Travelling independently using public transport
(together with my wife)
TERM: 22.8. - 23.9. 2013
The central area of the Andes is distinguished by famous "Altiplano" (high plain) - cold and sparsely vegetated plateau lying in the altitude of about 3500 meters above sea level) - featuring a very special environment, visually somewhat similar to the Tibetan plateau. The Altiplano is lined on both sides with rather narrow ridges of high peaks (often reaching above 6000 m asl.) and bordered on the west with a narrow strip of extreme desert quickly sloping to the Pacific ocean; on the east the high lands are rapidly descending along ridge slopes and merge into vast low-lying humid tropical rainforest. The countries encompassing this area (Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina) are offering a possibility to see along a not so long journey an extremely diverse variety of environments and habitats. Accordingly diverse and colourful are also the people populating these habitats, in particular in Bolivia. Travelling in Bolivia is mostly not yet fettered up by tourist industry and the prevailing native Indian population of Bolivia still keeps its unique way of life, manifested in the devout Catholicism strongly influenced by affinity to idolatry and in the picturesque traditional clothing still predominantly worn by womenfolk on the Altiplano.
Our itinerary included mostly Bolivia, some Chile, and little bit of Peru. There are some differences between these states (esp. price levels) but the way of life is basically the same.
Transport: Public transport in the visited states is generally quite effective and quite reasonably priced.
1. Our target destination was mainly Bolivia but it is not too reasonable to fly directly there as Bolivia capital La Paz and its airport sit in the altitude of about 4000 m asl. and it is quite unpleasant (in fact, even outright dangerous) to stay and esp. sleep there for few days right after flying in from any other normally positioned part of the world; this situation also results in limited frequency and high cost of flights there anyway. Therefore we decided to fly into Lima and travel to Bolivia overland, while acclimatizing to the high altitude of the Altiplano by slowly gaining height. The air tickets from Europe with European airlines are generally very expensive and so we chose the considerably cheaper Brazilian airline TAM Airlines flying from Frankfurt via Sao Paulo - to see more of the area we also decided to fly back from Santiago de Chile, as this open-jaw ticket did not bring any price increase for us. The TAM Airlines turned out to be rather reasonable, even if not great airline - the flights were on time and generally OK, leg space about average, individual monitors with a good choice of movies were available at each seat, and the food was rather good (after recent real bad experience with usual food of the Emirates airline we started to order vegetarian food); yet, the stewardesses were really lazy and even somewhat rude and except carrying out distribution of the main meals they effectively disappeared for all flight time - still, it was possible to get water or soft drinks when walking to the kitchen and directly asking.
Note: During our travel we found out that there was a few international flights (from Miami, USA and Madrid, Spain) to city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra conveniently located in Bolivia lowlands just next the Andes - this city would make a very good entrance point to Bolivia allowing convenient acclimatization and routing of the trip; if you can find a reasonably priced ticket, this option is definitely worth considering.
2. The area we covered within this trip was quite vast and often we needed to travel quite far - for this transport we relied on public buses. The buses are the main means of transport in the visited states and provide quite efficient service - there are usually several different companies servicing the same route; sometimes their prices are quite close, sometimes they differ substantially without any obvious reason (sometimes the price reflects the quality of the bus used but one cannot rely on that). They are running everywhere and are reasonably frequent and reliable and offer good or at least reasonable comfort; all buses are strictly nonsmoking. There is no fee for the luggage (sometimes on condition that it is just one piece under 30 kg in weight), which goes to the storage under the bus deck or in the lower rear section of the double-deck bus; sometimes you get ticket labeling your luggage. The longer distances between major cities are typically serviced by large, often double-deck buses, which usually look quite new and well maintained and are typically equipped with substantially reclinable seats allowing quite comfortable travel even over long distances (their journeys often take many hours, sometimes more than a day) - these buses are called "cama" and "semicama" ("cama" means bed in Spanish); some buses offer different kinds of service on their different decks. Unfortunately, while the price for the trip differs substantially according to the advertised bus type (occasionally not fully true in Bolivia), these terms do not mean the same among the visited states. The better service, also going by similar names, seems to be available in Peru and Chile (yet, our experience in each of these countries has been limited to a single company), where there are generally available three different kinds of services between major cities: the luxury buses called something like "cama premium", which offer generously comfortable and fully reclining seats (180-degree angle between the seat cushion and backrest), still quite comfortable so-called "cama" buses with 160-degree reclining seats and still very agreeable leg space (these two kinds contain one double seat and one separated single seat in each row), and the goodish "semicama" bus with 140-degree reclining seats, two double seats in each row, and reasonable leg space. In Bolivia, the service is not that good (but usually still quite reasonably comfortable) while just about any bus is called at least "semicama" there and the real kind of the bus comes as a surprise - we have not seen there any bus with fully reclining seats (if existing, it would be distinguished by extra expensive tickets for sure) or with less than four seats in a row; some buses, esp. on less popular routes may be somehow worn-down. When being able to choose a seat, better avoid the first row (it may provide a much reduced leg space) and the very rear rows (more jolting and proximity of the lavatory) - in Chile on the semicama buses, the available leg space was much better on the right-side seats of the bus. The buses servicing longer routes are usually equipped with a toilet (two on double-deck buses) - if not they do some toilet stops along its way. In better buses on longer routes in Peru and Chile you will get a very basic cold meal and drink, which is sufficient to keep you alive but far from overeating - better to bring your own supplies; there is no food provided in Bolivia buses and they also do no meal stops - yet, whenever the bus stops somewhere along its way, local venders come inside with some prepared meals, which are happily bought by starving passengers. On longer routes in better buses there are low-class movies shown during the night - consider bringing earplugs and a blinder to facilitate you sleeping or, conversely, your own earphones to plug them into the provided jack to get better hearing. On better buses, esp. in Peru and Chile, you will get a blanket and small pillow to keep you comfortable; in Bolivia you better come prepared yourself. The shorter distances may be serviced by smaller buses with non-reclining seats - even such buses offer reasonable comfort for a journey lasting just few hours. On better buses in Peru and Chile, no standing passengers are allowed in the bus; in Bolivia, this rule does not apply and the bus aisle may become very crowded with extra passengers somewhat attacking the space of the seated passengers, esp. on the less popular routes (the Bolivians are not too fussy about this and you may need to fight back resolutely to keep yourself reasonably comfortable). In Bolivia, all the bus companies typically use a common bus terminals ("terminal de pasajeros") in each city - yet, in bigger cities there may be several of them handling transport to different parts of the country; in Peru and even more often in Chile, the major companies use their own terminals in some bigger cities. The terminals are quite transparent and it is not usually difficult to find company and bus going to your destination - when the terminal is shared by more companies, shop around for better prices/buses. In Bolivia, when leaving on a bus nearly all terminals request payment of some sort of rather minimal "departure tax" (identified by various names like "tasa por servicio", "uso de terminal", or so), which has to be paid separately - it may be bought ahead in a special booth somewhere in the terminal but I suggest you not to bother: somebody comes to check it on leaving buses and sell it for the same price to those, who do not have it; quite often nobody comes and you save yourself some hassle and few coins.
3. At least in Bolivia (but likely also in Peru and Chile), the shorter routes are serviced by minibuses, vans, or cars, which generally run along some preset route, leave any time when full, and stop anywhere along their way to load or unload passengers - they are sometimes called "collectivo" or "micro". They are still quite cheap and there is usually no fee for the luggage - usually the luggage goes on some rack on the roof or into the trunk, but sometimes there is no provision for the luggage and it need to be stored somewhere inside the vehicle - in such cases you may be asked to pay for an extra seat when travelling with a large backpack.
4. In the cities you may use public buses or resort to taking a taxi. The public bus systems in the visited cities seems to be fairly well developed but it is naturally not always easy to find out which bus or microbus to use - during short stops and without a clear knowledge of the public bus covering your route I suggest you to take a taxi. There are enough taxis available in the cities and towns - some of them are official (identified by a taxi bubble sign on the roof) but there is also lots of unofficial taxis, which are simply private cars fitted with some kind of taxi sign sticked somewhere on the car windshield or bodyshell; it is generally recommended to take just official taxis but in smaller places you will be glad to find at least an unofficial one (yet, in such places it is normally safe enough to use them). As it is typical in the "developing countries" taxis do not use meters and so you need to settle the price to your destination in advance when getting in. The prices are generally quite reasonable and the taxi drivers seem not to be especially prone to overcharge foreigners very heavily (in many other, esp. smaller places they ask the fair price right away). In some Bolivian cities a certain minimal price seems to be set for taxi rides, which may cover rather large parts of the bigger cities (making short rides relatively expensive) or even entire city in smaller places.
5. When going on a side trip to national parks or so, you may need to turn to hitchhiking, that seems to be rather usual and generally safe in rural areas. We tried it both in Bolivia and Chile and found it no difficult to get a ride, providing there was any car going our direction. In Bolivia (and likely also in Peru but we never tried there) you are expected to pay for the ride and so it is a good idea to negotiate the price before accepting the ride - typically, you will pay about the same price as for a public transport available on the given route, being it a bus, minibus, or taxi. The situation is very different in Chile where the straight hitchhiking (i.e. completely free) seems to be rather common and we found no problem to get a free ride in the first suitable vehicle going our way.
1. We mainly used budget hotels - the price level for hotels differed substantially in the visited states: in Bolivia a room for two typically cost about USD10 to 20, it was slightly more in Peru, and up to twice as much in Chile (the price level in Chile was generally much higher - it came close to the conditions in Europe while quality of services was no different from that in Bolivia). In general, the rates for the rooms are similar throughout Bolivia and generally not negotiable; the prices in Peru and Chile are quite dependent on the location but in more expensive locations it is always possible to negotiate even quite substantial discount; ahead payment for the room on a daily basis is quite often expected and flatly requested. For this money you can get a room with a TV and your own bathroom included (locally called "bano privado"), which consists in a single separate room containing a toilet bowl (never seen a squat toilet) and a hot-water shower (using a through-flow heater mounted before the spray - rather too often capable to heat up rather limited through flow of water and sometimes even suddenly failing to work); everywhere you are requested not to put toilet paper into the toilet (the diameter of waste plumbing is much lower than it is normal outside South America) and a garbage can is provided for it (often doubling as a general trash can); with one exception we remained in cold areas with higher altitude, so no fan, AC, or mosquito net were provided or indeed needed. In Bolivia we had no problems to find a reasonably priced room available in the first hotel we asked; in Peru and Chile we had to shop around to find a reasonably priced place. Sometimes the hotel price also included breakfast but we usually preferred to gave up on it and negotiated a discount instead - the main problem is that the breakfast is usually served rather late (at 7:30 or even later), requiring to waste rather too much of the precious daylight time while waiting for it; besides, we actually tried it once in Copacabana, Bolivia and found it rather poor (a small cup of tea and few buns with butter and marmalade) and not at all worth waiting.
2. When trekking in national parks we were always camping using our own tent. In some parks, esp. in Chile, there are some established campsites provided where you can find some very basic sanitary facilities for a not so cheap price. We generally always prefer free camping and it turned out to be no problem to find an unofficial camping to spend the night in the wild and free of charge.
