Have you ever considered traveling to Bolivia? I am going to guess the majority of you are shaking your heads no right now. And then you’re going to probably think to yourself – what the heck is in Bolivia to see? Wait – where is Bolivia? Well, my friends I am about to give you the answer to both of those very valid questions and in the process, I guarantee many of you will be saying Wow – I had no idea that was there!
And to give you that wow factor – I called upon my colleague Sebastian Grisi the Sales and Marketing Manager for Condor Travel Bolivia to join me on one of my Travel Thursday video chats to fill us in on this very off the beaten path country that so many do not know about.
So, sit back, relax and get ready to open your mind – and eyes – to this little-known gem of a country.
Country Background: Bolivia is a South American country that sits pretty much in the middle of the continent and is bordered by Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay. It measures 424,200 square miles and has a population of around 11.5 million. The main languages spoken here are Spanish, Aymara and Quechua. Its geography consists of 60% tropical lowlands, 13% valleys and 27% highlands.
Per Sebastian, Bolivia’s location can be likened to the heart of South America which is perfect since being in the middle of South America provides an excellent opportunity to combine Bolivia with other countries making for a multi-destination adventure! In fact – around 80% of the travelers going to Bolivia are actually combining Bolivia with other countries such as Peru, northern Chile, northern Argentina and some of them even with Brazil.
Getting There: There are certainly international flights available into La Paz as well as Santa Cruz – although not as many as its neighboring countries – as for example Lima, Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo which offer more lift than Bolivia. The US city you would get the direct flight out of would be Miami and that would be into Santa Cruz. Once you are there however the access to the surrounding countries via air is very well connected. And because the American dollar goes a lot further there – it is also a cost-effective country!
When To Go: One thing to keep in mind when planning your trip is that the dry season in Bolivia is from April through November and their rainy season is from December through March. However – and this is a big however – don’t let rainy season stop you from visiting Bolivia during those months – as Sebastian reassured us that tourism still happens during that time. (Side Note: You will see why in a little bit!) Sebastian related to us how it used to be that during rainy season there was pretty much no tourists to be found. Then about ten to 12 years ago they started getting bookings from the Asian market looking to go to the southwest during this time. So long story short – yes you can travel to Bolivia the entire year-round depending on what exactly are you planning to see and do.
How To Go: The suggested length of a trip to Bolivia is anywhere from ten to 14 days and if you prefer just to make it part of a multi-destination trip to South America I can easily put Bolivia in as part of – or even half of – your stay if it’s something that you really want to experience (and you do – trust me). Bonus – Contour Travel also operates in other South American countries so I can create something together with Sebastian and his colleagues should you choose multi-destination.
Destinations: As I already mentioned, Bolivia is divided up into three areas –the lowlands, the valley and the highlands. Below is a glimpse into each of these regions.
- The Tropical Lowlands: Many people are surprised to hear the stat that 60% of Bolivia is considered tropical lowlands. One of the biggest misconceptions about this country is that most think Bolivia is more highlands than anything – when in reality, more of the territories are tropical lowlands.
Within those tropical lowlands you can find many different national parks to visit including Madidi National Park and Amboro National Park. Most of the national parks are surrounding Santa Cruz and Sebastian actually suggests starting your visit to Bolivia in Santa Cruz due to the altitude being only around 1300 feet as opposed to some parts – like La Paz – which is almost 12,000 feet above sea level.
There are plenty of activities to be had in the lowlands including bird watching tours, and treks through the jungle to name a few. The really cool thing is that this is a part of Bolivia that not many know exists. In fact, I relate it to a true nature preserve as it is untouched territory and an opportunity for you to enjoy nature and have an experience like no other.
Also, in the lowlands – near Santa Cruz – you will find the Jesuit Missions which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site as this – and all of the missions you will find in Bolivia – are very well preserved, culturally important and architecturally beautiful. In fact, the six other missions located in Bolivia are also designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- Valley: In the middle of the country, you will find the valleys which represent more or less 17 to 18% of the of the territory of Bolivia. Here you will also find national parks, as well colonial cities including Sucre which is another designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Oh, and they also have dinosaur footprints.
