A Travellerspoint blog

SPLURGE- Las Olas y La Cúpula, Copacabana, Bolivia

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Our budget for this trip was $15 per person per day. But after spending 4 freezing cold days in Uyuni and having Carlos get a bad chest cold in La Paz, we wanted to find a place that was warm and where we could relax, recover and recuperate. Las Olas is marked in the guide as a place to splurge on, so we decided to go for it- this is our honeymoon, after all. From La Paz we called and made the reservation, since according to their website it can take up to 6 hours for emails to arrive. Besides the fact that you (and by you I mean Carlos) have to lug your backpacks uphill and up a flight of stairs before you even get to the property, Las Olas and La Cúpula couldn’t have a lovelier, more picturesque setting.

To get to Las Olas you have to walk through La Cúpula’s premises, and then we had to walk down several stairs to get to our room. The rooms are just stunning- each uniquely decorated with a different theme. We stayed in El Cielo, the Sky, which had a giant skylight where you could open the curtain to see the stars at night. A circular bed was up against the wall with enough blankets to keep our frozen toes cozy. In case we needed another place to laze around, there was a hammock in our room and 2 more outside. Each cabin at Las Olas has a breathtaking view of Lake Titicaca and the boats rocking gently in the harbor. They are also equipped with kitchenettes, that even include coffee, tea and some basic condiments. As if the giant bed wasn’t warm enough, we also had a wood stove that we lit and I fed all evening until the wood ran out. It was magical, just turning out the lights and watching the fire flicker on the bay windows that lined an entire wall.

Carlos ending up meeting the owner, and well, you know how charming Mexicans can be- he got us free breakfast in the morning at La Cúpula which actually went really well for them because we decided to stay an extra 2 nights there. Breakfast turned out to be amazing- musli, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, bread, juice and coffee. Of course we were gonna stay there. It’s odd- the Lonely Planet mentions La Cúpula for its book exchange and restaurant, but not as a place to stay. While it’s more expensive than most other backpacker’s hostels in Bolivia, it’s about the same price per person as a hostel in Argentina.

La Cúpula is more like a hostel than Las Olas- there’s a well-equipped if slightly cramped kitchen, a living room with cable TV and travel books, a book exchange, lots of hammocks strewn about green gardens, Wi-fi, and loads of travel information. It also shares a hot tub with Las Olas for only 15 bolivianos (money, not capacity). We enjoyed just taking over the TV room and watching House. The staff at La Cúpula is very accommodating, and we actually had several very nice chats with the owner who is a warm, friendly guy from Germany.

Originally we were going to stay somewhere else our last night to save some money and pay with a credit card. After 2 hours of wandering around we couldn’t find anything that wasn’t outrageously out of our budget. Fortunately there were some guests who never arrived and the staff was able to offer us a nice upstairs room at La Cúpula. For our last night we decided to get dinner at the restaurant upstairs since it was the same price as every other restaurant that accepted credit cards. They offer international cuisine and of course a few German and Bolivian dishes. I tried a curry chicken kabbob which was fantastic. If you’ve got the money I’d recommend eating every meal there. If you don’t have the money, sleep somewhere else and still eat there. From the restaurant there are fantastic views overlooking the harbor.

Definitely worth the splurge, although I know we’ll pay for it for the rest of the trip. See if you can’t meet the owner when you’re there- if he’s free he’s very entertaining and has some great travel stories.

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Posted by UnMejorHOY 20:46 Archived in Bolivia Tagged hotels lake hostels las la del bolivia titicaca sol isla paz copacabana splurge cupula olas Comments (0)

Getting to Bolivia from northern Argentina

This part of the trip was uncomfortable for me and a flat out nightmare for Carlos. It all started when we went to take money out of the ATM in Purmamarca and we found out we only had about $50 left and another month of travel. Time to run to Bolivia. So we hopped on a bus from Purmamarca to Humauaca for 15 Argentine pesos, an hour and a half. By the time I got bored enough to put on my music, we got into Humauaca. From Humauaca we got a bus to La Quiaca, the border town. The book advises spending the night on the Argentine side of the border, but we just wanted to get this part of the trip done and over with.

