One word manages to sum up Bolivia perfectly: UNBOLIVABLE! From the out-of-this-world landscapes, to the fascinating indigenous culture, the quirky cities and the never-ending list of superlatives – this remote, land-locked country has so much to offer and is full of surprises.
Here is my list of the top 5 things you absolutely MUST see or do in this amazing country:
1. Salar de Uyuni – the main draw card of Bolivia and the world’s largest salt flats – this is the perfect playground for perspective shots in a totally surreal environment. Comprised of over 10,000 square kilometres of dry salt, it’s completely flat in all directions. The salt makes the ground highly reflective so make sure you bring sunscreen, especially after rain as it becomes mirror-like. I highly recommend the 3-day tour which will take you across the salt flats in a 4WD and to some other just as impressive strange natural landscapes including: volcanoes, different coloured lakes, hot springs, geysers, and various rock formations. Just make sure you have a warm sleeping bag and are acclimatised to the altitude!
2. Death Road – aptly named because it was once considered the world’s most dangerous road – no trip to Bolivia is complete without a 64km mountain bike ride down its twisting dirt path. In fairness, it’s not nearly as scary as the name suggests, as long as you are comfortable on a bike and don’t ride on the cliff-side of the road. What’s spectacular is the scenery – starting off at 5000 metres above sea level where it’s cold, windy and snowy, you’ll slowly snake your way around the mountains and down to a hot and tropical 1600 metres.
3. San Pedro Prison – occupying a street block in the heart of La Paz, this unique prison operates more like a self-run society. There’s a strict hierarchy, prisoners earn money from making crafts and cocaine, they pay for accommodation and families are allowed to stay inside. Essentially the guards are just there to make sure no inmates escape. You used to be able to bribe the guards to be let inside for a “tour”, however now it seems you have to settle for unofficial tours with “Crazy Dave” – an American former inmate of 14 years. Crazy Dave finds foreigners hanging outside the front of the prison every day at noon and charismatically tells stories of his incarceration in exchange for donations of powdered milk and groceries. As a recovering drug addict he much prefers the goods over the cash. Highly entertaining and unusual.
4. Huayna Potosi – a beautiful 6088m mountain just north of La Paz. If you’re well acclimatised and have the energy, definitely hire a guide and spend 3 days trying to climb to the top. Although it’s a “beginners” mountain, the altitude definitely makes it a challenge. Day 1 is spent practicing with the ice-axe and crampons on a nearby glacier. Day 2 is spent hiking to High Camp at 5200m. On Day 3 you’ll set off at 1am for the push to the summit in time for sunrise. Keep water bottles inside your jacket or they’ll freeze. Definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done – I didn’t quite make it to the summit due to the altitude but the experience and views were still spectacular.
5. Visit a Silver Mine – once considered one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Americas, no visit to Bolivia is complete without a tour of Potosi’s cooperative silver mines. After walking and crawling deep inside the mountain you’ll find miners working extremely long hours under the most unbelievable conditions with little regard to their safety. On my visit in 2015, we spent a good couple hours doing shots of 95% alcohol while they worked. Apparently it was for good luck. As there are no toilets in the mine, the workers don’t eat at all during their shift, instead chewing copious amounts of coca leaves in order to prevent going to the toilet and the build-up of methane. Highly interesting and kind of dodgy (especially if you’re there while they blow the dynamite).
What are your favourite places or things to do in Bolivia? Share them in the comments section below!