Why Bolivia has no mirrors but is absolutely worth a visit
Bolivia is maybe one of the last countries where not every single cm is „discovered“. The most stunning discovery for me was that they seem to have no mirrors.
Recently I had to chance to spend 2 weeks in Bolivia, and they were surprising and amazing. In the whole time I travelled around the country, I have only seen one mirror in one of the hostels bathrooms. All the other places - even private places - did not have them. My mind was intrigued. What was the deal with that? Is it something cultural or religious? Are mirrors bad and taking your soul? Are Bolivians vampires?
To be honest, I still don’t know for sure what it was, but it was actually very refreshing not to worry or care about appearance for 2 weeks. The most realistic guess about the mirrors I have, is that they are just too expensive. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, more than half of the 11 Million inhabitants live in poverty with less than USD 2 a day. 4 Millions are under 18 and a shocking number of 400’000 of them have experienced physical and/or sexual violence.
Yes, this is not the usual information you get as a tourist. But you know me, I am not the usual tourist, I like to go somewhere where I can help and do something to make it better. In Bolivia, I even went so far as to leave them my iPhone. Ok, it got stolen, but still…
The second week in Bolivia I spent with Bolivia Digna, an NGO in Cochabamba that has the sole purpose to let kids be kids and care for their wellbeing. I was there again with the NGO Photographers Alliance, so our aim was to document the works of the NGO in order to help them raise more funds through quality images. You might remember my time in Ecuador with the same Alliance earlier this year. You’ll find a blog article about it here.
Bolivia Digna has 2 community centres in poor areas of Cochabamba. One of these communities still has no basic services like electricity or water, they live in small shacks close to the community centre. The NGO is present at the two centres every afternoon for 2 h, providing lessons, crafting and sports and allows the kids to be kids for 2 h a day. These kids have too many responsibilities already, some need to work or care for their younger siblings… all things a normal kid should not be forced to worry about.
The NGO only functions with volunteers, so in case you want to see Bolivia from a different kind of view, join them for some time.
Before my time in Cochabamba, I travelled around the Altiplano, in small villages near the Sajama volcano. Also here, not many tourists know about it, as most people go for the salt flats or Titicaca Lake. But you should consider the Sajama region, and bring warm clothes. This was the second big surprise in Bolivia. I knew nights will be a bit fresh since the Altiplano is over 3000 m high. But I was literally FREEZING every night there… I slept in thermal underwear under 3 blankets. And when I went out in the evenings to see the stars, I wore about 10 layers. So be prepared!
Sajama is an inactive volcano, around 6600 m high, it is the highest mountain in Bolivia ad one of the highest volcanos on earth. Since its base is on the altiplano at around 4200 m, it does not look that high though. In the area you have some hot springs and there are some climbers who go all the way up to the summit.
I chose not to do that. I mean I am Swiss and am used to mountains and heights, but any activity on 4200 m is very exhausting. And the path up to the first base camp was straight upwards…. So I decided to try the hot springs instead. It is very weird to walk about half an hour, right after sunrise, still covered in 6-7 layers, freezing - and then to just undress and get into the hot water… But that half hour in the sunlight was enough to get warm again and after the dip in that awesome natural pool, everything seemed warm. And the scenery was just awesome.
In general, the sceneries in Bolivia are breathtaking. The whole time there, the words of the Star Trek Intro kept ringing in my head: „Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.“
Ok, I admit it, I am a geek… but try to stand on a flat mountaintop in the altiplano with 360 degree view of remote, hardly touched land and not be completely in awe. The only sounds you hear are birds, bugs and some distant Llama or Alpaca noises.
And did I mention the colours? Even though it was very dry (more than usually at this time of year), the colours were amazing. The ground had all colours due to minerals and metals like iron or copper, mountains were striped in red, yellow and green… And then the people, with all these colourful blankets and everything. And then you get back to Europe, winter is coming and everyone is wearing black and grey, only the trees put on their best Indian summer autumn spectacle to lighten up your mood.
So, to make a long story short: No mirrors, no problems!
Have you ever been to Bolivia? What are your experiences?
Who's afraid of female solo hikers?
"Are you not scared?"
