Bolivia’s top travel destinations
Combining colossal icebound peaks and dazzling high-altitude deserts of the Andes with lush rainforests and ample savannas in the Amazon basin, as well as sprawling urban jungles, Bolivia is a geographical marvel and a must-see destination. Landlocked at the remote heart of South America, Bolivia boasts all the thrilling activities and stunning sights that adventurous travelers long for. What’s more, Bolivia is brand new to scientific endeavor and new unique wildlife species are being discovered daily. From freshwater pink dolphins to tube-lipped nectar bats, Bolivia is any nature lover’s dream. Parque Nacional Amboró, for example, has 830 species of birds, more than the US and Canada combined! The country’s ethnic and cultural identity are equally as fascinating. With South America’s largest percentage of indigenous population, Bolivia is rife with Aymara and Quechua culture. Although almost three centuries of colonial rule have left its mark on the nation’s language, religion and architecture, these are no more than a transparent veil wrapped around Bolivian identity. Bolivian streets buzz with over 30 indigenous languages and while Bolivians superficially embrace the Catholic religion, at home they make offerings to the mountain gods or perform other rites passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Despite all of its highlights and attractions, Bolivia remains one of South America’s least-visited countries. The fact that it hasn’t yet hit the main trail of travelers visiting South America means that you can enjoy thrilling adventures and formidable landscapes all to yourself! To maximize your Bolivian experience, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 destinations in Bolivia.
#1 Admire the urban spectacle of La Paz
Your first glimpse of La Paz, as you soar over the sprawling metropolis by plane or cruise round the corner of the narrow canyon where the city is curled will take your breath away – literally. With altitudes ranging from 13,313 ft. (4,058 m) in El Alto to 10,170 ft. (3,100 m) in the lower residential areas, La Paz is the highest state capital in the world. The quaint urban spectacle displays towering concrete jungles of office blocks in the center hugged by ramshackle homes clinging cautiously to steep slopes on the outskirts, the whole dwarfed by the stunning backdrop of Mount Illimani. As the political and commercial hub of Bolivia, the seat of government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and housing an estimated 835,000 residents, La Paz is the capital of Bolivia in all but name (technically, that honor still lies with Sucre). La Paz embodies a world of contrasts, from international banks rubbing shoulders with local street markets to, the Bolivian ethnical identity, that comprises of distinct European and Indigenous Aymara communities. The Aymara make up not only the majority of the city’s population but also that of El Alto, La Paz’s expanding alter-ego, most easily accessible by the newly-built cable car Mi Teleferico. Make sure you check out El Alto’s open-air market, the largest in all Bolivia, where you will truly feel removed from life as you know it! Although conventional tourist attractions are limited, we recommend that you stay a few days in La Paz to immerse yourself in authentic Bolivian culture and explore the ins and outs of this mysterious metropolis.
#2 Lose yourself in the endless Salar de Uyuni
The blinding white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni that reflects the glistening desert sun feels like visiting another planet. Its harsh and inhospitable terrain, covered by a few feet of salt crust make up the world’s largest salt flats. The area was originally part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which once extended over most of western Bolivia. When it dried up, it left a couple of seasonal puddles and several salt pans, including the Salar de Uyuni. When it’s covered in water after heavy rains (from December to April), the Salar is transformed into a gigantic mirror that reflects the endless sky and snow-capped mountains so impeccably, that the horizon disappears and the mountains resemble other-worldly islands floating in the sky. The Salt Flats also provide major breeding grounds for several species of flamingos, including the rare James’ flamingo. Every November, the Uyuni ‘lake’ is dotted with thousands of pink flamingos as well as approximately 80 other bird species. Colonies of cacti and other hardy plants, rabbit-like visachas and isolated communities of Aymara and Quechua campesinos also cling to life in this desolate and arid area. The savage beauty of this vast salt desert is one of Latin America’s most astonishing sights. Unfortunately, there have been a number of accidents on the Salt Flats due to unsafe vehicles and drivers. We use our 20 years experience working with only the best local providers in Latin America to ensure that all the vehicles we use have seatbelts, emergency radio transmitters and first aid equipment as well as, careful drivers. All of this will ensure not only your safety but of course, an incredible and memorable experience at the world’s largest Salt Flats!
#3 Visit the charming colonial town of Sucre
Famed for its Spanish colonial architecture and year-long springtime, Sucre is the symbolic heart of the nation. It was here that independence was proclaimed and although La Paz is now the seat of the government and treasury, Sucre is recognized in the constitution as the nation’s capital. While Sucre offers many tourist attractions in the form of stunning historical buildings, a renowned theater, fascinating museums and indigenous prehistoric sites in the surrounding villages, the highlight of Sucre is its tranquil and relaxing atmosphere, that detains many travelers longer than expected. The enchanting town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 and as a result strict control was imposed on development in Sucre to ensure it remains a showpiece of Bolivia. Laid out in a classic grid system, the city is an architectural jewel with its whitewashed buildings sheltering pretty patios and attractive iron balconies. The city exudes a sense of being frozen in time somewhere in the nineteenth century. Buildings are whitewashed once a year to maintain the characteristics that earned it the name of “The White City of the Americas”. Sucre is also the market center for a mountainous rural hinterland inhabited by Quechua-speaking indigenous communities that have become famous for their stunning weavings that are displayed at Sucre’s wonderful Museum of Indigenous Art, or on a day-trip to Tarabuco, a rural town about 37 miles (60km) to the Southeast.
#4 Explore the bustling streets of Santa Cruz
Set among the steamy tropical lowlands of Bolivia, this vibrant city will provide a splendid and much-needed break from the country’s high-altitude destinations. Santa Cruz is one of the fastest growing cities in the world with almost 2.5 million inhabitants to date, making it the largest city in Bolivia. The sprawling city with its booming oil, gas, timber, cattle and agro-industry economy is soaring past La Paz in terms of economic importance. Although Santa Cruz has few conventional tourist attractions, witnessing the metamorphosis of this hybrid city is nothing short of fascinating. Bolivia’s largest city oozes with modernity yet clings to tradition. The city center thrives and is laced with the contrasting sights of suited businessmen pacing rapidly, while taxis battle with horses and carts for pole position at the traffic lights. Locals still lounge in the main square listening to Camba (eastern lowlands) music and shops close to accommodate time for a siesta. Santa Cruz’s most fascinating aspect however, is its divergent population. The phenomenal growth of the city has attracted a diverse range of immigrants including Japanese rice farmers, overall-wearing Mennonites strolling the streets past Goth kids, bearded Russians and fashionable cruceños (Santa Cruz locals) cruising the streets in their SUVs and indigenous migrants from the nearby Andes. Some may find Santa Cruz’s brash materialism and pseudo-Americanism unappealing but others will certainly enjoy its dynamism and effervescent identity.
#5 Take a lakeside stroll in Copacabana
An enchanting waterfront town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is the perfect place for a relaxing stop-off on your otherwise adventurous and urban Bolivian travels. The town assembles an untidy collection of red-tiled houses and large modern buildings nestled between two hills. The town is an important Catholic pilgrimage site as it is home to one of Bolivia’s most revered figures, La Virgen de Copacabana (Copacabana virgin). Several colorful fiestas take place annually to pay homage to the Virgin but Copacabana sees a steady stream of religious devotees seeking her blessing. The lakeside town is also the strategic launchpad for visits to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, two islands with sacred Inca archaeological sites. A classic stopover for travelers combining Bolivia and Peru, you will find plenty of tourists enjoying the laidback atmosphere of Copacabana.
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