Land-locked Bolivia may not boast the indulgent hotels, gourmet restaurants and luxury shopping that many of its neighbours can claim, but it more than makes up for this with its mesmerising landscapes, fascinating ethnic cultures and colourful, friendly people. Bolivia's varied terrain spans the Altiplano and sections of the Andes Mountains, Atacama Desert and the Amazon Basin rainforest.
At more than 3,600 metres above sea level, La Paz sits on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau with stunning snow-capped Mount Illimani as its backdrop. The city tumbles downwards into a canyon, so you’ll find many a cobblestone street and narrow alley on impossibly steep hills (or perhaps they just seem so steep given the effects of the altitude) filled with colourful markets selling everything and anything.
As Latin America’s most indigenous nation, many of its women still wear the traditional dress – the bowler hat is particularly popular among Quechua and Aymara women, after it was introduced by British railway workers in the 1920s! And La Paz's extensive colour-coded cable car system or subway in the sky has revolutionized public transport in the world's highest capital city.
To the west, Lake Titicaca is a must for anyone hopping over the border from Peru. According to Andean folklore, Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun. It is the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable body of water in the world. The enthralling, deep-blue inland sea is the unifying, longtime home of highland cultures steeped in the old ways. Moon and Sun Islands carry on ancient cultures and traditions, where indigenous temples, sacred fountains and hallowed shrines will enthral anyone who visits.
Set in the central highlands are at the heart of the country, Sucre is Bolivia’s most beautiful city and the symbolic heart of the nation. It was here that independence was proclaimed, and while La Paz is the seat of government, Sucre is recognized in the constitution as the nation’s capital. It is a charming city, filled with elegant, whitewashed buildings, pretty churches, excellent museums brimming with history and the second oldest university on the continent.
The mining village of Potosi, just to the south of Sucre, is also well worth a visit. Once the richest city in South America thanks to its silver production which bankrolled the Spanish Empire, silver mining has all but stopped here, leaving just a few remnants of the glory days in the form of grand churches and elaborate colonial buildings.
Nestled between two ranges of the rugged Andes Mountains, the Altiplano is a vast, windswept plateau that stretches more than 900 kilometres from southern Peru to northern Argentina. Most of this arid upland, which averages about 3,750 meters in elevation, sits in western Bolivia, where its surface is dotted with a series of stunning natural attractions. This is a surreal landscape of colours and shades, dramatic scenery, smooth mountains and volcanoes, hardy wildlife and even hardier people. These are the Bolivian Badlands, some of the most remote, inhospitable and inaccessible corners of South America but also the most beautiful.
From the snow-white crystals of the world’s largest salt flats and flocks of pink flamingos in the technicolor lakes dotted around the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the Altiplano offers spectacular, vividly colored vistas for intrepid travelers.
Covering an area of over 12,000 square kilometres in southwest Bolivia and containing around 11 billion tonnes of salt, Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It was formed when Lago Minchin – a prehistoric lake once covering the majority of southwest Bolivia – dried up. Beneath the thick salt crust are huge reserves of lithium-rich brine; in fact, around 70 per cent of the world’s lithium is mined here. When the surface is dry, the salar is a pure white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable – just blue sky, white ground and you. When the salt flats flood for a few months a year, its surface perfectly reflects the clouds and the blue altiplano sky, and the horizon disappears. If you are driving across the surface at such times, the effect is surreal; it is hard to believe that you are not flying through the clouds. This phenomenal landscape is quite rightly Bolivia’s piece de resistance.
A trip from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile takes 2 or 3 nights overland in a robust 4x4. Accommodation is in simple refuges and hotels made out of salt (yes, really) and more recently cool and upscale airstream campers and luxury dome lodges have surfaced in remote corners of the salt pans. But the incredible scenery as you drive for hours over a lake of solid salt 15 times the size of Singapore, past coloured lagoons, snow-capped volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, makes this one of the most spectacular trips in the world.
For wildlife enthusiasts, the Bolivian Amazon is a jewel in its crown. Established fairly recently in 1995, Madidi National Park is a jungle paradise situated in the in the upper Amazon river basin of Bolivia. Home to a record breaking number of species and plants, the park is not only one of the most diverse ecological hot spots on the planet but one of the largest protected areas in Bolivia. Spanning 19,000 square kilometres from the Andes deep into the Amazon as well as ranging in altitude from 200 to 6,000 meters above sea level, the park’s topography is vast and varied. From snow capped mountains to cloud forests and tropical jungles, Madidi offers up some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.
An ecological masterpiece, Madidi boasts thousands of species of birds, insects, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians as well as over 20,000 plant species. Jaguars, sloths, vicuñas, pumas, spectacled bears and pink river dolphins are just some of the animals you can expect to see inside the jungle’s green walls. The park is also home to a large portion of Bolivia’s avian population. It is estimated 1,100 species of birds exist in Madidi, amounting to 11% of all species worldwide. One of the best ways to experience Madid’s wildlife is by cruising along the muddy riverbanks of Tuichi River.
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