I am a firm believer in traveling without a plan. There is so much to be gained from throwing out the itinerary. Of course, there are times where you absolutely must have a detailed course of action mapped out in advance, trekking the Andes is an example. That took a good deal of planning months before our departure date. Actually, so much planning went into it that we were burned out on planning and decided it would be best to just fill in the blanks as we made our way southward from Cuzco. But it does take a certain sense of adventure and badass mentality to just let things unfold spontaneously in a foreign country. So, in many ways, you have to take a deep breath and just jump. We had a basic idea of where we would go when we left Cuzco. We knew we would take a bus south to Lake Titicaca. I had always wanted to see the floating islands. Isabel wanted to see the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. So, at some point, we would need to cross the border around Lake Titicaca into Bolivia and make our way across the country without a plan.
The day before we left for Bolivia we were headed back to Puno after a 2 day overnight tour of several islands on Lake Titicaca, which was not something we even knew you could do before we left on the trip. We actually found out about it during our last night in Cuzco. We were eating dinner out and made friends with a couple from New York who were dining at the table next to us. They told us their story. They met through a gay hiking group (proof that there truly is something for everyone) and were in Peru to trek the Andes. The younger half explained that hiking had completely transformed him because he was really fat before he took it up. His partner agreed and pulled up a picture on his phone to prove the story. “Can you believe this is the same guy?” He pointed and boasted. They had just returned from Lake Titicaca, and we were headed there the next day, so they gave us valuable tips. They told us that we had to do the overnight stay with a local family on the island of Amantani. They also suggested we order the Guinea pig on the menu for dinner that evening. “You have to try it!” They insisted. It was the most expensive item on the menu, but we were here to experience Peruvian land and culture, and this rodent was part of that. Guinea pig, or cuy, has a 5,000 year history as a major protein source throughout the Andes, and it is still eaten today on special occasions. After a long wait and two pisco sours, it was presented to us fully intact on a giant platter, dressed for the celebration and festooned with colorful accessories, including a miniature party hat. Our dinner was wearing a hat! I took one sliver of a bite, ate the potato lodged inside the poor creature’s jaws instead, and ordered another pisco sour.
After arriving in Puno the next day, we found out you really could spend the night on one of the islands. We were checking into our hostel, and the guy behind the counter handed us a brochure of the available tours. The overnight seemed to be a tour that was second to none. “We have to do it,” I insisted. “It will be a great adventure.” I went on to describe for Isabel what I envisioned was ahead for us. Our host family will speak Quechua, living lives much the same way as their ancient ancestors. It will be a such a special place, completely frozen in time. They will cook authentic soups, made with potatoes and quinoa, in homes without heat and electricity. It will be freezing cold, but we can put everything we have on when we go to bed. When will we ever have another chance to sleep on an island that doesn’t allow machines? We both agreed that we had the flexibility to add an extra day because we were traveling without having to worry about rooms that were already booked. And so off we went to time travel to another place from long ago across the highest navigable lake in the world. It would be like a fantasy, or at least as close as you can get to one nowadays.
And it was indeed like some kind of mythical odyssey. We spent the morning bouncing around on reed islands made by the Uro people who taught us how they built their floating islands from reeds. They also built their homes and all the furniture inside from reeds. They built the boats that took them from island to island from reeds as well. They even ate the stuff. They would eat the interior part of the stalk, which they unpeeled and offered to us as if it were a banana. They went on to explain the medicinal benefits of using reeds to cure everything, from minor abrasions to headaches. They could place the cool inner substance of the plant directly on to the wound or forehead. They even used it to cure hangovers. Was there a fermented reed drink? I never asked. Their entire life centered around this plant. We sailed on from there for 2 hours and landed that afternoon on the island of Amantani. Our hostess, Inez, met us at the dock and we followed her midway up a mountain to her house. She was short and stout and dressed in traditional clothing. She made us a delicious quinoa soup, and then we were off to climb farther up the mountain to watch the sunset and see the ancient ruins dedicated to Pachamama.
