Why Bolivia Should Be Your Next Travel Destination

amazon jungle Before traveling to Bolivia, I received mixed opinions on whether the country was a worthwhile destination to add to my itinerary. Because I wanted to find out for myself firsthand, I – thankfully – made sure I did. Now, Bolivia is one of my favorite travel destinations on the planet. Here’s why:

It Offers One-Of-A-Kind Adventures

Where else can you bike the world’s most dangerous road, explore the planet’s largest forest and hike the Earth’s longest continental mountain range all on one vacation? From La Paz, you can sign up to cycle the Death Road, a 43-mile narrow path with a steep drop-off known for being extremely dangerous. Bolivia also offers a gateway to the Amazon Jungle, and tours are often cheaper than from other countries. Once in Rurrenabaque, you can decide whether you want to go to The Amazon or The Pampas, which has excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing, although it can be quite a harrowing experience. Additionally, the Andes Mountains run through Bolivia, and offer adventurous options like trekking, climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, bird watching and more.It’s Budget-Friendly

Actually, it’s more than budget-friendly. To most Westerners, it’s downright cheap. Many have no problem traveling for less than $20 per day, depending on the activities done. With basic accommodation for less than $10 per night, local food for less than $1 and cheap transportation, you can spend a lot of time here for very little. For example, I actually complained once about having to pay $3 for a 20-minute cab ride. In Bolivia, that’s expensive. Moreover, one night a group of six new friends and I went to the Hard Rock Cafe, a more touristy option but also loved by locals, for a night out. All seven of us ordered food, drank cocktails nonstop and orders bottles of wine. At the end of the night, the bill was still less than $70 total.

locals in bolivia The Locals Are Friendly

Before heading to Bolivia, I was warned about dangerous locals who were out to get tourists. This, as usual, was advice given to me by people who had never actually visited the country. In my experience, most of the locals I met were extremely friendly and excited to get to know more about my culture. A bit of Spanish may be necessary for this, as many Bolivians don’t speak English. Even so, if you need help most locals will try their best to point you in the right direction. Of course, watch your belongings and use common sense; however, I traveled through the country as a solo female and made it through without a problem.

There Is An Undiscovered Wine Region

While most travelers are aware of the delicious vinos to be had in Argentina and Chile, Tarija in Bolivia features an undiscovered wine region. Surprisingly enjoyable, what makes these grapes unique is they’re grown around 6,000 feet in elevation. Head to La Valle de la Concepción, or Conception Valley, which features boutique vineyards and bodegas to partake in wine tasting. Don’t expect upscale and precise wine creations like in the more popular places like Napa and Mendoza. Bolivian vino is simpler and less structured, nothing too complex but drinkable and fitting with the country’s seemingly unpretentious, “anything goes” philosophy.

salar de uyuni You’ll View Unworldly Terrain

After journeying across the Soleli Desert, I am convinced Bolivia has the most unusual landscape on Earth. I witnessed hot pink lagoons filled with flamingos, sparkling yet toxic lakes, active and inactive volcanoes, enormous deadly geysers, surreal rock formations, an old train graveyard, smoking hot springs and the world’s largest salt desert, among other bizarre sights. From La Paz, I also went horseback riding through Moon Valley, which appears like a desert full of stalagmites and rainbow-colored mountains, reminding me once again how unusual yet beautiful the country’s landscape was.

You’ll Get High

In terms of altitude, Bolivia is a very high country. For example, at 11,975 feet, La Paz is the world’s highest de facto capital city. You’ll get to take part in some of the planet’s highest activities. Visit the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca, at 12,464 feet, relax at the world’s highest beer spa in La Paz and take a cable car up to the tallest Jesus statue in the world, Christ de la Concordia, at 112.2 feet tall.

corn and potatoes There Is A Vibrant Culture

Indigenous culture is visible in Bolivia, and visitors can witness locals in time-honored dress, taste traditional foods and learn about ancient customs. Even in the big cities like La Paz, you’ll see locals dressed in a traditional pollera skirt and bowler hat. Visitors can sample cuisine that has been influenced by the Andes region, with ingredients like corn, potatoes and quinoa, as well as the arrival of the Spaniards, with staples like rice, chicken and pork. Cultural festivals, like the indigenous Carnaval in Oruro, Alasitas in La Paz and La Virgen de las Nieves in Italque and Copacabana are still celebrated. You’ll also encounter rituals done for Pachamama, or “Mother Earth,” who provides life, food and safety for the people. For example, when toasting with a drink, locals will usually pour a bit on the floor in honor of Pachamama. Moreover, you can head to the “Witches’ Market” in La Paz and purchase a mummified llama fetus. When locals buy a new home, they offer the item to Pachamama by burying it under the foundation for good luck.

Visible History Still Exists Today

Through architecture, storytelling, ruins and colonial towns you’ll be able to learn much about Bolivia’s history. One of the most famous historical cities in Bolivia is Potosi. Founded in 1545, the city held an abundance of silver and was once the wealthiest city in all the Americas. Sadly, Potosi’s isn’t the happiest of stories, as many indigenous people died in the mines working in unimaginable working conditions, which are still visible today. Exploring Potosi, you’ll take in colonial architecture, grand churches, industrial monuments, artificial lakes, a complex aqueduct system and patrician houses. This, combined with the fact it’s such a prime example of a silver mine in modern times, has put Potosi on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

[Images via Jessie on a Journey]

How To Survive Bolivia’s Death Road

death road“This is the most dangerous road in the world. Don’t become part of the landscape,” advised Oscar, a biking guide from Vertigo Biking Co. Bolivia.

