Bolivia is South America’s hidden gem, getting only half the attention it deserves. The country is a jumble of paradoxes, as the poorest South American country but the richest in natural resources.
Bolivia’s capital city is La Paz, a city of cobblestone alleys and traditional, colourful markets next to banking skyscrapers. You heard of the great views in Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town? Don’t tell, but La Paz plays in the same league. Driving down to the city proper from the Altiplano reveals jaw-dropping views at every corner.
If you’re feeling adventurous, ride a bike down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” to Coroico nearby, or for more chilled-out activities, wander through the markets past colonial buildings. Museums like the ones on Calle Jaén complete the picture. La Paz is today’s South America’s true Backpacker Central.
After a few days or weeks in La Paz, Copacabana is another popular destination in Bolivia. Enjoy the marvellous scenery over Lake Titicaca, and admire the stunning sunset at the Cerro Calvario. There are also several festivals and events, such as the Alasitas festival in January and the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria in February, where pilgrims from Peru and Bolivia perform traditional Aymara dances. Think lots of music, drinking and food.
Rurrenabaque is where you’ll get your Amazon fix. Be in touch with nature and wildlife by going for community-run ethno-ecotourism projects that include rainforest trekking and bow-and-arrow fishing. But make sure you pick your tour groups wisely. Some of the operators claim to be eco-friendly yet don’t bother to remove inorganic waste from the campsites they manage.
In a nutshell, your most memorable Rurrenabaque experience will be a boat ride through a muddy river, in search for pink river dolphins and alligators combined with a jungle walk in search for snakes. You’ll see all of these, almost guaranteed.
Back in La Paz, hop on a bus to Sucre; here, you can trek up to Museo de la Recoleta for some great views of the city, with whitewashed buildings and stunning mountain vistas. There are also nice villages and markets to visit on a day trip, including Yotala, Nucchu and Q’atalla. For a great night scene, check out Mitos discothèque, open during weekends.
Potosi is another city destination you shouldn’t skip. It’s known mostly for the cooperative mining that goes on in the region: a visit to a mine is a tough, but truly eye-opening experience that you’d have to brace yourself for, even as a mere visitor. Observing the difficult life of the miners requires you to be doubly sure you won’t have any medical (or psychological) setbacks before you sign up and go down. Also go for a walk around the city centre and admire the buildings and colonial architecture.
Save the best for last. The highlight of your Bolivian trip is your visit to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Organize a day trip with a tour group, and do take a warm sleeping bag (we forgot, and surely regretted).
The tour takes 3-4 days, and you will admire the salt plains, stunning desert vistas, unusual rock formations, hot springs, geysers, lagoons, volcanoes and lots of flamingos, especially in November. There are some places you won’t be able to head to if you go during the wet season, but you’ll have the extra thrill of a Jesus-moment by walking on the salt plain that looks deceivingly like water.
Most tours are organzied as a roundtrip from and to Uyuni. To head to Chile, get off the tour at Laguna Verde on the third day. For Salta in Argentina, take a four-day circuit that ends in Tupiza (highly recommended). From Salta, you can go to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
(This itinerary is based on our Bolivia Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)