Bolivia

I have a love hate relationship with Bolivia. Mostly Love.

I love how diverse, how scenery-packed this country is.
I love how I can be at the highest recorded lake in the world one day and low level Amazon jungle the next, or be among lush green trees spotting wild animals lazing in lakes one day and be in the middle of bleached white salt dessert or bright red lagoons with flamingos the next. And that’s just to name a few.
I love how light this country is on your money pocket.
I love how real, generous and friendly most locals are once you start a conversation with them.
Bolivia was the one of the few countries where I experienced such generous hospitality between strangers.
The one who has little has more to give than the rich. How very true.)

Now the ugly side.
Pretty much after you’ve paid up for a tour, your fate hung on the guide’s integrity/deliverance of their promises.
I got stranded at the border of Chile and Bolivia, in the middle of the dessert, after the tour guide woke up late and the bus left even though I’ve already paid for the ride when I bought the tour.

You may have heard about how dangerous and chaotic Bolivia is (or not even know this country exists), and I’ll be honest and say it is a little messy be it the city or the way things work, but weigh out the risks you are willing to take, carry a good dose of common sense and put this country on your “must visit” list, for Bolivia will surprise you endlessly like it did for me, I was left amazed EVERY single day in this country.

They say Argentina, they say Brazil.
But yall, I say Bolivia.

Copacabana Town

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I recall falling fast asleep on the bus.
It was after the whole adventure at Machu Pichu, combined with the lack of sleep and Cusco’s cold weather, I fell asleep so quickly, so soundly in this bus that had heating (How awesome!)
I didn’t even need my blue pill this time, I just slept.
And what more, I was a bit annoyed that the bus ride wasn’t long enough as I wanted to sleep more, it was comfortable.

I recall paying USD52 at the Bolivian border. It was raining hard, my shoes were soaked. I just wanted to get back on the warm bus and sleep.

Anyhoos, we arrived at CopaCabana, near the border of Bolivia/Peru and checked into our hostel. I recall the hostel to be really good! It had heaters!

Copacabana is also the gateway to Isla de sol (Island of the sun) and Lake Titicaca, highest recorded lake in the world and the supposed birthplace of the Inca Gods.

Didn’t plan for this but heard its such a beautiful place from travellers when I was in Peru, so why not.
Love plans on a whim.
Plus, I had visited Death Valley in the US a while ago – the lowest recorded lake in the world, so why not see the highest recorded lake too.
Oh Why not.

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Main church in sleepy Copacabana town

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Grab a few good friends, get a drink here and watch the sun set slowly. So tranquil, Bliss.

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Sun was setting. Such a lovely place.

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Lake Titicaca

World’s highest lake. Believe me, walking a few steps left me breathless.
The lady who sold the tickets the day before, causally informed me  ” Ay chica, no problema, solo quizas tres horas, muy facil (Easy flat hike, just three hours walk)”.
I underestimated it of course.
It was flat, but at 3810m above sea level, each step took a little out of my natural oxygen tank.

Lake Titicaca has two sides, shared by Peru and Bolivia.
I went for Bolivia’s side, boating from Copacabana to Isla de Sol for some oxygen depleting hike.
And it was worth every bit of the extra pumping effort on my heart.

According to the tradition of the Incas, its dynasty started when the mythical Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo were sent down to Earth by the Sun onto lake titicaca. And wham bam, the Incas began.

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Allow about 3 hours to complete this loop.

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Off to hike the island!
Everything was beautiful. Just so beautiful.

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Had lunch with this view. Bliss. But don’t stay too long.
Need to move on, unless you hike at an amazing speed at this altitude (& because you won’t want to miss the last boat that leaves at 5pm)

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You have to pay up at these gates.
I asked for the entrance price at Copacabana when I first bought me boat tickets to Isla de Sol.

Stick to it. They tried to rip me off, thanks to my limited Spanish. How sketchy!

Thankfully, another Spanish speaking group came along and helped me out.