After dinner, Inez’s mother, giddy with delight, asked us if we would like to wear traditional clothing to a party scheduled that evening. The next thing we knew we were dutifully following instructions as this elderly woman dressed us in layer after layer. She was so thoroughly amused by the whole process, laughing slyly with every new article of clothing she put on each of us. The next thing we knew we were dancing with strangers, all holding hands and going around and around in a cyclonic frenzy while a group of musicians played panpipes and drums. As the party winded down, I noticed Inez sitting down on a bench, legs crossed, smacking her chewing gum, and scrolling through her cell phone. She seemed like any other young woman anywhere in the world. She told us her sister had left the island years ago and was living in Puno. She hadn’t seen her since. She, however, had never left the island of Amantani. Inez was married with a baby, but we never did see any men except the musicians who played at the dance that night. We wondered where all the men were on the island of Amantani. Thankfully, we burned enough energy that day to fall fast asleep on stiff beds covered with Santa Claus sheets. We put on every article of clothing we had and fell asleep in a room without electricity and heat. We might as well have been back in our tent in the Andes.
The next day we headed back to Puno after a day on the island of Taquille. We spent the night in Puno, and then woke up early in the morning to cross the border. Getting into Bolivia as an American is difficult. All Americans are required to apply for a tourist visa. I hadn’t been able to obtain a visa from Bolivia as an American living in Aruba. It’s really challenging to do many things as an American living in Aruba. I visited a website online one evening after a long day at work to start the application process, but I didn’t have much success. The system shut me out forever the next morning after the 12 hours I was given to scan and submit a long list of documents wasn’t met. I sent an email to explain my situation and finally received a curt reply a few weeks before the trip, strongly advising me to apply for the permit before I boarded my plane for South America. I found information online about applying for the visa at the border, but it seemed sketchy. Eventually, I was out of choices, so I packed a special folder that contained the mind numbing list of items required by Bolivian immigration: official copies of my bank statements, copy of hotel reservations, copy of flight information, Yellow Fever vaccinations, passport, copy of passport, separate official passport photo and $160 U.S. dollars. Would they let me through once I reached the border? It was a lot of extra baggage to carry.
Headed for the border that morning, we gazed out the window for hours and hours, taking in a rugged landscape of natural beauty and never-ending poverty. At one point, the bus abruptly stopped while army tanks rolled by and we made our way through some kind of check point. There seemed to be a strong military presence all around us, and I had no idea what was taking place. Thankfully, I was sitting next to a handsome tour guide (tour guides are treated like rock stars in the Andes) from Lima who led a small group of American tourists, the only other Americans on the bus. He provided much needed running commentary for me as he fielded questions from his inquisitive group about what they were seeing out the window and also what paperwork they needed to pull together for immigration. “Southern Peru is more dangerous than other parts because of protests,” he explained to his curious group. “Do you have a copy of your passport? You are going to need that. Start getting your documents together and have them ready to go. Don’t forget to be friendly and smile.” I was happy they were on board because I had no idea what to expect, and at least I could ask this guy who seemed to be an expert on Americans crossing the Bolivian border.
It was snowing by the time we arrived at the border. Crossing a border in South America by bus is a convoluted and confusing process. Everyone on the bus is ushered off the bus and then in and out of buildings on both sides of the border. After being processed out of Peru, we crossed the border into Bolivia by climbing up a hill on foot to the back of a long line outside a small white building. An immigration officer walked along the line and plucked out all the Americans, pointing to the building and directing us to go inside. I said goodbye to my friend who held a much prized Dutch passport. Once inside, I found myself behind the counter and facing a man who was rapidly firing questions at me, one after another in Spanish. I had emptied out a quarter-inch thick folder of paperwork and he didn’t seemed satisfied. He sifted and shuffled through my documents, sorting them all out in categories to file away. He asked the whereabouts of my application, and I explained that I read I could fill it out at the border. He did not like that answer. Finally, after a few nail-biting moments, I knew I had the green light once he asked me for $160. But then he didn’t like the $100 bill I gave him and passed it back to me. I asked if I could find my friend in line outside because she had more American money. Thankfully, she had some twenties stashed away, and I took $100 worth back into the building and handed them over to the officer who carefully examined the edges and passed most of them back at me once again. Nothing was good enough for this guy. Back and forth I went in this manner, inside and out, retrieving twenty-dollar bills and taking them back into the building only to have my money rejected over and over again. Eventually, he told me to go back and get the $100 dollar bill I originally gave him. I gave him even more money in Bolivianos, filled out my life story on the application, and received a sticker that let’s me plan my next vacation to Bolivia until 2026.
