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The South American Altiplano (LA Y, Z8 Y, AA Y)

The South American Altiplano (LA Y, Z8 Y, AA Y)

Old Oct 22, 13, 3:10 am
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The South American Altiplano (LA Y, Z8 Y, AA Y)

This trip report is long overdue. I really wanted to write it, however, because it covers one of the most bizarre places in the world, at least in my humble opinion. An old friend of mine, who went on a months-long backpacking journey through South America years ago, told me about Salar de Uyuni and showed me some pictures when he returned. I immediately became fascinated with the world's largest salt flat, as well as the colorful lagoons and martian-like scenery of the South American Altiplano. This trip report will cover my two-and-a-half-week trip through Southern Peru, Bolivia, and Northern Chile. Read on for all the details:



Feel free to check out my other trip reports as well:

Last edited by glu800; Oct 26, 13 at 3:45 am
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:06 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Introduction

This trip started out with the sole intention of visiting Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Located in central Bolivia, it is not an easy place to reach, but that's to be expected when the extraordinary landscape resembles nothing of this world.

Initially, I had planned on flying into and out of La Paz. From there, I would make my way down to Uyuni, the main jump-off point for visiting the Bolivian Altiplano. With most tours lasting only three days, however, I found myself researching additional points of interest around the region. I realized that I had the option of ending the tour in San Pedro de Atacama, so I began looking into additional places to see in Northern Chile. Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia was high on my list as well, having read about its history and beauty all the way back in high school Spanish class, not to mention this little gem from the Animaniacs.

I decided on using AAdvantage miles to book my flights since it would be more economical than using Avios. In addition, OneWorld Alliance has access to LAN, the largest airline in South America. After a bit of trial and error, I found out that it cost fewer miles to fly into Peru versus flying into Bolivia since AA categorizes Bolivia as South America Zone 2, while Peru is categorized as South America Zone 1. Oddly enough, AA forbids the transiting of Zone 1 to get to Zone 2 (unless you want to pay for two separate awards), even though it may be the most logical and direct route.

Yes, AA does have a direct flight to La Paz from Miami (via Santa Cruz), but that would still cost more miles than flying into Zone 1. Hence, I decided to start and end my itinerary in Southern Peru, and do the border crossings using local transport. Choosing this option allowed me to book SFO-LIM-JUL on one ticket using LAN. For the return flight, I decided to cross the border from Chile back into Peru, and bus it all the way to Arequipa, a charming city I've wanted to see for some time now. From there, I could do AQP-LIM-SFO also on LAN.

Like virtually all of my award flights, I booked my tickets many months in advance. Unfortunately, booking so early has its drawbacks. Around December of last year, I noticed a modification to my itinerary on AA.com. After calling in, I realized that LAN had changed the departure times on all of its SFO-bound flights from 1:15 am to 9:00 am. Since I didn't want an almost ten-hour overnight layover in LIM, I decided to take the next best option: routing to SFO via DFW on AA.

A lot of research was required for this trip since much of the transportation was by local buses. In addition, I had to find out logistics for crossing the land borders between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. It's always a little stressful finding your way from one town to the next in foreign countries, so I wanted to minimize the chances of getting lost, stranded, or ripped off. Luckily, the Altiplano circuit has gotten more popular within the past few years, and there is quite a bit of information out there as long as you take the time to search for it.

Very few of the places I visited on this trip had large international hotels, so I focused mainly on local hotels, hostels, and backpackers lodges with the best reviews on TripAdvisor. Finding the right tour company for the Salar de Uyuni tour was probably the biggest headache of all, since very little up-to-date and accurate information exists online. Ultimately, we decided to go with Red Planet Expeditions, and I will lay out the detailed reasons why in a subsequent post.

In all, the flights to and from South America cost a total of $79.93 including taxes and fees, plus 35,000 miles. Since I carry the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa Signature card, I received a 10% mileage rebate on AA award redemptions, bringing the total to 31,500 miles. To get from La Paz to Uyuni, we decided to take the short 45-minute flight on Línea Aérea Amaszonas instead of roughing it on a 12-15-hour overnight bus ride. That was the best $126.68 I'd ever spent. Plus I got to try out a relatively new and seldom-reviewed airline.

I must say, the scenery I witnessed on this trip far surpasses anything I had ever seen before in terms of sheer outlandishness. Your eyes will register the landscape, but your mind will not believe what you are seeing. It is all at once impossible, fantastic, bizarre, and majestic.


Salar de Uyuni - March 28, 2013
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:16 pm
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The South American Altiplano - LAN Airlines 2609/2115 Economy Class (SFO → LIM → JUL)

I couldn't find a ride to SFO in the morning, so instead, I had my roommate drop me off at the Caltrain station in Mountain View. It's a bit of a pain to transfer to BART at Millbrae, and then transfer again at the San Bruno station to get to SFO, but I think it still beats the Super Shuttle or paying for a taxi. I made sure to arrive approximately two hours ahead of departure since LAN's ground service can be a little iffy. The wait at check-in turned out to be very short, and after dropping off my large backpack, I was on my way through security. Despite the long line, I find that security at SFO is typically quick and efficient.


BART at SFO


International Terminal


LAN check-in counters

This was my second time taking LAN 2609 direct to LIM in five months, but I was still excited since I'd only had positive experiences with LAN's in-flight service and food. Announcements for boarding began approximately 45 minutes before departure, and the process went smoothly. Business passengers were called along with elite members, then boarding by rows commenced.





LAN Airlines 2609
Boeing 767-300ER
San Francisco (SFO) - Lima (LIM)
Friday March 22, 2013
Departure: 12:45 PM (scheduled) / 12:47 PM (actual)
Arrival: 12:05 AM (scheduled) / 11:38 PM (actual)
Duration: 9h 20m (scheduled) / 8h 51m (actual)
Seat: 26C (Economy)


When I entered the aircraft, I was disappointed to see the older-style seats in both business and economy class. It wasn't a huge deal though since I did get to try out the refreshed configuration on a previous flight from Easter Island. Also of note is that while LAN is slowly incorporating new 787s into its schedule, the economy seats are actually more narrow and the pitch has been reduced to 31". So while the cabin pressure and air quality might be better, the seats may end up being less comfortable.











I located my aisle seat at 26C, and put away my carry-on backpack into the overhead bin. Blankets and pillows were provided, along with headphones for the AVOD system. Speaking of which, I've complained many times in the past about its slow response and washed out colors, and although my experience this time was no different, I realized I've probably become desensitized to it after so many LAN flights in the past few months. On the other hand, I do have to compliment them for offering a consistent selection of current movies as well as informative travelogues covering South America.