Tip : hike with someone, share the scenery, and as always, there is power in numbers

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Lady and her herd

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After a satisfying hike, we enjoyed some cold brew here, tried to reach out for the oh-so-low clouds and admired how blue the skies were
We then kicked back on the boat to Copacabana with all these memories.

Rainforest/Amazon Basin of Bolivia

Want a slice of the Amazon at something much cheaper than what you would get in Brazil? (That said, Brazil’s sights would definitely be more in terms of animals you can see)

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So from the highest recorded lake, I forged on next to the low levels of the Amazon basin. And replenished on the oxygen and warmth.

Head on to La Paz (Capital) and either brace yourself for a 20hrs bus ride down Ruta De Muerte from there (Death road – narrow road with a sharp drop into nothingness) or an hour flight.

Do yourself a favor if you choose the bus and take a good sleeping pill.

Because not only would it be one extremely bumpy mud “road” journey, it helps to be knocked out traveling on what locals call the “Death Road”.
Muddy roads, Sharp drop down into an abyss, say a prayer and enjoy the ride.

I chose the former of course as I was on a shoe string budget. And I had my trusty kick ass motion sickness pill that I now take as my bus sleeping pills.

I had to start rationing this as well, my supply was running low.
Any bus rides that were less than 15-20 hours – I will ride it out.
Anything more, hello my lovely blue pills


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Rurre is only 200km from La Paz, so normally it would take about 2 hours on a normal paved road to get from point A to point B, 200km apart.
But because of the mountains and road conditions, the journey now becomes 20 hours.

I recall getting up a night, to eat. I recall having quinoa and was silently wondering why it was so cheap. Quinoa was really expensive anywhere else in the world.
I think it was 40cents – $1 for a hot meal.
I recall falling right back asleep. I really go on about my sleeping pills but dang, they good.

I arrived in Rurre the next morning. My clothes, hair and bags were brown from the dust and sand that came in through the bus windows.
I stepped off the bus, quite surprised.
I’ve yet to travel to a town quite like this on this trip.
I thought I must have bought the wrong tickets and arrived at the wrong place.
Mosquitoes everywhere and sand was flying whenever a car rolled on by.

I can’t describe it well, but it was definitely the tropics. Not a bad thing.
I loved the mountainous setting and change in weather, soaking up the tropical warmth.
Just had to drench myself in mosquito repellent.

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Pretty lucky, arrived and wanted to check some hostels out first to rest but found the Inca-land tour shop instead.
We were told they were leaving for the jungle tour in an hour.
Groggily I figured instead of waiting around for another jungle tour to leave at an unknown date, I could save a few days’ hostel money, why not.
Crazy haggling and off I went on this amazing trip!

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Maddi national park

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Our simple boat down the river to get into the thick jungle.

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“Anaconda” movie, much?
I truly felt like I was in one.

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Our tour guide showed us how a certain “mint” plant’s stem could be used to treat headaches, itchy insect bites etc. Handy when you didn’t have a repellent on hand.

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And the bark of some plant’s so strong people in the past used it to build walls or roofs. Here, he makes me a water bottle carrier! Resourceful eh.

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Wading through the mud and mangroves.
Where I fell 3 times because I could not get my feet out of the sinking sticky mud. Smooth.

We headed back to the Eco Lodge after this, I recall our tour guide was a bit lost as we were walking around for a bit.
Eventually we got there 🙂

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At night, the sky had a silver river.

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And when all lights are out, true beauty appears.

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Good morning! Our eco-lodge in daylight.
Was actually really nice place, toilets were proper and clean.
No shower though, it was just water and tubs.
I recall brushing my teeth here in a water rubber tub and saw some mosquito larva floating. I pointed them out to the other german girl in my tour group. She looked at me, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and kept on brushing.

I guess out here, you just take what you have 🙂

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 The gang.
We were gonna camp overnight in the thick jungle that day. Super pumped!