The bus ticket was 32 Argentine pesos from Humauaca to La Quiaca, about 2 and a half hours. The countryside continues to amaze us. Rusty reds and rolling hills with moon-like surfaces. We were next to a couple that had come from Buenos Aires and was going to Lima, Peru, all in one trip. I guess they were used to the bumpy bus ride. On these bus rides, make sure you bring a bottle of water and some snacks, as well as your Ipod. There may or may not be a bathroom. If you can, keep your backpacks with you, or keep an eye out when people take luggage out from under the bus.

La Quiaca is sketchy as heck, so we decided to try our luck and head for the Bolivian border. The bathrooms at the bus station cost a peso, and they're acceptable. Start carrying toilet paper with you. The cab from the bus station to the border was 7 pesos (1 dollar). The border is interesting- it's basically just a bridge that peopele walk across. There's a few police patrolling the area, and lots of police-like looking dogs that were probably just strays. To cross the border you must first check out of Argentina, which you do by going to the first window on the right side. Then you have to do customs for Bolivia, which were very simple for Carlos. All he did was fill out a form and give them his passport.

Now, I on the other hand, had a much more complicated, and as of yet unresolved, time. Americans have to pay a $135 USD fee to enter the country. And if you read the beginning of this post, we had $50 in an ATM and about $50 in Argentine pesos. And they don't accept credit cards. Also, we crossed on a Sunday, so we couldn't ask anyone to deposit money. We explained our situation to the official and he let me enter, warning that I would have to pay a fine somewhere, but that maybe, maybe I would be able to walk across the border to Peru on my way out without any trouble. Stay tuned for that post...Haha. Nobody asked us for proof of our yellow fever vaccination, so it's a good thing we got it for free.

We crossed the border at dusk, and stopped to exchange money. The Argentine peso is really suffering, so we get skruud- 1 Argentine peso to 1 boliviano (their currency). We lost about 25% of our money. The border town on the Bolivian side is Villazón, and I wouldn't stay there even if it were the last option. After changing money, we walked 5 long blocks to the bus station (straight ahead, it's on the same street) and got a bus to Tilcara for 15 bolivianos. It was the only place the buses were still going at 8 pm that we wanted to go to. It was one of the most adrenaline filled walks ever, holding tightly to our bags. It was already dark, and there aren't many lights.

Tips for the border- keep everything, like passports, on hand. Be prepared with the right amount and correct country of currency. You don't need much money for a busride to get the heck outta there, so you're better off exhanging $20 USD at the border and taking out money from an ATM at wherever your final destination may be. When you cross the border, act like you know what you're doing. Don't stop to take pictures, keep your luggage with you.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 20:02 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Border Crossing, Bolivia to Peru

We took Titicaca Tours from Copacabana, Bolivia to Cusco, Peru for 100 bolivianos. They leave at 9 am, 1:30 pm and 6:30 pm, and go to Puno or Cusco. Although we were planning on leaving at 9, by the time we got out of bed we never would have made it. So we enjoyed one more lesiurely breakfast at La Cúpula and got money out of the ATM. I was freaking out because of the Bolivian visa stuff. I wanted to carry the exact cash for the visa. My story was going to be that they told me to pay on the way out.

Our bus was packed with foreigners, and the Bolivian guides were rude and pushy. One guide even chewed out a kid for not getting on the bus right away and said it was his fault he didn't have a seat. On the bus they give you the form tourist form for Peru. The border is only 10 minutes from Copacabana, and I thought I was going to pass out from nerves. The bus drops you off at the border, and you have to check out of Bolivia and then walk to Peru. Since I was never officially in Bolivia, I didn't know how they would treat me. So I decided to risk it and walk to Peru while everyone else got in line for Bolivia.

There were no guards or police patrolling no-man's-land, and no one said anything to me when I slipped out of line and confidently crossed the border. On the other side I went into the Peru Customs office and got in line. When the official got my passport, he flipped through it a few times and then was like, you have no Bolivian stamp. "No, Bolivia, no," was my confused response. Hahahahaha. I can't lie or act for the life of me, so the only way I was going to be able to pretend like I'm a fluent Spanish speaker was by not talking. The guy took me aside and was like, you have to go back to Bolivia and pay in Bolivia for your stamps. Oh well. It was worth a true.

