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ADVENTURE TRAVELLERS AND adrenaline junkies have been going there for years but for everyone else, Bolivia is the Wild West of bucket list destinations.
It’s drenched in history and culture and blessed with breath-taking natural beauty, including Andean peaks, Altiplano landscapes and Amazonian rainforests, yet landlocked Bolivia remains relatively unexplored, without the infrastructure or marketing savvy of other countries in South America, and ceding them a head start on the tourism front.
“Kid, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia’, let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” says Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid in the seminal 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It didn’t end well for them (or for fellow transplant Che Guevara) but their legend – and Bolivia’s mystique – lives on, for outlaws, revolutionaries and travellers grounded at home by Covid-19.
Landlocked Bolivia is a poor country with a rich past – so rich in fact, that it was once home to a major pre-Columbian civilisation. As part of the Spanish empire centuries later, it became the envy of the rest of the world, thanks to the discovery of the world’s largest silver deposits in a mountain (named Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill) overlooking the city of Potosi in the southwestern part of the country.
For about 100 years from the mid-16th century, silver was stripped from the mountain to fuel expansionist ambitions in the Americas, albeit at a massive human cost – brutal conditions in the mines killed an estimated eight million indigenous workers and African slaves.
Bolivia is still a country of extremes. Visitors typically fly into El Alto, at 4,000m the highest international airport in the world and gateway to the neighbouring city of La Paz (3,600m), the administrative seat and de facto capital. The region is dominated by the Andes, which stretch down western Bolivia in two parallel ranges, with the windswept high plateau known as the Altiplano between them.
Adapting to the altitude may take a few days, but there will be more natural highs to come.
Until quite recently, negotiating the hilly neighbourhoods around La Paz was a daunting task but beginning in 2014 that changed, thanks to Mi Teleferico (My Cable Car). This award-winning urban transit system of over three dozen stations and 10 colour-coded lines traverses the city while providing a bird’s eye view of the streets and tightly-packed brick homes clinging to the hillsides below, with snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. It’s a lot more fun – and dramatic – than taking the bus.
The La Paz metropolitan area is home to about 20 percent of Bolivia’s 11.5 million population. The well-preserved streets and buildings around the colonial district’s main square Plaza Murillo are best explored on foot. In the suburbs south of the city, you can also walk the Valle de la Luna, a valley characterised by odd-shaped rock formations resembling a barren moonscape.
West of La Paz is Tiwanaku, an impressive archaeological site located near the high-altitude southern shores of Lake Titicaca and the border with Peru. It served as the capital of a pre-Incan empire for almost 1,000 years.
East of La Paz is the ominously named Death Road, or Camino de la Muerte, a narrow track (with views to die for) that starts from the La Cumbre mountain pass (4,800m) and descends for 60 kms through the Yungas, a fertile mountainous region, to the charming sub-tropical lowland town of Coroico (1,500m). Built in the 1930s, the road was the only link to remote villages in the Andean foothills until an alternate route opened about 15 years ago.
Nowadays, thrill-seekers sign up to ride mountain bikes down the old road, though not always successfully.
Above the cloud line at La Cumbre, passengers often stop at a statue of Christ to admire the scenery, make offerings and sprinkle sugar cane alcohol around the base of the statue in honour of Pachamama (Mother Earth), the highest divinity and protector goddess of the local Aymara and Quechua peoples. In this part of the world, Christianity and indigenous beliefs exist in tandem.
It’s advisable to have a somewhat flexible itinerary when travelling in Bolivia: be prepared to go off-piste, as it were. A general strike in Uyuni, gateway town to arguably one the planet’s most unique attractions – Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake – threatened to restrict access and derail my travel plans, but the situation was resolved after an unscheduled extra day in La Paz.
The Uyuni Salt Flats are a staggering sight: a vast, perfectly flat sea of white some 3,600m high, roughly 11,000 sq km in size and easily visible from space.