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Outfit of the day : Our cook’s pajamas pants.
My only leggings were soaked from falling into the mud the day before.
These were more comfortable, and I was given better fitted boots.
No falling or getting stuck in mud that day!

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Spotted a lot more wildlife.
Golden monkey!

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Belly of a wild boar left by a Jaguar.

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I was walking behind my guide when he suddenly started to shout and run, flapping his hands over his face.
Next thing I knew, I felt a sharp pain right on my forehead and I did what common sense dictated- RUN for cover!
Everyone was running, it was hilarious.
So the stingers were apparently from this nest that was barely visible to our untrained human eyes, called the flying ants. Ant size, but elephant size pain!

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Tour guide had it worst.
After the initial intense pain, the bites then swell, stinging lingers on, and a little itch around the spot becomes apparent.

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I only had one big swell.

Remedy? Use his machete knife on my forehead to scrape off the “poison/juice”

And the plants that could be used to treat headaches bites etc really helped.
The Forest was one treasure trove of medicinal finds.

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Mini Coconut! Hows the flesh?
No, we weren’t looking for flesh.

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We want the prize, its larva!

 
I mean, it was a once in a lifetime experience right, why not, oh why not.
And it wasn’t that bad.
I believe it’s the idea of eating a wriggly soft thing that turns people off.
It tasted pretty good!
Coconut-ty, milky juice and apparently its full of protein.
That said, I had to use my hands, cover the head and bite till that point. Can’t deal with creepy eyes staring back at me while I chew on its body.

 

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Mud was getting stickier that day and we had to drag each leg out forcefully.

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Campsite for the night.

I was so proud of myself. I finally knew how to construct a tent.
Whats in the tent? Nothing but a thin foam.

That said, I had a really good sleep, though I was really frightened at night when I had to pee in pitch black darkness outside.

Because, well, they (the animals, I was imagining pumas jaguars) can see your yellow ass but you don’t see them.

 I think the whole time I went “please don’t bite my ass”

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No lights?
Use a tree bark, split that in quarters, stick your candle in.
Viola.

We had dinner with this as the only source of light, candle light dinner truly.

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Our guide was pretty hardcore, No tent, just a mosquito net

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Morning! Freshen up?
Do your brushing of teeth, washing of face etc here in the stream 🙂

Honestly, the feeling of waking up in the midst of nature was such a liberating feeling. You can’t help but just feel so happy and you can’t really put a finger as to why.

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I love every single one of Betty’s (our cook) meals.
That morning, a scrumptious breakfast.
Her fried plantains (banana with batter) was to die for!
Affirmative, Bolivian ladies sure can cook.

 

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” Don’t step on me “

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I am the King of the Castle.

During my literature class in high school, we had to read the text “King of the castle”, a dark story about a boy finding his solace in the streams of the forest.

Well, Miss Shirley Hoe (my literature teacher who constantly commented that I did not understand the undercurrents of the protagonist’s feelings and she had a twisted penchant of failing my essays), I finally am able to relate to his love of streams.

Because there is just something so calming about lying in a stream with water rushing past and covering you. Everything is “washed” away.

‘‘Oh but they do not show everything, he is bottling it up. He is only ten and that is no age , no age at all.”- said the protagonist’s silly mother who brushed aside his feelings in bid for her lover’s approval and to not ruffle any feathers.
I guess with adults like this, protagonists only escape is indeed the streams.

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Went back to the lodge after another day of trek.
Hung out with the caretaker of the lodge.

His hobby?
Collect dead beetles and preserve them. and He sure did a beautiful job

I recall not wanting to leave the jungle, mainly because I dreaded the bumpy 20hrs ride back to La Paz on muddy, non cemented road.
I just wanted to be among nature, wake up to birds chirping in the forest, see animals, play by the streams.
But every party has to end.
Back to the real world.
I recall having a shower for the first time after a few days, and it felt so good!
I didn’t even care that the water was not warm/hot.
Clean water, fan providing some breeze, food, mattress and bed – Hello.

