Peru & Bolivia

Summer 2006

Part 4: Into Bolivia

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August 3rd (day 9): Tiwanaku and El Alto

Entering Bolivia

So I woke up in the Peruvian border town Desaguadero, got out of the hotel I'd found in the dark the night before, and discovered that it was right next to the border crossing - how convenient!
The border crossing in Desaguadero. I always look forward to crossing a border because of the special ambiance at these places.

On the street I hooked up with a quartet from Czechoslovakia: two Czech guys and two Slovakian girls who were all old friends or something. Very nice people and very interesting to talk to them about their formerly united countries. They'd come from Puno the night before just like me and with the exact same purpose: to visit Tiwanaku on the way to La Paz.

I got through customs first and saw a bus standing a bit beyond the border. A guy resting outside the bus told me it was a bus from Cuzco to La Paz - they'd been driving all night and were all exhausted - so I found the driver and he agreed to drop me and my four new companions off near Tiwanaku. The guy I'd talked to turned out to be a Slovakian too so that was a merry meeting, and I'd meet him several times again in the South of Bolivia.
My first steps into Bolivia. The yellow bus further in the street would take us to Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku (3845m)

Tiwanaku (or Tihuanaco in Spanish) was founded around 200 BC and became the capital of an empire that covered roughly the same territory as the later Inca empire, until its collapse for unknown reasons around 1000 AD. Since this empire lasted much longer than that of the Incas, it was arguably the most important pre-columbian state in South-America, and Tiwanaku can be considered a sort of South-American Rome. This historic significance has earned it the status of World Heritage Site, but unfortunately very little remains of the city.

I knew that but since I was literally passing by I wanted to visit it anyway, and in those circumstances it was worth the time. Most people visit this place as a day-trip from La Paz though, which I certainly wouldn't recommend since there really is very little to see. I started with a visit to the small but good on-site museum.
Monolithic statue typical of the Tiwanaku culture. This one is about 3m tall.
Another statue

On the site itself some parts have been cleaned up and some walls restored, but there is a lot of archaelogy still going on which was interesting to see. The pyramid of Akapana was once the city's greatest monument, though it was never completed, but centuries of looting of its stones have reduced it to a shapeless mound.
The pyramid of Akapana as it once was
That mound in the background is what remains of the pyramid
Archaeologists in action in front of the pyramid mount
The walls of the so-called Semi-subterranean Temple are decorated with sculpted heads

The main recognisable structure of the site is the Kalasasaya Temple, of which the outer walls have been partly reconstructed. It contains the two most well-known artefacts of Tiwanaku: the Gate of the Sun and the Idol.
The Kalasasaya Temple
In a corner of the Kalasasaya Temple stands the Gate of the Sun, which was carved from a single block of granite and is about 2.5m high. Its other side has rich carvings but the sun was on the wrong side to photograph that.
This monolith, about 2m high, stands in the middle of the Kalasasaya Temple and is called the Idol. Notice the rich carvings that cover its surface. Unfortunately the sun was on the wrong side for this as well.
Another, less well-preserved monolith, and archeaologists working in the background.

I'd finished my visit in less than two hours, so I walked to the modern village Tiwanaku to have something to eat and to catch a minibus to La Paz.

El Alto (4100m)

The region around La Paz is called the Altiplano (high plain) because it is an immense plateau at an altitude of 4100m. La Paz itself is located inside a river canyon a few hundred meter below the plain.
This bad pic shows the edge of the plain above La Paz

As La Paz grew ever bigger, houses got built ever higher against the canyon walls until the city finally spilled over onto the plain above. Those city outskirts on the plain above La Paz are called El Alto (the high one) and now house hundreds of thousands of people. El Alto is the poorest part of La Paz, and except for a commercial area near the road down to La Paz, it's not a place you want to go.

Unfortunately, the Lonely Planet forgot to mention that the minibusses from Tiwanaku to La Paz don't drive to La Paz proper, but to a bus station in El Alto. No problem by itself because you can certainly get a bus from there down to La Paz, but the LP doesn't mention how to do that either, and none of the hundreds of busses that were driving around had a sign saying "La Paz". I spent fifteen minutes looking for a taxi, without success, so I checked out the busses again.

When I saw a bus that said "Catedral" I jumped on that one, figuring it would go to the Cathedral of La Paz from where I could easily find my way. The bus kept driving into ever more desolate areas however and the unpaved streets became ever worse to drive on, so I asked someone in Spanish if this bus was going to the cathedral in the center of La Paz. They assured me it did. Ten minutes later I asked someone else who also reassured me.

