Huacachina

Huacachina – an oasis in the middle of the desert. A lake surrounded just by two streets and couple of houses, just 10 min driving from Ica. Almost every days sunny and dry weather – Huacachina is really a place where you can loose yourself for couple of days. Just ten years ago you could find only 12 hostels here, now the place exists almost solely of hostels, hotels and restaurant, similar to Aguas Caliente or other touristic places in Peru. The name of our hostel was Banana`s Adventures. With 80 Soles per night for mixed 6-bed dorm room its seemed quite expensive first, however it already included an activity: sand dunes -buggy/ sandboarding tour, BBQ-dinner or Ica city tour. We have of course decided for the first option – the dunes – buggy /sandboarding tour, a reason why most of the backpackers and tourists come to this place. The hostel was really lovely, with a cool pool, nice atmosphere and a bar where different cocktails and delicious dishes were served right next to it. The warm weather and lying next to pool felt really good after spending one month in the cold mountains.DSC_0010

As the oasis is really small, you can walk around the lake in the center just within couple of minutes. If you find time and energy, you should definitely climb the sand dunes surrounding Huacachina to see the oasis from above during the day if you want to get the typical postcard pictures as the dunes buggies will most probably not stop there during the tour and if yes, you will have only limited time to take the pictures. We bought some cold beers before, climbed the san dunes within 15-20 minutes and enjoyed the view from above.

However, as mentioned before, the sand buggy and sandboarding in the dunes are the main activity here. I would recommend to do the tour in the afternoon around 4 or 5 pm as the weather is not as hot at the afternoon and you can see the sunset later in the evening. Driving with the sand buggies is really a lots of fun! I haven´t realized how fast these small dunes cars can actually get! Sometimes I had the impression sitting more in a rollercoaster than a dune buggy. DSC_0090After 10 minutes driving the buggies stopped and we had some time to practice sandboarding on a small sand dune. However, do not expect professional sandboarding equipment. If you want some better boards you have to pay more in advance (around 25 Soles). If you know how to snowboard and surf, don’t worry, sandboarding is still a completely different feeling and you will fall exactly the same as the others as soon as you will start to try to carve in the sand. Still, it`s a lot of fun and maybe after a while you will manage to stand on board until the end of the track or even on bigger sand dunes. DSC_0094We had around one hour to practice sandboarding, first on smaller, later on bigger sand dunes. The highlight of our trip was definitely the sunset with its evening sun razes shimmering on the dunes and the night scenery of Huacachina.

After the tour you can enjoy a nice dinner in the hostel with couple of drinks. And when the bars closes, you can still walk around and find some other bars for more drinks, for example Huacafuckingchina, which is located right next to the lake.

All in all, for me Huacachina was a really pleasant stay after the cold, high altitude mountains. Refilling the vitamin D and recharging energy, I could have stayed here longer!

Arequipa

Arequipa – la ciudad blanca, the second biggest and economically second most important city in Peru could probably be described as the Peruvian equivalent to Bolivia´s capital Sucre. Similar to the origin of the word “kangaroo” or “Chile”, the name of the city, Arequipa, comes from a misunderstanding between the conquerors and the locals. As the Europeans arrived to the region of today´s Arequipa, they have asked the locals for the name of the land pointing on the ground. The Incas misunderstood and answered: “Ari qhipay” which means translated “Yes, stay”. DSC_0999We don`t know for sure if this mythos is true or not, but nonetheless, the city is called Arequipa now. Another common misunderstanding is Arequipa´s nickname “la ciudad blanca”. A lot of people may think Arequipa is called the white city because of its numerous white colored houses and colonial architecture in the center. However, the city´s epithet derives from the fact that back in the colonial days only the Spanish, meaning the white people, were allowed to live in the city center.

Le Foyer is a lovely Hostel downtown of the city with a New Orleans flair. It is a bit pricier, but the view over Arequipa´s roof on the top of the building and the tasty breakfast is definitely worth the price.

