So, it turns out that a direct bus from Puno (Peru) – La Paz (Bolivia) ACTUALLY means a bus to the border, a walk across the border, a bus to a small town, a wait for an hour, a different bus to a ferry, a ferry across the lake and then a bus to La Paz…. I know my Spanish is bad, but I thought servico directo was pretty obvious. Wrong! Oh South America.
We arrived in a small town called Copacabana (no, not as glamorous as you’re thinking, no showgirls) and were kicked off our nice bus after being conned into paying a ‘tourist tax’. We were made to wait in the town for an hour, where I had some raw chips, and then put back on a different bus that was no where near as comfortable to start our journey to La Paz. After 10.5hrs, not the 6hrs we’d hoped for, we finally arrived at our destination. I feared for my life on many occasions during that journey and I swear the bus was on two wheels, taking corners at a ridiculous speed on high, narrow windey roads for the majority.
La Paz is loud, congested and quite intimidating. I didn’t enjoy our time there very much. The staff at our hotel seemed to be particularly obstructive, despite us communicating with them in Spanish almost exclusively. The day we left the hotel, at 5am, when we asked for our insulin they just said, you can’t get it, it’s locked. Obviously our response was, well we need it, and miraculously someone appeared with a key to the kitchen fridge. So unnecessary!
We only had one full day in La Paz (thankfully) and our plans included a visit to the witches market and then a city walking tour. We managed to actually leave for the market at about lunchtime, after a frustrating start where we missed breakfast at the hotel and went to a cafe next door, then tried to sort out various bits of admin, like booking a salt flats tour and more flights for the remainder of our trip. The witches market was interesting. It had the same junk that every market we’ve been to so far has had, like alpaca garments, keyrings and magnets, but the difference was that there were tens of baby alpacas corpses everywhere. It was definitely creepy and quite sad. The Bolivians use these alpaca corpses as a spiritual offering to Mother Earth when building a new house apparently. We were told later on our tour that all the corpses had died of natural causes, but I’m not quite sure I believe that.
My sugars have been particularly stubborn the last week or so, and I can only think that it might be to do with the altitude. When we fly long haul, everything slows down and I always need to increase my background insulin temporarily to stop the spike in blood sugars. We have been at altitude for a while now, above 3000m average. So I can only think that a similar thing might be happening, even though we’re on solid ground.
We left La Paz early the next morning in the sketchiest taxi I’ve ever been in. Luckily we made it to the airport in one piece and the check in for our flight was smooth. I was glad to get out of La Paz, it hasn’t been my favourite place at all. The people we encountered were generally obstructive and rude, and compared to the other South American countries we’ve visited, I didn’t feel particularly safe. We boarded our flight to Uyuni, the smallest plane we’ve been on so far and off we went.
We need to talk about flying. I would choose flying to a destination over taking a bus every day of the week. We’ve caught lots of flights since starting this trip (Thirteen so far – four to go). In various sized planes and for various distances. It doesn’t matter who we’re flying with, how long the flight is, or what kind of plane we take. Every single time I am terrified. I get to the airport and I’m buzzing, I love an airport. The duty free, the cafes, just the environment generally. I board the plane and I’m okay. Finding our seats, popping our bags down, settling in, all fine. But as soon as the engines are going, and we’re heading down the runway I begin to panic. As soon as we’re at cruising altitude I calm down, but if there is the slightest noise, bang, turbulence then I come close to a meltdown. I spent the flight we took from Cuzco to Juliaca in Peru battling tears the entire time. I came off the plane shaking. The thing is, I KNOW it’s totally irrational. I know that flying is one of, if not the safest form of transport. I know that I have a higher risk of getting killed by crossing the road (especially in South America) but I also know that when I’m on a plane I am not in control in the slightest. I’ve been flying on my own since I was 5yrs old and it’s never bothered me. But ever since the MH17 crash, where one of my friends was killed, every time there’s a noise I have genuine fear. It’s terrifying, but I know it’s irrational and I know I can’t let it stop me. I just need to find a way to conquer it and carry on.
We arrived in Uyuni 40minutes later and we were met by someone from the salt flats tour company we’d booked. He was lovely and spoke great English, and took us to the office of the tour to get us ready to leave. We ran through our itinerary in the office and paid a discounted rate thanks to one of my friends recommending the company to us. We went out in search of some breakfast before leaving to start the tour at 10am. Uyuni is freezing. It’s in the middle of a desert, and the landscape is arid. We had everything we needed to keep warm but it was a shock to the system after being relatively comfortable temperature wise on this trip. We left at 10am, with three other people on our tour. Two Brazilians and a German. The Brazilians spoke perfect English so we were lucky that they were able to translate as our driver spoke zero English.
We had a few stops on day one, with the most anticipated one being the salt flats. Before that we stopped at a ‘train cemetary’ – a collection of abandoned trains, once used to move the huge amounts of salt across country and eventually to England, France and Germany. It was fun to visit, but full of other tourists trying to get that perfect Instagram shot.
The salt flats were impressive, no one can deny that I’m sure. Vast, flat landscape covered in salt. The salt is 30metres deep and it is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life! Under the 30 metres of salt sits another 90 metres of water, it was incredible. Again, I’d seen pictures of this place on Instagram and Pinterest so was excited to get some pictures, especially playing with the perspective as the ground was so flat! Everyone had a great time.
