Published on August 20th, 2011 | by Mark Chesnut
LatinExpert: Eric Bobek’s 7 Weeks of Bolivia Travel
Eric Bobek, co-founder of Travelspecs.com, a travel community focused on sharing the best travel routes around the globe, spent about seven weeks in Bolivia during his 1.5-year around-the-world trip. In this exclusive interview with LatinFlyer, this Netherlands-based travel expert shares some of his best memories, travel tips — and a slightly harrowing story of getting lost and chased by a ferocious-looking dog.
Why did you choose to visit Bolivia?
When I was planning my world trip I asked a friend who had been to South America which country he liked most. After a few second he said “Bolivia.” I frowned as I really hadn’t considered going there at all. But anyway, since he was so enthusiastic I added Bolivia to my itinerary. And… this turned out to be a very good decision. Bolivia is the adventurous traveller’s dream. I initially planned for 2 weeks, but I ended up staying 6 weeks.
|Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, in Bolivia.|
What surprised you most about the destination? Did you find things that you didn’t expect to see or experience?
Many things. The diversity in landscapes is incredible. Bolivia has it all, the Altiplano with the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, rugged mid-west landscapes which eventually change to some of the lushest primary Amazon rainforest. The incredible silence at Lake Titicaca, and the surreal deserts and lagoons of the Salar de Uyuni. I did not expect to find this diversity at all.
You’ve travelled a lot around South America. What makes Bolivia different, in your opinion? It is, I believe, the poorest country in South America. Did you feel that as you traveled?
For me, Bolivia was very pure. The country and the people have suffered a lot in recent years. And it shows. I saw many poor people, sometimes really shocking. But still I saw that people did not lose their spirit or dignity. A particular memory that I have is of the many people selling small wares on the street. Dozens of people in their old traditional clothing in a row selling Popsicles or single cigarettes, probably earning only a couple of cents a day. But still they preferred this over begging. It sounds like a cliché, but it really was an eye-opener and it makes you realize how privileged we are.
|Bolivia hills: The city of La Paz, Bolivia|
What did you like best about La Paz?
What I like about La Paz are the spectacular surroundings of the Andes. You just need to leave the city and you will find some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on earth.
What “must-see” or “must-do” attractions or activities would you recommend?
I really enjoyed climbing the Huayna Potosi mountain (it’s tough) and of course the downhill cycling along the death road is and remains a must (not for the fainthearted). And La Paz has a great party scene; make sure to hop into a club.
|Water world: Lake Titicaca.|
Lake Titicaca is a legendary place. What was your most memorable experience there?
I took a ferry to Isla del Sol. Then we walked to the northern tip of the island and witnessed the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, accompanied by nothing but an unimaginable silence. At the same time we saw a light rising from the lake. We wondered what it was. After a while it became clear that it was a moonrise. So whilst the sun was going under, the moon was rising from the horizon at an incredible clarity. Magic!
|Small-town charm: Downtown Tupiza, Bolivia.|
You got seriously lost near Tupiza, I understand. What were you doing there, and how did you get “unlost”?
Tupiza is a small town near the Argentinian border. It is famous for its rugged “vin” shaped mountains and hills. The landscape is simply stunning. We went out for a walk to the Valle de los Penes (yes, the naturally shaped rocks have a particular and clearly recognizable shape). Anyway, there was a little waterfall which I decided to climb. The water was coming from a narrow shaft enclosed from both sides by these vin shaped walls. There were people and some small kids coming from the other way and there were clear footsteps so we saw no harm and decided to explore some of this Star Wars-like labyrinth. It was really cool, the vin walls soaring up about 100 meters above us on both sides. We encountered some “decision points” where we needed to go left or right. As the footsteps came from right we just followed right. However, after a few decision points the footprints started to fade. But the way back was quite far. So heck, we chose right again. And again, and again. And then, it started to get dark. Darn, there was no end to this.
So, I realized I needed to get a better view of the area. I started to climb one of the less steep vins. Up, up, up (still very steep, one mistake and I would be gone). At a certain point I reached the ridge and looked around. Oh god, it was just an absolute labyrinth of paths in between of the vins. I took a picture and evaluated the route. As a small note, the panorama was great.
|Phallic tourism: Bolivia’s Valle de los Penes.|
Then we quickly started going down. Darkness had fallen, including a nasty chill. Of course we had no warm clothes, water or food, the classic dumbass tourist scenario.
During our descent we suddenly encountered a four-meter deep drop in our path. We had no choice and had to continue (hang and drop). After that we spent around five more hours walking and walking, using the principle that as long as we’re going down we’ll probably end up in a valley, most likely the valley of Tupiza. We used my camera screen as light since the surface was really rocky. Then finally, after few hours we heard a dog barking. A sign of life! At that moment we did not realize that dogs are more than pets in those regions and are trained to guard the owner’s territory. So this massive German shepherd/wolf-like dog chased us down and we had to scare it off with rocks. Then, we saw a light in the horizon. Light means people, and indeed we had made it to the outskirts of Tupiza. We entered the town, which was full of festivities late at night, in our swim shorts and T-shirt. We got some curious faces — “where the hell did these guys come from.”
Anyway, we made it at last. In the end it was a pretty stupid, but unforgettable adventure.
The lesson is that even if you’re an experienced hiker you can get yourself into some serious trouble. Always be prepared (there is a compass and a torch in my bag since).
Where did you sleep during your travels around Bolivia? How would you describe the range of accommodations there?
Bolivia is really cheap, so you don’t have to compromise on accommodation. I was staying in different kinds of hostels. 5€ got me a fine hostel bed and warm shower. I don’t need much more than that.
|Go with the Flow: Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado.
What other destinations or experiences in Bolivia would you recommend?
I would recommend Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado, an awesome National Park in the Amazon, in the very northeast of Bolivia, with a table top mountain. It’s hard to reach, but all worth it. Furthermore, of course visit Salar de Uyuni, this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Sucre is a great student city with beautiful colonial architecture. As a final recommendation, eat the fruits of Bolivia; it doesn’t come any fresher than this.
All together, Bolivia is a dream destination. GO NOW!
For more info about bolivia check out Eric’s travel guide to Bolivia.