Lake Titicaca – Copacabana and the 9 hour boat ride we never wanted…

The next stop on our journey was supposed to be Puno, Peru on Lake Titicaca.  B had missed this stop on his last trip and was keen to stop there on this trip and see the lake.  There are two cities which are on the lake to visit, Copacabana on the Bolivia side and Puno on the Peruvian side, we had decided to visit Puno as you can visit the floating islands from there, and it was from there that we planned to take the Orient Express train up to Cusco.

On arrival at the bus station in La Paz, we were informed that the blockades which had previously been up due to strike action were back in effect and we would have to take a bus via Copacabana as that was the only company running busses at that time.  We were assured that it was possible to get through to Puno this way and so bought a bus ticket for the next morning.  The first part of the journey was uneventful, we had to take a ferry across a small part of the lake but it was smooth sailing otherwise.

Then we got to Copacabana (not the one from the song) a bit late and worried that we might miss our connecting bus.  Now to worry we were informed, no busses were running and we would have to wait until the next day when we would need to take a 9 hour boat journey across the lake.  We would also have to pay considerably more for said boat journey but as there was no choice we paid up and went to find a hotel in town for the night.

We had anticipated that there could be some issues and so had a list of possible hotels ready to go.  We had them ranked and quickly found once that was nice, had a room available and took it.  We spent the rest of the day wandering around the very small town and having lunch and mentally preparing ourselves for the next day when we would spend 9 hours on the water with no place to get food or drink.

Our day started early as we wanted to get to the bus stop early, we didn’t trust that they wouldn’t have oversold it and given us no choice but to stay an additional night in Copacabana.  We were just eager to cross the border into Peru and ensure that we had enough time to make our way to Cusco for our Inca Trail booking and more importantly for the Orient Express train ride we had booked to take us there.  The day started uneventfully enough with seats on a coach and an uneventful border crossing, however, after we got a taxi to the “dock” which was a generous name for the rocks sticking out into the lake, it became clear that that the leg which was oversold was the boat ride rather than the bus.

The scene was frantic with obviously more people there than there would be spaces on the boat, which meant that it was every person for themselves when trying to get a space on the small row boats which were rowing out to the main boats.  We pushed ourselves to the front of the queue and stood out on the rocks, only to be told by a group returning in a half sunk row boat that both boats on the water were full.  We got a bit nervous about our chances of actually getting anywhere that day but fortunately the lady we had bought our tickets from ensured that we all got out to the boats and had a seat inside. 

Yet again there was something dodgy going on with the transport and while most of the people on the shore got onto the boat in the end, some were sitting on top and the boat was clearly overloaded.  We embarked on our 9 hour journey where I finished the majority of The Corrections and ate a tube of pringles for lunch.  This being the second or third day we spent with this delicacy as our lunch and although they used to be one of my favourite snacks, they started to get a bit old on this trip.

After night fall we were approaching the Puno harbour through the reeds and then suddenly stopped for another boat to pull up and take off the extra people from our boat as there were not enough life jackets on our boat…  We finally disembarked the boat and made our way to the hotel we had previously booked before going out for a delicious pizza dinner that night.

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Sucre, Bolivia

Our plan was to head straight to Sucre after the salt flats, but when we learned that it was a 6 hour journey we decided to leave in the morning.  The bus system in Bolivia is extremely confusing; with several different companies operating on each route, and no clear central source of information to tell you what time they all leave and how much the ticket is.  In Uyuni we found a company that had a bus leaving at the right time and the lady sold us two tickets, for seats 17-18. 

We boarded the bus in the morning, and all seemed well, the journey to Potosi was smooth and quick and we were assured that it was a quick trip to the next bus station to catch our connecting bus.  It was, but the connection it turned out wasn’t until 5:30, and it was around 4:00 at that time.  We looked around the bus station to find out if there was another one going sooner, but the soonest was at 5:00 and we decided that since we already had tickets, the half hour wasn’t enough to warrant getting a new one.  When we got on the bus at the appointed time, we found that there also seemed to be a team of pole vaulters on the bus, and also found that they too thought they had seats 17-18 and there were no other seats left on the bus.

After some back and forth we were informed that we were in fact on the 6:00 bus rather than the 5:30 bus and we would have to get off and wait.  We sat firmly in our seats telling them in broken Spanish that the 5:30 bus was clearly our connecting bus and they kept telling us it wasn’t their problem and that the lady who sold us the tickets hadn’t explained to us.  The whole incident ended with the woman from the bus company pleading with us to get off and us having delayed the bus by 20 minutes and getting the 6:00 bus.  It all felt a bit dishonest and as if they felt they could do that to us because we were tourists, but we got there in the end and checked into our hotel.

