Beyond Bolivia

 

If you’ve landed by plane at El Alto airport in La Paz, I have good news for you: you’ve arrived in one of the most exciting and mysterious destinations left in South America. You will experience a lifestyle that combines the resolutely modern – as the skyscrapers in downtown La Paz remind you – with the downright indigenous, as women with ‘bombin’ hats and ‘pollera’ pleated skirts walk around you.

 

 

But the not-so-fantastic news will hit you first, while you gaze down into the plateau of La Paz a full 400m below. El Alto lies at an altitude of 4,150m, higher than Lhasa in Tibet,  so be prepared for what the locals call ‘soroche’ – altitude  sickness. That pumping feeling in your head will eventually go away, as long as you take it easy for a few days: no attempt at athletic feats, no late nights and absolutely no alcohol. Difficult, I know, but if I can do it, so can you.

 

Tiwanaku , about an hour away from La Paz, is Bolivia’s not-to-be-missed historical site with a civilisation that flourished around the time of Ancient Rome: kind of pre-pre-Incan, if you like. Not much is known about the people who built these large walls, carried those monoliths or built such giant statues; there is enough controversy  for New Agers to claim Tiwanaku as – wait for it – the site of Ancient  Atlantis.

 

Of course, no way can anyone resist the blue lure of Lake Titicaca – one of the legendary South American locations like the Amazon, the Atacama or Machu Picchu. As the focus of Andean cosmogony, it certainly doesn’t  disappoint, either in physical beauty or in archeological sights.

 

A longer route out of La Paz leads to the majesty of the Andean altiplano around Uyuni and the city of Potosí. Flying to Bolivia and not experiencing the primeval mining atmosphere of Potosí by travelling into the silver innards of the Rich Mountain that rises above the city is a waste of your plane ticket. Plus you will only regret later missing out on the world’s largest salt flats of Uyuni and the surrounding volcanic landscape – sometimes Martian, sometimes Daliesque, but ever always eerie. You can then continue on to Chile and the Atacama desert or visit the southern city of Tarija – the final stand of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – for a passage to Argentina.

 

The least visited part of the country lies in the lowlands of the east, beyond the colonial charm of Sucre – the ‘constitutional’ capital they’ll keep reminding you, whatever that means in practice  – and below Cochabamba with its sunny, everspring climate. There, you’ll find another  Bolivia: the hot sprawl of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s second city, and the unexplored tropical wilderness of National Park Noel Kempff Mercado offer a more accessible alternative to the Paraguayan Chaco or the Brazilian Pantanal.

 

If you’ve arrived in Bolivia, stay a full month and enjoy this unfamiliar country to the max. At a minimum I’d recommend a two-week circuit La Paz–Uyuni–Potosí–Sucre–Cochabamba–La Paz and out to Peru through Lake Titicaca; although, if you add one more week you can include Santa Cruz and the jungle delights of Noel Kempff.

 

Myself, I’ve done it all – or almost all – and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

 

 


You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here
roundtheworldflights.com have some great options in Bolivia and Lake Titicaca here