La Paz – the highest capital city in the world. Arriving here at 11pm on a Friday night, our bus was caught up in what seemed to be a brass band competition in the street as well as a wave of people heading to the night-time witch doctors market set up for a local festival. Whilst these celebrations reassured us that we were unlikely the get caught up in the recent violent protests, every wall was covered in political graffiti showing things were far from settled.
After a long bus ride from Peru, we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows of our guesthouse. It seemed like virtually the middle of the night when a roar of activity woke us up from the streets below. By 4am, rows upon rows of women in their iconic bowler hats had set up their market places below selling fruit, vegetables, bread, flowers and cheese.
We didn’t know what to expect of La Paz. Probably altitude sickness and theft if the guidebook was anything to go by (they were right on one thing…). The only way I can describe it is eclectic – beautiful old colonial buildings sit next to huge shiny office blocks, and old market stalls vie for customers outside hipster coffee shops. Decades old buses form the base of the transport system alongside the futuristic cable car network. Yet many corners hide things that leave you somewhat unsettled – the lamp-post where a former president was hanged, the city centre prison which used to offer tours until an unfortunate European literally became trapped when no one believed he wasn’t a prisoner, or the run down buildings where remains of homeless people used as human sacrifices were reportedly found. And this was all pretty recent history.
Whilst we found La Paz interesting, it wasn’t somewhere we intended to stay for long, so after a few days we took an overnight bus down to Uyuni, famous for its Salt Flats. Leaving La Paz, we were feeling pretty smug that we had no altitude issues or lost anything. Such smugness disappeared the next morning when paying for our next guesthouse. When I took out the US dollars I had, it was immediately apparent they had been switched for fakes – three $100 bills had been taken and switched for “fire money” which are sold in La Paz to burn as offerings. I still have no idea how anyone got into my bag as it was locked, and whilst it is frustrating it also could have been a lot worse if they had taken our passports.
Whilst we started our Salt Flats trip on this low, our minds quickly turned to what was one of the most amazing experiences in all our travels. This was a 3 day tip, starting on the famous Uyuni Salt Flats (with the obligatory dinosaur pictures) and then moving onto huge lakes filled with hundreds of Andean Flamingos which made you feel like you were in your own David Attenborough programme, followed by seemingly endless deserts and mountains. Even the night-times were simply stunning with clear skies so dark you could see shooting stars.
After such amazing days, we said goodbye to Bolivia and crossed the border into Chile to visit San Pedro de Atacama and parts of the Atacama desert. After a few days of seeing virtually no-one, San Pedro was a bit of a shock – it is a little town literally bursting with tourists from all over the world. It is a cute little place, but the real attractions are outside such as the Moon Valley and Andean Lakes.
We simply fell in love with this area of South America, and would absolutely travel here again without a doubt.