We stayed in Sucre at the Hotel Villa Antigua, which was an old restored colonial house just a few minutes’ walk from the central square of the town.  Sucre was the colonial centre of Bolivia and a great deal of the architecture from that period has been preserved, which gives the city a very different feel from the rest of Bolivia.  The city also sits in a valley between a number of mountains and its position means that it is also considerably warmer than other parts of the country, a welcome relief after our time on the salt flats tour.

There are a considerable number of museums located in the city and we visited a number of them, all of which were very interesting.  The first day we wandered over to the central square and went to the museum next to the anatomy museum which was the art collection of an important doctor who had lived in Sucre.  While there were a few interesting pieces, it was not terribly interesting and was probably our least favourite of the museums which we visited.  We had lunch at a restaurant called El German which was good but also not terribly exciting and decided to walk up to Recoleta to the view point above the city. 

The next day we were a bit more organised about our plans and after spending a morning sorting our flight to La Paz we went to the museum of the Santa Clara Convent.  We had seen a number of churches on our trip but I had read a couple of reviews which had noted that this museum was excellent and so we went across the street from our hotel to check it out.  The woman manning the desk was also a tour guide, though only in Spanish, but she did a fantastic job of communicating in simple terms, information about the artwork and the sisters of the convent.  The museum was small but was extremely impressive and the church attached to the convent was absolutely stunning and included an elaborate free standing organ which is only played a couple of times each year.  The whole thing was really interesting and we were both glad we had gone.

After leaving the museum we wandered around the city a bit more and went to the central market which was brimming with vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to chicken feet.  It was an extremely vibrant place and great fun to walk around, though everyone is always trying to sell you something!

The next and final day in Sucre we had planned on going to the Cretacious park which is located a bit outside town and contains a wall with fossilised tracks of dinosaurs as well as life sized models of various dinosaurs.  We spent about an hour looking around at various dinos and marvelling at their size before we headed back into town and had our cab driver drop us off at the cemetery.  We were recommended a visit by the woman from the convent museum the previous day and it was an absolutely lovely, extremely park like with lots of mausoleums and stacks of tombs around the perimeter. 

We finally walked back into town and went to the Charcras museum, which has both an anthropological museum alongside an art museum.  We had also been recommended to go here and it did not disappoint.  The anthropological side of the museum is extremely thorough and interesting with various mummies, skulls and pottery.  The artwork was equally impressive, even coming from European museums, with works from Velasquez and others.  We enjoyed looking around for an hour or so, and then headed back to pack for our departure the next day to La Paz.

We had decided to fly to La Paz since the choice was either an overnight bus ride or a 40 minute flight, and we only spent a night there before departing for Lake Titicaca.  We wandered around the city but ultimately spent most of our time trying to sort out how we were going to get to Peru given the strikes and blockades which were in place.

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Tupiza Tours, Part 2

The third morning started with a trip to Laguna Colorado or the Red Lagoon.  This is one of the more famous stops on the tour and also the spot where you are guaranteed to see the flamingos.  Apparently at other times of the year they can be found in a number of lagoons but during the winter the Red Lagoon is the only one which is warm enough for them.  We were one of the first groups to arrive at the lagoon and so had the pleasure of a peaceful half hour to ourselves.  We wandered around looking at the flamingos and just generally enjoying the scenery.

After being rounded up back into the car, we continued on to another area with some surreal rock formations including one which looked like a tree, which we took some silly pictures in front of and B did some climbing on.  We didn’t spend too much time here but it was nice to be able to get out of the car and wander around a bit, particularly as our first couple days felt very heavy on the driving.

We continued on, passing by a number of lagoons which all sort of started looking similar after a while.  We then stopped for lunch by a lagoon which was mostly frozen over and had various birds standing around in the water.  There were also a number of other groups who stopped here for lunch and so wasn’t quite the quiet and peaceful meal which we might have all been hoping for. 

The remainder of our third day was spent driving out of the national park and onto our lodging for the night which was in close proximity to the salt flats.  We went past an active volcano, which was only smoking a bit from the top but which was the first active volcano which we had seen on the trip.  We also stopped to climb on some of the rocks which again, made a nice change from just sitting in the car.

