LA PAZ — In a quiet corner of South America, nicknamed the ‘Tibet of the Americas’ is Bolivia – a land of contrasts, intrigue and unbeknownst beauty.
Yet, refreshingly, this understated landlocked country can magically play to all your senses; it’s lush and mountainous, with nature perennially on your doorstep. Add in dizzying altitudes, and the combination can put all your ‘aha’ moments to work.
On my recent travels, I crossed over the world’s most extensive salt flats to the Amazon jungle through soaring Andes peaks. And I quickly learned that Bolivia is the most isolated in the Americas and sees fewer visitors than its neighbouring countries. As such, it remains genuinely authentic, unscarred by mass tourism, and is one of South America’s best-kept secrets.
With eye-arching views to greet you, welcome to La Paz, the world’s highest capital. It’s a city that will take your breath away, literally (or at least until your body adjusts to the altitude).
Resting on the Andes’ Altiplano at almost 12,000 feet above sea level, the impressive panorama of hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings wedged between the mountains surrounding the metropolis is a sight that defies logic.
Despite the usual grittiness that I find associated with most large cities, La Paz can quickly redeem itself in a blink of an eye and surprise you with its nuances.
Flying high above the town is Teleferico – the world’s most revolutionary cable car system servicing La Paz-El Alto as the main urban transit.
The design, 26 stations along 10 lines, is a unique navigation system in a mountain-crazed city that is ultra clean, quiet and an attraction to experience.
Another La Paz checklist is the Valley De Luna or Moon Valley, a must-see if, like me, you have a penchant for unique landscapes.
Easily accessible from the downtown core, Moon Valley is an erosion primarily of clay, creating a surreal moon-like landscape. The tall, raised pinnacles add a dramatic maze of formations, and the end effect is staggering and otherworldly.
You can easily spend a few days exploring the corners of La Paz with its notable landmarks of historical basilicas, colourful markets and clusters of small museums.
But, better still, who would have known there’s also a quirkiness to this unique place?
Here you can meander the world’s largest Witches’ Market that offers amulets, talismans and charms of all kinds.
DON’T MISS THESE SIGHTS
Once you’re ready to leave the big city behind, shake off the crowds, and dial down, you would be remiss not to visit the iconic Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest in the world.
An easy day trip from La Paz, the lake has been deemed the sanctuary for the Inca empire and straddles the borders between Bolivia and Peru.
Catching a boat ride to admire the highly reflective waters is part of the area’s charm.
In fact, if you’re up for more, Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) and Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) not only offer views of perfectly symmetrical agricultural terraces, but you can explore ancient ruins here too, and hike-worthy trails.
Following a surprisingly comfortable overnight on a sleeper bus from La Paz, my wanderlust brought me to Bolivia’s southwest region and the magic of Salar de Uyuni – arguably, the country’s most significant draw.
So, where do we begin?
Created by prehistoric lakes from long ago, the world’s most enormous salt flat stretches over 4,000 square miles of the Altiplano, leaving the most remarkable vistas of white infinity in its path.
There are two distinct seasons in Salar – dry and wet.
But, unlike most places, the rain creates a magical effect and transforms the desert into a gigantic surreal mirror. The view is so perfect it’s almost distracting.
Hence why it’s known as ‘the place where heaven meets earth.’
Equally matched is catching a mesmerizing mirrored sunset and spending a night in a local salt hotel where stargazing makes for an unforgettable experience.
Beyond the salt flats, I explored the beauty of the region’s deserts, with snow-capped mountain peaks and booming wildlife, where llamas, alpacas and vicunas are a regular occurrence.
And, if that weren’t enough, the desert is interspersed with multi-coloured lagoons – Colorada Laguna(red), Verde Laguna (green) and Bianca Laguna (white) – each unique in colour due to their mineral content. Moreover, they are home to rare and large populations of flamingos.
I found their bright pink plumage a lovely contrast of colour against the desert landscapes. Yes, it was an aha moment.
EMBRACING BOLIVIA’S AMAZON
Eager and excited to experience yet another key region of Bolivia, I ventured north to the imposing Amazon basin to be engulfed by the largest tropical rainforest in the world, stretching across nine South American countries.
Taking a moment to revel at the intrigue of the dense jungle before me, it was apparent why the Amazon is on many travellers’ lists.
Navigating to the area’s main gateway, the verdant jungle town of Rurrenabaque, is a scenic and quick 40-minute flight from LaPaz.
For the more intrepid souls seeking an Amazon experience, I quickly learned that the Madidi National Park delivers on all fronts and with full guns blazing.
This jungle paradise in Bolivia’s upper Amazon river basin is well known for its home to raucous wildlife, biological diversity of rare flora and fauna and breathtaking landscapes.
What’s more, perched on the edge of the Amazon are wetlands known as the Pampas.
Here you can get at close range with myriad wildlife encounters, including caymans, sunbathing turtles, and squirrel monkeys who are just as curious about you as you are of them.
But rarer still is the elusive pink dolphin unique to its freshwaters.
Although the Bolivian Amazon can render itself as a downright steamy and sweaty jungle experience, you will be enchanted by the region’s local indigenous cultures rooted in very present and thriving traditions.
There are numerous off-the-grid options for stays in a comfortable rustic eco-lodge or indigenous community.
For the record, there is something to be said about the sights and sounds of a live Carnival.
As a visitor experiencing it for the first time, there is an ever-present energy throughout as the people embrace and celebrate themselves and their regions.
Each year in February, the sleepy city of Oruro, south of La Paz, swells as it comes alive to host Bolivia’s most significant Carnival and the world’s third-largest.
The Devil’s Carnival celebrates the battle between good and evil – and good always prevails.
It is a perfect juncture to rub shoulders with locals and admire the visually striking masks and colourful costumes. Add a can of spray foam and a water gun; by default, you are ready to partake in the festivities.
The visual magic transcends as a sea of 25,000 dancers, and 10,000 musicians gather from all corners of the country.
Together, they deliver the most authentic carnival in South America that you’ll have to come and see for yourself. Because some things just can’t be explained, only experienced.
For more information visit Bolivia’s site at www.conocebolivia.produccion.gob.bo