Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Salar de Uyuni from La Paz in 34 Hours

(If you're not going to the Salar de Uyuni and just want to read about my experience, scroll 2/3rds of the way down the page!)

So, you're planning a trip to Bolivia. If you have an extra day and a half in La Paz, it IS possible to do Salar de Uyuni (the beautiful, perspective-bending salt flats south of La Paz) in what is essentially a day trip. By spending two night in a row in transit, you avoid paying for two nights of hotel accommodation, and save lots of time. There are two main ways to get to Uyuni from La Paz - bus or train. Only the buses run at night, and that's what I am going to discuss here.

General Schedule
Day 1
Be at bus terminal at 7:30 pm
Get on bus at 8:00 pm
Leave terminal between 8:30-9:00 pm

Day 2
Arrive in Uyuni around 7:30 am
Have breakfast/coffee
Look for a tour company
Leave for tour around 10:30 am
Arrive back in Uyuni around 6:30 or 7 pm
Grab something to eat
Get bus back to La Paz at 8:00 or 8:30 pm

Buying Bus Tickets
I bought my tickets from, and I was satisfied with the service, price, and options offered. If you're really looking to save a buck, you can go in person to the bus terminal (on Uruguay Ave, northwest corner of the city) and pick out a company, buying tickets directly. Most companies don't have a web presence apart from aggregators like Tickets Bolivia.

There are two types of bus companies: 'publico' and 'turistico'. The public buses aren't municipal buses, but are aimed more for local people traveling between the cities, while the tourist buses are aimed at, well, tourists going to see the salt flats. Tourist buses are a bit more expensive but are generally newer, nicer, cleaner, have safety precautions so your bags don't get stolen from the hold, and maybe even offer water and a meal upon arrival in Uyuni. I tried two different companies out, here's what I thought:

Trans Omar Turistico:
I would recommend this bus service. It is not luxury, but is tourist oriented, and has full cama (lie flat beds). The buses are pretty new, they have nice seats, warm blankets, and a secure-feeling baggage check system. It also technically has wifi, although it wasn't working right on my bus. 



Panasur (publico):
I wanted to take this bus because it left Uyuni at 8:30 pm, so I figured I would have more time to catch it and get dinner before - I did. If I had left at 8, I probably would have only had time to get something to-go (para llevar) before getting on the bus, since our tour ran a bit longer (we left a little late, plus some of the girls REALLY wanted to get pictures at every single location). It also had a later arrival time to La Paz, and I had heard the area around the bus station was really sketchy so I felt better about 8:30 am than 6:00 am (still dark in the winter). In the end, though, the bus arrived around 6:30 and it was still dark and I was nervous...but no one tried to jump me. I just quickly got in a radio (official) taxi and went to my hostel.


Panasur really sucks, though. The buses are dirty and look old inside. The seats are that old gross cracked black leather. But I guess it gets the job done - they also provide blankets which was my big fear!

Bonus: there is no "terminal tax" or document check out of Uyuni

What is Uyuni like?

Uyuni is a pale, dusty town full of low, white washed buildings and parades of salt-encrusted 4x4s. You can really feel its history as an edge-of-the-world salt mining town that once had aspirations to be a big city, but instead plateaued mid-century. There isn't much nightlife here, so don't expect to find a trendy bar to pass the time. The residents of Uyuni rely on the 60,000 tourists that pass through each year to support local businesses (including the dozens of Salar tour companies), but don't completely embrace the unending influx of outsiders to the otherwise quiet town. Bolivians in general are not overly friendly, and especially in a place so oriented towards tourists, there is quite a bit of tension. I don't recommend spending too much time here, but a few hours of thoughtful exploration, with a dose of local history and cultural sensitivity, would be well worth your time. 

Should I just spend the night in Uyuni?

Unless you have lots of money to spend, no. The quality of available lodgings is only a notch higher than sleeping on the bus, and Uyuni doesn't have much to offer beyond a couple of hours of walking around in the morning. If you are looking to splurge, there are a couple of salt hotels just outside of town that are worth your consideration! Start by checking out Luna Salada or Palacio del Sal.

