BOLIVIA IS A COUNTRY THAT HAS ALWAYS FASCINATED ME. EVERYONE I KNOW WHO HAS BEEN THERE HAS EITHER LOVED IT OR HATED IT – EITHER SAID IT WAS THE SOUTH AMERICAN COUNTRY YOU HAD TO AVOID, OR THE ONE YOU SIMPLY COULD NOT MISS. SO WHEN MY DEAR FRIEND EMICA PENKLIS – AN AVID ADVENTURER, NATUROPATH AND VEGAN CHOCOLATIER WHO RUNS HER OWN SUSTAINABLE, ORGANIC AND SUGAR-FREE CHOCOLATE COMPANY LOCO LOVE – VISITED RECENTLY, I JUST HAD TO GET THE INSIDE SCOOP. HOW DID SHE RESPOND TO THIS DIVISIVE NATION? DID SHE LOVE IT OR DID SHE HATE IT, OR PERHAPS A LITTLE OF BOTH? WHAT DID SHE LEARN WHILE SHE WAS THERE? READ ON, DEAR NOMADS, TO FIND OUT.
Emica hello! Thank you so much for sharing your Bolivia journey with us. Let’s jump straight in shall we? Bolivia is country that’s often overshadowed by its more famous neighbours like Chile, Argentina and Peru. But you took the chance and travelled there. What were your expectations, and how did the reality differ from them?
To be honest I had no expectations of Bolivia as I hadn’t heard much about it, except as a teenager reading Marching Powder, so I arrived ready and willing to explore whatever was in store. After our week there I learnt that Bolivia is so diverse, still relatively untouched by tourism, and leaves you feeling that you’re seeing something the average traveller doesn’t get to see.
Can you run us through your journey – which places did you venture to and how did they all differ from one another?
We began our Bolivian journey by travelling by bus from Puno, Peru, to La Paz, the Bolivian capital, which took about five hours. La Paz is about 3,700 metres above sea level, which is very high for a city, although I didn’t notice the altitude as we’d already grown accustomed to similar heights. When you arrive by bus you realise the city is set in a deep canyon; you travel down and around until eventually reaching the bus depot.
Arriving in La Paz I have to admit I felt unsafe; it was late at night and there were a lot of people crowding around the bus depot. My fear was soothed somewhat by Yvan my travel partner, who could speak Spanish and stood at 6’4’’. From the bus depot we took a taxi to our apartment, which we found on Airbnb. It was clean, super affordable and had a gas heater, a must.
La Paz is incredibly diverse, the areas were so contrasted it almost felt like being in different countries, and the divide between the poor and rich is vast and very obvious. There’s a mix of Indigenous (Aymara) and European heritage, which gave rise to the usual street markets, alongside more modern stores and cuisine. One thing I must mention: if you’re going to buy traditional artefacts, Bolivia is a great place to do it, as it’s a lot more affordable than the neighbouring countries.
We were lucky to have a local Bolivian who spoke English to give us a guided tour of La Paz, who took us on the cable cars that run all over the rocky canyon of a city. The view is amazing, and I recommend going in all the directions. You can really see just how difficult this city would have been to build and get a glimpse into the local’s homes. I can’t imagine they were too happy about these cable cars being built as their privacy has been invaded.
Another great place to visit is the Cementerio General, a sprawling mass of crypts stacked on top of each other. It’s incredible, and the haunting music of wind-up toys with their batteries dying really sets the scene – it sounds depressing but its not.
Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, is another good place to visit to take photos of the jagged rock formations that are synonymous with La Paz. Also the Witches’ Market, which is probably the most touristy attraction, but still offers some really interesting sights like baby lama foetus (yes that’s what I said) to be used in black magic. I also loved the colourful Andean mansions in El Alto.
From La Paz we flew from El Alto to Uyuni, where we took a four-day tour through the desert. We travelled with Red Planet, they were ok although very rustic. It’s only a short flight, but I’d recommend it if you’re only in the country for a short time. We flew on a full moon in a tiny 15-seater plane and due to the altitude the moon looked enormous; it was quite the experience.
