Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Bora Bora beach
Michael Stout, Flickr

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.

Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.

salar de uyuni rainy season
Juan Gatica, Flickr

Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.

Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.

bungee jump
Peter Bekesi, Flickr

Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping – from a 17-story building.

I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.

Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.

plane tickets and passport
mroach, Flickr

Reduce anxiety
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.

I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).

Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

International Adventure Guide 2013: La Paz And Southwest Bolivia

bolivia
Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you’ll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you’re headed). In general, you won’t find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.

In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is located), you’ll feel like you’re in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there’s world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they’re internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.bolivia

Adventure Activities

Trekking/climbing
Novice or pro, Bolivia has it all when it comes to bagging peaks (some extinct or dormant volcanoes) or trekking, mostly within a few hours of La Paz. The Cordillera Real range offers verdant river valleys teeming with llamas and alpacas, and the occasional Aymara farmstead; calderas, and glaciers, all in a day’s hike. Best of all, you’re not likely to see another soul, other than your guide, cook, and the mule or llama carrying your gear.

If you’re into mountaineering, Huayna Potosi (19,974) and Illimani (21,122 feet) are both visible from La Paz. The former can be done by beginners in good physical condition (acclimatization time is crucial, however, before you attempt a summit with a reliable guide; click here for tips on choosing a solid company), while the latter is a technical climb. Seattle-based Mountain Madness offers a Bolivia climbing school using local guides, and is an exceptional outfitter. June through August are best, weather-wise.

Private trips, however, are the norm in Bolivia, and can be planned around just one person. Another great company is UK-based Bolivian Mountains, which specializes in the Cordillera Real region. Owner Jon Cassidy is a guide himself, and relies upon local, experienced guides to keep operations running smoothly from across the Atlantic. Expect first-class attention, service, and food, for super-affordable prices; IFMGA-certified. From $400 for one person (including aforementioned pack animals, cook, guide, and tent, for 3-day trek).

Mountain Biking
These days, you can’t walk a block in La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (Calle Sarganaga, between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Illampu) without seeing a mountain biking agency, thanks to Alistair Matthew, who essentially introduced the sport commercially to Bolivia about 14 years ago. The Kiwi founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking started out with four bikes, and today runs an internationally-renowned company frequented by industry pros.

Many outfitters offer the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” (aka Death Road/Camino de la Muerte, about 35 miles east of La Paz, in the jungly Yungas region) bike trips, and it’s by far the most popular trip offered by Gravity (with over 10,500 feet of descent, from glaciers and cloud forest to Amazon Basin, small wonder). Yet, there are better, less-crowded options that will appeal more to hardcore riders.

Gravity’s “Size Matters” ride in the Chacaltaya-Zongo region (about two hours from La Paz) starts at what was once the world’s highest ski resort, on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, providing views of all of the region’s 6,000 peaks. You can kill it on the winding road down into steaming jungle, on one of the world’s largest descents achievable in a single day. Gravity also offers advanced trips to two Incan foot trails, Takesi and Chorro. Terrain ranges from smooth, flowing dirt at 15,000 feet, to technical rock and step as you make your way into the jungle. The best months for riding are May through late October.

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Horseback riding
If the Old West is your passion, then you’ll love Tupiza, approximately 11 hours southwest of La Paz. Bolivia’s frontera town is famed for being near the (alleged) final heist and resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Looking like the love-child of Sedona and Bryce Canyon, this is a region of ravines, red dirt, cacti, and ranching. Indulge your inner cowboy — or girl — by taking a three-day horseback ride into the high desert, exploring scenic spots such as Quebrada Seca, Valle de los Machos, Cañon del Duende, Palquiza, Pampa Grande, and Entre Rios.

You’ll spend nights in small villages, accommodated by local families (the lodging is basic, refugio-style). Besides the scenery, it’s an amazing opportunity to delve into Quechua and vaquero culture. Previous riding experience isn’t required, and Tupiza’s climate is temperate year-round. That said, during the January-March rainy season, certain areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.

