On the Road to Uyuni

We left Isla del Sol on an overcrowded boat in choppy waters. I was pretty much convinced that we were going to capsize and our captain's behavior didn't help to calm me down. He angrily discussed with his co-captain, repeatedly taking head counts while shaking his head. He must have counted the passengers 5 times, if I spoke Spanish I would have said "maybe you should have counted the number of passengers BEFORE taking off". The boat was about half the size of the one we got to the island on, and it had about twice the amount of people on it. I was pretty pissed off (what's new?) and I had decided that if we started going down I was going to push the people at the front of the boat out of my way. They had insisted on getting on the boat even when the captain had told them the boat was full. Yann and I removed our heavy boots and stripped off layers of clothing in case we had to swim and I had already planned my escape route. Eventually the boat came out from behind the island where the water was calm, and we realised we might actually make it to Copacabana alive. We left on the early morning boat because we were planning to get back to La Paz and get onto a night bus heading to Uyuni, a small town in the southwest and a jump off point for tours of the surrounding desert. The connection was going to be tight so we had bought tickets before leaving for the island on the earliest bus leaving Copacabana. Our connection was perfectly timed and we got seated on the "tourist bus" heading for La Paz. Right before the bus was scheduled to depart, we heard our names called and we were told that our tickets were "for another bus" (completely made up). We were being kicked off the bus to make room for a group of package tourists whose guide hadn't bought their tickets.

I pretty much lost my shit (my only time on the entire trip) at both the bus company employee who kicked us off and the tourists who didn't seem to have any problem taking seats from people when they didn't have tickets themselves. We got transferred on to another bus and we departed right behind the bus we actually should have been on. I was a little bit embarrassed when the two buses got to the lake crossing at the same time. But I was comforted by other passengers from our first bus who were shocked at the seat thieves' behavior. We ended up in La Paz with 30 minutes to get to the bus station and board a bus for Uyuni. We bought a pair of tourist-priced tickets for a non-tourist bus from a tourist agency and raced to the bus station in a taxi (we probably could have walked faster). We arrived to the station on time but our bus didn't. So we lay on the cold bus station floor for 2 hours before finally taking off. Over the course of the day Yann had been getting sicker and sicker and by the time we were waiting for the bus we were questioning his ability to make the overnight bus trip. We had worked so hard to make our connection that neither of us felt like sticking around La Paz. Yann told me that if he died "he loved me" (that's about as much romance that I can expect from Yann, so I was pleased). We were warned that bus rides to the southwest were extremely cold (even the LP guide recommended paying the extra money for the tourist bus due to the unbearable cold of regular buses). So Yann and I put on every piece of clothing we had with us. I had two pairs of pants over a pair of fleece leggings and was wearing 5 layers on my upper half. I was also wearing a toque, mittens and leg warmers. Yann was possibly wearing even more than I was. There was nothing left in our backpacks.

I would say that by the fourth hour of the 10 hour bus ride, I was down to my t-shirt, with no shoes or socks on. The bus was full of tourists and we were all stripped down in a similar fashion. Despite my best efforts (knocking on the driver's cabin 3 times repeating "mucho caliente") the heat kept blasting. Yann and I had the heater at our feet, but it seemed like everyone suffered similarly. We stopped once the entire time (where we got to go to the bathroom on the side of the road, in the desert, read: no trees or bushes). At one point I thought I might be suffocating from the heat. It's hard to imagine that a cold bus ride could have been worse.

After 26 hours of travel we arrived to find it was raining and freezing in Uyuni, which I remind you is in the middle of the desert. We found a hotel room, piled on the blankets and went to bed.

Two Days of Peace on Isla Del Sol

On the eve of the Bolivian national holiday, we left Copacabana with Nelly and Xavier and headed to Isla Del Sol, a peaceful island on lake Titicaca. While Bolivians and Peruvians got ready to party in the city, it seemed that every Western tourist in Copacabana was on a boat leaving the place. It took us about an hour to get to the southern tip of the island by boat, then another half hour of sweaty walking on dusty trails lining a steep ridge to get to the village of Yumani. Nelly had already booked us a lovely hostal, and Yann and I grabbed the room with the balcony overlooking the lake. We got a great price on our two night stay, although we discovered it wasn't as great a price when we were told that we would all be sharing the same toilet ... and that it didn't flush... and we were not the only four guests. But after just a few minutes of unwinding we were sold on the spectacular views and peacefulness of our new accommodation. The entire island has about 2500 permanent residents, spread between three "major towns" of which Yumani is one. With the absence of roads, there is no motorized traffic, the running water is sparse and the electricity unreliable. Yumani consists of about 100 or so homes (at least half of which advertise as tourist accommodation) and dozens of crisscrossing dirt lanes (used mainly by the local livestock). Even though the island terrain is rocky and inhospitable, most of the island is covered by fields (potatoes mainly), which would be tended to in the rainy season but now were quiet dried yellow plots. After admiring the views and rejoicing in the fact that we had chosen to stay two nights on the island rather than one, the four of us set out to find a Inca ruins a short distance from Yumani. We crossed only a donkey, a pig and three Belgian tourists on our way to the site, and found the two-storey Palacio del Inca was all to ourselves as well. We wandered around the quiet site and admired the Inca construction set against the intensely blue Lake Titicaca. In the evening we searched for dinner, realising that the signs advertising pizza, pasta, steaks ... were somewhat of a stretch. It appeared that there was exactly one thing to eat on Isla Del Sol: Trucha (lake trout) which we had already grown sick of in Copacabana. But we settled in a small restaurant and ate a home-cooked plate of trucha by candle light. We wandered back to our hotel through the pitch black village where we settled in the restaurant and played cards with Nelly and Xavier until the employees sent us to bed so that they could lock up. Our second day we decided to walk to the northern tip of the island and back. From the advice of a French tourist who had walked the trail on the previous day, we decided to follow trails through villages on the way there and on the way back follow a path built along the top ridge of the island (it took him 5 hours to do the trip, it took us 8). We passed mainly farm land and crossed very few villagers, other than toll collectors stationed outside villages to sell us our mandatory "permits". We passed one exasperated group of tourists who had turned back, refusing to pay for yet another tourist tax. I wasn't too bothered by it (for a change), although on the way back, Nelly finally put her foot down when we were stopped for a 4th time. The first "major" village we crossed was Cha'lla, which had a lovely turquoise church and a small beach, but not too much activity. After a few more hours of following trails up and down the side of the island we arrived at Challapampa, the northern most village on the island, set on a beautiful sandy beach in a quiet bay. A row of small outdoor grills were set up by villagers, selling french fries and sandwiches to the tourists disembarking from their tour boats. The main Inca ruins of Isla Del Sol are north of Challapampa. We were happy to have food and rest before setting out for our final climb to find them. The name Isla Del Sol was now seemed extremely fitting, with the sun feeling that much closer to us at 4000m in altitude. Any piece of skin that had escaped sunscreen got burnt (mainly our hands).
We arrived at the Chincana ruins in the early afternoon and spent some time admiring the Mesa Ceremonica, the ceremonial table and chairs thought to have been a spot for animal and human sacrifice. We then walked to the main feature of the ruins, a maze of doorways and stone walls known as 'El Laberinto'. We made a half-hearted attempt to find its well containing sacred water and failed. We returned to Yumani along the uninhabited top ridge of the island, allowing for beautiful views of the lake below and mountains around us. We pulled into Yumani in late afternoon and managed to find a restaurant selling "spaghetti" which was maybe a sell-out but was irresistible to the four of us who were pretty drained from our day. We all agreed that with a less tightly-packed schedule we would have spent quite a few more days on the island.