How do I find a tour company?

Two options: book in advance online or in La Paz, choose a company in Uyuni. 
Booking online works well for a multi-day tour or if you have a big budget ($75-100 USD/person for a day tour), but the vast majority of companies don't really have an online presence. Booking in La Paz is a good option - you guarantee your spot on a tour (useful especially in the high season), and have a pretty good selection - also, most tourism companies in La Paz will be able to communicate with you in English. Booking in Uyuni is a good option if you want to really investigate all the options and be confident in what sort of product you are getting, but beware that most companies speak only Spanish and accept only cash. I have heard both that it's cheaper to buy in La Paz and cheaper in I can't really say, but I ended up paying about $25 for my day tour, which included lunch. There are lots of options in Uyuni - you can either wait until someone (women at the bus stop, waitress at a cafe) asks if you have a tour booked and they will offer you some package, or you can go yourself door to door at the tour companies' offices and compare packages.

What should I look for in a 1-day tour?

  • Newer cars 
  • Small group size (maximum 6, not 7!) 
  • Lunch (ask what's on the menu) 
  • Guide: mostly, the driver is also the guide but sometimes you get both - ask if they speak English, if that matters to you (you will pay more) and if it's a driver/guide, make sure they are really knowledgeable - and feel free to ask lots of questions on the tour if your driver isn't talkative!   
  • All the key stops: train cemetery, Colchani town, the original salt hotel, Isla del Pescado or Isla Incahuasi

How was your trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Samantha?

leche con cafe
I had a really excellent time in Uyuni! Probably the best activity I did in Bolivia. I was, however, still suffering from altitude sickness and since Uyuni is a little bit higher than La Paz, I felt bad from the moment I arrived. Also, I felt dirty and gross the whole time after the night on the bus and nothing but a quick sink clean up in a cafe bathroom. I sat writing post cards in a small cafe for about 2.5 hours waiting for the tour to start at 10 am. I had a HUGE cup of milk, a small cup of coffee, and a sort of omelette. 

My tour group was, interestingly, all girls! Maria, the driver/answerer of questions (not a guide, per say), who loves both traditional pan flute music and Backstreet Boys, was very nice but quite introverted. In addition to me, the passengers were a Colombian girl taking a field trip from her business trip to Uyuni, two German friends on vacation, and two Puerto Rican friends on vacation.

The landscape is stunning and beautiful, but the sun was just killing me and I hadn't eaten much. My stomach was turning, I couldn't muster enough energy to lay in the salt and try to get a ton of dramatic photos. 
lots of people

At about the fourth stop of maybe ten, I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I knew what was coming. While everyone got out of the car to take pictures of the "ojos del agua" (bubbles of water coming up through the ground) I went behind the car, put my hair up in a bun, and threw up all over the salar. Twice. It was mostly liquid since all I ate today was warm milk, half a piece of toast, and a few bites of a cheese omelet. I give you this detail to note that I didn't leave a significant mark on the already white and tan desert landscape. If anyone noticed it was our driver Maria, but she didn't say anything as I rushed back to the car to grab a roll of toilet paper between heaves.
ojos del agua
ojos del agua
I felt varying degrees of nauseous since I arrived in Bolivia, and really wasn't able to force myself to eat. I worried I felt sick because I wasn't eating, but the thought of every food made me sick - especially what I saw on offer in Bolivia. It was a lot of cuts of meat I'm not used to eating and fried bread. The night before I had my only full meal since my arrival - a street cheeseburger which absolutely hit the spot. Actually, I could only eat about 70% before it got cold (because I was eating so slow) and was no longer so appetizing...

But after I puked on the world's largest salt flats, I actually felt a lot better! I managed to put down some vegetables (finally!) and quinoa at lunch, and the nausea mostly subsided for the rest of the day. There were lots of reasons for me to be sick - the (near?) sun poisoning I got in Playa del Carmen, the cold I got in Playa del Carmen, the stress-induced weakened immune system from traveling, the altitude, eating unusual food, not eating, using the water to brush my teeth once or twice, who knows what really got me.