I've never had a bad experience with LAN's on-board service, and this trip just reconfirmed that fact. The flight attendants may not always be smiling or particularly polished, but they are usually warm, helpful, and efficient. A late lunch service began soon after reaching cruising altitude. The choices were chicken or beef, and I went with the chicken. Strangely enough, I think I'm starting to develop an unhealthy craving for LAN's catering. I'm not sure what they put in their food, but it's delicious every single time.

Typically, the meat selection is a stew-like concoction with rice. A small salad and dessert cake are served alongside, with cheese and crackers thrown in for good measure. Perhaps this is a bit of a hyperbole, but I think LAN's catering in economy is my favorite out of all the airlines I've ever flown. The presentation could probably use some improvement, but the food sure does taste good. White or red wine was offered with the meal, and flight attendants even came around for a second round a bit later. A small Twix bar finished off the service along with water, tea, or coffee.





I spent the next few hours playing around with the AVOD system and watching a few movies, including Wreck-It Ralph, which was surprisingly good. I also caught most of Skyfall, but unfortunately missed the ending because we were already landing. In between, I slept for a good two hours, and caught up on some trip planning for the portion of my excursion through Chile. About an hour and a half prior to landing, a snack service commenced with a half sandwich of turkey, cheese, and tomatoes, along with some fruit. This was not nearly enough for dinner, but since it was already somewhat late according to local time, the portion size was forgivable.





Soon after, we began our descent into Jorge Chávez International Airport. In all of my travels into and out of Lima, I don't think I've ever flown over the city during daylight hours. Still, approaching in darkness, with the lightscape coming into view, is a beautiful sight. We landed smoothly and almost half an hour early. Once we arrived at the gate, seat belt lights were turned off and we filed into the jet bridge.

With Peru as our final destination for this itinerary, we had to go through immigration and customs, which was an absolute nightmare. I had never seen such a massive line before. Luckily, there were many officers working the booths that evening, helping to shorten the wait slightly. After about an hour, we finally made it through to the baggage claim area, where my large backpack was already waiting.


Long lines at immigration

One of the more nonsensical rules about the Lima airport is that if you are arriving on an international flight and connecting to a domestic departure, you must physically leave the airport before coming back inside to check in your bag and go through security. Literally, you are forced to walk out of the arrivals hall, down the sidewalk along the terminal building, then show your passport at the entrance to the departures hall before being allowed to enter the same building again. I can't think of a logical reason for doing this, but rules are rules.

Luckily the check-in counters were completely empty at this hour, and our bags were quickly tagged and boarding passes printed out. With a good four hours until our flight to Juliaca, we passed the time in the second level food court, napping on and off until about 3:00 am, when we were allowed to go through security. The process was fast, and we were soon airside. Unfortunately, many domestic departures were squeezed into the crowded downstairs holding areas, and buses were used to ferry passengers to the parked aircraft.


Empty check-in counters


Crowded gate area

Once boarding began, it was chaos as multiple lines formed, weaving around seats and merging in different places. Even worse, another flight was leaving at the exact same time, so people were confused as to which line was which. Eventually, we made our way onto the shuttle bus and headed towards the aircraft. There didn't seem to be any regulations prohibiting photos on the tarmac, so I snapped away before entering our Airbus A319.





LAN Airlines 2115
Airbus A319
Lima (LIM) - Arequipa (AQP)
Saturday March 23, 2013
Departure: 5:00 AM (scheduled) / 5:05 AM (actual)
Arrival: 6:25 AM (scheduled) / 6:31 AM (actual)
Duration: 1h 25m (scheduled) / 1h 26m (actual)
Seat: 5A → 5C (Economy)


Although sold as a direct flight to Juliaca, we actually had one stop at Arequipa along the way. I preferred non-stop, but the earliest option would have gotten us into Juliaca more than three hours later. After boarding, I walked over to 5A and noticed an older couple already occupying my seat as well as the middle seat. Instead of asking them to move, however, I just took the aisle seat instead, thinking it wouldn't make much of a difference.

Unfortunately, during the flight, I realized I was missing a spectacular sunrise from my original window seat. The sky looked like it was on fire, and I was really bummed I couldn't take any photos since the lady at the window was blocking the entire view. But you win some, you lose some, and not every amazing photo opportunity can be captured every single time.

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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:19 pm
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The South American Altiplano - LAN Airlines 2609/2115 Economy Class (SFO → LIM → JUL) - continued

This was a typical all-economy domestic flight on LAN. The great thing about some international airlines, however, is that even on short flights like these, decent service can be expected. Flight attendants came around handing out snack boxes containing crackers and candy and offering a full beverage service. After cruising for less than an hour, we quickly descended into Arequipa. Turnaround was super quick, with a large majority of the passengers deplaning, and a small group boarding afterwards. In just 35 minutes, we were on our way to Juliaca.


Snack box


View outside Arequipa airport

LAN Airlines 2115
Airbus A319
Arequipa (AQP) - Juliaca (JUL)
Saturday March 23, 2013
Departure: 7:00 AM (scheduled) / 7:06 AM (actual)
Arrival: 7:50 AM (scheduled) / 7:50 AM (actual)
Duration: 0h 50m (scheduled) / 0h 44m (actual)
Seat: 5A → 6A (Economy)


I think this was maybe one of the shortest flights I'd ever taken on a jet aircraft. Gate to gate in less than 45 minutes. Service was kept to a bare minimum since there was no time anyways. Upon landing, we got our first taste of the high-altitude environment. Just walking from the plane to the terminal made me a little out of breath, but going from sea level to 12,500 feet within three hours will do that to you. Over the next week or so, we slowly ascended to a maximum of about 16,000 feet in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano.




Juliaca airport



The sun was blinding and very intense at this altitude, even around 7:00 am. Sunscreen and sunglasses are definitely recommended. At the baggage carousel, there were a group of locals playing their native instruments for donations, which made for a very unique welcome to the Lake Titicaca region. After locating our backpacks, we were greeted at the airport exit by our hotel driver. From there, we began our 45-minute car ride to Puno.

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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:28 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Exploring Puno

Puno is quite popular these days on the Southern Peru track, and a stroll through the main streets will quickly confirm that a large portion of the day-to-day population consists of tourists from all parts of the world. It matters little that the town itself is not particularly picturesque, since the main attraction is Lake Titicaca and its many islands.

Historically, Puno lies at the junction between the Quechua and Aymara peoples, though to the foreign eyes and ears, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two. Indeed, Puno is a melting pot of sorts, both between cultures and generations. Older women and men dressed in traditional Andean garb cross paths with their younger counterparts in t-shirts and jeans. This lovely mosaic of colors, sounds, and tastes encapsulates a beautiful snapshot of the entire Lake Titicaca region.