Food: Practically all the food in the visited states is based on meat, usually chicken ("pollo") and also llama (Bolivia and Peru) or beef ("carne" - Chile); vegetarian food is normally impossible to find and locals typically seem not to understand the very notion of it (we are not real vegetarians ourselves but when in tropical areas we generally prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems). In fact, the good food is not likely something to stay in your memory after a trip to the Andean states. The choice of food available in cheap restaurants is painfully often reduced to the single offer of the chicken with potato chips ("pollo y papas" - Bolivia and Peru) or chicken with rice ("pollo y arroz" - Chile); on the shore of Lake Titicaca and on the Pacific ocean coast (incl. Santiago de Chile) you can find a reasonably priced fish. The only somewhat outstanding food, available throughout the Bolivian Altiplano, is few kinds of vegetable soups which are quite good and filling - we especially liked the "quinoa" soup made of the local cereal (it was a staple food of the Incas which is coming back in fashion in the area nowadays). There are some better restaurants with broad choice in every larger town but these are clearly not meant for general public and request quite exorbitant prices; yet, in some more touristic places (e.g. Puno, Copacabana, Santiago) it may save you lots of money in these higher-priced restaurants if you happen to find them offering a "meal of the day" ("Menu de Dia"), which is a preset meal comprising certain soup, certain main course (or even choice of several of them), and sometimes even a desert or salad ("ensalada") offered for a quite reduced fixed price. Yet, beware that in not-so-touristic places (but even in Arequipa) these restaurants tend to close rather early in the evening, even as early as in 18:00. As for provisions, soft drinks, and other basic food are generally available in food shops spread around in smaller places and some supermarkets existing in city centers; the general bakery is not so easy to find but it is on sale in a few special bakeries ("panaderias") or by street vendors. As for the water, the bottled water is sold everywhere - yet, we have now switched to using tap water treated with our own chlorine-based disinfectant and mixed with the Tang drink powder, which we have found to be a very good replacement for buying an overpriced water or soft drinks and producing waste adding to the typical problem of developing countries with no established plastic recycling system. Note: Beware that Chile is one of those countries putting strong restrictions on bringing food into their territory - Chile especially strictly forbids entering with raw fruits and other raw plant parts or with insufficiently processed meat (incl. salami) but it remains reasonable and lets through well-processed food, which is canned (e.g. sardines), baked (muesli), or dehydrated (soup).
Money: All the visited countries use their own currency - they are called "Boliviano" in Bolivia (only "Bs" further on), "Nuevo Sol" in Peru ("PS"), and "Peso" in Chile ("CLP"). We solely used cash withdrawn from ATMs while mainly using a MasterCard debit card; some of the ATMs, esp. in Bolivia, displays only the VISA sign (not MasterCard) but we once got money out of one of these without any problem. The ATMs accepting international cards (beware that some local bank ATMs accept only their own cards) are readily available in all bigger cities but in smaller towns there may be only few of them (or none at all) and these may run out of cash on weekends or holidays. In Peru, we used an ATM of the only available Interbank at the Lima airport (they have monopoly there !), which had the withdrawal limit of PS500 (the surcharge PS4.5, which used to be collected by this bank, was recently abandoned, as mentioned on the ATM display); the Banco de Crédito allegedly offers the withdrawal limit of PS700. In Bolivia, we observed the same ATM withdrawal limit of Bs2000 at several banks in various places; no surcharge was ever added). In Chile, ATM withdrawals at nearly all banks bring a hefty surcharge of CLP2500 (it is even CLP3300 at the BCI Bank) with the exception of the fairly common Banco Estado (and also the Banco Security); we used the Banco Estado ATMs and got out their withdrawal limit of CLP200,000. Naturally, visiting several countries within single trip inevitably resulted in loosing some extra money through repeated exchanges when crossing the borders - it was generally possible to change money with some moneychangers right at the border crossings (but not necessarily on both sides of the border !!) but the rates were not always good. Also, we always changed some money ahead at the last visited city before the border to be sure not to get stuck in a new country with no money and no chance to get it conveniently (this strategy saved us at Colchane in Chile, where there was no reasonable way to change money); reversely, we always kept some currency of the country we were just leaving, just in case there would be any last minute fees to pay, but neither when crossing from Peru to Bolivia nor from Bolivia to Chile we encountered any such charges. When leaving from Santiago de Chile there are few exchange offices at the airport where it is possible to change your last remaining Pesos for a reasonable rate.
Timing and Itinerary: The timing of our trip was forced on us by external reasons (job constraints and availability of reasonably priced air tickets) but proved to be rather favourable. The southern-hemisphere summer (November to April, i.e. winter in the North) is quite rainy in the lowlands while the local high winter (June and July) is bitterly cold on the Altiplano due to its high altitude - this makes August and September good time for travelling throughout all altitudes and all kinds of habitats; September is also not so busy due to the end of school holidays in Europe. The only not so good timing was travelling through Chile in time of the so called "Fiestas Patrias", which is a two-day holiday built around the Chilean Independence day on September 18 that results in difficulties with closed shops and filled up buses lasting for a whole week adjoining this official holiday - we managed all right after all but to be safe we had to add extra time margins to allow for possible troubles. Else, the year 2013 brought rather excessive drought to eastern foothills of the Andes, which resulted in somewhat special conditions for our trip into these areas, having both negative and positive effects for us.
Large part of the territory of the visited states lies in a very high altitude well over 3000 m asl. Therefore it is necessary to plan your itinerary wisely and take care about proper acclimatization. When travelling directly to Bolivia from any "normally" positioned country of the world, even the very landing in her capital La Paz (located in the altitude of about 4000 m asl.), brings you right into the middle of this problem - as mentioned above in the transport section we untangled it by actually flying into Lima, the low lying capital of neighbouring Peru. The generally safe rate of gaining altitude above 3000 m asl. is not to sleep more than 500 m higher than previous night, if not used to the given altitude owing to a not too far-back previous stay (it also helps to get somewhat higher before, even in a bus, before descending for night). In fact, it is not so easy to prepare an itinerary, which would not violate this rule - to help your body to copy with sudden gain of altitude I suggest using tablets of Ginkgo biloba, which we used with great success; this drug generally dilates blood vessels and when you feel uneasy in high altitudes (esp. at night when you may have problem to sleep) it works as a magic. Yet, by no means am I suggesting you can forget about acclimatization - ginkgo just helps to relieve uneasy feeling but would probably fail to prevent real medical problems caused by totally irresponsible behaviour.
National park visits: As it is typical for South America the regime of national parks in the visited countries is pleasantly liberal and essentially allows visitors to move freely around the parks and camp just about anywhere. No fee is collected in Bolivian parks and in more remote Chilean parks; there is a reasonable fee set for the more popular Chilean parks but the park rangers appear to be quite passive and do not collect it systematically at the park entrances but only in some lucrative places and on favourable occasions allowing to collect enough money within a short time (such as popular holidays). Less agreeably, the parks regime esp. in Bolivia is also rather liberal regarding human activities inside the parks. The Altiplano parks are full of domesticated llamas while other animals (incl. not so "profitable" kinds of llamas, like "guanacos") are rather scarce and visibly afraid of people (still, as these areas are technically deserts, human activities are limited to this pasturage that traditionally does not have so many impacts on the habitat). The conditions are much worse in the forest parks that show all the signs of undue human activities including deforestation, planting all kinds of "useful" plants, or allowing introduced domestic animals (esp. cows) to feed in the forest - as always, the original forest animals are very scarce and afraid of humans (as we did not have enough time to venture too far into the forests, we have not seen much more of the wildlife than the footprints).
Safety and pestering: With possible exception of Chile, all the South American countries are known as somewhat dangerous to various level - even violent crime is not especially rare; specifically Peru and Bolivia are known as places where it is, e.g., not entirely impossible to get hijacked in a fake taxi into some isolated place and relieved of all money and belongings (it is generally recommended to stick to official taxis whenever possible). Yet, the problems seem to be generally limited to certain places indicated in the guidebooks, typically poorer neighborhoods of large cities (such as La Paz, Cochabamba, or Oruro in Bolivia), and to small night hours and so it is not so difficult to avoid them. Still, to be sure to stay away from troubles, we did set our itinerary accordingly as these large cities are not of much interest anyway. If you avoid going to these dissuaded places and adopt usual precautions (such as not walking around at large cities after dark and not displaying expensive cameras, jewels, or big stash of money) you are about as likely to run into troubles as anywhere else in the world - in any case, we have never felt threatened in any way during our trip. As for pestering, it is quite rare in the visited states and practically limited just to street vendors selling souvenir items in the most touristy places (like Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca) and usual restaurant touts in the tourist centers of Peru (which in fact limit themselves just to friendly offers of their services). The begging is not too widespread and beggars seem to be rather shy (please, never give money or anything to these people as these gifts solve nothing and make them to believe that begging is a way how to live instead of finding some sustainable way; now quite flourishing South-Asian countries are an example that there is a self-sustaining way out for even the poorest parts of the world).
General impression: We have found people in the visited states usually quite friendly and often willing to help when asked - for example, we have never registered any remarks about "gringos" (a somewhat derogatory expression for white people, which are universally considered rich). On the other hand, as anywhere in South America people are generally rather self-interested and not too willing to conform to other people's needs - it does not mean they are rude or mean, it is just a way of life there (relatively sparse population there does not make it necessary for them to learn being considerate, as it is essential in heavily populated Asian countries) and you just need to become accordingly assertive to defend your personal interests and have a good time. As anywhere else in Latin America, English is very rarely spoken in the visited states outside of the few foreign-tourist destinations (situation is somewhat better in Chile) - still, in spite of the fact that our Spanish was virtually non-existent on arrival and was only slightly improving throughout our stay we were able to get about just fine by using a phrase-book upgraded with some pre-prepared phrases covering expected situations.
Yet, beside many commonalities there are also same differences to be observed in these countries, probably induced by their different historical and economical evolution. Peru and Bolivia are quite similar geographically but Peru seems to be somewhat more "developed", which actually does not make it by any means more attractive for an independent traveller. In comparison with my previous visit there in 2000, Peru has very much tried to capitalize on the incoming tourists, which they decided to do by introducing rules strongly restraining independent trekking and national park visits (in 2000 I was still able to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu independently without guides and porters, who for sure were not needed - today you have to join an organized tour, which spoils the experience and multiply stress to the environment by bringing extra people and superfluous services, precisely the things that were supposed to be restricted by new regulations) and especially by altering the popular places to better suit tourist "needs", i.e. replacing the authentic local life with tourist-oriented restaurants, travel agencies, and souvenir shops (I could see this development in Puno, where the town centre has been changed to a sterile tourist ghetto). Bolivia, on the contrary, has not yet managed too many changes of this kind (exception being Copacabana and Uyuni) and still provides a more and more rare opportunity to meet real life still going on. Of course, the real life makes it more difficult for a tourist to move around and to take care about her/his living, but I personally see no reason for insisting on taking my own way of life with me when travelling to some country on the other side of the world. Chile seemed to differ somewhat more markedly from Peru and Bolivia - it was clearly in a better shape economically and the way of life of even ordinary people seemed to be rather similar to the life in "developed" countries; yet, Chile has been still showing typical rough edges of the country that jumped rather too quickly to the way of life, which has not been yet fully grasped by general population - while all kinds of public services were properly in place (most likely based on the example found somewhere in the "developed" world), the staff seemed to be quite often still stuck in the previous era and was effectively ruining the outcome (this phenomenon was well demonstrated by the services of the TurBus bus company which had very good reservation system, good network of its own terminals in any town, and fairly new buses but the subaltern staff attending to the passengers in these terminals and buses was ridiculously rude and inefficient).
We have spent just a few hours in Lima, the capital of Peru, arriving there in the early afternoon and leaving in the early evening of the same day, and have not found it too appealing. In spite of its long history (it was founded by Francisco Pizarro himself, the ill-famed conqueror of the Inca empire) it cannot offer any interesting historical quarters or buildings and especially no atmosphere - it is just a rather dull city with no sights to remember. Oddly for the capital city, it did not look any different from my previous visit in 2000 - it seemed to be somewhat forgotten by the history. We cannot see any reason for anybody to hang around there any longer than really necessary.
