BOLIVIA: HIGH AND DRY
It’s not only the high altitude that will take your breath away
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; firstname.lastname@example.org; 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