Among the highest summits of the of the Andean cordillera and the Amazon rainforest, you will find Bolivia, a landlocked country that is not usually a visitor’s first choice when visiting Latin America – but it is by no means less beautiful! The high mountain plateaus conceal absolutely stunning landscapes that are not to be missed.
Unlike Peru, who has fully capitalised on its potential for tourism, Bolivia is slow to catch on; characterised by appalling infrastructure and a certain indifference (and / or diffidence – it’s difficult to tell) when it comes to foreigners, Bolivia can be a difficult country to travel compared with the rest of the continent. However, hopefully you would have been in Latin America long enough by this point and learned to embrace the chaos. With some patience, you can uncover the country’s treasures and truly appreciate what it has to offer.
Arriving from the northern border with Peru by Lake Titicaca, the first stop you’ll reach is Copacabana, a small port town where boats leave from towards Isla del Sol, the largest and most stunning island on the lake. Unlike the Peruvian islands, Isla del Sol is more populated, with local residents and tourists alike. You can hike around the island for some spectacular views and some pre-Inca ruins. You can do this as a day tip, or many decide to stay on the island. There are many hostels available – you can camp as well, but the altitude of the lake means it can get to subzero temperatures at night, so unless you have the right equipment, this is not a good idea.
After heading back to Copacabana, you can take a 4-hour bus to La Paz, the Bolivian capital. The bus journey cuts across Lake Titicaca at “Tiquina” so you be prepared to get off the bus and shuffled onto a tiny boat, while the bus is ferried across separately. We were not told this by the bus company at any point, we only knew because a lady in a bakery mentioned it – something you probably want to bear in mind, especially if you are travelling at night!
At an altitude of 3,500m, La Paz is the highest city in the world. It is a chaotic city surrounded by beautiful mountains. La Paz is home to the “subway in the sky”, the world’s highest, longest urban cable car system – a wonderful way to take in the city views. Around Plaza Murillo you will find typical colonical landmarks such as the San Francisco Church and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Calle Jaén is a colourful alley of museums and shops, and the Witches’ Market cannot be missed – here you will find baby llama foetus and magic love potions.
The absolute highlight of La Paz for us was not the city itself, but Death Road. Unpaved, with few road signs, frequent rain and mist and little more than 3 metres wide, Death Road is one of the most dangerous roads in the world – and until 2009 it was the only link between La Paz and Los Yungas region. Now, drivers who value their lives take the safer, alternative road, and Death Road is left for cyclists who love to live life on the edge. A 3 hour descent of nearly 70km, which starts at 4700m and finishes at 1200m, comes with incredible landscapes and a sheer drops of up to 800m – definitely one of the most exhilarating experiences in Bolivia – for those who dare.
Many who go to Bolivia go directly from La Paz to Uyuni, but given the time it is worth checking out a few places on the way. Heading 6 hours southeast from La Paz lies Cochabamba, the third most important city in Bolivia, significantly smaller than La Paz, lower and a much lighter climate. It is the perfect place to get to know daily Bolivian life without the chaos of La Paz, it is much less touristic, much more authentic. Its market, called La Cancha, is one of the largest in Latin America. With over 100,000 stalls dotted around in a labyrinth of little streets, you can find everything from fruit and vegetables to phones and computers.
Around 9 hours south from Cochabamba lies Potosí, where you will find the world’s largest silver deposit – and the harsh reality of Latin American history. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work in the mines of Cerro Rico, making the Spanish Empire one of the richest in the world. It is still a working mine today, a little has changed – without modern machinery or safety equipment, it is still terribly dangerous. Potosí is a raw, unedited testament to oppression and slavery under colonisation which can still be felt today.
Uyuni lies around 8 hours from Potosí and La Paz. It is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and serves as the departure point for tours to Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). Uyuni live off these tours, the streets are lined with agencies who work with local drivers. Unless you specifically want an English tour (and pay the premium for it with Red Planet), you do not need to book in advance – all the agencies work together so don’t agonise over who to go with- and don’t expect them to speak any English! If you are lucky, you might find somebody who can speak Spanish and translate for you. There are various tour length options ranging from 2 to 5 days, which include beautiful mirror-like and coloured lakes, geysers and strange rock formations as well as the salt flats. Beware Uyuni is really high up and absolutely freezing – bring lots of layers and it is definitely worth renting the sleeping bags.
The Salar de Uyuni tour finishes not far from the border between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. On the last day, you have the option of returning to Uyuni (and back to La Paz), or be dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.