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The next day, we were back on the bus, and the horrible road again.

This time, because it rained the day before,  the”road” was super muddy and soft.I awoke in the middle of the night when I heard screams and quick movements.

So our  bus was about to topple down the abyss due to the soft muddy road.
All the vehicles here were stuck and the passengers all had to get out to push.

Man oh man, you could hear shrieks each time the bus moved a little and threatened to fall over.
A miracle we got it out. A miracle we didn’t drop into the abyss.

But, a greater wonder was that everyone went back to sleep right after the bus got out of the mud, like nothing happened at all.

I was the same too, got out, push, screamed a little and went right back to sleep – my blue pill did it’s job wonderfully.

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Gorgeous scenery greeted us the next day as we made it out of the “Death road” alive and back to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital
The roads became bearable again, no more crazy bumpy ride.

I recall waking up before every one else on the bus and looked around, amazed at the scenery.
I recall it was so quiet, so serene.
I had to snap a quick picture as our bus whirled on quietly, just to remember this moment.

Bus whirling slowly past vast lands, sun peeking behind the snow capped mountains, everything was absolutely peaceful and tranquil.
Pure bliss, and the 20 hours of bus ride suddenly was all worth it, just for these few minutes of sweet, serene bliss

It was indescribably ethereal

 

La Paz

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Sadly, I do not have pictures of La Paz. I think I was too busy shopping!
Things were cheap here, got myself an alpaca sweater, lots of rings, necklaces and many more!
Go crazy here.

Pictures here are also taken off the web.

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Saltanas! Pastry encasing meat.

Origniated from Salta town in Argentina. This is bolivia’s version, but much better!  Sorry Argentina.
I am absolutely in love with these!

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A random story- I had a few coins left and wanted to use it up as I was leaving the country soon and the coins would be of no use to me, so I offered to buy some cheese off a cheese seller, a young lady.

The lady refused to take my money and kept shoving some cheese into my hands. I was shocked, and I realized she thought I did not have money to have a meal, and hence, refused my money and insisted I took it.

I was so touched, they have so little materially, yet they have so much to give.

Another time, a hostel lady offered to share her meal with me, and many other Bolivians shared their home cooked meals with me.

This deserves a mention as I experienced these great moments at a higher frequency in this country. Meant a lot to a backpacker.

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It was a centrally located hostel, had hot water shower and a great selection of movies.

I recalled watching the movies Salt and Hugo in the hostel at La Paz, recalled resting quite a bit in La Paz.

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Uyuni de Salar

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Largest Salt Plains in the world!

Took an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni
( I would  recommend La Paz as a base to bus out to Rurre (Rainforest town), Copacabana (Lake Titicaca), Uyuni de Salar and Laguna de colorada as it has the most number of buses going out at almost every hour).

You can also book a 4D3N tour at Uyuni
I arrived at Uyuni at 5am, getting a coffee and breakfast at a local tienda, then booked a tour at 7am when the shops opened, and off I went at 8am with a crazy great group of newly made friends!- Dont forget a good winter jacket!

In Bolivia , the altitudes vary so much.

You could go from a tropical temperature to a town high above sea level where you are constantly shouting out for a heater and some hot shower.
Rurre was hot, humid and sweaty, Copacabana cool & bearable, while La Paz , Potosi and Uyuni were freezing!
All in one country:) )

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The locals here harvest all the salt by hand. They do not yet have machines for this physically taxing work. Maybe they do now.

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Miles and Miles of white.

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Amazing french couple whose been riding their bicycles from Brazil to get up to Colombia.
R e s p e c t.

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A ballerina wannabe, as always.

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We were supposed to stay in these salt hotels on Day 1 but because they were all full, we had to return to the main town at a hostel with warm blankets, hot showers and clean rooms for the night.

Which I secretly did not mind, because out here, I would imagine the temperature to fall below minus at night and with no hot showers or heaters, I think it would have been one torturous night.