At that point, one of the guides from the bus came over and asked what was up. The guides with Titicaca Tours are bilingual, so now I just had to be honest. I told him that I had walked into Bolivia and that they hadn't given me a stamp. The guide went to talk to the official and came back with an offer. For $90 the Peruvian official would "waive" my Bolivian stamp. I acted confused, asking why I'd have to pay for a Peruvian stamp. No way out though- it was either pay the official $90 or go back to Bolivia and pay at least $135. So I guess I got lucky.

Now, just so it's clear, I'm no rule breaker. I am such a brown noser and teacher's pet wannabe that I can be plain annoying. Not having my Bolivian stamp was very nerve-wracking for me. I can't even begin to imagine how illegal immigrants must feel. I did what the border crossing official in Bolivia-Argentina told me to do- to just "fix" it on the way out. I do not, by any means, recommend or condone doing what I did. In most cases you won't get away with doing what I did anyway. Have the $135 ready when you cross- simple as that.

As we piled back on the bus, the guides started to yell that we hurry up, even though there were still people doing the customs process. Again, rude and inconsiderate. Honestly, if I were you, I would take a taxi to the border to do the process and ask around if there are other buses that go to Puno. Or go with another company, because Titicaca doesn't have customer courtesy. Make sure you change some money at the border. When we crossed it was 2.65 Peruvian soles to the dollar. We didn't, so when the bus stopper in Puno we had to run to change money and pay an exit fee (1 sol) before we could board our bus to Cusco.

The bus to Cusco was not what Titicaca Tours had promised us. As Carlos just said, it was much more "caca" (poo) than "titi." No bathrooms for the 6-7 hour ride, no TV, and no dinner. The bus wasn't bad, but it's not what they said it would be. That's been our overall experience in Bolivia with buses.

The route to Cusco is plain scary. There are random, armed control checkpoints, because apparently the road is prime area for contraband movement. Women buy clothing, shoes and other products in Bolivia, where it's cheaper, and sell them in Cusco, where prices have sky-rocketed due to the influx of tourists. However, instead of controlling this supposedly illegal movement, the police arm random checkpoints where they get on the bus with masks and guns and rifle through people's belongings. The women in front of us, both wearing two coats with the tags still on them, said that the police used this as an excuse to steal. We went through 2 checkpoints, and both times the police got on the bus and took people's things, saying that they would get their things back if they could prove it. The police left us alone.

Keep your belongings close and organized, and have your passport on hand. Bring food and water for the ride, and be prepared to run run to the bathroom and hope the bus waits for you. Needless to say, it was an adventure, like all of our border crossings have been.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 19:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Day 4 on the Salt Flat Tour, Tupiza-Uyuni

5:30 wake up time. Everyone running around brushing their teeth in the dark and loading up the trucks. Carlos still felt unwell, and we were one of the last groups out. As our truck turned onto the salt flat, you could see the slight glow of the sun behind the mountains. In the winter the salt flat is dry, and in the summer it's covered in water. We were the third group this year that was able to get to the Isla del Pez- the Fish Island. Even though the cold has been a biatch, I'm still glad we're doing this trip in the winter.

When we got to the Isla del Pez, everyone was running up the hill to get to the top and watch the sunrise. Ughhhh no more running or walking. Carlos and I made it about half-way up. Neither of us could breathe and the sun was already creating a rosy palette over the salt flats. The Isla del Pez is a rocky mini mountain covered in giant (up to 12 meter)  phallic cacti. The walk up to the top is pretty much straight up, but there are plenty of ledges and flat-ish rocks where you can sit and enjoy the sunrise. In my opinion, the direct sunrise wasn't anything special. However, the purples and pinks that glazed the surrounding mountains and the bright orange shadows cast from the cacti were just breathtaking. My camera couldn't find the right white balance to reproduce the rainbow of colors across the island.