Uyuni itself isn’t the best place to visit, it’s basically a pit-stop for tourists travelling on to the salt flats and there isn’t much good food. We stayed at Hotel Jardines de Uyuni for about $60 a night, it was cute and clean and I’d stay there again. In the morning we left for our 4WD journey across the salt planes for the next few days. The expansive beauty really does take your breath away – think natural hot springs, shooting stars, pink lakes, snow-capped mountans, cactus-sprinkled plains, muti-coloured sunsets and constant clear blue skies. The only downfall was the accommodation and the extreme cold, as well as average food (if you’re a little fussy like me I’d recommend taking supplies), although I would have starved to experience the natural beauty I did.
Which areas did you have the strongest connection to and why?
I really loved Isla Incahuasi on the salt flats. I’d seen photos of it on social media and I’d always wanted to go there. I have a succulent obsession, and seeing these huge mounds of cacti was like something out of another dimension. It’s hard to grasp how it got there and how it continues to thrive. We also visited some natural hot springs there; being submerged in steaming hot water under the brightest galaxies I’ve ever seen, watching shooting stars glide across the sky, was one of the most spectacular moments of my life. It really left an impression on me and my understanding of the expanse of the universe, externally and internally.
Bolivia is an incredibly poor country, but is so rich in natural, wild beauty. Were the valleys, landscapes, islands and wildlife as stunning as they looked in your photos in real life?
The photos don’t do them justice. The sunsets on the salt flats, for example, are layered with different pastel colours that a camera just can’t capture. The expanse of the land is unable to be transferred in a photo, the horizon seems to go on forever. The only thing that was a little disappointing were the flamingos, they were so far away and I really wanted to get the perfect photo of one. The llamas, however, which I got to see up close and personal, were such amazing creatures and the babies were so cute. I sat in awe the whole time. You know how sometimes places leave you speechless, or if you do try to put them into words, it just doesn’t come out quite as impressive as you’d liked? Well this is was one of those experiences.
Being a chocolatier, I can imagine you were paying close attention to the food while you were travelling. Can you tell us a bit about it, and maybe describe some stand-out culinary experiences?
We went to an amazing restaurant in La Paz called Gustu. All the food was sourced locally, and the restaurant is also a culinary school that trains young Bolivians to be chefs. It was up there with some of the best food I’ve eaten, they used fresh, organic produce and had gluten-free and vegan options. I stocked up on their raw crackers for the desert adventure, and their cocktails were also very good. I was also really impressed by Red Monkey -they served great raw, organic and vegan food, and even had raw chocolate.
I’ve read that Bolivia can be very dangerous, that it’s a place that truly calls for a boldness of spirit. Did you feel safe travelling through there? Do you have any advice for solo travellers, particularly women, headed that way?
From Uyuni onwards as a solo female I would have felt perfectly safe, but travelling alone in La Paz isn’t something I’d recommend – it is a little unsafe and does feel very overwhelming at times. Also basic Spanish would really come in handy, as not many of the taxi drivers or locals spoke English.
Was there anything that surprised you about the country and/or its culture?
After speaking to a few locals, it was interesting to discover how superstitious Bolivians are, and that black magic is still practiced, including the sacrifice of animals. Some locals told me about one ritual that involved sacrificing a Llama or a human (I know, pretty intense) by burying them under a building site before the building is constructed there. Apparently the sacrifice was necessary to ensure the building’s stability and durability. There was another story of a bar called Elephant Graveyard, where people wishing to commit suicide would go to do just that. These poor suffering souls would go to eat and eat and drink so much alcohol, or otherwise starve, until their bodies eventually gave up and passed over. Viscarra, known as the Bolivian Bukowski, has been one of the few to reveal the existence of these bars in his writing.
Finally, what was the biggest lesson Bolivia taught you?
Bolivia taught me that having no expectations is good when embarking on an adventure, and that having a local guide is great if you have limited time.
It sounds corny, but Bolivia showed me humanity in all forms. It really gave me perspective, by showing me the real struggle that takes place there every day, and the corruption that can be present within governments. We really are so lucky here in Australia.
Bolivia also reminded me of the overwhelming beauty of nature and left me in a state of awe. Those salt flats and desert planes really were something else. All travel is imperative to take you out of your comfort zones and teach you and push you to grow in ways only you know how. I find the more experiences I have with travel and life on this planet, the more I understand humanity and develop more compassion for all. As well as having fun and adventure, meeting new people, eating new foods, being present in new environments and having my eyes witness the magic of our planet.