Bolivia is one of South America’s most distinctive countries. With its impressively high average altitude, one of the largest indigenous population of any nation in the region and a very distinctive ‘feel’, this is arguably the South America everyone wants to experience, even if they don’t know it yet. Bolivia is traditionally dressed women in bowler hats and puffy skirts, it’s a cluster of high-peaked Andes and those glorious Salt Flats; of multi-hued altiplanos, chaotic cities, fascinating archaeological ruins and wilderness treasures hidden in one of the remotest corners of the Amazon.
In so many ways, Bolivia really has it all and if there’s one country that offers an all-encompassing travel experience – complete with outlandish road-trips and a plenitude of wildlife, this is certainly it. If you’re a consummate nature lover interested in delving into the cultural and historical side of South America, Bolivia will quench your thirst for adventure. Here, you’ll find unarguably some of the most arresting Andean landscapes of all, alongside a multitude of things to see and do.
Bolivia – a quick overview
Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America and is located in the heart of South America. It has borders with Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. It is also one of the most sparsely populated, so chances for massive nature-filled adventures abound. Surprisingly, most people live in the Andean altiplano, a region they have inhabited since time immemorial so their cultural and spiritual attachments to the highlands are unsurmountable.
Bolivia’s biggest treasure is its vibrant diversity in culture which has survived until now, with 32 different ethnic groups compromising more than half of the population so the cultural infusion here is immense. Given the eclectic altitudes of the country, Bolivia boasts a great variety of climates, leading to beautiful and varied sceneries of the frigid highlands, mild valleys and warm and humid Amazon. There’s literally something here for everyone.
You should also keep in mind that Bolivia is one of South America’s poorest countries and, whilst the tourist infrastructure is somewhat solid, it is also a far cry from more modernized Chile and Argentina. Road trips here are phenomenal for precisely that reason although you can also experience delays due to roadworks or landslides in rainy season, chaotic cities that just seem to be cramped together without rhyme or reason, and food that is always plentiful but, sometimes, not as varied as elsewhere in South America. For so many, the ‘frenetic mess’ and minimalist of Bolivia’s most inhabited regions are a huge part of the appeal. Whilst the rest of the continent gallops forward, Bolivia seems to be stuck in its own time-warp, with no fervent desire to press on.
And that’s just how we love it.
The Best Things to do in Bolivia
You’ll sooner run out of time before you’ll ever run out of things to do in Bolivia. These are some of the most celebrated highlights you won’t want to miss:
The de-facto capital of the country is a crazy city indeed, its winding streets and insane altitude making even a single walk a truly breathtaking affair, especially if you’re crazy enough to fly here (rather than reach it slowly by road). With its captivating Witches Markets, Coca Museum, its surprisingly amazing food (you won’t find better, anywhere in Bolivia) and its sensational souvenir shopping (same deal as the food), La Paz is a fantastic place to actually end your tour of Bolivia. That’s right…the most popular tour itinerary option is to start in Lima, Peru (at sea level) and slowly meander across the Andes (past Machu Picchu) to then move on to Lake Titicaca (more on that later) and eventually reach La Paz by road. This saves plenty of altitude-related headaches and offers the best of the Central Andes. When in La Paz, don’t forget to soak up the jaw-dropping views from atop the cable-car station. It is simply out of this world.
Check out our favourite Things to Do in La Paz so you get an idea of how many days you ought to stay. Do keep in mind that full days of explorations in the city are hard work, due to the altitude. At 3,600masl, you simply cannot do as many activities per day as you may normally do elsewhere, so be forewarned!
Rurrenabaque – Amazon Rainforest
Bolivia boasts a rich rain forest region and its base-town, Rurrenabaque, is one of the most exciting to reach by small-plane, given that you need to kiss the high Andean peaks Behind La Paz and then come plummeting down to the rainforest below. One of the most exhilarating domestic flights you could take in South America. The Bolivian region of the Amazon is one of the most pristine due to its remoteness (the Rurre airstrip was only recently asphalted) and, given its limited infrastructure (and commercialisation) it is also one of the cheapest, so it attracts a younger and a more adventurous crowd. Mind you, Rurre has blossomed in the last decade and you’ll now even find guesthouses with air-conditioned rooms. Fancy that!
Our 3-day Rurrenabaque adventure suggestion gives a great overview of what you can expect but, if you have the time, go beyond this mere ‘introduction’ and double the number of days (although to be fair, you could do that in just about veer Bolivian destination we mention). When it comes to Bolivian Amazon tours, specifically, the longer you stay, the further inland you can go, so it helps to have a bit of time dedicated to this once-in-a-lifetime destination.
On the border of Bolivia and Peru sits the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 3,800 metres. Copacabana, a lakeside town that is a world away from its more famous Brazilian namesake, is likely to be the first port of call for those tourists travelling to Bolivia from Peru. This tiny town is a favourite destination for both tourists and Bolivians to stay a few days and although the beaches are rocky and water eyeball-freezing, the extraordinary scenery of all-round snow-capped peaks is simply jaw-dropping. Lake Titicaca can be toured on both sides (Peruvian and Bolivian, that is) and is home to the famous Uros Islands, where indigenous communities have been floating on for centuries.
