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, an absolutely stellar attraction can be witnessed only in the rainy season: the amazing Salar de Uyuni acting as the world's largest mirror. And on top of this wonder, there is the fabulous folkloric carnival en Oruro!
We ran a wonderful Bolivia trip in 2001, and then improved it and took other groups of adventurers to Bolivia in 2002 and 2003. In response to requests by numerous travelers for a Bolivia trip in 2005, Rutahsa Adventures is offering the following trip in February, 2005. We will need 10 participants to make the trip go. As usual, participation will be limited to 16 travelers. If you are interested in visiting this little-known republic with so much to offer, please review the following itinerary carefully and let us know if you'd like to sign on to this trip.
THE BOLIVIAN ADVENTURES BEGIN...
DAY 1, Thurs., Feb. 3: 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.
To get a preview of the Hotel Rosario, visit their website at Hotel Rosario, then hit your "back" button to return to this itinerary.
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 multihued city, then visit the Plaza Murillo with its government palaces and cathedral. Next we'll 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 items 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, of course the ever-essential dried llama fetuses. You can even buy fake fossils from street vendors.
For supper we'll visit a peña, a restaurant where live 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). [D]
DAY 2, Fri., Feb. 4: 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. For a close-up view, a short hiking trail wends its way through the hoodoos. Weird and 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 Carnival, 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, Carnival. [B]
DAY 3, Sat., Feb. 5: Carnival begins early with a spectacular entry procession called La Entrada, starting at 7 AM and passing along a 5-km route, ending at the Church of the VIrgin of the Socavón. 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. Second night at Gran Hotel Sucre. [B,L]
DAY 4, Sun., Feb. 6: Today is the day of the Gran Corso del Carnival, 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! Third night at the Gran Hotel Sucre. [B]
DAY 5, Mon., Feb. 7: Carnival continues to rollick along today, and you can have a day of free time to continue your celebrations as you choose (or maybe sleep in, depending on how much you've already celebrated!). But for those who might be a bit "carnivaled-out", we have an alternative program: a day trip out to Sajama National Park near the border with Chile. This park contains Volcán Sajama, at 6548 m (21,483 ft) the higest peak in the Bolivian Cordillera Occidental.
The Sajama park is a high arid region inhabited by llamas, alpacas, vicuña, vizcachas (an animal that looks like a rabbit with a squirrel's tail), suris and flamingoes. Among the noteworthy plants to be found in the park are the rare large keñua trees. Other park attractions include hot springs and geysers. This will be the first time Rutahsa Adventures has visited this zone, so exactly what we get to see remains to be seen. We know it will be a long day-- the park is located about five hours' drive from Oruro-- but we thing the scenery en route is sure to be interesting. Final night at the Gran Hotel Sucre. [B,L]
DAY 6, Tues., Feb. 8: Possibly some of our group will want to sleep late this morning after yesterday's long drive. Perhaps they can as carnival street noise should be winding down. Others may wish to visit the Casa de Cultura (historic home of the tin baron Simón Patiño, and now a museum) or the mining museum in old mine tunnels below the Sanctuary of the Socavón. But by mid-afternoon we'll all 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 altiplano landscape gliding by. Spectacular sunsets are common from this train, which rolls on into the night, pulling into the dusty town of Uyuni around 10 PM. We'll be met at the station and taken a short distance to our lodgings at the modest but pleasant Hotel Jardines de Uyuni. [B]
DAY 7, Weds., Feb. 9: A short distance from the town of Uyuni the great Salar de Uyuni lies gleaming, and we will board 4WD vehicles to visit this stunning natural phenomenon. According to conventional geologic concepts, what was once a great intermontane lake comparable to Lake Titikaka eventually evaporated away to form the remarkable salar: in the dry season it is some 10,582 sq km (4085 sq mi) of blinding snow-white salt overarched by a sky so big it looks like it needs some help staying up! But February is the wet season, and when the immense salt flat is covered with a thin layer of rainwater, it turns into the world's largest mirror. And that phenomenon is what we have come to see.