The daily free walking tours will give you an historic and cultural overview about the city. On Plaza de Armas you can get the typical postcard picture of Arequipa with the cathedral and El Misti in the background. The cathedral of Arequipa is known for its uncommon shape: unlike the typical European vertical floorplan of cathedrals, the architecture of the main body of Arequipa´s cathedral is horizontally shaped. DSC_1000Another interesting building open for tourists is the Santa Catalina Monastery. Here the nuns of the Dominican second order have created their own city within a city and are basically living isolated from the rest of Arequipa. For a lunch you should definitely try one of the traditional Arequipa´s Picanterias. Here you can taste the typical Peruvian spicy food and even the typical fried guinea pig. Picanteria la Mundial with fast service and good cuisine is recommendable. Visit Chaqchao Chocolates for chocolate deserts after your lunch and dinner. This artisanal chocolate company also offers chocolate making workshops where you can try to create your own flavored chocolate.

Most of the travelers use Arequipa as gateway to the Colca Canyon, which is the second biggest canyon in the world. The travel agencies in Arequippa are offering 1-, 2-, or 3-days tours. However, as the entrance for the National Park costs around 20 Euros, it does not really make sense to do the 1-day tour, except you really have time pressure and really do not want to skip this tour. Some other tours like rafting on the Chili river as well as the mountain biking are offered as well. As always, be careful with the choice of the agency and read the travel adviser or other internet revues before. We have decided to book a rafting tour with … agency. However, on the day of our tour, our tour guide told us that the river conditions on that day were really bad for rafting so he offered us a mounting bike tour instead. At the beginning he wanted to charge us more, however at the end we have agreed on the same price. Still, it was probably the worst decision we could make. The bikes provided by the bike rental company were in a really bad condition and our biking guide did not even know which tour we have booked. He took us through a trek, which was really exhausting (especially with bikes without proper breaks and gears). Unfortunately, the trek was not spectacular at all. The weather was not nice either, so we could not even see the mountains around. At the end we have arrived at the river, where are biking guide told us, that the river conditions were perfect for rafting that day!! Afterwards he explained us, that the seller from the agency probably did not have enough bookings to fill the boat, so he just convicted us to do another tour instead. Angry and feeling betrayed we have realized how important it is to choose the right travel agencies, as sadly, most of the sellers in the South American countries are trying to take advantage of uniformed tourists.

Nevertheless, we have spent 3 relaxing days in Arequipa and learnt from our unfortunate travel experience.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca 

The world’s largest high altitude lake is definitely worth a relaxing break after La Paz. A bus from La Paz to Copacabana, which is the typical stop on the Bolivian border of Lake Titicaca, takes around 4 hours. The bus drive itself is already one of the most beautiful I have seen so far in South America – the road goes along the lake`s coast, the country is amazingly green and from time to time you can see sheep, cows, donkeys or pigs pasturing on the meadows. Quite, colourful and fresh air – Lake Titicaca is clearly an opposite of the hectic life in La Paz.

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Copacabana

Copacabana is a small city on the lake’s shore. It consists mostly of one main tourist street, the Av. 6 de Agosto. Here you can find a lots of restaurants, tourist agencies, hostels, small kiosks, and laundries. It is pretty easy to find a cheap accommodation here. We have stayed in “Hostal Andino” for 20 bs per night. The blue-white facade of the building in he courtyard looked very Greek and created a cozy atmosphere. The rooms were all right, even though the bathrooms were a little filthy, but seriously, who could complain for 20 bs per night?!

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Although you can find tons of restaurants in the main strees, most of them offer the same menu every day: quinoa or vegetable soup, trucha (trout) or pollo milanesa (chicken schnitzel), and banana with chocolate as a desert for 25 bs. However, do not except to much, you are in Bolivia finally. I can highly recommend two places to eat in Copacabana: “La Orilla” and “Pit Stop”. La Orilla is located on a main street, but in comparison to other wanna-be exclusive restaurants, it does not try to draw the customers with any false promising promoters or signs (for example “Las Playas”, the restaurant right on the opposite side of the street – do not enter this place!! Horrible food, horrible service, horrible atmosphere!). La Orilla is run by an American expat, a bit more expensive, however this place definitely conforms western standards. La Orilla offers probably the best food in the city. Pit Stop is a bakery and rotiseria, opened just two and half years ago by an Argentinian. It is more of a take away place, where you can find delicious empanadas, pizzas, and pies.

