Destination: Bolivia

At left, Bill is cycling the Death Road to Coroico; on the right, Bill is having fun at Salar de Uyuni with friends.

By Bill Potts-Datema

Bill is the CEO of the Society for Public Health Education in Washington, DC. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Plurinational State of Bolivia is named for Simón Bolívar, a leader in regional wars of independence from Spain. While landlocked, Bolivia has agreements with Chile that give the nation access to the Pacific Ocean. At about the same size as Ethiopia and Colombia, the population of Bolivia is similar to Tunisia. Bolivia offers a fascinating variety of terrains and enormous biodiversity, partly because of its wide range of altitudes. Travelers can experience huge rainforests, vast deserts and some of the highest peaks in the Americas.

Getting there
Travel to Bolivia requires some planning, as few airlines fly regular routes. Santa Cruz de la Sierra airport maintains more flight connections to other countries, though most tourism attractions require connecting flights to either the executive and legislative seat of government, La Paz, or the constitutionally recognized and judicial capital, Sucre.

Boliviana de Aviación operates primarily domestic routes, with limited international offerings to Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and the United States. Three of the ten highest-altitude airports in the world are located in Bolivia.

The Bolivian government offers a visa-on-arrival service to citizens of more than 120 countries. However, services are available at only a few airports, lines can be long, and documentation requirements are significant. The visa fee must be paid in crisp U.S. dollars with no extraneous markings and showing little wear. An eVisa system is a relatively new option for some visitors.

The official currency of Bolivia is the boliviano. ATMs are available in major cities though they are seldom found in rural areas. Foreign credit cards connected to the Visa and Mastercard networks are often accepted in cities at larger businesses, tour operators, and hotels. Expect to use cash in rural areas.

Places to stay
The larger cities of Santa Cruz and La Paz offer a wide range of lodging options. As towns become smaller, options diminish and accommodations in rural areas are difficult to find. Advanced booking is recommended, especially in popular tourist areas such as Uyuni. Tour operators are advised in remote areas.

Food and drink
Restaurants are limited in rural areas. Your accommodation will often be the best option.

Getting around
Domestic flights are often the best choice in many remote areas. Car rentals can be challenging with doubtful quality, insurability issues, and limited opportunities for petrol. Overnight buses are available for some long-haul routes, which include nearly lie-flat reclining chairs and privacy curtains. They are often inexpensive though sleep can be difficult in areas with rough roads.

La Paz and Yungas Road
Nestled in a high-altitude valley, La Paz includes some of the more unusual sights of any capital city. Its extensive cable car system is used by tens of thousands of commuters each day and sightseeing by the occasional tourist. The Valley of the Moon offers ethereal hoodoos reminiscent of Bryce Canyon in Utah, though in tighter formation. The spiny rock formations of the Valle de las Animas (Valley of the Souls) inspired early settlers who believed the spires resembled petrified souls. The enormous, twice-weekly, world’s highest market in El Alto includes nearly everything one might want to buy and, at the witches’ market, some items one never would have thought of might be on sale.

Yungas and Lake Titicaca
An active and thrilling day trip from La Paz is biking 64 kilometers of Yungas Road, better known as “Death Road” or the “World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Several reputable companies offer the option to bike the narrow gravel road which descends more than 11,800 feet from snow-covered high altitudes to sweltering Amazonian rain forest. With drops in some places well over 2000 feet, few guardrails, tight and steep blind turns, and several waterfalls and rockslides covering the road, Death Road offers adrenaline and adventure. Knowledgeable guides and excellent equipment are a must.

In the west central portion of Bolivia, reachable in a day trip from La Paz, is the eastern half of Lake Titicaca. Shared with Peru, it is both the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. Near the lake is a full-scale replica of the Kon-Tiki, which sailed from Polynesia to Peru in 1947. But the most fascinating sites are the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) and Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) with ruins that predate the Inca Empire. The islands may be toured by boat from Copacabana in four to six hours. The Tiwanaku and Puma Punku archaeological sites also showcase pre-Incan civilization.

The constitutional capital of Sucre is a charming and historic colonial town in the Bolivian interior. Relatively near the once-productive silver mines of Potosí, Sucre developed as a cultural center with universities and museums showcasing Bolivian indigenous history. The Castillo de la Glorieta is one of the most curious buildings in South America, including three towers of different styles and a quirky history. The Parque Cretácico (Cretaceous Era Park) includes the Cal Orck’o Cliff, one of the largest collections of dinosaur footprints in the world, with over 5000 visible. A wide variety of dinosaurs are presented with life-sized models showing the colorful markings that scientists believe were common.

Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) is located on a one-hour flight or nine-hour bus ride south of La Paz. Several tour operators in Uyuni offer day trips to the salt flats, with some offering overnight accommodations in a lodge built of salt blocks offering basic services. The complete experience with lunch on the flats requires a full day. Take the obligatory fun pictures &mdas; perspective creates optical illusions and the spectacular mirrored sunset in the areas with an inch or so of standing water. An interesting train graveyard is also found near the town of Uyuni.

Near the Chilean border
Drive seven to eight hours, past paved roads and cell service, to reach Reserva Nacional de fauna andina Eduardo Avaroa. Located in the remote southwest of Bolivia, this national park includes Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde—lagoons of different colors, unusual geologic formations, geysers and other geothermal features, and large flocks of flamingos. At a remote and very basic high altitude lodge travelers will experience otherworldly dark and clear skies found in a few other places. Tour guides are highly recommended.

With an expansive variety of places to see and things to do, Bolivia is one of the most fascinating countries in South America.

Lake Titicaca is the highest lake by elevation in the world and Isla del Sol (Sun Island) offers many hiking trails.

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