I just came back from my first time in South America! The 5-year programme I am working on is being implemented in Asia and Latin America. We had the Asia workshop in Thailand (Bangkok) in February already, and the Latin America workshop was to be held in Bolivia (Santa Cruz de la Sierra) in March.
The trip started out great already with an Air Europe flight with a view: I saw the full moon set:
For one week, I was working in a hotel conference room environment and the only nature I saw were plants and trees in the tropical hotel garden.
While my colleagues went home after the workshop on Friday, I would stay for two more weeks. The plan was to travel around Bolivia and Chile (San Pedro de Atacama). It turned out that I always want more and the trip was going to be bigger than I initially thought…
Flight to Oruro and train to Uyuni
Because rainy season can make the bad roads even worse, I decided to fly from Santa Cruz to Oruro (Boliviana de Aviación, 529 BOB / 72,50 EUR) and take the train from there to Uyuni (Ferroviaria Andina via ticketsbolivia.com, 11,50 USD / 11,20 EUR). I almost missed my train because my flight was nearly three hours late! Upon arrival at the train station, I had to get my e-ticket changed to a seat-assigned ticket and drop off my backpack at the luggage section of the train. The train ride took about seven hours and the train moved rather slowly, but the views were lovely and there is something nostalgic about train travel. As the train was moving through the landscape, I couldn’t help but think about my Alaska to Argentina by bike travel plan. While it has moved down in priority, I still want to do that one day. But, seeing the vast landscapes and hours of nothingness, do I still want to do that? When it’s time to do it, perhaps it’s better to just start and not overanalyse it.
Salar de Uyuni
I arrived in Uyuni at night and stayed at Piedra Blanca Backpackers (via hostelworld.com, 10 EUR). The next morning, I went to search for an agency to join a 3-day tour to Uyuni. My Bolivian colleague told me that all tours are the same and prices for a 3-day tour should be around 600 BOB, while some girls in the hostel mentioned prices around 1200 BOB. Quite a difference! Staff at the hostel explained that tours with a certified English-speaking guide are around 1100 BOB and tours with a Spanish-speaking driver (who would then also be the guide if he/she felt like it) are around 700 BOB. My aim was to improve my Spanish, so I preferred a Spanish-speaking group. I went to the tour agency next door, Ripley Tours, and they offered me a 3-day tour for 700 BOB (95 EUR) that included accommodation for two nights and food/drinks. They would also give me the ticket to San Pedro de Atacama (normally 50 BOB) for free. I would still have to pay the entrance fee for Eduardo Avaroa National Park (150 BOB / 20 EUR) in the South. I agreed to the tour, and together with Joshua and Ralph from Panama, Matias from Argentina, Bruna from Brazil and Marie-Laure from France, we were on our way a few hours later. The group was great, but our driver wasn’t (didn’t say anything, was rather grumpy).
The first day, we first went to a train cemetery, which was interesting, but I would not have gone if it wasn’t part of the tour. After this, we went (via a souvenir market first) to the promised Salar. It was nice, but everywhere we looked, there were 4×4 tracks in the salt. I was hoping for a pristine part of the Salar, but with so many people, this was unfortunately not possible. Also, because it was wet season, there was no honeycomb pattern that I was looking forward to seeing. But, we enjoyed the ’emptiness’ and after playing around with perspective, we went back in the car and headed to the salt hotel for lunch. After lunch, we played with perspective some more and then headed to the wet part of the Uyuni, which was beautiful! (Note: make sure your shoes are waterproof or wear flipflops!) Again, there were crowds everywhere, so we had to wade through the salt water to get to a place without others in the background. We stayed there until the sun was almost setting and it was time for us to head back to our car. We drove to another place for sunset and we stayed there until it was dark enough to see the stars. It was incredible! But unfortunately, cars kept driving past and the light pollution ruined it a bit. We wanted to stay for a while, but our driver called us to go back to the car and we were headed towards the hostel. At the hostel, we had dinner and went to our rooms.
In hindsight, it would have been good to have more information about our itinerary (the lady at the agency just explained it quickly). We did not visit Incahuasi Island, for example, which seemed like an incredible place to me. And I would have liked more time in a more remote area to stargaze. At least now I know what I do and don’t want to do when I am back in the future – by bicycle?!