In the center of the city you can find a market with fresh products and a beautiful Mediterranean-like cathedral. If you already got used to the altitude you can try to climb one of the hills surrounding the city or just lay down on the meadow next to the lake and enjoy the sunshine. From Copacabana you can easily book a ferry to Isla de Sol or a tour to the floating islands. DSC_0956We booked all of our tours as well as our bus tickets to Arequipa in the highly recommendable “apthapi” travel agency right on the Av. 6 de Agosto.

Although the floating islands are supposed to be more beautiful from the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, you can visit some of them from the Bolivian side. Our tour started in Copacabana, where we were picked up by a taxi and then drew to Sahuiña, a small village south of Copacabana. There a typical Bolivian elderly woman called Ana awaited us, it was a nice surprise, because we were expecting a classical tourist guide. DSC_0859Ana showed us and told us a lot of interesting things about the flora and fauna on the Lake Titicaca. Afterwards, she brought us to a floating island. Ana alone was paddling our boat of six people – yes, the Bolivian women are very strong. On the island she dressed us in the typical Bolivian women clothes – huge skirt, the Bolivian bolero and the typical hat. She taught us a dance from Sahuiña and danced with us. It was definitely an unexpected and unforgettable surprise we experienced on our last day in Bolivia.

Isla de Sol

 A ferry from Copacabana leaves every day at 8:30 am and 1:30 pm and costs 20 bs. It is definitely wort a one or two days trip from Copacabana. You can get out of the ferry on either the south or north harbor. I can only recommend the north part of the island. Although once you are there you can easily hike from the north to the south part of the island or vice versa, which takes you around 4 hours. However, calculate the time wisely, as there no cars and respectively no taxis which could take you back to your accommodation. Once arrived in the North harbor, you will find couple or restaurants and hostels lined on the main streets. Most of the visitors decide to go to the right, however if you take a 10 min walk up the hill on the left you can find there an ecologic Refugio “donde Alfonso”, which offers rustic but traditional accommodation with beautiful view of the bay for 25 bs per night. Most of the restaurants offer the same menu for dinner and lunch: again, quinoa soup and trout or chicken schnitzel with rice and couple of French fries for 25 bs. However, the trout is really tasty as it is freshly fished from the lake. During the day you can decide to hike to the south of the island or just explore the north part of the island. DSC_0803About 45 min long hike can bring you to the Chincana Ruins, spectacular Inca ruins. Although the island is called isla de Sol or the Island of Sun and the sun shines here indeed the most of the time, however it can also change quickly, especially in the rainy season. Ferries and boats back to Copacabana are leaving every day at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm. However, depending on the weather conditions, the boat ride might become very adventurous – take some medicine in advance when it`s raining and you know you are likely to get seasick (unfortunately, I didn’t know that, thus I had very funny 2 hours of my life).

Traditionally vested Bolivian women, peaceful bays, green fields of quinoa and potatoes, ruins full of pre-Columbian Inca –energy – you can easily get lost in this untouched nature of this breathtaking island.

Bolivia´s Death Road

The Death Road is probably one of the craziest things you are ever going to do in your life. 64 km long road starting on the top of the mountains, at “La Cumbre at 4,700 meters above the sea level leading through the mountains, rainforest, waterfalls and finally the beginning of the Amazonas. The last point of the road is “Yolosa”, 1,200 meters above the sea level. Thus you will definitely feel the quick altitude change. However, it is an unforgettable experience.

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Bolivia´s Death Road – The World Most Dangerous Road

The tour can be booked in the different agencies in the city or simply in your hostel. But be careful, as the cheapest potion is not always the best option. As you are going to do extreme sport and drive a bike on a most dangerous road of the world, so make sure that your equipment is proper, especially the breaks of your bike and your helmet. We have booked our tour over the “Ride On” agency and paid 499 bs for it, which is not the cheapest, but also not the most expensive option. However, I can only recommend the company, as the equipment was quite new, the guide very experienced (lucky we, he was even a doctor) and the banana cakes for the breakfast were just amazing ;).