Transport: The Lima international airport is located at Callao about 11 km north-east from the city center. The only practical way to cross this distance is to take a taxi - there are some local buses passing by the airport but these are difficult to grasp and not equipped for passengers with baggage. It is possible to take one of the regular taxis waiting in front of the arrival hall (their drivers will approach arriving passengers) or save even more money by walking out of the airport premises and flag down a passing taxi (these are cheaper as they do not have to pay for entering the airport premises) but it is generally recommended to take one of the official airport taxis called Taxis Verdes (Green Taxi), which has a little booth just behind the exit from the customs. The Green Taxi have fixed prices corresponding to the distance, which you can find printed on a board next to the desk - of course, these prices are about twice as high as you would pay for a regular taxi outside of the airport, but it is not worth it trying to save your money right after arriving to a completely unknown airport after a long tiring flight. We were paid PS45 for a trip to La Victoria just south of Lima center, which took about 45 minutes in the heavy midday traffic.
Accommodation: We have not stayed overnight in Lima.
Money: We withdrew the money for our short stay in Peru without any problem from one of several ATMs conveniently located in the baggage-claim area in the arrival hall of the Lima international airport, using our MasterCard debit card. All these ATMs belonged to the Interbank bank (it has monopoly there) and their withdrawal limit was PS500 (no surcharge was added for the withdrawal).
Food: We have not been looking for restaurants in Lima but only bought some street snacks during our few-hour walk around city centre. During my previous visit in 2000 I was happily seeking advantages from, at least then, widespread custom practice of offering a discounted preset "meals of the day" (Menu de Dia) and used my several-day stay to test all kinds of better meals in the restaurants around the main square (called, as always in Peru, "Plaza de Armas") - within my lunches and dinners I then got a possibility to test quite a few interesting offers for a reasonable price but we have not checked if this option was still available during this trip.
We have spent less than a day in Arequipa, arriving at about noon and leaving early next morning (with its altitude of some 2000 m asl., it was an apt acclimatization stop for us). Arequipa is a fairly large city famous for its colonial architecture. Yet, the pleasant atmosphere, which I had found there in 2000, seemed to be somewhat not present this time. The city looked strangely dull and there was nothing special to catch our interest there - one of the reasons might be that all of its many churches were safely locked (note: this later proved to be general situation in all the visited countries, which was very annoying for us, but we later found out that it was an unavoidable outcome of the widespread problem with theft of artistic relics at the unguarded churches, likely done per order of ruthless art "collectors" from North America - what a damnable shame); the primary sight of Arequipa is the 16th century convent of Santa Catalina, which has been long ago abandoned by the nuns and turned to a non-living monument that can be visited for a hefty fee (we skipped it this time but I had visited there during my previous visit and found it to be a nice monument, but sadly missing any spiritual atmosphere).
1. To get to Arequipa from Lima we used an overnight double-deck bus and decided to treat themselves to the lower-deck first-class "cama" service with the 160-degree reclining seats, which gave us a possibility get some sleep after long flight from home (run by company called Civa, cost PS90 per person, the journey took about 17 hrs). To avoid any problems I bought the tickets about a month before the trip using their on-line reservation system (www.excluciva.com.pe) and paying by credit card - the bus was completely empty in the time of reservation but at least the first class was fully occupied during our trip, so buying the tickets at least a few days ahead seemed to be a good idea; the process of reservation was very smooth and the vouchers received by e-mail was accepted without any problem and exchanged to the tickets and the seats corresponding to the reservation. The bus was leaving at about 20:00 (about 30 minutes late) and its overnight ride along the Pan-American highway was quite smooth - soon after departure we got a warm meal of pollo y arroz (not too tasty but edible) and some water, in the morning we got a sandwich for breakfast; the bus arrived about two hours late, partly due to half an hour needed for changing flat tyres on the rear twin wheel.
2. To get to our chosen hotel we took an official taxi parked inside the Arequipa's central bus terminal for PS7, which was the official price quoted on the board next to the taxi stand.
3. Our next goal after Arequipa was a Bolivian town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca just behind Peruvian border. Our intention was to get there from Arequipa in the daytime and within one day. As there were no direct buses to take us from Arequipa to Copacabana, we had to switch buses in Puno. While there were many buses connecting Arequipa to Puno, the only chance to get from Puno to Copacabana rather comfortably was to catch the only afternoon tourist bus leaving Puno for Copacabana at about 14:30. Still, with a recently completed paved road connecting Arequipa and Puno, buses normally took just about 5 hours to cover this distance and so it looked there should be no problem. The advertised direct buses for Puno were not leaving any sooner than at about 10:00 but we were directed to Julsa company, which appeared to have semicama buses leaving at about every hour, and got the tickets for their first bus leaving at daylight (i.e. at 6:00), which should gave us more than sufficient margin for switching the buses in Puno; we bought the ticket with seat reservation (PS30 per person) at the bus terminal in the afternoon before the trip, right after our arrival there. Only when leaving the next morning we found out that the particular bus was not going all the way to Puno but we were expected to switch buses at Juliaca (we found it out at the last-minute before our bus - indicated to go to Cuzco - left without us) - we also paid the Arequipa's bus terminal departure tax (called "Servicio de Terminal") of PS1.50 per person before leaving. With the bus departure we believed that we had already passed through all the trouble but not so - the night before came a snow storm, rather rare in this area, that left as much as 2 cm of snow on the mountain ridge separating the coastal desert from the Altiplano and our bus took some 5 hours to crawl over the mountain pass there (the camion drivers there did not expect any winter weather and with their summer tires they blocked the pass till all that "thick" snow melted away); thus we reached Juliaca as late as at about 14:00. At Juliaca the situation got crazy mixed-up because majority of our fellow passengers were suggesting that we all had to switch buses to get to Puno, while the bus driver was maintaining that the bus was going on to Puno; well, in the end we were abruptly asked to leave the bus immediately and had hard time to persuade a new driver, who took over the bus, to let us get our baggage out of the bus trunk. Soon after that we were hurried up on board of another passing bus and had to stand in its aisle for an hour before it got to Puno - as late as at 16:30. Surely, we were not at all impressed by the Julsa company, which obviously had to be regarded with a great deal of caution.
4. At Puno, to get to our near chosen hotel (it is rather small town) we took a moto-taxi (a three-wheel vehicle known from India, where it is called "motoriksha") parked outside the Puno's bus terminal for outbargained price of PS3 (the taxi cars inside the terminal, 5 m from there, asked for PS5). On the way back to terminal next morning we flagged down a passing taxi car and paid PS4 - initially we asked for a taxi in our hotel (Santa Maria) but the owner proved to be unable to arrange that.
1. Hostel Home Sweet Home, a reasonable double room with bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for PS45 per night; chosen as the cheapest hotel recommended in the LP guide.
2. At Puno we stayed at Santa Maria Hotel at reasonable two-bed room with bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for PS60 per night; this price was somewhat discounted as we were leaving early without breakfast but still obviously quite high but I was not able to find anything cheaper - the few hotels I checked were even more expensive, showing the generally rather high price level in touristy places in Peru. We did not have much time to explore Puno and only ventured for a short stroll along Calle Lima - since my previous visit in 2000 it had been turned to the main pedestrian street and effective tourist ghetto.
1. There were few money changing offices on the city main square (called invariably "Plaza de Armas" in Peru). We use one to stock up with Bolivian money by changing some of our Peruvian Soles (which we believed - vainly as it turned out later - would not be needed as we were supposed to get to Bolivia within next day).
2. At Puno, being stuck there unexpectedly after changing majority of our Peruvian currency to Bolivian one in Arequipa, we had to do another withdrawal to pay for our hotel. We used without any problem the ATM of the Banco Wiese Sudameris (in fact, by coincidence a subsidiary of the Peruvian branch of the Scotiabank) on the main Plaza de Armas. This money were properly collected form my account.
1. It proved to be rather difficult to get tasty and not too expensive food in Arequipa. When walking in the afternoon around the city, we saw several restaurants offering interesting and cheap "Menu de Dia", but we got a surprise when all of them closed at 18:00. Then it become rather difficult to find a reasonably priced but also open restaurant - in the end we succeeded to persuade the owner of the vegetarian restaurant located at the corner of Ayacucho and Jerusalem street to re-open for us - we have been there earlier and been told they would serve their Menu de Dia till night but then found them closed in the evening; the Menu de Dia was not available any more and we had to pay rather hefty PS20 per portion of the so-called Menu Turistico, which consisted just of a soup (good), fried rice (in fact, more a plain rice with some limited amount of few kinds of vegetables) and a cup of tea. This was an awakening call for us, letting us know that we were not going to have a goo time regarding food during our trip - this guess later proved to be usually sadly correct.
2. At Puno, there is very many tourist restaurants along the main Cal. Lima and some of them offer a preset "Menu Turistico" - we choose one with the cheapest price for it and paid PS18 (for a soup, selected main course (grilled steak and fish) and tea) for good food but rather small portions. We had not been looking for provisions at Puno.
We have spent two days in Copacabana and found it rather interesting and pleasant - besides the town itself we have also taken an all-day trip to near island called Isla del Sol. Copacabana is a smallish town (everything is in walking distance there) nicely set on the shore of Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca) and offering a relaxed atmosphere and well developed tourist infrastructure. The main attraction of Copacabana is its old and nice cathedral (its extra asset is that it seems to be always open, at least during daylight). Another outstanding feature of Copacabana is a steep prominent hill called Cerro Calvaria (Calvary Hill), which is located just next to the town and offers excellent all-round view over the blue immensity of Lake Titicaca and the town itself - as it name reveals, the hill also holds a Calvary (the way of the Cross) but it is sadly neglected and, instead of a pilgrimage church, it ends with just few unkempt village chapels and way too many souvenir stalls surrounded by lots of rubbish. Copacabana and Lake Titicaca are already located on the Bolivian Altiplano with an altitude of around 3800 m asl. and so it makes a good acclimatization stop for those planning to climb any of even higher mountain ridges of the Andes.
