Bolivia: An Adventure Traveller’s Paradise

bolivia1 ONE MONTH in Bolivia is not enough. This is what I discovered when travelling solo across this curious, land-locked country in 2011.

This may come as surprise to those who know little about Bolivia and have no great desire to visit it, particularly as it is bordered by tourism giants like Brazil and Peru. Yet this is what makes the country such a gem. Bolivia is the poorest state in South America and consequently the cheapest, and is currently experiencing a strange transition from a place largely ignored by the travelling world to a nation attempting to build a roaring tourist trade, without the funds or publicity to really do so. The result is a country packed with breath-taking landscapes and extraordinary natural diversity. It has sufficient infrastructure and tour companies to ensure travel is just about manageable, but unlike many of its South American counterparts its key beauty spots are not littered with hundreds of tour buses, sky scraper hotels or overpriced western restaurants.

Meeting the locals and understanding Bolivian culture isn’t just easy here; it’s essential to get anything done. To be sure, this is no destination for the luxury traveller, but for those with an open-mind, a sense of adventure and a love for the outdoors, Bolivia offers an unforgettable experience. Here are some of its highlights. Whilst Sucre, a charming colonial city, is Bolivia’s official capital, La Paz is the administrative capital and the highest in the world at that. The city stands some 3,600 metres above sea level and is situated in a bowl, surrounded by the mountains of the Antiplano. Thousands of structurally-questionable houses are constructed in every nook and cranny of the surrounding slopes, producing an extraordinary picture of a city like no other.

Yet whilst La Paz is intriguing in itself, with its curious ‘witch’ markets and mazes of winding streets, the capital is best used as a base for journeying out to some of the crazier activities in the surrounding area. Death RoadThe ‘must-do’ of any adventure traveller in Bolivia is a bike trip down the ominously-named Death Road. The track begins in La Paz and snakes forty miles down to the lush forests of the Yungus valley. It has been termed ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road,’ and with its narrow tracks, hairpin bends and unobscured 600m drops, it’s not hard to see why. At one point the pass was responsible for 200-300 deaths a year. Yet the beautiful scenery, ranging from snow-capped mountains to sumptuous greenery, makes this risky ride worthwhile. The sustained rush of adrenalin as you whizz past the changing landscape for five hours straight is an unreal experience.

There are several good companies who lead Death Road bike tours, and I went with Madness who offer quality biking equipment, transport to and from La Paz, and dinner at the end of it all. The cost is approximately £45 for the day, including food and bike hire. If that still doesn’t sound enough for you, step it up a notch and check out the Huyana Potosí Mountain Hike. This is no mean feat, with the mountain peaking at 6,080 metres, and should only be undertaken by those who are relatively fit and/or slightly unhinged. Most companies offer a choice between a two and a three-day trek and, unless you’re an experienced climber, definitely go for the three day option to allow more time to acclimatise to the high altitude. After organising the equipment (all provided), Day One starts with a drive part-way up the mountain, followed by a three hour walk to the base camp, located 4,000 metres above sea level.

You dump your stuff and set off for ‘training’ at a nearby glacier. Here you’ll learn skills such as how to walk with crampons or use an ice pick. Most guides are Spanish-speaking only, so it’s a good idea to brush up on some basic lingo before you go. After a night at the refuge, Day Two takes you on a stunning but tough five hour trek to ‘high camp’ at 5,200 metres. You receive a simple meal and are sent straight to bed. Day Three begins at 1am (yes, really) to start the slow ascent to the summit. It is a surreal morning; trudging through the snow and darkness, struggling to breath in the thin mountain air. But it’s worth the slog. You reach the top just as the sun is rising and sit with the small group of the other exhausted, but deliriously ecstatic climbers that managed to summit that day, taking in the stunning views of the dawn breaking over the Cordillera Real mountain range. It was the unquestionable highlight of my trip. Then it’s time to make your way down, all the way down in fact, to base camp, in a descent that appears annoyingly simple after the great effort it took to work your way up. I recommend going with Refugio Huayana Potosí, who offer the most beautiful base camp on the mountain and a 1-2 guide-climber ratio (mine was a perky 17 year old boy called Luis who looked after me extremely well). The cost is around £70 for a 3 day tour, which includes equipment hire. The salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.

From La Paz, head 350 miles south to Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. This huge white desert spans almost 7,000 square miles; the spoils of some dried-up prehistoric lakes containing ten billion tons of salt. A variety of tours on and around this extraordinary wonder are available, all based out of the fairly miserable town of Uyuni. Being short of time, I opted for the two-day experience. It included basic meals, one night in locally-owned accommodation, a dusty old jeep and a giggly Bolivian grandpa to drive it. The tour begins by driving through a mysterious ‘train cemetery’, abandoned over forty years ago, and continues on until you reach the salt flats. Miles of white, cracked salt stretches as far as the eye can see, and the further you drive, the more surreal it gets. Perspective is warped, shadows are perfectly formed and the distinction between the sky and the salt is increasingly blurred.

Then, just when you thought it couldn’t get any more dreamlike, you hit a thin layer of water which acts as a giant mirror, reflecting everything with a clarity that makes your hairs stand on end. Eventually the silhouette of a nearby mountain range comes into view and the sun starts to set; the whole spectacle is breath-taking. In contrast, Day Two involves a trek through a gorgeous grassy valley that provides a fantastic view of the volcano Tunupa. In a quirk that perfectly demonstrates the ad hoc nature of Bolivian tourism, you can pop into a cave half-way through the hike to see some pre-Inca mummies that are over 1,200 years old.

You can bet they would be locked-up in some cold museum in most western states. Next, you are whisked off for a stroll through the Isla de Pescado, a bizarre natural park containing thousands of giant cacti in all shapes and sizes. Finally, after rattling across the flats for a few more hours, you are dumped rudely back to reality. Although there are a whole range of small, privately owned tour companies in Uyuni, they all offer pretty much the same thing so don’t fret too much over which one you opt for. Prices for the two-day tour start from around £40. Of course this is just a small glimpse of what Bolivia has to offer. I haven’t even begun to mention the eye-opening mining tours in Potosí, the laidback beaches round Lake Titicaca, the stunning walks through the Isla de Sol and the spectacular fauna and flora found in the Amazon rainforest. But I guess one article, just like one month, is simply not enough when visiting Bolivia. Bolivian mountains