This is the revered birthplace of the Inca civilization and a stupendous natural sight to boot. Take boat trips, visit far-off islands and don’t miss the ruins of Tiwanaku and an overnight family-stay on Isla del Sol, these are some of the best Things to Do on Lake Titicaca.
With exponential growth in recent years, Santa Cruz has become Bolivia’s main business hub but it is actually a beautiful and warm city in the heart of the Bolivian tropics. The beautiful colonial architecture and laid-back vibe make this a beautiful addition to any Bolivia tour itinerary, with Santa Cruz offering a totally different perspective on the mostly mountainous nation. This is by far the richest corner of Bolivia and although the surprisingly modern city regarded with a certain level of animosity by the rest of the country, given its impressive wealth, it still offers a fascinating insight for foreign visitors. Most of Bolivia’s agricultural and mining companies have their headquarters here and, in some ways, it feels like a different country altogether.
What should bring you to Santa Cruz, however, is the fact that Santa Cruz is framed by three exceptional national parks: Amboro (a birder’s haven), the UNESCO-listed Noel Kempff Mercado (which boasts no-less than five distinct ecosytems) and the mind-blowing Kaa-lya, which covers over three million hectares and is one of the best spots to see cats (pumas and jaguars) in the wild. If you have the time and want to explore way off the Gringo tourist trail, then you certainly won’t leave disappointed.
Sucre, also known as Chuquisaca, is the birthplace of the first libertarian revolution and one of the most revered (and gorgeous) cities in all of Bolivia. The quaint colonial centre is postcard-pretty, with its plazas, churches and narrow alleyways enticing you to take a day out of busy sightseeing to get hopelessly lost in its UNESCO-listed maze. Nearby, you’ll find amazing dinosaur footprints on show, that are over 68 million years old.
If you thought La Paz was ‘high and mighty’ just wait till you get to Potosi. This is the world’s highest city with an altitude of 4090 meters, yet another cultural UNESCO-declared city renowned for its colonial charm and catastrophic mining history. More like a walk-through museum of Bolivia’s troubled history, Potosi is a must-visit for anyone interested in learning more about the effect colonisation had upon the indigenous population. Don’t miss taking a guided tour of Cerro Rico (rich mountain), the singular cause of the deaths of more than six million indigenous miners during the course of Spanish colonial rule. All that to extract more than sixty thousand tonnes of silver. Today, Cerro Rico is still being mined for tin, zinc and lead, primarily and a visit is quite the sobering but unmissable experience.
Uyuni Salt flats
Inarguably the most popular thing to in Bolivia, getting an eyeful of the famous Uyuni Salt Flats is an absolute must. The sheer beauty of this vast salt deserts is one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles of South America, whether you visit during rainy season or (the more preferable) dry season (for the clear blue skies alone) between May and November. In the rainy season (from January to March) the Uyuni salt flats get flooded and turn in a natural mirror.
The Bolivian Salt Flats are a wonder of nature and one of South America’s most distinctive and photographic sights. Although some visitors chose to head in on a day-trip from the small town of Uyuni, we recommend you plan a 2-3 day trip instead, to traverse the flats all the way to the Chilean border. This is a section of one of the best road-trips Bolivia offers and we’ll detail more about this incredible option below. Meanwhile, you can find out more about visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Road trip across the Bolivian Altiplano
Hand-on-heart, about the most unforgettable experience to be had in Bolivia, an Altiplano road-trip is the stuff of adventurous legends. The route starts in La Paz and ends in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the Salt Flats into Chile and the edge of the world’s driest desert. The highlights, along the way, are numerous.
First up you’ll reach that marvellous Lake Titicaca, then you’ll head south, making pit stops in Sucre and Potosi, before finally reaching Uyuni and the edge of the Salt Flats. You’ll spend a couple of days crossing the mesmerizing Salar before embarking on a traverse of the Bolivian Altiplano’s famed Fauna Andina Eduardo National Park, its multi-hued mountains, brimming with chinchillas, vicuñas, vizcachas and vibrantly-coloured lagoons littered with pink flamingos making for magnificent visual feasting.
You can take this trip in Bolivia alone, making a loop back to La Paz (our 13-day Bolivia Encompassed shows you how), you can ask us to continue the journey into the Atacama Desert or, if you take the trip in reverse, can tag a spectacular 8-day road (and lake traverse) trip from La Paz to Cusco, ending up at the spiritual heart of the ancient Inca Empire in Peru. The options are so many…all you need is an adventurous spirit and the desire to see one of the world’s most magical countries.
Here are a few more reasons why Bolivia should be right at the top of your bucket-list.
Inspired yet? Come with us to discover Bolivia and you’ll see why we consider this one of the iconic nations in all of South America. We can help with all the logistics of planning a country-wide tour and offer as much guidance (or independence) as you wish.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”