In 2001 Rutahsa Adventures discovered a little-known secret: the wet season is THE time to visit Bolivia! The otherwise parched altiplano landscape is verdant and abloom with wildflowers, the skies are dramatic, and temperatures are pleasantly mild. Furthermore, two absolutely stellar attractions can be witnessed, and indeed participated in, only in the rainy season: the famous Carnaval de Oruro, and the amazing Salar de Uyuni in its "mirror" form.
While it is true that some of Bolivia's mountain roads can be difficult in the wet season, roads do not present a problem for most of our itinerary, and 4WD vehicles will do the trick where needed.
THE BOLIVIAN ADVENTURES BEGIN...
DAY 1, Thurs., Feb. 7: Morning: Land in La Paz, at one of the world's highest airports, over 4050 m (13,300 feet) above sea level. During the transfer from the airport to our hotel we drop about 1500 feet, and get our first views of La Paz, sprawling throughout a valley below the plateau on which we landed, with snow-crowned Illimani towering on the distant skyline. We will proceed directly to the Hotel Rosario, a pleasant 3-star hotel with a good restaurant, to rest, sip some coca tea, and begin to acclimate to the altitude. It is highly advisable to take it easy upon arrival to avoid soroche, altitude sickness.
Afternoon: La Paz, population approaching a million, is the de facto capital of Bolivia, which is to say that although the much smaller city of Sucre to the south is the legal capital of the republic, most of the government offices are located here in La Paz, and most government business is done here. We will get oriented in La Paz by visiting a small park overlooking much of the city, visit the Plaza Murillo with its government palaces and cathedral, and then set out on foot to explore the incredible market complex near our hotel. Here block after block of shops, booths, and street vendors offer an amazing and bewildering array of goods ranging from wonderful woven goods of alpaca and llama wool, musical instruments, antiques, foodstuffs, hardware, and all the items a well-supplied brujo (witch doctor) might need, including herbs, potions, and dried llama fetuses. You can even buy fake fossils from street vendors.
For supper we'll visit a peña, where Andean musicians sing and play folksongs featuring panpipes, charango, quena and other traditional instruments. This special welcome supper and cultural experience is included in the tour cost (drinks extra).
DAY 2, Fri., 2/8: In the morning we'll drive a short distance out of La Paz to the Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon), where a sort of badlands erosion has produced a grey and tan landscape of bizarre towers, knobs and spines. Weird, but scenic.
Returning to La Paz city, we'll visit the Tiwanaku Museum, with its fascinating displays of early Andean cultures. Then, after lunch, we'll load up our chartered bus and head south to Oruro, about a three-hour ride across the windswept altiplano.
Founded as a mining town in the 16th century, Oruro later became the main center of the Bolivian railway system, which we'll enjoy later. But today we have come to take part in the Oruro Carnaval, the most spectacular Bolivian festival, and one that has not yet been greatly altered by tourism. Our hotel will be the Gran Hotel Sucre, just about three blocks from the main plaza, which should be a pretty busy place as the town prepares for the big event of the year, Carnaval.
DAY 3, Sat., 2/9: Carnaval begins early with a spectacular entry procession called La Entrada, starting at 7 AM and passing along a 5-km route, and we will have grandstand seats on the main plaza. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of teams of dancers perform. Many dances feature elaborate costumes with grotesque masks, the most remarkable being La Diablada. Music is supplied by countless brass bands, each trying to out-do the next. The dances represent Aymara folk legends of both precolumbian and post-conquest origins and are strongly related to the hard lives of the Indian miners. La Entrada is just the beginning of a week of revelry and abandon. Tonight there will be lots of celebrating, live music, dancing, and happy inebriation. Foreigners are welcome to join in, but of course, some discretion is advised.
DAY 4, Sun., 2/10: Today is the day of the Gran Corso del Carnaval, another spectacular display. And Oruro is a town with important colonial architecture and museums, including an underground mining museum accessed from the back of a colonial church. Old train buffs may want to explore the yards near the station to see what's there. We shouldn't lack for interesting things to do today. And meanwhile, the carnival continues!
