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From the looming heights of a gondola, I sail above the city of La Paz in Bolivia, a sea of terracotta buildings below, colorful bricks bathed in bright light from the crisp blue skies and fresh mountain air. In the distance, the white peaks of the Andes glow.
As I take in the dizzying array of colors, city landscapes and natural vistas that surround me, I’m struck by a singular thought – Bolivia is wild, and by far the most underrated country I’ve visited in South America.
Bolivia is the highest, most isolated country in 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.
Though Bolivia does have a well-beaten tourist path, to really get in the know and immerse myself as deeply and authentically as possible I reached out to La Paz on Foot, a locally-owned tour operator that caters to the growing luxury travel segment in Bolivia. The company gave me advice on things to do in Bolivia before my trip and I ended up booking a few experiences through them. I found it really helpful to have such local insight guiding my visit.
1. Safari Through Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats
Far and above the most popular place tourists to Bolivia visit is Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. The white expanse of salt stretches in a seemingly endless fashion – the area is so large it’s comparable in land mass to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Salar de Uyuni is close to the border of Chile, so many visitors enter Bolivia here after visiting the geysers of San Pedro de Atacama, the desert in the neighboring country. Night buses also run daily from La Paz. Direct flights from La Paz, while the fastest option, run infrequently.
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 salt flat in a 4×4 vehicle. Full-day and multi-day tours are available. Be sure to book a guided tour of Laguna Colorada, the Instagram-worthy red lake.
2. Boat Across Lake Titicaca
Sharing a border with Peru, Lake Titicaca is another natural attraction that visitors to Bolivia also pair with a visit to a neighboring South American country. The largest freshwater lake in the Andes, this magnificent body of water is one of the top natural attractions in Bolivia.
In addition to the natural beauty, Lake Titicaca is an important cultural sight as well. Said to be the birthplace of the Incan Empire, this is a great place to learn about Inca history. Local indigenous communities still thrive here also.
Base yourself in Copacabana where you can take a boat tour to see all the sights. Highlights include the Inca ruin of Tiwanaku and Isla del Sol, a gorgeous place to hike and stop at lakeside villages to see the colorful flamingos that live in lagoons and learn about Aymara traditions.
3. Take a Cable Car in La Paz
Bolivia’s city of La Paz is home to the world’s largest cable car system, Mi Teleférico, stretching for nearly 20 miles across and above the urban landscape. Manufactured by the same company that has built gondolas for ski resorts across Europe, Mi Teleférico provides locals an alternative transportation method to the traffic-filled streets, and visitors the opportunity to glimpse the high altitude views, canyons and rock formations from an even greater height.
Highlights along the cable car system include El Alto, a neighboring city with the best views of the Andes and La Zona Sur, the thriving commercial hub of the city home to modern restaurants, boutique shops and the hottest hotels, including MET La Paz.
4. Go on a Walking Tour of La Paz
While you can take in all of 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 here include the Mercado de Brujas, or Witches’ Market, a shopping district where ancient indigenous traditions thrive, the Spanish San Francisco Cathedral and the Coca Museum. Walking with a guide will also lead you down hidden alleyways and local restaurants where you can get an authentic feel for the flavors of Bolivia.
5. Mountain Bike Bolivia’s Death Road
Bolivia is a country of extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than on Yungas Road, nicknamed “Death Road” 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 and down to the rainforest and gateway to the Amazon basin, which eventually runs into Brazil.
While cars still occasionally take the road, it’s become an extremely popular option for mountain biking. I did a guided tour with Gravity Bolivia, the top-rated mountain bike company in the country. Professional guides picked me up from La Paz and soon we were cruising down the mountain road past waterfalls and Bolivian foliage. In a single day, we descended 10,000 feet and ended the day at a wildlife reserve deep in the jungle.
6. Indigenous Homestay
Two hours outside of La Paz, the small indigenous community of Tuni offers day trips and overnight excursions for visitors to soak up the local way of life. For centuries the family of Jaime Quispe has lived on the land near Tuni, making a living through agriculture and llama farming. As conditions have made this way of life more difficult to sustain, Jaime and his family now operate a local ecolodge to share and preserve their ancestral traditions.
Stay in Tuni for a peek into life for the Aymara people. Explore the Cordillera Real mountain range, fish in an Andean lake, participate in farming activities, including caring for the many llamas and alpaca who 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 peaks in the Cordillera Real inside one of the country’s most pristine national parks. While the name may be little known, this peak sits at 17,450 feet above sea level – the same elevation as Mount Everest Base Camp!
The community of Tuni offers day climbs up to the many peaks in the region. While a climb is very challenging, it is doable for those with a high fitness level and no prior mountaineering experience is required. The views from the glacier peaks are truly otherworldly.
8. Wander Spanish Architecture in Sucre
La Paz isn’t the only city in Bolivia worth visiting. 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 historical buildings, The Muse de Arte Indigena boats the largest display of indigenous art while Casa Libertad celebrates the history of independence from the Spanish.
With beautiful and ancient cultures and wild landscapes, Bolivia is truly one of the most incredible destinations I’ve been to. Outdoor adventurers and culture enthusiasts will be delighted with all this country has to offer.