We took off in the bus and seemed to drive around the lake for hours. Eventually, we made our way into the city of La Paz and moments before we would arrive at the station, our bus just suddenly stopped. The bus driver stepped off and disappeared, leaving all of us wondering what was next. 15 minutes later he appeared again to tell us there was a strike — we would have to walk with all of our luggage the rest of the way. We filed down an empty highway, littered with large boulders and barrels. Along the way, smoldering ash sporadically appeared on the embankments on either side. The scene was eerie, and I had no idea where it would end. Eventually, we stopped at a bridge where police stood in formation across it. We decided to climb our way to the top of the bridge since we were told that we would be walking into the heat of the demonstration if we continued along the highway. From what we gathered, it was a transportation strike held in front of the bus station, which just happened to be our destination. We climbed to the top of the bridge and said our goodbyes to the other stranded passenger, some were Bolivians and others ducked into taxis and zoomed off for the airport to catch flights back to Europe. They were glad to get out of there, but we were left in the thick of this turbulent scene for the rest of the day because we were catching an overnight bus to Uyuni from the station where the strike was happening. I asked one of the policemen which way we should go; in every direction there were chanting crowds and chaos. He told us to walk across the bridge to the other side. We scoped out the scene ahead while we crossed, flinching from time to time as we heard pop pop pop in the background. Eventually, we found another way into the bus station, and after checking the status of our overnight bus and dropping our luggage, we decided the best thing to do would be to escape into a restaurant and sample some Bolivian cuisine. We ate some mystery dish that we never clearly identified. Then we wandered as far away as possible and visited two museums. a quaint coffee shop, several art galleries, and a local bar.
We made a point of getting back to the bus station before dark. And then off we went into the night, leaving La Paz and headed across this landlocked remote landscape on an overnight bus. I tried to sleep, but it was useless. It was freezing on the bus. And splurging on a luxury sleeping chair may have not been the best option since the Swiss girl in front of me reclined her seat all the way back pinning my legs in a precarious position: I was locked into this rollercoaster for a long ride. And it really was a little bit like a rollercoaster. There were so many unexpected swerves and rattles and jolts along the way. The bus broke down twice that night, once around 3 o’clock and another time right before we arrived at our destination. Each time we waited for about an hour in the pitch black darkness as the driver/ makeshift mechanic tinkered around under the hood and then tried to start the bus over and over again. The bus would sputter forever and then choke each time in defiance while the passengers inside snored sound asleep. How could anyone sleep through this? How long would we be stranded here? This could go on for hours! Transportation in Bolivia seemed very unreliable to me in those middle of the night moments, or basically any time I boarded a bus in the country.
Somehow we made it to Uyuni shortly after sunrise to a below zero chill when we stepped off the bus. It took us a while , but we finally found a taxi to take us to our hostel. The cold was so shocking for two girls who live in the tropical zone that we could barely function as a result. Once we found our hostel, I did my best to speak Spanish on no sleep through chattering teeth with an eccentric man who was working the night shift, but there were definitely some gaps in communication happening. He assured us someone could meet us in the lobby at 10 o’clock to take us on a day tour of the Salt Flats. Then we found our way to the best breakfast scene I have ever experienced at any hostel anywhere ever. And it wasn’t because we had just arrived after a sleepless night on an overnight bus. As we walked in, Lou Reed was playing, and there was a giant spread of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, an assortment of Quiche, roasted potatoes, Greek yogurt, and, most importantly, very strong coffee. During breakfast we found out that our 10 o’clock tour would be a private tour, meaning it would be very costly. Neither of us wanted to spend that kind of money, so we opted to just walk out into this frontier land on an impossible quest to find a jeep and a tour guide. But, first, we needed a shower. We walked out the front door of the hostel around 9:30 or so, down the street, and into a the first door we found that advertised tours: Tito Tours. Tito did not speak any English, but we were able to find a last-minute spot on a tour leaving in 10 minutes. We boarded a jeep with a Bolivian family and a single girl from La Paz. We drove miles and miles across a never-ending expanse of bright white world and listened to our tour guide, emphatically sharing all of his wisdom in a language that wasn’t our own. Eventually, we stopped, and he told us we were going to have lunch as he prepared chicken and rice in the back of the jeep. We sat down on the hard cold ground for a picnic lunch and made a new friend with the single girl from La Paz. We all collaborated the rest of day while taking pictures, playing around with perspective by making ourselves into giants who stomped on one another’s heads and climbed inside boots.