A feast for the eyes - shopping in Puno

At around 12,500 feet, Puno is no place to be messed with in terms of altitude sickness. From there, you only go higher as you make your way into Bolivia. To give you some perspective, Lhasa, in Tibet, is just under 12,000 feet. My best recommendation would be to get a prescription for Acetazolamide (Diomox) from your doctor before heading there, and to follow the directions on taking them carefully. Even if you don't have a genetic predisposition to experiencing the affects of altitude sickness, it's much better to bring the pills along just in case.

My second recommendation, despite some people's hesitation, would be to chew coca leaves. This stuff really works. Within an hour of arriving in Puno, I began experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness, including a severe headache, fatigue, and nausea. I was about to run to the restroom to vomit during lunch, but the waitress handed me a cup of coca tea instead and told me to chew the leaves immediately. Within 10 minutes, almost all the symptoms had subsided. Just be careful not to bring any leaves with you when you return home, as there are strict anti-drug laws in many countries regarding the importation of coca.


Buying the wonder drug - coca leaves

After a 45-minute drive from the Juliaca airport, we were dropped off directly at our hotel, Mosoq Inn. The total cost of the transfer was 90 soles. We chose Mosoq Inn based on the positive reviews on TripAdvisor, and also because of how affordable it was, even relative to the already low cost of hotels in town. While nothing terribly special, we did appreciate the fact that they had triple rooms and the fact that breakfast was included.

Check-in was friendly, and the front desk lady was extremely helpful with our questions regarding buses to Copacabana the next morning as well as tours to the Uros Islands. In fact, we went ahead and booked both directly with the hotel as the cost was comparable to estimates we found online. The Uros Islands tour was $15 USD per person, payable directly to the tour company, and the bus to Copacabana (including a taxi transfer from the hotel to the bus station) was 18 soles. It was also a plus that Mosoq Inn took Visa or MasterCard, as many hotels in this region are cash only.


Mosoq Inn


Lobby


Computers for guest use

The room itself was perfectly adequate, with a full size bed and two twins. There was an old television in the room that we didn't even bother turning on. Since the nights do get cold at such high altitudes, a portable heater was included, but luckily we didn't have to use it. A very old safe, located in the closet, required a physical key to use, which didn't seem very secure since anyone could have had a copy made. Regardless, we had no issues with safety or security during our one-night stay. Our large window overlooked the quiet street in front of the hotel.





The bathroom was dark, but had everything we needed - hot water, a running toilet, soap, and plenty of clean towels. Strangely enough, all the bathrooms in the hotel had windows that appeared to open to the interior corridors and stairwell. So a nice breeze you will definitely not get, but I suppose they at least made an attempt at some sort of ventilation.




Stained glass artwork in the atrium

After settling in, we headed out to grab some lunch and explore the town. We headed over to the Plaza de Armas, where the largest cathedral was located. Pasaje Lima, the main pedestrian street, extends north from the main square for a number of blocks, and is filled with visitor-friendly restaurants, shops, and tour operators. Most of the eateries here had set menus for 15-20 soles. While you shouldn't expect much in terms of quality, for $7 USD, you got a fairly decent meal including beverage and dessert.


Plaza de Armas


Pasaje Lima

We walked around town some more, grabbing some coca leaves, ice cream, and browsing the colorful stalls of the central market, a huge indoor complex with scores of narrow alleyways, selling just about anything you can think of. Feeling winded from the altitude and burning from the blazing sun, we decided to head back to the hotel for a bit until it was time to leave for the Uros Islands tour in the afternoon.


Ice cream shop


Streets of Puno


Central Market fruits


Buying more coca leaves

A van picked us up for the start of the tour, and proceeded to visit a number of other hotels along the way to the harbor, picking up other passengers. We were dropped off near the docks, and walked along the pier until we reached our boat. Our friendly tour guide was proficient in English and Spanish, and conducted the tour using both languages, which was a great way to test out my Spanish comprehension skills. As we pulled away from land, a beautiful view of Puno stretching into the hillside could be seen from behind us.






View of Puno from Lake Titicaca

It was a fairly short 30-minute ride to our destination. The Uros Islands are completely man-made, consisting of layers upon layers of thick reeds that grow in Lake Titicaca. They need to be constantly maintained by their inhabitants, as the lower layers continuously rot away, and fresh new reeds need to be piled on top. There is a fairly large community centered around the islands, with everything - the houses, the furniture, and even the boats - made from reeds. What is unclear to me, however, is whether the people actually still live there full time, or if the islands only serve as a source of tourist income nowadays.




Our family welcoming us to their island
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:33 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Exploring Puno - continued

Either way, it was an interesting sight to see. I had read some unfavorable reviews regarding the Uros Islands, claiming it was too touristy and a rip-off, but I found the tour to be informative and the people to be very friendly. Typically, each tour boat lands on a different family's island (there are more than 50 all in close proximity) so that both the number of visitors as well as the profits are evenly distributed among the inhabitants. After a detailed introduction from our guide, we were allowed to explore on our own, take pictures, and buy handicrafts made by the locals.

Walking on the floating islands was a cool experience in and of itself. The reeds sort of squish beneath your feet, and you can definitely sense the ground moving up and down with each step. In addition, the reeds aren't used only as building material, but also as a source of food. The locals eat the bottom portions closest to the roots. I tired a little bite of the juicy white flesh, and it reminded me of jicama, but with very little flavor. One of the coolest things on the island was a little reed house built for guinea pigs (also a source of food).


Tour guide explaining how the islands are built


Reed house for guinea pigs

There was an option to ride in one of their reed boats for an additional cost, but there was certainly no pressure to do so, and no one from our tour took the offer. After leaving our family's island, we headed over to the larger main island, which housed the administrative buildings, a small coffee/tea shop, some souvenir stands, and a watch tower. From there, we had a beautiful view of the setting sun over Lake Titicaca. As it got darker, we left the Uros Islands and returned to Puno.


Traditional reed boat


Sunset from the Uros Islands

For those who have a little more time, there are tours that visit the other islands in Lake Titicaca. Be aware that they are quite far, and the boat rides agonizingly slow. It can take up to two and a half hours to get to Taquile, and four hours to get to Amantani. I have read good things about the islands, however, and their traditional way of life still seems to be maintained, especially on Amantani. There are no hotels, and the only option for accommodations are home stays with the locals, which is a great way to support the community directly and to also learn about the culture.