Tupiza Tours is one of the region’s most well-established and reputable outfitters for both Salar de Uyuni and horseback tours. From $106 pp/meals and accommodation included.
Av. Chichas 187, Tupiza, tupizatours.com

Hotspots

Condoriri Massif, Cordillera Real
Bolivia’s most famous spot for trekking and climbing is about two hours east of La Paz, and remarkable for its towering volcanic peaks, calderas, and lush river valleys. If you’re pressed for time and can’t spare the 13 or so days needed to do the Transcordillera trek, opt for a three-day adventure along the famous Codoriri Massif (this series of 13 snowy peaks is so named for 16, 944-foot Cabeza del Condor, which resembles a condor, head turned, wings folded).

The scenery is stunning, with turquoise alpine lakes, herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep, Aymara farmsteads, and narrow mule trails on the interior of ancient calderas. As long as you don’t have previous problems with altitude, are in good physical condition, and have sufficient time to acclimate prior, you’ll have no problem. Be forewarned, however, that you’ll be trekking and sleeping at 14,000 to 15,000 feet, completely isolated from civilization; in the event of altitude sickness, you’ll have no choice but to hike out. Be sure to bring plenty of layers as well as a down sleeping bag. The best times to visit are post-rainy season, from April-December.

Sorata
Imagine an alpine colonial village, built onto a hillside in an Andean Valley. That’s Sorata. At just under 8,000 feet, Sorata is a haven for climbers, trekkers, and mountain bikers, who use the town as a base to acclimate and condition or kick back, pre- and post-trip. It’s equally popular amongst vacationers from La Paz, 93 miles away, who come for the views of towering, snowcapped Illampu, and Ancohuma. Mountain biking in the hills above Sorata, often above the clouds on mule trails and scree slopes, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tupiza
Located in the southwest of Bolivia about six hours from the grim, dusty town of Uyuni (which lies at the edge of the salt flat), and roughly an 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, Tupiza is a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Local outfitters offer a variety of activities, including horseback riding, hiking (you can also opt to do this on your own), volcano climbing across the border in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and four-day Jeep trips to the salt flats (a more scenic, albeit slightly longer, trip than the standard, round-trip Uyuni route that’s growing in popularity).

If your idea of heaven is exploring quebradas (ravines) and bizarre rock formations, or staying on a rustic estancia, Tupiza is your place. While there’s not a lot to do in town proper, there are full amenities, and the Mercado Campesino (Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, on the edge of town) is fascinating for a food and culture fix. Tip: If you’re coming from La Paz, an overnighter bus is ideal if you’re pressed for time; just be sure to bring a sleeping bag or blanket with you.

bolivia

Hotels

Hotel Fuentes:This popular, comfortable, colonial-style cheapie is located right in the heart of La Paz’s tourist ghetto, aka the Mercado de Hecheria (Witch’s Market). It’s no frills, but is walking distance to just about everything you’ll require, the owners are accommodating (for example, rising at dawn to call you a cab to the airport, and waiting with you to ensure it arrives), and if you score a room on the third or fourth floors, you just may have views of majestic Illimani. Breakfast and free wifi included. From about $13/double with shared bath. Calle Linares 888, tripadvisor.com

Hotel Anexo Mitru:The newer sibling to Tupiza’s upscale (for Tupiza) Hotel Mitru, this is a friendly, airy, seriously affordable option right across the street from the train station. Rooms are large and well-lit, with comfy beds, desks, and cubbies, and the staff are cheerful and helpful. Breakfast and free wifi are included. From $15/triple with shared bath (note, these rooms are rented to solo travelers when available). Calle Avaroa s/n, hotelmitru.com

Altai Oasis Eco-lodge-Organic Farm:This lovely, family-owned adobe lodge in Sorata is a favorite amongst the outdoorsy crowd, in part because it offers both cabins and camping. The other reason it attracts nature lovers? Its location deep within a valley surrounded by the Andes, in the shadow of Illampu. Many ingredients for the on-site restaurant are sourced from the property’s own garden, and you’ll drift off to sleep with the sounds of the Challazuyo River in your ears (not like you won’t already be exhausted from all the hiking, biking, and climbing). Amenities include hot showers (a big deal in Bolivia), fireplaces, and hammocks for lazing on muscle-repair days. From $18/pp cabins$12 pp dorms/$4 camping. Go to website for coordinates/directions, altaioasis.com/home

Getting Around

La Paz’s El Alto Airport, despite its elevation (13,323 feet), is clean and modern, and serviced by a number of carriers, including TACA, LAN, Avianca, and American Airlines. It’s about 15 minutes by taxi to downtown, and fares will vary depending upon your driver (and his ethics; don’t take unmarked cabs); prices average around eight to 10 dollars.

