A Bolivian Introduction – part 1

Nov. 27 to 29, 2018

Once we settled back into Arica (the northernmost city in Chile, right on the ocean) from our time in Lauca National Park, and returned the rental car, we started planning our next move: Bolivia

Bolivia loomed in my mind like a great impassable mountain. Both with its unparalleled beauty and its supposed dangers. Our anxiety was heightened by some stories that fellow travelers told us about their time in Bolivia. You take those stories, plus cautionary advice about scammers written in travel guide books, and add a dose of the sun, sand, and surf of Arica and it makes a perfect recipe for procrastination. We waited in our little comfortable bubble by the ocean for days, waiting to feel confident enough to buy that bus ticket to the next country. It was compounded by the rigorous Visa process for US citizens to enter Bolivia. We needed printed papers of bank statements, itineraries, hotel reservations, a second photo, and $160 dollars in US cash – but crisp undamaged 20 dollar bills ONLY! It all seemed so daunting to us that Stephanie and I stayed in our comfortable hostel in Arica for 7 days, ONE ENTIRE WEEK, before we finally left for Bolivia.

One day I woke up and I said “This is enough! We literally cannot keep wasting time. We have nothing to be worried about. We need to go. Now.”

I was right, we had nothing to worry about at all. We had all our papers prepared, we even had back-up $20 bills just in case the immigration officers rejected some of our bills.

That afternoon, we went down to the bus station and scoped it out. We found where to buy tickets and purchased our bus tickets for the following morning. We were finally going to the wild and majestic country of Bolivia.

That morning we arrived to the bus station early and picked out seats. It was our first long-distance bus ride in South America, with the trip supposedly about 10 hours from Arica to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. The ride started out calm, only starting to feel sketchy on the section of road that climbs the mountains between Arica and Lauca National Park. The twisty and windy road had a lot of sharp corners where the driver had to occupy both lanes in order to make the turn. Any anxiety we had about the cliff on the downhill side of the road was compounded by the movie that played on the little TVs folded down from the ceiling; San Andreas. The movie about world-shattering earthquakes starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The opening sequence follows a young girl driving along a twisting mountain road and suddenly crashes off the side of the cliff. Not the stuff you want to watch as the Bolivian bus driver corners hard along a twisting mountain road.

At the international border between Chile and Bolivia, we nervously prepared our paperwork and got in line at immigration. Everyone ahead of us was getting through smoothly, but once the immigration officer looked at our passports, our hopes of a quick transfer started to slip away. They pulled us into a separate room, where two officers started to run down the checklist of our visa requirements. Printed Itinerary – check! Bank records – check! Hostel reservation for the first night – check!

Before we could finish the checklist, the bus driver came into the room with some bad news. According to him, we were causing a delay and he had to leave us there to finish our paperwork, but he tried to make it up to us by promising to arrange our seat on the next bus that was coming by.

I was in a mild state of shock, while Stephanie passed shock and went right to rage. She started arguing with the driver and the driver’s interpreter, who at this point wasn’t doing much because we understood “Nos tenemos que ir. Lo siento” just fine. Stephanie argued that because we already paid for our ticket all they way through to La Paz, that they can’t just leave us stranded. A solid and irrefutable point, but in our naivety we assumed that Bolivian bus drivers adhered to a responsibility to their customers, which as it turns out, isn’t the case most of the time.

Three more minutes of arguing, and we made no headway in attempts to persuade the driver to wait for us. We had to trust that he lined up the next bus for us and cross our fingers that we even get through immigration, which was put on hold for the five minutes of tense arguing.

Our spare $20 bills came in handy as the officer rejected 4 of my crisp bills, but for some reason accepted our backups. In just 5 minutes, we were through customs with our passports stamped and Visas glued in place. Frustratingly, if the driver had just waited and we didn’t spend 5 minutes fruitlessly arguing, we could had been out of there sooner and not needed to get on a second bus! The whole situation sucked even more when, once on the second bus, the attendant came to collect the ticket money from us! We explained that our first bus told us that he would take care of it, but the guy just looked at us and shrugged. It, apparently, wasn’t his problem. Reluctantly, we paid for our tickets, some 50 bolivianos.. around $7 bucks. Cheap for a 5 hour bus ride, but it still contributed to a real rotten start to our Bolivian adventure.

In terms of window-watching, the rest of the ride to La Paz was spectacular! Hours of incredible and bizarre landscapes passed by, with virtually no human disturbances. Miles and miles of awe-inspiring landscapes as we drove further and further into the Altiplano (high Andean plateau).

Arriving to the city at night, we cautiously caught a taxi to our accommodations, Loki Hostel. Once in our room, we crashed hard. It was a long day of travel and the 11,000 feet elevation of La Paz was starting have its effects on us. We discovered in the morning that our room had a pretty great view out of the window. The massive peak called Illimani (ee-yee-mahn-y) stood tall some 24 miles away in the distance, looking down over the entire metropolis of La Paz.