As we approach the salar it is not unusual to see vicuña, the smallest of the four Andean camelids along the margins of the salt flat, and occasionally flocks of pink flamingoes flap slowly by over the erstwhile lake.
On the edge of the salar is one of the world's oddest constructions, the Palacio de Sal, built entirely of blocks of rock salt quarried directly from the salar! We'll stop here for a visit. 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. [On our 2001 Bolivia trip we stayed at this hotel, but in 2002 it was out of service due to local politics, and remained so the last time we visited the salar. However, it's still worth a visit!]
Also located on the margin of the salar is Colchani, an entire village dedicated to the cottage-industry production of salt for the rest of Bolivia's consumption. Fresh salt is first scraped off the surface of the salar and piled in conical heaps. Then it is transported into Colchani where it is dried, then bagged and iodized by workers in small co-ops.
During the dry season it is an easy matter to drive at highway speeds out across the hard flat salt. Eighty kilometers out on the flat is cactus-covered Isla Pescado, once an isolated island of basalt far from the shores of a vast lake. This island is home to several species of cacti, a variety of birds, and a colony of vizcachas.
Isolated by salt flats in the dry season, Isla Pescado can become a real island again during the wet season, when rains flood the salar to form a wide shallow lake. Incredible as it sounds, this does not always prevent visits to the island: if the water depth is less then 18 inches, intrepid drivers pilot their 4WD vehicles through 80 km of salt spray to deliver visitors to the island... but not at highway speeds...under these conditions it can take up to 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 preceding six photos were all taken on the same day! It really beggars description-- you just have to see it to believe it. And for the best view of all, ride in the open!
It is precisely in hopes of experiencing this mind-boggling scene, as we were first privileged to do in Feb. 2001, that Rutahsa Adventures has scheduled our 2005 trip for the wet season again...
We'll comtemplate this bizarre and beautiful scenery as we eat our box lunch on Isla Pescado. Then we return to Uyuni, where, if time permits, we'll visit a railroad graveyard, where many an old steam engine has ended its days. Steam buffs will be saddened by the fate of these once powerful machines, but the sadness is relieved by the sardonic wit of an unknown desert graffiti artist. Second night at the Hotel Jardines de Uyuni. [B,L]
DAY 8, Thurs., Feb. 10: After breakfast we board our 4WD vehicles again 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 another railroad graveyard, this one alleged to have a train car held up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Somewhere along the route we'll stop for a picnic lunch. And there will be photo stops for dramatic scenery, vicuñas, herds of llamas and alpacas. If we're lucky (as we have been before) we'll witness a colorful local fiesta as the village of Chaquilla continues carnival week celebrations. In fact the variety along this road is mind-boggling: you are likely to see snow on mountain tops overlooking sand dunes, near-desert stretches of altiplano, vicuñas, a delightful trout stream lined with green vegetation in the bottom of a picturesque canyon, and colorful strata thrust up towards the sky.
Our drive today is long, but very rewarding, and if none of the river crossings delays us, we'll reach the historic mining city of Potosí well before dark. After checking in at the Hostal Colonial we'll go to supper at the Restaurante San Marcos, an old mine mill converted into a restaurant cum mining museum. Quite a place! [B,L,D]
DAY 9, Fri., Feb. 11: 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 one of the working mines. First, a necessary stop is at a market to buy appropriate gifts for the miners and for El Tío: 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 Tío, 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 Tío 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 (the grinning mask of bacchus is an anomaly!). 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/or 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. [B]
DAY 10, Sat., Feb. 12: 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! It's interior is as amazing as its exterior.
