BO­LIVIA: HIGH AND DRY

It’s not only the high al­ti­tude that will take your breath away

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Neil McQuil­lian

SOUTH Amer­ica has been called a con­ti­nent of su­perla­tives, and those rolled out for Bo­livia tend to riff on its gid­dily im­pres­sive above-sea-level statis­tics. In Po­tosí, at 4090m, and Lake Tit­i­caca, at 3800m, Bo­livia has a city and lake that boast “world’s high­est” tags. The al­ti­tude in cen­tral La Paz (the coun­try’s de facto cap­i­tal) may be a pal­try 3600m, but you’ll be fly­ing into El Alto air­port, which tops 4000m.

Ar­rive from any low-level site and the wait to clear Cus­toms, ac­com­pa­nied by a throb­bing head and surges of nau­sea, may seem the long­est of your life. That’s one good rea­son to con­sider fly­ing into low­land Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the east, be­fore you crank up the al­ti­tude as grad­u­ally as prac­ti­cally pos­si­ble. It’s a headache-free zone, while the east­ern re­gion is still mostly un­charted tourist ter­ri­tory. Take Sa­maipata. From this dusty, shady lit­tle town you can or­gan­ise tours of Am­boro Na­tional Park, plus a rich va­ri­ety of other ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing con­dor-spot­ting hikes and trips to the El Fuerte archaeological site. Sa­maipata it­self is over­due a tourist surge and there’s now even a tuned-in bar, La Bo­heme, ready and wait­ing to wa­ter vis­i­tors in style. There is ex­cel­lent ac­com­mo­da­tion too, such as La Posada del Sol, which has en­suite dou­bles from about $33, in­clud­ing break­fast. And that room price hints at another Bo­li­vian su­perla­tive – this is South Amer­ica’s cheap­est coun­try. More: la­posadadel­sol.net; hostel­world.com.

But with many of the high­lights dis­cussed be­low within easy reach, La Paz is still where it’s at. In any case, it’s partly the al­ti­tude that makes the city so exquisitely mem­o­rable. The in­ten­sity of a visit to the Mer­cado de Hechicería (Witches’ Mar­ket) is not solely down to the wares on sale: it’s about the fact that you are tug­ging on thin cold air, heart flut­ter­ing, as you come face to face with mum­mi­fied llama foe­tuses, bags of coca leaf and multi-coloured charms.

It’s not all giddy-headed Alti­plano in Bo­livia: there’s also the steamy Ama­zon, and Ma­didi Na­tional Park is among the planet’s most bio­di­verse patches. In­dige­nous com­mu­nity-run Cha­lalan is the best of its sus­tain­able lodges, with three-day stays from $US380 ($466) a per­son, which in­cludes rain­for­est ac­tiv­i­ties and trans­port from Rur­ren­abaque, a five-hour boat ride that is so­porific and thrilling by turns – you could even have swimming jaguars for company. More: chata­lan.com.

Just get­ting to Rur­ren­abaque is a trip, de­scend­ing from the jagged An­des to en­fold­ing jun­gle. Board a prop plane in La Paz wrapped up in your al­paca jumper and 50 min­utes later you’ll be sweat­ing on a dirt run­way. Amas­zonas flies daily from La Paz. Al­ter­na­tively, take a four­day cruise along the Mamoré River from Trinidad with Fre­men. More: amas­zonas.com; an­des-ama­zo­nia.com.

The world’s most dan­ger­ous road

AC­CEL­ER­A­TION or con­tem­pla­tion – the two most popular day trips from La Paz could hardly be more dif­fer­ent. The pre-Columbian site of Ti­wanaku may lack the visual im­pact of a Machu Pic­chu, but it’s re­ward­ing when seen with a knowl­edge­able guide such as Buhos Tours. Tack­ling the so-called “World’s Most Dan­ger­ous Road” by moun­tain bike is un­miss­able, but well-main­tained equip­ment is cru­cial – stand­ing at the road­side, peer­ing down through the lush Yun­gas val­ley, you can still make out bus wreck­age be­low.

Grav­ity of­fers the day-long ex­pe­ri­ence with the rec­om­mended op­tion of an overnight stay in the pretty town of Coroico, where Hostal Kory af­fords im­pres­sive views of the snaking road you just plum­meted down. The forested Sol y Luna with cabin ac­com­mo­da­tion is the pick of the bunch, how­ever. More grav­i­ty­bo­livia.com; reser­vas­buhos­tours@hot­mail.com; soly­luna-bo­livia.com.