Isla del Sol visit: Majority of tourist come to Copacabana just to visit the near famous island of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). It used to be an important sacred place for Altiplano native communities and according to the legend also the place where the famed Inca empire started. Unfortunately, all the island great ancient temples have been long ago taken to parts and the stones used to build Christian churches on the mainland - nowadays the island is regrettably not much more than a tourist trap used by locals to drain money from tourists. The steep slopes of this hilly island still holds the well-laid system of terraced fields but they are rather neglected and nothing is grown on them - the islanders switched to live on tourists and readjusted their life to this goal: they harvest the tourist money both directly, by charging fees for entering various parts of the island, and indirectly, by selling various souvenir products (esp. alpaca-wool sweaters and caps) at many stands. The island bare landscape (it was deforested by humans likely as early as in prehistoric times) is thus still offering superb views of the lake and surrounding snow-caped mountains but the genius loci of the place is sadly gone. The much advertised Inca ruins on the island are a very poor representation of famous Inca masonry - the walls left in all the advertised sites are not much better than simple walls, as build by shepherds in the mountains all around the world (incl. the Altiplano) to shelter them from wind, and hold no resemblance to what can be seen at the best Inca landmarks, such as Cuzco, Ollantaytambo, or Pisac in Peru (note: this seems to be the case of all Inca remnants in Bolivia; the best ancient masonry in Bolivia can be thus probably seen in Tiwanaku, a pre-Incaic site not too far La Paz - yet, I am judging here just on the basis of some documentaries I have seen, because there is allegedly not much left there and we have skipped this sight). We have visited the island through one of the so-called "tours" offered in Copacabana, which in fact do not provide anything more than a mere boat transport to the island and back (for details see the transport section below) - we choose the full-day tour that started with arrival to the island northern port of Challapampa at about 10:30 and ended with departure from the island southern port of Yumani at 15:30, offering thus enough time to hike the distance between the two ports and also visit some ruins. On arrival to Challapampa we had to buy an entrance permit (Bs10 per person collected by "Comunidad Challapampa") needed for any visit the northern part of the island: the ticket allowed us to visit various ruins located on the northern tip of the island (these ruins are much overrated in the guidebooks and other information sources and would not be worth visiting by itself; the largest sight is the Chincana complex featuring some not so special walls and also the so-called "Ceremonial Table" (Mesa Ceremonica), which used to be a site for sacrifices to the Inca gods and nowadays serves as a place for contemporary shamanic rituals - there is usually a guy present there offering to perform some purifying rituals for tourists ready to pay, but it is rather uncertain if he is indeed a genuine shaman); the same ticket is also valid for the so-called "Museum of the Gold" (Museo de Oro) at Challapampa, which is a sad example of the human development as there is no gold in there (all the gold artefacts from the museum were stolen some time ago). Next part of our visit consisted in a walk along the island main ridge along an easily recognizable and well maintained path - from this path it is possible to enjoy panoramic views of the island itself, surrounding blue lake and snow-caped mountains towering in the background; the northern part of the island is bare rock and dust but the southern part holds some vegetation, sadly mainly introduced eucalyptus trees. Twice along this hike you are required to pay again for your visit: Bs15 per foreign visitor ("visitante etranjero") collected by "Comunidad Challa" in the middle of the path, and Bs5 per person collected by "Comunidad Yumani" just before entering the village of Yumani (the islanders had not been able to agree how to split the tourist money and so they divided the island into three parts/communities and each of them is collecting its own levy); beware that you may be approached by some additional fake fee-collectors - never pay to anybody unable to give you back an officially looking ticket). The village of Yumani is scattered along a steep slope that also holds a very nice example of Inca terraced fields - unfortunately, the fields are now abandoned and the village is living from several newly built overpriced guesthouses and selling souvenir products to passing tourists (esp. alpaca-wool sweaters and caps) at many stands. The island is rather crowded with tourists (esp. in comparison with rest of Bolivia, except Uyuni) and tour to the island is not much rewarding as for the historical sights - yet, together with the boat passages the tour provides al least a good introduction to the Altiplano nature (and the hike there is also a good acclimatization to the altitude).
1. There were generally two ways for us to get from Peruvian Puno to Bolivian Copacabana: either by tourist buses, which are rather convenient but little expensive (the buses run in the morning at about 6:00 and 7:30, and in the afternoon at 14:30), or by the local collectivo transport, which is of course much cheaper but also much slower and less convenient option as it requires to change the vehicle twice to complete the journey. Because we arrived rather late (the border was supposed to close at 19:00) we decided to overnight in Puno and took the tourist bus next morning. We bought the ticket for the first morning bus at 6:00 at the Puno bus terminal right after our arrival there - as we found the ticket booth there (of the company Titicaca Bolivia) unmanned, we took an offer of a middle man wondering around (he collected PS25 per person but then the attendant of the ticket booth arrived and, when I asked, she let out that the price was in fact just PS20 per person - the listening unlucky fellow then gave us back those extra-earned PS10 while cursing the silly attendant; so watch out there). Next morning the bus left on time (we also paid the Puno's bus terminal departure tax, called "Tasa de Embarque", of PS1 per person before leaving) and got to Copacabana without any problem after 3.5-hour journey at about 9:30. The trip was rather scenic, offering nice views of Titicaca lake - for better views sit on the left side of the bus. Some internet sources mentioned the requirement to pay few Bolivianos of the so-called "Copacabana tourist charge" on the bus before reaching Copacabana, which is supposed to be a payment for entering some kind of "the sanctuary", but we had not been asked for any extra payment anytime within this trip.
2. To get to Isla del Sol and back, the easiest way is to take one of the so-called "tours" offered in Copacabana; these tours are sold by several travel agencies in Copacabana and also by any bigger hotel there and in fact do not provide anything more than a mere boat transport to the island and back - the only difference is the specific boat you sail on. The boats generally leave the Copacabana beach at about 8:30 and 13:30 and come back come back at about 17:30; the passage takes about an hour and half one way. There are two kinds of the tour: (1) for the so-called full-day tour the boats leave Copacabana in the morning for the northern island port of Challapampa, stay there for about two hours, then move to the southern island port of Yumani, stay there for another two hours, and leave for Copacabana at about 16:00; (2) for the so-called half-day tour the boats leave Copacabana in the morning or in the afternoon for some of island ports, stay there for about two hours, and then return to Copacabana. We took one of the full-day tours bought through our hotel there, Hostal Leyenda, and paid Bs35 per person - our boat called "Andes Amazonia" left Copacabana half an hour late (9:00) and left Yumani half an hour earlier (15:30) without any previous warning, so it left behind few unlucky clients planning to enjoy all their paid-in time on the island (they had to come back on some other boat, likely paying again for the passage) - so we can hardly recommend this particular boat. Another way to get to the island is to buy a one-way trip in one of the few kiosks located at the Copacabana beach - yet, they asked Bs30 per person for the trip to Challapampa, so they are by no means of better value than the tours.
Border Crossing: Crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia took about half an hour and was very hassle-free, also owing to our riding on the tourist bus. The bus stopped at the border and the passengers got the instructions about the border procedures from a special agent provided by the bus company. To complete the procedure, it was necessary to visit two separated offices (!!) on the Peruvian side and another one on the Bolivian side - many internet sources mentioned the requirement to show the proof of having a valid inoculation against the yellow fever but we were never asked to show it. We paid no extra charges on either side of the border. The very border between the offices had to be crossed on foot but fortunately there were no luggage checks and so it was possible to leave all the baggage in the bus. It was possible to change money, incl. the coins, with moneychangers on both sides of the border, who were all offering the same and quite reasonable rates.
Accommodation: Hostal Leyenda, a nice double room with bathroom attached (supposedly with a hot-water shower, but that did not work) and breakfast (a small cup of tea and few buns with butter and marmalade - not at all worth it) for Bs140 per night; in fact we I negotiated a discount due to a lack of running hot-water. The owner looked friendly at first but later proved rather inefficient and so we have not been too happy with the accommodation.
Money: As Copacabana was the first bigger place we visited in Bolivia we needed to stock with local currency. There is now several banks with ATMs working with international cards; we successfully withdrew the money from ATM of the Scotiabank on the main 6 de Agosto street near the main Copacabana townsquare (Plaza Sucre) - it successfully worked with my MasterCard debit card in spite of not really displaying the proper MasterCard sign (it displayed VISA sign only) and provided us with Bs2000 (likely the rather general withdrawal limit in Bolivia); when checking my account transactions after returning home I found that this bank had even never claimed the withdrawn money, so I can recommend it with no hesitation whatsoever.
Food: It was fairly easy to find a good and reasonably priced food in Copacabana and after the experience we were very much looking forward for having a good time in Bolivia regarding the food (only later we found that this was in fact a total exception in whole Bolivia and we were rather struggling). Especially good there was a string of restaurants along the main Cal. (street) 6 de Agosto between Av. 16 de Julio and Cal. Oruro. We very much enjoyed the delicious and very filling (in fact even too filling) preset "Vegetarian Lunch" at the LP-recommended "Restaurant Vegetariano Kala Uta" on Plaza Sucre for Bs25 per person (it included salad, quinoa soup, the main course (we had quinoa gratinated with cheese and spagetti bolonnese), and tea as a replacement for the listed ice-cream - yum-yum) and twice the very tasty preset "Menu de Dia" at the "Snack de 6 de Agosto" for Bs15 per person (it included a soup of the day, the grilled trout with rice, and tea replacing the listed desert). There was no problem to buy provisions in Copacabana, somewhat with an exception of bread which was sold by just a few small shops or street vendors.
We have done a three-day trek called "El Choro" (according to the village located midway the trek) without using any guides or porters. The trek follows one of many foot and pack llama trails established well in the pre-Incaic times and still used by locals living in the villages, which till this time have no road connection to the surrounding civilization. As it is somewhat typical for the treks in the Bolivian Altiplano, the El Choro trek is customarily hiked downhill, starting at the bare mountain range of the Andes and gradually descending along some river valleys into and through the tropical cloud forest covering the western slope of the Andes, known as the Yungas. Naturally, the vegetation is changing rather quickly with losing the altitude, starting with a bare, rocky mountain desert (during our visit covered with snow left after the recent storm), continuing with an alpine zone with sparse grass at first and low shrubs with many flowers of starting spring later, and ending with montane forest with dwarf moss forest with trees covered with epiphytes at first and humid tropical cloud forest in the end (in fact, during our visit the cloud forest zone was rather dry and not at all humid due to the unusual drought we have encountered). One advantage of going downhill is that you are spared of the usual problem of high mountains trekking: danger of ascending too quickly without allowing enough time for your body to get used to the altitude - the only concern here is to come prepared enough to cope with the initial high-altitude part of the trek and descent to a sufficiently low elevation within the first day. The trek is passing through the area designated the national park (Parque Nacional Cotapata) but its regime is very liberal - there is no fee to be paid for entering the Park and probably no restriction for camping in the Park; the only requirement is to sign in at the beginning of the trek, likely just for statistical purposes. There were not many other tourists we met along this trek and so nothing was disturbing our mountain solitude there. In any case, the trek, esp. its upper part, was one of the highlights of our Bolivia trip and our advice to anybody would be not to skip this opportunity to enjoy diversity of Bolivian nature with limited burden of climbing in the high altitude.
Trek itinerary: The trail is described in all guidebooks (incl. LP) and many internet sources relatively in detail - however, while the first part down to the Choro village is typically described rather accurately, the other part description is uniformly skimped and often gives an distorted idea of the trail topography (I will try to make up for this shortcoming in this report). Also the maps we had available seemed to became rather unfaithful, differing quite a lot for the lower part of the trek beyond the Choro village - it became rather difficult to follow our march on these maps in this lower part of the trek and usually we had no idea about our exact location and the remaining distance to be covered to the trek end. Nevertheless, with the exception of the initial climb, the trail is always well-trodden and very easy to follow in any weather.
Day 1. We started at about 10:00 from the wide gap named La Cumbre, the highest point on the highway connecting La Paz with the Amazon jungle, at the altitude of about 4700 m asl. (the altitude data differ widely in various sources). This was an area of the bare mountain range of the Andes separating Altiplano on its eastern side from the Amazon tropical lowlands down below - it was just rocks and few small lakes, during our visit all covered with snow as the leftover after the recent storm. First we had to climb up a moderate slope to the not at all prominent pass of Abra Chucura at 4859 m asl., where we got at about 12:00 - we had no problem to find the trail as we could just follow the steps of some our fore-trekkers in the snow - yet, the proximate terrain looked rather featureless and it surely might be difficult to find the way up in foggy weather; still, at its very start the trail passed by a small building housing the Park ranger station where every trekker was required to sign in for the trek (no fee was required) and it would be also possible to ask there for directions. Along the climb and especially at the pass we got a splendid view of the rocky mountain ranges spreading all around. Right beyond the pass the trail became clearly visible as it was winding down the valley to the northwest, skillfully built up into the hillsides. Soon beyond the pass also the first patches of grass and moss appeared and as we continued lower the vegetation became more common and dense, especially after getting near the river Phajchiri flowing down the valley (the trail follows this river all along this trek, yet the river keeps changing its name as it flows on), where the grassland was gradually variegated with shrubs growing higher and later even dotted with solitary trees. At about 16:30 we reached the first village of Chucura at the altitude of 3600 m asl., where we were asked to pay the fee of Bs20 per person, allegedly meant for "trail maintenance" ("pro concepto de mantenimiento de puentes y caminos") - the trail looked quite good indeed, but more likely owing to the good work of its ancient builders than any maintenance since their time. Near beyond Chucura we pitched our tent down by the river at its confluence with its smaller right tributary. This part of the trek was somewhat tiring, esp. due to the altitude, but rewarding owing to the scenic views of the surrounding steep mountains and valleys.