Our accommodation for that night was a place made from salt bricks and had a layer of salt covering the floor.  As we were at a lower altitude than we had been at during the previous nights it was also a bit warmer.  We also had a darling puppy named Bobby there to entertain us through the evening as we sorted out some of our pictures and chatted.

The final morning called for an early wake up in order to catch the sunrise over the salt flats.  We were fortunate that it was winter and so at least sunrise was a bit later but it nevertheless required us to leave at around 5:30 in the morning.  We drove out to the salt flats and through the first part which was still covered with a layer of water.  The sunrise was very pretty and we stopped to take a few pictures before going over to Incahuasi Island in the middle of the flats to have our breakfast.  

There are various islands which are dotted around the salt flats and the one which we visited is famous for the large number of giant cactus which cover the island.  We wandered over the island from one side to the other and even found the largest cactus at 9 meters tall.  Once we finished there, we drove out to the middle of the salt flats where we stopped and took some silly pictures.  Since they are uninterrupted expanses of white, it is easy to take pictures that play with perspective, and while B usually isn’t one for those sorts of things, he played along. 

This was the end of our tour and we drove into town for an early lunch before heading into Uyuni.  We said goodbye to Liana and Alex and then spent a good amount of time looking for a hotel, as we hadn’t previously booked.  After the first shower in four days we headed out for dinner at Minute Man Revolutionary pizza which B found on tripadvisor and had an amazing pizza dinner.  It was a great end to that part of our trip and although it was at times challenging, I enjoyed the sights and am glad to have had the experience. 

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Tupiza Tours, Part 1

B had previously done the salt flat tour when he travelled on his gap year 8 years ago but had done it from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.  This time around he had done research as to the best company with which to travel and found that Tupiza tours had a lot of excellent comments, so we decided to go with them.  The price for the four day tour including meals, accommodation and an English speaking guide was $200, which seemed like good value. 

When we went to meet for the tour the next morning we found that we had been paired with a Latvian couple, Liana and Alex, and that it would just be the four of us on the tour with our driver Alfredo and guide/cook Janette.  We piled into the land cruiser set off for our adventure.

The four day tour encompasses considerably more than just the salt flats and on the first day out from Tupiza you drive through the Lipez mountain range through stunning scenery at altitudes between 12,000 and 15,000 feet.  We passed through several small towns on this route which were interesting and must be a difficult life as the altitude makes everything more difficult to get done.

It was extremely cold and windy and even during the day the streams in the area would be half frozen.  We stopped for lunch at an abandoned mine site which was interesting and had some of the most delicious tamales I have ever had which Janet had made.  We spent the night in the village of San Juan which was at an altitude of approximately 14,000 feet and each couple actually ended up with a private room which was nice.  There were flush toilets, however, you had to go outside to get to them and it was extremely cold in the night, not an exciting prospect.

The next morning we had to wake up at 5:15 and all of us had slept terribly as a result of the altitude and still had splitting headaches when we woke up.  We piled into the car and drove through some more beautiful scenery to the ghost town of San Antonia which had been abandoned after the Spanish conquerors had arrived and killed the native residents with their foreign diseases.

From here, we continued on into the national park Eduardo Avaroa where we would see many of the more well-known sites on the tour.  Our first stop was at a lagoon which contained a mineral which was harvested and exported to use in soaps and detergents and it was interesting to go and see how this process worked and the large quantity which was available.  We also learned that Bolivia can only sell the raw product because they do not have the processing facilities in their country to finish it and export it.

 After this we continued on to the hot springs, where we would have some time to take a dip before having lunch.  The whole of the national park is in an extremely volcanic area and the landscape around it including the mineral rich lagoons are all shaped by this fact.  There are also a large number of dormant volcanoes around and one active volcano in the park.  The hot springs are set on the edge of a large lagoon and are a natural spring, the view is spectacular and the water was very warm. 

While we had generally started feeling a bit better by this point the rocky car ride hadn’t helped and it was a relief to have some fresh air and calm for a bit.  After one of the hearty lunches made by Janet where it seemed as though she was trying to feed an army, we continued on minus Alex who wasn’t feeling well and who we would come back and pick up later.  First stop was the Dali desert which was so named because it resembled the color and nature of Dali’s paintings, though he had never actually been there.   The rock formations were interesting but for me this wasn’t a highlight of the tour. 

Next stop was the green lagoon which turns green due to a mix of minerals including arsenic which are mixed by the wind and the reflection of the sun to appear as a bright green.  The day we were there it was green but apparently not as green as it can sometimes be. 

