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a final look back: Bolivia

Although we traversed more or less the same path through the northern Andes, our routes began to diverge in Bolivia. S headed to Patagonia, exploring parts of Chile and Argentina along the way, while D crossed eastward, going through Paraguay en route to Buenos Aires. As a result, while we still visited many of the same places in Bolivia, there is a lot less overlap in the photographs from our two trips.

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Bolivia is the poorest of the three Andean countries, and the wealth disparity is noticeable in a way that is not as immediately obvious in Peru and Ecuador. For example, the $135 D paid for a guided ice climb was a little less than the price of a similar excursion in Peru or Ecuador. Talking to the woman at the tour agency who helped outfit him with the necessary gear for the two-day ascent, he realized that it represented more than her monthly income.

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There is a well-worn backpacker circuit that takes in many of the country’s spectacular sites. Because there is virtually no local tourism, it is possible to spend a month in Bolivia completely enveloped in a tourism industry bubble, doing package tours and paying tourist prices that are completely divorced from the country’s economy.

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Bolivia is vast, and there are many beautiful places to see off the beaten path. However, not only are they difficult to access, but also the tradeoff is not always worth it. Much as we both detest organized tourism, the places that comprise Bolivia’s backpacker circuit are truly worth visiting. Just as Machu Picchu is a must-see in Peru, so too are Lake Titicaca and the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia.

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D met an Israeli backpacker who came to Bolivia about a decade earlier and never left. He had amassed a collection of topographical maps that was more extensive than the one owned by the country’s geographic-military institute. He showed D pictures of ice caves and hidden staircase lakes, and spoke about canoe trips through beautiful, rarely-explored jungle landscapes. Unfortunately none of the gorgeous and off-the-beaten-path itineraries he suggested fit into the timeframe for D’s trip.

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A month is a good amount of time for an introductory trip to Bolivia. It’s enough to hit most of the must-see spots and to visit a handful of less touristy destinations.

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Of the three Andean capitals, La Paz was easily our favorite. With an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, La Paz is the world’s highest capital, and the already rarified air is made all the harder to breathe by heavy pollution, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. La Paz is a bustling city with a lot to see and do and tons of delicious street food, much of it of questionable hygienic quality. The photo above is from the witches’ market, where among the many herbs and medicines one can also procure coca leaves and dried llama fetuses.

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Biking down the so-called “death road” from La Paz to El Choro is a popular tourist diversion. As D does not like biking, he hiked to El Choro instead, which proved a scenic, if somewhat more time-consuming, alternative.

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Because La Paz is located at such a high altitude, it makes for a great acclimatization base. D’s favorite ice climb of the half a dozen peaks he summited in South America is Huyna Potosi, located about an hour away from the Bolivian capital.

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At 6,088 meters, it is a mere 26 feet shy of 20,000. Despite having some technical sections, including a steep ice wall just beneath the summit, it is one of the most accessible and easiest to scale 6,000m peaks in the world.

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Tucked away in the desolate southwestern corner of Bolivia is Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. It takes several hours to drive across its vast expanse, but the visit does not end there.

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The multi-day tour also includes geysers, frozen mineral lakes of various colors teeming with pink flamingos, hot springs, and some of the most striking scenery to be found in South America.

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Not far from Uyuni lies Potosi. During colonial times, its Cerro Rico mines made Potosi one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. In addition to a whole host of valuable ores, the so-called “rich mount” that towers over Potosi produced a seemingly endless stream of silver. Potosi’s population swelled to 200,000 and the Spaniards built nearly a hundred churches throughout the city.

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Alas, by the time Bolivia attained independence, most of Cerro Rico’s riches had been exhausted, and the miners who continue to ply their trade in Potosi eke out a pitiable existence. The city is worth a visit, both for its cultural relics and historical significance. A visit to the mines serves as a vivid reminder of the lasting damage of the region’s colonial exploitation.

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When to visit is sometimes as important as where one goes. The most memorable place D visited in Bolivia is a tiny village in the Amazon region called San Ignacio de Moxos. It is an unremarkable farming center for most of the year, but at the end of July its residents throw one of South America’s craziest parties. There are the usual colorful processions, folk bands, popular bull fights, and unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption. The kicker comes in the evening, when the town’s notable residents don leather hats outfitted with fireworks and then take turns rushing through the crowd of onlookers while fireworks spin off the top of their heads.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kara Freedman #

    Looks great! I went to a lot of the same places in Bolivia – in just 8 days I saw Lake Titicaca, Potosí, Sucre, and the Uyuni salt flats. We had a private car which cut down on travel times. I wish we’d been able to go to the Amazon region.

    I haven’t been to Quito, but I definitely liked La Paz better than Lima here in Peru, that’s for sure!

    June 6, 2015
    • You can check out the Amazon region in Peru too – my sense is that it won’t be too different. Personally, I’ve always wanted to go to Iquitos, though mostly because of the Mario Vargas Llosa novel…

      – D

      June 6, 2015

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