The second day, we headed further out towards several natural sites and lagoons. It was less crowded, probably because a lot of people only spend one day in Salar de Uyuni. We asked our driver if we could put on music (we drove the first day in silence!) and we took turns sharing our music libraries with the group. It was great for the vibe! (The trip anthem became Vente Pa’ Ca!)
Our first stop was Valle de Rocas, groups of red rocks and bushes. It looked beautiful, especially with the mountains in the background. I wanted to climb up and run around, but the high altitude made that a bit more complicated. So, I took it easy and enjoyed the views. We made more stops in beautiful places that day: Laguna Onda, Laguna Hedionda (where I saw flamingos fly high!), Desierto de Siloli (where I saw a culpeo, an Andean desert fox!) and Laguna Colorada. On our way to the hostel, we stopped to take photos of a group of vicuñas. At the hostel, we had some spare time before dinner, so we played some cards and soon we discovered each other’s weirdnesses too: I made animal sounds and Joshua sings opera like a lady – that was the start of a few more hilarious days that included singing Disney, Moulin Rouge and System of a Down songs (at the hostels and in the streets), weird/scary sounds/behaviour (scaring the crap out of Marie-Laure), head banging and boxing (Joshua: “Punch me as hard as you can! Ah, I’m scared, but do it!”).
The last day, we had to get up at 4am in order to leave at 5am. By sunrise, we were at the geysers of Sol de Mañana. We went to Aguas Calientes (natural hot springs) and Laguna Verde before reaching the border with Chile at 9.30 am. The 3-day tour turned out to be just 45 hours. At the border crossing, everyone had to pay 15 BOB (2 EUR) to get an exit stamp. Five of us (all minus Matias) continued to travel together to San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama
After a short bus ride, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. We stayed at Hostal Matty (8.000 CLP / 11 EUR). We took it easy the first day and talked about further travel plans. My original plan was to go back to Bolivia after San Pedro de Atacama: I wanted to go horse riding in Tupiza. However, if I could do horse riding in San Pedro de Atacama, I could travel further and see more! So I decided to join Marie-Laure to Bahía Inglesa, perhaps even Valparaíso…
The next day, I booked a 5-hour trip to Valle de la Muerte with Atacama Horse Adventure (10.000 CLP / 14 EUR per hour), Marie-Laure and I bought our bus tickets (K-Tur to Calama, 3.000 CLP / 4 EUR | Pullman to Caldera, 24.000 CLP / 34 EUR) and we rented bicycles (3.000 CLP / 4 EUR per 6 hours) to bike into the Desierto de Atacama. (Note: bring your headlamp!) Apparently, Valle de la Luna was the easier bike ride as it supposedly is rather ‘flat’. Yet, it was hilly enough to tire us all out completely! The landscape was beautiful and we stopped at a cavern to explore. We then cycled (or walked) further up to reach the start of the rock formation, which we climbed in order to see the sunset from the top. It was gorgeous! We walked back down before it got dark and got ready to cycle back. Unfortunately, we had no lights on our bikes (bike rental said it was ‘illegal’?!) and had to cycle 13 km back in the dark. Only Joshua had a headlight. It was already a dangerous and challenging situation, but there were also other groups of people and at one point a girl had joined our group, but she didn’t know how to bike – she kept no distance, kept going from left to right to left and almost crashed into Marie-Laure. Awful. I went ahead of the group as I preferred to cycle alone in the dark than to share one headlight between the five of us cramming together on sloping gravel and sand roads. For the part without any lights, it was possible to distinguish the road (lighter) with the nothingness (darker). However, when I got to the main road, it was hard as there were actual lights and the rest became pitch black. I improvised with my phone’s flashlight in my sweater and managed to get back to the hostel. I told them they should put lights on the bike, but the guy was like “but you managed just fine.”