I’ve always thought I could rough it out, but Bolivia definitely pushed my boundaries and cold weather being my nemesis, this is at the brink of my
“Everyanything-goes-Gung-ho” limit.

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Next day, we travelled on south to see the famous lagoons with flamingos.
Furry dolled up Alpacas along the way.

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Boy meets girl?

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This was breathtakingly beautiful.
My limited vocabulary cannot describe the beauty of this place enough.
Even pictures don’t do justice.

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Flamingos warming themselves in the sun!
Had our lunch here, and it sure felt good.

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Apparently there’s a lot more in summer.
I wonder if this place actually gets warm being at such high altitude.
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Rock Tree.

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Before I realized, we hit a big piece of redness, we have arrived at the red lagoon!

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I have never seen anything like this!

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My favorite Spanish ladies.
They were hilarious and so easy going.
Definitely made the trip together even better!

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Our “hotel” for the night.

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Because they do not use reservation systems here, by the time we got there, we had to go from one lodge to the next and finally when we arrived at the last one left, they had one room! Yayy, no camping out in the biting cold of the dessert.

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Altitudes of the different cities

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Our room for the night, for 6 of us!
It was ok, but it got so cold at night I couldn’t sleep.

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Everyone sat outside that night for a while to enjoy the nightscape.
No light pollution, the sky came alive.

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5am
Artificial Geysers the next morning.

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Back on the road, chasing the sun rise and our breakfast

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After our breakfast, we stopped by a hot spring.
This was pure bliss with mineral water at 30’C .

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Our gang. Had to say bye to them as most of them were doing a round trip and heading back to Uyuni.
Had such a good time with them!

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I decided to perm my hair when I was in La Paz. I was in Latin America after all and almost all the local girls sported natural curly/wavy hair. I wanted in !
A perm in Bolivia would set you back at only USD 4!
A haircut? A few cents!

295352_10150857869497470_1743197088_nWell, right after the perm, I thought I resembled an Asian Michael Jackson.
The curls loosened gradually after a few weeks when I decided this was wrong and started to comb it out, it became wavy instead which was great – just the way I wanted it to be.

Quality not guaranteed, be prepared for days of tangled impossibly dry hair that gets caught in everything you pass, but for the price, and with the motto “Everything once”, Why not, Oh why not.

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After the tour, you could either go back to Uyuni or pay a bit more to cross over to Chile and on to San Pedro de Atacama.

If you choose the latter, make sure you remind the tour guide you are going on to Chile, and wake him up earlier so you get to the “bus station” (just a mark on the ground, beside a police shack) on time with a bus to get over to Chile.

And do, just because Chile is awesome.

Unfortunately, we got stranded as our tour guide work up late, got to the bus station late, and the one and only connecting bus of the day had left.
I had intended to spend a night in the police shack which had 1 table, 2 chairs and 1 wooden bed. No heaters out here in the dessert.
I recall just shrugging, thinking there’s nothing else I could do, went outside, sat down, took out my book and started reading.
After a good 40 minutes, another bus pulled up and thankfully the kind hearted tour guide took us in his bus and off we went to Chile.
So happy this happened! I didn’t want to freeze out here at night and in retrospect now, who knew what would happen.

We live to tell another tale 🙂

A stark contrast between both countries’ economy clearly seen and felt –  Once you passed this sign & an invisible line which was what separated Bolivia and Chile, the bus which was originally fighting against Bolivia’s super bumpy sandy road suddenly relaxed, and started to glide on Chile’s smooth cemented proper paved road.

I actually have gotten used to bumpy rides having spent some time in Bolivia, and when the bus rolled onto well paved roads, I started thanking the stars for all the well paved roads in the world. So many little things we take for granted in life.

All in all, Bolivia is my holy grail choice for scenic diversity you can find in one country.  I am sure other countries offer as much too, but maybe it was because I had more fun in this country with the new friends made along the way which really made a difference, but whatever it is, Bolivia’s definitely a country with so much to offer.

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