An Unmissable Island in Bolivia

Lake Titicaca, one of the highest in the world and arguably the one with the best name, sits on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It’s huge, it’s very cold there because of the altitude (3800 meters/11,400 feet), and it’s insanely beautiful.

We arrived on a bus from La Paz, one that we actually had to disembark from in order to take the tiniest ferry across part of the lake while the bus was ferried over on its own barge. Strangely only the gringos had to get off the bus and pay for the ferry; all the local Bolivians got to stay for the free ride. It was one of those moments while traveling that just really didn’t make any sense at all, but you just have to accept that you don’t understand and move on. I was traveling with a friend from France and another from England, and we met two Australians on the bus ride. The sun was just about to set as soon as we pulled into Copacabana, so we ran to the market, grabbed two bottles of wine and ran to the docks just in time to see the sky lit up in color. It was the perfect start to our visit. 

My friend Tom and I decided to go to Isla del Sol for the day from Copacabana and potentially stay for the night depending on how we felt when we got here. As soon as we stepped off the boat we both knew we’d be staying. This place was so beautiful and we knew it would be the perfect place for another sunset. It was the best decision!

Here’s our boat driver, texting and driving with his foot. Luckily it was the slowest boat ride in the world!

Most of our time on the island was spent hiking around for different views as well as hours and hours of sitting on terraces staring at this beautiful place. Seriously, I felt like I was staring at a 3D painting the whole time. The lake is so peaceful and calm, and the sun sparkled off its deep blue color. We ate lots of yummy trout from the lake and of course drank wine at sunset. We strategically chose the hostel with the best terrace for watching the sunrise which we braved the cold and woke up for the next day. It rose over the snow-capped Andes across the lake, totally worth the chilly wake up call. 

Another highlight was our dinner in a cute little restaurant. We were the only ones in there aside from the owner/chef and her adorable son Juan. He joined us while we waited for our food and taught us how to play some game with marbles that I’m sure he invented. He was very serious about the rules! It was really fun chatting with him in Spanish and teaching him a little English and French. We walked by the next day and he ran out to give us big hugs! Such a cutie 🙂

Learning this made-up marble game

Here are some pictures of this stunning place!

I would estimate that I stared at this view for approximately 6 of the 24 hours I was on the island

What’s better than hanging with an alpaca?

Maybe only riding an alpaca around the island! Too much adorableness in this picture 🙂

Yummy trout, doesn’t get much more fresh than this!

Isla del Sol is a must-see on your next trip to Bolivia. Definitely worth it to stay overnight as well!

63 Kilometers into the Yungas of Bolivia

Google Bolivia, and amongst some of the first things you may read is that up until a new road was built in 2007, Bolivia was home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road. To quote my Lonely Planet guide, “the road between La Paz and Coroico was identified [as such] by an Inter-American Development Bank report, citing an average of 26 vehicles per year that disappeared over the edge into the great abyss.”

Now that the replacement road brings passengers more safely to their destinations, naturally the tourism market has taken over the old road, offering guided bike tours down the 63 km “Death Road.” It’s basically a must-do on any backpacker’s Bolivian itinerary, but I’m not a thrill seeker so I was definitely nervous. But what is life if it’s spent inside your comfort zone? So I mentally prepared myself for the last month or so, and finally got up the courage to conquer this famous ride. I’m happy to report that 1. I survived without a scratch, 2. I wasn’t freaking out the whole time, and 3. I had so much fun! Luckily some thick fog prevented us from seeing the treacherous cliffs from the start, but as the mist cleared it revealed some incredible views of the dramatic surroundings. The gravel road is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass so I understand why it gets its name! Unfortunately, peering over the cliffs reveals the remains of many fallen buses, a very eerie reminder that this wasn’t a Disney World attraction with safety nets and invisible barriers to protect me. In fact, many cyclists get seriously hurt on this ride, one of the reasons why I left all of the aforementioned details out of what I told my parents I was doing before I departed La Paz (I’m very sorry Mom and Dad!). Despite all this I would argue that unless you’re being unintelligent about speed and your general personal safety, it’s a really amazing day of mountain biking through some incredible nature. Highly recommended on your next trip to Bolivia!

A very foggy start to our ride

It’s tradition to take a swig of this very strong alcohol before the ride…

…and to give a little to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ask her to keep you safe

Wearing 4 jackets and 2 pairs of pants trying to stay warm in the rain

Finally some sunshine and a few less layers!

After a long day of the winding 3,600 meter (10,800 foot) descent, we were rewarded with a pool and a buffet lunch in the tiny town of Yolosita – well deserved and much appreciated. Instead of heading back to La Paz, I went to Coroico with two friends where we planned for some hiking, waterfalls, and coffee plantations the next day. Sometimes my favoroite places are the hardest to get to, and Coroico is one of them. Our “minibus” looked like it was 50 years old, and it bumped along a similarly daunting gravel road for 9km before reaching our destination. I’m thankful I’ve outgrown my childhood car-sickness because South American transportation would be really challenging otherwise. 