Unfortunately, with only one night in Puno, we didn't have time to do much else. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was already fairly late. I woke up the next morning with a slight headache from the altitude. We headed downstairs early for breakfast. Surprisingly, the spread wasn't half bad, and there was plenty of fresh fruit, cereal, bread, yogurt, and even some hot selections of scrambled eggs and potatoes. Most importantly, they had coca tea! Afterwards, we checked out and waited in the lobby for our taxi to the Puno bus station. From there, we would head across the Peru/Bolivia border and onto Copacabana.


Nice breakfast spread





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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:43 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Crossing Into Bolivia Via Kasani

Border crossings by land can be a little tricky, especially when it comes to developing countries. The path between Southern Peru and Bolivia, however, is well-worn with backpackers from across the globe. As such, it is relatively safe and hassle-free. The two main routes in the Lake Titicaca region are either via Desaguadero or Kasani.

Desaguadero is the larger of the two, and most people who want the fastest and most direct passage to La Paz will choose this course. Kasani is smaller, less chaotic, and more picturesque. It is also the only way to reach Copacabana from Puno. To get from Copacabana to La Paz, you will have to get off the bus at one point and take a ferry across a narrow strait on Lake Titicaca (the bus is ferried across separately by barge). Once you reach the other side, get back onto the same bus and continue on your journey.

Since we were headed to Copacabana, our only option was the Kasani route, which I actually preferred. We had booked the bus ticket through our hotel in Puno, and the cost was 18 soles per person, including a taxi ride from the hotel to the bus station. I believe there were three daily buses (6:00 am, 7:30 am, and 2:30 pm) leaving Puno for Copacabana, all operated by Titicaca Bolivia. We chose the 7:30 am departure, and made sure to arrive at the station by 7:10 am.


Taxi to Puno bus station

After locating the Titicaca Bolivia stand and confirming our tickets, we headed over to the Tasa de Embarque booth to pay the mandatory departure tax. Finally, we exited the building via the gate number listed on the tickets and found our double-decker bus waiting at its designated spot. I was surprised at how clean and modern the vehicle was. After reading so many horror stories online regarding buses in South America, I had been expecting the worst. Large backpacks were stored in the bottom compartment, and we then climbed aboard.


Bus station shops


Titicaca Bolivia stand


Paying the departure tax


Our bus to Copacabana

The first class section (usually sold as "cama" or "semi-cama") was located on the lower level, and featured large leather seats. They looked comfortable, but the cabin also felt very claustrophobic due to the low ceiling. The coach section upstairs, on the other hand, was open and airy. Pitch was rather generous, at least more so than any economy seat on a plane! We located our spots and settled in for the roughly four-hour ride to Copacabana. In the end, the bus was only about 70% full.


First class cabin


Coach cabin

A large portion of the drive hugs the coast of Lake Titicaca, and provides some beautiful views along the way. Once we arrived in Kasani, everybody was required to exit the bus for border processing. However, the company uses a slight trick by dropping people off right outside a money-changing storefront about 100 feet before the immigration offices, and telling passengers they should exchange for some Bolivianos before crossing. There is absolutely no need for Bolivianos before Copacabana, and exchanges rates in town are much better.


Views of Lake Titicaca




Arrival at the Kasani border crossing



If there are a lot of buses arriving at the same time, lines for exit processing can become quite long. First, you have to line up outside the border police office. Inside, they check your passport and take the arrival form you received when entering Peru. After that, you must head over to the immigration control office next door (and wait in line there), where they actually stamp your passport for exiting the country.


Lines for border police office


Immigration control office


Random parrot

With all the Peruvian paperwork out of the way, you are then free to physically walk from one country to the other by following the main road. Once you cross the stone archway, you are officially in Bolivia. However, you are not done yet, as there is still the entry processing for Bolivia to complete.


Walking into Bolivia


Looking back into Peru from the border


In Bolivia!

Follow the signs to the Bolivian immigration office and wait in line if there is one. Here is where being an American really puts you at a disadvantage. Bolivia, much like a number of other South American countries, requires the payment of a reciprocity fee for visitors from the United States in retaliation for visa fees that we charge their citizens. Hence, the Canadian backpackers ahead of us paid nothing to enter the country, while each of us had to shell out $135 USD in cash. Be sure to have the money ready before crossing the border, or you will definitely be in trouble.

In addition to the reciprocity fee, authorities will also ask for a 4x4 centimeter color photograph and a photocopy of your passport. I can't say if the latter is a legitimate request, or simply another excuse to make money. Either way, if you don't have one, you can easily go to the little shop next door where they just so happen to have a copy machine. Of course, they'll charge you a pretty penny in either currency for the hassle!


Follow the signs




Bolivian immigration office
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:45 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Crossing Into Bolivia Via Kasani - continued


Finally through!

Finally, once you've been stamped into the country, look for your original bus, get back on, and wait for all the other passengers to finish before continuing on the journey. From Kasani, it is only about a 15-minute drive to Copacabana. We arrived just before noon, and the bus let us off right outside the Titicaca Bolivia office, located in the center of town. We decided to walk to our hotel first, but being slightly disoriented, we made a wrong turn and wound up along the lakeside beach before finding our way to Hostal Las Olas.


Arrival in Copacabana


Main street
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:53 pm
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The South American Altiplano - Exploring Copacabana And Isla Del Sol

Say the word "Copacabana", and the first image that comes to mind may be the sunny beaches of Rio de Janiero. Unbeknownst to many, however, is the fact that the famous Copacabana Beach is actually named after a small town along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The town's preeminent basilica, one of the oldest churches in Bolivia, houses a revered statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria, to whom many miracles have been attributed. Carved in 1583, the statue turned the community into a pilgrimage site, and its fame quickly spread throughout South America. A replica was created in Rio de Janiero, and a chapel to house it was built along a white-sand beach, whose name was soon changed to Copacabana.

A beautiful place in its own right, Copacabana feels a world away from the rather dingy atmosphere of Puno. The streets were bustling, and the vibrant beach on Lake Titicaca were packed with tourists and locals alike. Maybe it was the gorgeous weather, or perhaps the relaxed demeanor of the locals, but something just made me feel completely at ease here. After a detour by the lakeshore, we hiked up a steep road (no easy feat considering the town is at 12,600 feet) and found our hotel, Hostal Las Olas, prominently situated on a steep hillside.


Main street in Copacabana


Lakeshore

Out of all the places I stayed at on this trip, I was most looking forward to Las Olas. Take a look at their website, and you'll probably understand why. "Hostel" is definitely a misnomer here, as each of the seven suites that make up the property is its own bungalow. And each bungalow has been individually designed like a life-sized art project. I imagine the owner to be some sort of eccentric recluse, because the creative quirks that went into each of these buildings is really quite impressive.


