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Top Bolivia


La Paz

La Paz serves as Bolivia’s administrative capital, a packed city set high in the Andes at 4058 meters (13,313 ft) above sea level. It has steep hills, big business, an even bigger backpacker scene, indigenous markets, universities, hotels, restaurants and tour offices galore. What’s more, La Paz is THE place set up base camp and head north, south, east and west for even more action. While the altitude can be jarring at first, La Paz’s spectacular mountain scenery and incredible nightlife makes it all worthwhile.  

As metropolitan as Bolivia gets, which is not very, you can bus, taxi, bike or walk throughout the crowded city. No itinerary is necessary for this busy tourist hotspot, as a wander around the central area (known as the Prado) will bring you upon markets (most notably are Mercado de las Brujas and Mercado Negro), museums (Try the Museums of Coca, Contemporary Art, or San Francisco) and all other favorites for both locals and tourists alike. Other Paceña treats include biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road, visiting Valle de la Luna, chewing coca leaves and spending late nights at some of the bumping discotecas.  

You can venture south within the city to see the wealthier district, or head north to El Alto—La Paz’s area of shantytowns and home to the poorest of the city. Head even further south to get to Oruro and beyond, or all the way north to Lake Titicaca, the northern Yungas or Rurrenabaque. Buses leave daily to all destinations; if you’re traveling within the country this is the place from which to do so.

Lake Titicaca

Although it is situated at a lofty 3,810 meters (12,500 ft), Lake Titicaca is no longer acknowledged as the world's highest navigable lake. This takes away nothing, however, from the region that boasts such an infamous and vast body of water and surrounding scenery that will literally take your breath away.

Enormous Lake Titicaca stretches almost 10,000 square kilometers within a huge Andean crater on the frontier between Bolivia and Peru, and is a must-see when visiting either country. Lakeside fishing villages, quaint communities, the snow-peaked Cordillera Real and charming Copacabana are obvious highlights in this area of unrivaled natural beauty, a place where truly authentic experiences can be found. At such a close proximity to La Paz (only two hours by bus), the region makes for an easy day trip, though you’ll likely want to extend your stay once you see all there is to explore.

The Northwest

Stretching from sky-high peaks, (the three Cordillera mountain ranges) down to semitropical lowlands (the northern and southern Yungas), Bolivia's northwest region provides some of the most varied and spectacular trekking in the country. Relatively accessible from the capital, the area is still one of the best places for the adventurous to get off the traveler trail. It is difficult to visit the region independently, but tours, either privately or in small groups, can be easily arranged through travel agencies in La Paz. The 200 kilometer-long mountain range of the Cordillera Real offers some fantastic high altitude experience for experienced mountaineers and hikers alike, with more than 600 peaks over the 5,000-meter mark, of varying difficulty. The even more remote Cordillera Apolobamba (to the north of the Cordillera Real, bordering Peru) and Madidi National Park can be difficult and often inhospitable area to visit, but as off-the-beaten-track travel goes, they are nearly unmatched. To the south of the Cordillera Real, the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz is the smallest of the Cordilleras, but similarly as remote and exciting as the Apolobamba.

In contrast, the Yungas, the area between the highlands and the Amazon basin, is a well-established chillout spot for Bolivian and foreign tourists alike, thanks to its pleasant year-round climate. The most frequented town in the Yungas is Coroico, which has a good supply of tourist services, including several good eateries and hotels. The colonial town of Sorata is also a popular weekend getaway thanks to its pretty streets and impressive scenery, and makes a good base for hiking and mountaineering expeditions.  

The Southwest: Salt Flats, Colored Lakes and Vineyards

Some of Bolivia’s most vast wilderness, as well as its most prosperous towns and lush valleys, all lie in this southwest corner of the country stretching down to the borders of Chile and Argentina. ?To the west, the altiplano is dominated by huge expanses of salt flats, punctuated with jagged volcanic peaks. The Salar de Uyuni is a surreal experience, and its neighboring Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is host to bubbling geyser basins and red and green lakes. The most popular way to explore is via four-day jeep tour ride, north to south from Uyuni or south to north from Tupiza.

Aside from the salar, the Southwest region is also home to Bolivia’s best-preserved colonial cities, Potosí and Sucre. Potosí is reported to have been the most prosperous city in the Americas at one point, when huge silver mines were discovered in the late 16th centuy, and Sucre is well-established traveler hangout, with colonial architecture, warm climate and peaceful surroundings. To the east, the highlands drop down into dusty red plains with orchards and vineyards soaking up the hot sun. Tarifa and around are a wine connoisseur’s dream—plunging and fertile green valleys which split through desolate plains. Tours and tastings are must.

The Amazon Basin

Taking up almost 70 percent of the country’s landmass, Bolivia’s sparsely populated “Oriente” includes the northeast rainforest of Beni and Pando and officially, the lowlands of the Santa Cruz area (though V!VA breaks this area into a chapter of it’s own). Compared to other South American countries, the region has suffered relatively little deforestation, making it an excellent place to venture off the beaten track and into virgin jungle. Wildlife is pristine in this seemingly untouched area, so much so that the region includes three country’s best-known national parks—Amboró, Kaa-Iya and Noel Kempff Mercado. What’s more, these parks have one of the planet’s highest biodiversity rates, with more species of birds, mammals and plant life combined than any comparable area in the world.

Despite its remoteness, the Oriente is gradually becoming easier to access, although travel is very much dependent upon the season (during the rainy season from mid-December through March, many roads and air strips are impassable). The closest entry point to the Amazon is Rurrenabaque, though you can also fly to one of the Oriente’s other towns—Trinidad, Reyes, San Borja, Santa Ana de Yacuma, San Joaquín, Magdalena, Guayaremín and Riberalta— which are served by flights from La Paz.

Santa Cruz and Lowlands

Untamed rainforests, dusty wilderness, endless savannahs and a cosmopolitan city with a very tropical vibe, Santa Cruz and The Eastern Lowlands represent an untapped, albeit worthy, traveler destination. The city of Santa Cruz is unlike any other in Bolivia due to the jungle aura of the city, so strong that visitors may forget that they're in Bolivia, and not neighboring Brazil. While the city is bustling, the weather is warm and the mood is relaxed. Ultimately, it's is a great place from which to explore the beautiful natural surroundings of the Eastern Lowlands. 

The Eastern Lowlands span from the foothills of the Andes and extend onward to Bolivia's borders with Brazil (to the East), and Argentina and Paraguay (to the South). Dense rainforest—protected under the Parque Nacional Noel Kempiff Mercado—cover the northeastern edge of the lowlands near the border with Brazil. To the west are rainforests, encompassed by Parque Nacional AmborĂł, to the east are marshy and wet lowlands. Grassy savannas and dry tropical rainforests blanket the central region; the southern, sparsely populated region, is known as Gran Chaco.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Bolivia: Quebrada Seca, Getting Around PN Noel Kempff Mercado, Tips for High-End Travelers in Bolivia, Safety, Traveling with Children in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni Tours (Salt Flats Tours), Things to See and Do, Tours, Jesuit Mission Tours and Services.

By Margaret Rode
A self-professed city girl, sassy staff writer Margaret Rode hails from Chicago where she received Bachelor degrees in English Literature and Spanish...
11 Feb 2010

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