We went back the way we came and stopped to pick up Alex before continuing on to an area containing some geysers spouting steam and some sulphur pots.  It was exceptionally cold and windy there so we didn’t spend too long before getting back into the car to go to our accommodation for the night.

The second night’s accommodation was again quiet and each couple had their own room but this time the common areas and bathrooms were all connected to the bedrooms which meant no going outside in sub zero temperatures.  There was also a nice wood burning fireplace next to the dinner table in which they kindly built a fire for us that meant we had a nice warm spot to hang out before and after dinner.  We all played cards and read and then when it was time to finally go to bed, no one wanted to go back into the bedrooms.

The second night’s sleep wasn’t much better than the first for me as I continued to toss and turn and felt like I had some serious acid reflux going on.  We didn’t have quite such an early wake-up call this time and so were able to attempt to sleep a bit later the next morning.

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Final Thoughts – Argentina

We spent about five weeks of our whole trip in Argentina and I think it is safe to say that we were both sad to leave.  The country is absolutely stunning and the people and extremely welcoming and helpful.  We immensely enjoyed the food and wine that was on offer and are keen to return to explore Patagonia as well as more of the northern region.

Our next stop, Boliva, would prove far more difficult than Argentina, though still interesting and beautiful in its own way.

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Crossing the Border – Argentina to Bolivia at La Quiaca/Villazon

Getting to Bolivia involved taking a bus from Jujuy, where we had to return our rental car, up to the border town of La Quiaca where we would walk across the border and then get a train or bus from Villazon up to Tupiza.  Due to the length of the journey and timing of the busses, it was critical that we returned our rental car immediately when the office opened in Jujuy to get to the bus station for the 9:40 bus to the border. 

It will be little surprise that the car rental return to a town which we had never been in didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned, not least because the rental office was located on a pedestrianized street!  We hadn’t found a gas station on our way to the office and so were prepared to take the hit on the cost when the nice agent at Hertz offered to drive us to a station and then on to the bus station, so we accepted his offer and while we had missed our intended busses, got a 10am bus up to the border.

I had realised in Buenos Aires that I should have previously gotten a tourist visa to enter Bolivia but hadn’t and so had to rely on the clause that allowed US citizens to obtain one at the border providing that they met all conditions for application.  I had all of my paperwork ready and in order but there was still a nagging doubt in my mind that something could go wrong and delay us significantly.  Fortunately, the border crossing was extremely smooth – I paid them the money, handed them my papers and about five minutes later had the visa and passport stamps and we were on our way. 

Given that everything had gone pretty much to plan we found that we were in time to take the train to Tupiza and so got a cab to the train station where we were waiting with several other tourists.  In what would be a precursor to the rest of our transport in Bolivia, a few minutes later a guard came out of the ticket booth and asked what we were all doing waiting there.  When we said that we were waiting for the train, he informed us that there was no train that day (despite being the scheduled day) and it would be going the next morning.  There was no real explanation of why this was, just a statement of facts and so we headed off to the bus station down the road. 

The bus was only about a two hour ride from Villazon to Tupiza but the bus station was completely overwhelming.  There are a large number of companies who sell tickets for each route and they all yell out the destination names in order to try to get people to purchase their tickets.  We went to the one who was leaving the soonest and walked out to our bus to find the oldest looking bus we had ever seen. 

The ride was actually fairly uneventful except for frequent stops either to pick up someone on the side of the road or for the driver to get a snack when he felt like it and we arrived in Tupiza in good time.  We were due to go out on our tour of the salt flats the next day with Tupiza tours and were staying in Hotel Mitru, to which the tour office was adjacent.  The hotel was decent and clean and most importantly had hot water.  We hadn’t eaten much all day so we went to an early pizza dinner and got to bed as we had to be ready at 8:30 the next day to leave for our tour.

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The North Circuit – Cafayate –Purmamarca – Tilcara – Humahuaca

We left Cafayate early in the morning as we had about a 7 hour drive ahead of us and I wasn’t keen to do this in the dark!  The stretch of road from Cafayate to Salta is paved and a relatively easy drive through some stunning scenery (again).  There are quite a few points of interest to stop at including the amphitheatre and devils throat, both of which are interesting red rock formations.  We made a quick stop at both but I think that we found the amphitheatre more interesting. 

We also realised that there was no way to complete the drive without going through the center of Salta, something I wasn’t keen on given my last drive through the city, but we couldn’t see any way around it and it made a convenient stop for lunch.  B navigated well and with my newly found ability to start the car from a stop it was all much less stressful than the previous time!