Lake Tit­i­caca and the is­lands

IF you’re feel­ing a lit­tle tainted by gritty La Paz, make for the is­lands and sa­cred wa­ters of Lake Tit­i­caca. Brazil’s Copaca­bana Beach is world renowned, but the Rio de Janeiro bar­rio took its name from Lake Tit­i­caca’s base town, in homage to the Vir­gin Mary statue there. Bo­li­vians still bring their cars to the spot to be blessed by lo­cal priests. The re­gion’s re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance has pre-Christian foun­da­tions and Inca leg­ends en­rich any visit.

You can touch the rock on Isla del Sol from which their cre­ator god Vira­cocha, ris­ing from the lake, sum­moned the Moon and Sun. In quiet Copaca­bana, stay at hill­side Las Olas where un­usual big-win­dowed apart­ments look out over the lake. Break­fast isn’t in­cluded, but those served at El Con­dor and the Ea­gle Cafe could well be Bo­livia’s finest. More: hostal­la­so­las.com.

Give way to the call of the south

MANY Bo­li­vian high­lights are in the north, but the Salar de Uyuni salt flat and the eye-pop­ping Ed­uardo Avaroa An­dean Fauna Na­tional Re­serve de­mand you go south. The con­trast be­tween the flat’s re­lent­less white­ness and the re­serve’s coloured lakes, belch­ing mud pits and sculpted rocks makes the pair a must-see.

Daily Amas­zonas flights from La Paz to Uyuni town have made things eas­ier. If you are book­ing in Uyuni, try Red Planet Ex­pe­di­tion, which has English-speak­ing guides. Us­ing La Paz-based op­er­a­tors is pricier, but Kanoo of­fers an easy on­line pay­ment from $US215 for a three-day tour. You stay in salt-crafted lodges which are ba­sic and cold, but La Torre has four-day trips with more com­fort­able ho­tels. More: red­plan­e­t­ex­pe­di­tion.com; kanoo­tours.com; la­tor­re­tours-tupiza.com.

Su­cre and Po­tosi

IF head­ing over­land to Uyuni, con­sider a night in one or both of th­ese chalk-and-cheese ci­ties. Su­cre, the of­fi­cial cap­i­tal, has the pret­ti­est cen­tre, with sparkling white colo­nial build­ings. Its man­age­able al­ti­tude and cul­tural spots make for fine sight­see­ing, and there’s a hip ho­tel nearby called Sky Ha­cienda. Po­tosi feels more down­trod­den and is des­o­late when the high-al­ti­tude cold bites. Iron­i­cally, most peo­ple come to see the site that placed 16th-cen­tury Po­tosi among the world’s rich­est ci­ties: Cerro Rico. This moun­tain was once abun­dant with sil­ver and is still mined for tin, zinc and lead. You’re ob­serv­ing a fairly mis­er­able state of af­fairs on the claus­tro­pho­bic tours, but it’s un­for­get­table (es­pe­cially the ribcage-stretch­ing dy­na­mite blasts). More: sky­ha­cienda.com.

Some­thing to chew on

YOU see the phrase on ev­ery­thing from T-shirts to plac­ards: “La coca no es co­caina.” For or­di­nary Bo­li­vians, who rarely en­counter the leaf in its su­per-con­cen­trated and adul­ter­ated form, that’s true. Yet coca does crop up in just about ev­ery cor­ner of their cul­ture, and it’s this non-nar­cotic sig­nif­i­cance — along with some diplo­matic games­man­ship on the part of Pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales — that pushed the UN, in Jan­uary 2013, to ac­cept the le­gal­ity of Bo­li­vian coca chew­ing. Many hold the leaf sa­cred, but the deep­est roots of this sym­bolic po­tency must surely be in its sheer prac­ti­cal­ity. Whether chewed or drunk as tea, coca sup­presses hunger and raises stamina. It does another job, of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to tourists. When new­com­ers cram their cheeks with bulging bo­las of leaf or crave a coca cuppa, it’s rarely for the taste. They’re re­sort­ing to an age-old An­dean rem­edy for al­ti­tude sick­ness.

Flamin­gos on the Salar de Uyuni salt flat, top; Cha­lalan Ecolodge, Mal­didi Na­tional Park, above; the city of Po­tosi, right

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