Day 2. We started at about 8:00 from our camp and went steadily down to the next village of Challapampa (2825 m asl.) - this was for us the best part of the trek as it followed the river along a very nice cobbled path lined with low but more and more dense vegetation but still offered clear view of the valley slopes; the vegetation consisted in various succulents and twisted montane shrubs, which was often just in flowers and at lower altitudes was also covered by lichen and some epiphytes. Soon beyond Challapampa the trail entered a rather narrow gorge with high steep walls covered with very dense montane forest, all covered with lichen and epiphytes - the trail became rather narrow and went up and down constantly all the way to the next village of Choro (2200 m asl.) and a suspension bridge crossing the river just beyond it, which we reached at about 10:00. Beyond the bridge, the trail topography changed dramatically, generally descending only very slowly but surprisingly often going uphill (just beyond the bridge the trail climbed for quite long). The surrounding vegetation changed to genuine tropical forest with tall trees and creepers often cowered with moss and epiphytes. Technically, it was a cloudforest but due to the drought during our visit the forest was rather dry and also many of the streams crossing the trail were dry - the main river was well down below and we actually had some problem to keep supplied with enough water. We set our camp in the half dry riverbed of the river Coscapa, one of the few still flowing streams, at about 17:00. This part of the trek was rather long and quite tiring, esp. due to the long steady climb at its last portion.
Day 3. We started at about 9:00 from our camp. For quite a long time all the way to the village of Sandillani (2050 m asl.) the trail went about even with while occasionally climbing quite considerably; from there the trail went steadily down to the village of Chairo (about 1300 m asl., the altitude data differ widely), the end of the trek, where we arrived at about 16:00. The rather narrow trail was set on the steep sunny slope of the river valley high above the river - it went through the same tropical forest but due to the strong sun the forest there was somewhat lower and thinner than before and quite hot, also because of the drought during our visit. The high situated trail offered good views of the narrow forested valley but the heat made this part of the trek somehow less pleasant.
1. Our goal was to get to Coroico, a quiet little town in the heart of the Yungas some 100 km from La Paz, that offers good views back on the Andes peaks and provides a good base for many hikes in its vicinity and also the El Choro trek. As there was no direct transport to take us there from Copacabana we had to switch vehicles in La Paz. There is frequent transport between Copacabana and La Paz, provided by collectivos and buses. We wanted to get on our way as early as possible and so took the first leaving transport, which happened to be a local bus that got filled much faster than also waiting minivans - the bus (run by company called Transportes Manco Capac, cost Bs15 per person) left from its stand at Copacabana's Plaza Sucre at 7:00 and terminated on a street just next the La Paz district bus terminal known as the "Cementerio" (cemetery), at about 11:00. As the transport to the Yungas is leaving from different La Paz terminal known by its location as "Villa Fatima", we had to take taxi to get there - there was no problem to flag one passing by an the ride cost us Bs30. From there we had no problem to get seats at a waiting collectivo minivan heading directly to Coroico - it left at 12.00 and arrived at 15.00 (Bs20 per person; being new to the collectivos we fell to a common scam and paid extra Bs5 per person for our luggage).
2. When heading to the start of our trek at La Cumbre, we took another collectivo minivan connecting Coroico and La Paz as it passes this place just before reaching La Paz - we had to pay Bs20 covering the full distance of the minivan (no fee for the luggage); the minivan left at 8:00 and arrived at 10:00. At Coroico, the collectivos leave from rather oversized terminal asking departure fee of Bs1 per person (proudly called "Uso de Terminal"). In general, the collectivo minivans between Coroico and the La Paz's Villa Fatima terminal and other way back run rather frequently as they normally do not take long time to fill. There are actually two kinds of the vehicles providing this service: the larger regular minivans (locally called "microbus") seating 14 passengers and costing Bs20 per person, and the luxury smaller minivans (locally called "minivan") seating 6 passengers and costing Bs30 per person - when in hurry in the morning take the "minivan" at it gets filled much faster. The minivans now normally use the new road, which in 2007 replaced the famous "World's most dangerous road" used before and known for many fatal accidents. Yet, during our stay there were some damage to the new road caused by recent rains and the repairs in progress resulted in necessity to follow a rather narrow and slow detour around a part of the new road - these conditions brought an extra treat to us when heading for our trek as our minivan unexpectedly took the old road (even our local fellow passengers looked rather surprised and watched the passage with genuine interest); our uphill passage was rather quick and of course interesting and scenic and we - fortunately, I guess - met nearly no other cars (exception being a big truck going also uphill, which we easily passed at one of the wider spots); this old road is now used mainly by bicyclists doing a downhill free-ride runs there (they fortunately start later around noon when it gets more warm - in any case, anybody taking this bike ride should keep in mind that the old road is not really and always closed as they are probably told by the tour companies organizing these trips.
3. After finishing our trek at Chairo, we needed to get back to Coroico. It is always possible to take a taxi right from this village but locals are really exploiting their position at the end of tiring trek and are known to ask very exorbitant prices (allegedly at least Bs150 per taxi). Therefore we just passed those waiting vultures and went down along the side road with the intention to walk to the 3-km distant next village where it should be possible to find a much cheaper public transport to Coroico. Yet, just about a kilometer beyond Chairo we were passing by a house and got an offer for a ride in a car for Bs50 to the village on Yolosita on the main road. From there we hoped to catch a collectivo but after some waiting we settled for a taxi, which took us to our hotel at Coroico for Bs45.
1. Hostal 1866 at Coroico, a large double room with TV and bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for Bs140 per night. We stayed there twice before and after our trek in two different but similar rooms. There was also no problem to leave our spare stuff for no fee in the hotel for the duration of our trek and collect it in a good order after coming back.
Coroico itself is a very small nondescript town and within the few hours we spent there before and after our trek we were able to explore its main square and all the adjacent main streets. It is not much to see there regarding the architecture (the church located on the main street did not look much from the outside and we had never seen it opened during our visit) but Coroico position on a small hill offers a view of the Andes panorama with several snow-covered peaks.
2. When trekking we slept in our own tent - it was OK, cold at night had not been too bad even at the high altitude of about 3500 m asl. (even for our tent built rather for good ventilation in the tropics than for high mountains). We spent both our nights on the trek camping freely in the wild - yet, I do not know if this is officially allowed as I naturally have not asked. In any case, there are also official camping grounds set in individual villages along the trek, which offer some very basic facilities for a fee - they are described in the guidebooks; yet, beware that it may be not so easy to locate the camping sites recommended in the guidebook for the lower part of the trek beyond Choro, as the places not mentioned in the guidebooks try to exploit the guidebook recommendations by displaying signs with the names of the popular sites (e.g., we have seen the recommended camping name Buena Vista used in at least three widely separated places - for the first time at the campsite called Puente Colgante in the LP guide, half a day walking before the genuine place). Needless to say, that this effort of locals to cash on guidebook recommendations adds to the already mentioned confusion created by overly brief guidebooks and inaccurate maps and makes it impossible to get one's bearings along the lower part of the trek. Also, all the guidebooks were very much recommending free camping in the garden of a Japanese man settled at the village of Sandillani but we have just seen some suspicious-looking signs at this village but no Japanese garden or Japanese man - he may be gone now so better do not entirely rely on enjoying this site.
Money: Our intention was to withdraw some money from an ATM but we found out that there was no ATM in Coroico capable to work with international cards.Food:
We have spent just half a day in La Paz and even that was just a coincidence and not an intention. Namely, we got stuck there due to accidentally running there into a car-free day called the "National Day of the Pedestrian" (Dia del Peaton) - nevertheless, this rare chance to see the city without omnipresent smelly cars was rather nice experience (at least, after we managed to find a transport to the Main Bus Terminal and dumped our luggage there). This treat came to us as a surprise as we had not seen any mention of it anywhere in the guidebooks or internet sources but later I have found on the internet that this was an annual event held in all large Bolivian cities since 2011 at the first Sunday of September (in 2013 it fell on September 1) - yet, the event seemed to be a surprise even for majority of other passengers coming with us on a collectivo from Coroico, who came loaded with various stuff to be sold at the Sunday La Paz markets. Within this day (in fact, since Saturday 18:00 till Sunday 17:00) all motorized traffic, including all public transport, is banned in all large cities across Bolivia. Of course, it is not at all bad idea - on condition, that everybody is informed about it well in advance. It was not much of a set-back for us but we met some other travellers who had their plans seriously ruined by this surprising shutdown. Inhabitants of the affected cities celebrate this event by taking to the streets and having fun - children seem to be especially happy as they are allowed to freely ride the streets on their toy pedal cars; pet dogs are other winners. In any case, it was rather nice for us to walk around the town in such relaxed atmosphere. Yet, La Paz itself had shown to be not especially interesting city with no special sights to admire - it has its share of large churches but those sadly remained closed even on this special day. Another general treat La Paz offers is the view of the city downtown from above from the city higher positioned outskirts - it is quite impressive, also due to several near snow-covered volcanoes providing very scenic background. Thus, we found La Paz a place good enough to spent a day but not at all a must-see place.
1. To get to La Paz from Coroico we once again took a morning collectivo minivan (leaving at about 8:00; Bs20 per person, free luggage - for details about this service see the transport information of the previous El-Choro-trek section). Yet, this time we got a surprise as the minivan ended at the outskirts of La Paz and we were told that there would be no transport any further inside the city till 17:00 of that day (the reason was that it was the official car-free Sunday in big cities of Bolivia - for details see above in the beginning of section). The situation did not look good for us as we needed to get to the La Paz Main Bus Terminal, till that evening to resume or journey as soon as the traffic would be unblocked. Our goal was about 10 km away and we had to get there with all our luggage - officially on foot. Fortunately, we walked just about a kilometer - fortunately, just about a quarter of this distance we had to indeed cover on foot. After some walking we first used an offer of some "undertaker" who was breaking the blockade using his private car within the La Paz periphery as an illegal taxi for a high price (for Bs50 he took us along side streets some 3 km closer to the city center - while originally promising to take us all the way to the Villa Fatima terminal); then after some more walking we found that at least the taxis indicated as Airport Taxi were allowed to run - for surprisingly usual price of Bs30 we got a final run to the Main Bus Terminal.
Accommodation: We have not stayed overnight in Lima.
Money: There was plenty of ATMs around the La Paz center and we successfully used one of them to withdrew a considerable amount to last us for whole our stay in Bolivia. Some of the ATMs bore VISA sign only (not MasterCard) but we actually had no problem to witdraw the money from one of these with our MasterCard card.Food: It proved to be impossible to find a good restaurant around the La Paz center and around the Main Bus Terminal - all the eateries we have seen were offering the usual menu of fried chicken and greasy potato chips or rice; we ate in one of them but fortunately forgot all about it. Rather surprisingly, considering the festivity with many people on the streets, no snacks or other treats were offered along the La Paz streets. Otherwise, there were enough shops to buy all kinds of provisions all around the city.