After watching the sun set, we raced a public bus (going from pueblitos on the edge of the Salar) back to Uyuni. Behind us the clouds glowed with pink and red fire, to the right the mountains and sky blended in a blue brilliantly offset by the white salt. Ahead of us, town lights were faint enough for me to wonder how the drivers don't get lost. Maria assured me they can read the landscape, but many tourists get lost each year after attempting to navigate the flats alone, and it can be very dangerous.

Back in Uyuni I said farewell to my fellow passengers, and scarfed down a weird mushroom and cheese pizza before hopping on my bus back to La Paz!

Overall, I highly recommend Salar de Uyuni if you're in Bolivia! Stunning, unforgettable, and demonstrates the power of nature. It is definitely better with a partner - someone to take pictures of you and someone to talk to on the long open stretches of salt flats. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The 9 Types of People You Meet Backpacking South America

Pringles can in hand
1. Pringles Girl: she lives off of grocery store pringles and nutella because she is scared to get sick from the local food, all her gear is brand new, her parents call her every night to ask if she wants them to put more money in her bank account - she usually says no. She carries two backpacks (one on her back and one on her stomach).

Note the Vetements hat
(this guy had a Singaporean passport)

2. Wealthy Asian Guy: probably from China or Singapore, speaks perfect English but only a couple words of broken Spanish. Wears designer clothes, and clings to his cell phone and leather wallet like a life raft. Is usually eating at the restaurant that locals go to for weddings and quinceañeras.

3. The big group of loud Americans: their main focus is going out at night and taking good pics for Insta. They sleep until noon unless they're talking the free walking tour. They crowd into souvenir shops and ask about the prices in broken, heavily accented Spanish. There is usually one dehydrated straggler sitting on the curb fiddling with the straps of their too-big hiking backpack.
true to life model

4. The big group of loud Brazilians: they speak in Portuguese to the waiter, and if he doesn't understand, they just say it again louder.

5. Two blonde European girls: traveling together for at least a month. They've been best friends since high school but by this point are really getting on each others nerves but are too polite (or too German) to say anything. Only one of them speaks Spanish, and one of them is constantly getting sick.

#6/#7 may resemble this creature

6. Recent graduates: can be either the high school kid on their first solo trip (this is really cool, actually), or a post grad master's student (lol me) who is a bit cynical about everything but has never actually experienced the full time working world despite the fact that they are in their mid 20s. They either don't have a job lined up when they go back home and plans to work at a restaurant until something worth their time comes up, or they have a consulting job waiting for them and are trying to balance the soul sucking corporate job with something more organic.

7. Guard-up solo traveler: maybe gives a head nod as they pass another solo traveler but rarely makes contact. Keeps to themselves in the hostel, seeking a more authentic local experience. Is afraid to leave any of their stuff unattended, often has a pouch full of locks. Angles their passport away from people, as if their giant backpack and sunburned paper white skin doesn't give it away that they're a foreigner...
This guy was selling some homemade
power balls or something

8. The permanent traveler: at this point, he's out of money but not willing to call his parents, so he's stuck here. He usually has dreadlocks or half his head shaved. You can find him selling handmade jewelry off a sarong on the sidewalk next to local craftsmen, or juggling at stop lights. 

#9 crossing the Bolivia/Peru border -
their backpacks were on the bus

9. The couple: their love sustains them through the challenges, they can huddle for warmth on Bolivian buses, split that weird chunk of meat, and look out for the other one's stuff if they have to go to the bathroom. They are both equally dirty, and don't care anymore, but are really sick of trying to sneak in sex on dorm room bunks while other hostelers are away. They carry two backpacks each.

Most backpackers on the Colombia-Ecuador-Peru-Bolivia circuit (they almost always go north to south) are from Canada, France, Germany, The Netherlands, or Australia. The rest are from other South American countries (Chile, Argentina), and a tiny handful from Asia. There are hardly any people from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, or South Asia.

The Perfect Latin American Country

After a month of traveling in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Panama, I have decided to build the perfect Latin American country. I have written a couple of posts about my trip so far, with lots more coming!

