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The Ultimate Guide to Bolivia

Updated: Oct 23

Bolivia is perhaps the most surprising place I've ever been to. It has a reputation as one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and the recent riots over the actions of the controversial (now ex-) President Evo Morales have perhaps drawn people's attention even more towards the country's alarming social and political problems. Nonetheless, Bolivia remains a country of astounding beauty; both its nature and its people.


As I was there as part of a 4-month volunteering trip with Latin Link, I won't give you a full description of our day-to-day activities, but as we managed rather a lot of touristy excursions, we'll have a little look at what's on offer for the intrepid traveller, as well as some top tips for visiting and what I would do if I went back:



Cochabamba

Cochabamba is almost directly in the centre of Bolivia and as the location of our volunteering project, we got to know it rather well. As it is entirely surrounded by the Andes, it maintains quite a pleasant springtime climate all year round, and its centrality means that it's relatively accessible from most places in the country. Its altitude is relatively low for an Andean city, sitting at a comfortable 2,558 metres (8,392 feet) above sea level.


The city centre offers a beautiful blend of modern and colonial architecture, with a wide variety of shops, cafés, and the bustling La Cancha, which is one of the biggest marketplaces in Latin America. As is the case over the majority of Latin America, there are some stunning colonial churches that are free to go into and look around, and Plaza 14 de Septiembre (the main square) is a beautiful place to sit and read with a coffee, or simply people-watch.



In terms of activities, by far the best thing to do in my opinion is a trip up to the Cristo de la Concordia - the world's second-largest Christ statue after the one in Río de Janeiro. There's a cable car that you can take to the top, and the views of the city are nothing short of spectacular. There are plenty of benches to sit down on so that you can admire the vista, and there's a small café offering drinks, snacks, and ice creams.



Another major attraction of Cochabamba is Parque de la Familia. We were a little bewildered as to what we were going to just from the name ('Family Park' in English) but on arrival, we discovered that it was actually a fountain park, more specifically with aguas danzantes - 'dancing waters'. Though it sounds a little strange, it was a genuinely really fun evening out. The main event is a light show using the largest fountain, where multi-coloured lights, as well as images and video clips that celebrate Bolivian culture, are projected onto a screen of dancing water along with music, which is altogether a highly impressive performance. Check out this video if you want a preview - it doesn't do it full justice but it's pretty good! There are also tunnels formed from arched jets of water, fountains to just admire, and one that tests your ability to walk in between jets without getting soaked! Definitely go at night to get the best experience.



If I were to go back I would...

  • Go on some trips to see the surrounding nature. There are a lot of natural attractions fairly close to Cochabamba, such as Tunari Peak, Carrasco National Park, and Corani Lake.



La Paz

As one of the two capitals of Bolivia, La Paz has endless amounts on offer. The city is a beautiful and diverse one, and it is overlooked by Mt. Illimani, one of the highest peaks in Bolivia. It's significantly higher up than Cochabamba, sitting at 3,640m (11,975 ft) above sea level, but don't let that put you off.


We didn't have a great deal of money or time when we were there and so there was a significant amount we didn't manage to do, but in the 3-4 days we had there, I was overwhelmed by the stunning colour the city has. Much of this is to be found in the many tourist-orientated shops that are overflowing with beautiful alpaca-wool products and other tempting souvenirs, but more than that, in its markets such as Mercado Lanza or Mercado 16 de julio, and in the bustling streets filled with people from all over Bolivia and the rest of the world who have come to experience this incredible city.


Most of our short time in La Paz was spent wandering around to explore or just relaxing at our hostel (we needed the time off when we got there - trust me!), so in terms of recommending attractions first hand I'm not your gal, but I still wholeheartedly recommend the city, even if just for the atmosphere and choice of activities available.


If I were to go back I would...

  • Explore historical attractions. La Paz is steeped in history, and is home to multiple museums including the Bolivian National Museum of Archaeology, the Museum of Bolivian Andean Textiles, the Coca Museum, the National Art Museum, and even the Museum of Musical Instruments! That's not all, though; the historic and colourful Calle Jaén is home to some stunning colonial architecture, or if you really want to go for the Pre-Columbian attractions, then take a trip to Tiwanaku, one of the biggest archaeological sites in South America.



Samaipata

Samaipata is a small town on the edge of Bolivia's jungle region, situated between the cities of Sucre and Santa Cruz in the east of the country. It's relatively small and very laid-back, but it acts as a perfect gateway to loads of must-sees for those keen on Bolivia's incredible nature and history.