We have spent three days in the northeastern part of the Amboro national park (Parque Nacional Amboro). This diverse national park protects vast area on the eastern slope of the Andes and encompasses a great variety of ecosystems ranging from montane dry forest of the inter-Andean valleys, past various kinds of humid montane cloud forest (Yungas), to lowland Amazon moist forest. The eastern area of the park offers a possibility to visit the lowland rainforest, which grows all over low steep hills just east of the river Rio Surutu, which flows northward and forms an eastern border of the Park - the area can be relatively easily accessed from the small town of Buena Vista, more precisely from several entrance points located on a dirty road running south from there up the stream of the Rio Surutu. Yet, the rainforest there is very dense and accessible only along few trails allegedly starting at or established around several villages located on the Park border (yet, there seems to be no chance to find and follow these trails without hiring a local guide) or going upstream along several small rivers flowing from the Park to the Rio Surutu. The LP and other guidebooks recommend the river Rio Macunucu as a good entrance point to the forest and provide some descriptions of the access to it and trekking possibilities in the area - this gave us a possibility to trek there without any need to hire a guide (which we always prefer as local guides typically succeed to turn up your agreed trip into their customary scheme) and therefore we choose this spot for our exploration of the Bolivian rainforest. In spite of the fact that the information given in the guidebooks proved to be quite out of truth in some aspects, we have been able to accomplish a quite nice 2-day trek along the Rio Macunucu course. The trek became one of the highlights of our trip and could be recommended to admirers of tropical forests - yet it was likely made easier for us by the dry weather we encountered during our trip which resulted in a quite low river level.
Trek description: There are some descriptions of the so-called Rio Macunucu trek at the LP, Trekking-in-Bolivia, and Bradt guidebooks but even those more or less admit that it is often necessary to follow the river course (yet, the first two guidebooks also contain sketch maps of the trek course, unfortunately putting it each on different side of the Rio Macunucu and being both wrong anyway). In reality, it is necessary to go within the river, i.e. wade it upstream or advance along stream deposits lining its banks - if there had ever been a land trail following the river it had become overgrown and we could not find any trace of it; the forest alongside the river is not particularly dense but it often grows on rather steep slopes and it is dense enough to make hiking through it an ordeal. We had no problem to proceed right along the river, usually hiking along its uncovered banks or on top of many boulders within its flow but sometimes even wading straight along the river bed - this ease of our advance was made possible by rather low level of the river (there was a serious drought in Bolivia during our trip) and it would likely be much more difficult if the weather was more humid.
Access: Fortunately, all three mentioned guidebooks provide similar and rather accurate descriptions of the access to the trek beginning; there is even a reasonably correct sketch map in the LP guidebook. The trek starts at the place called "Campamento Macunucu" (Macunucu Camp) lying about 12 km southwesterly from the tiny village called "Las Cruces", which is located on the dirt road heading southeasterly from Buena Vista, about 35 km from it. On south side of Las Cruces there is a very sandy dirt side road branching to the south-west (passable in its full length only for high-clearance vehicles), which passes a very degraded secondary forest and crosses the Rio Surutu river after some 7 km by a ford crossing (the river was quite wide but crossing was easy for us due to the low water level of not more than some 20 cm - it may be much more difficult after some recent rains); the river bends just south of the crossing and the road continues against its stream for some time and then crosses through some gardens and after some 2 km reaches the indigenous village called "Villa Amboro"; from there it is another 3 km through some more gardens to the Campamento Macunucu, where used to be a Park ranger station but now it is unmanned and just providing a basic tourist accommodation run be villagers from Villa Amboro. Indigenous Indian inhabitants of Villa Amboro are known not to be particularly friendly and allegedly they even sometimes collect a so called "entrance fee" from passing tourists even when they are not asked to provide any services - on the other hand, for the fee they do offer accommodation in the relatively good looking thatched huts in the Campamento Macunucu and also guiding services into the rainforest. When passing through the village we were not asked for any money but the villagers did look rather unfriendly and some of them flatly ignored our queries about the right way to the Campamento - there "happened" to be no signs for the Campamento at the village but the responses of some more civil villagers were sufficient to point us in the right direction; when reaching the soccer field in the middle of the village do not continue straight on but turn to the right and cross the field diagonally and continue along a smaller road starting at its further corner. The village is in effect the only place where the way to the Campamento is not obvious - otherwise it is fairly straightforward (actually, when heading into the Park, just before the ford crossing there is a fork on the access road - go to the right there and you will get to the Rio Surutu after some 100 m). Due to the very soft sandy surface of the road, it together takes about 3 hours to cover the distance between Las Cruces and the Campamento; the ford crossing is about midway. The Rio Macunucu river first appears on the right (northern) side of the road just before reaching the Campamento.
The trek: The best way to access the Rio Macunucu river is a small road/path forking right from the access road about 50 m before the Campamento - this road heads to a relatively large and shallow stream pool in the river, which is used by local children as a bathing pool. We crossed the river there and tried to hike along a inconspicuous trail continuing on the opposite side of the pool (the guidebook descriptions seem to put a start of the Rio Macunucu trail there) but that trail quickly disappeared and we were forced to return to the river and continue upstream along it watercourse. The Rio Macunucu valley is rather wide and shallow near the Campamento and so is also the river and there are usually walkable stream deposits on at least one of its sides - still, as the river meanders through some hills, one or the other river bank become very steep time to time and it is necessary to cross the river rather frequently to be able to continue walking dry-shod; there is usually enough boulders in the stream to make crossing possible without taking off the shoes. Good sturdy hiking shoes are crucial to keep this boulder jumping safe - also get hold of a firm stick or use trekking poles to keep you stable. However, the Park interior is rather hilly and soon up the stream the river valley start narrowing and the river become narrower and deeper - it becomes more and more difficult to stay out of water and it is necessary to take off the shoes and wade across the river sometimes. This is described in the guidebooks and so we came equipped with plastic sandals - when the river crossing along the boulders became too difficult we simply switched to the sandals and wade through the stream. The river bed was firm but often covered with small and unstable pebbles - walking barefoot would be rather painful and slow, so come prepared. The reasonably easy trekking up the river ends with a passage through a very narrow gorge with high sheer cliffs, after which a deep stream pool is reached with a small tributary stream entering the river on its left bank (from the north) - to continue up the river it would be necessary to wade the stream pool above the waist deep and just upstream the pool the river is blocked by huge fallen boulders filling a narrow gorge, which would be very difficult to pass by. However, the mentioned guidebooks give some information that it should be possible to continue up the river to the river source (7 days round trip from the Campamento) or along the mentioned side stream and on to the summit of Cerro Amboro, a prominent hill 1471 m high offering great views of the Park rainforest (allegedly 2 days round trip from the Campamento ??) - in any case, these treks would be quite difficult without a guide well familiar with the area). Besides, according to some information published on the internet, about 45 minutes upstream along the mentioned tributary stream there should be a rather nice waterfall; we have not tried to get all the way there but ventured just a short distance along this way - it was very nice experience as this small stream got us into the middle of the rainforest with its canopy closing above the stream. This prominent spot is mentioned in trek descriptions given in all mentioned guidebooks but they quote a rather short time to reach it: 4 hours and even 1.5 hours - possibly this speed could be reached when walking mostly overland along a passable trail but we doubt it could be achieved when hiking along the river; in any case, our slow-pace and enjoyable hiking and wading with all our camping gear took us about 7 hours one way from the Campamento.
Our itinerary: Due to our delay in La Paz we arrived to Buena Vista as late as at about 10:00 and to Las Cruces consequently at about 12:30. Thus we had not been able to hike too far from the Campamento before the dark and so we set our camp on the stream deposit by the river flow just some two hours upstream from the Campamento. Next day we went in enjoyable slow pace up the river to the end point described before - the deep stream pool with tributary stream entering the river on its left bank, had a rest there and explored around there, and then slowly headed back and spent the night at the same spot on the river bank. The third day we enjoyed themselves at our camp in the morning and then slowly left and walked back all the way to Las Cruces to be there in time for the set rendezvous with our taxi transport back to Buena Vista.
Trek impression: The trek was rather nice and very serene and became one of the highlights of our trip. The rainforest growing alongside the river looked good and pristine and contained some fairly impressive forest giant trees and usual share of tropical creepers and epiphytes. Yet, while we did see lots of very fresh foot-prints of many animals (incl. tapirs and some smaller felines) we have actually seen just one small feline from a distance; even the birds were rather surprisingly relatively rare considering that river banks are usually much-favoured habitats for all kinds of birds. This experience seems to suggest that the wildlife near the Park borders is very much afraid of humans, likely because its protection within the Park is not much observed by the villagers (we actually gained very similar experience in tropical forests of Venezuela in 2009, while the situation seemed to be much better during our trips to Asia and Africa) - in any case, it looked that to observe the wildlife it would be necessary to venture much further inside the Park, several days journey from the nearest village. On the other hand, the dry weather we encountered in Bolivia during our trip provided us with a very nice treat consisting in especially vociferous concert of frogs and crickets, which started the first day soon after dark and lasted for several hours (it was for sure one of the most loud concerts of this kind we had ever heard throughout our trips) - interestingly, it was much quieter at the same spot the next night, likely due to a short but heavy rain-shower we have experienced during the second day of our trek. Again due to the dry weather, the water in the Rio Macunucu was crystal clear and warm enough to enable us to enjoy nice swims in many pools spread along the river course. The trek thus provided us with experience pleasantly diverse from the rest of our trip, which took place mainly within mountain terrain and considerably colder climate.
1. As a base for our visit of Bolivian rainforest we have chosen the small town of Buena Vista, situated on the new main road connecting large Bolivian cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. To get there from La Paz, we took one of the few long-distance cama buses providing direct connection between La Paz and Santa Cruz (it was indeed a cama bus with 160-degree reclining seats and three seats in each row, the only case when we drove this luxury kind of bus in Bolivia) - the bus (run by company called Trans Copacabana, cost Bs170 per person - we had to pay for journey all the way to Santa Cruz in spite of getting off about two hours before bus final destination; before leaving La Paz terminal we also paid the Terminal departure tax of Bs2 per person, called "Uso de Terminal") left from the La Paz Main Bus Terminal at 18:45 (instead at its scheduled departure time of 18:00 set just after the end of the car-free period) and arrived to Buena Vista at about 10:00 next morning; the bus was completely full and we were glad to get the seats after the one-day transport shutdown (clearly, arriving to the Terminal early was essential for securing the seats and it proved to be wise to endure the complicated passage through La Paz described above). The ride was reasonably comfortable and uneventful - yet, keep in mind that no food was provided except a small snack served out soon after leaving La Paz. Besides, when planning to go to Buena Vista with a bus connecting La Paz or Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, keep in mind that there are two different roads that can be used for this trip - make sure that your bus is going along the new road.
2. Next we needed to get to Las Cruces, where our trek started, and back in the afternoon two days later. I did find on the internet some information about a collectivo running along the side road there some time in the morning but there should have been none about noon when we needed to go and we had no information about the schedule of its return. To save time and stay on the safe side we hired a private taxi and accepted the requested price of Bs120 - we for sure seriously overpaid the ride but for a good reason as we wanted to get the driver really interested in coming for us for the same price two days later. This strategy also worked even too well for us as, when we arrived to Las Cruces after two days about an hour before the set time: a minute after our arrival to the meeting point about half an hour earlier than agreed our taxi pronto arrived, probably waiting within eyeshot and making sure we had no time to hire any vehicle possibly passing by - anyway, we did not want to take any chances as there was hardly any traffic along that side road so afar from Buena Vista and I read on the internet about some other people who outbargained better price, was left without transport, and had to walk nearly all the way to Buena Vista. Actually, we paid just Bs110 for our ride back because our driver took another passenger for the last few kilometers of the return trip and got Bs20 for it and so I just informed him that that made our trip cheaper by the Bs10.