Hostal Las Olas


New seashell suite being constructed


View from the reception

We booked Suite 7 for the three of us, and it was an absolutely steal at $58 USD per night (although it has gone up slightly since then), cash only. This was the newest of all the buildings, and absolutely massive when compared to a regular hotel room. The entry level featured a kitchenette with all the cooking utensils you need, a dining table, and a large circular bed for two people. A beautifully designed full bath was off to the side, and contained a large walk-in shower with two nozzles.


Entry level with dining table and bed


Kitchenette


Bathroom


Shower

The second floor had yet another circular bed for two people, as well as a twin-sized bed. A lovely lounge area in front of the large windows provided a commanding view of Lake Titicaca and the town below. It's hard to describe all the strange and peculiar details of our suite, such as the little alcoves behind the bed with tiny sculptures, the mosaic-like floors, and all the hand-made furniture, but I remember going to bed at night and feeling like I was in the midst of a strange fantasy come to life.


Second floor


Twin bed and circular bed




Lounge with a view

Further up on the third floor was another lounge area with a table, two chairs, and a hammock strung onto the walls. This was a great place to unwind and read, especially with the amazing views. WiFi was available for free, but unfortunately, I could only get a decent signal on the third floor. Breakfast was not included, which wasn't a problem since there were plenty of options in town. There was, however, coca leaves, tea, and an electric water kettle for guest use.


Third floor


View from the top

The property, although built on a hillside, was meticulously manicured with delightful gardens and secluded areas for lounging and sunbathing. A number of hammocks were also strung up outside. The owner appeared to be further expanding, as another suite shaped like a seashell was in the midst of construction while we were there. A sister property called La Cúpula was also next door, and featured simple rooms at a more affordable price.

Be aware that Las Olas was definitely not handicap-friendly, and it took some energy to climb up and down the hillside to get to the reception or to go into town. Suite 7 was probably the easiest to get to as it was the closest to a back door that led directly to the street below. Also, water temperature in the shower was not well-regulated. I alternated from being frozen or burned as the water fluctuated from one extreme to the other. There was no fix for this other than to grit my teeth and bear through it.

After getting settled in, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon checking out the sights around town and also booking our boat trip out to Isla del Sol the next day. Copacabana is very small and easily explorable by foot. Further up from the main street leading to the lake are a number of small alleyways lined with shops and restaurants.



Once you reach the Plaza de Armas, you'll see the famous basilica housing the Virgen de la Candelaria. We actually arrived on Palm Sunday, so there was quite the commotion outside, with colorful flowers and palm leaf weaves being sold by local artisans. The interior of the church was incredibly majestic and ornate. Sadly, no pictures were allowed inside. Look for the beautiful wood carvings on the entrance doors, as well as a statue of Francisco Tito Yupanqui, the sculpture of the Virgen de la Candelaria, just outside.


Basilica




Flowers for Palm Sunday
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Old Oct 22, 13, 2:59 pm
  #10  
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The South American Altiplano - Exploring Copacabana And Isla Del Sol - continued

After visiting the church, we went to a couple of different tour agents to inquire about the boat rides to Isla del Sol. We quickly realized that each of these agents were basically selling tickets to the exact same boat operator, and prices and times did not vary at all. So we went ahead and purchased our tickets for the 8:30 am departure at 35 Bolivianos each. We decided not to visit the smaller Isla de la Luna since that would mean a very rushed visit to both islands, and we definitely would not be able to hike Isla del Sol or see the historic Inca sites.

Towards the late afternoon, we walked up Cerro Calvario to see the sunset. It was a strenuous 40-minute climb up the mountain, but the views from the top were absolutely worth it. I would say this is a must-do if anybody ever decides to visit Copacabana. A series of small monuments mark the route to the summit, representing the 14 Stations of the Cross, culminating in a long procession of crosses at the very top. There, you are treated to unobstructed views of Lake Titicaca and the entire town below. We stayed until the sun set beyond the horizon, and I must say, this was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.


Hike up Cerro Calvario


Monuments at the top


Panorama of Copacabana


Sunset over Lake Titicaca


Moon and valley on the way down

The next morning, we headed down to the pier at 8:00 am for the two-hour boat ride to Isla del Sol. As most visitors guides would say, a visit to Copacabana would not be complete without a trip to the sacred Sun Island of the Incas. Unlike the flurry of excitement in town, Isla del Sol is an oasis of tranquility. There are no motor vehicles of any kind, and only a few dusty trails traverse the island from north to south. Donkeys are the single mode of transportation you'll find here.




On our way to Isla del Sol


One tree island



Our boat dropped us off at the village of Cha'llapampa on the north end of the island. There was not much to see here besides the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), where recently discovered artifacts from nearby underwater archaeological sites are on display. Paying the 10 Bolivianos entrance fee also grants you access to the Inca ruins on the northern tip, so it makes sense to go in and take a look if you already plan on visiting the other sites. A few stands near the docks sell sandwiches that are great for a quick lunch if you plan on hiking the 8 kilometers to Yumani.


Cha'llapampa





Following the trail north takes you past the Sacred Rock, the Inca Table, and the maze-like ruins of Chincana. Afterwards, you head back south, climbing to the highest elevation through the middle of the island. The views from these vantage points are breathtaking, and you can make out the beautiful farming terraces along the steep slopes near Challa. Throughout the island, there are locals who have set up checkpoints to collect tolls from tourists. In all, an extra 30 Bolivianos was spent to hike the length of the island.


Northern end of Isla del Sol


Chincana ruins



The terrain of Isla del Sol is harsh and barren, devoid of virtually any large trees, so it can be a strenuous hike under the intense sun. After approximately three hours, we arrived at the southern village of Yumani, where most of the accommodations and restaurants are located. We rested for a bit, taking in the views from above, then descended the ancient Inca Steps down to the docks to wait for our departure time. Be aware that the boat may not be identical to the one you arrived in. However, there should only be one or two boats leaving at the designated time. As long as you show them your ticket and confirm that you're headed back to Copacabana, there shouldn't be a problem.


Toll before entering Yumani


Descending the Inca Steps to the docks



While I enjoyed Isla del Sol, I don't know if I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the region just to see it. If you were in Copacabana already, then it would make sense to take a day trip there. The views were beautiful, but the island itself was arid and rocky. Most importantly, I was slightly disappointed with the Inca sites. The Chincana ruins were interesting, but you probably could have walked by the others without even noticing. Finally, the checkpoints felt like nothing more than opportunities to fleece the tourists. While 30 Bolivianos is less than $5 USD, I would have much rather paid that amount up front and not have to be surprised with toll payment after toll payment along the way.

