Sav Chin tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about his travels around South America, where he was mesmerised by the beauty of Bolivia.
South America is a place with unimaginable landscapes and truly unforgettable experiences.
One day you could be trekking in the Amazon rainforest and the next you could be hanging out with convicts in the San Pedro prison in La Paz. Adventure can be found everywhere, behind the face of every town and city you will find hidden character.
My time spent in South America saw me travel through Chile, Peru and Bolivia. While the other two countries gave me some lasting memories, it was Bolivia that really left a lasting impression.
Licking walls at Salar de Uyuni
My time in this mesmerising country started at the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni.
Going there was like walking into a parallel universe. Sat in the middle of this infinite, blindingly white blanket, was a volcanic rock island which was covered in hundreds of giant cactuses. This is known as Incahuasi Island. I looked up and a 12 metre cactus blotted out the sun, I turned and there was a massive expanse of salt as far as the eye could see.
We even stayed in a hotel where the tables and chairs were made from salt – everything was made from salt. We debated for some time if the walls were actually made of salt. We came to the conclusion there was only one way to tell. There we were, a room full of mature adults, licking the walls. I can now verify that the hotel was indeed made from salt.
Silver mining in Potosi
Potosi is a silver mining town which has beautiful Spanish architecture and great food. But people come here to see the mines which aren’t for the faint hearted. It’s a real life experience of the hardships people have to endure in order to survive. Hulio, our tour guide, lead us into the mine where the tunnels were 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide.
I walked ten paces into the mine and all of a sudden, I heard someone shouting, “Get out of the way, get out of the way!”
A ton’s worth of minerals came crashing down the shaft heading straight for me. Hulio pushed me out of the way and the cart missed me by inches. Seeing the mines was one of the most horrible, but eye opening experiences I’ve ever had and I’m glad I did it.
In prison at La Paz
Our next stop was the capital, La Paz. At around 3,600m, La Paz is the highest city in the world. We did a prison tour organised by convicts. We arrived at San Pedro prison, where the guards at the door had a pick and mix of weapons. After paying them off, we were in prison.
Hopefully the first, and last time I’ll say that.
We were shown around the prison by inmates who explained how corrupt this place was. They sold cocaine in there, had their families in there and one prisoner had even built his own extension to the prison! The nightlife in La Paz is surprisingly good. Beneath the grey exterior and smog, the city centre has a few funky bars.
Riding the Death Road in Bolivia
Just outside the city is the notorious Death Road. On bikes people navigate through roads which are just wide enough for a single car, with a 600m drop on one side and a rock face on the other. The road cuts through the Andean Mountain Range so the mountains towered above me as I rode downhill through the cold to the warmth.
As I descended to lower altitude, the scenery transformed from snow tipped peaks and glaciers, to tropical mountains covered in lush forest. After this taster of tropical paradise, we travelled to the Amazon rainforest.
Exploring the Amazon
We flew from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, a small town deep in the jungle to begin our adventure into the Amazon. The first part we went to was the Pampas, which is the vast Amazon basin and grasslands, rich in wildlife and tropical fauna. We canoed down the Yacuma River and spotted alligators, monkeys, toucans, pink river dolphins and the world’s largest rat, the capybara.
After the Pampas we went to the Madidi National Park rainforest. The atmosphere was humid as we trekked through the dense jungle completely engulfed by leaves, giants roots, shrubbery, howling, chirping, rustling and the occasional beam of sunlight which battled its way through thick overgrowth.
Boating on Lake Titicaca
After leaving the Amazon we travelled through Lake Titicaca on our way to Peru, stopping off at Copacabana on the Bolivian side and Puno on the Peruvian side. Copacabana is a small tourist town, right by Lake Titicaca. But the view of the lake from the town wasn’t very good and there wasn’t much going on.
Lake Titicaca is nestled in between Bolivia and Peru. Its deep blue waters reach out to the peaks and valleys of the Andean foothills. Here you can explore floating villages by boat and visit families who have lived there for generations.
My adventure continued into Peru but I had some of my most memorable experiences in Bolivia, a truly magical country.
Thinking about travelling to Bolivia? Which places would you most like to visit? Let us know in the comments!