The last day in San Pedro de Atacama was spent on horseback! I joined Sólja and Beinta from the Faroe Islands on a 5-hour ride through Valle de Catarpe, up to the highest cliff of Cordillera de la Sal and Valle de la Muerte (all photos were taken by phone as we couldn’t bring any big cameras along). We rode the beautiful landscapes and down the sand dunes of Valle de la Muerte (I didn’t know horses could go down steep dunes like that!) and back to the ranch.
After I got back to San Pedro de Atacama, I freshened up, packed up my stuff, went for lunch with Joshua and Marie-Laure and we were off to the bus terminal for our trip to Bahía Inglesa!
Bahía Inglesa and Valparaíso
The buses towards Bahía Inglesa were very comfortable. It was my first time in a cama bus and it was so comfortable! We arrived at 5 am at a dark and empty bus terminal in Caldera. There were no buses, no taxis, nothing was open and everything looked a bit eerie. Marie-Laure and I decided to check if we could stay in a hotel lobby somewhere until the town would wake up and we could continue our travels. And we were in luck! At one of the hotels, the guy let us stay in the common kitchen, made us some coffee and left (probably to sleep). We stayed there until sunrise. We left a thank you note and went to search for a colectivo, which took a minute and cost 1.000 CLP (1,40 EUR). When we arrived in an overcast Bahía Inglesa, we had no idea where to stay. We had no wifi/data and from earlier research, it looked a little more pricey than the hostels we had stayed in so far. After walking around a bit and asking locals, we arrived at Cabañas Villa Alegre. After negotiating, the owner let us stay in a cabaña for 25.000 CLP (36 EUR). And we were right by the sea! We settled in and got ourselves freshened up. It was then that I discovered that 100 USD was missing. My work had reimbursed me 220 USD at the end of the workshop as I had paid for my expenses that week. Strangely, not all money was taken. I tried to think of when this could have happened. I never left my bag unattended, not on the flight, not on the train, not in the hostel. Also, the money wasn’t easy to find. I concluded that it must have happened during the 3-day (or 2-day) trip in Uyuni where my bag was left in the car while we went to explore the sites or in the hostel of the second night (we had no lock on that door) and we had left for 15 minutes to walk around or the only time I did not put my backpack in my locker and left it on my bed in the hostel room in San Pedro de Atacama for 10 minutes. I would never know. Strangely, this is the second time this happened. The first time was in Namibia and then too, only a part of the money was missing. This makes me think both times were done by other travellers. I kept beating myself up about it and it ruined my mood a bit for a day or two, but Marie-Laure tried to make me feel better. She treated me to a mango pisco sour for lunch at Hotel Rocas de Bahía, which had great service but awful food.
In Bahía Inglesa, people seemed either very friendly or not at all. The man at the mini market was great, but staff at El Plateao was not. We spent the afternoon hanging out at the beach. The water was turquoise and incredibly cold. We had dinner at El Plateao, which has great food but awful service. When we asked for the bill and to pay with card, the waiter just dropped the bill and the machine on the table. I guess it’s DIY? Odd. (Note: the propina is included on the bill, but it is only a suggestion. Do not pay it if it is not deserved.)
The next day, we checked out in the morning and realised we only had 23.000 CLP in cash together. Luckily, the owner of the cabañas didn’t mind, but we felt bad about it. With no money to spend, we spent the morning and early afternoon at the beach again. Lunch was again at El Plateao since we could pay with our cards and food was good. But also this time, service was bad and they seemed to have forgotten our order as we waited for nearly an hour. In the late afternoon, we needed to go to Caldera in order to take our bus to Valparaíso. We did not have the 1.000 CLP cash for the colectivo and there were no ATMs in town. We talked to the man in the mini market and asked him for a piece of cardboard so we could make a sign to try to hitchhike. Instead, he talked to the eggs delivery man and asked him if we could get a ride with him back to Caldera. And he agreed! We thanked both men and hopped onto the only other seat of the little van: Marie-Laure sat in the seat and I sat on her lap for the 15 minutes to Caldera.
When we arrived at the Turbus office, they told us there were no buses to Valparaíso that night. There was one from Copiapó though. So, we bought those tickets (18.900 CLP / 27 EUR), found an ATM for cash and took another bus to Copiapó (2.000 CLP / 3 EUR). In Copiapó, we almost missed our bus because it looked like our bus wasn’t there. It turned out that the bus was on the other side of the bus terminal and it wasn’t a Turbus bus, but a Condor bus! So, last minute, we ran with our stuff and we caught it in time.