DAY 5, Mon., 2/11: Possibly some of our group will want to sleep late this morning, depending on how late they partied last night. Perhaps they can if street noise isn't too much. But around mid-morning we board a passenger train that will carry us across a bleak but impressive landscape featuring plains, mountain ranges, playa lakes, mirages, mining towns, herds of alpaca and llama, and scattered villages. The train service is excellent, with comfortable reserved seats, dining service, and other amenities. It is a real pleasure to rock along with the fascinating landscape gliding by. A short distance from the city of Uyuni the rail line parallels the bed of what was once a great intermontane lake comparable to Lake Titikaka, but which has since evaporated away to form the remarkable Salar de Uyuni: some 10,582 sq km (4085 sq mi) of snow-white salt in the dry season, and the world's largest mirror when covered with a thin layer of water in the wet season. Vicuña, the smallest of the four Andean cameloids are commonly seen along the margins of the salar, and occasionally flocks of pink flamingoes flap slowly by over the erstwhile lake.
Our hotel for the next two nights is the amazing Palacio de Sal situated on the salar itself, and built entirely of rock salt quarried directly from the salar! Inside the Salt Palace everything is made of salt. The only exceptions: mattresses (thank goodness!), toilets (double thank goodness!!), stove and pool table. Truly an amazing, imaginative and unforgettable hotel.
DAY 6, Tues., 2/12: During the dry season it is an easy matter to drive at highway speeds out across the hard, flat salt to cactus-covered Isla Pescado. Once an isolated island of basalt far from the shores of a vast lake, Isla Pescado is home to several endemic species of cacti, a variety of birds, and a colony of vizcachas (a large rabbit-like animal with a tail like a squirrel). However, during portions of the wet season, rains flood the salar and Isla Pescado becomes a real island again. Incredible as it sounds, this does not always prevent visits to the island: if the water is shallow (less then 18 inches) intrepid drivers still cross the 80 km of salar in 4WD vehicles to bring visitors to the island, but not at highway speeds. Under these conditions it requires three hours to reach Isla Pescado, but oh the vistas en route!
Imagine driving for miles across a gigantic mirror surface-- the sky and clouds reflected to perfection; volcanic cones soaring up in the distance also soar down into the depths; flocks of pink flamingoes flap slowly by overhead while their looking-glass twins stroke in unison down below; rain falls down, rain falls up; when you drive across the salar you have the impression of flying, with clouds above and below. Or perhaps of being on another planet, the scene is so un-earthly. Or perhaps of having somehow fallen inside a gigantic kaleidoscope. And just like a kaleidoscope, the scene is constantly changing: the preceeding six photos were all taken on the same day! It really beggars description-- you just have to see this!
It is precisely in hopes of experiencing this mind-boggling scene, as we were privileged to do in Feb. 2001, that Rutahsa Adventures has scheduled our 2002 trip for the wet season again..
Upon returning from Isla Pescado we will overnight again in the Palacio de Sal.
DAY 7, Weds., 2/13: After a breakfast in the Salt Palace we board our 4WD vehicles and head out on an adventurous gravel road across a series of Andean ranges to reach fabled Potosí. Our route takes us through the old mining town of Pulacayo where, amazingly enough, there is a railroad graveyard that features a train held up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Somewhere along the route we'll stop for photos and perhaps a snack. Then, if none of the river crossings delays us, we'll reach the famous mining city of Potosí in time for a late lunch at the Restaurante San Marcos, an old mine mill converted into a restaurant cum mining museum. Quite a place! Our hotel will be the Hostal Colonial.
DAY 8, Thurs., 2/14: The coat of arms of Potosí bears the legend "I am rich Potosí, the treasure of the world, the king of mountains, the envy of kings." According to legend, silver was discovered at Potosí in 1544 by one Diego Huallpa who had climbed a mountain in search of lost llamas. The Spaniards were quick to investigate rumors of Indians with silver, took possession of the mountain peak, soon to become known as Cerro Rico ("Rich Mountain"), and Potosí was founded in 1545. Within 25 years it was the largest city in the New World, with a population of 125,000. Riches poured out of the mountain into Spanish coffers, changing the financial structure of Europe. Potosí itself was awash in wealth; Spanish aristocrats in Potosí built themselves palaces, and dozens of baroque churches. But all this came at a terrible toll of human misery, as the mines were operated by enslaved Indians who died by the thousands in the bowels of the mountain.
