Nestling in a valley high up in the Andes, the first glimpse of the city as you arrive from the altiplano is an extraordinary sight. Our city tour takes in a visit to the extraordinary landscapes of Moon Valley in the south and a meeting with a former shoe-shine boy, now working as a guide to provide a very different insight into Bolivia.
The Tiahuanaco (or Tiwanaku) empire was one of the foremost pre-Inca civilisations which extended into present-day Peru and Chile. Bolivian research suggests that Tiahuanaco began as an agricultural village around 1580 BC and grew to an important imperial centre by 724 AD before falling into decline.
The pretty little town of Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, has an attractive church with an important statue carved by an Inca craftsman in 1576, the Virgen de la Candelaria, said to be able to perform miracles. As a place of pilgrimage, car owners decorate their vehicles with flowers and confetti to get them blessed in front of the church.
We recommend staying on this attractive island on Lake Titicaca for a couple of nights but it does get busy with day trippers from Puno (Peru) or La Paz. In Inca legend this is where Manco Capac, the founder of the dynasty, was created by the great deity, Viracocha. The island measures just 5½ miles by 4, a walk from north to south is very rewarding.
Madidi National Park covers a vast area of 1,895,750 hectares (7319 sq miles) from the Andean peaks of the Cordillera Apolobamba to the tropical jungle of the Amazon basin. Rurrenabaque is the gateway to trips along the Beni and Tuichi rivers for a three or four night stay at a jungle lodge. Activities include bird-watching, jungle trails and river wildlife.
This three-day trek from the Andes to Las Yungas starts at La Cumbre, an hour from La Paz with a hike up to an altitude of 4850m before descending to the village of Chucara (3600m), camping at Challapampa (2800m), staying in a lodge at Sandillani (2100m) and a final night at Rio Selva (1050m). Rewarding views of the subtropical Yungas.
Uyuni is the starting point for trips to the salt flats, lakes, volcanoes and extraordinary landscapes of the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. There are daily flights here from La Paz (or a long journey by bus and train via Oruro). There is not much to do in the town itself but railway enthusiasts might be interested in visiting the ‘cemetery’ of old trains outside town.
The Uyuni Salt Flats cover an astonishing ten thousand square kilometres. Highlights of the region include the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa National Park where Laguna Colorada is home to over 30,000 flamingoes and Isla Incahuasi, a coral island covered in giant cacti, some of them hundreds of years old. We also arrange onward travel to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Founded as La Plata in 1538, Sucre is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was renamed in 1825 after one of Simon Bolivar’s generals, Antonio Jose de Sucre, who was instrumental in the movement for independence from Spain and later became president. The colonial centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sucre stands at an altitude of 2790m.
The discovery of silver made this at one time the largest city in the Americas, described by the South American Handbook as “the source of great wealth for colonial Spain and of indescribable hardship for many Bolivians”. Learn more on a visit to the Cerro Rico mine. It takes about three hours to travel from Sucre up to Potosi which is at 3977m above sea level.
Bolivia’s notorious North Yungas Road which links La Paz with Coroico is nicknamed the ‘Death Road’ for a very good reason. It is a steep, narrow, dirt track road with hair-pin bends and sheer drops. Hazards include poor visability, loose rocks, lack of barriers, fog and tropical downpours, poorly-maintained vehicles and tired drivers. Not recommended.
Cochabamba was founded in 1574 and the main square in the heart of the city, Plaza 14 de Septiembre, was renamed to commemorate the date in 1810 when Francisco de Ribero proclaimed independence. Nearby are Inca ruins of Inka-Rakay, the Sunday market at Quillacollo and the Tunari National Park, with fabulous views, alpacas and llamas.
Oruro is three hours by bus from La Paz and 7 hours by train from Uyuni. It is rather an untidy and forgettable place unless you are here during carnivals, in the run up to Lent. Oruro becomes a riot of colour, with elaborate costumes, competing bands and parades which invoke pagan as well as catholic traditions. Early booking is essential.
Santa Cruz is one of the principal gateways into Bolivia; a busy, bustling metropolis, which retains its colonial roots in the centre. We recommend a climb up the cathedral’s bell tower for splendid views over the city. The Latin America Travel Association’s charitable wing, the LATA Foundation, supports a project to help street children here.