Rough Introduction to La Paz
La Paz Grows on You
Jungle Horror Story
Bogota Days 
The 9 Types of Backpackers you Meet in South America

So check those out for now if you haven't already, after this little wrap-up post.

The perfect Latin American country would have...

the connection to, appreciation of, and social/political integration into the mainstream of indigenous culture and people of Bolivia*

the food of Peru
the natural diversity of Peru (Andean highlands, wide deserts, coastline, and jungle)

the warm people of Colombia
the resilient spirit and joie de vivre of Colombia 

the ease of access and simplicity of Panama

*I know that was a really hard sentence to read...bear with me

Should I explain a bit more...? Here are the best and worst of each country in my personal, very limited, experience:
(Below each section are the best pictures from my trip from each country - sorry my iPhone photography skills are so lacking) 


Cold and cold. The record high in La Paz ever was 25.4 C/77.7 F...the mountains around La Paz are beautiful but the altitude really kicked my butt.

Bolivia was the least developed country on my trip, and I saw the most poverty here. The people were generally cold and unfriendly, unhelpful, and (perhaps understandably) quite unhappy to interact with or even see tourists.

Indigenous cultures are strong and visible, which is the best thing about the country other than perhaps the nature - Lake Titicaca, the Andes, and the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and territory south towards Chile (which I didn't see in person but pics and stories assure me it's incredible). 
There is some food that is really unique, but almost everything you can get in Bolivia, is mirrored (and improved) in Peruvian Andean/Quechua cuisine.  

A month ago, I would have told you to skip Bolivia entirely and go to Ecuador instead, but really, as I moved north, the negatives of Bolivia have faded a bit from my memory, and I retain how awesome it was to experience a very isolated and unique culture, and it's hard to see that in other countries apart from maybe Amazonian peoples. So, maybe give Bolivia a few days, but steel yourself for the hardships - no English, horrible infrastructure, little organizational support for tourists, barely there wifi, and awful coffee. If you embrace the reality, though, I think you can have a really memorable trip.

(much more on Bolivia, which was definitely the most interesting and different country of my trip, in the forthcoming post Goodbye Bolivia - this will be a link when the post is released!

A popular style of architecture in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

Bus terminal, La Paz, Bolivia

Tiwanaku/Tiahuanaco/Tiahuanacu, Bolivia
at least 200 BCE - 200 CE)

Sunset, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Train Cemetary, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

View of Lake Titicaca from Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Crossing Lake Titicaca, near Copacabana, Bolivia


Before coming I was already biased in Peru's favor, since I visited with two of the loves of my life (@elyse_atpeace, @rebeccajvogel) in 2015 to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. This time, I wanted to spend more time in Lima and to see the selva (jungle)- mission accomplished.

Peruvian food is indisputably the best in South America, mixing flavors and styles from highland, coastal, and selva regions.
Lima has terrible weather in the winter - grey skies, drizzly rain, too cold for the beach - but I still loved it (blog coming on Lima!). From ritzy Miraflores to hipster cool Barranco to working class La Victoria (lol don't go there, I was just lost), Lima has a ton to offer, is very walkable, and incredibly diverse. 

Peru's history is fascinating too, as Cuzco was the "bellybutton of the world" as the capital of the Inca Empire, and Lima was the capital of the Spanish conquistadores. Maybe it's just me after reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu with the besties before our Peru trip, but I am obsessed with the Inca Empire and its history - on the Inca Trail, our guides knew I loved the history, so before letting me into our camp for lunch or the night, they would quiz me with an Inca history/Quechua culture trivia question. South America is loaded with the remains of pre-Spanish civilizations, but the Inca is one that we know a lot about, and the story of the last Incas has a very real and personal feel to it.
Peruvian people are not the hug you on the street type, and they don't shower you in sweet nicknames, but you can open them rather quickly with a smile and a greeting, and no one was really rude to me. 