After an hour of driving, the bus passed some small church and then stopped - this was the "Catedral" and it was an hour's drive away from La Paz, deep inside El Alto. I cursed the bus driver in Spanish as best as I could and got out. It was getting close to sunset and I was getting worried. Some 30 backpackers had been kidnapped in Bolivia in recent months (and some of them killed) and travelers were being strongly recommended to stay away from poor urban areas, especially at night, and I'd just driven one hour straight into the worst one of all in the late afternoon and didn't know how to get out again.
El Alto, at the junction where the bus dropped me off
Taken while driving back. The scenery was like this for an hour, El Alto is huge

Then after 10' of standing there alone without a clue what to do, an old wreck of a car came driving by, and to my surprise it had decayed paint on the side that spelled the magic word TAXI. If I were religious I'd certainly have considered this an angel sent to rescue me because I hadn't been able to find a taxi in the busy part of El Alto and certainly hadn't hoped to find one here.

This old taxi got me back to where I'd started for a high price (the driver wasn't stupid), and then helped me find a modern taxi that could drive down to La Paz. So this little adventure just cost me two hours and some money. Btw for anyone preparing a similar trip: to get from El Alto to La Paz take a bus that says "Autopista" or "Prado".

It was late evening by the time I got checked into a hostel, where I shared a room with a British guy with Argentinian roots. I'd drank some lemonade in Tiwanaku that had probably been in the sun too long and now got sick and shiverish with fever, which after an already miserable evening (not to mention the previous night in Desaguadero) sank my mood to 0 degrees Kelvin, about the same temperature as the room. This was definitely the low point of my journey.
Trying to be stoic in my hostel room

Having learned from my sickness in Nepal I had actually brought some medicine on this trip though, so I decided to try some painkillers and what do you know - they totally worked! After just an hour the fever passed and I had enough energy to gather some information about climbing Huayna Potosi and touring the Salar de Uyuni. Since I was in no condition to go climbing I decided to head straight to the south of Bolivia and come back to La Paz for the climb after that.

August 4th (day 10): Oruro (3709m)

In the morning I took a bus to Oruro, four hours south of La Paz. From there a twice-a-week express train to Uyuni would leave this afternoon, but at the station it turned out to be fully booked. The only alternative was to take a night bus that evening. I hate night busses but to make it more tolerable I bought two tickets, one for Filip and one for C..

So I found myself having to spend 8 hours in Oruro. The town has no monuments but is quite nice. It is also has a very famous carnaval tradition.
View over Oruro from a hilltop. That tower with the Bolivian flag marks the place where Bolivian independence was declare, or something.
The central square of Oruro

After quickly touring the town I spent several hours uploading my best photos to a web album as a backup. The cybercafe had well-installed Windows XP PC's and an excellent ADSL connection, which made me wonder why in the supposedly IT-savvy India I'd only found antique Windows 95 PC's and ISDN connections at best. When I walked to the bus station I came across a big parade. The Bolivian independence day would be 2 days later on the 6th and apparently Bolivians love parades because I'd see them everywhere for the next few days.
Little drummers
Bigger drummers
My personal favourite: students in short skirts

The bus ride took 7 hours and was the worst ever. The dirt road was so bad that I got shaken in my seat so long and so hard that it really hurt at times. We arrived in a freezing Uyuni at 4am. When I got my stuff I headed for the only building that had lights on hoping to wait out the night there. Two French guys did the same thing. It was a hostel and when the owner saw us he offered the three of us a room. I hadn't planned on this but it seemed a good idea to get some sleep even if only for three hours, so within 10 minutes of meeting the Frenchies we were all sharing a room and going to sleep.

The next day I began a three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and the other natural wonders of South West Bolivia. That tour was the absolute highlight of this trip and that region the most beautiful and wondrous one I've ever seen, so do read on :)

<< Part 3: Titicaca (Peru)    -   Back to Index   -    Part 5: South West Bolivia >>

Cy Mon 12 Feb 2007 @ 15:58
I enjoyed your photos, especially of Arbor de Piedra! How fragile it looks. Thanks for your tips on traveling to Machu Pichu on

Daria Thu 07 Dec 2006 @ 00:20
Ammmazing photos and exciting views!!! :)
I can't find the right words!

I bet in real life these views were much more breathtaking :) At some point I envy you - you had a chance to see all this beauty by your own eyes!
But the same time thank you very much for sharing this beauty with us :) This way it is also very nice ;)

Looking forward to seeing new pics and reading new reports ;)

Godsmurf Thu 30 Nov 2006 @ 00:11
It'll be 90% nature pics in the rest of the report. You ain't seen nothing yet :)

Well apart from some really wild desert llamas I saw penguins, condors, flamingos, pelicans, other birds, and sealions!

Fia Wed 29 Nov 2006 @ 15:07
Excellent pictures! Very beautiful sceneries! As usual I prefer mountain pics before buildings. ;-) I especially like the green colours of the mountains and the blue colours of the lakes that you visited.

By the way, you didn't happen to see any wildlife? Apart from that creepy millipede I mean. (And lamas don't count as wild.) :-)


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