Copacabana, on the other hand, was a beautiful place worthy of an extended visit. This is the sort of idyllic town that made me fall in love with South America. Take a day to stroll through the narrow streets, dip your feet in the chilly waters along the beach, enjoy the famous Lake Titicaca trout in one of the many restaurants, or just relax on a hammock at Hostal Las Olas and breath in the panoramic views.
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Old Oct 22, 13, 3:06 pm
  #11  
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The South American Altiplano - Strikes In Copacabana And Detour Through Peru

The day prior to leaving Copacabana, we went to the Titicaca Bolivia office to inquire about tickets to La Paz. Tourist buses cost about 30 Bolivianos and depart daily at 1:30 pm, with another possible departure late in the afternoon. There are also local buses that leave every hour for about half the price.

Besides comfort, the main trade-off is the fact that local buses will drop you off at the cemetery bus terminal in La Paz, which is located in a more dangerous area outside the center of town. There have been documented robberies against tourists here, especially at night, so we opted to play it safe and booked the tourist bus instead.

We were warned, however, that there was a high possibility of a workers strike the next day. When that occurs, all transportation into and out of Copacabana ceases, and we would be left stranded. Of course, our tickets would be refunded. Feeling somewhat helpless, we hoped for the best and returned to the hotel.

Ominously, we woke up the next morning to the sound of loud chants and banging drums. From our windows, we could see a long parade of strikers marching through town.


Strike in Copacabana

Still clinging on to a shred of hope, we quickly got ready, checked out of our hotel, and headed to Titicaca Bolivia to see what the situation was like. Unfortunately, we were informed that all roads out of Copacabana had been blocked by strikers, and even the remaining possibility of taking a boat out of town was unfeasible since the boat drivers were refusing to cross the picket line.

The only way we could leave Copacabana that day would be to walk eight kilometers back to the Peruvian border at Kasani, find a taxi or shared minibus to drive us to the alternate border crossing at Desaguadero approximately an hour away, and then catch a local bus from Desaguadero to La Paz. This would be a huge detour, not to mention a complete waste of time crossing back into Peru and then returning to Bolivia. But it was the only option left.

After we made the decision to hike it out of Copacabana, we left immediately so as not to waste any more time. Behind us were at least another half dozen backpackers who were determined to leave as well. The eight kilometers to the border turned out to be relatively flat, but walking with the weight of all of our belongings under the intense sun was still very strenuous. On the way, we passed by several makeshift roadblocks set up by the strikers, including large stones and toppled tree limbs.


Starting the hike back to the Kasani


Edge of town


Leaving Copacabana behind


Eight kilometers to go


Makeshift roadblocks




Roadside pigs

About a third of the way to the border, we came across a large group of strikers gathered in the middle of the road. They looked to be conducting a meeting of sorts, and frankly, we were a little uneasy about approaching or even going around them. Just then, we saw two backpackers walking in the opposite direction and stopped to ask them if it was safe to pass. The were absolutely certain that the strikers meant us no harm and we would be fine walking past them. So on we went - without any issue.


Approaching the strikers


More roadblocks



After passing the large group, we followed a few other backpackers through a shortcut that ran past the local dirt landing strip and along the marshlands next to Lake Titicaca. This saved us a little bit of time since the main road curved further inland. Cows, sheep, chicken, and other farm animals roamed this area while we carefully avoided stepping in the plentiful droppings they left behind.




Follow the shortcut


Copacabana landing strip




Through the marshlands


Lake Titicaca and flowers in bloom

Finally, after about two hours of walking, we arrived back to where we started two days ago. Once again, we entered the Bolivian immigration office, this time getting stamped out. We walked past the border archway and made our way to the Peruvian immigration office for re-entry into the country. The officials were fully aware of the strike situation, and weren't fazed by the multiple exits and entries already logged in our passports.


Kasani again


Bolivian immigration office


Back into Peru
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Old Oct 22, 13, 3:10 pm
  #12  
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The South American Altiplano - Strikes In Copacabana And Detour Through Peru - continued

As we exited the office, there was already a small group of backpackers gathered around looking for a way to get to Desaguadero. We joined in, and began asking some of the waiting taxi drivers how much it would cost. Just then, a minibus pulled up and dropped off a number of passengers. Our group negotiated a price with the driver to take all of us, although he told us if we waited for more people, the cost per person would go down.

While we debated, the nearby taxi drivers became increasingly hostile towards the minibus driver since he was essentially taking their business, and it was apparent to us that he was not a local. A couple of policemen from the station across the street were called over to calm things down as the taxi drivers began to shout obscenities and threatened to get physical. Legit or not, they accused the minibus driver of not having the proper permits to work in the area.

We tried to steer clear of the fracas, but at the same time, all of us wanted to get to Desaguadero as quickly and cheaply as possible. Finally, the policemen told the minibus driver to simply move down the street, where he was free to pick up passengers. We decided to follow him so we could leave immediately, but things got more tense as the taxi drivers proceeded to tail us. We quickly threw our gear into the back and climbed aboard as the police kept the taxi drivers at bay.


Minibus to Desaguadero

This was certainly one of the scarier situations I've encountered while traveling. Although at the time, I wasn't too concerned since the police were right there. Also, it wouldn't have made much sense for them to attack tourists. In the end, everything turned out fine, and each passenger paid six soles to get to Desaguadero. Once we arrived, it was the same immigration routine yet again. By then, it was beginning to feel like déjà vu.

Desaguadero is quite a bit more chaotic than Kasani, since locals use this border crossing as the main artery for commerce and trade. Still, after crossing the bridge into Bolivia, it wasn't too difficult to locate the Bolivian immigration office and get stamped in. Luckily, the $135 USD reciprocity fee is valid for five years, so we didn't need to pay it again.


Desaguadero


Leaving Peru... again


Entering Bolivia... again


Bolivian immigration office

After completing immigration, we asked one of the officers for directions to the La Paz-bound buses, and we were told to continue down the main street for about 500 meters. There, we were greeted with a line of dilapidated buses waiting to fill their seats with passengers. With the only option being local buses, we knew we would be arriving at the cemetery terminal, which I had really wanted to avoid. My main concern now was to minimize risk by getting into the city before sunset. Prices were set at 10 Bolivianos per person.

Unfortunately, there was not enough space for three more people in the first bus that was about to depart, so we boarded the next one in line, which was completely empty. We sat there for the next hour, not only waiting for more passengers, but also watching as they loaded cargo box after cargo box onto the roof. My stomach literally sank as I slowly realized we would not make it to La Paz before dark.


