As South American countries go, landlocked Bolivia is not that big. It is also strangely well-down the lists when it comes to most visited countries on the backpacker trail. We’re really not sure why. Yes, it lacks some of the infrastructure and polish of the countries which surround it when tourism is the subject, but this is exactly why those who like their experiences a little more earthy and authentic should get here before it goes the same way as everywhere else.
On top of those factors there are also the rather large and added carrots-on-stick elements of it being home to the world’s largest and stunningly beautiful salt flats; to it having a great chunk of Amazon rainforest within its boundaries and to having the world’s highest capital city and the highest navigable lake in the world – the massive Lake Titicaca. Terrains, landscapes and scenery come in just about every variety here – most of them of the stunning kind. To round up the entries on the ‘why you should come here now’ list is the fact that nowhere in South America will see a traveller´s budget stretch as far as in Bolivia. So…beautiful, cheap, packed with amazing things to see and do – what are you waiting for!
1) Take 1001 pictures at Salar de Uyuni – The Bolivan Salt Flats
If there is one main reason folks wend their way to Bolivia, this is it – Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Many rate this unique place as THE highlight of any South American trip and that is saying something in a land which is overflowing with the spectacular and special. You might perhaps guess that something titled ‘salt flat’ would be well…..flat….but at the risk of sounding a little dumb there is flat and there is flat and Salar de Uyuni falls into the absolute and extraordinary side of things. Over the entire area of 10,582 km²/4,086 sq mi the altitude varies just 1 metre; and it isn’t until you see flat in this extreme that you realise you have never actually seen flat before.
In places, and when the salt is covered by a layer of water, mountains, cloud strewn skies and anyone standing on the surface are reflected as perfect upside down versions of themselves, making for 1001amazing shots with your camera. The flamingos which live here perhaps enable some of the best shots of all if you’re lucky enough to catch the light right. The area is remote but there are basic facility places to stay close by which tend to be made of salt (the most plentiful source of building material here) making for an experience in itself. And when we say ‘made of’ we are talking walls, roof and furniture.
All kinds of tours – mostly jeep-based – are up for grabs. You can just opt into a basic salt flats tour or alternatively go for a 2 or 3 day one. This longer type of thing also takes in all kinds of extra treats in the other-worldly terrain of these parts – salt flat islands, geysers, red lagoons, hot springs, desert and more.
2) Laze Away some Lakeside Hours in Copacobana
Not to be confused with the gaudy (some say glamorous) Brazilian beach resort town of the same name (or the nightclub in the song), Copacobana in Bolivia is quaint, cheap and somewhat enchanting. Located on the shores of Titicaca, there really isn’t heaps to do here but that is kind of the point. There’s a couple of museums, a little market and an ornate 16th century basilica and shrine of national significance to which the faithful flock from around the country and even from further afield during times of religious festivals. Otherwise it is all about the lake and the rocky beaches. Head out for a meander or just sit and watch all manner of watercraft, both tiny and rickety and much larger, to-ing and fro-ing on the world’s highest navigable lake.
You’re unlikely to be the only foreigner in town though – gorgeous little Copacobana is a stopping off point for travellers on the La Paz to Puno or Cuzco route and also the gateway to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna but you can still find quiet little corners if you want them. If you enjoy a spot of hiking there is plenty of that to do around here but do keep in mind your altitude – 12,600 ft/3800m.
Food-wise there are all manner of treats here with specialities understandably those which come from the lake itself. Restaurants and eating spots are strewn and sprinkled along the beach with a few more situated along the main road. Lakeside accommodations are do-able for all budgets but the real bargains are to be had away from the lake when at certain times of year you can pretty much name your price.
3) Hurtle your Way on Two Wheels Down the Camina De La Muerte – The Death Road
Probably qualifying as one of those things your mum was hoping you wouldn’t do, renting a bike and taking on the Death Road is an almost compulsory part of any visit to Bolivia. In fact, so many are now choosing to hurtle down this crazy road on 2 wheels that the enterprising Bolivians have started charging a fee – tiny admittedly – for the privilege of doing so.
Although perhaps veering a tad towards dramatic, the title ‘Death Road’ is no misnomer either – it does indeed claim several lives annually, most of them in vehicles which plummet over the edges. The death figures used to be as high as the 100s annually before a new road was built. The road is narrow, steeply downhill (or uphill depending on your direction), full of hairpin bends, made up of loose gravel surfaces and features sheer drops off to the side which plunge up to 600m down. There are no safety barriers or rails. All of which adds up to high adrenalin injection for thrill seekers.
As always, where the tourists come for a specific purpose, there are folk offering up all kinds of experiences and the Death Road is no different. Choose your tour or trip carefully – some are a bit dodgy on the safety front or have substandard equipment and this isn’t somewhere you want to be cutting such corners. Along with the simply getting from top to bottom option there are also such things as the chance to sign up for a mountain biking day experience which sets off from the snow-covered mountains and takes you right down to the Amazon via the Death Road.
4) Feast on Salteñas
You will find empanadas all over Latin America as well as in Spain and Portugal. In case you didn’t know, these are savoury pastries, stuffed with various ingredients (both meat and vegetarian) and then baked or fried. A salteña is a type of empanada. Now it is a fact that not all empanadas are of the same deliciousness because some are simply instantly forgettable while the worst just taste of the old oil they were fried in making them inedible. Bolivian salteñas – with their hearty savoury meaty or vegetable insides encased in a substantial pie-type crust – will spoil you forever on the subject of empenadas. If you try them here first then look for something else to fill their slot when you travel onto other countries – because they won’t measure up. There are tons of different styles and options but a good starting point for the uninitiated is a chopped beef salteña de caldo. A touch of spicy and a hint of sweet – this salteña represents a culinary treat which some will (and have) travel miles across land and sea to savour.