After the photo shoots were over, we drove on to an island in the middle of the flats. The island was covered in cacti and it was fascinating, if not a little hard work climbing to the top. We were still at pretty high altitude, and the Brazilians were starting to feel a little bit rubbish because of it. Luckily, my stomach and head seemed to be holding out. Although I was running a basal rate of 150% to cover my newly acquired insulin resistance. We drove on for another couple of hours, and arrived at our bed for the night. A salt hostel. A hostel made entirely of salt. It was absolutely freezing. We had hot drinks and biscuits whilst waiting for dinner and talked about what we do, where we live etc. When dinner arrived, everyone was feeling a little delicate, so we picked our way through it and called it a night pretty early on.
Luckily for us, we’d got sleeping bag hire included in the package price. We have silk liners for this trip, and used them on our Machu Picchu trek as well as here. I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was sleeping in the salt flats. We had about six blankets, a sleeping bag and a silk liner as well as, under armour leggings, pyjama bottoms, alpaca wool socks, under armour long sleeves top, jumper, fleece, coat, hat and gloves and I was STILL cold. It was absolutely unreal. Surprisingly I slept okay. I don’t think I moved for fear of exposing any kind of skin to the cold air and we woke up at 6am for another early start. I’d had another rise of blood sugar overnight, so I turned my temporary basal back on and tried to eat minimal carbs for breakfast to allow my sugars to settle.
Unfortunately for José, our Brazilian friend, altitude sickness had well and truly found a friend in him. He was throwing his guts up all morning and looked absolutely terrible. We left our hostel that morning as a five, but pretty soon after we went down to three as he was just feeling rubbish, so went back to the hostel with his girlfriend Luiza to try and sleep it off. Altitude sucks. We carried on, and visited some crazy volcanic rock formations and some different areas of salt flats before heading back to see if José and Luiza felt up for joining us for the rest of the day. José looked a little bit brighter and they decided to power through for the rest of the trip. Day two was nowhere near as exciting as day one, and unfortunately for us the national park was closed due to bad weather, so our whole itinerary was different to what we’d expected. We drove for a long time on really uneven paths to get to even higher altitude for some red volcanic rocks for lunch. It was pretty, but it seemed Alex was the only one with any energy, as he tried to give me a heart attack by running and jumping off of every rock possible.
After lunch, we drove for a really long time to visit some lagoons. These lagoons are super high up, and surrounded by incredible volcanic scenery. They’re also home to wild flamingos! I’d never seen wild flamingos before so it was awesome. A few minutes after taking photos I started to feel a little bit anxious, it soon turned into feeling full blown hypo, and as we walked to the car (which was parked furthest away, obviously) I was sweating and shaking. When we reached the car I was half tempted to not even test, just ram as much sugar in my mouth as possible. But I exercised some self control and did a test, I was at 4.2 (WHAT!?) I felt like I was full blown hypo, I would’ve estimated that I was around 2mmols. I cursed that because my sugars had been running higher than usual I was now feeling hypo at a normal blood sugar. I had a couple of sweets, and waited five minutes and retested. I’d dropped to 2.2mmols. I knew it! I treated my hypo properly and sat in the back of the car trying to breathe it out. The hypos that happen suddenly often feel the worst. A quick drop in blood sugar can leave your body gasping for sugar when it wasn’t expecting it, meaning symptoms feel more intense than other hypos. Wonderful.
After the flamingos, we drove back to the same hostel we’d stayed in the night before, this time a bit more prepared for the cold. I wrapped up extra warm and went out to the dining area for dinner. Only three of us made it to dinner, the Brazilians had gone to bed in the hope that a full nights sleep would make them feel better.
The next morning we were the last to leave, but it was still an early start. I came out to the car to be greeted by a full on argument going on between our driver and José. Our driver was demanding that José pay 50b for returning to the hostel to pick him up the day before, and he was threatening to leave us all in the middle of the desert unless he paid. It got extremely heated and we were all pretty subdued when we finally got going (after another heated discussion on the phone to head office). We arrived at the border after a the longest hour of silence, and joined a queue to exit Bolivia. When we finally got to the front of the queue the police officer behind the desk said, ‘British?’ To which I replied yes, and his response? ‘You have to pay.’ After a little outburst from me, we had to cough up 30B for an exit stamp. Absolute corruption. When we asked whether this was legit when we crossed into Chile, the immigration officer laughed. No, you should never have to pay, but unfortunately, the Bolivians leave you with very little choice. I was just thankful to arrive alive into Chile.
On day two, when we had a lot of driving to do, and our drivers music was horrendous so I retreated to the sanctuary of my headphones I started thinking about all the things we’ve seen and done on this trip. Travelling makes my heart feel full. It makes me want to cover myself in tattoos that remind me of the unique and breathtaking moments we have experienced. It makes me want to quit my job for good and sing my heart out at every opportunity. Travelling has made me realise that I’d fallen into the trap of life. My life is good. Our lives are good. Despite the challenges that our health throw at us. But travelling makes me want to live, not just exist. It’s such a cliche but I don’t even care. I have found the love of my life, I have been so lucky that in him I have my best friend and biggest supporter and with him we are able to really live the lives we want. Travelling has taught me to actually like myself, to trust myself. When your body doesn’t work the way it should it’s easy to start thinking it’s your own fault. You begin to resent the fact that other people take their bodies for granted and in turn you begin to resent yourself. Learning to like myself has been a constant battle, it’s been a long time coming and I think that is the most important lesson I could have ever learnt.
Bolivia was an experience, not an overly positive one, but one that will be the focus of stories for years to come I suspect. The salt flats were a wonder, a surreal and beautiful landscape that I’m glad and grateful we got to see, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to visit any time soon.