Emerging South America - Part 2: Bolivia
Let’s face it, the scant knowledge many possess about Bolivia is that it’s located in South America, and maybe where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand. Therefore, it might be fair to say that it hasn’t necessarily found its way onto many “bucket lists.” Yet, while Bolivia may lack the more well-oiled tourism infrastructure of greater-developed South American countries, like Peru, Chile, or Argentina, that’s indeed part of its charm, appropriately earning the nickname “Tibet of the Americas,” as it’s one of the most remote and fascinating countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Bolivia is known to contain 40% of all plant and animal life on the planet, making it one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. It also boasts the largest indigenous population in the Americas, thus allowing for uncommon conservation of cultural and ancestral traditions rarely seen today.
Any trip to Bolivia begins in La Paz, the “City in the Sky.” Formerly the Incan metropolis of Laja, today it is a bustling example of urban development where indigenous, colonial, and modern cultures intersect. Visitors enjoy an array of galleries, with the Museum of Ethnography & Folklore and the Museum of Andean Textiles at the top of the list. Another must-see is the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witch’s Market, a market dedicated solely to ingredients for spells, potions, and cures for most anything. Outsiders might see the market as entertaining, but these traditions are deeply rooted in the indigenous culture and are taken seriously by the locals.
Undoubtedly, one of La Paz’s most unique colorful sites is the Cholets of El Alto, reached by the city’s elaborate cable car system, another of the city’s top attractions. The loud, flamboyant Cholets were designed by famed architect Freddy Mamani whose futuristic, somewhat psychedelic façades incorporate local Aymara design and have been increasing in El Alto since 2006.
Like Quito, which we covered in Emerging South America Part 1: Spotlight on Ecuador in evoke’s fall issue, La Paz has a new flourishing food scene. This revival was single-handedly established by culinary visionary and co-founder of Copenhagen’s NOMA, Claus Meyer, who opened La Paz’ Gustu in 2012. While it is a Michelin-star restaurant, it’s a cooking school for underprivileged Bolivian youth, exemplifying Gustu’s core philosophy, “change the world through food.” Since then, La Paz has become cuisine’s new frontier, forging ahead with sustainable restaurants that use locally grown products and maintain sustainable values beyond their kitchens, such as cooking schools in low-income parts of the city.
After a taste of Bolivia’s urban life, it is time to let authentic, wild Bolivia reveal itself. You won’t have far to go to get your first glimpse; Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is just 10km from La Paz but by all appearances could be on another planet. Despite the name, it isn’t a valley but a labyrinth of colorful canyons and giant spires, dramatically transformed from mountains that have been continually subject to the region’s powerful winds and rains for thousands of years.
Your decision as to where to go next is a simple one: no direction will disappoint. Heading northwest leads to Copacabana, a picturesque town nestled on the ancient shores of Lake Titicaca. Copacabana traces its history back to Incan times and is perfect for a night or two scouting around the lake. At 3,800 meters (nearly 12,500 feet), Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and is believed to be one of the oldest on the planet. Stradling Peru and Bolivia, two of its most captivating and worthwhile sites, Isla del Sol and Isla del Luna (islands of the sun and moon, respectively), are on the Bolivian side. History buffs will revel in a couple of day’s exploration.
Sparsely populated, the diminutive but beautiful Isla de Luna holds the remnants of the Temple of the Virgins, home to the Acllas; select young girls and women groomed to serve the Incan Empire in various ways, some of which were brutal but not unheard in the 1400s. Isla del Sol is, in contrast, the largest island on the lake and a site of great significance to the Incas. The island’s Gold Museum, well worth a visit, features Incan treasures recently unearthed in the past decade. While there, you also might want to make the trek to the Rock of the Puma and the Inca Table, the latter purportedly used for human sacrifices.
For the truly adventurous, head to Madidi National Park — a 45-minute flight from La Paz and a three-hour ride from Rurrenabaque. Accommodations are basic, but this is as good as it gets for nature lovers. Madidi is one of the most significant and protected biodiverse areas on the planet. It is habitat to 11% of the world’s bird species, not to mention some other unique residents, including giant otters, jaguars, vicuna, spectacled bear, anaconda, pink dolphins, and a new species of tiny monkeys; fondly referred to as the “Titi of Madidi.”
If you are a traveler seeking Bolivia’s cultural heart, the “White City” of Sucre is only an hour’s flight from La Paz. Renowned for white houses and well-preserved colonial and neoclassical architecture, Sucre is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site, brimming with scenic squares, plazas, local markets, parks, and gardens. Its surrounding mountains complete the picture of a genuinely gorgeous town. Plus, the Museum of Indigenous Art is a must, and for a real delight, be sure to catch the dinosaur footprints just outside town.
Sucre is an ideal hub from which to explore nearby areas and communities like Jatun Yampara. Well known for its artisanal textiles and ceramics, the people of Yampara initiated a project to protect and preserve its local traditions and customs. Visiting guests enjoy a unique immersion into the lives of the local people who are eager to share their traditional ways of life, including the Yampara women’s process of making fabrics with colorful and intricate weaving patterns. Nearby at about 156km away is Potosi, another UNESCO World Heritage site rich in history with close economic and cultural ties to Sucre. After discovering silver in the 16th century, Potosi was the most extensive and wealthiest city in the Americas. Today, you can visit the former mint, tour the cooperative mine, and then explore the town’s grand churches, mansions, and monasteries.
Concluding your epic journey in emerging South America is Bolivia’s pièce de résistance, The Uyuni Salt Flats. One of Bolivia’s and the world’s greatest natural wonders, spanning more than 10,000km, the flats also contain a train cemetery (the final resting place of old steam locomotives), dazzling rock formations, thermal baths, flamingos, and vicunas. During the dry season, the salt can be up to 10 meters (33 feet) thick, while during the wet season, the flats are submerged in an impossibly thin layer of water, creating a mirror-like effect. A geological phenomenon and a photographer’s dream come true.
At the end of a long day, even on action-packed adventures, comfort is king, and some unique lodging opportunities have emerged at the Uyuni Salt Flats in the past few years. Everything from luxury hotels made entirely from salt to AirStream campers with private chefs to Kachi Lodge’s much-publicized domes. Whatever your lodging preference, be sure and give yourself two to three days to fully enjoy Uyuni and take it all in. You might be sorry if you don’t. The stargazing alone is worth it, burning brightly in the night sky and in your heart forever.
From La Paz’s trendy food scene, historic ruins, pristine rainforests, and jungles to colonial gems and other-worldly landscapes, Bolivia has all the makings of a tourism treasure. It might be a secret for now, but that is not going to last long. If you want to see a true diamond-in-the-rough, Bolivia should be one of your next destinations. Pack a little perseverance and an open mind, and you will have one of the most authentic and rewarding journeys of your life.