5) Party in La Paz
Love it or hate it, you have to visit La Paz just so you can tick off ‘been to the highest capital city in the world’. And anyway, if you are arriving in Bolivia by plane it is most likely you will be landing at La Paz; in itself one of the highest airports on the planet. As capital cities go, the setting is hard to beat. La Paz sits cosily inside a geographical bowl, surrounded on all sides by soaring snow covered mountains and lovely scenery.
Whatever you need you are likely to be able to find it in La Paz. There are literally hundreds of museums which range from the distinctly quirky to the excellent and loads of markets. There are heaps of festivals which fall regularly (so regularly that sometimes they have to jostle with lots of others for attention) across an annual calendar while those looking for a lively night scene are going to have some good choices. In fact after dark fun can stray well into the zones of crazy if that is what floats your boat.
Tour agencies selling just about every kind of experience are thick on the ground but if you have your heart set on something well away from La Paz it is almost always cheaper to sort it out once you arrive where you want to go rather than book it here. Foodies are going to be kept smiling. Many moan about the so-so cuisine of Bolivia but here in the capital you can find all sorts of wonderful including cheap and tasty market eats as well as Cuban, Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern ethnic choices.
6) Explore Inca Treasures at Isla Del Sol – Lake Titicaca
Salt Flats aside, many rate a trip out to myth-enshrouded and traffic-free Isla del Sol as the major highlight of their Bolivian adventure. This 70 km² island which sits in the middle of the vast Lake Titicaca is a 90 minute boat ride from lovely little Copacobana, which sits on the lake shore. Isla del Sol, which Inca legend tells us was where the sun was created by Viracocha, is home to both indigenous people and some non-Bolivian souls who came seeking solitude in this special place and never left. There are a couple of larger communities here which some might call towns at a stretch and here are where you will find some places to stay if a day trip is just not enough for you.
Hiking is popular because the views are so stunning and the Inca ruins here are evocative and gorgeously set. Check out the Gold Museum to take a peek at some of the Inca treasures which have been retrieved from their underwater resting places around the island. Otherwise, take in one (or many) sunrises and sunsets perched atop a vantage point somewhere or marvel at the night skies which, here in this place without light pollution, will appear more star studded than possibly anywhere you will have ever seen before.
7) Meet the Rare Pink River Dolphin – Ibare River
One of the most gem-like kinds of travel experiences to be had is one which you truly can’t do anywhere else in the world. Bolivia has one of those – its very own species of dolphin, a subspecies of the Amazon River dolphin (often called pink dolphins) found in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. As Bolivia is landlocked this dolphin is also the country’s only dolphin species found. Now river dolphins are scarce no matter where they are found in the world – and that is precious few places; all of the handful of river dolphin species found on the planet are classed as endangered and/or rare.
Bolivia’s extra special dolphin – Inias boliviensis – evolved into a whole separate sub-species because it was cut off from the other Amazon River dolphins by rapids and waterfalls. How special is that! Hop on-board a boat tour which will bring you face to face with these unique creatures which really are pink in case you are wondering. If you are extra lucky you might find an outfit or private boat hire which will take you to swim with the dolphins (should the dolphins choose to bless you with their presence that is).
8) Kick Back in Coroico
Coroico is another of those Bolivian gems which when people ask you what there is to see and do there you have to pause for a few seconds before answering…Well actually not much. But as with Copacobana it is kind of why people drift here. In fact, if you have taken up the Death Road challenge this is (almost) where you will end up after your knee-knocking, white-knuckle downhill ride. The valley setting of Coroico is subtropical and a midway point between towering mountains and the Amazon and if your Bolivian adventures have tended towards the more physical and challenging this is a great spot to catch your breath and just chill for a bit. Many of the cheap places to stay here come complete with swimming pool and breathtaking views thrown in for free. Make the most of it before you get back on another of those tortuously long bus journeys or take on your next challenge.
9) Take an Icy Dip in the Impossibly Beautiful Laguna Verde
If you make it out to this remote spot be prepared to find yourself saying ooo and ahhh a lot and sighing every so often as you try and put the exceptional beauty of this place in to some kind of coherent sentence…and failing miserably. Tucked into the country’s far south end – next stop Chile or Argentina – can be found Laguna Verde (green lake in Spanish). Backed by Licancabur volcano, just to make everything a little more dramatic, the colours of this lake’s waters at times have to be seen to be believed. The energetically inclined can hike the 19,000 odd feet of the dormant volcano but many choose to simply sit and gaze in wonder or swim (if you don’t mind things chilly and salty) the waters. The lake’s location makes getting here a little tricky so you’ll have to hook up with a tour – they are in plentiful supply from Uyuni.
10) Go Jungle Adventuring in the Amazon
Most people associate the Amazon rainforest and jungle with Brazil and although it does have by far the largest chunk all to itself this massive jungle and territory are actually shared by many South American countries including Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. In fact, almost half of Bolivia is covered by the Amazon which means rainforest trekking, wildlife encounters, wilderness camping experiences and adventures of all kinds are up for grabs. Additionally, should you be intent on an Amazon jungle experience complete with monkeys, alligators, dolphins, turtles and vibrantly coloured birds among other things, you are unlikely to find it cheaper anywhere than Bolivia. Head to Rurrebanbaque – the small town which acts as gateway for Bolivian jungle-type expeditions. Then choose your tour carefully. Forays into the jungle can be challenging and if you pick the wrong outfit your dream trip might quickly morph into either a miserable endurance exercise or simply a disappointing waste of time and money.