What? Oh, you want to hear about the dinosaur footprints? Well … about three miles from downtown Sucre there’s a place called Cal Orck’o which is a 328-foot wall imprinted with more than 5,000 dinosaur footprints. No kidding! And Sebastian told us a great story about his quest to find said footprints. About five years ago – when he first heard about this place – he and co-worker went to find them. But they couldn’t locate them. So, as they drove around, they came across a small town where there just so happened to be children playing in the school yard. They stopped to ask them if they by chance knew where these famous dinosaur tracks were exactly – and the children promptly took them right there.
And so, my friends – think about this – not only is the country off the beaten path but this particular must-see spot is so far off the beaten path that even Sebastian needed to get the assistance of the locals to find it. And it is the locals that we work with in order to get you experiences – of pure cultural immersion – to see and do things that nobody else is going to see or do if they venture there without guidance. And what a great opportunity for the children that most of you have been homeschooling to get out and not only be exposed to this type of travel that is truly a living classroom but to also get to interact with other children taking it to the next level of connecting!
Now Sucre is actually one of two of Bolivia’s capital cities – the constitutional capital – and is a really beautiful, well preserved small town of perhaps 300,000 inhabitants. Sebastian recommendation that you should stay here for at least two nights and he added that the valley is a great transition point from the lowlands to the highlands as Sucre has an altitude of around 9,000 feet. Here you can partake in more traditional, cultural visits or if you prefer a little bit more adventure you can go walking, hiking or tracking.
And speaking of cultural immersion here you will also have an opportunity to learn how to weave from the local women who have been weaving the same way for centuries. And not only is it interesting to watch but then you realize this is how they make money. So, anything that you purchase from them actually helps sustain them and helps them to stay independent. And after all – that is what it is all about – sustainable travel – so you’re helping them stay independent
- Highlands: In the highlands you will find Titicaca Lake – which is one of Bolivia’s main tourist attractions. In fact, nine out of ten people traveling to Bolivia visit Titicaca Lake. Fun Fact: They actually share the lake with Peru – Peru has half and they have the other half.
Now – this is not a lake that you are going to go kayaking or water paddling or anything along those lines on due to the fact that is a very cold lake as it sits at an elevation of around 12,500 feet. But there are activities to be enjoyed there and it is a gorgeous lake to see.
Another attraction in this area are the cable cars in La Paz that head up – and down – the mountain to where the city of El Alto – and the La Paz airport – sit. The cable cars were introduced in 2014 and at that time consisted of three different lines – the red line, the yellow line and the green line – in honor of Bolivia’s flag. Over the years more lines were added and there are now ten different lines. In addition to a great tourist attraction, they do serve a practical purpose as they are used to avoid traffic jams between the two cities.
Also, near La Paz you will find the Royal Andes mountain range which you can get to by car in about an hour or an hour and a half. They offer a variety of activities – depending on the type of adventure you are looking for. You can do some fairly easy hiking – keeping in mind you are already around 12,500 feet high. You can camp. And you can even take a llama trekking trip where the llamas will assist you with the toting of your luggage!
And if you are planning a trip to Bolivia in February Sebastian recommends you try to book during the time that the Carnival of Oruro is taking place. Located about three hours from La Paz this carnival coincides with carnivale in Brazil and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage carnival. It is a fabulous and stunning celebration of culture – and appreciating those cultures and features more than 30 different types of dances and of cultures in general.
You will also find a national park in the highlands – Sajama National Park. This park is a wonderful opportunity for bird watching – and they have flamingos you guys! This is another great area – among the mountains and amazing waters – to just really immerse yourself in nature in general or participate in activities like biking and hiking. And it is home to the ominous 21,463-foot Nevado Sajama which is Bolivia’s highest peak.
- Uyuni Salt Flats: The Uyuni Salt Flats in general are just totally amazing because what you have there is around 4,633 square miles of pure salt. For some perspective that means it is an area larger than Titicaca Lake or its more or less four times the size of Switzerland. Per Sebastian it is so very huge and when you’re standing there sometimes all you can see is white on the horizon. I’m in!
You can visit the Uyuni Salt Flats year-round. You can walk on them or you can bike on in this pristine area. Plus, there are many mountains and volcanoes surrounding them that provide even more opportunities for adventure. And during rainy season – per Sebastian – it’s just as – or maybe more stunning than dry season. Also – during rainy they run special excursions out there – to view the sunset or the sunrise or to go star gazing. They will provide you with rubber boots so that you can walk on the salt flats and Sebastian likened it to walking on stars – especially with an inch or so of water lying on top.