We had been advised by the front desk person at our hotel as well as had read on the internet that there are two ways to get from Salta to Jujuy, one which looks longer on the map but is shorter in time and one which looks shorter but is longer.  We wanted to take the one which was longer in length as it was supposed to be an easier drive but unfortunately our map of Salta didn’t show us how to get to that road.  How bad could the other one be, we thought…  It was ok at first, large and wide with two lanes, but this quickly changed to an extremely narrow two lane mountain road.  Great.

Our drive took about three hours, winding its way through the mountains which were covered in a fog and mist and which we decided was better because you couldn’t actually see how far down it was.  Again, most drivers here were driving very cautiously and so it didn’t feel terribly unsafe, just a bit scary.  We drove by the city of Jujuy and into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  After driving the southern circuit, the northern scenery is not quite so impressive, though is still very nice. 

Tilcara is another couple of hours from Jujuy and was our destination for the evening as we had decided to base ourselves there for the remainder of our time in Argentina due to the number of hotels there and the fact that it was in the middle of the three towns we wanted to visit.  We arrived in the late afternoon and went to our first choice of hotel, Las Marais, and found that they had availability and so decided to stay there.  While not quite as nice as the Wine Resort in Cafayate, it was nonetheless a very nice place to stay and a bit above the bustle of the city but still close enough to walk to everything.

We had a bit of a rest when we got in as I was tired from a long day of driving and went into town for dinner that night to El Nuevo Progresso, which had been recommended in a New York Times article on the region which we had.  The food was very good and different – we started with a llama carpaccio that was very good and continued with chicken brochettes and a quinoa salad for myself and a steak for B and a divine dulche de leche ice cream for dessert with a quinoa granola over the top.

As a side note, I have developed a complete love affair with quinoa over the last six months and it is something that is very prevalent on menus all over the Andes, I have loved it!

 The next day I decided that I would like a day off from driving and so we decided to stay around Tilcara and see some of the sights there.  We went first to the art museum on the square which featured artists from the region both new and old and was a very good museum.  We were both very impressed and I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting.  We then headed over to Purmarca, the ancient fortress on the top of the hill in front of Tilcara. 

The literature provided was in English which was helpful and it was interesting to read about the history of the site and the people who lived there.  Unfortunately, the ruins had not been left as they had been found and significant “restoration” had been done which had the effect of making the whole site seem like it had been constructed in modern times rather than in the past.  It was still interesting to visit but didn’t have quite the impact that it might have otherwise. 

After we had finished with the fort, we headed back into town for lunch and went to another New York Times recommendation, Los Puestos which is known for its empanadas and parilla.  We had a delicious lunch of grilled chicken and steak and spent the rest of the day wandering around and relaxing in our hotel. 

Our final day was going to be a bit longer as we had to get to both Humahuaca and Purmamarca in the same day.  We started early with the drive up to Humahuaca and stopped in to wander around and see the sites.  This is a larger town than the other two on the northern route but we didn’t find it particularly charming and so after seeing the main square, the church and the large Monumenta a la Independencia we decided to head off to Purmamarca. 

The drive down to Purmamarca was uneventful except for the large wind storm which had picked up and in turn created an immense dust storm in the dry valley.  There were moments on the highway when there would just be a huge wall of dust coming towards you and I sort of imagine that this is what the dust bowl may have been like years ago. 

We had decided to have lunch in Purmamarca, again on another New York Times recommendation at El Manantial del Silencio and so went straight there on arrival.  The food here was excellent and it was also a hotel which looked like a very nice hotel and we agreed that if/when we came back we would probably stay a couple nights in Purmamarca.  We shared a quinoa salad to start and then each had a different pasta dish for our main course.  Both were excellent and I would definitely recommend it as a place to stop.

The main attraction at Purmamarca is the seven colored hill and though we were too late to see it in the morning sun, it was still nice to see.  We then headed over to the camino Colorado which is a path that winds through a valley below the city and walked along there for a time before turning back.  We found that all over Argentina there are interesting cemeteries and here was no different.  We stopped to have a look and take a couple pictures before going back to our car to return to Tilcara.

Upon arrival back to Tilcara we found that the power was out for the whole of the valley due to the high winds and so we rested for the afternoon and packed for our early departure the next morning.  We had our last Argentinian meal at El Nuevo Progresso and called it a night early as our next day involved a series of steps that needed to go like clockwork to ensure that we made it to Boliva in time for our Salt Flats tour.

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