Seven Experiences Not to Miss in Bolivia
Landlocked Bolivia may not be the most popular country to visit in South America, but it easily could be the most varied and beautiful. It constantly amazes me when I see South American itineraries that leave this gorgeous country off the list. Yes, it sucks that you have to pay $100 for a visa; yes, the public transport is certainly lacking; and yes, it is not always the easiest place to travel. But whatever negatives it has, it more than makes up for in stunning scenery.
Never have I seen more variation in terrain within one single country than in Bolivia. Massive mountain peaks getting lost in the clouds, the highest navigable lake in the world, several bustling metropolises, jungles and rivers and tons of wildlife, and of course the largest salt flat on Earth are just a few of the many highlights Bolivia has to offer.
There are countless places to visit and experiences to be had while in Bolivia, and this list only encompasses a small amount. If you’re heading to South American and plan on hitting up Bolivia, then check out these seven incredible experiences.
If flying into Bolivia, chances are the destination will be La Paz, which is one of the highest airports in the world at over 13,000 feet (4000 meters). This city is set in a bowl surrounded by mountains and makes for a very picturesque setting. Travelers can find about anything they need in La Paz, including tour agencies catering to the various activities found throughout the country (though you may want to book some activities closer to the destination for a better price). Nightlife in La Paz can get pretty crazy and fun, so be sure to check the area called Sopocachi.
While the rest of the cuisine in Bolivia leaves much to be desired, the food in La Paz is a definite highlight. There are several markets (including a massive one near Plaza San Francisco) for cheap eats (don’t miss the nearby Witches Market for some interesting souvenirs), but there are also a plethora of amazing ethnic restaurants. Cuban, Indian, and Middle Eastern food is just a small sampling of the cuisines available.
The World’s Most Dangerous Road
It seems stupid and reckless to ride a bike down a street dubbed the “Death Road,” yet a good number of tourists do it every single day (including yours truly). While it may not be the safest (there is a death count for that year near the starting point), it certainly is exhilarating and gets the blood pumping.
Located about an hour outside of La Paz, tour companies drop travelers off at the top of a mountain for an 11,000 foot (3400 meter), 50 mile (80 kilometer) descent down a snaking, winding, narrow, dusty, sometimes muddy road with hairpin turns and blind spot after blind spot. A new road was built in recent years, so car traffic is at a minimum now, but it is still possible to encounter vehicles on the same road. The views are spectacular though, and if you’re into adrenaline fueled activities, this is for you. It’s probably a good idea to buck up and use a reputable company for this one, even if it costs more.
If tackling the World’s Most Dangerous Road, you end the bike ride a short drive from the little town of Coroico located in an area called the Yungas. It’s a subtropical valley that sits between the massive mountains near La Paz and the Amazon jungles to the north. While Coroico isn’t the most active and bustling town around, its perfect setting is fantastic for a little relaxing getaway. Traveling in Bolivia can be tough work, especially if doing it on a tight budget, so take advantage of the chance to relax and kick back for a few days.
Though there are a few hiking opportunities around town, most tourists who find themselves in Coroico are either just finishing the World’s Most Dangerous Road bike ride or breaking up the hellacious bus ride from La Paz to Rurrenabaque. Either way, there are plenty of cheap accommodations around town, many with pools and spectacular views of the surrounding valley. Kick back with a few beers and just relax.
A Pampas/Jungle tour
The dusty little town of Rurrenabaque is the jumping off point for trips into the Bolivian jungle. Many travelers choose Bolivia as a country to explore the jungles because it’s much cheaper than in neighboring countries Brazil and Peru. If you have the time, wait until you’re in Rurre to book your tour as it will be much cheaper than doing it in La Paz. Bolivia’s tourist industry isn’t very regulated, so there are a lot of shady tour operators out there. Choosing the wrong one can mean the difference between a once in a lifetime experience and misery. Do your homework and don’t go with the cheapest one.
If you have the time, wait until you’re in Rurre to book your tour as it will be much cheaper than doing it in La Paz.
Tourists have two options when heading out to explore the wild in Bolivia. A jungle tour will have you seeing more flora, fauna, and insects while a pampas tour is heavier on the wildlife. All different types of monkeys, literally thousands of alligators, exotic birds, piranhas, pink dolphins, turtles, capybaras, and even anacondas are seen on a pampas tour.
