A quick guide to Bolivia’s highlights

By | Category: Travel destinations
aerial view of La Paz

La Paz, the capital of Bolivia

Bolivia has always been popular on South America’s Gringo Trail and ever since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went out in blaze of glory in the small land-locked country, it’s been big on my wish list of destinations.  I’d heard back-packers and gap year student’s tales of the adrenaline rush of cycling down the world’s most dangerous road along and the surreal experience of a tour through the salt flats of Uyuni.   However, as a more mature and cautious traveller I wanted to discover whether Bolivia had a more cultural side along with its guaranteed taste of adventure.

Bolivia’s capital La Paz stands at over 3,500 metres, it’s the highest capital city in the world and worth spending a couple of days in, if only to acclimatize, the altitude really does take some getting used to.  It literally takes your breath away as do the suicidal taxi drivers and rows of lama foetuses (a folk remedy) hanging over head at the witches market. The witches market,  otherwise known as El Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas is a popular, although slightly disturbing tourist attraction.

The stallholders or witches are generally indigenous Aymara women with their multi layered skirts and tiny bowler hats (think Aunt Lucy from the Paddington stories).  They claim with their dried frogs and birds to cure any ailment, but I wasn’t taking any chances whilst the dried lama foetuses are buried in the foundations of new buildings as an offering to the goddess Pachamamma.   Similar markets can be found throughout Bolivia where the local Aymara women practice these ancient rituals.

the santa Clara covent in Sucre

Sucre’s Santa Clara Convent

If all this is a bit too much to stomach after a long flight, leave La Paz’s brown box like houses behind and head for the white washed buildings of Sucre.   Sucre, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 is astonishingly beautiful and peaceful and brings to mind an elegant Spanish city with leafy shady squares and a glorious climate.   Plaza de mayo, the city’s main plaza is not dissimilar to Trafalgar Square with children chasing pigeons and playing on lion statues, as a Londoner I felt very at home.    Sucre has no shortage of convents, churches and museums to explore and it’s a good place to get your cultural fix but do try and make sure that your visit includes a Sunday.

Tarabuco, 64 kilometres south-east of Sucre has a Sunday market that’s one of the best in the region.  It’s useful to take along a guide, mine Alex from High Lives Holidays was able to point out all the unusual fruits and foodstuffs and describe the significance of the local attire. I love the multitude of different hats worn by the indigenous people of South America and the Tarabuco locals wear a particularly interesting one that resembles the helmets worn by the Spanish conquistadors.  Sadly, today many of the young men have replaced their helmets with baseball hats and mobiles glued to their ears.

an old lady in the Tarabuco market

an old lady in the Tarabuco market

However, they haven’t fully embraced the 21st century and all still wear the requisite stripy poncho.  The market has a real day out feel to it for the country people, drop the donkey of, get the shopping done and then settle down for an ice-cream (normally of some multi coloured hue).  The women complete with their “Andean back packs”, in other words multi-coloured shawls strapped to their back carrying everything from babies to what would appear to be all their possessions gather in groups as in markets the world over for a good old gossip.

multi-coloured Andean backpacks

Andean backpacks; shawls for carrying everything

Guidebooks and guides will point out buildings and attractions not realising what else might appear just as interesting or more unusual to a traveller’s eye.     In Bolivia vintage Dodge buses, many of which probably once transported American school children, or buses with Chinese characters on the side catch the eye.  There are markets selling puppies, thankfully only as pets and in every town, out in the open air, rows and rows of table football machines.  These are used mostly by young people but how healthier and social than being glued to a video game.

Cornwall has its pasties, South America in general has empanadas, whilst Bolivia specifically has saltenas, a meat or chicken filled pastry eaten as a mid-morning snack, the best of which can be found in Potosi.    It’s hard to imagine but just a short 3 hour drive from Sucre’s majestic city and you’re in Potosi, the highest city in the world.  It’s a barren, moon like place but not lacking in cultural charms.  Top of my list of must sees is the Convento de San Francisco, a tour of which includes an opportunity to get on the roof tops and experience a grand view of the city.  The health and safety officers haven’t reached Potosei yet.  Most people visit Potosi to do a mine tour but 10 minutes underground was enough for me, it really didn’t look too safe.  I therefore joined the miners instead in offering Tio (meaning uncle or the god of the mine) some cocoa leaves as an offering for my safety.   Statues of Tio can be found in every mine throughout Bolivia, the miners in Potosi to further please Tio in the hope that he would guide them to riches had also stuffed his mouth with cigarettes.

 

Although, it does miss tropical Santa Cruz and the Amazon, there’s a set route featuring Bolivia’s highlights that tour groups do but can just as easily be managed by independent travellers.

Most people fly in to Las Paz but better still and if you have time, visit Peru first doing the classic Cusco, Sacred Valley, Arequipe and the Colca Canyon trip before easily heading to Puno and Lake Titicaca.  Lake Titicaca is shared by both Peru and Bolivia, so from Puno it’s an easy hop to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake and then another short journey, now fully acclimatized to La Paz.   Then La Paz, Sucre, Potosi before ending on without doubt Bolivia’s number one must see and for many the highlight of a whole trip throughout South America, The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest and highest salt flat.

Uyuni and flamingoes

flamingoes at the salt lake – Uyuni

It’s like someone’s taken a lake the size of Switzerland and tippexed it over. Against the electric blue sky it’s the purest white imaginable, a huge great expanse of nothingness. However, there’s still plenty to do and see, visits to small villages on the edge of the lake, hours spent taking surreal photos of yourself distorted by the light as the sky and ground merge and a visit to one of the islands in the centre of the lake, your mode of transport being a 4 x 4 as opposed to a boat. Isla Incahuasi is an island covered in cactuses with spectacular views of the surrounding salt flats. Seeing cars parked, people picnicking and playing football on the white expanse looks like a scene from a Victorian frost fair.
A classic tour of the salt flats will also include a visit to the lagoons in the far South West on the Chilean border. Minerals here have coloured the lagoons brilliant shades of red, green and blue. This part of the tour takes on a safari like feel as you wonder at the literally hundreds of flamingos (there are 3 types), flocks of lama, inquisitive Andean foxes and rabbit like visachas. The treeless, desert like scenery, punctuated with volcanoes and bubbling geysers is again breath-taking, partly for its beauty but you’re also now extremely high (5000 metres at one point). Crossing the sparkling white salt flats is a reason in itself to visit to Bolivia, it was certainly one of the most unique and out of this world experiences I have ever encountered.

Laguna Colorada

Petra stopping off at Laguna Colorada

Bolivia is not an easy place to get to but worth it once you’re there.  There are no direct flights from the UK and the easiest and quickest option is to fly with American Airlines via Miami.  However, this does involve a night in Miami, getting an ESTA and going through American passport control with all the hassles that entails.  Alternatively you could fly via Lima, although the latter also has no direct flights from the UK.

 

For more information about Bolivia, click here.

 

 

 

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