This is the one question everybody asks me when I tell them I go hiking, on my own and staying overnight. No matter if I biwak, sleep in a tent or in my car. Are you not scared?
Honestly, I never even thought that this was something I could be scared about. For me, this is just something to do, a fun activity. Nobody would ever ask me if I was scared of riding my bike alone, no? Or is it maybe just because I am a woman? Would they ask the same question if I were male?
Of course there are dangers in this world and especially for women, there are more than for men. It is not fair, it never has been and it never will. But should we women be scared to do something we like just because it might be more dangerous than it is for a man? No.
Hiking and camping is one of those things.
In Switzerland, the most dangerous things that could happen while hiking or camping are:
Of course, you should always check the hike before you go, if you are experienced enough especially in the mountain areas. But if that is clear: get yourself out there. Don’t wait until your friends have time (if they are interested in hiking anyway).
As a photographer, hiking and camping is a good way to stay in beautiful areas overnight to get the best light for pictures. When you do day trips, you need to get back to civilization before it is too dark. In the mountains, you just pitch your tent and enjoy the sunset.
Of course, when staying overnight, you face different challenges with your gear. You cannot just bring a hat and a bottle of water and a few snacks. You need to bring enough food and water for your stay as well as a tent, sleeping bag and mattress. And if you are a photographer like me, you also need to carry your tripod and of course the camera and one or more lenses and filters etc. That itself is already quite heavy. So here it makes sense to invest in some lightweight gear, like super lightweight sleeping bag, carbon tripod , etc.
I myself prefer to bring a tent instead of biwaking, just because of the space for my camera gear, but biwaking is also great.
Food-wise, for me the preparation is a little different. I try to follow the zero waste lifestyle, also on camping trips. Especially when camping wild in the mountains, you don’t want to leave any trash in this pristine area (or anywhere else). So what to do?
I start with prepping my food at home. I’ll make sandwiches and wrap them in my bees wrap or put them in my stasherbags. These wraps or bags don’t take up much space (or weight) and are reusable. For water, I bring my camelbak or platypus 1 litre flask and refill it on the way. Usually, there are fountains or springs in the mountains where you can refill them. In Switzerland, they are 95% of the times purest drinking water. In other areas, I bring a filter (like SteriPen) to clean my water.
But what about toilet hygiene and make up etc.? Well, as a solo hiker staying overnight alone: who will see you? No one, therefore: leave the make up at home. It is better for your skin anyway and you save weight and space. I usually bring my toothbrush, tooth powder, hand sanitizer, deodorant, a brush and sunscreen. That is all you need. And of course a little stash of toilet paper.
And the best thing: I carry one or two small plastic bags to collect the used toilet paper and other possible trash in it. In Switzerland, we have these colorful bags that are being distributed on the streets, named „robidog“. They are designed for dog owners to pick up their dogs poo on the streets. There are even special bins to dispose the full bags. Since these bags are usually bright yellow or orange, they are perfect for camping wild. Just assign a toilet spot where you camp and place the bag there (put a stone on it so it won’t fly away). Put all the trash in there, tie it with a knot and throw it away in the first bin you find on the way back to town the next morning.
Of course that also works during those „special“ days in a month. But, for this I have an even better, waste free option. I use period panties by thinx. They work great and you just change them at night (and store the used one in robidog bag until washing) or in the morning and you have no tampon to throw out, no plastic wrap and nothing else.
So you see, solo camping/hiking is easy and possible without stress AND without waste.
If you are still hesitating or have questions, leave e a comment, if not: get yourself out there and go hiking. What are you waiting for?
Zero waste traveling?!
Traveling creates a lot of waste in this world, but does it really have to? There are many ways how every individual traveller can eliminate or at least reduce waste and therefore their ecological footprint.
Trying to eliminate or reduce waste during your travels can be challenging, but the zero waste lifestyle also has some pretty nice products that are actually ideal travel accessories.
Just think about solid shampoo. Solid shampoo has no packaging (and therefore no plastic waste), so when traveling, I pack it in a small tupperware or aluminum box. Since it is solid, it can also be packed in your cabin baggage while flying without having to be put it in a plastic bag at the security check. And the solid shampoo lasts as long as a regular shampoo bottle, while being nicely small.
