Before I went to Bolivia, the only things I really knew about the country were that its capital, La Paz, was the world’s highest and that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in a shootout there.
After travelling around the country of 11 million, I came to appreciate how interesting it is. Much of Bolivia comprises jungle and high desert plateaus and the Andes run through the centre, making for spectacular scenery.
It is a cheap country for tourists and I found it better organised than we expected.
Here are 10 things tourists should know about Bolivia (in no particular order):
1. Much of the country is at extremely high altitude
We passed over the Chile-Bolivia border just north of San Pedro (altitude a comfortable, if occasionally breathless, 2400 metres) and immediately noticed the difference. Within an hour we were at 5000 metres studying geysers and hot springs at Sol de Manana. The altitude makes things tough for sea-level types. The advice is to drink lots of water – but, of course, that then involves repeated toilet stops: a vicious circle. The altitude will likely cause headaches or worse, and the locals’ remedies, such as coca tea, were not overly successful for me. At one point we even required oxygen to be administered during lunch in a restaurant at Potosi (altitude 4100 metres).
2. The Salt Flats of Uyuni
These are simply not to be missed, and are a real wonder of the world. Salar de Uyuni is 180km x 150km, and is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s hard on the eyes, but the whiteness in every direction is mind-boggling. The flats contain 17 “islands”. I stopped for lunch at one, Isla Incahuasi, which has 6000 cacti growing on it, and ate at a salt table while sitting on a salt chair. Also worth a visit: the salt hotel.
The White City (so called because its many whitewashed churches and colonial buildings have to be cleaned regularly by Government edict) is an oasis of calm. Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia, has lovely plazas and parks, good restaurants, interesting museums and is at a reasonably comfortable altitude (2810 metres).
It is remarkable how freely dogs run throughout Bolivia. They can be alone, in pairs or packs of up to 20. We’d heard stories of wild dogs
biting and causing rabies, but never saw any aggressive behaviour at all. In fact, the dogs, which scavenge for their food, seemed docile and had incredibly good road sense.
5. Lake Titicaca
This lake, at 3810 metres on the Bolivia/Peru border, is the largest in South America and is beautiful. On the Bolivia side, the laidback town of Copacabana is a drawcard. The lake itself has picturesque islands, especially (though admittedly on the Peruvian side) Taquile, and, even more famous, the Uros Islands, the 97 floating islands that have been made by the Uros tribe. The man-made islands comprise layer upon layer of totora reeds and walking on them bears a weirdly striking resemblance to walking on a water bed.
6. La Paz
The capital is frenetic, colourful, geographically challenging and a lot of fun. The airport, in the north, is at 4060
metres, but the city runs down a steep valley to the wealthy area in the south, which is at just over 3000 metres. Cable cars (gondolas) were installed at massive expense a couple of years ago and have not only helped alleviate some of La Paz’s road congestion, but are superb for tourists looking for an overview of the city. The altitude cannot be ignored. Many of La Paz’s streets are steep and climbing them will leave you winded. (Both Argentina and Brazil have lost international football matches to Bolivia in La Paz by huge margins, then easily reversed the result at sea level.)
7. The red flamingos at Laguna Colorada
The lake, also known as the Red Lagoon, is at 4280 metres in the country’s southwest, and offers a unique sight. It is red primarily because of all the red plankton that live there. And the plankton draw hundreds of thousands of flamingos, which turn a bright red because of all the red
plankton they eat. The scene is surreal.
The attraction for many tourists is the dress of the women of Incan descent. They wear colourful gathered skirts, often with petticoats underneath, flat shoes and a derivative of the bowler hat. Apparently Bolivian women are judged to be more attractive if they are on the plump side, so they will often wear more clothes around the middle to bulk up a bit.
9. The Uyuni train cemetery
The area, just out of Uyuni, is where dozens of trains used from 1888 until the 1940s have been dumped. It would make a wonderful museum, and the idea has been mooted, but there isn’t the will or the money in Bolivia to make it happen. The mainly British-built trains were used to transport Bolivian goods,
primarily minerals, to ships on the country’s Pacific coast. But Bolivia lost a war to Chile and with it its coastline, the mining industry faded, and the trains were no longer needed.
The food is cheap, tasty and different enough to be distinctly Bolivian. The favoured meat dishes are llama and alpaca, though beef and lamb are popular, too. Trout is served more around Lake Titicaca and La Paz. Many of the meals are based around potatoes, of which there are more than 400 varieties, and quinoa, which is almost a national dish.