Buses run nationwide, but their quality varies wildly. While the train route that goes from Orouro to Tupiza is famous, the bus is actually faster and more comfortable, as long as you spring for a semi-cama or cama variety (these have seats that recline part-way and a footrest, or fold down into a bed). Avoid the janky old beaters at all costs, unless you enjoy hours of Shaken Baby Syndrome on your body. The best carriers will depend upon where you’re headed, and it pays to do some asking around or online research; El Dorado is a solid pick if you’re headed to the Southwest.

If you’re on a tight schedule, book or purchase bus tickets a day ahead. If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can fly from far-flung outposts like Uyuni to La Paz or Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s Amazon region), but taking the bus also affords an opportunity to see spectacular scenery. Budget travelers can opt for overnight bus hauls to offset lodging costs, and save time.

Tip: The new Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook comes out July 1. Pre-order yours now.
bolivia


Safety

Given Bolivia’s current political stability, the biggest problems are potential road blocks due to flooding or demonstrations. Before leaving town, register with the U.S. Department of State for updates on everything from road conditions to disease outbreaks (this isn’t specific to Bolivia, fyi; it’s a good idea for anywhere you happen to be traveling in the developing world). And while Bolivia is fairly safe, it’s still a developing nation in Latin America. Solo female travelers should use the normal precautions, and for the love of god, no one should even think about buying drugs, especially cocaine.

Use only marked taxis, rather than freelance drivers. At worst, you’ll get ripped off. Be aware that even the legit taxis usually don’t have meters, so if you have concerns over cost, ask your driver the approximate price before departing.

With regard to buses, it pays to do your research. Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for bus and outfitter recommendations, and remember that you usually get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a handful of bolivianos if it means dealing with a drunk driver or guide, or a crappy Jeep for that Salar de Uyuni tour. If you’re planning a trek or, especially a climb, make sure that the company has legitimate certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association ( IFMGA), and also do online research or ask personal contacts if they have referrals for where you’re headed. Trekking and mountaineering in the Andes is no joke, and again, it’s not worth risking your life to save some money. You need time to acclimatize, regardless of your physical condition, so don’t plan on scaling any mountains within a few days of arriving.

Another tip with regard to finding a reputable outfitter: always try and contact them via email before you depart on your trip. If they don’t respond right away, move on. Just as you would at home, go with companies that respond promptly, and answer all of your questions thoroughly. Good tour operators have bilingual staff answering emails, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, although some trips will charge extra for a bilingual guide. Although some companies will require payment in cash, they’ll at least make a reservation for you, so don’t let a “no credit cards” rule necessarily deter you.

Seasonality

Bolivia’s high season is December through early March (remember the seasons are reversed, since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere), which also coincides with the rainy season. January through mid-March are generally not very pleasant; since most of Bolivia’s charms lie in outdoor recreation, plan accordingly. The ideal time to visit may depend upon what you’re interested in doing.

Also note that different seasons may mean different types of tourism. The Salar de Uyuni, for example, is a vast, blinding white sea of salt crystals in the dry season, while in the wet, it shimmers with mirror-like reflections. Both are stunning, but when it’s wet, the flooding often prohibits driving across the Salar, or visiting its main attraction, Isla Incahuasi.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Vagabond Tales: Salar De Uyuni, The Weirdest Place On Earth

Right now, as you read this, there are pink flamingos and wild llamas running amok on the shores of a red lake in Bolivia. In a land far, far away, people are watching the sunrise amidst steaming geysers while dodging puddles of boiling mud. There are hot springs where you can bathe nude at 15,000 ft, hotels made entirely of salt, and rocks that look exactly like trees.

No, this isn’t peyote week in the Vagabond Tales office. I’m speaking of a real place, a place where I’ve been. It’s a place I’m officially labeling as the weirdest place on Earth. In addition to all of the other oddities this is also the world’s largest salt desert, and, as you might expect, this is a terrible place for your car to break down.