Walking to the buses

Finally, at almost 5:00 pm, we pulled away from the stop and started on the four-hour journey. Saying the ride was uncomfortable would be an understatement, as I held onto all my belongings the entire way there. Every inch of floor space was taken up by boxes and bags, and the seat I shared barely had enough room for the larger-set woman next to me, let alone two people. But at this point, I was just glad we were on our way!


Local bus to La Paz

As we approached El Alto just outside of La Paz proper, the bus began to make several stops, dropping passengers off and unloading cargo from the rooftop. This process took almost an hour, and by the time we continued on our way, it was well past 8:00 pm.

Descending into the giant bowl that La Paz sits in is quite a stunning sight, especially at night when all the buildings are lit up. It almost looks like you're standing on the rim of a massive crater with the dense city center located at the very bottom of the depression.


Streets of El Alto

We wound our way down the steep slopes, and soon arrived at the cemetery bus terminal in total darkness. Feeling slightly anxious, we quickly gathered up our belongings and stepped onto the street, where we were immediately accosted by several questionable drivers asking us where we wanted to go. My instinct told me to leave the area and look for a more legitimate taxi on the main street, which is what we did. After walking about two blocks away from the terminal, we were able to hail down a radio cab that looked fairly new. We negotiated a price before getting in (18 Bolivianos), and thankfully, arrived at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in about fifteen minutes safe and sound.

It was a monster day of traveling... from hiking, to two border crossings, to minibuses and decrepit local buses, to taxis, but fortunately, things turned out alright in the end. Obstacles can arise at any time when navigating abroad, and it's important to be ready at a moment's notice for plans to change. Otherwise, you may end up stranded at a location and your itinerary completely halted. Stay alert in unfamiliar situations and always keep your wits about you!
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Old Oct 22, 13, 3:16 pm
  #13  
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The South American Altiplano - Radisson Plaza Hotel La Paz

The Radisson Plaza Hotel is the only international chain in La Paz, but don't go there expecting international standards in decor and upkeep. In its heyday (probably a few decades ago), this was certainly a five-star hotel with its expansive lobby, full-service amenities, and towering presence over one of the wealthiest districts in La Paz. However, time hasn't been particularly kind, and without any major remodeling of the rooms and facilities, everything now looks incredibly dated and tired.

Armed with my U.S. Bank Club Carlson Visa, I booked two nights here for only 15,000 Gold Points, with the last night free. If I didn't have this benefit, I probably would have just paid for the room out-of-pocket since prepaid nights often go for well under $100 USD. Booking over the Club Carlson website was very straightforward, and they even automatically removed the points deduction for the last night since your credit card and membership accounts are linked.

We arrived at the Radisson Plaza Hotel around 9:00 pm hungry and tired. Thankfully, the wait to check in was short. After an extensive day of traveling, I didn't have the energy or patience to take pictures of the facilities that night, but I did so the next morning. All we really wanted to do was throw our belongings into the room and quickly find something to eat in the area.


Radisson Plaza Hotel La Paz




Lobby



Unfortunately, since the booking only allowed a maximum of two adults in the room, we needed to add a third person to the reservation at check-in, resulting in a supplemental $50 USD per night charge. While this was certainly annoying, I was also pleasantly surprised about a couple of things. First, we were upgraded to a room on the 14th floor, just below the penthouse level, and given access to the executive lounge on the 12th floor. In addition, all guests at the hotel were provided a complimentary buffet breakfast, regardless of the rate booked.

As I mentioned before, the room itself looked incredibly dated. That in and of itself is perfectly fine in my opinion, but what was unacceptable, especially in a large international chain, was the lack of upkeep and cleanliness. The sheets were becoming threadbare, the carpets were worn, and the furniture had stains on them. The king bed was old and springy, let alone the rollaway mattress brought in for the third person. Overall, things in the room just felt dirty. Remarkably, the room had a modern flat-screen television.





The bathroom wasn't much better, and in many ways, was probably worse. There was rust and mold in the shower, and the water did not drain properly. Judging by the TripAdvisor reviews, the drainage problem seems to be a frequent issue at the hotel. In addition, next to the existing toilet was a circular hole covered by a piece of plastic. I'm assuming this was where the toilet used to be, and it would have been nice if they covered the void with something opaque so guests couldn't see the brown gunk inside.







I suppose these are all first world problems at the end of the day. I've stayed at plenty of hostels and backpackers lodges that would put the Radisson Plaza Hotel to shame in terms of grossness factor. What it all comes down to, however, is expectation. When you book a night at a large international chain, you expect a certain standard and quality. When those expectations aren't met, it's usually a bigger disappointment than experiencing the exact same problem at a $20 per night hostel.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, one thing about the room that had me smiling from ear to ear was the spectacular view. We had an incredible panorama of the city, including the Puente de las Americas bridge right in the center. Since the Radisson Plaza Hotel is located in the Sopacachi district, near the bottom of the canyon that central La Paz sits in, you get a fascinating view of the urban sprawl climbing its way up the steep slopes towards the south. On the second day, as sporadic rain fell, a beautiful rainbow appeared above the city just as I was staring out the window.


View from the room


Rainbow over La Paz

The breakfast buffet in the downstairs restaurant was decent, considering the fact that it was included with every booking. There was a wide selection of fruit and bread. Hot entrees included scrambled eggs, sausages, french toast, and empanadas. There was also of couple of different cereals and juice options. Of course, they had plenty of coca tea as well, which was fast becoming indispensable for me.


Breakfast buffet







The executive lounge was open for breakfast between 7:00-10:00 am, and for cocktails and light snacks between 6:00-9:00 pm. It was a nice, quiet space with plenty of tables and some comfortable couches. There was a small bar in one corner with an equally small selection of liquor and beer.

We stopped by for the early evening service and initially found it to be completely empty. By 6:30 pm, they had laid out some hot hors d'oeuvres, nuts, cookies, and chips. There was also a large pitcher of delicious papaya smoothie. For the entire time that we were there, I think only two other guests stopped by, grabbing a few bites and leaving soon after.


Executive lounge






Bar
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Old Oct 22, 13, 3:18 pm
  #14  
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The South American Altiplano - Radisson Plaza Hotel La Paz - continued


Snacks




Local beer Paceña

There was a health spa at the hotel, but unfortunately, the gym was closed due to construction. Strangely enough, we had to walk through a long, winding, industrial-looking corridor to get to the pool, which was rather small. The business center, on the other hand, was quite large, with plenty of computers for guest use. They even provided paper for us to print out our boarding passes.