We arrived in Valparaíso in the morning. I wanted to see Argentina as well and as I was pressured for time, I was going to take a bus to Mendoza that evening, hoping to reach Buenos Aires the next evening. I bought my ticket (Turbus but executed by Tas-Choapa Internacional, 19.000 CLP / 27 EUR) and after, we took a local bus to Cerro Alegre, the area of Marie-Laure’s hostel. After dropping off her stuff, we walked around Valparaíso. We had no plan in particular, just some points of interest and random strolling around town. It’s a beautiful place with colourful wooden houses and lots of steep roads up (or down). We had lunch at In Bocca Al Lupo, which was a lovely place with an outdoor patio, super friendly staff and delicious food. It wasn’t very cheap, so Marie-Laure and I shared a pumpkin risotto dish. The staff kept bringing extra bread and other delicious bites and drinks (pisco sour!) to try. They also told us about other places we should see in Valparaíso. Too nice! After lunch, we continued walking the beautiful streets and also rode the ascensor (El Peral) up and ended up in another nice area of the city. We had dinner at Altamira, where I had my first ceviche ever! Yummm…! I now also wanted to go to Peru, but not during this trip. After dinner, Marie-Laure and I said goodbye (or until we meet again). I took a local bus to the bus terminal and was soon on my way to Argentina…
The idea was to arrive in Mendoza around 3am and take a bus directly to Buenos Aires in the morning. However, the bus was stuck at the border for hours on end and I only arrived in Mendoza at 10am. By then, the buses that would arrive at night had already left and the few next ones were full. The first bus I could get onto was leaving at 6pm (Vía Tac, 940 ARS / 57 EUR), so I had several hours in Mendoza. I took a taxi to the city centre, but it was Sunday so everything was closed. And then I saw something that I would usually not get onto: a hop-on hop-off bus… Oh well, it would be a very efficient way to see the city in little time! So, I hopped on and stayed on for a while (these buses run once an hour, so I had to think twice before hopping off). The city looked nice, but I think it’s the nature outside the city that is more appealing – and the vineyards of course. I hopped off at the Portones de Parque to walk around the park and to walk to Avenida Arístides Villanueva for some lunch at La Aldea. After some good food, I went on my way towards that hop-on hop-off bus and finished the tour before ending up at the starting point again. I did some more walking in town and then made my way back to the bus terminal for the bus to Buenos Aires.
I ended up not sleeping that night as I had a passenger next to me who kept falling asleep on me. Yeah, no. I moved the arm rest down to create some sort of barrier, but the next time I woke up again because he was leaning against me, the arm rest had been put up again. What. So I moved it down again. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable to be sleeping in a bus seat, but it’s really uncomfortable to have a stranger sleeping on you. Some may like it, but not me.
I arrived in Buenos Aires in the morning. It was Monday and I had to be back for my flight from Santa Cruz (Bolivia) on Friday morning. There was no clear information about buses from Asunción (Paraguay) to Santa Cruz; some sources said there were buses twice a week and others once a day. But there was no info about the times and I knew it would take about 24 hours, so I had to be on the safe side. Flights were all very expensive, so I decided to fly the ‘cheapest part’ from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú in order to safe time (Aerolíneas Argentinas via tripair.com, 190 EUR). Later on during the trip, I learned about Andes Líneas Aéreas, which apparently offers cheap flights from Mendoza to Buenos Aires (and other main cities in Argentina). But of course last minute flights are more expensive. Sometimes, it pays off to plan ahead. But then again, I like being able to be flexible and impulsive.
Having my flight to Iguazú that night, meant that I only had one afternoon in Buenos Aires. I started by going to Plaza de Mayo and walking around that area and Puerto Madero. After, I wanted to find a good parrilla. The one I was looking for was closed, so I decided to go to El Sanjuanino in Recoleta. The restaurant is famous for its empanadas and it was full of tourists. After, I walked around the parks and streets some more, enjoying the architecture and vibe. The city seemed like a mix between New York (big city for big dreams), Barcelona (sunny, port and by the sea, style of the streets) and Paris (architecture) to me. In the late afternoon, I made my way towards the airport. It was short, but sweet, Buenos Aires!
