Bolivia is one of those true travelling gems, the kind of travel destination that is visited by those looking for a unique, adventurous, occasionally hard work but truly rewarding travel experience. The kind of travel destination that seems to exist in a dream-like world, where landscapes are so epic they are almost beyond imaginable. The kind of travel destination that creates stories and memories unlike any other… and where travellers that are lucky enough to have visited frequently keep silent about their experiences after their return, for fear of exposing the secret of Bolivia to the wider world.
For those looking for a relaxing luxury holiday, a beach side all-inclusive resort, or 5-star Michelin fine-dining during their holiday… look elsewhere. Bolivia is not that kind of destination, and travel in Bolivia does require that little bit of extra effort compared to most other destinations. The landscapes are sparse, rural and rugged; and adventurous but bumpy 4×4 tours are often the only way of travelling through parts of the country. The climate can also be a little tough to adjust to, with the high altitude and arid desert-landscapes in certain parts of the country harsh on both the human, and animal and plant life.
The Best of Bolivia
Bolivia is packed full of wonderful places to visit, with some of the highlights being the capital of La Paz and its crazy “witches markets”, the city of Potosi with its silver mine (one of the highest cities in the world and once one of the richest), the pre-Colombian ruin of Tihuanaco, the quaint lakeside village of Copacobana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol island on Lake Titicaca – in Inca mythology the location of the birth of the Inca sun god, and the pampas jungle regions packed with wildlife including caiman, capybara and anacondas.
Any trip to Bolivia can be an experience, but if there is one journey that stands out amongst the crowd as a true adventure journey, it is the journey through the Salar de Uyuni…
Salar de Uyuni
The fantastic Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, a very special and unique place. Best visited on a three or four-day 4×4 tour, the salar is a seemingly endless expanse of white salt. If you’re looking to visit the flats to create the “mirror” reflective photos, then you’ll need to visit during the rainy season roughly between January and April, although it is worth considering that during this time it can be difficult or impossible to travel across the flats which can impact some of the tours. For visits during the dry season, May to November, the surface water is not present so it is possible to drive right across the flats so additional locations can be visited.
It is possible to swiftly visit the flats on a day tour, by flying into Uyuni airport, doing a day-trip to the flats, then departing that evening or early the next day. However this is a massive missed opportunity, and what many people don’t realise is that in this region of Bolivia there are actually many more things to see and do within the vicinity of the salt flats. We’ve detailed more of the best sights in the region that can be visited on a tour through this part of Bolivia:
This “island” in the middle of the salt flats is known as Fish Island in English, and tours of the region will stop at the island during the dry season. Make the most of this experience, and climb up onto the island amongst the vast cacti to spot for some of the beautiful bird life and mammal-life (such as the Vizcacha), that live in this barren wilderness. There are also incredible views over the salar from the summit.
This is one of those destinations that has to be seen to be believed, as a description of this wonderful natural phenomenon almost makes it seem made up! Laguna Colorada is a salt lake near to the salar that contains a rich broth of algae, which colour the waters a vibrant shade of pinky red. This colour, coupled with the flocks of pink flamingos that graze in the lake, make this a truly special sight.
The Stone Tree, known locally in Bolivia as the “Arbol de Piedra”, is a unique rock formation created by wind erosion. Situated in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve protected area, a beautiful natural landscape containing volcanoes, lakes, salt flats and spurting hot geysers, the “tree” is a wonderful example of nature in what is a ochre barren valley region reminiscent of Mars.
Yet another unique natural phenomenon near the Salar de Uyuni, and close to the border with Chile, Laguna Verde is another stunning lake in this region of Bolivia. Licancabur, a typically conical shaped volcano, sits behind the lake making the vista even more majestic… but if that wasn’t enough it is the magical properties of the water of the lake that make this place extra special. The waters of the lake contain a blend of rich minerals, including copper and arsenic, and when winds stir up the minerals in the waters the colour of the lake can be seen visually changing colour from a bright turquoise to a luminous green – a very rare sight indeed, and a marvel of nature.
This geyser field, at an altitude of 5000m, is a fascinating area of bubbling, spurting, spitting pools of volcanic gasses, nearby to Laguna Colorada. Although the sulphurous odour may not be for everyone, the landscape is incredible and worthy of stepping out the 4×4 tour vehicle, if only for a few minutes to snap a few photos to treasure the memory.
Polques Hot Springs
Unlike the fumeroles, which are bubbling sulphuric pools, the Polques Hot Springs are a more tranquil affair, consisting of a natural thermal bathing pool with possibly the greatest view of any bathtub on planet earth – after a full days dusty touring in a 4×4 there is nothing quite like relaxing in these waters.
The Night Sky
One of the best things about touring Bolivia, particularly in the regions at altitude around the Salar de Uyuni and the altiplano, is being able to observe the Milky Way, a true marvel, and a sight that is becoming harder and harder to appreciate in modern city life. The Salar is at altitude, which means the atmosphere is thinner and stars easier to see, but the total lack of any light pollution means the Milky Way simply shines like a big white stripe through the night sky – a wonderful experience and like Bolivia as a whole, simply stunning.
This article was written by Jonathan, one of the founders of Go Andes, a UK-based tailor-made tour operator specialising in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru holidays. Jonathan first travelled to Bolivia in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the immense landscapes and beauty of this country, and has been lucky enough to return many times since to explore new travelling opportunities in this adventure destination.