Pool


Business center

I probably would not recommend the Radisson Plaza Hotel unless you find a very cheap rate or have a lot of Gold Points to burn. There are now a number of higher quality hotels in town for an incremental increase in cost. While I appreciated the upgrade, complimentary breakfast, and other features of the hotel, ultimately, what it really comes down to (at least for a large international chain) is cleanliness and comfort, both of which were sorely lacking here.
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Old Oct 22, 13, 3:28 pm
  #15  
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The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Amaszonas Airlines 300 Economy Class (LPB → UYU)

Uyuni is the main jump-off point for visiting Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Bolivian Altiplano. Its remote location in the rugged high plains, however, has always made it an extremely difficult place to access. In recent years, the construction of a modern runway and introduction of regular flights from La Paz has finally made it possible to reach this destination without an overnight journey.

No doubt the most grueling method of transportation is by bus. Despite being only about 340 miles from La Paz, this overnight trek can take upwards of 12-14 hours due to the poor road conditions. Buses are notorious for breaking down on this route, so be prepared for even more delays if that happens. In addition, temperatures in the Altiplano can plummet overnight, especially during winter. If the onboard heater fails (or is nonexistent to begin with), your only defense against the cold will be to pile on the thick layers.

Todo Turismo runs a direct tourist class bus that includes hot food, blankets, and even WiFi, but you will be paying more than double the price (230 Bolivianos) of standard buses for the added comfort. Be aware that certain itineraries will require a change of bus in the town of Oruro. There is also a train between Oruro and Uyuni that runs every Tuesday and Friday. It is possible to catch a bus from La Paz to Oruro, and then switch to this train for the remainder of the journey, although this tends to waste more time. Be sure to purchase your tickets at least a few days in advance, as they may sell out quickly.

In 2012, Línea Aérea Amaszonas began operating daily flights between La Paz and Uyuni, which has significantly reduced the transit time. With a scheduled duration of only 45 minutes, it is amazing to realize that you can now save almost half a day of travel and a whole lot of pain. The cost is approximately $130 USD for a one-way ticket, so this is obviously not the cheapest option, but for us, it was worth the extra cost simply because it allowed us more time in La Paz. Also, being able to enjoy a decent night's sleep prior to the three-day Salar de Uyuni tour was a huge benefit.

TAM, the civilian wing of the Bolivian Air Force, also runs flights to Uyuni on Mondays and Fridays at roughly the same schedule and cost as Amaszonas. However, their website is not user friendly, and as of September 2013, it is still impossible to purchase tickets online.

When we originally bought our tickets, the departure time was listed as 7:15 am. Luckily, I reconfirmed our flights on the website prior to the trip and realized that the time had been changed to 6:50 am. We printed out our boarding passes at the hotel (each person must bring two copies to the airport) and turned in early for the night.

The following morning, we checked out at 4:30 am and caught a taxi to El Alto International Airport on the outskirts of town. The cost for the roughly 25-minute journey was 60 Bolivianos, which seemed to be ten more than usual, but our taxi driver claimed there was a surcharge for such an early departure. He flew through the winding Autopista, swerving around other cars at speeds that must have been considered a felony in the States. Fortunately, we got to the airport in one piece... and a lot earlier than expected!

There were only a few people in line at the check-in counters when we arrived, and after verifying our payment credit cards and printed boarding passes, our large backpacks were tagged to Uyuni. We had already selected our seats online, and those were reconfirmed as well. By the time we were finished, a long line had formed behind us, including a large Japanese tourist group that was on the same flight.


Amaszonas check-in counters




El Alto International Airport check-in area

Before going through security, you are required to pay the airport departure tax. Domestic destinations cost only 15 Bolivianos, while international destinations require $25 USD. Once paid, a sticker is attached to the boarding pass and you are allowed to proceed. As with most South American countries, security screening was fairly lax, and we were quickly through to the departures hall.


Paying the airport departure tax

El Alto International Airport is quite small, and the gate area had nothing more than a tiny makeshift cafe and some seats for waiting passengers. We arrived very early, and even made it to the gate while boarding for the earlier Amaszonas departure to Uyuni was still in progress. I wondered aloud if we should try to get on that flight instead, but quickly dismissed the idea since our checked bags probably wouldn't be loaded in time. Amazingly, the airport had complimentary WiFi for guest use.


Departures


Small cafe


Waiting area

At 6:20 am, boarding for our flight was called, and a short lined formed at the gate. There was no jet bridge or waiting bus here; we simply had to walk to the aircraft. Strangely enough though, our CRJ-200 was parked near the end of the terminal, and it was a long stroll on the tarmac before reaching our plane. Along the way, we passed by several other airliners, which made for some great pictures.

While walking, an official working the tarmac asked us to stop. In front towards the left was a small aircraft with its propellers running, and the prop wash was blowing directly into our path. We waited and waited, but the plane still didn't move. As more people accumulated behind us and we started to wonder if we were going to miss our flight, the official grew impatient and finally told us to continue walking despite the propellers running. Looking at the small size of the aircraft, I was chuckling at the overabundance of caution, but as soon as we stepped into the direct path of the prop wash... HOLY @#$!%... I thought I was going to be blown off my feet. We ran as fast as we could through the area along with the other surprised passengers. Prop wash and jet blast of any kind is definitely not something to be toyed with!


At our gate


Boliviana de Aviación Boeing 737-300


TAM Boeing 737-200


AA Boeing 757-200 to Santa Cruz and Miami


TACA Airbus A320


Amaszonas CRJ-200

Línea Aérea Amaszonas 300
Bombardier CRJ-200
La Paz (LPB) - Uyuni (UYU)
Thursday March 28, 2013
Departure: 6:50 AM (scheduled) / 6:47 AM (actual)
Arrival: 7:35 AM (scheduled) / 7:44 AM (actual)
Duration: 0h 45m (scheduled) / 0h 57m (actual)
Seat: 2A (Economy)


We boarded the CRJ-200 via the aircraft stairs and found our seats at the second row. Prior to checking in, I was still slightly worried that we would be flying on a Fairchild Metro 23, the only aircraft type that Amaszonas operated until late last year. Since then, they purchased five refurbished CRJ-200s and have all but retired their entire fleet of propeller planes.





Despite being fairly old, the refurbished interiors looked spotless. The two flight attendants were extremely professional, and all safety demonstrations were conducted to global standards. As we taxied to the runway, I was excited with anticipation, knowing that we were about to take off from the highest international airport in the world. At 13,323 feet, we were already at almost half the cruising altitude of a jetliner!




Decent pitch


Galley

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