And how about this locale for a destination wedding – especially during rainy season with the glistening water at your feet. If you are looking for an incredibly unique destination wedding this option is beyond awesome. I mean there is nowhere else that are you going to find this kind of scenery. What an opportunity of a lifetime this is have your unique, one-of-a-kind wedding!
So once again – while the country itself is off the beaten path for many Americans here’s an opportunity for you to even experience more off the beaten path within the country – and that is a social distancing jackpot if you ask me!
- Lagoons: One really cool thing you can find in Bolivia are colorful lagoons. There are red lagoons in the southern Uyuni region which is actually a volcanic region and you would cross this one should you want to go to San Pedro or the northern part of chile. What makes the water red? That hue is due to the algae that is in the water and that is also why the flamingos are red there too! On another note, there are also green lagoons in Bolivia, and they get their color thanks to the minerals in the water.
Accommodations: The resorts and the hospitality you’ll receive in Bolivia are comparable to what we’re used to in four- or five-star level hotels here in the US.
- Ecolodge La Estancia Sun Island, Titicaca Lake: This is actually a Condor Travel owned property making it really simple should you want to do a buyout to gather family or friends or family and friends to a great place to pamper yourselves in wellness. And speaking of wellness – what about my yoga peeps holding a yoga retreat here in this magical place with those fabulous lake views and the Andes.
- Palacio de Sal Uyuni Salt Flats: This one is super cool because it is actually made out of salt! Yup. You read that right. The rooms have igloo or dome type ceilings that are made of salt bricks, the walls are made out of salt and even the beds are made out of salt! Like Sebastian noted – if you are coming all the way to Bolivia and to Uyuni why not stay in a salt hotel? I know I certainly would! Plus, the hotel was renovated within the past few years and they have a spa – so why not spend a few nights? How is this for wellness – you are in the spacious salt flats, recharging your batteries doing something totally different than anything you have experienced before. And it’s not restrictive (pandemic wise) because you really don’t have a lot of people around you so it’s so it’s really an opportunity for you to go within.
- Kachi Lodge Luxury Domes: Newly opened – June of 2019 – at this marvelous property you can star gaze from your own private dome room situated on the salt flats or on the water on the salt flats! The lodge is built upon a platform so that when it is rainy season the weather – i.e. the rains – won’t go inside the domes. And there is a beautiful telescope for you to take in the stars and feel a little closer to this amazing universe.
Gastronomy: On to everyone’s favorite topic – the food – because we all love to eat, and we want to know what we should definitely try while in Bolivia. Sebastian noted that they have been improving the gastronomy in Bolivia over the past few years but there is no national dish of Bolivia per say – as in the lowlands you have plenty of great dishes, in the valley you have plenty of great dishes and in the highlands you have plenty of great dishes. So, you really have a little bit of everything – from delicious street food to well renowned restaurants such as Gustu which was named one of the best restaurants in Latin America a few years back. Even Sebastian said he does not have a favorite dish, but he does like salteña which is a type of baked empanada but with more juice inside. Also inside? A little bit of meat, some potatoes and some egg. This is typically a snack eaten by the locals between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and it is scrumptious.
One great Bolivian tradition centered around food is an aptapi. This is a meal from the highlands where the locals share what they have at their homes with each other. For example, one family will bring potatoes, perhaps another family will bring chicken and another fava beans – you get the idea – but it is all brought together, and everything is shared with the community. It’s kind of a little bit like what we in the US call a potluck. One cool experience Condor provides is that they will create a luxury aptapi on the salt flats for you to enjoy which means you get your own buffet of all of the yummy local foods served to you in this amazing atmosphere. It can even be done during a sunset tour and include wine, champagne and cocktails.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Bolivia.
Wow – does this not make you feel like you’ll be in a world that is filled with serenity and peace and almost a sense of relief to be so far from everyday life to bask in nature and wellness? Like a breath of fresh air – like the weight of the world off your shoulders?
So how about you and I start planning and putting together this trip of a lifetime that incorporates culture and history and gastronomy and a living classroom and nature and…wellness and well…whew….so very, very much.
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Bolivia, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!