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 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. First occupied by diverse ethnic groups as early as 2000 BC, it wasn’t until AD 1470 that the Incas, the most famous tenants, first arrived. By the time the Spanish came and looted the site in the 1600s it was already deserted. The purpose of El Fuerte has long been debated, and there are several theories. The conquistadors, in a distinctly combative frame of mind, assumed the site had been used for defense, hence its Spanish name, ‘the fort.’ In 1832 French naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny proclaimed that the pools and parallel canals had been used for washing gold. In 1936 German anthropologist Leo Pucher described it as an ancient temple to the serpent and the jaguar; his theory, incorporating worship of the sun and moon, is now the most accepted. Recently the place has gained a New Age following; some have claimed that it was a take-off and landing ramp for ancient spacecraft. There are no standing buildings, but the remains of 500 dwellings have been discovered in the immediate vicinity and ongoing excavation reveals more every day. The main site, which is almost certainly of religious significance, is a 100m-long stone slab with a variety of sculpted features: seats, tables, a conference circle, troughs, tanks, conduits and hornecinos (niches), which are believed to have held idols. A total of seven steps leading up to the main temple represent the seven phases of the moon. Zoomorphic designs on the slab include raised reliefs of pumas and jaguars (representing power) and numerous serpents (representing fertility). Chicha (fermented corn) and blood were poured into the snake designs as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Sadly, these designs are unprotected from the elements and erosion is making them harder to discern with every passing year. About 300m down an obscure track behind the main ruin is Chincana, a sinister hole in the ground that appears all the more menacing by the concealing vegetation and sloping ground around it. It’s almost certainly natural, but three theories have emerged about how it might have been used: that it served as a water-storage cistern; that it functioned as an escape-proof prison; and that it was part of a subterranean communication system between the main ruin and its immediate surroundings. On the approach to the site look out for La Cabeza del Inca, apparently a natural rock formation that bears a startling resemblance to the head of an Inca warrior, so much so that many insist it is a human-made project that was abandoned halfway through. Watch too for condors soaring on thermals overhead. There are two observation towers that allow visitors to view the ruins from above, and a kiosk with food and water next to the ticket office. Taxis for the round-trip, including a two-hour wait at the ruins, charge B$100 for up to four people from Samaipata. Gluttons for punishment who prefer to walk up should follow the main highway back toward Santa Cruz for 3.5km and turn right at the sign pointing uphill. From here it’s 5km to the summit.
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 building was built between 1753 and 1773 to control the minting of colonial coins; legend has it that when the king of Spain saw the bill for its construction, he exclaimed ‘that building must be made of silver’ (expletive presumably deleted). These coins, which bore the mint mark ‘P,’ were known as potosís. The walls are more than a meter thick and, not surprisingly, it has not only functioned as a mint, but also done spells as a prison, a fortress and, during the Chaco War, the headquarters of the Bolivian army. As visitors are ushered into a courtyard from the entrance, they’re greeted by the sight of a stone fountain and a freaky mask of Bacchus, hung there in 1865 by Frenchman Eugenio Martin Moulon for reasons known only to him. In fact, this aberration looks more like an escapee from a children’s funfair, but it has become a town icon (known as the mascarón). Apart from the beauty of the building itself, there’s a host of historical treasures. They include a fascinating selection of religious paintings from the Potosí school (especially remarkable are those by Melchor Pérez de Holguín), culminating in La Virgen del Cerro, a famous anonymous work from the 18th century, as well as the immense assemblies of mule-driven wooden cogs that served to beat the silver to the width required for the coining. These were replaced by steam-powered machines in the 19th century. The last coins were minted here in 1953; the Bolivian coins you may have used to pay to enter the museum are made in Canada and Chile from cheaper materials like zinc and copper. The guided tour is long (two hours) and the temperatures inside chilly, so be sure to have a jacket on hand. Although there are English and French tours available on request, the quality of the Spanish one is higher and the visit more comprehensive, so it’s worth doing, even if your language skills aren't quite up to scratch.