3. Before leaving Buena Vista we had actually negotiated with our taxi driver that he would try to drive us along the side road in the direction of Villa Amboro as long as it would be possible in his normal passenger car, but as it could have been expected he refused to go there due to too much soft sands on that road - needless to mention that we found the road perfectly OK for the first about 6 km nearly all the way to the river crossing, but we could not know that before actually passing there on foot. In any case, our another plan also was to try to hitch a lift when walking to the Campamento Macunucu and back - yet, we met just few motorcycles and no cars along both our walks and so had to walk all the distance. On the other hand, when walking out we actually met two motorcycles driving in in their back seats one tourist with a backpack each, showing that this was the method of transport for the tourists paying for accommodation and guiding services in the Campamento Macunucu.
1. Residencial Nadia at Buena Vista, a rather uncared-for room with fan and bathroom attached (cold-water shower) for Bs80 per night - we chose that hotel as it was recommended by other travellers on the internet but in fact the hotel was showing all signs of total neglect and was nearly out of business (the room we got was clearly their last somehow ready to be offered). Anyway, we needed a place to store our spare stuff for the duration of our trek and so the recommended hotel seemed to be a good option - in fact, in spite of its condition the hotel provided all the necessities we needed and we also had no problem to collect our stuff in a good order after coming back. We actually used the room just after coming back from the trek - on our arrival we just used their patio to repack our stuff and quickly left for Las Cruces.
Buena Vista itself is a tiny but rather pleasant town and within the few hours spent there after our trek we were able to explore its main square and few its adjacent streets. It has a distinct look of settlements founded by Spaniards in warm climates (as known from Mexico) and offers enough shade and not much views (in spite of its name meaning "Nice View" in English). The town was originally founded in 1694 as one of the first of the famous Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos, the Jesuit reductions built on the frontiers of Spanish America with the aim to convert local indigenous tribes to Christianity. Many of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos survived till this time the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Spanish territories in 1767 (when the reductions in other areas were abandoned and their churches fell into ruins) but the mission church in Buena Vista is a sad exception - it was kept for long time but its last eighteenth-century version was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by the rather unattractive modern brick structure standing today (the fact not too much advertised in the town descriptions); as always we had got no chance to see its interior during our visit).
2. When trekking we slept in our own tent and had a good time falling asleep listening to the rainforest sounds - the night temperature was nicely warm.
1. There were several restaurants located around the large main townsquare of Buena Vista but all of them were quite expensive; we had our dinner in a small local eatery at one of side streets east of the townsquare - it was staple "pollo y papas" but one of the best we had in Bolivia. There was also no problem to buy usual provisions in Buena Vista in market and many small shops located along side streets east of the main townsquare.
2. We used our own camping stove for cooking during the trek, mostly using special food brought from home.
We have spent two and half days in Samaipata area - we used the town as a base for our visits to near sites, namely the pre-Incaic shrine called El Fuerte and the south part of the Amboro national park (Parque Nacional Amboro) featuring special cloud forest vegetation of tree ferns. Samaipata itself is a tiny pleasant town much-favoured by expatriates and wealthy Bolivians due to its low altitude (1650 m asl) and mild climate (its name means "rest in the height" in Quechua) - this specific population has made sure to equip the town with all pleasing services difficult to find around Bolivia, making it thus also a good place for a much needed rest for beaten tourist roughing travel around Bolivia. Samaipata features nice mountainous surroundings, neat good-looking streets and a small but nice church (never opened, of course).
Visit of El Fuerte: El Fuerte (this inapposite name, meaning "fort" in Spanish, was given to it by conquistadors) is an enormous sandstone rock engraved with various figures, grooves, channels, basins, steps, seats and niches. The site obviously served as a sort of shrine since the pre-Incaic times but the specific purpose of the shrine and meaning of its many engravings is now entirely mysterious. The rock used to be open to close examination but numerous visitors were causing lots of damage to the soft sandstone and so it has been recently closed and can be nowadays observed just from a boardwalk circumscribing all around it. Within the site there are also some "very imaginatively restored" Incaic houses. In the forest at the south-east corner of the site, a short side walk from the main sight-seeing circle there is another mystery, a narrow circular hole called Chincana (meaning "tunnel" in Quechua) going straight down into the earth - it is allegedly over 30 m deep but remains unexplored and all explanations of its meaning I have seen seemed to be just wild guesses; obviously I cannot offer any explanation myself but for me it has been the place of the strongest "energy" feeling I have ever had: I felt being literally sucked into the hole (and I am not especially sensitive to these feelings). Entrance fee to the site is Bs50 for foreigners, the site is open since 9 to 17. The site is located in nice natural surroundings on top of a steep ridge and offers nice views all around. It is a very interesting and rather magical place and definitely worth a detour if you happen to be in the area.
PN-Amboro-south visit: Southeastern part of the PN Amboro (for basic information about this diverse national park see the previous section of this report) just north of Samaipata protects last remnants of the humid montane cloud forest noted for giant tree ferns covered with mosses and bromeliads. Unfortunately, visit to pristine parts of this forest would require a several-day trip encompassing an initial 4WD car transport and overnight guided trek into the Park interior (there are some tour companies at Samaipata capable to organize such trips, but it would not come cheap). Still, for a quick look at the local unique tree-fern forest it may be sufficient to visit the buffer zone of the Park with the forest somewhat degraded by allowed economic activities of local communities - even in this zone there are few patches of reasonably preserved forest that can be reached rather easily; there is no information about these options in any of the Bolivia guidebooks but some hints can be found on the internet. We explored the tree-fern forest using some trails established near the village of La Yunga and known as "Sendero de los Bosque de los Helechos Gigantes" (Giant Tree Fern Forest Trail). Access to the trailhead for the Trail was located up in the hills about 3 km pass La Yunga some 13 km along a dirty side road heading northeast from Mairana, a small town 16 km west along the main road from Samaipata. At the trailhead we found a board showing a sketch map, that presented the Trail as consisting of two partly overlapping circuits, but the reality was rather different as the Trail turned out to be somewhat neglected and overgrown in some parts. Still, we quite enjoyed the smaller of the circuits (Sendero Corto) with a good path easy to follow and partly set on boardwalk (somewhat rotten in parts), which was passing through truly nice dense forest of 3-m tall tree ferns covered with clumps of moss (the path and the forest was very dry during our visit but it looked that normally might be somewhat muddy); at the farthermost spot of this circuit there was an observation platform (partly neglected but still usable) offering a good view of the forested ranges deeper within the Park. We also wanted to walk the larger circuit (Sendero Largo), accessible along a side path branching from the small circuit just next to the observation platform, but this circuit had been nearly abandoned and we had to explore many different paths before we finally located its correct course - still, also this circuit was worth the effort as it went somewhat down the slope of the ridge to the partly shaded, more humid area where the tree ferns were markedly taller and covered with some bromeliads; this larger circuit joined the smaller one near the trailhead. Some descriptions of the area I have seen on the internet mentioned some more available trails adjoining the two circuits and also a campsite by the near river but we have not seen any track of those; the descriptions also mentioned that there should be some fee collected to visit the Trail but we have not seen anybody who might ask for it. We spent about half a day (since 9 to 15) exploring the trails and then spent a night in the forest. The tree-fern forest in the area was quite nice but there was no wildlife due to the proximity of the village - sadly, the forest was also used as a grazing land for cattle and we did see quite a few cows near the trailhead and even within the forest. Apparently, as it is so typical in the developing countries, the trails built using the foreign funds are not being maintained and the surrounding area is not protected and so it may not take long for this place to become completely spoiled. Still, at the time of our visit the place was very much worth visiting because the tree-fern forest was indeed unique.
1. There was no direct transport from Buena Vista to Samaipata and we had to switch vehicle in Santa Cruz. First we took a first available collectivo minivan leaving from Buena Vista main townsquare, which took us to its special terminal at Santa Cruz's Av. Irala (Bs20 for two, free luggage; 2 hrs). Next we took another collectivo minivan to Samaipata leaving from a stand on Av. Omar Chavez Ortiz just about opposite its junction with Av. Irala (Bs30 for two, free luggage; 3 hrs), which took us to its stand on the main road near the Samaipata hospital.
2. To get to El Fuerte site we took a taxi from Samaipata main townsquare for Bs50. Back we walked - first about 5 km downhill along an access dirty road with nice views of surrounding step ranges and then another 3.5 km along the highway (with a quite heavy traffic).
3. To get to the trailhead for the Giant Tree Fern Forest Trail near La Yunga we first got a ride with passing car (we were waiting for a collectivo minivan on the main highway and the car stopped for us without any our effort to flag it down) to Mairana (Bs15 for two) and then a taxi all the way to the trailhead for Bs80 (it required quite an effort to find a taxi driver who knew the place and was willing to take us there - the road was quite rough but we were lucky to find a local expert driver who had no problem to drive the road quite fast with his regular car). Walking back we hoped to get a lift from some passing car but we were out of luck as it happened to be Saturday morning and there was no traffic down to the main road (when driving up in the taxi at Friday morning we crossed with several cars driving down) - we walked nearly all the way back to the road and got a ride just for the last about 3 km (we paid Bs5 for both to the driver) and spent about 2.5 hrs to get to Mairana; from there we again took a collectivo minivan to Samaipata (Bs20 for two).
1. Hostal Siles, a smallish but good double room with bathroom attached with a hot-water shower for Bs80 per night. The hotel was run by friendly and able owners who had no problem to understand our need for storing our spare stuff for no fee in the hotel for the night of our trip to the tree-fern forest. On our return we collected our stuff with no problem and were able to hire a very small single room with bathroom attached with a hot-water shower for half a day (we were leaving in the evening) for Bs40. This was one of the best hotels we lodged during our Bolivia trip.
2. After our exploration of the tree-fern forest we spent a night at our own tent and had a good time. We built our tent on a little grassy ground in the forest next to the Trail and got quite a surprise in the morning - at the turf under our tent there were two small holes inhabited by ants and those managed to turn the groundsheet of our tent to a sieve; they had not got to any biting but this proved special capabilities of South American ants as anything like that ever happened to me anywhere else around the world.
Money: There are no banks with ATMs in Samaipata.Food:
We have spent one day in Sucre and found it not especially attractive. Sucre, a fairly large city at the altitude of 2810 m asl., is nice and clean but lacks any special appeal as such. However, we happened to found ourselves there on September 8, the day of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which is very important feast in the Roman Catholic calendar, much celebrated in all South America. In Sucre it was celebrated with procession to the Sucre's principal Metropolitan Cathedral on the main city square, blessing of cars by archbishop there, and marches (accompanied with music, signing, and dancing) of groups representing various communities and professions along main city streets. Owing to this event we had a very interesting day at the city - the procession was emanating really strong spiritual "energy" (manifesting the well-known Christian devoutness of South American population), car blessing was interestingly grotesque, and the marches were nice folkloric happenings. The feast also gave us a chance to finally visit few churches - the Metropolitan Cathedral was large but missing any extra appeal, the older Iglesia de San Francisco was far more interesting and full of people coming for blessing (in fact, especially the San Francisco is supposed to be open every day in the morning, and maybe the same apply for the Municipal Cathedral); other churches were still closed even at that rather special day. At a small plaza next to the Iglesia de San Francisco we also found few souvenir shops where we were able to buy good quality alpaca wool souvenir goods (sweaters, caps, etc.) - this was actually a rather rare opportunity as we have not seen many such shops around Bolivia, with the exception of rather overpriced items sold on Isla del Sol at Lake Titicaca. The feast made our day in Sucre but without it a visit to this city could be skipped without any real loss.
