From Salt Flats To Death Road - My Ultimate Guide To Bolivia
In my last blog I raved about the Bolivian salteña, a tasty snack found throughout the country. Generally speaking though, of all the countries in Latin America, I enjoyed the food in Bolivia the least.
Rather than focus on the negative, let’s look at the positives of which there are many. Bolivia is undoubtedly one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries on earth and definitely a destination for the more adventurous. As the poorest country in South America, it is also a popular place in which to volunteer.
Very little English is spoken here so learning a little of the local lingo should feature somewhere on your list of things to do in Bolivia. Although you might find this daunting at first, you will pick it up quickly providing you have a trusty Spanish phrase book to help you on your way.
After spending a bit of time in Bolivia, you will undoubtedly find that you have done, seen or experienced a variety of the "The World's Greatest, Biggest, Highest and Most Dangerous" things. Whether it’s the highest Indian restaurant in the world or the most dangerous road in the world, Bolivia seems to be home to them all.
Getting around in Bolivia is extremely cheap and potentially very easy. However, the public transport is often on its last legs and strike action means key highways are prone to closure. My biggest tip would be to take your time and any changes to your travel plans in your stride. That said, when travelling in this country, there are a number of things that should simply not be missed. I have put together a list of my top recommendations for things to do in Bolivia based on my personal experience.
1. Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian salt flats)
Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and arguably Bolivia’s biggest draw. You really can spend hours here setting up perspective shot after perspective shot. It’s worth having a think about suitable props before you arrive – we completely forgot to come prepared and so resorted to improvising with watermelons and flip flops.
The Bolivian salt flats are true to their name – they really are flat. As such a layer of water often remains for several days and even weeks after rain has fallen. This creates an almost perfect mirror image and, if possible, an even better perspective shot!
2. Cycle the World's Most Dangerous Road
Coroico is a quaint hill top town in the Bolivian Yungas. It’s connected to La Paz via El Camino de la Muerte (the road of death), a 70km highway transcending from the altiplano down towards the Amazon rainforest. The single lane road is flanked on one side by drops exceeding 600m, and on the other by a rock face that frequently gives way during rainfall. Although this, the world’s most dangerous road, has since been replaced with a newer, ever so slightly less dangerous road, it remains popular with thrill seekers who fly down it on-board mountain bikes.
Very few vehicles pass down this road nowadays, opting instead for the safer alternative, so cyclists usually have the road to themselves. Hundreds of crucifixes line the route, commemorating the drivers and cyclists that have gone over the edge and providing a stark reminder of how dangerous the road can be. I cycled down Bolivia’s Death Road in the middle of rainy season. It took 6 hours to cycle the entire route during which I endured snowfall at the start, followed by rain that came down so hard that waterfalls poured from the cliffs and onto the road, and finally blinding sunshine and tropical humidity. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done, but I do now (quite literally) have the t-shirt to say I’ve done it!
3. 4x4 drive through the South-West region
One of the loneliest, quietest and most staggeringly beautiful places I have ever been, Bolivia’s Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is best explored by 4x4. Seemingly endless desert is scattered with coloured lagoons, varying from shades of emerald green to blood red and home to thousands of flamingos. Add to this snow-capped volcanoes, steaming hot springs and belching geysers and you have a place that really is unlike any other.
4. La Paz and the Witches' Market
Standing at around 3600m above sea level, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city. The buildings climb the surrounding hills steeply, a sight that is probably best seen on the drive from the airport to downtown. The city itself is not really geared to tourism, but if you’re prepared to climb and explore the narrow streets, there’s plenty to see and do. I stumbled upon a fascinating little traditional music museum after hearing the strumming of a guitar (the body of which I later found out was made of armadillo).
If you’re looking for some souvenirs to take back home, whether it be a traditional hat, an alpaca fleece or something a little stranger, then head to the Witches’ market. Here you will find an array of weird and wonderful wears, from phallic carvings to llama foetuses.
5. Relax in Sucre
This beautiful city is surrounded by low mountains and as such has a mild climate pretty much year round. It’s the perfect place in which to chill out for a few days and you will come across several people who have stayed for far longer than they had originally intended.
If you’re looking to take a few Spanish classes, then Sucre is a good place to learn. There are numerous markets to potter around and they provide plenty of opportunities to practise a few phrases.
6. Head into the silver mines in Potosí
Ever heard of Potosí? If you know of it at all, it’s probably because its claim to fame is the fact that it is the world’s highest city. It was once the richest, owing to the huge quantity of silver mined from the Cerro Rico Mountain that looms over the city. When the Spanish arrived in South America, they had slaves working in the mines for up to 6 months at a time. It is estimated that around 8 million people have died in the Cerro Rico mines and it is known locally as ‘the mountain that eats men’.
Whilst it is possible to visit the mines, it is most definitely not for the faint hearted. To this day they remain working mines and health and safety is non-existent. Exposure to asbestos and arsenic are part and parcel of a tour into the mines and dynamite explosions can frequently be heard in the distance. This personal account of a trip into one of the working mines gives a fascinating insight.
7. Explore the Pampas
The Bolivian Pampas could be described as a tropical version of the UK’s Norfolk Broads. Travelling by boat is the best way to see the huge variety of wildlife that thrives in this environment. From the impossibly cute sloth to the formidable caiman, the bizarre looking capybara to the playful pink river dolphin, they are all here in abundance. If you are an avid bird-watcher then you will be spoilt rotten, with eagles, owls and vultures just a few of the species vying for your attention.
8. Copacabana and Isla del Sol
Not to be confused with the famous Brazilian beach, Copacabana is a tiny little town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Most tourists pass through en-route to Peru, but it’s definitely worth spending a few days here. At approximately 3800m above sea level, the air is so thin that it really is impossible to take a bad photograph.
Isla del Sol is a tiny little island in the southern part of the lake, and takes approximately 2 hours to reach by boat from Copacabana. The island has no roads so once ashore the only way to get around is on foot or astride a donkey. It’s scattered with Incan ruins, incredibly peaceful and stunningly beautiful.
I hope you found this blog useful. I’d love to hear your feedback. Have you been to Bolivia? What was the highlight of your trip? Have you got some good tips for readers regarding things to do in Bolivia? Please leave your comments below.
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