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. Originally the property of 'Moto' Méndez in the 1800s, it was turned into a refuge for artists escaping dictatorial regimes in neighboring countries like Argentina in the 1970s. The name of the estate Zamora purchased from a friend in the late 1980s comes from the large and unique rock formation just in front on the Río Guadalquivir. Other features worth checking out are portraits of Zamora painted by Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamín; a piece of the wing from the plane crash in 1980 that Zamora was the only one of eight passengers to survive – the result of a bomb placed on board meant to kill Zamora (he celebrates his 'second birthday' every year on June 2, the day of the crash); and a Gastón Ugalde painting made entirely from coca leaves. Also look for the mosaics gifted by the president of Portugal; portraits of Zamora with other Latin American and European leaders, as well as President George HW Bush; roof tiles from a 400-year-old Jesuit mission; stone replicas of unique friezes copied from the exterior of the Iglesia de San Francisco in Potosí; and the burial place of Zamora's brother Nestor, who died from hunger while fleeing the army (his bones were discovered in the jungle 22 years after his death). Visitors are allowed to wander along a nature path past a variety of trees, selected and planted by Zamora, an amateur horticulturalist. (Ironically, one of Tarija's most traffic-congested major roadways is named after him.) Also, check out the big-bellied toborochi tree on the house's grounds. Mosaics, with inspiring poetry, are scattered around the property. Maybe most emblematic, for Zamora and chapacos' sense of independence, is a line from Tarija's most prominent poet Oscar Alfaro, turned into a popular song that describes Alfaro like a tree attached to the land. The two-hour tour ends with a tasting of locally produced cheeses, ham and singani, all served outside on a massive stone table built from millennia-old slabs of rock (with embedded fossils) Zamora found in the countryside.
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. Here you'll find ingredients like dried toucan beaks, intended to cure ills and protect supplicants from bad spirits. If you’re building a new house you can buy a llama fetus to bury beneath the cornerstone as a cha’lla (offering) to Pachamama (Mother Earth). If you're feeling ill or being pestered by bothersome spooks, you can purchase a plateful of colorful herbs, seeds and assorted critter parts to remedy the problem. As you pass the market stalls, watch for wandering yatiris (traditional healers), who wear dark hats and carry coca pouches, and offer (mainly to locals) fortune-telling services. Inquiries and photographs taken here may be met with unpleasantness – ask politely first.
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. Highlights include works by former paceño (La Paz native) Marina Núñez del Prado. Ask for a free guided tour (minimum of five people). Next door is a gorgeous new space for rotating exhibitions of contemporary Bolivian art. Unlike the main museum, entrance to these galleries is free.
Fans of Bolivia’s lovely traditional weaving consider this small textile museum a must-see. Examples of the country’s finest traditional textiles (including pieces from the Cordillera Apolobamba, and the Jal’qa and Candelaria regions of the Central Highlands) are grouped by region and described in Spanish and English. The creative process is explained from fiber to finished product. The gift shop sells museum-quality originals; 90% of the sale price goes to the artists. Walk 20 minutes northeast from El Prado or catch micros (small buses) 131 or 135, or minibuses marked ‘Av Busch.’ The sister Museum of the Poncho is located in Copacabana.
Anthropology buffs should check out this museum, one of the city's best. The building, itself a real treasure, was constructed in 1720 and was once the home of the Marqués de Villaverde. Highlights include an awe-inspiring collection of ritualistic masks and an exhibition of stunning weavings from around the country. A guided tour is available by calling ahead.
The Santuario Chuchini (Jaguar's Lair) is one of the few easily accessible Paitití sites. This wildlife sanctuary and camp sits on an 8-hectare loma (artificial mound) of the ancient civilization. From the camp, you can take short walks in the rainforest to lagoons with caimans, other larger animals and profuse birdlife. The camp has shady, covered picnic sites, trees, children’s swings and a variety of native plants, birds and animals. There’s also an archaeological museum displaying articles excavated from the loma, including bizarre statues as well as a piece that appears to be a female figure wearing a bikini (it’s actually thought to be an identification of, and homage to, specific body areas rather than an article of clothing). You can volunteer here (one week minimum) and package-tour visits booked in Trinidad may work out a bit cheaper. Further information is available from managers Miriam and Efrem Ibis, or travel agencies in Trinidad. Unless you organize a tour, which will include transportation, you’ll have to negotiate with a moto-taxi driver (typically B$20) for the 14km journey north of town. It’s also a good destination for those who’ve rented their own motorcycles.
For a dose of Bolivian history, it’s hard to beat this museum where the Bolivian declaration of independence was signed on August 6, 1825. It has been designated a national memorial and is considered the birthplace of the nation. Spanish-speaking guides are top flight – you'll likely applaud at the end of your guided tour. The first score of Bolivian congresses were held in the Salón de la Independencia, originally a Jesuit chapel. Doctoral candidates were also examined here. Behind the pulpit hang portraits of Simón Bolívar, Hugo Ballivián and Antonio José de Sucre. Bolívar claimed that this portrait, by Peruvian artist José Gil de Castro, was the most lifelike representation ever done of him. The charter of independence takes pride of place, mounted on a granite plinth. A fine inlaid wooden ceiling and elaborate choir stalls are also noteworthy. English- and French-speaking guides are available for groups of three or four minimum; you can, though, ask for free use of a tablet computer with text in English.
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