Superlative in its natural beauty, rugged, vexing, complex and slightly nerve-racking, Bolivia is one of South America’s most diverse and intriguing nations.
Bolivia is not for the faint of heart: rattling down the World's Most Dangerous Road into sultry Yungas; soaring breathless above verdant La Paz valleys in a paraglider; jumping on a horse for a Wild West adventure near Tupiza; pulling a catfish that outweighs you out of an Amazon river (and maybe cooking it for dinner!). Whether your tools are crampons and an ice axe for scaling 19,685ft (6000m) Andean peaks, or a helmet and bravado for jumping into the abyss on a glider, Bolivia's rocks, rivers and ravines will challenge – nay, provoke – you into pushing your own personal limits.
Bolivians love a parade, and hardly a month passes without a procession of brightly costumed celebrants honoring an important historical date or deity. You'll hear them from blocks away before the brass bands and whirligigging dancers approach and envelop you (you may even get to join in). Learn about the history and culture of the country's indigenous peoples at excellent museums, and through the continued presence of traditions and customs in everyday life. Bolivia has South America’s largest percentage of indigenous people – get to know them better by participating in community-based tourism and hiring local guides.
Bolivia is so biodioverse that unique species are being discovered to this day. Tiptoe into caves of tube-lipped nectar bats, their tongues probing the darkness. Tread lightly on the terrain of the poisonous annellated coral snake, deadly in look and effect. Listen for the cackling call and response of a dozen different macaw species (among 1000 bird species) including the world’s rarest, the bluebeard, which can only be found here. Multihued butterflies and moths flit at your feet in the jungle; lithe alpacas and vicuñas stand out in the stark altiplano. Deep in the forest live jaguars, pumas and bears.
Food & Drink
Ever had a llama tenderloin? Here’s your chance, maybe with a glass of Tarija wine. Bolivia's food is as diverse as its peoples and you'll find new delicacies to sample in every town. Markets are a good place to start, though the steaming pots of unfamiliar concoctions might test your nerve. Freshly blended fruit juices will no doubt become a daily habit, and Yungas coffee can be found in a number of new cafes that are popping up around Bolivia. La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz have thriving restaurant scenes where you can sample contemporary takes on traditional local dishes.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bolivia.
The wonderfully remote and globally important Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is home to a broad spectrum of Amazonian flora and fauna and has a wide range of dwindling habitats, from open cerrado (savanna) to dense rainforest. The park lies in the northernmost reaches of Santa Cruz department, between the banks of the Ríos Verde, Guaporé (Río Iténez on Bolivian maps) and Paraguá.
The mystical site of El Fuerte exudes such pulling power that visitors from all over the world come to Samaipata just to climb the hill and see the remains of this pre-Inca site. A designated Unesco World Heritage Site since 1998, El Fuerte occupies a hilltop about 10km from Samaipata and offers breathtaking views across the valleys. Allow at least two hours to fully explore the complex, and take sunscreen and a hat with you.
The National Mint is Potosí’s star attraction and one of South America’s finest museums. Potosí’s first mint was constructed on the present site of the Casa de Justicia in 1572 under orders from the Viceroy of Toledo. This, its replacement, is a vast and strikingly beautiful building that takes up a whole city block. You don't have to be a numismatist to find the history of the first global currency fascinating.
The riverfront hacienda of former Bolivian president Jaime Paz Zamora was designed by Zamora himself as his own version of Gabriel García Márquez' Macondo. Zamora, equally passionate about the arts and nature, will likely be around to point things out, from the bay-leaf tree given to him by Pope Juan Pablo II to a small bottle with a bit of the first petroleum discovered in Bolivia in it. Contact Macondo de Pizza Pazza Hotel in Tarija for tour information.
The city’s most unusual market lies along Calles Jiménez and Linares between Sagárnaga and Av Mariscal Santa Cruz, amid lively tourist artesanías (stores selling locally handcrafted items). What is on sale isn’t witchcraft as depicted in horror films; the merchandise is herbal and folk remedies, plus a few more unorthodox ingredients intended to supplicate the various spirits of the Aymará world.
The world's largest salt flat sits at a lofty 3653m (11,985ft) and blankets an amazing 12,000 sq km (4633 sq miles). It was part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which once covered most of southwest Bolivia. When it dried up, it left a couple of seasonal puddles and several salt pans, including Salar de Uyuni. The savage beauty of this vast salt desert makes it one of South America's most awe-inspiring spectacles.
As you might have guessed from the dinosaur figure in the plaza or the dinosaur head sticking out of city hall, Torotoro has become synonymous with paleontology. The village, which sits in a wide section of a 20km-long valley at an elevation of 2600m, is flanked by enormous, inclined mudstone rock formations bearing bipedal and quadrupedal dinosaur tracks from the Cretaceous period (spanning 145 million to 65 million years ago).
Thanks to the efforts of the conservation NGO Armonía, the endangered blue-throated macaw or barba azul has become something of a regional celebrity in the Bolivian Amazon. Endemic to the unique Beni savannas, a fast-disappearing habitat found nowhere else on earth, a quarter of the world’s minute population of this spectacular psittacid calls this 11,000-hectare private reserve its home.
This colonial building was constructed in 1775 of pink sandstone and has been restored to its original grandeur, in mestizo (mixed) baroque and Andino baroque styles. In the center of a huge courtyard, surrounded by three stories of pillared corridors, is a lovely alabaster fountain. The various levels are dedicated to different eras, with an emphasis on religious themes.
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