a two lane road. It was insane. There were cars coming from opposite directions on the same road and all trying to squeeze onto one larger road. There were no traffic lights or signals and no one directing traffic. It was complete chaos.
At 7:30 p.m. Ol finally pulled out his phone and tried to call the emergency numbers for the tour and bus companies. The cell phone didn't work. We weren’t able to reach anyone, so much for emergencies. We were supposed to check in at 7:30 and our bus was scheduled to leave at 8:00.
Finally, our driver saw a break in the traffic and did a series of daring moves across three lanes of traffic. We were finally moving. We knew that we still had a twelve minute ride down the Red line and at least a 5 minute cab ride. Hopefully the bus would be on “Bolivian time”.
At 7:40 p.m. we finally pulled into the station. Ol paid the cab and I ran to buy our tickets. We jumped into the cable car and I told Ol to pull up a map to the bus office. Google said that we had a fourteen minute walk or an eight minute taxi ride. After our last taxi experience, we decided to run.
As soon as the doors opened, we started running. It looked like we made the right decision, traffic was terrible. Ol grabbed my hand and we darted across five lanes of traffic. It was 7:53 p.m. and we had 7 minutes until the bus was scheduled to depart.
Ol started running in the opposite direction from the way we arrived at the station. This was not the way we knew back to the bus station. We did not have time to argue. Ol said he was following his GPS. I wanted to be safe, rather than sorry. I was familiar with the other way and thought that it would be faster to go the way we knew. Ol just continued running in the other direction. I felt like I was on a real life episode of "The Amazing Race"!
I’m not very fast because of two bad knees. So, I had the time to see the facial expressions of the people trying to figure out why the fat Americans were running down the streets of La Paz.
I was breathing hard. La Paz’s altitude and air pollution were not conducive to running. Three minutes in and I was gasping. Ol was already out of my view. I glanced at my phone and we now had four minutes to catch our bus. At the next cross street, while I waited on the light, Ol yelled from across the street that he was running ahead to hold the bus.
I motioned for him to go and leaned over to catch my breath. When the light changed I started to run. Our only chance of making our bus and not missing our tour was if he could catch the bus before it left. If he didn't get there on time we would lose our money and be stuck in La Paz. All I could do was to pray that he got there on time and was able to hold the bus until I could catch up. For the second time in Bolivia I just wanted to sit down and cry.