A Salt Flats tour
One of the highlights of not only Bolivia and South America, but the entire world, is a trip to the Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia. An experience like no other has travelers seeing other-worldly terrain around every corner. The Salt Flats themselves are a major highlight, but travelers only see them one out of the three or four day tour (depending on which length is chosen). Whatever you do, don’t discount the other two or three days of the tour, and they are equally as spectacular. Wildlife, multi-colored mountains, odd and unique rock formations, vividly colored lagoons, geysers, and volcanoes are all highlighted in the other three days of the tour. The landscapes are among the most amazing and surreal in the entire world.
The landscapes are among the most amazing and surreal in the entire world.
Tourists have several options for visiting the Salt Flats. Most tours originate in the more northern city of Uyuni and visit the Salt Flats first before moving on to the rest of the tour. If beginning in the more southern city of Tupiza, the Salt Flats are visited on the final day of the tour before dropping most travelers off in Uyuni (you can arrange to be brought back to Tupiza if you so choose). Tours are typically cheaper if they originate in Uyuni. Like everything in Bolivia, there are hundreds of tour companies and it’s difficult to wade through all the riff-raff. Keep in mind that the majority of most days are spent in a jeep, so if you’re willing to pay for a four person tour instead of six, you will be much more comfortable.
For visitors coming into Bolivia from Peru, Copacabana is a likely place to begin the journey into this amazing country. A tiny town located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is a gorgeous little place that is great for unwinding. The beach is semi-rocky and water fairly cold, but the crystal clear waters surrounded by the white capped mountains off in the distance provide extraordinary views.
The low prices of Copacabana allow travelers to stay in good sized, private rooms for two right on the lake for as low as $20US (there are even more budget accommodations away from the lake for under $10US).
There isn’t a ton to do in the town itself, so relaxation is the name of the game in Copacabana. There is a nice little market east of the lake, a few small squares, a beautiful, ornate church, and plenty of good food. Makeshift restaurants are lined up along the beach selling all different types of the local fish, trout, for an absurdly low price. There are even a few unique restaurants along the main road, Av 6 de Agosto, serving Mexican fare along with many local specialties. If you’re into hiking, there are several hiking opportunities, but be aware of the altitude. Copacabana lies at 12,600 feet (3800 meters). The low prices of Copacabana allow travelers to stay in good sized, private rooms for two right on the lake for as low as $20US (there are even more budget accommodations away from the lake for under $10US).
Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca
One of the most popular activities for those visiting Copacabana is a boat trip to Isla del Sol in the middle of Lake Titicaca. A few hour boat ride from the shores of Copacabana, across the highest commercially navigated lake in the world, sits an island that is the site of one of the Inca creation myths (there are several versions). Ancient Incan steps lead up from a pure spring, and several Incan ruins await travelers to this beautiful island. There are also a few “towns” on the island, and it is possible to stay overnight in either. Travelers can find a few museums on the northern side of the island in Challapampa for a minimal fee.
Even if you only plan on going to Isla del Sol for a day trip, you can see most of the island by getting dropped off at the northern end at Challapampa. From there you can hike across the island to Yumani and down the ancient Incan steps to the boat waiting to take passengers back to Copacabana. The hike is relatively flat and takes about three hours. The views are absolutely stunning.
While Bolivia may not be the most popular travel destination out there, for those willing to forego the normal comforts of vacation, you will be rewarded. There aren’t many places in the world that offer the uniqueness and variety of terrain, landscapes, and activities than Bolivia. If you’re one of those adventurous type of travelers, or you’re looking for a way to get out of your comfort zone on that next trip, consider heading to this beautiful country filled with more amazing views than you can count.
Add Bolivia to your RTW trip
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These seven must sees are just a starting point for Bolivia. What are your favorite things to do? Comment below to let us know.
Read more about South America:
- Five Unexpected Treasures of South America
- How to Get Around Visa Fees in South America
- 10 Places in South America to Escape the Northern Winter
- Traditional Markets in Latin America: A Guide for First Time Shoppers
- The Incredible National Parks of South America