We had a good 2 hours to explore the island and take billions of pictures. The ticket to enter the island is 30 bolivianos, but when we got there there was no one to charge us. When José found out we didn't pay he seemed pretty p-oed. Oops. So make sure you pay. Breakfast was ready at the truck when we got down the mountain. Augustina had made bread for us. I couldn't drink enough hot coffee to warm up. By 9 or 10 we headed out for our crazy pictures. Here is where our guide really impressed me. For most of the trip I'd thought that he wasn't exactly...pleased with us. But for the crazy pictures he got all into it. José whipped out the car carpet and laid himself out, asking for our cameras. Like a movie director in his element, José directed us around the salt flat. He knew where we had to stand and had a ton of ideas of what we could do. Even our two photographers couldn't figure out how to organized the shots. It was a lot of fun to be out on the salt flats- a great way to end the trip. Make sure you wear sunscreen and sunglasses.

The rest of the morning we visited the salt hotel, which is supposedly now a musuem and not in use (since it polluted the salt flats). However, the guy behind the counter said people still stay there, so who knows. To enter the museum you have to buy something, but it's not worth it. Unless you have to go to the bathroom, ask your driver to just continue on. We also stopped at the salt mines, where a small part of the salt flat is being worked to mine salt. The final stop was at a row of stores where we could buy souvenirs. Again, unless you really want to shop, you might as well ask your driver to go on.

The tour really just flew by. Many people argued about the benefits of 3, 4 or 5 day tours, but I don't think it really matters. We were happy with the amount of time, the tour and the amazing things we saw. Although we were very, very anxious to get to a warm bed and a hot shower, I'm glad we did it. The things we saw are things we'll never see again, being that it is such a remote part of the world. Do the tour with an open mind and an inquisitive, flexible attitude. And take your altitude sickness pills.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 19:54 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Day 3 on the Salt Flat Tour, Tupiza-Uyuni

7:30 am and we were in the truck and ready to go. José was anxious to get out ahead of everyone else, and today that really made a difference. Our first stop was the Rock Tree- a volcanic rock formation in the shape of a tree, way out in the desert. Since we were the first ones there we were able to get some great shots of the shadows playing on the sand. All of the groups had slept in the same place, we were basically playing follow the leader at every stop.

The last two lakes we visited had flamingos, and a lot more action photos of them flying. The surrounding volcanic landscape was just breath-taking. Everyone was feeling a lot better, although I was still a little nauseous. The guys both took pills for altitude sickness. At lunchtime we stopped to observe a volcano that was smoking and to climb the volcanic rocks leftover from a (hopefully) much previous explosion. You could even see how a wave of volanic rock had solidified. Lunch was tuna, chicken salad and fresh veggies- always yummy and filling. We haven't been hungry at all on this trip.

After lunch Matthew and I nodded off, and Carlos and José struck up a conversation. José's been pretty quiet since the first day, and I really enjod half listening to the conversation as we crossed part of the Uyuni Salt Flat. They talked about the culture of coca leaves, the carnivals in February and the worship/belief in Pachamama or Mother Earth.

Our last night is in a Salt Hotel, although it's apparently not the same as the one that the book warns about as one that contaminates the salt flat. This one is also made out of salt, but the waste doesn't flow into the salt flat. The walls, the bed frames, the tables and the chairs are made out of salt. The floor is huge chunks of what looks like sea salt. We were the first group to get in, and José got us a nice room with a single bed for Matthew and a double for us. Some rooms have 8 single beds and I'm glad we don't have to share. I know I should be more sociable, but I still have a cold and I just want to sit here in a warm bed. We paid 10 bolivianos ($1.25) to have our first hot shower in 3 days. Even though I put the same smelly clothes back on it felt good to get a scrub.

Even though today was less eventful, it really has been an amazing trip. I would never do it again because I can't handle the cold and I'm kinda bored of flamingos, but the landscapes are wonderful and so varied. It's also been difficult for me to accept the fact that these tours are for tourists- it's too expensive for most Bolivians. Also we usually eat alone and wander around alone, or with other tourists. Many times we get dropped off to take pictures and meet the truck further down. I'm so used to interacting with people from the area that it has been very difficult to be so far removed. However, I guess we're supporting the local economy and without this tour who knows what they'd do. It's off-season but there are still more than 40 people at the hotel with us.

Tomorrow is the salt flat- the big moment everyone's been waiting for. We're supposed to wake up at 4 am to get out there for sunrise. Ugh. The guys are planning their photo-shoots and I'm thinking about the crazy pictures I want to take.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 19:52 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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