I arrived in Puerto Iguazú at night and stayed at Residencia Noelia Hostel (122 ARS / 7 EUR). There, I met Marloes, the first Dutch person on this trip and we both had to get used to speaking in our native language again. I only had one morning for the Iguazú Falls and I was debating between the Argentinian and Brazilian side. There is more to see and feel on the Argentinian side, but the Brazilian side was apparently better for the overall view (and photo opportunities). I wasn’t sure. Marloes already went to the Brazilian side and also had little time the next morning to discover the Argentinian side. She invited me to join her and her travel buddies and I gladly accepted the invite.
The next morning, we were up early in order to meet the others at the bus terminal at 7.20am. We arrived at the park a little after 8am and made our way towards the top. There were a lot of people doing the same, but it wasn’t too crowded. When we arrived at the top, we followed the walkway towards the Falls. The surroundings were beautiful and so peaceful. And when we arrived at the Falls, it was the opposite of that! The Falls were enormous! It’s called Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and it was incredibly forceful. I could barely keep my eyes open at times, as the water would get in everywhere. This was no place to take out my DSLR, so I only snapped some iPhone photos, which failed to capture the size of it all. We all got an extra shower that morning. After some time there, we made our way back. While we were walking, I heard the first helicopters flying over (hello!) – the quickest tour of the Falls.
We took the little train back down and on the way, while people were talking and I was staring outside, I saw a toucan! It was in the bush, but still clear enough to spot. I said “Toucan!” and pointed at it, but as the train was moving on, most of the guys missed it. Only one had caught a little glimpse. I was in a bit of a high after that. It’s quite incredible seeing beautiful creatures in the wild, especially when you don’t expect them!
When we walked past the entry of the park again, we realised how many people had come to the park in the few hours we had been inside. The queues were enormous! We were laughing a bit and felt so happy we arrived early. Otherwise, we would not have been able to make it in time!
Through Paraguay back to Santa Cruz
I left Puerto Iguazú on the 12pm bus to Ciudad del Este (Paraguay). If you want to travel onward to Bolivia, you need to catch this bus (or an even earlier one) as I only just made my connections. The bus stops at migration in Argentina, which was a very quick process, travels through the Brazilian area without stopping and then enters Paraguay. It should have stopped at migration there too, but I think the driver couldn’t be bothered to be held up (for two minutes) as it was only me that needed an entry stamp. So, the driver stopped at the next stop and told me to walk back. He also said my ticket would be valid in any other bus and it would take me to the bus terminal (of course other buses didn’t). I got out to walk back and get my entry stamp and with me came an Israeli traveller who was also on the bus. He had to go to Asunción as well, so we travelled together for that part. After getting our entry stamps, we tried the bus thing, which didn’t work, so we shared a taxi to the bus terminal for 70 ARS (4 EUR) each. Upon arrival, we didn’t need to search for a bus to Asunción. All companies go there and they seemed to be in desperate need of passengers. I still wanted to compare prices and times before agreeing to any company and we ended up going with one that was leaving in 5 minutes. We paid 190 ARS (12 EUR) each. The bus took about 7 hours as it stopped and waited at every main place and arrived in Asunción a little before 8pm. I told my travel buddy that I would look for the bus to Santa Cruz upon arrival. With only one bus per day, missing the bus while going inside the terminal to buy a ticket would be a big shame. So, upon arrival, he helped me with my backpack and I was in a hurry to walk past the platform to check all the buses. And as I walked past the second platform, the bus to Santa Cruz pulled up behind me. I stressed out a little bit, as I had no ticket, and walked up to the driver to tell him I wanted to go with this bus but I don’t have a ticket yet. The driver spoke to me but I had no idea what he was saying. I couldn’t understand a word. I thought I was improving my Spanish, but this was confusing and frustrating! I asked him if he could wait while I get a ticket and he said the bus is leaving now. I wish I had superpowers. Also, I realised I had walked off without saying goodbye to my travel buddy, which I felt a bit bad about, but I couldn’t go search for him now. I approached a lady working at the bus terminal and told her that I want to go with this bus but that I needed to buy a ticket. She called her colleague, who walked with me to the ticket office. I had no Paraguayan Guaraníes and only 50 US Dollars and some Argentine Pesos. I asked if I could pay in USD. Luckily, they said yes. I put down the 50 USD, but they said it wasn’t enough. I asked if they accepted ARS and they did. I put down my last ARS bills and it was enough (or more, but no change given) to cover my ticket. I walked back down and luckily the bus was still there and I got on. So, since this information was lacking when I searched online: if you want to catch the bus from Asunción (Paraguay) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia), it leaves daily at 8pm from the bus terminal. My bus arrived in Santa Cruz after 22 hours. It will stop twice at the migration offices (one out of Paraguay, one into Bolivia) and the procedures are rather long and thorough (they go through every bag). The bus seems to be various decades old and not comfortable. But, you gotta do what you gotta do! It does serve food and drinks (dinner, breakfast, lunch) and there is even a toilet in the back.