Also nice: toothpaste powder. It comes in a glass (for example from Birkengold) and lasts for ever. And since it is a powder: again no need to flash it at security check with all your other liquids. And the glass can be refilled. You can even produce such a powder yourself. And of course, using a bamboo toothbrush that is compostable and packed in paper goes along really well with that
Bring your own bottle!
Very handy for traveling is a light travel flask. Here you can choose from thousand of great offers in all shapes and sizes. You can choose insulated flasks (for example from klean kanteen) or just a normal bottle. I prefer a light stainless steel bottle, to reduce plastic even further. Security checks have no problem with empty flasks and most airports or train stations have free water fountains to refill them. Or you just get it refilled at the onsite restaurants with anything they offer.
For hiking I usually bring my platypus flask. When not filled, you can roll up the bottle to make it pretty small, fitting every tiny bag. And it comes with a carrying loop to attach it to most backpacks or belts or wherever you want to attach it to. And they are BPA free, so no worries that plastic will end up in your body like it happens with many other plastic materials.
Who needs straws anyway?
One of the biggest problems for the environment are plastic straws. There are very few exceptions where they are absolutely needed, so why not eliminate them? If they land in nature (and most of the trash does at one point), wildlife will eat it, get stuck in it, die from it. So, say no to straws. If you love your smoothies or cocktails, invest in one or more stainless steel straws. They don’t need much space in your luggage and you can get a smoothie at the take away with your insulated flask and your stainless steel straw. The plus: thanks to the insulated flask, the smoothie stays cold much longer.
Another very good and sustainable travel accessory are microfiber towels made from bamboo. The towels are pretty big and comfy but pack very small, so they are not taking up much space. And they are made from sustainable resources (check for the labels).
Reusable food containers
On shorter travels or for business meetings out of town where I know I will be near a train station around lunch time, I usually bring my own container and cutlery. Here you can choose again between BPA free materials or stainless steel containers. Check out your local camping/outdoors store for the best ones. With those containers, you can easily get food at every take away or food truck that not only sells pre-packaged salad or sandwiches.
Or if you like traveling light and just having sandwiches, invest in some bee’s wrap (waxed cloth). There are even ones especially for sandwiches, where you can wrap your homemade or bought sandwiches. And without anything inside, it is extremely slim and weighs only a few grams, so you don’t have to carry heavy.
One of my favorite accessory is a self made bag for fruits and veggies. I love going to the market, here and abroad. And with your own bag, you don’t need the single-use plastic bags they offer you there. And if needed, your own bag can be used for other purposes in your luggage as well
Zero waste on planes?
The biggest problem while traveling by plane is the catering on board. While some airlines have their food in reusable containers and use metal cutlery, most airlines still use single-use plastic containers, wrapped in more plastic. On short flights you can easily bring your own food (most airlines don’t serve food on short distances anyway). But on longer flights with several meals, it is hardly possible to bring everything on your own. But, you still can! For example can you bring your own sustainable cutlery and give the unopened plastic cutlery back to the flight attendants. Also, make sure you tell them why you do this (friendly) and ask them to pass this on to the bosses, so maybe they will switch from single-use plastic to reusable food containers and cutlery, unpackaged (or at least wrapped in paper or cloth.
For the drinks, I usually bring a flask that also has or serves as a cup. Then you can ignore all the cups they will offer you and just use your own, saving at least 10 plastic cups on a long distance flight.
Refuse - reduce - reuse - recycle - rot
So just make sure you reduce what you can, refuse cups by bringing your own, refuse disposable hot wet cloths, refuse napkins by bringing your own washable napkin and don’t forget to tell the airlines why you do it. The more people complain, the faster they will change. I personally always put an unpackaged request in the box for food preferences while booking. So far they did not react to that, but maybe one day they will.
What are your favorite zero waste accessories for traveling?
Or do you have other insider tips for me? Let me know and leave a comment.
I am a swiss photographer (www.fmphotography.ch),
a travel, wildlife, volunteer and outdoors addict who cares about zero waste, the environment and simply our planet.