The selva of the Amazon basin (I was only at Iquitos, but there is also access at Puerto Maldonado where most organized tour groups go) is incredible. I had quite a few Indiana Jones/Lara Croft Tomb Raider moments, although I was not a fan of the food (I hate the plasticky taste of the bijao leaf that a lot of food is wrapped in, and many of the rare Amazon fruits have a vomit and/or old socks flavor to them). I loved riding on moto taxis (as Iquitos is only reachable by air or sea, cars are fairly rare), even as their unfiltered exhaust stung my eyes and shriveled my lungs, and loud road noises is my number two most hated thing...It's really a must-visit, even if you don't see any sloths...

Peru is home to so many must-see-before-you-die places, from the Amazon rain forest, to Machu Picchu, to the oldest town in the Americas, Caral, to the Nazca lines. It's affordable, has tourist infrastructure, but doesn't feel like a fakey tourist trap. Go to Peru as soon as possible - and don't skip Lima! 

Puno, Peru
High alert during a protest in Lima, Peru
Arriving to Iquitos, Peru from the airport by motokar

Raspadilla cart in Iquitos - machine is 40-50 years old
Young woman prepare palm hearts at Belen Market in Iquitos

Iquitos, Peru

A child helps us load our boat in an Amazon village near Iquitos

The best things about Colombia are the landscape and the culture/people. While not as diverse as Peru, the country is filled with lush green hills growing coffee and bananas - it really is sort of the quintessential Caribbean South American destination, especially in places like Cartagena and Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. 

I loved being called sweet names, such as: princesa, reina, mi amor, amorcito, corazon, nena, muñeca, mami (this one just drove me wild). However, as much as people you interact with will be sweet to you, street harassment is intensely real and the worst I faced on my trip (also maybe compounded by the fact that I got my hair and nails done in Bogota and was looking the most clean and female like that I did on my trip...but check out the narco beauty section of this post). I will admit that I couldn't help but smile when some guy called me Jennifer Lopez, though...
Colombianos use a lot of slang and unusual expressions in general, and it's great fun trying to decipher them! It also makes it pretty easy to spot a Colombian in other countries.

Colombia has the best music and (non-indigenous) cultural scene, from reggaeton and bachata to the more respectable vallenato and salsa, Colombianos love to shake their tail feathers (omg can't believe I just used that expression...), and it's great to explore the different musical styles throughout the country.

Leticia is a small jungle town at the "tres fronteras" (three borders) of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru - it's basically a smaller Iquitos, but you can sneak into (the least interesting town in) Brazil for a bit from here, so maybe worth a stop just for that! 

Bogota is fabulous, despite the weather, and Medellin (which I didn't visit) has the perfect weather year round! Bogota is extremely walkable (really, like, too walkable - you'll just be strolling for hours through the urban jungle if you don't stop yourself), which you need because public transportation is pretty bad. Medellin has excellent public transportation, though! Bogota has an excellent nightlife scene, and in a city that size (maybe 10 million!) you will never run out of places to explore. 

Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta is a veritable playground for adults, a natural theme park, and early on a weekday morning in shoulder season it feels quite secret. Cartagena is a magical fairytale and I hate that I was only there for one day. It's hopelessly sultry and romantic (there is a chance I only thought this because everything ever written on Cartagena describes it as 'sensual'), the history of conflict between the Spanish empire and pirates after its stolen treasure is palpable, and the people watching is fantastic as it a vacation destination for people from all over Colombia and Latin America.

I could definitely have spent the whole trip in Colombia, there is so much to see and do and the people are generally so laid back that you don't feel guilty just spending the day lounging on a beach or writing in a coffeeshop. The coffee here isn't what you might expect from one of the world's largest coffee producers (the traditionally have exported the choicest beans), but especially in cities, Colombianos are beginning to develop a taste for great coffee and as demand rises so does quality. 

