Superlative in its natural beauty, rugged, vexing, complex and slightly nerve-racking, Bolivia is one of South America’s most diverse and intriguing nations.
Bolivia is not for the faint of heart: rattling down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” into sultry Yungas; soaring breathless above verdant La Paz valleys in a paraglider; jumping on a horse for a Wild West adventure near Tupiza; pulling a catfish that outweighs you out of an Amazon river (and maybe cooking it for dinner!).
Whether your tools are crampons and an ice axe for scaling 6000m Andean peaks, or a helmet and bravado for jumping into the abyss on a glider, Bolivia’s rocks, rivers and ravines will challenge – nay, provoke – you into pushing your own personal limits.
Bolivians love a parade and hardly a month passes without a procession of brightly costumed celebrants honouring an important historical date or deity. You’ll hear them from blocks away before the brass bands and whirligigging dancers approach and envelop you (you may even get to join in).
Learn about the history and culture of the country’s indigenous peoples at excellent museums and through the continued presence of traditions and customs in everyday life. Bolivia has South America’s largest percentage of indigenous people – get to know them better by participating in community-based tourism and hiring local guides.
Bolivia is so biodiverse that unique species are being discovered to this day.
Tiptoe into caves of tube-lipped nectar bats, their tongues probing the darkness. Tread lightly on the terrain of the poisonous annellated coral snake, deadly in look and effect. Listen for the cackling call and response of a dozen different macaw species (among 1000 bird species), including the world’s rarest, the bluebeard, which can only be found here. Multi-hued butterflies and moths flit at your feet in the jungle; lithe alpacas and vicuñas stand out in the stark altiplano. Deep in the forest live jaguars, pumas and bears.
FOOD & DRINK
Ever had a llama tenderloin? Here’s your chance, maybe with a glass of Tarija wine.
Bolivia’s food is as diverse as its peoples and you’ll find new delicacies to sample in every town. Markets are a good place to start, though the steaming pots of unfamiliar concoctions might test your nerve. Freshly blended fruit juices will no doubt become a daily habit and Yungas coffee can be found in a number of new cafes that are popping up around Bolivia. La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz have thriving restaurant scenes where you can sample contemporary takes on traditional local dishes.
BOLIVIA’S TOP FIVE
1. Salar de Uyuni
Who knew feeling this cold could feel so good? While a three- to four-day jeep tour through the world’s largest salt flat will leave your bones chattering, it could quite possibly be the defining experience of your Bolivian adventure.
The vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection of the salt flat will inspire you. An early-morning exploration of rock gardens, geyser fields and piping-hot springs along with the camaraderie of three days on the road with your fellow “Salterians” will create a lasting memory.
2. Parque Nacional Madidi
Perhaps the most biodiverse area on the planet, Parque Nacional Madidi encompasses a spellbinding range of habitats, from Andean mountains to steamy lowland rainforests, home to an astonishing array of wildlife.
Take it all in on guided rainforest walks and boat trips on the river before bedding down for the night at one of several community-run ecolodges. Here the cinematic beauty of the surroundings is enhanced by a soundtrack of birdsong at dawn, the buzzing of insects, the call of the howler monkey and the croaking of frogs.
3. Trekking in the Cordillera Real
Walk in the path of the Incas along the many trekking routes that weave their way from the Andes into the Amazon Basin, through the remarkable skywardbound wilderness of the Cordillera Real.
These four- to 14-day treks are no small undertaking, but it will be worth every step, every drop of sweat and every blister. Along the way, you’ll have the chance to dine with locals, cool off beside cascading waterfalls and connect with Pachamama (Mother Earth) deep within her potent green realm.
4. Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca
Plopped onto sprawling Lake Titicaca like the cherry on an ice-cream sundae, Isla del Sol is considered the birthplace of Andean civilisation. You can easily spend four days here, tracking down forgotten Inca roads to small archaeological sites, remote coves and intact indigenous communities.
At the end of the day, take in the sunset with a cerveza (beer) from your ridgetop lodge. The lake itself has a magnetism, power and energy unique to this world – no wonder many claim the ancient civilisation of Atlantis was found here.
5. La Paz Markets
The whirling engine that feeds and fuels a nation, the markets of La Paz are so crazy, so disjointed, so colourful and mad and stinky and remarkable that you’ll end up spending at least a few afternoons wandering from stall to stall.
There are sections for food, sections for sorcery, sections where you can buy back your stolen camera, sections for pipes and Styrofoam – in every shape and form imaginable – and sections packed with fruits, flowers and rotting fish that will push you to olfactory overload.
NEED TO KNOW
WHEN TO GO:
High Season (May–Oct)
* Mostly sunny days throughout Bolivia, but cooler in the altiplano.
* Reliable weather means easier transit and better climbing, trekking and mountain biking.
* Higher prices for tours and accommodations.
* Spring draws in and temperatures begin to rise, though the weather is mostly dry.
* A great time to visit the Salar de Uyuni.
* Crowds begin to disperse; a good time for budget hunters.
Low Season (Nov–Apr)
* Summer is rainy season; it can be miserable in the lowlands.
* Overland transportation becomes difficult where the roads are unpaved.
* Climbing is dangerous and trekking and biking tedious.
Currency: Boliviano (B$)
Mid-range Budget: B$200–650
Mid-range hotel: B$160–400
Hotel breakfast, lunch and dinner in a restaurant: B$200
Extra cash for beers, guided trips, excursions: B$300
Cash is king, dollars are better than euros; watch for counterfeits. ATMs and credit cards accepted in cities and many towns.