Travel Obsessions: Bolivia
Adventure is everywhere in the South American republic of Bolivia. Whether it’s Bolivian marching powder (see Aussie backpacker Rusty Young’s account of his time in guard-less San Pedro Prison in La Paz in his book, Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail) or the soaring Andes and the edge of the Amazon, Bolivia is complex and captivating.
First you’ll have to acclimatise – in more ways than one. Situated at a lofty altitude of 3,660 metres above sea level in the Altiplano region, the administrative and governmental capital of La Paz (Sucre is the legal capital) is literally breathtaking – there’s less oxygen up there and you’ll have to spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude before you tackle trekking.
A week in La Paz will give you the time to get a handle on the culture. Officially a Plurinational State, myriad cultures exist in Bolivia (around 36 cultures and 30 official languages) making it the most indigenous country in the Americas with many Bolivians representing pure Native American roots like Quechua, Aymará and Uru ancestry.
The landlocked country does share Lake Titicaca (the world’s highest navigable lake) with Peru and here you’ll find a way of life that’s existed for centuries with reed boats and llamas for transport. Or check out the world’s largest salt flats, the mesmerising Salar de Uyuni. So many firsts, isn’t it time you added Bolivia to your travel list?
Best time to visit: As one of South America’s largest countries, there’s a lot of scope, weather-wise, in Bolivia. There’s the Altiplano, Sub-Andean Bolivia and the Tropical Lowlands for starters and then high season during the winter from May to October – the best conditions for trekking, hiking and biking. August to October is the best time to visit the Salar de Uyuni, while the festival season between February and April is great for culture seekers. Summer (November to April) is also the rainy season so transport can be tricky or just downright dangerous.
Know: In the 1500s, Bolivia’s silver, gold, tin, zinc and lead mines funded the Spanish empire and today miners still work in some of the most treacherous conditions in the world. In fact, miners in Potosí give offerings to El Tío (The Uncle), a scary mine demon, in return for protection. There are hundreds of El Tío statues in the mines of Cerro Rico and the legend is also immortalised in the music video for Naughty Boy’s song “La La La”.
The country is also home to the world’s only bolivianita mine – a precious stone that occurs when amethyst and citrine fuse to create the gem’s unique purple and yellow appearance. Only found at the remote Anahi Mine, bolivianita is steeped in local legend too. As the story goes, a Spanish soldier fell in love with the Ayoreode tribe princess, Anahí, and on learning that she planned to run away with her colonial beau, the tribe plotted to kill the soldier but accidently killed her instead. The bolivianita is said to represent her two loves: the Spaniard and her tribe.
Places to go:
La Paz – From the unique (and slightly confrontational) Mercado de Hechicería (Witches Market) to market day on Avenida Potosí every Thursday, there’s plenty of culture to soak up in the city while you acclimatise to the altitude. A day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tiwanaku ruins is also worth a visit being the spiritual and political centre of the pre-Columbian Tiwanakan Empire.
Thought to be the birthplace of the sun in Andean folklore, Lake Titicaca is a captivating mix of cultures, traditions and cute llama photo ops – all against a stunning backdrop of blue water in the high hills and peaks of the Andes.
Sucre – Meaning ‘sugar’ in Spanish, the judicial capital of Bolivia is a picture-perfect colonial city. A must-see is the 450-odd dinosaur footprints on a limestone wall in Cal Orkco, a former quarry.
Fun to say and fun to visit, Cochabamba is the country’s third largest city and said to be the culinary capital of Bolivia.
Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia’s famous salt flats are the largest in the world and span over 12,000 square kilometres. The site of thousands of selfies, you can manipulate dimensions to comical effect against a shimmering backdrop of blue sky and flat, white ground extending infinitely into the horizon.