This morning, after fortifying ourselves with a hearty breakfast including some strong coffee or hot chocolate, we'll head for Cerro Rico, the mountain that made Potosí. This peak, now stripped barren and plundered inside and out, is still being worked by hundreds of miners, and we will find out what it's all about by going underground into the Candelaria Mine. First, a necessary stop is at a market to buy appropriate gifts for the miners and for El Tio: bags of coca leaves, strong black cigarettes, perhaps some rum, or you could even buy dynamite and blasting caps, which no doubt the miners would truly appreciate, but let's not tempt fate. At the adit we will be issued carbide lamps and hard hats, perhaps a slicker, and then duck our heads as we enter the dark underworld. Within the drifts we'll visit with miners working veins with hand tools, under conditions that are very 19th century by modern mining standards, but which are still a far cry from the awful circumstances endured by the Indian slaves in colonial times.
Each of the many mines under Cerro Rico has a shrine to El Tio, the miner's god of the underworld, who must be placated if his mineral wealth is to be extracted and the miner to return safely to the world of sunlight above. We will save a portion of our gifts of coca and cigarettes to leave before the statue of El Tio as we exit the mine.
Back again in sunshine and fresh air, we'll ponder the toil we witnessed underground as we take our lunch and get ready for an afternoon tour of the city.
Wending our way through narrow streets overhung by balconied colonial homes we will visit the Casa de la Moneda, a colonial mint turned into a splendid museum. Then, depending on how long we spend at the Casa de la Moneda, we'll move on to the Convento de Santa Teresa, with its museum, and the San Francisco Convent for the best rooftop view of Potosí.
One of the interesting things to note as you pass along the streets is the variety of highly distinctive men's hat styles affected by the cholitas (Indian women who have adopted a highly stylized western mode of dress). Overnight again in the Hostal Colonial.
DAY 9, Fri., 2/15: Morning: Free time to stroll (as best as low-country gringos can stroll at nearly 4000 m!) about the city, enjoy the colonial ambiance, visit the market area, or even sleep in for a change.
In the afternoon we leave Potosí behind, headed for beautiful Sucre, the legal capital. Although there's lots of mountain scenery to pass through, it's an easy three-hour drive over one of Bolivia's best highways. We'll be there in time to stop at a turn-of-the-century mansion called Castillo de la Glorieta. This amazing home was built by a wealthy Bolivian merchant to show his fellow countrymen what fine European architecture was all about, which he did by using as many styles as possible in a single building!
Our home for the next two nights is the very pleasant four-star Hostal Su Merced, within easy walking distance of the central plaza.
DAY 10, Sat., 2/16: Today will be a relaxing all-day stay in Sucre. Founded in 1538 as La Plata, the city was renamed in 1825 in honor of General Sucre, the first president of the new Republic of Bolivia (which itself was named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator). But Sucre is popularly called La Ciudad Blanca, or "The White City" due to the tradition of whitewashing all the buildings in central Sucre. It is generally agreed that Sucre is Bolivia's most beautiful city, with a relaxing atmosphere, and just a very pleasant place to be.
In addition to enjoying the colonial charms of Sucre, along with its marketplace, museums and shops, we will have a special geologic treat here: a huge quarry on the outskirts of the city where thousands of Cretaceous-age dinosaur tracks march up the near-vertical beds exposed in the quarry walls.