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Make sure you rent a proper equipment, double check especially the helm and the breaks of the bike!

Our tour started at 7 am in the morning. We were picked up in our hostel and drew with our mini van to the highest point of the tour. However, on the day of our tour it was snowing really badly, so we were stacked in the mountains for two hours longer than planned and could not drive the first part of the tour on the bikes. Well, the reason for being that slowly might also be the flat tire we had and did not realized until a bus driver from another agency told us while he was overtaking us. So consequently, our company was the last on the road, which had an advantage as well: the roads were free of other bikers and we could enjoy the road and the nature just for us. After we passed the most snowy areas of the mountains, the guides (we had three of them for a group of seven!), gave us our equipment and introduced couple of rules on the road. The first part of the road, until the actual Death Road, was meant to get used to the bikes and the streets. We were passing passing on an asphalt street through beautiful mountains from which now a then a small waterfall sprinkled out of nowhere. The mountains reminded a lot of the Alps. And the air was much cleaner than in La Paz, you could finally breath properly here!! The second part of the road was more interesting though. From the top of the mountain we have looked into a rainforest valley and could see the beginning of the Dead Road leading into the middle of a rainforest jungle. The first stop on the road was the highest cliff on the road, where we really got the impression of how the next two hours driving on a 2-3 meters narrow streets, next to this dangerous cliff, are going to be. After this we were riding in line, making several stops on places called like Peruvian or French corner, which were called like this after the nationalities of people who died there. So yeah, it was pretty scary and nothing for people afraid of heights. P1400885However, even though I am slightly afraid of heights as well, as we needed to concentrate on the road and driving the bike all the time, we did not really get a chance to look down the cliff while driving. Or at least I did not. Or maybe I didn’t want to :D. The food was included in the prices of the tour, so we got breakfast at the beginning, couple of snacks during and a buffet dinner after the tour. The climate changed rapidly during the ride. While it was snowing at the very beginning on the top of the mountains, the snow turned into rain at the beginning of the second part of the road and at the end of the tour, in the Amazonian area, sun and a lots of mosquitos were awaiting us (so bring a mosquito protection with you!). The most companies end the tour in a restaurant with a nice pool, where you can cool down after the adventure. The road is really rocky, so at the end of the tour experienced kind of short-term Parkinson.

This road is not called Death Road and the Most Dangerous Road in the World for no reason. In our group (of seven people) a girl was injured pretty baldy, as she felt on her left hip and shoulder and she was actually lucky because she could have been one of the countless people who already died on this road. And yeah, she would probably get a corner named after her, “the Brazilian corner”.

However, the feeling after the reaching the last point on the road was amazing. Full of adrenaline, dust, mud, aching hands, back and butts, we knew we made it: “We have survived the world`s most dangerous road!”.

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Sucre

La ciudad blanca, or the white city, is the cleanest city in Bolivia. However, it is not called the white city because of its cleanness. Sucre has earned its name because of the white colonial architecture and the beautiful white houses decorating the city center and parts of surrounding neighborhoods. Like almost everywhere in Bolivia you will see women in the streets wearing the traditional Bolivian clothes: the huge colorful skirts emphasizing the hips (which stand for women`s fertility), the colorful silky shawl and the hats.

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Bolivian woman in the traditional Bolivian clothes

The traditional clothes have their roots in the colonial time, when the Europeans forced the indigenous people to wear them. The hats itself were actually first ordered for men. As the indigenous population is smaller than the Europeans, the colonist thought to order smaller hats for their servants. However, even though the indigenous people may be smaller in height, their heads have the same size and the one of Europeans. Thus, the ordered hats were way to small for Bolivians. Instead of throwing those hats away, the colonists sold them to the indigenous women as the newest fashion trend from Europe. And that’s how almost every traditional appareled Bolivian woman ended up wearing those hats.