At 4,633 square miles Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is a vast sea of salt larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Traffic is minimal and the roads are always shifting. If you get lost out here or lose your way you don’t simply call AAA or check your GPS. These don’t exist here in the southwestern hinterlands of Bolivia. If you get lost in the Salar de Uyuni, you start hoping that you aren’t going to die.

%Gallery-153780%Having booked a three-day crossing of the Salar with an adventure company out of the town of Uyuni it only took one hour before Juan Carlos, our driver, had donned a pair of faded blue coveralls to replace a flat tire on our trusty white land cruiser.

Diez minutos” he reassured us with with a slightly embarrassed mumble. “No te preocupes“.

Don’t worry.

Standing just over 5′ 5” and sporting a thin black mustache, Juan Carlos, like so many other men in the Bolivian town of Uyuni, has a job which involves shuttling travelers across this mountainous netherworld.

Even before the flat tire incident our troupe of six travelers had already made a pit stop at a place known only as the “Train Cemetery”. Located only minutes from the outskirts of Uyuni-a windy, dusty, 12,000 ft. outpost where lips chap and heads ache-many of the locomotives which once dominated the Bolivian rail lines now appear as metal phalluses left to rust in the salty mountain air.

Now, with our lone spare tire firmly affixed to a rusty axle we saddled up the mechanical horse and headed straight for the great white unknown.

After bouncing around the back of the Land Cruiser for a couple of hours Juan Carlos eventually brought us to Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered dollop of an island floating all alone in the endless sea of salt. Literally, as far as you can see in every direction is a white horizon of nothingness. Here, strangely enough, it’s possible to amble among cacti which have thrived for over 1,000 years in one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet.

Already awash in an alternate reality, Isla Incahuasi is also a place to tinker with the unique elements of perspective. Utilizing the endless horizon and deft usage of a digital camera it’s suddenly possible to take pictures where you appear to actually surf on a water bottle, sit in the palm of your girlfriend’s hand, or take a casual stroll down the handle of a guitar. The only thing missing is a smoking caterpillar and a smiling Cheshire cat.

As if the day hadn’t been strange enough already, that evening I somehow found myself licking the walls of my hotel room. In an empty basin where building materials are hard to come by, even the buildings are made from blocks of salt. So too are the beds, the windowsills, and the tables and chairs. Unfurling my sleeping bag onto a year’s worth of sodium I silently questioned if this place could get any stranger.

Never could I imagine, however, how strange it was about to get.

Not three hours after waking on a bed made of salt did I find myself chasing flamingos around a lake resembling an oversized peppermint. Fittingly known as “Laguna Colorada” (Colored Lake), the lake has a certain type of sediment which turns the water a blood shade of red. Blended with white islands made of borax deposits, the red and white color wheel almost seems to spin in the thin, 16,500 ft. air. Higher than any mountain peak in the 48 states, the altitude doesn’t seem to bother the flamingos, pink curiosities of nature who still sleep on one leg in spite of the 40 mph winds whipping across the plain.

Wanting nothing more than a restful sleep after a day spent navigating an environment straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, we instead were roused at 4am as part of a plan to watch the frigid sunrise. Though I have seen enough sunrises in my travels to warrant sleeping in through a 4am wakeup, never before had I been presented with the opportunity to watch the sunrise from the steaming caldera of an active volcano.

This is so strange I am going to repeat it.

The opportunity to watch the sunrise from the steaming caldera of an active volcano.

I’m not making this up. This is a place where you can literally jump through steaming geysers of sulfur which springs straight from the Earth. Don’t believe me? Look for the part where I momentarily appear to be on fire.

For as much fun as this might seem, when you are navigating the geysers of an active caldera there are nevertheless dangers intrinsic to such an activity. What dangers might exist inside of an active caldera you ask? What about accidentally stepping in a puddle of boiling mud?

Relaxing in a thermal hot spring after having escaped the confines of the active caldera I got to chatting with an Australian traveler who had also spent the last three days in the salt flats.

“You ever been anywhere like this before?” I casually inquired, the thin mountain air still having an effect on the ability to speak in long sentences.

“Never mate. This place is mental. It’s like I’ve gone to another planet and am afraid to return.”

Well said mate. Well said.

Want more travel stories? Check out the rest of Vagabond Tales here.