1. To get to Sucre from Samaipata we took an overnight semicama bus (140-degree reclining seats, two double seats in a row) as there were no day buses servicing that journey (Bs110 per person). At Samaipata the passing buses stop in front of the hotel Nuevo Turista, located on the main road just opposite its junction with the street/dirt road running north pass the Archeological Museum (Museo Archeologico). The hotel owner also works as an agent of the bus companies - you can either show up there in the evening and let him find a seat for you to your destination in a passing bus (all seemed to make a stop there) or buy the bus tickets from him ahead of time together with reservation of specific seats (he arranges that by phone); yet, do not count too much on actually getting the reserved seat: we bought our tickets and seats two days before our trip and got the instructions that for our 20:00-bus we should show up at 19:30 - at 20:00 of the day we were told that the bus would be 50 minutes delayed and at 21:00 we were put on two empty seats in a completely different bus and got on our way. The ride to Sucre took about 10 hours (while 30 minutes were spent sorting out a traffic accident when our bus hit a motorcycle) along a completely dark sandy road (no tarmac nearly all the way - prepare for a lot of dust inside the bus and better bring a scarf to cover your mouth and nose) but was not actually so bad and surprisingly smooth; in the middle of night the bus made a toilet stop somewhere on the road in the middle of nowhere.
2. To get to our chosen hotel we took a taxi parked outside the Sucre Bus Terminal - there was a fixed taxi price of Bs4 per person to the centre.
Accommodation: Hostal Charcas, a large double room with TV and bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for Bs130 per night; ahead payment was flatly requested.
Food: There were some touristic restaurants around the Sucre principal square (Plaza 25 de Mayo) but those were very expensive. We anyway spent our day walking around the city and so we kept feeding ourselves with all kinds of snacks. There was no problem to buy usual provisions in many shops all around the city.
We have spent one day in Potosi and found it very interesting and atmospheric. Potosi was founded in 1545 as a mining town right at the foot of the prominent hill called Potosi Hill (Cerro de Potosi) but better known as "Cerro Rico" ("rich mountain") due to its large content of silver ore. The mines established in this mountain were a major supply of silver for the Spanish Empire over next two hundred years and Potosi became a very wealthy city and also one of the largest in the world, more populous than London or Paris at that time. Yet, the purity of the mined silver ore declined over time and at 19th century the tin became the main product instead - collapse of tin prices in the end of 20th century then made an end to the state-run mining in Cerro Rico with only few remaining mine cooperatives still trying to make a poor living there; today's Potosi is actually a poor centre of one of the poorest regions of Bolivia. Still, in spite of its glory being gone for good, Potosi still remains a very interesting city to visit - it features steep narrow picturesque streets dotted with many churches (sadly, nearly all kept closed all the time) and still contains remnants of its old atmosphere of the "place to be". Yet, rather challenging is the high altitude of this city, 4090 m asl., and the cold that comes with it. In any case, we liked this city quite a lot and enjoyed walking (except for feeling cold all the time) around its center and also venturing into its less proud peripheries - though the guidebooks seem to be somewhat downplaying this city, we suggest not to skip it if at all possible. Note: A usual treat for passing tourists is a visit of some Cerro Rico mine in a company of local mines - it can be easily organized through some local tourist agency or even individually. We have not been interested ourselves and so cannot testify to value of this adventure.
1. To get to Potosi from Sucre we took a morning bus (company Trans 6 de Octubre; Bs15 per person, free luggage), which left Sucre Bus Terminal at about 7:30 (departure tax of Bs2.50 per person, called "Uso de Terminal") and arrived to Potosi's new, modern, and nearly empty "Terminal de Buses Interprovincial" at 11:00.
2. To get to our chosen hotel we took a taxi parked outside the Potosi's bus terminal - there was a fixed taxi price of Bs10 around the city.
Accommodation: Residencial Tarija (located on Av. Serrudo near the Residencial Felcar), a double room with TV and bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for Bs120 per night. Before deciding for this hotel we tried the Residencial Felcar chosen from the LP guide but found it highly overpriced.Food: There was a lot of touristic restaurants around the central Potosi's square (Plaza 10 de Noviembre), which all looked expensive but featured quite appealing menus - we tried the Lobo's Pizzeria on Calle Padilla (good Italian food: medium pizza for Bs70 and a soup for Bs12). Around the centre there are several chain cafeterias called Santa Clara Confiteria Restaurant, which all serve much welcome warming tea/coffee for Bs5 per cup (they would be also good for having breakfast). There was also no problem to buy usual provisions in many shops all around the city.
We have spent two days and one night in Uyuni that we visited with a sole goal to have a look on local unique feature - "Uyuni Salt Flats" (Salar de Uyuni). Uyuni itself is a small, sleepy former mining town, totally uninteresting and surviving just as a base for tourists visiting the Salar and the surrounding Altiplano.
Visit of the Salar de Uyuni: The Salar de Uyuni is a former lake completely filled with a thick layer of salt, which is dry on the surface most of the year (yet, the water level is actually always just below the surface) - most of the year thus the Salar looks like a totally flat, rock hard and dazzling white plain, spread at the altitude of 3650 m asl. and embracing few protruding rocky "islands" (islas) of volcanic origin, sparsely covered with tall cacti. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to visit the Salar independently (the only feasible option seems to be using your own bicycle) and you are thrown upon joining a preset jeep tours lasting one to four days and organized by some of the Uyuni travel agencies (you can also come with a tour operating from Tupiza or even La Paz). This setting brings a visit to the area real close to a tourist trap and it is quite difficult to make your own choices about your trip. In general, the one- and two-day tours are concentrating only on the Salar in the vicinity of Uyuni, the three- and four-day tours add a long-distance ride over high Altiplano desert to some lagunas (lakes) - all the tours follow quite similar itineraries, all leave rather late at 10:30, and all come back at about 18:00. Beware that all agencies use exactly same 5-seat jeeps with a triple seat added to the stowage compartment in the jeep back - there is not much leg space at the second row triple seat and practically none at the added seat, which sits right on the jeep floor. The agencies make sure not to go without filling all available seats sqeezing in six or seven clients (different agencies pool their customers into common cars to achieve that) and so going for a multiday tour means to treat oneself to a serious torture - even when the customers considerately rotate the seats. In any case, if you come just to see the Salar a one-day tour is sufficient to give you an idea. Sadly, the one-day tours usually all follow exactly the same itinerary and timing, which includes such treats as the train graveyard (bunch of old engines left to rust in the desert), salt mining (village living on processing of salt and another place where the salt is dug), salt hotels (made out of salt), visit of the island called Isla Incahuasi, and sunset watching at the wet part of the salt flats - all that is interrupted with frequent stops for picture taking (crystal clear air makes possible to make all kinds of bizarre shots - see the internet); it is very difficult to make any alterations to this fixed scenario even when all passengers agree (esp. the salt village and salt hotels clearly pay the commission). On the other hand, the fact that the basic offer of all the agencies is the same itinerary and their customers are often pooled into common cars keeps the prices down and allows one to shop around for the best deal. Still, if you are lucky you may run into a special itinerary - we happened to get an offer of a well-priced one-day tour that variegated the base itinerary with a visit into a small village of Coquesa located under the prominent dormant volcano Tunupa (3707 m asl.), which towers right on the north shore of the Salar - the reason for the detour was that the agency had a customer who was left at the village two days before as he wanted to stay there and climb Tunupa (leaving out the altitude, this climb is easy even if somewhat tiring - actually, this particular itinerary seems to be, in my opinion, probably the best way to enjoy the area, if you have at least three days there). The agency was the Brisa Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org; its Uyuni office is located just next the Hotel Avenida) and we got this tour for Bs320 for both of us (there was even just 5/6 trippers on the tour, giving us a much welcome extra space in the car) - we had no complaints about the service, which included a light meal and a driver/guide. Particularly we were very glad to be able to get so close to Tunupa volcano, which is very imposing and chromatic, and also to visit the very authentic lonely stone Coquesa village under it, featuring very nice stone church (sadly again closed); another good part of the tour was our visit of the small island of Isla Incahuasi (requiring an extra entrance fee of Bs30 per person), regrettably shared with passengers of about twenty other vehicles; the Salar itself is an interesting natural phenomenon, nice to see but not a thing to call a "must-see", as far as I am concerned. To summarize, the one-day tour to the Salar de Uyuni is rather interesting and can be recommended if you happen to be passing near Uyuni (and a visit of local villages around Tunupa volcano makes a great improvement to it), but we would not say it is worth a special detour to come there. The longer tours to the high Altiplano definitely offer nice desert and mountain sceneries but the fact that majority of the tour time is spent in tragically uncomfortable vehicles makes these tours very uninviting for me and I would strongly recommend to find some other way to visit the Altiplano desert - as for us, from Uyuni we were heading to the Chilean Altiplano national park called Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga, which offers a possibility to explore this kind of environment in a much better way. (Note: As our next goal in Bolivia after Uyuni was the village of Pisiga on the Chilean border we initially considered to arrange a two-day private tour, starting from Uyuni, incorporating visit of the Salar de Uyuni, Isla Incahuasi, Tunupa volcano climb, and another salt flats of the Salar de Coipasa, and ending at the Pisiga village - I have contacted many travel agencies in Uyuni by e-mail and asked them about such tour but they all quoted so incredibly high prices for it (the best offer was about USD500) that we gave up and got there by bus with a switch in Oruro.)
1. To get to Uyuni from Potosi we took a semicama bus (company Diana Tours; Bs30 per person, free luggage), which left Potosi's "Terminal de Buses Interprovincial" at 11:00 (departure tax of Bs1 per person, called "Uso Terminal") and arrived to Uyuni at 15:00 after a scenic ride over Altiplano (there is no bus terminal at Uyuni. all the buses terminate on a street lined with bus companies offices, at a walking distance from the Uyuni's central townsquare (Plaza Acre).
2. Our next goal after Uyuni was a Chilean village of Colchane just beyond the border between Bolivia and Chile on the main road between Bolivian city of Oruro and Chilean city of Iquique. Thus we had to first get to the large Bolivian city of Oruro. There are only night buses servicing that journey and all of them arrive to Oruro very early in small night hours, well before there is any chance to get a connecting bus for Iquique (or to anywhere else); on the top of that, Oruro has a rather bad reputation for violent crime and even night robberies at the bus terminal are not something unheard-of. Of the several buses going daily from Uyuni to Oruro we therefore chose the one leaving Uyuni and reaching Oruro as the last - unfortunately, while several buses leaving relatively early (around 19:00) were good-looking semicama buses, the one we have chosen (company San Miguel; Bs50 per person, free luggage; leaving at 21:00 and arriving at 4:30) was rather old and decrepit cama bus and the only over our trip, which was taking standing passengers. The ride went along a completely dark sandy road (no tarmac nearly all the way - prepare for a lot of dust inside of the bus and better bring a scarf to cover your mouth and nose) and was rather unpleasant as the bus aisle was full of lying passengers who were rather recklessly (but understandably) expanding into the space dedicated for legs and hips of sitting passengers; in the middle of night the bus made a meal stop at a small dark town somewhere on the road. Anyway, while it was indeed the worst passage we made during our trip, it was still manageable. Otherwise it is also possible to do the same journey using night trains but they are not running every day and are rather expensive.
1. Hotel Avenida, a double room with TV and bathroom attached (hot-water shower) for Bs90 per night (original price of Bs100 was discounted on the basis of the offer we got from a street tout as an allurement to buy a Salar tour at her office located just next the hotel - surprisingly, this agency office remained closed when we relieved ourselves of other packs in the Hotel and came to buy the tour, and so we actually bought it from other agency).
2. In Oruro, we spent just few morning hours and were not looking for accommodation.
Money: In Oruro, there were two exchange offices at the bus terminal where it was possible to change Bolivian currency to Chilean one at a reasonable rate. Beware that when heading for Chile there may be a problem to change Bolivian money on the Chilean side of the border (definitely the case of Colchane).Food:
I an very sorry but
the Chilean part of this trip report
is still under construction
and will be hopefully finished later.
When preparing for my trips I always gather from the internet information about each place to be visited and before I go I put it unsorted into a single document that I print out and use it during the trip. I still have these documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.