In terms of the town itself, it is an excellent place to have a relaxed wander or sit with a coffee, whilst enjoying the beautiful views over the surrounding mountains and green jungle-esque expanses. There are multiple accommodation options available - we stayed in Hostal Andoriña, which I can fully recommend for great facilities including comfortable dorms, a lounge with films on offer, and a communal kitchen; a mirador with stunning views; and a cracking breakfast! We also rather enjoyed the La Boheme bar as a favourite spot for food and drink - best G+T I ever had! Happy hour is 5-7 pm, and they have a deal with a restaurant around the corner which means they also offer some amazing food, in particular some really good burgers.


Samaipata is also a great base camp for visiting loads of amazing places in the surrounding area, such as El Fuerte. Often described as 'the Machu Picchu of Bolivia', El Fuerte holds a huge amount of historical significance as both a ritual and residential site, first for the Mojocoya people and then for the Incas, who made it a provincial capital. A visit to the site offers not only a unique experience of the past, but also some absolutely breathtaking views over the surrounding valley and jungle, and on top of that, it's inexpensive and not nearly as packed as somewhere like Machu Picchu.


Las Cuevas is another top attraction accessible from Samaipata. Don't be misled by the name, though; Las Cuevas is not a collection of caves, but waterfalls! Part of a very pretty reserve, a guided walk takes you to the three falls of Las Cuevas, all of which are stunningly beautiful, and swimming is permitted in the third. As with El Fuerte, there are very few tourists around; we practically had the place to ourselves!


Finally, Amboró National Park was a particular personal highlight. Just a 40-minute drive from Samaipata, Amboró National Park has a huge amount on offer, including amazing and expansive cloud forests, a rich variety of wildlife, and extremely diverse vegetation. You are only allowed to enter with a guide, but the more there are in a group, the cheaper the tour. We were fortunate enough to spend a night at Refugio Los Volcanes, a beautiful ecolodge in the heart of the park. 3 meals are included per night booked (the food is excellent) and the resident guides can take you wild swimming at Elvira Creek or hiking around the park. The other major advantage, however, is the total lack of light pollution, meaning the night sky is one of the most beautiful you will ever see.


If I were to go back I would...

  • Take a trip to the nearby Refugio de Fauna Silvestre, a volunteer-run sanctuary for rescued animals such as spider monkeys, who roam the sanctuary freely!



Uyuni Salt Flats

A vast white expanse in the dry season and the world's largest natural mirror in the rainy season, the Uyuni Salt Flats, or Salar de Uyuni, is arguably Bolivia's most famous attraction. The salt flats can be found in Bolivia's South West, bordering Chile's Atacama Desert. In terms of altitude, this trip takes you quite high - the town of Uyuni itself sits at 3,700m above sea level, but as you go into the more mountainous desert lands, you can go up to heights of over 5,000 metres. This does mean that temperatures can get very low, especially at night, so remember to wrap up warm. Our tour included hostel accommodation whilst on the flats but these didn't have any central heating, so taking layers was absolutely essential. There are more up-market hotels on the salar, however, which are undoubtedly a fair bit warmer! It's definitely worth looking at several tour options, making sure that it's a reputable company and all-inclusive, and booking in advance is worth it so that you're not searching at the last minute (a mistake we made and regretted when we were having to look at 10 pm the night before we wanted to leave!).


As well as the famous white plains of the postcards, a tour of the salar will also take you to lagoons, geysers, and an infinite desert. Local wildlife includes vicuñas, viscachas, and lots of flamingoes!


We did a 3-day tour of the Salt Flats which took us across from Uyuni to the Chilean border and back. It's a lot more driving than you expect, but the landscape does not fail to impress at any point. Day 1 was comprised of a trip to the 'train graveyard', Isla Incahuasi, and of course, the classic white expanse of pure salt. It's rather a surreal feeling to stand there surrounded by pure white with only the faint silhouettes of mountains and volcanoes in the distance - as if the world has suddenly been stripped bare all around you. Of course, the essential activity for your time on the Salt Flats is taking photos that play around with perspective - an opportunity too good to miss!


Day 2 was the day of the lagoons! We saw quite a few, including Laguna Blanca, Laguna Colorada, and Laguna Azul, all of which are fantastically vibrant; true jewels in the middle of the desert. We also entered into the Eduardo Avaroa National Park, where the heights reach up to a staggering 5,400m above sea level.


The third and final day included the Sol de la Mañana geysers. The smell of sulphur is somewhat unpleasant, but don't let that put you off. Sol de la Mañana is an area of about 10 square kilometres, receiving its name ('Morning Sun' in English) from the time of day it's at its most impressive. The geothermal activity in this area also means that there are natural hot springs available for bathing in, and several active volcanoes can be spotted as you drive through.


If I were to go back I would...

  • Go in the rainy season. The rainy season sees the endless white expanse of salt turn into the world's largest natural mirror, which has often been described as a phenomenon where heaven seems to meet earth in perfect reflections - incredible!



Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Santa Cruz is one of Bolivia's most beautiful cities, lying in the tropical eastern lowlands. It was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and is much more cosmopolitan than other places in Bolivia. We only had about 3 days there in total and had little time to truly explore it but it did not disappoint, offering some great places to eat, stay, and wander around. The market on Plaza 24 de Septiembre (the main square) was a particular highlight, including various stands with tourist-orientated souvenirs and crafts from local artisans.



If I were to go back I would...

  • Visit nature attractions such as the Espejillos Cascades and Kaa Iya National Park, as well as biocentres such as Guembe, the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens, and La Rinconada Eco Park.



Copacabana

No, not that Copacabana! Bolivia's Copacabana lies at the very edge of Lake Titicaca between La Paz and the Peruvian border. We only had a very short layover there, but what we saw was gorgeous. There are plenty of atmospheric cafés to enjoy, and the architecture is beautiful.


If I were to go back I would...

  • Explore the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Copacabana is an ideal base for visiting the islands on Bolivia's side of the lake, particularly Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna which both have some impressive Incan ruins.




Tips for visiting Bolivia

  • If you can connect with the locals, absolutely do it. Bolivians, as is the case with most Latin Americans, are so friendly and hospitable and they are often very keen to show off their beautiful country to visitors. If you have the time then it's definitely worth doing a volunteering programme that gets you involved with local people. More on choosing an ethical volunteering trip here.

  • It is 100% possible to do on a budget. The cost of living in Bolivia is very low so food, accommodation, and transport are all very affordable for tourists- £1 is roughly 9-10 Bolivianos, which is the average cost of a taxi ride there.

  • Don't ever drink water from the tap. Cochabamba, in particular, is infamous for having the worst levels of water cleanliness in Bolivia, and that's saying something! Always buy bottled water or make sure it's filtered.

  • Don't flaunt your expensive belongings such as cameras and phones, they could easily get stolen if you're too careless.

  • Don't pet the dogs. Obviously, there is a much higher risk in countries like Bolivia that dogs will have rabies, but more generally, dogs are trained as guard dogs and are not often kept as just pets. This means that many of them can become quite aggressive if you come too close, so it's not really a good idea unless you're absolutely sure that it's friendly.

  • When taking candid photos that feature locals, be aware that some of them may ask you not to or to delete the ones you've taken. This is rare, but there is a belief that some people hold which is that a piece of their soul is stolen if you take their photograph.

  • Get into Bolivian food. Some of it looks and tastes very weird, but a lot of it is also great. My personal favourites were Salteñas (a bit like small empanadas/pasties), Plátano con Leche (bananas blended with milk and sugar), Buñuelos (large doughnut-like flatbreads eaten with sugar, honey, or syrup), and Sopa de Quinoa (soup made with quinoa and vegetables).

  • Important things to remember about hygiene: always wipe your cutlery with a napkin before you eat in a restaurant, and don't buy meat or pre-cut fruit from street sellers as it's often exposed for most of the day in the heat. I genuinely saw a woman selling pre-cut pineapple from an uncovered wheelbarrow once - that cannot have been hygienic! Also, washing your hands as much as you can and as thoroughly as you can is super important if you want to avoid getting ill.

  • Only get into registered taxis. Only official taxis have the registration number printed on the side of the car - don't just rely on a taxi sign in the window!


If I were to go back I would...

  • Visit Sucre. We passed through Sucre briefly on the way to the Salt Flats but we didn't get much of a chance to look around Bolivia's famously beautiful 'white city', so I'd love to go back and explore it properly!

  • Go to the Oruro Carnival, which is apparently on a similar level to that of Río de Janeiro!

  • Visit the Tarija Vineyards.

  • Go to Valle de la Luna. I saw it on Race Across the World and now I'm desperate to go!

  • Go trekking in the Cordillera Real.

  • Visit Rurrenabaque. We had plans to go during our first holiday week, but these had to change for various reasons so we never made it! Rurrenabaque lies on the Beni river and is the gateway to Bolivia's northern rainforests. There are loads of things to do, and the nature tours look especially amazing.

  • Visit Potosí. We didn't think much of it, but then again we were passing through and spent most of our 3 hours there close to the bus station...we were told it was very beautiful, so I'd like to go back and have my previous impression proved wrong!



Bolivia is a country close to my heart, and having the opportunity to explore so much of it was incredible. I hope you've enjoyed this whistle-stop written tour and gleaned some useful info, happy travelling, amigos!



Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.


None of the links in this post are affiliate links or part of paid advertisements.


Photo credits go almost entirely to my wonderful teammates: Abi, Johnny, Joe, Amy, and Shona. The photos of Santa Cruz to the left and right of the team photo come from here and here respectively.

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