Maybe it was just the lack of oxygen, but, for me, entering Bolivia felt like entering another dimension. Though Bolivia has not traditionally enjoyed the same air play as neighboring Peru, Brazil, or Argentina, you want to see a place utterly different from anywhere you’ve been, this is the place.
Landlocked and underdeveloped Bolivia is the odd one out in South America. With the only indigenous majority in the Americas, Bolivia is as Amerindian as it is Hispanic.
Lake Titicaca & the Islands
Straddling the border between Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable waterway. The Incas supposedly originate from two islands on the Bolivian side of the lake, the Sun Island and the Moon Island, which figure prominently in the cosmology and worldview of Bolivia’s indigenous people.
La Paz, the Real Capital
La Paz is Bolivia’s capital and largest city, but Bolivians claim it is neither. For reasons I don’t quite comprehend, Bolivia continues to pretend that Sucre is the national capital, even though its executive and legislative branches are based in La Paz. Equally strange, Bolivia downplays the population of La Paz by labeling a large district where more than half of its residents live as a separate city called, El Alto.
At 3,500 meters, La Paz is the highest altitude capital in the world. Even the smallest amount of physical activity had me gasping for breath.
A friend named Diego introduced me to a Boliviana who he connected with online named Eva. Eva volunteered her time to show us around the city, starting with the Valley of the Moon.
The Valley of the Moon is a strange and tantalizing landscape created by the erosion of clay hills on the outskirts of La Paz.
Eva told us there are jack rabbits living here, and a few minutes later we even saw one jump on to a tall pinnacle.
Afterwards, Eva took us for a ride on Mi Teleferico, the world’s biggest cable car network, which helps the fragmented city circulate over mountains and steep hills.
Cholitas, as they are affectionately known, are indigenous women who wear an adaptation of late 19th century European women’s clothing, usually a poofy frilly gown, a petticoat, a shawl, a bowler hat, and long braided pigtails tied together at the ends.
The cholita archetype has its roots in the colonial era when Spanairds forced indigenous peoples to adopt European clothing “to rein in their subversive airs.” Over time, the cholita modified her attire to her liking, and now the cholita is a proud symbol of indigenous identity.
Until recently, Cholitas were stigmatized as lower-class peasants and forbidden from entering many establishments. They were even banned from Plaza Murillo, the civic heart of La Paz where the presidential palace sits. All this changed with the 2006 election of President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
Evo Morales is a controversial populist a-la-Chavismo who has fiercely championed the empowerment of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. By the same token, he has also fashioned the young democracy into a kleptocratic dictatorship. When I passed a dilapidated Casa de Democracia on the street, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for cheap symbolism.
Witchcraft is a potent force in contemporary Bolivia. At the witches’ market in La Paz, witches shop for talismans, amulets, llama fetuses, and magic potions – a holdover of indigenous traditions that were never fully eradicated by the Spaniards.
Many items, such as these llamas fetuses, are meant to be offered to Pachamama, the supreme Andean mother earth goddess. The Spaniards equated Pachamama to the Virgin Mary to facilitate the conversion of the native to Catholicism, hence the Virgin Mary and Pachamama coexist side-by-side in the modern Bolivian pantheon.
Jonathan, a 25-year-old anthropology student I met through Couchsurfing, proposed we go to a the Valley of the Spirits, a valley less touristy and more dramatic than the Valley of the Moon.
It’s called the Valley of Spirits because early explorers thought the pointy pinnacle resembled spirits reaching toward heaven.
We spent several hours sitting in front of this view before Jonathan noticed that the trio of pinnacles to the left have faces. I thought it was just our imagination, but he said such things are common in valleys surrounding La Paz.
Though lacking the rich historical and cultural connotations of Sucre or La Paz, Bolivia’s third city, Cochabamba, rose to notoriety as the site of 2007 Guerra de Agua (“Water War”), a mass populist uprising that successfully reversed the World Bank’s forced privatization of the municipality’s water supply.
Sucre, the White City
Sucre, “the white city” is it aptly nicknamed, is the cultural and historical capital of Bolivia, and technically the political capital, too, according to the constitution. Sucre is easily one of the most beautiful and charming cities in Latin America, and many backpackers choose to stick around for weeks.
A few kilometers outside Sucre, a cement factory mistakenly uncovered a massive fossil sheet containing over 5,000 dinosaur footprints. You can’t get very close because there are private industrial facilities in the way, but it’s still incredible to see from a distance.
Potosi, the forgotten jewel of the Spanish Empire
Potosí is a colonial mining town high in the Bolivian altiplano that cropped up under the infamous Cerro Rico, often called the “hill that eats men.” By the late 16th century, 60 percent of the global supply of silver was being mined from Cerro Rico generating unprecedented wealth for the Spanish crown and unimaginable misery for the region’s indigenous peoples.
This is the hill that bankrolled the Spanish armada, the European renaissance, and the continuing conquests of the New World. Millions of people are thought to have died inside its mines over the centuries.
The mines remain in operation to this day. Whether or not visiting the mines on a tour is ethical is a controversial issue in the travel community.
I think visiting the mines is a positive thing because 1) the tours provide a safe alternative form of employment for ex-miners who become tour guides, 2) the miners appreciate the gifts tourists bring, and 3) we should all be aware of where the silver inside our phones is coming from.
Here is our gringo crew all dolled up to go into the mines. I’m holding a stick of dynamite nearly as big as me. Potosi is the only place in the world you can buy dynamite in the street. The stuff sells for just a few dollars.
The Salt Flats of Uyuni
Bolivia’s biggest draw and Pièce de Resistance is the vast and infinitely photogenic salt flat of Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The flat was created when a vast prehistoric salt lake connected to Lake Titicaca dried up leaving only salt behind.
Trains transporting minerals to ports in Chile used to crisscross Uyuni. The last of the freight lines was decommissioned in the 1980s. The final resting place of the abandoned trains in the train cemetery just outside Uyuni town is a haunting sight.
In 2008, the Dakar Rally, an off-road race that usually runs from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal, was rerouted to South America because of security threatens that emerged in Africa that year.
The 2014 Dakar Rally passed through Uyuni leaving behind this monument in the middle of the salt flat along with the country flags of that year’s competitors.
This rocky cactus-covered outcrop was once an island in the prehistoric lake that spanned the region. During the rainy season, it briefly becomes an island again as the surrounding area floods.
The flat empty landscape of Uyuni allows for some fun optical illusion photos.
When the salt flat floods, it takes on a reflective mirror-like quality that looks magical around sunset.
The Atacama Desert
Where the vast white infinity of the salt flats ends, a new natural wonder begins: the Atacama Desert. Split between Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, the Atacama is littered with volcanos, sulfur lakes, geysers, and unusual rock formations.
The Atacama Desert is dotted by salt lakes that nourish one of the two ecosystems on earth that do not depend on the sun for energy. Instead, underwater volcanic vents spewing heat form the energy base on which life here survives.
The Arbol de Piedra (“tree of stone”) was carved by the blowing of the wind over the course of thousands of years.