The most of the backpackers come to the capitol of Bolivia because of its numerous Spanish schools which you can find on every corner. It is even possible to have Spanish classes just for one or two days! Most of the hostels offer Spanish classes as well. Our hostel, the Celtic Cross, offered even discounts on accommodation when taking Spanish classes in the hostel. If you have taken 3 hours of classes, the price for the bed sank to 20 bs. If you had 4 hours’ Spanish classes per day, you did not have to pay anything for the accommodation. Otherwise one bed in a six-bed mixed bed dorm room cost 49 bs. The Spanish classes are mostly individual lessons where the Spanish teachers adjust individually to your Spanish skills, so you can really improve your Spanish here. However, as the Spanish teachers are most of the time Bolivians, meaning Spanish native speakers, they may have some difficulties with explaining the grammar. Still, for the price you can not really complain. Celtic cross, run by an Austrian, is by far the cleanest and nicest hostel I have stayed in in Bolivia. It is located just 10 min walking from the Plaza de 25 de Mayo and 15 min walking from the Central Market.

The Central Market in Sucre is also the nicest and most organized market I have seen in Bolivia. Fresh fruits and vegetables are piled in perfect pyramids and circles and the fresh pressed jugos cost just around 4-8 bs. However, be careful with the hygiene – do not try the fruits the sellers will try to give before washing it! My stomach didn’t like it at all!

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Central Mercado in Sucre

10 min walking to the opposite direction of the main square, up the hill, you can find the lovely Café Mirador with a marvelous view over the city and even more delicious breakfast. As a true coffee lover I cannot describe the wonderful feeling of having a good coffee I had, after drinking instant coffee for over one month (other coffee lovers will understand)! Probably the best restaurant in town (also according to TripAdvisor) is the Condor Café. They are offering tasty daily menus just for 25-30 bs, which include delicious soup, main dish, dessert and a fresh pressed juice. A bit more expensive alternative is the French Restaurant La Taverne. However, it is definitely worth the price.

Casa de la Libertad, or the House of Liberty Museum, is one of the most important museums in Bolivia. The English guided tour will show you around and explain a lot of enlightening facts about Bolivian political history, for example why a lot of people think, that the capitol of Bolivia is La Paz. On the walls of the museum, you can salute a painting of every Bolivian President since the Bolvian independence in 1825. Another interesting museum is the Museo de Arte Indígena, where you can observe the beautiful indigenous art of clothing and textiles.

So all in all, Sucre is a lovely stopover on your way to La Paz or Uyuni. You can definitely relax here, improve your Spanish skills, admire the beautiful white colonial architecture and recharge for your further journey.

La Paz

Remarkable. That’s probably the most fitting adjective to describe this city. Fighting with Sucre for years about the title of being “Capitol of Bolivia”, La Paz did not win the fight. In the new Constitution introduced in 2009, Sucre is declared being the official capitol of Bolivia, even though a lot of people in La Paz still not accept it. However, the city is much bigger than Sucre. You can see how massive this city, when taking one of the cable cars and looking down from the hills into the valley. There are different colors of cable cars. With the red one, you can get a pretty decent view over the city. However, the green and yellow one are recommendable as well, as you can see the city from the opposite site. One way ticket costs just 3 bs, so definitely it´s worth it. The majority of the houses in the city are made simply out of bricks and are orange. The reason for it is, that the people do not have to pay taxes for unfinished houses, so they just do not paint their house or do not finish the roofs. Pretty clever and even though the government is trying to change the regulation for years, nothing has really happened. Up from the mountains, you can also see how polluted the city is with all the exhaust fumes and emissions. Thus, some parts of the city may look a bit foggy.

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We have stayed in the Loki Hostel, which is one of the bigger party hostels in the city, located 10 minutes walking from the bus terminal. For 62 bs per night, we got what we´ve paid for. On the top of the hostel, on the 7th floor, you have an amazing view over the city! And the “Hangover Fix Smoothie” is reeeally delicious. Well, I can imagine that a lot of people need this smoothie here, as Loki offers a different party each evening. On our first night, there was a pretty cool Beer Pong Tournament.

