The writer was hosted.
From the heights of a gondola, I cruise above the city of La Paz in Bolivia, a sea of sunken terracotta buildings, colorful brickwork bathed in bright light from the crisp blue sky and crisp mountain air. In the distance, the white peaks of the Andes gleam.
As I take in the dizzying array of colors, cityscapes and natural landscapes around me, I’m struck by a singular thought – Bolivia is wild and by far the most underrated country I have visited in South America.
Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in the South America. La Paz sits at 12,000 feet, earning it the distinction of the highest city in the world. The landlocked nation is a treasure trove of natural wonders, outdoor adventures and cultural traditions, thanks to the large number of indigenous Bolivians who proudly share their customs.
Although Bolivia has a well-trodden tourist trail, to really familiarize myself and immerse myself as deeply and authentically as possible, I contacted La Paz on foot, a local tour operator that caters to the growing segment of luxury travel in Bolivia. The company gave me tips on things to do in Bolivia before my trip and I ended up booking a few experiences through them. I found it very helpful to have such local insight to guide my visit.
1. Safari through the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni
By far the most popular place tourists visit in Bolivia is the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The white expanse of salt stretches in a seemingly endless way – the area is so vast that it is comparable in land mass to the large island of Hawaii.
The Salar de Uyuni is close to the Chilean border, which is why many visitors enter Bolivia here after visiting the geysers of San Pedro de Atacama, the neighboring country’s desert. Night buses also run daily from La Paz. Direct flights from La Paz, although the fastest option, rarely operate.
Excursions can easily be booked online or in person in the towns of Coquesa, Chuvica and San Juan. Travelers can visit the highlights of the salar in a 4×4 vehicle. Day and multi-day tours are available. Be sure to book a guided tour of Laguna Colorada, the Instagram-worthy red lake.
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2. Boat on Lake Titicaca
Sharing a border with Peru, Lake Titicaca is another natural attraction that visitors to Bolivia also associate with a visit to a neighboring South American country. The largest freshwater lake in the Andes, this stunning body of water is one of Bolivia’s top natural attractions.
In addition to natural beauty, Lake Titicaca is also an important cultural site. Considered the cradle of the Inca Empire, it’s a great place to learn about Inca history. Local indigenous communities still thrive here too.
Settle into Copacabana where you can take a boat trip to see all the sights. Highlights include the Inca ruin of Tiwanaku and Isla del Sol, a beautiful place to hike and stop at lakeside villages to see the colorful flamingos that live in the lagoons and learn about Aymara traditions.
3. Take a cable car in La Paz
The Bolivian city of La Paz is home to the world’s largest cable car system, Mi Teleférico, which stretches nearly 20 miles across and above the cityscape. Made by the same company that has built gondolas for ski resorts across Europe, Mi Teleférico offers locals an alternative means of transport on busy streets, and visitors the opportunity to catch sight of high-altitude vistas, canyons and rock formations from an even greater height.
Highlights of the cable car system include El Alto, a nearby town with the best views of the Andes, and La Zona Sur, the city’s thriving commercial center home to modern restaurants, boutiques and the trendiest hotels, including MET La Paz.
4. Take a walking tour of La Paz
While you can take in all the colors and sights of this fascinating city from above on a cable car, to really understand this fascinating city, it’s best to get out and explore with a local guide through a company like La Paz on Foot.
Tourist attractions include the Mercado de Brujas, or Witches’ Market, a shopping district where ancient indigenous traditions thrive, the Spanish Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Coca Museum. Walking with a guide will also take you to hidden alleys and local restaurants where you can experience the authentic flavors of Bolivia.
5. ATV Death Road in Bolivia
Bolivia is a country of extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than on Yungas Road, dubbed the ‘Road of Death’ by locals and boasting the infamous status as the world’s most dangerous road. This long path stretches for a remarkable 43 miles and leads from the high-altitude peaks outside of La Paz to the rainforest and the gateway to the Amazon Basin, which eventually empties into Brazil.
While cars still occasionally hit the road, it has become an extremely popular option for mountain biking. I took a guided tour with Bolivia gravity, the nation’s top-rated ATV company. Professional guides picked me up in La Paz and soon we were driving up the mountain road past waterfalls and Bolivian foliage. In a single day we descended 10,000 feet and ended the day in a wildlife sanctuary deep in the jungle.
6. Native host family
Two hours from La Paz, the little native Tunisian community offers day trips and overnight trips for visitors to soak up the local way of life. For centuries, Jaime Quispe’s family lived in the lands near Tuni, living from farming and raising llamas. As conditions have made this way of life more difficult to maintain, Jaime and his family now operate a local Eco Lodge share and preserve their ancestral traditions.
Stay in Tuni for a glimpse into the life of the Aymara people. Explore the Cordillera Real mountain range, fish in an Andean lake, take part in farming activities including caring for the many llamas and alpacas that live here, and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
7. Climb a peak in the Cordillera Real
One of the coolest things I did in Bolivia was hike Pico Austria, one of the Cordillera Real peaks inside one of the most pristine national parks in the country. Although the name may be little known, this peak sits 17,450 feet above sea level – the same elevation as Mount Everest Base Camp!
The community of Tuni offers day climbs to the many peaks in the region. Although a climb is very difficult, it is doable for those with a high level of fitness and no previous mountaineering experience is required. The views from the tops of the glaciers are truly otherworldly.
8. Walk through Spanish architecture in Sucre
La Paz is not the only city in Bolivia to visit. Potosi, Santa Cruz and Sucre all offer sights that are sure to enchant visitors. When it comes to Spanish architecture, there’s no match for Sucre, honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in the central highlands, Sucre is the administrative capital and known as the most beautiful city in the country. In addition to the many historic buildings, the Muse de Arte Indigena offers the largest display of indigenous art while Casa Libertad celebrates the history of independence from the Spaniards.
With beautiful, ancient cultures and wild landscapes, Bolivia is truly one of the most incredible destinations I have ever been to. Outdoor adventurers and culture vultures will be delighted with all that this country has to offer.