It is the land of towering mountain ranges, seemingly unending salt plains, and sweltering jungle. Abundant in charm, friendliness and awe-inspiring natural beauty, Bolivia also offers travellers a fascinating glimpse into its history through the numerous traditions and festivals upheld by its various indigenous groups. Whilst Bolivia may not have caught up with its South American rivals in terms of investment into tourist infrastructure, it is worth the occasional difficulty of navigating your way to discover one of the continent’s most interesting countries.
Where else would you find such diversity of landscapes?
In the south, explore the canyons of Bolivia’s ‘Wild West’, Tupiza, before heading upwards to the sublime, flamingo-covered Lake Colorado to encounter snow-peaked mountains. From here, experience dawn on ‘El Salar de Uyuni’ – the world’s largest salt flats. Finishing north, in Parque Amboro near Santa Cruz, encounter the sweltering heat of the jungle and the displays of perfect acrobatics from the capuchin monkeys who swing from the canopy above your head.
And then there’s the people
Bolivia tends to get an undeservedly bad reputation from some travellers, but you will be surprised by the warm and welcoming nature of the local people. Women in the market will call to you with the friendly ‘mamita’ to encourage you to buy their wares, plus you will lose count of the number of Bolivians who approach you, keen to say hola. Without a doubt, speaking Spanish will radically alter the reception you receive (and helps you to tell them how beautiful Bolivia is, another excellent way to be welcomed into the country).
Want to study Spanish for less than £4 an hour?
Sucre is the language learning Mecca of Bolivia: it offers cheap lessons, a range of different schools to choose from and a beautiful colonial city in which to study and relax. Many visitors find themselves spending far longer in Sucre than intended: the allure of communicating with local people, combined with a tranquil setting proves too strong to resist. Whilst a week won’t make you fluent, it’ll certainly make life easier.
What about meeting a monkey, or encountering the elusive jaguar?
There are few places in the world more ecologically diverse than the Amazon, and the Bolivian section of this ancient and revered jungle is one where you will be blown away by the phenomenal variety of wildlife. Most tourists head for Parque Madidi which borders the small town of Rurrenabaque, where caimans sunbathe alongside rivers and small mammals rustle through the undergrowth. If you have buena suerte (or good luck), you will hear the calls of jaguars and pumas as they echo through the jungle, or catch a sight of them as they disappear into the night. For an experience with fewer other travellers, head to rarely-visited Trinidad to catch glimpses of vibrantly coloured macaws, playful pink river dolphins and monstrous anacondas.
Fancy a tipple?
Bolivia is hardly famed for its wine production, but a trip to Tarija and some of the world’s highest altitude vineyards will make you question why. A trip here is one which few visitors make and yet offers a peaceful alternative to the standard tourist trail. Several companies lead wine tours to the local vineyards to sample different grape varieties and the locally cherished singhani, or you can go it alone and visit the beautiful Vieja Bodega, enjoying a plentiful platter of pork whilst you delight in the beautiful sun-kissed views across the valley.
Celebrate Pachamama (Mother Earth) at the numerous indigenous festivals
Bolivia oozes history and tradition from every pore. Its Inca ruins offer an escape from the swarms of tourists found at Machu Picchu, with the UNESCO World Heritage site near chilled-out Samaipata – El Fuente – one of the most fascinating alternatives. Similarly, Tiwanaku, just outside of La Paz, is the location of festivities for the Winter Solstice in late June, when thousands of revellers visit the ruins to watch the sunrise and welcome the start of the Aymara New Year.
If you’re around in February, discover the hub of festivities in Oruro for Carnival, where thousands of spectacularly attired dancers participate in the procession. Or for an experience of local dance on a smaller scale, head to Tarabuco in late March for the Pujllay festival, where traditional outfits, music and dancing are used to celebrate the memory of deceased loved ones and to make offerings to Pachamama.
Ever seen a dinosaur footprint? Or some cave paintings?
History isn’t only alive in the local traditions, but in the Cordillera de los Frailes: a rolling expanse of mountains and sudden valleys where dinosaur footprints and cave paintings nestle into the rocks. Visit the Maragua Crater near Sucre for a lesson in tectonic activity and to encounter colours of rock that you weren’t even aware were possible, before you trek to the nearby 2000 year-old cave paintings at Incamachay and Pumamachay. Parque Torotoro, a six-hour bus journey from Cochabamba, offers a multitude of dinosaur footprints caught for eternity in rock – a reminder of how small and insignificant we are.
Get closer to Bolivia by volunteering
Many volunteering opportunities throughout the country are free and only require you to pay for your living costs, whilst offering you the chance to engage with local people and experience Bolivian life. Non-profit organisations such as BiblioWorks and Condor Trekkers in Sucre use fundraised donations to support local community development and require volunteers all year round.
Environmental conservation organisations such as Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi, which has various locations in the north of Bolivia, do require payment to cover living costs and to support the maintenance of their parks, but volunteers can work directly with a variety of rescued animals including monkeys, pumas and Andean bears.
Experience the country through its transport
Transport is not only a means to arrive, but a way to discover Bolivia. Travel by leisurely cargo boat along the Rio Manmoré from Puerto Almacén to Santa Ana to enjoy the tranquillity of river life, before returning in a 4×4 for a spectacular opportunity to view hundreds of different species of birds. Cross vast distances conveniently and cheaply by taking overnight flotabuses, or visit smaller towns and villages in trufis (minibuses) to become acquainted with the locals. If you’re more of a thrill-seeker, a trip down El Camino de Muerte (The Death Road) on a bicycle might be more up your street.
Live like a King (or Queen) on a peasant’s budget
Bolivia ranks as one of the cheapest countries in South America to visit, meaning your bolivianos will go surprisingly far. On a budget of between £15-20 a day, you can find a comfortable hostel, eat in good restaurants and visit various tourist attractions. Trips to one of South America’s most incredible locations, El Salar de Uyuni, come in at less than £100 for a three day all-inclusive tour, and significantly less for a day, meaning visiting some of the world’s most breath-taking scenery is possible, even on a small budget.