Surrounded by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile, Bolivia is a relatively undeveloped country in western-central South America.
However, what this landlocked country lacks in riches and glamour, it makes up for with its wealth of national treasures that shine through its infinite salt plains, free-roaming alpacas in the high altiplanos, tropical lowlands, picture-postcard islands, tranquil lakes, rushing rivers, rugged ravines and extreme adventures.
Bolivia is like the unpolished diamond that may be rough around the edges but has a brilliant core, and the best way to explore this diverse and bewildering nation is to start from its administrative capital, La Paz, high up on the Bolivian Plateau –the highest world capital at 12,000 feet above sea-level.
The first thing that hits you as you exit the airport is the breathlessness and the dizziness that comes with the thin air at such high altitudes. Suddenly, your luggage starts to feel that much heavier, your breathing becomes labored and you get tired in no time.
Generally, Diamox and rehydrating drinks are recommended to prevent or reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.
While in La Paz, look beyond the city’s unassuming architecture and lifestyle to find the real jewels the city has to offer.
The Spanish colonialists may have been the cause of much destruction here, but a lot of what you see in Bolivian cities were shaped and polished by these Conquistadors.
Located in La Paz’s old town Casco Viejo, Plaza Murillo is a public square surrounded by iconic buildings, including the National Congress of Bolivia, the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.
Plaza San Francisco
While Bolivia is not completely impervious to 21st-century comforts, it remains a land of unshakeable traditions, with many Bolivians proudly holding on to their Quechua, Aymara, and Inca heritage.
Indigenous women still wear the colorful clothing of the highlands, and the best place to observe them is Plaza San Francisco – a convenient meeting point in the heart of the city.
While at this famous plaza, do visit the late 18th-century San Francisco basilica, dedicated to Francis of Assisi. The excellent art museum housed within the church boasts a precious collection of historic paintings.
Museo Nacional de Arte
Not too far from Plaza Murillo is the Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art), housed in a well-preserved Spanish colonial mansion dating back to 1775.
The place boasts an impressive collection of colonial-era works of art as well as artwork from post-modern and abstract artists.
While the museum features works from many artists, one name that stands out among the rest is Marina Núñez del Prado, the first female Bolivian to make a name for herself in sculpting, which until then was a male-dominated area of expertise.
For a cultural experience of a different variety, visit the Witches’ Market where the ever-superstitious locals buy their mummified llama fetuses, herbal concoctions, carved amulets, medicinal plants and other stuff used in Bolivian rituals.
Visit the Mirador Laikacota to see how clusters of houses in the city’s outer suburbs cling to the steep mountainsides, spilling out in the valley below.
Here, You will get your first glimpse of the rugged peaks and the surrounding valley, silently urging you to leave the hustle and bustle of La Paz behind to explore Bolivia’s natural treasures that await you beyond.
Valle de la Luna
About ten kilometers from downtown La Paz, you will find the Valle de la Luna, named for its moon-like landscape, chiseled by the forces of nature.
Make your way up or around the naturally cleaved stones, which come in all shapes and sizes, and marvel at the rugged beauty of the place.
Another jewel in the Department of La Paz crown is the Tiwanaku Cultural Heritage Site, dating back some two and a half millennia.
However, it’s the nearby Titicaca Lake that really does all the sparkling. One of the world’s highest navigable lakes, the Titicaca straddles the Peruvian border and, being merely half a day’s bus ride from La Paz, it makes for a convenient day trip.
The freezing waters of the lake are not only dotted with breathtaking natural islands, but also man-made floating islands of reed, home to hundreds of the indigenous Uru people – one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.
They make handicrafts and sell them to visitors to eke out a living on the lake. You can buy some to carry back as souvenirs should something strike your fancy. However, just watching them enjoy the simple pleasures of life is a treat in itself.
Salar de Uyuni
Fly south to Salar de Uyuni for a truly out-of-this-world experience on 4,000 square miles of salt plains, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It is one of the flattest places on the planet.
As you skim across the polished surface of this seemingly endless expanse of salt flats on your 4×4, you will come across glistening salt lakes and steamy hot springs, while the few scattered highpoints shimmer on the horizon like desert mirages.
Enjoy a unique experience in one of the hotels made almost entirely out of salt before you head back to civilization.
Potosi – the gateway to Salar de Uyuni – is a friendly, welcoming place where you can mingle with the locals to get an idea of their culture and way of life.
Walk over the roof of the San Francisco Convent and marvel at the sea of terracotta roofs below and the distant Cerro Rico beyond.
Cerro Rico, which means “Rich Hill,” was once abundant with silver and tin deposits, which provided the fortune needed to establish the constitutional capital Sucre, some three hours away by car.
Sucre’s whitewashed colonial buildings and fountains have earned it the nickname “Ciudad Blanca,” or the “White City.
Killi Killi Lookout
Round of you Bolivian sojourn back in La Paz, but before you fly out head over to the Killi Killi lookout for some lasting memories of the snow-capped peaks of Illimani Mountain, which, according to local legend, is there to protect this city in the clouds.