On a sunny Wednesday right outside of La Paz in Bolivia, I found myself adorned from head to toe in cycling gear, standing at the summit of a 40-mile downhill road. While technically called Old Road, the path is more commonly known as Death Road, even by locals. While I’ve written about numerous travel destinations with menacing names, such as Devil’s Tooth in Bolivia, Death Valley in Chile and Hell’s Gate in New Zealand, the name Death Road should be taken very literally.

The road was originally built by prisoners of war from Paraguay in 1932. Before 2006, Death Road was the only connection between La Paz and the jungle. According to Oscar, before this time there were about 25 cars per year and about 2 bikes per year that would fall over the edge. The terrain is rough and the road is narrow, so there isn’t very much space to move over. Along the trail you can even see memorials dedicated to lost lives, like an area called “The Balcony,” where several politicians were killed. If you climb down the steep valleys – which I don’t advise – you can still see some buses that fell over the edge. Even knowing these facts, I knew it was something I had to experience for myself. It’s kind of like flying; yes, people die on airplanes, but a majority of fliers survive the journey. I knew if I kept a positive attitude and focused, I too could survive Death Road.death roadBefore going, I made the mistake of reading other travelers’ accounts of the journey. After reading stories of almost toppling over steep cliff faces, skidding out of control on narrow paths and being so terrified needing to quit and ride in the van, I felt nauseous and anxious the day of the ride. However, my nervousness was overcome by curiosity at seeing just how dangerous this road was. While the road is safer now, accidents still happen. For example, in January there was a landslide that caused a bus to go over the edge. Furthermore, last year a Japanese tourist, who booked the tour through a cheap and unreliable company, lost control of her bike due to a brake failure and fell 200 feet to her death.

For this reason, my first piece of advice when undertaking a bike ride down Death Road is to choose a good tour operator. There are plenty of companies out there willing to give anybody a bike without caring if it really works or not. I highly recommend Vertigo Biking Co. Bolivia. The bikes are high quality, and they make sure to test them before each run. Moreover, there is a guide in front and a guide in back of the group the entire time. A van is also following nearby, in case anybody gets altitude sickness or can’t make the full journey. And if you’re extremely slow like me, it helped that the guides stopped the group for pictures every 10 to 20 minutes. The company also does a lot to help make the area safer. In 2009, a man taking a Vertigo tour fainted on the trail, and passed away from a punctured lung on the way home. The company has a good relationship with the family of this man, who has helped donate an ambulance and worked with Vertigo to build fences and memorials on the road.

death valleyThe first part of the ride entails driving on the highway to get to the entry point at Unduavi. Don’t get too comfortable though, as this is just to help you get used to the bike. From there, the road gets extremely rocky. I don’t just mean gravel, but a mixture of large stones, pebbles and jagged rock. Because of this, it’s quite easy to lose control of the bike, and there are basically no guardrails to save you.

This leads me to my next piece of advice, which is to take your time. I was 20 minutes behind the group the whole ride, and didn’t feel the least bit bad. I wanted to feel safe and enjoy the scenery, not feel unstable and scared. Additionally, sharp turns, dangerous corners and downhill sections can make the journey precarious. Oscar was great about it, joking with the group “this section will take us 10 minutes. Well, 30 minutes if you’re Jessica.” No matter how slow I went, the back guide stayed with me, as well. Going at a slow pace, I never felt like I was going to fly over the edge. Don’t get me wrong, looking down the endless cliff will definitely bring butterflies to your stomach, but stay away from the edge and keep control and your biggest concern will be a busted kneecap – still not fun, but better than dying. Our guide actually told us that about once or twice a month, he gets riders who panic and cry because of the heights. However, being afraid of heights myself, I never felt scared, as long as I cycled away from the edge.

poolAlong the way, you’ll pass villages, waterfalls and beautiful mountain landscapes. The last 20 minutes of the journey are on a mix of mud, dirt and rock. Once you finish, you will be greatly rewarded. The tour ends at a tropical-themed hotel in the Coroico area with a delicious buffet lunch of soup, salad, rice, pasta, fried chicken, plantains, French fries and sauces. You can also swim in the pool and tan in a tropical setting. Shampoo and towels are provided if you’d like to shower.

For me, a great tour means feeling safe, getting a worthwhile experience and having a guide who feels more like a friend than an instructor. This tour provided just that, as Oscar told us funny stories and dedicated silly songs to us on the way home, even inviting the group to dinner and to play soccer with him the next day. The tour cost me 450 Bolivianos (about $65), but I was told they were having a sale for people purchasing in person, and the price is usually 540$BOB (about $78). Along with the tour, you will also get photos, a video and a free T-shirt to show everyone that you lived to tell the tale of conquering Death Road.

Bolivia’s “Highway of Death” kills US mountain biker

A thrilling ride down the “Camino de la Muerte,” or “Death Road,” has become a popular adventure destination in Bolivia. I, personally, get nauseous just looking at the photo.

A 56-year old U.S. tourist, Kenneth Mitchell, was killed here in mountain-biking accident after tumbling from his rented bicycle and falling down a 200-foot cliff. Mitchell is the 12th cyclist to die on the road in the last decade.

The highway east from La Paz, the world’s highest capital city, winds dramatically down the face of the Andes, dropping 11,800 feet in just 40 miles. According to IHT, the narrow dirt track earned its nickname for the frequency with which Bolivian buses would plunge off its 3,300-foot cliffs, killing hundreds a year until a new paved highway opened 2007.

The cause of the accident is unknown. Mitchell’s bike, left behind at the cliff’s edge, was in perfect working order. Strange.