By James Dick
Currently spending the first half of my year abroad in Chile has given me the opportunity to travel to places that I would never have dreamed of. Although the transition appeared quite nerve-racking at first, I have been lucky enough to have formed a friendship group with fellow Durham students, all sharing a love for travel and wine.
After going on a few nights out in Santiago and spending rather too much money, we felt that we had to change our approach. We promised each other that without free entry, cheap woodgates, and seeing practically everyone you know in the Jimmy’s smoking area every Friday, a night out was no longer worth it. Instead, we would save our money for travel across the continent.
The latest edition of Durham students on tour led us to the wonderful country of Bolivia, of which I cannot speak more highly. It is an incredibly diverse place, from colourful cities, huge lakes at incredible altitudes, to arid salt flats that stretch for miles and miles. Our week here was full of ups, downs, surprises, delights, and everything in between.
We set forth with hope and excitement. An overnight bus from Chile to La Paz was not the most relaxing experience however arriving in La Paz in one piece, we could finally appreciate the natural beauty in this gem of a country. Extensive Airbnb research prior to arrival had been kind to us as we managed to secure a stunning penthouse for our 3 nights in the capital at a very reasonable price. In Durham fashion, an evening of red wine, charcuterie selection, and slightly tipsy chats followed as we looked out onto the sun setting over the Andean mountains. The full moon rising from behind them afterwards was even more spectacular!
Our next few days were dominated by sightseeing. A guided walking tour allowed us to take in the famous Witches Market, beautiful colonial buildings, and finally to El Alto, where a magnificent view of La Paz lay before us. The teleferico was the sole method of transport, the modern Swiss-constructed cable cars being somewhat incongruous with the rest of the setting. My extreme fear of heights did not sit well with this but the views were awesome and I was chuffed that I had conquered my fears. The markets where cholitas (indigenous women) were selling fresh produce were also a very refreshing experience from the impersonal and antisocial method of shopping in Britain.
La Paz left a lasting impression on us. It felt completely removed from Western civilization, with its unique charm and welcoming residents, despite the extreme poverty that exists. The people’s contentment with their lives was a valuable lesson that I hoped to carry forward.
Our next destination was Lake Titicaca, where we visited Isla del Sol, believed to be the birthplace of the first Inca. After a rather gluttonous night of wine and little sleep, I struggled to fully appreciate the natural beauty of Titicaca, located at a high altitude of around 4,000 meters. An ill-advised mountain hike under the scorching sun made matters worse. We even got lost on Isla del Sol, wandering without sunscreen for hours before finding our hostel. Dinner offered some respite as we savoured freshly grilled trout from the lake and marvelled at the magical sunset. The scenery resembled a Mediterranean paradise, with wandering alpacas as the only reminders of our true location. Having to retire early after starting to feel very unwell, it soon became abundantly clear that I had severe sunstroke. I spent the night in much discomfort, the trout not sticking around in my system for long. I arose feeling much fresher and could appreciate the beauty around me more. A few of us went for a paddle in the lake’s chilly waters before we then had a ‘cream of quinoa soup’ for lunch which was surprisingly delicious. It was soon time to head back and begin the next leg of the tour: the salt flats of Uyuni.
The salt flats span an area around three or so times bigger than the entirety of Lake Titicaca. Seeing a white desert stretch for miles was breathtaking and equally fascinating. Our tour group contained a Mildertian alumni which was very coincidental but also pleasing as a raging patriot of my college. We had a little photo shoot out in the salt wasteland which made for some entertaining shots. The following days took us into the wilderness, far away from the distractions of Wi-Fi and modern life. We explored a salt processing factory, visited a quinoa plantation, and ventured to a cactus island. The landscapes seemed almost otherworldly, like scenes from an extraterrestrial realm. We were also able to come across flamingos very close up and visited various lagunas of differing colours. Some were blue, some red, some arsenic too!
Overall, it was a magnificent trip and we flew back to Santiago shadows of our former selves but very grateful and enriched for the experience. A few more weeks in Santiago would remain before I took on my next adventure: Machu Picchu.
Photography by: James Dick