DAY 11, Sun., 2/17: Those who have fallen under the spell of Sucre can explore the central portion of the city afoot, easy walking from our hotel. Those who are willing to board our bus for a few more kilometers can make a day trip to the village of Tarabuco where local Quechua people still wear traditional costume of multi-colored ponchos, chuspas (woven bags for carrying coca leaves), elaborate axsu (overskirts) for the women, and helmet-like headgear (apparently derived from conquistadors helmets) for the married men and women. Sunday is the normal market day in Tarabuco, but on this Sunday, the first Sunday after Carnaval, the market is a small one. Nonetheless there is local color to be seen, and the scenery en route is fine.
This afternoon we fly back to La Paz at 5 PM (flight ticket is included in the cost of the excursion). If the weather is favorable we'll be treated to some jaw-dropping Andean scenery below. Our final night in La Paz will be at our old familiar haunt, Residencial Rosario. And another supper at a peña might be in order.
DAY 12, Mon., 2/18: Copacabana is our goal and Lake Titicaca our very special thrill today. We take a chartered bus north from La Paz to a small port town to board the modern catamaran that will transport us in style across the beautiful and grand lake to Copacabana. You can watch the scenery glide by from a sun deck atop the vessel, or from within the main salon through picture windows while sipping a cocktail. A fine lunch will be served during the cruise. Titicaca, famous as the world's highest regularly navigated lake at 3856 m (12,651 ft), is stunning, and you will be amazed at the extent of ancient agricultural terracing evident on the hillsides all around the lake.
Before reaching Copacabana we will dock at the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), the legendary birthplace of Manco Capac, the first Inca, and his sister-consort Mama Ocllo. Here we will see Inca stonework at a sacred spring, visit a very well done visitor's complex owned by the same company that operates the catamaran. The complex features an excellent small museum, crafts and dance demonstrations, and a chance to see llamas, alpacas and vicuñas up close. Most importantly, and dramatically, an Aymara shaman will ceremoniously bless us to ensure that we have a smooth return trip home to the U.S. at the end of our Bolivian adventure.
After leaving Isla del Sol we cruise around to the opposite side of the Island of the Sun to the village of Challapampa. The villagers here welcome visitors to enter their school, chapel, and even into their homes. They have created a small museum for the benefit of foreign visitors, and often put on folkloric demonstrations. We will also have time at Challapampa to go for a short hike along Inca trails to the ruins of an Inca temple.
Once back aboard our catamaran we will have supper in the salon, served by candlelight. After supper, if the weather is favorable, sitting and conversing in fresh air and moonlight on the upper deck will be a pleasant pastime before going to bed in our cabins below decks.
Day 13, Tues., 2/19: We hoist anchor in the morning, and while having our breakfast, sail the remaining hour to Copacabana, a charming lakeshore resort town.
However, Copacabana is more than just a resort town. It is the site of Bolivia's most important religious shrine, an impressive Moorish-style cathedral built in 1610-1620. Many miracles have been attributed to the Dark Virgin of Candelaria or Copacabana, a black wooden statue of Mary housed in this great church. Although many pilgrimages are made to Copacabana for many reasons, one of the more unusual practices is for the owners of newly purchased automobiles to bring their vehicles here to be blessed by a priest and then showered with champagne.
After visiting the basilica, we will board another private bus and return by land to La Paz, enjoying scenic altiplano vistas all along the way.
En route to La Paz we'll visit the impressive pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku. This site is famous for its monolithic gateways and giant idols. Tiwanaku was the capital of what archeologists believe to have been the longest surviving empire of all the precolumbian Andean civilizations, flourishing for over a thousand years. Later Inca rulers are said to have visited Tiwanaku and been inspired by its monumental ruins.
In La Paz we'll settle in for one final night at the Hotel Rosario.
DAY 14, Weds., 2/20: Time to board your return flight home, carrying a million memories of unforgettable wonders seen, new friends made, and the determination to return someday to Bolivia.
COST OF THE TRIP: The costs listed below are based on a minimum of eight excursionists, in double occupancy rooms. Single room accommodations are available at an extra cost.
HOW TO GET ON BOARD: Let us know you are interested by e-mailing Dr. Ric Finch at Rutahsa Adventures. We will put you on our mailing list for trip up-dates and/or send you the appropriate application blank(s), as you request.