Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you’ll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you’re headed). In general, you won’t find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.
In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is located), you’ll feel like you’re in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.
You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there’s world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they’re internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.
Novice or pro, Bolivia has it all when it comes to bagging peaks (some extinct or dormant volcanoes) or trekking, mostly within a few hours of La Paz. The Cordillera Real range offers verdant river valleys teeming with llamas and alpacas, and the occasional Aymara farmstead; calderas, and glaciers, all in a day’s hike. Best of all, you’re not likely to see another soul, other than your guide, cook, and the mule or llama carrying your gear.
If you’re into mountaineering, Huayna Potosi (19,974) and Illimani (21,122 feet) are both visible from La Paz. The former can be done by beginners in good physical condition (acclimatization time is crucial, however, before you attempt a summit with a reliable guide; click here for tips on choosing a solid company), while the latter is a technical climb. Seattle-based Mountain Madness offers a Bolivia climbing school using local guides, and is an exceptional outfitter. June through August are best, weather-wise.
Private trips, however, are the norm in Bolivia, and can be planned around just one person. Another great company is UK-based Bolivian Mountains, which specializes in the Cordillera Real region. Owner Jon Cassidy is a guide himself, and relies upon local, experienced guides to keep operations running smoothly from across the Atlantic. Expect first-class attention, service, and food, for super-affordable prices; IFMGA-certified. From $400 for one person (including aforementioned pack animals, cook, guide, and tent, for 3-day trek).
These days, you can’t walk a block in La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (Calle Sarganaga, between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Illampu) without seeing a mountain biking agency, thanks to Alistair Matthew, who essentially introduced the sport commercially to Bolivia about 14 years ago. The Kiwi founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking started out with four bikes, and today runs an internationally-renowned company frequented by industry pros.
Many outfitters offer the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” (aka Death Road/Camino de la Muerte, about 35 miles east of La Paz, in the jungly Yungas region) bike trips, and it’s by far the most popular trip offered by Gravity (with over 10,500 feet of descent, from glaciers and cloud forest to Amazon Basin, small wonder). Yet, there are better, less-crowded options that will appeal more to hardcore riders.
Gravity’s “Size Matters” ride in the Chacaltaya-Zongo region (about two hours from La Paz) starts at what was once the world’s highest ski resort, on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, providing views of all of the region’s 6,000 peaks. You can kill it on the winding road down into steaming jungle, on one of the world’s largest descents achievable in a single day. Gravity also offers advanced trips to two Incan foot trails, Takesi and Chorro. Terrain ranges from smooth, flowing dirt at 15,000 feet, to technical rock and step as you make your way into the jungle. The best months for riding are May through late October.
If the Old West is your passion, then you’ll love Tupiza, approximately 11 hours southwest of La Paz. Bolivia’s frontera town is famed for being near the (alleged) final heist and resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Looking like the love-child of Sedona and Bryce Canyon, this is a region of ravines, red dirt, cacti, and ranching. Indulge your inner cowboy — or girl — by taking a three-day horseback ride into the high desert, exploring scenic spots such as Quebrada Seca, Valle de los Machos, Cañon del Duende, Palquiza, Pampa Grande, and Entre Rios.
You’ll spend nights in small villages, accommodated by local families (the lodging is basic, refugio-style). Besides the scenery, it’s an amazing opportunity to delve into Quechua and vaquero culture. Previous riding experience isn’t required, and Tupiza’s climate is temperate year-round. That said, during the January-March rainy season, certain areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.
Tupiza Tours is one of the region’s most well-established and reputable outfitters for both Salar de Uyuni and horseback tours. From $106 pp/meals and accommodation included.
Av. Chichas 187, Tupiza, tupizatours.com
Condoriri Massif, Cordillera Real
Bolivia’s most famous spot for trekking and climbing is about two hours east of La Paz, and remarkable for its towering volcanic peaks, calderas, and lush river valleys. If you’re pressed for time and can’t spare the 13 or so days needed to do the Transcordillera trek, opt for a three-day adventure along the famous Codoriri Massif (this series of 13 snowy peaks is so named for 16, 944-foot Cabeza del Condor, which resembles a condor, head turned, wings folded).
The scenery is stunning, with turquoise alpine lakes, herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep, Aymara farmsteads, and narrow mule trails on the interior of ancient calderas. As long as you don’t have previous problems with altitude, are in good physical condition, and have sufficient time to acclimate prior, you’ll have no problem. Be forewarned, however, that you’ll be trekking and sleeping at 14,000 to 15,000 feet, completely isolated from civilization; in the event of altitude sickness, you’ll have no choice but to hike out. Be sure to bring plenty of layers as well as a down sleeping bag. The best times to visit are post-rainy season, from April-December.
Imagine an alpine colonial village, built onto a hillside in an Andean Valley. That’s Sorata. At just under 8,000 feet, Sorata is a haven for climbers, trekkers, and mountain bikers, who use the town as a base to acclimate and condition or kick back, pre- and post-trip. It’s equally popular amongst vacationers from La Paz, 93 miles away, who come for the views of towering, snowcapped Illampu, and Ancohuma. Mountain biking in the hills above Sorata, often above the clouds on mule trails and scree slopes, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Located in the southwest of Bolivia about six hours from the grim, dusty town of Uyuni (which lies at the edge of the salt flat), and roughly an 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, Tupiza is a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Local outfitters offer a variety of activities, including horseback riding, hiking (you can also opt to do this on your own), volcano climbing across the border in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and four-day Jeep trips to the salt flats (a more scenic, albeit slightly longer, trip than the standard, round-trip Uyuni route that’s growing in popularity).