As in every city, I would highly recommend to do a walking city tour. Offering something for free is illegal in Bolivia, so we had to pay 20 bs for our walking tour organized by HanaqPacha Travel, which we´ve booked 10 minutes before the beginning of the tour in our hostel. You can get quite a nice overview of the center of the city: San Francisco church, Mercado Lanza, the Witches Market (where you can buy dead llama babies!!), Plaza Murtillo and most interestingly, the San Pedro prison. It is kind of “open” prison in the middle of the city, where petty criminals are living with their families, without a single guard! The prisoners can live there in eight different sectors, depending on their wealth and open their own businesses there, like restaurants or barber stores. Even people from outside can come in and eat in one of the prison restaurants or get their hairs cut by the prisoners! It is an own community living there with over 2,000 prisoners. If you want to learn more about the living conditions in the prison, read the book “Marching Powder” written by Rusty Young, about Thomas McFadden, an English who spend couple of years in the prison for smuggling cocaine out of the country. McFadden has started tourist tours through the prison until a girl got murdered inside the prison in 2009.

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The traditional religions of indigenous people are mixed with Christianity, so getting back to the dead llama babies – Bolivians believe in practicing witchcraft (there is even a witch school in a city on the countryside near La Paz) and every time a new house is built in the city, a dead llama is offered for the Mother Earth and the family or the person building the house have to organize a three-day offering party for the construction workers. Until the 70´s it was even common to offer a human body when big buildings were built. Some people believe this tradition still exists.

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While staying in the city, you may get altitude sickness (as the city is located 3,700 meters above the sea level) or food poisoning. I was lucky to get both, yey. So do the walking tour, take a ride with a cable car and if you have enough time, energy and the respective budget, do the Death Road Tour! However, I would not stay longer than two or three days in La Paz.

Potosí

In the middle of the mountains, on an altitude of 4,067 above the sea level, Potosí is definitely worth a stopover between Uyuni and Sucre. Potosí used to be a rich city because of the silver discovered in the mountain mines in the middle of the 16th century. Nowadays, the mines are still in work, however, nobody knows for how long – probably 20-30 years more. Walking through the streets of Potosí, one can see that the city used to have its glorious times. The streets may remind you of a mediterrean city, however you definitely feel the altitude – in the night it can get pretty chilly and in the summer time it might rain a lot here. As I visited the city, it reminded me more of ghost town – I haven’t realized that the Bolivians are celebrating carnival as much as the Brazilians and Germans! On the carnival Tuesday, the streets were empty, everybody was celebrating at their homes with their family and friends. So basically, I was stuck there for a day, which had a benefit, as I have realized later: the body could get used to the altitude (even though walking up stairs of the steep streets in the city will still let you out of breath #gringos). A nice and cheap overstay is La casa Huespedes La Vicuna, located quite in the center. Just take an taxi from the bus station when you arrive, which is the fastest and easiest way to get there. However, be careful that the taxi drive does not charge you more then 10-15 bs, as they will probably try to charge you more as a gringo.

The mines can still be visited; various tourist agencies are offering this the mining tour. The tour does not have to be booked in advance, just choose an agency and if on time do the tour even the same day! However, be careful with the choice of the agency as you are visiting still working mines and thus, depending on the circumstances, the tour can be quite dangerous (over 8 million mine workers died in the mines since silver was first discovered here and to scare you even more, a bridge made out of bones of people who dies here could be made between Potosí and Spain!). I can highly recommend the Koala Tours company (especially Ronald as a guide), as this company offer the tour not as a touristic, rather social trip – they are donating part of their revenues to the mine workers. Nevertheless, be aware, when you decide to visit the silver mines, the tour is very exhausting, physically and mentally. Do not attend the tour if you are suffering from claustrophobia or similar diseases! You will see mine workers working in their normal working conditions and these are far from safe and convenient. Moreover, you will climb, crawl and you will have to pull yourself up through narrow and stony mining tunnels while inhaling dust and different mineral scents. But, you will get a beautiful view over the city before and after you get out of the mine. After the tour you can grab some cheap and tasty “almuerzo o ceno completo” in the restaurant next to the Koala tours company. So all in all, the mining tour is definitely not a traditional tour every backpacker is doing when travelling through Bolivia and thus definitely worth it – so write Potosí on your bucket list and visit the silver mines here!