Cacti-studded islands glimmer in the sunlight. It’s a truly remarkable sight, totally removed from conventional notions of the way the world looks. The flats are so otherworldly that they also served as a convincing stand-in for an ice planet in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In a previous age, the flats were part of a large lake that covered the Altiplano until it dried up over 10,000 years ago, leaving a hard salt crust on top, with multiple layers of salt, sediment and water beneath. Together with billions of tons of salt, the Salar also contains the world’s largest deposit of lithium. Salt is still processed here but with a recent change in leadership and another election due in May, it’s unclear if the government’s plans to extract lithium for commercial use will proceed.
The flats remain an Instagram sensation, attracting backpackers, avid stargazers and honeymooners on location shoots.
Most visitors stay in hotels around the Salar, including a few that are actually built from salt bricks. For a dose of the surreal, check into Kachi Lodge, comprising six sustainable geodesic domes built in the shadow of Tunupa Volcano (5,321m) on the northern edge of the flats, far from other hotels and the only luxury option available in the Salar. The view comes standard, and each dome also includes local artwork, a stove-style heater, recyclable water system and toilet that incinerates organic waste.
The lodge is maintained by villagers from a nearby community and features food prepared by alumni of Gustu, the progressive restaurant/cooking school in La Paz (started by a founding member of Copenhagen’s Noma) that espouses an only-local-ingredients philosophy. Expect to be served quinoa at some point – it’s grown by communities in the Salar.
There are no actual roads in the salt flats, so drivers use distant islands as markers. During the wet season (December to March) a thin layer of water covers the Salar, turning it into a giant reflecting pool. Local guides recommend visiting in April, when it’s easier to drive around.
An echo of Bolivia’s colonial past, Potosi is a three-hour drive along the altiplano from Uyuni. At 4,100m, it’s the highest city in the world, with its 16th-century heyday as a booming silver mining centre consigned to the history books. The mountain they call Cerro Rico was once a major source of Spain’s riches but now it’s like a block of Swiss cheese, pockmarked with tunnels from over-mining and far from stable.
Still, it’s being mined for tin and zinc, using archaic methods. The pay is good by local standards but conditions are grim and the work is backbreaking. Miners guzzle beer and chew constantly on coca leaves to boost energy, and Pachamama gets her fair share as well – deep underground, a shrine to the goddess is littered with offerings.
Northeast of Potosi is Bolivia’s official capital Sucre, and it is postcard pretty. Set in a valley east of the Altiplano and surrounded by low mountains, the city, founded in 1538, is a well-proportioned, well-preserved example of a colonial town. Its proximity to Potosi (155 kms away) and the discovery of significant silver deposits in the area ensured its place in the political and military hierarchy (independence was declared here in 1825), while its cultural cachet comes from its position as a leading centre for art, archaeology and traditional weaving.
In the 1990s, a large collection of dinosaur footprints was discovered in a quarry outside Sucre but if palaeontology isn’t your thing, stick to the newer – as in 16th-century – part of town.
The Tibet of the Americas, as Bolivia is sometimes dubbed, is a bona fide high altitude destination, but modern-day Bolivia is best represented by Santa Cruz, the country’s second largest city (pop. 1.5 million) and beating economic heart, in the tropical lowlands about 450 kms east of Sucre. This once-sleepy frontier town now has a sophisticated small-town vibe and is the place to unwind after you’ve had your fill of activities in the Altiplano.
The writer booked a fully-guided trip through Singapore-based adventure specialist A2A (www.a2asafaris.com). In Bolivia, check out tour operator Bolivia Milenaria (www.boliviamilenaria.com). To explore La Paz’s cable car system, visit www.miteleferico.bo. To book Kachi Lodge, go to www.kachilodge.com
The Singapore government has advised against all non-essential travel due to the current Covid-19 outbreak. Check moh.gov.sg for the latest travel advisory updates