Our home for the next two nights in Sucre is the very pleasant four-star Hostal de Su Merced, within easy walking distance of the central plaza. Here's their website so you can take a look at our digs for Sucre: Su Merced. [B]
DAY 11, Sun., Feb. 13: Those who have already succumbed to the charms of colonial Sucre can have a free day here to relax and soak up the ambience of this historic city; our hotel is just three blocks from the central park and Sucre is easy to explore afoot. But those who want to see more scenery and a colorful indigenous market will board our bus again to drive out to the Indian town of Tarabuco. Here the Quechua people stil lwear their traditional colorful ponchos, chuspas (woven bags for carrying personal items such as coca leaves), elaborate axsu (over-skirts) for the women, helmet-like headgear (apparently derived from the conquistadors helmets) for married men and women. Sunday is the regular market day in Tarabuco, but inasmuch as this is the first market day after carnival, it is likely to be smaller than usual. Nonetheless, Tarabuco is a great place to see traditional costumes and to buy beautiful handwoven textiles.
En route back to Sucre we will stop at Jatún Yampara, a small indigenous community participating in a tourism project to augment their meager farming incomes. These very friendly people will welcome us into their homes and show us something of their crafts and way of life, and perhaps share a blessing ceremony with us at their shrine to Pachamama ("Earth Mother"). Second night at Hostal de Su Merced. [B,L]
DAY 12, Mon., Feb. 14: Today we will visit some of the important historical sites of 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 a thoroughly agreeable place to be.
In the morning we will enjoy a guided tour of some of the more important colonial sites in Sucre, such as La Recoleta monastery, the Casa de la Libertad (Bolivia's "Independence Hall"). Then the afternoon will be free time to relax in the ambiance of this friendly city, visit the cathedral, the central market, or more museums and shops. A good visit is to the ASUR Museum of Indigenous Art, where in addition to seeing a fine museum collection, outstanding textiles can be purchased, and you can witness the art of weaving on the backstrap loom.
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 another night in La Paz will be at our old familiar haunt, Hotel Rosario. [B]
DAY 13, Tues., Feb. 15: Island of the Sun is our goal and Lake Titikaka our very special thrill today. We'll leave La Paz early in a chartered bus headed north to the small port of Chua to board the modern catamaran Consuelo that will transport us in style across the beautiful and grand lake to Isla del Sol (Sun Island). An extensive breakfast buffet will be served shortly after we get underway and you can watch the scenery glide by as you dine in the spacious main salon lined with picture windows. After breakfast it's up to the sun deck atop the vessel. Titikaka, 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. A fine lunch will also be served during the cruise to Isla del Sol.
Upon docking at Isla del Sol, the legendary birthplace of Manco Capac, the first Inka, and his sister-consort Mama Ocllo, we will transfer to a craft made of totora reeds for a short sail to a very well-done visitor's complex owned and operated by the same company that operates the catamaran. Here we will see Inka stonework at a sacred spring, Inka terraces with many native crops and plants, perhaps see a demonstration of the Andean footplow, visit an excellent museum, enjoy crafts and dance demonstrations and a chance to see llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas up close.
After leaving Isla del Sol we cruise around to the opposite side of the Island of the Sun to the Aymara village of Challapampa. The villagers here welcome visitors with music and dancing. From the dock at Challapampa we will board rowboats and some of the wonderfully sturdy Aymara fishermen will row us to the end of the island for a visit to an Inka ruin near the spot where Inti (the Sun) is supposed to have been created by Viracocha, the Inka creator god. Here an Aymara shaman will perform a blessing ceremony for our safe journey home once our Bolivia trip has ended. Afterwards, we will walk back along ancient trails to Challapampa, surrounded by the glories of Lake Titikaka at sunset.
Inasmuch as this is the week after carnival, it is likely that when we return to Challapampa the village will be turned out en masse and dancing in the streets with great spontaneous energy-- this is their fiesta, not a show for tourists (when it comes to holding their traditional party, they ignore our presence!).
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. [B,L,D]
Day 14, Weds., Feb. 16: 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 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 Inka 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. [B,L]
DAY 15, Thurs., Feb. 17: 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. [B]
COST OF THE TRIP: The costs listed below are based on a minimum of ten 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 be happy to send you an application blank or to put you on our mailing list for trip up-dates, as you request.