The biggest drawback to Colombia is probably the safety issue...while there isn't much reason to concern about guerillas anymore (and hasn't been for many years in the cities), FARC's disbanding is still being negotiated, and other small groups such as ELN still exist. Just double check the security situation before venturing somewhere remote, and in cities like Bogota armed robberies aren't as rare as I would have been led to believe through my own experience. I felt really safe overall, but in the 4 days I was in Bogota, a kid from my hostel was mugged at knife point and a hostel worker was threatened by a guy with a metal pipe. Homelessness is a big problem in Bogota, as well.
Arrival in Leticia, Colombia (international border)
Arrival in Leticia, Colombia (international border)
Chapinero, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Monserrate
Foggy the cat, Santa Marta, Colombia

Gaira, Santa Marta, Colombia

Parque Tayrona, Colombia

Parque Tayrona, Colombia

After riding a horse for 1.5 hours out of Parque Tayrona

Heading back to Santa Marta from Parque Tayrona
Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

So, my experience here is quite skewed because a) I stayed only in the capital, and b) I spent a lot of time with my family and not so much sight seeing. So I can only speak to Panama City,'s not a great city for relaxing or exploring, and certainly not for backpacking/budget travel. There are some amazing things to see and do here - the Panama Canal being number one must see. Apart from the Canal, Cerro Ancon look out point (which comes with a pretty nice short hike), the historic and charming Casco Viejo, and the skyscrapers of Punta Paitilla, there isn't much. It is extremely car-focused, and walking is a challenge outside of Casco Viejo. If you lived here, I am sure you would love it. Although half the year you're inundated with frequent rain storms, the country is beautiful and the city's location surrounded by water and forest is excellent. There are many upscale bars and restaurants, with nearly any type of food you're looking for. There are also several nice cafes (though not as many as I would hope), lots of cheap beauty salons (a blow out starts at $5!). My biggest takeaway from Panama City is that it's really similar to an American beach town - it reminds me a lot of Virginia Beach if you added a cosmopolitan downtown. They use the US dollar, many people speak English (but not everyone, so brush up on your Spanish!), there are colossal malls with all the big US chains. Many parts of the city look like a mid sized US city, with infrastructure that hasn't been updated since the 70s or 80s, but there is also a major housing boom as both domestic migration to the city and immigration from countries like Venezuela (a huge topic of debate here) are on the rise. Street pavement is broken and cracked, traffic jams (tranque) clog the city during weekday rush hours, and frequent strikes with unhappy workers blocking main thoroughfares bring the city to its knees. Local food has its high points in a hearty plate of arroz con pollo, empanadas, chicheme (a creamy corn drink) fresh fruits, and raspado (shaved ice), but Panamanian food is generally fried and greasy. 

The best of Panama is the people! Friendly and helpful, and diverse - I saw a Guna woman wearing a traditional mola blouse shopping at the mall, and the San Francisco neighborhood where I was staying is full of expats and upper class locals. Panama has a lot of cool music, and local slang is worth getting to know. It's really fascinating how much the Spanish can change even just between Colombia and Panama, two countries that (as every Colombian would remind me) used to be one! 

Casco Viejo (the old town) is really cute - it reminds me of a mini Cartagena - but it doesn't have as many sidewalk cafes or casual bars as I would expect. Even the nightlife (everyone claims this is the heart of it) is sort of lackluster from street view. There are a lot of shuttered buildings, maybe being renovated, and lots of scaffolding. It seems like a space in transition. 

You can have a really high quality of life in Panama City, but as a tourist, I suggest getting out of the city - it really doesn't have more than 2-3 days of traveler entertainment in it unless you're a high roller going to casinos every night and the Trump Tower spa every afternoon.
Monument to history in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Hiking in Cerro Ancon, Panama City, Panama

SLOTH/MONO PEREZOSO, Cerro Ancon, Panama City, Panama
View of outside Panama City from the Templo Bahai'i, Panama City, Panama

So, that's it! 

More posts to come, but on my last day in Latin America for who knows how long (tickets from Tbilisi to Panama City start at $1,300!!), I wanted to share a wrap up overview of my thoughts.

From being so sick and miserable and cold that I was in tears in a sketchy Bolivian hostel, to watching a breathtaking sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, to taking a boat 11 hours down the Amazon River, to dancing to my favorite reggaeton songs (I can never find in a Charlottesville bar) in Lima and Bogota, to eating three breakfasts because I keep finding better and better food, to spending the whole day on a locals-only beach outside Santa Marta or a secret hidden lagoon in Tayrona, to seeing TWO sloths on one hike and reconnecting with my extended family in Panama - this trip is something I will never forget.