If your idea of heaven is exploring quebradas (ravines) and bizarre rock formations, or staying on a rustic estancia, Tupiza is your place. While there’s not a lot to do in town proper, there are full amenities, and the Mercado Campesino (Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, on the edge of town) is fascinating for a food and culture fix. Tip: If you’re coming from La Paz, an overnighter bus is ideal if you’re pressed for time; just be sure to bring a sleeping bag or blanket with you.
Hotel Fuentes:This popular, comfortable, colonial-style cheapie is located right in the heart of La Paz’s tourist ghetto, aka the Mercado de Hecheria (Witch’s Market). It’s no frills, but is walking distance to just about everything you’ll require, the owners are accommodating (for example, rising at dawn to call you a cab to the airport, and waiting with you to ensure it arrives), and if you score a room on the third or fourth floors, you just may have views of majestic Illimani. Breakfast and free wifi included. From about $13/double with shared bath. Calle Linares 888, tripadvisor.com
Hotel Anexo Mitru:The newer sibling to Tupiza’s upscale (for Tupiza) Hotel Mitru, this is a friendly, airy, seriously affordable option right across the street from the train station. Rooms are large and well-lit, with comfy beds, desks, and cubbies, and the staff are cheerful and helpful. Breakfast and free wifi are included. From $15/triple with shared bath (note, these rooms are rented to solo travelers when available). Calle Avaroa s/n, hotelmitru.com
Altai Oasis Eco-lodge-Organic Farm:This lovely, family-owned adobe lodge in Sorata is a favorite amongst the outdoorsy crowd, in part because it offers both cabins and camping. The other reason it attracts nature lovers? Its location deep within a valley surrounded by the Andes, in the shadow of Illampu. Many ingredients for the on-site restaurant are sourced from the property’s own garden, and you’ll drift off to sleep with the sounds of the Challazuyo River in your ears (not like you won’t already be exhausted from all the hiking, biking, and climbing). Amenities include hot showers (a big deal in Bolivia), fireplaces, and hammocks for lazing on muscle-repair days. From $18/pp cabins$12 pp dorms/$4 camping. Go to website for coordinates/directions, altaioasis.com/home
La Paz’s El Alto Airport, despite its elevation (13,323 feet), is clean and modern, and serviced by a number of carriers, including TACA, LAN, Avianca, and American Airlines. It’s about 15 minutes by taxi to downtown, and fares will vary depending upon your driver (and his ethics; don’t take unmarked cabs); prices average around eight to 10 dollars.
Buses run nationwide, but their quality varies wildly. While the train route that goes from Orouro to Tupiza is famous, the bus is actually faster and more comfortable, as long as you spring for a semi-cama or cama variety (these have seats that recline part-way and a footrest, or fold down into a bed). Avoid the janky old beaters at all costs, unless you enjoy hours of Shaken Baby Syndrome on your body. The best carriers will depend upon where you’re headed, and it pays to do some asking around or online research; El Dorado is a solid pick if you’re headed to the Southwest.
If you’re on a tight schedule, book or purchase bus tickets a day ahead. If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can fly from far-flung outposts like Uyuni to La Paz or Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s Amazon region), but taking the bus also affords an opportunity to see spectacular scenery. Budget travelers can opt for overnight bus hauls to offset lodging costs, and save time.
Tip: The new Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook comes out July 1. Pre-order yours now.
Given Bolivia’s current political stability, the biggest problems are potential road blocks due to flooding or demonstrations. Before leaving town, register with the U.S. Department of State for updates on everything from road conditions to disease outbreaks (this isn’t specific to Bolivia, fyi; it’s a good idea for anywhere you happen to be traveling in the developing world). And while Bolivia is fairly safe, it’s still a developing nation in Latin America. Solo female travelers should use the normal precautions, and for the love of god, no one should even think about buying drugs, especially cocaine.
Use only marked taxis, rather than freelance drivers. At worst, you’ll get ripped off. Be aware that even the legit taxis usually don’t have meters, so if you have concerns over cost, ask your driver the approximate price before departing.
With regard to buses, it pays to do your research. Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for bus and outfitter recommendations, and remember that you usually get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a handful of bolivianos if it means dealing with a drunk driver or guide, or a crappy Jeep for that Salar de Uyuni tour. If you’re planning a trek or, especially a climb, make sure that the company has legitimate certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association ( IFMGA), and also do online research or ask personal contacts if they have referrals for where you’re headed. Trekking and mountaineering in the Andes is no joke, and again, it’s not worth risking your life to save some money. You need time to acclimatize, regardless of your physical condition, so don’t plan on scaling any mountains within a few days of arriving.
Another tip with regard to finding a reputable outfitter: always try and contact them via email before you depart on your trip. If they don’t respond right away, move on. Just as you would at home, go with companies that respond promptly, and answer all of your questions thoroughly. Good tour operators have bilingual staff answering emails, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, although some trips will charge extra for a bilingual guide. Although some companies will require payment in cash, they’ll at least make a reservation for you, so don’t let a “no credit cards” rule necessarily deter you.
Bolivia’s high season is December through early March (remember the seasons are reversed, since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere), which also coincides with the rainy season. January through mid-March are generally not very pleasant; since most of Bolivia’s charms lie in outdoor recreation, plan accordingly. The ideal time to visit may depend upon what you’re interested in doing.
Also note that different seasons may mean different types of tourism. The Salar de Uyuni, for example, is a vast, blinding white sea of salt crystals in the dry season, while in the wet, it shimmers with mirror-like reflections. Both are stunning, but when it’s wet, the flooding often prohibits driving across the Salar, or visiting its main attraction, Isla Incahuasi.
[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]