We were lucky everything went somewhat smoothly up until that point since we were traveling impromptu. We booked the overnight bus to Uyuni in Copacabana from two women who were sitting at a table outside the bar where we had just had drinks. Based on my experience, it is safer to buy bus tickets buzzed rather than sleepy because after our Salt Flat tour that day, we thought we had booked a return ticket from Uyuni to La Paz that left at 7 AM in the morning. We were at 36 hours without sleep, and apparently this AM or PM detail escaped us. So we headed back to our hostel and had a delicious pizza dinner, reminiscing about our adventure that day. Meanwhile, our bus was departing for La Paz while we ate. Groggy and sleepy-eyed, we arrived at the bus station early the next morning after setting our alarm for 5:30 AM. Actually, bus station is a bit misleading because bus stations in this part of the world aren’t really bus stations, rather just a street where the bus will pick you up. So there we stood in the middle of the street. No buses. No people. It was just the two of us, standing in the freezing cold with a big problem to solve. We couldn’t stay in Uyuni another night because our flight home left soon from La Paz. Plus we had splurged by booking an expensive hotel in La Paz and didn’t want to miss one of our two nights there. Luckily, we talked to enough locals to discover there was a company with a new line that had recently opened up from Uyuni to La Paz during the day. The buses departed everyday at noon. We found the bus company and bought a ticket. It was a line that none of the tourists knew about, so everyone on the bus was local except for us. We were happy to be able to see Bolivia during the day and pass through towns that most tourist never see. We arrived in La Paz around midnight and took a taxi to our hotel.
The next morning began a whirlwind 48 hour tour of the city. We had two days in the city and we packed in as much as we could since we live on a desert island. We stepped out our hotel to walk the streets and discover as we went. We stumbled across an art festival that stretched across at least a dozen city blocks. Artist sold their works. There were professional dancers and musicians performing. There were random street performers as well, including a Bolivian Michael Jackson. All along the way, there were carts selling everything from ceviche to candied apples. We found the contemporary art museum we wanted to visit. The next day we saw another protest of handicapped people, obstructing the streets by taking over the lanes and rolling down the streets in their wheelchairs. Then we found the coca museum and witchcraft market. Around the corner from there, we had delicious lattes and sampled the best tiramasu I have ever tasted. Later, we found the main center of the city, which was heavily guarded and gated in every direction, but we made our way past the guards and found a plaza with pigeons and ice cream vendors. We did some shopping and ate Mexican food at a place that could have been located in Austin instead of La Paz: it was that good! We created our own city tour, and it was both messy and brilliant, but uniquely our own and unlike any other.
Traveling without a plan is just like that: both messy and brilliant. You don’t know what you are going to get. There are no guarantees. You may not make it to all the big sites. It’s not for the fearful of missing out crowd. There will be missteps and mishaps, and you will just have to roll with it. But you will also see things that aren’t in the guide-book. And there is something so refreshing about not reading any of the guide books. You have no idea what to expect. Everything is unfolding in front of you and you are experiencing it without any kind of preconceived notion of what it might be like. In the end, the best benefit is spontaneously creating your own journey because there is no other version quite like it. It’s your story to tell exactly the same way you stumbled upon it.