Coroico is a small pueblo that sees lots of gringos fresh off the Death Road. It’s surrounded by lush green mountains (Las Yungas), home to some of Bolivia’s best coffee farms. Never heard of Bolivian coffee? That’s probably because up until ten years ago coffee was the #1 product from the Yungas, but now it’s fallen behind coca leaves – a much easier plant to process and a much more lucrative business for a farmer. Although Bolivia is high on the list of cocaine production around the world, coca leaves do serve other purposes. Many indigenous cultures use the leaves for rituals. Chewing the leaves can help the intense symptoms of altitude sickness. You can find coca tea, coca candy, coca beer, coca cake…the list goes on. What I didn’t know is how harmful it is to its environment because it’s not native to this particular region. According to the coffee farmer I spoke with, after 5 years of harvests, the ground where coca is grown becomes infertile and it takes 20-40 years to recuperate itself. 

A coca farmer hard at work in the mid-day heat

Hot chocolate with coca extract 🙂

Coffee on the other hand is a very naturally growing crop in the Yungas. The owner of the hostel we stayed at recommended we check out M&M Café for some of the good stuff. I’m so glad we went! Mauro and Maritza, the sweetest couple in Coroico, grow their own coffee and serve it in their cute café near the main plaza. We chatted with their son, Maurito, for a while and he told us they also offer tours of the coffee farm, complete with the opportunity to participate in all the steps of the coffee preparation process. Of course I was sold! Up until this moment, I hadn’t had real coffee since Colombia because of the widespread consumption of instant Nescafé in Chile and Bolivia, something I will never, ever understand. 

M&M Coffee is the real deal. I was feeling utterly exhausted from my bike ride the day before, but two cups of their coffee had me feeling like a million bucks. We chose to hike to their house so we could check out the waterfalls along the way and they offered to drive us back after our 4 hour (!!) tour. This was shaping up to be the perfect type of day. 

Mauro’s passion for coffee was palpable. He took such care in explaining each step of the process to us. First we went out into the fields and picked some ripe berries off the trees. Berries sprout at different paces on the trees from August to October and are harvested at equally different times between May and July. Mauro only uses the highest quality berries for his coffee, which means he’s very selective about the ones that he picks and some are tossed because of their lack of quality. 

Step two is peeling the berries, which was by far my favorite part. Mauro’s machine is powered by a bicycle and when he saw how excited I was about this, he let me be the one to pedal. The berries are funneled in from the top and the bicycle somehow (maybe magically) peels the shells to reveal the beans covered in a gelatinous fluid. 

They then ferment in this fluid for 14-20 hours and need to be stirred at 4-6 hour intervals. Mauro said there’s a fine line between when they’re ready and when they’ve fermented for too long, something he said you just have to “know.” I trust him. The berries are then washed and left to dry in a green house for 5-7 days until they reach 11-12% humidity. Another extremely specific detail that I guess you just know.

The last step is to roast the beans which Mauro does over his very small gas grill. Toasted beans are packaged and after about a week they’re ready to be ground and finally enjoyed!

Mauro explained that since coffee trees are so natural to the region, all coca farmers in the area have coffee trees but they don’t have time or want to deal with the process of harvesting them since coca is worth more money. Five percent of the farmers in the area take the time to pick the good quality berries to sell to Mauro to use in his coffee, 10% pick whatever berries (meaning lower quality) and sell them to other coffee farmers in town, and the other 85% do nothing with the berries that grow on their land. That’s a lot of unappreciated coffee!

The most striking thing to me about Mauro and Maritza is that they’ve only been making coffee for two years. When I asked what they did before, Mauro shrugged his shoulders and said he worked on many different types of farms his whole life, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it so much. “Ya he encontrado mi pasión, ahora estoy vivo.” “I’ve finally found my passion, now I am alive.” I couldn’t contain my smile!

Of course I bought coffee beans from them, and Mauro also let me take a small bag of coffee that I toasted myself. Between all that and what I bought in Colombia, I’d estimate that about 7% of the contents of my backpack is now coffee. 

Coroico was the perfect escape from the mayhem of La Paz. The minivan driver that brought us back to La Paz whipped around that new winding asphalt road on whatever side of the double yellow line he pleased. The reggaeton was blasting and there was an infant in the front seat. Unfortunately in South America, a seat in a car that has both components of a seatbelt available is hard to come by. Although not necessarily what I would consider up to safety standards, this is certainly all part of the experience. 

This is just one part of the long and winding new road

3 Days in a 4×4

Recently I crossed the Salar de Uyuni, a 3 day trip across the desert into Bolivia that ends at the largest salt flat in the world. To get there, you have to take a 4×4 with a group, and if you’re lucky like I was, you get the sweetest Bolivian driver as your guide. The majority of the 3 days is spent driving along the long desert roads, but the stops you make along the way are truly spectacular. Here are some photos from my trip through beautiful southwestern Bolivia. 

Bolivian border crossing

Loading up the Jeeps

Filling up the gas tanks for the day

Pablo, the greatest guide in all of Bolivia!

Natural Hot Springs

La Laguna Verde

Hard to tell but those are flamingos in that red lake

Everyone needs a llama selfie!

Stayed a night in a hotel made of salt!

4×4 crew for the journey across the desert

Perspective photos at the Salar