Illimani overlooking the city of La Paz. This photo wasn’t exactly taken from our room at Loki, but close enough!

We spent the next day exploring the huge city of La Paz. We found a great café for breakfast (The Carrot Tree), and wandered the shops around the “Mercado de Brujas“. The Witches Market must have started with local ladies selling traditional items involved in local beliefs and lore, but now the shops seem to have evolved to cater to the hundreds of backpackers that visit every week. The traditional-type items sit on the shelves next to keychains and refrigerator magnets. For what it’s worth, taking a stroll through some shops will still give you a real witchy vibe, probably due to the llama fetuses hanging from the ceiling. In local lore, burying a llama fetus under your house, either under construction or already built, is a gift to Pachamama, and she will protect your home in return.

The sprawl of La Paz is uniquely situated, geographically. It’s right on the eastern edge of the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau characterized by expansive high-elevation grasslands dotted with snow-capped volcanoes and flamingo-adorned lakes. Take a short drive outside of the city to the northeast and you will find yourself suddenly going downhill at an alarming rate through the cloud forests of the eastern Andes towards the Amazonian lowlands. The lush green rainforests are in stark contrast to the semi-arid canyonlands and grasslands of the Altiplano.

The arid canyonlands just southeast of the city was our first target zone on our list of spectacular Bolivian landscapes to explore. We found an Airbnb in the classy outskirt neighborhood of Cota Cota and caught a taxi for the short 20 minute drive to get there. Our Airbnb ended up being in a massive high-rise apartment building with a big red stripe running down the length of it.

The apartment building that our Airbnb was in for our stay in Cota Cota, taken from the university park.

From the window, we saw a beautiful park with trees and a lot of open spaces for high school-age couples to make out in (which they do all the time in Bolivia). We had a couple hours left of daylight, so I grabbed the binoculars and camera and we walked to the park for an evening of fresh air and fresh birding.

the university park as seen from our Airbnb window.

Eared Doves, the South American equivalent to Mourning Doves, were everywhere. A few Great Thrushes hopped around the grass, while Golden-billed Saltators sang from the taller shrubs. My lifer and beautiful adult Red-crested Cardinal joined the Eared Doves eating birdseed that a kind citizen put out for them. Stephanie and I noticed a hummingbird zipping around a water feature and upon getting closer, saw it was our first Sparkling Violetear!

The birding was actually pretty fantastic! The little university park was producing a lot of birds and offering great looks at many of them.
I heard a loud and squeaking song coming from a tree over by the doves and cardinals. I circled the tree, an age-old birder tactic to try to get a better angle into the foliage. Whatever was singing soon flew out of the dense tree and landed in full view on a bare branch of another.

“Holy shit! It’s the flowerpiercer! It’s a Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer!” Erupted from me as I got my binoculars trained on the small bird. Again, I seem to curse a lot more while I’m birding.

The Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer was one of my top Bolivia targets, mostly because it’s endemic to the country, found nowhere else but a narrow elevational band along the eastern Andes in Bolivia. Not only was this one of my top targets, it was also my first Bolivian endemic and my 200th new species since the start of the trip. What a great milestone bird!

We left the park triumphant, having seen 7 new species including the Flowerpiercer at a place we never knew existed until literally that day. Spontaneous discoveries like that are some of the best moments while traveling. All the planning in the world can’t prepare you for what it’s like to be there, to actually be on the ground and exploring.

That said, finally fulfilling long-awaited plans to go to a specific place can be the incredibly gratifying. Our next day was just that. We had anxiously waited to spend an entire day exploring the other-worldly Valle de las Ánimas, the Valley of Souls, and we were finally going to do it! We were about to bird in a place straight out of a Lord of The Rings film.

In part two…

we explore the stunningly beautiful area known as “the valley of the souls”!

eBird checklist for the University park: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50305462

Cost and logistics

There are daily buses that depart from Arica headed to La Paz. The ‘international’ bus terminal can easily be found on Google maps or maps.me, right next to the main bus terminal. (-18.473379, -70.304010)

Loki Hostel in La Paz is where we stayed for easy downtown access. Everyone working there was friendly and the private room we had was perfect! It cost us about 190b / $27.50 USD per night in 2018.

The Carrot Tree was a great restaurant with awesome food at a decent, if not a tad expensive, price.
The other one we really liked was the Café del Mundo. Great food with good vegetarian options.

To get to Cota Cota, you can catch any taxi (50b / $7 usd) and ask for Cota Cota by name. There are also minibuses, often called trufis, that run down to the southern districts. Asking at your hostel will help you find where to catch one of them.

The university park is open Monday through Friday, but on the weekends, it is only open to students of the Universitario UMSA. It’s along Avenida Andres Bello, which parallels to the north the main road through Cota Cota, Ave Muñoz Reyes. (-16.539318, -68.068433)

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