Because I had made every connection in time, I had one evening and one full day in Santa Cruz before my flight on Friday morning. I stayed in a new hostel called Bed & Bar Backpackers (64 BOB / 9 EUR), which is a brand new place. Don’t expect a bar like in some other hostels though, it looks rather clinical. But, the rooms are nice and it’s in the city centre. I met travellers Lucie and Axel there and the three of us went for dinner at YVYPY on Plaza Principal. I had been here before with colleagues and it offers a lovely view of the Cathedral and main square. Also, food and drinks are alright and not too expensive, which was an important consideration for those who are travelling for months! It was a lovely night.
The next day, Lucie and I went to the Jardín Botánico (10 BOB / 1,40 EUR) by microbus (2,5 BOB / 0,35 EUR). That morning, I had put my sunscreen and mosquito repellent in the locker, thinking I would not need it. Why? I have no idea. Brain fart or something. I thought mosquitos are only active at night. Well, I was dead wrong. That morning, within one hour, I had over 50 mosquito bites. Lucie kept killing them while they were still on me (thanks, Lucie!) and I was walking around with my camera in my hand and blood smears all over my arms. Lucie was lucky she was with me, mosquitos love me so much that they usually only bite me and not whoever else is around. At some point, when we got to the more tropical part of the gardens, there was no point in going further. It had rained so much that parts were flooded and we could not cross. Also, I could not focus on where I was anymore and I tried to meditate my way through the bites and itches – not easy! We went back towards the entrance. There, we came across an employee and we asked if they had something against the mosquitos. He went to get some OFF! repellent. It would only work for two hours, but it was two hours more to spend in these lovely gardens. We were trying to find sloths, but I think they were in the deep end of the woods which we could not reach due to the flooded parts. We enjoyed the rest of the gardens a lot and headed back to Santa Cruz, by microbus again, in the afternoon. After strolling around the markets and having a late lunch at a Brazilian BBQ place, we went back to the hostel. That night, I met an American friend I know from Cairo and we went for food and drinks at Irish Pub (that’s the name of the place).
The next morning, Lucie and Ryan (another traveller from the hostel) shared the taxi with me to the airport. As I was getting ready for my flight back to the Netherlands, they were getting ready to see more of South America as they boarded their flight to Sucre.
Upon arrival at Schiphol Airport, I realised the Bolivians had left me a nice surprise. My friend already told me they search every bag (which they do before you board the plane), but I had no idea it would also apply to the checked-in luggage. While a scan should show them what is in my backpack, they still felt the need to break my flight bag open (ruining the zipper and braking off a metal part), open every zipper and compartment of my backpack to search through it (and not close them again after they were done) and just put it back in the broken flight bag while a part was damaged and open. Nice…
I bought the flight bag at Schiphol in January before flying to Thailand and I remember it has a warranty. While I did not have the receipt with me, I still went to the store and they gave me a new one! Awesome!
The last two weeks passed by in no-time and I am lucky to have seen more than I thought I would. One day, I will be back and I look forward to exploring more in South America… perhaps by bicycle?