Traveller's Guide: Bolivia

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It's not only the high altitude that will take your breath away in this wonderfully diverse country

South America has been called a continent of superlatives, and those rolled out for Bolivia tend to riff on its giddily impressive above-sea-level statistics. In Potosí, at 4,090m, and Lake Titicaca, at 3,800m, Bolivia has a city and lake that boast "world's highest" tags. The altitude in central La Paz (the country's de facto capital) may be a paltry 3,600m, but you'll be flying into El Alto airport, which tops 4,000m. Arrive from any low-level site and the wait to clear customs, accompanied by a throbbing head and surges of nausea, may seem the longest of your life.

That's one reason to consider flying into lowland Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the east, before you crank up the altitude as gradually as practically possible. The benefits are not solely that it's a headache-free zone – the only direct services from Europe, on Air Europa, touch down in the city, while the eastern region is still mostly uncharted tourist territory.

Take Samaipata. From this dusty, shady little town you can organise tours of Amboró National Park, plus a rich variety of other activities including condor-spotting hikes and trips to the El Fuerte archaeological site. Samaipata itself is overdue a tourist surge and there's now even a tuned-in bar in year-old La Boheme, ready and waiting to water them. There is excellent accommodation too, such as La Posada del Sol (00 591 3944 6366; laposadadelsol.net), which has doubles from B$140 (£13) including breakfast. And that room price hints at another Bolivian superlative – this is South America's cheapest country, which might appeal to those doing some exploration either side of the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

But with many of the highlights discussed below within easy reach, La Paz is still where it's at. In any case, it's partly the altitude that makes the city so exquisitely memorable. The intensity of a visit to the Mercado de Hechicería (Witches' Market) is not solely down to the wares on sale: it's about the fact that you are tugging on thin cold air, heart fluttering, as you come face to face with mummified llama foetuses, bags of coca leaf and multicoloured charms.

For lodgings, try the self-catering A La Maison (00 591 2241 3704; appart-hotel-lapaz.com), which offers apartments from B$420 (£39.50) and staff that hang a bag of fresh goodies on your doorknob each morning. On the other hand, La Paz's food is generally memorable only for the wrong reasons. Avoid the potentially dangerous street stalls (Bolivia belly is a very real possibility) and pray to Pachamama that Noma co-founder Claus Meyer's vision for a "New Bolivian Cuisine" has gone some way to being realised by the time you visit.

It's not all Altiplano in Bolivia: there's also the steamy Amazon too, and Madidi National Park is among the planet's most biodiverse patches. Indigenous community-run Chalalán (00 591 2231 1451; chalalan.com) is the best of its sustainable lodges, with three-day stays from US$380 (£253) per person. Prices include rainforest activities and transport from Rurrenabaque, a five-hour boat ride that is soporific and thrilling by turns – you could have swimming jaguars for company.

Just getting to Rurrenabaque is a trip, descending from the jagged Andes to enfolding jungle. Board a prop plane in La Paz wrapped up in your alpaca jumper and 50 minutes later you'll be sweating on a dirt-strip runway. Amaszonas (00 591 2222 0848; amaszonas.com) flies daily from La Paz for B$1,300 (£122) return. Alternatively, take a boat cruise along the Mamoré River from Trinidad with Fremen (00 591 2242 1258; andes-amazonia.com). Four-day trips start at US$495 (£330) per person.

The world's most dangerous road

Acceleration or contemplation – the two most popular day trips from La Paz could hardly be more different. The pre-Columbian site of Tiwanaku may lack the visual impact of a Machu Picchu, but it's rewarding when seen with a knowledgeable guide – Buhos (00 591 2231 2574; reservasbuhostours@hotmail.com) charges B$150 (£14). Tackling the so-called "World's Most Dangerous Road" by mountain bike is unmissable, but well-maintained equipment is crucial – standing at the roadside, peering down through the lush Yungas valley, you can still make out bus wreckage below. Gravity (00 591 7721 9634; gravitybolivia.com) offers the day-long experience for B$750 (£70), with the recommended option of an overnight stay in the pretty town of Coroico, where Hostal Kory (00 591 7156 4050) affords you impressive views of the snaking road you just plummeted down, with doubles from B$120 (£11). Forested Sol y Luna (00 591 2244 4884; solyluna-bolivia.com) is the pick of the bunch, however, with cabins starting at B$120 (£11.20). Neither price includes breakfast.

Lake Titicaca and the islands

If you're feeling a little tainted by gritty La Paz, make for the islands and sacred waters of Lake Titicaca. Brazil's Copacabana beach is world renowned, but the Rio de Janeiro barrio took its name from Lake Titicaca's base town, in homage to the Virgin Mary statue there. Bolivians still bring their cars to the spot to be blessed by local priests. The region's religious significance has pre-Christian foundations and Inca legends enrich any visit. You can touch the rock on Isla del Sol from which their creator god Viracocha, rising from the lake, summoned the Moon and Sun. In quiet Copacabana, stay at hillside Las Olas (00 591 2862 2112; hostallasolas.com), with doubles from US$42 (£28). Here, unusual big-windowed apartments look out over the lake. Breakfast isn't included, but those served at El Condor and the Eagle Café on Avenida 6 de Agosto are Bolivia's finest.

Give way to the call of the south

Many Bolivian highlights are in the north, but the Salar de Uyuni salt flat, left, and the eye-popping Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve demand you go south. The contrast between the flats' relentless whiteness and the reserve's coloured lakes, belching mud pits and sculpted rocks makes the pair a must-see. Daily Amaszonas (00 591 2222 0848; amaszonas.com) flights from La Paz to Uyuni town have made things easier. If you are booking in Uyuni, try Red Planet Expedition (00 591 7240 3896; redplanetexpedition.com), which charges B$1,200 (£112) with English-speaking guides. Using La Paz-based operators is pricier, but Kanoo (00 591 2246 0003; kanootours.com) offers an easy online payment of US$215 (£143) for a three-day tour. You stay in salt-crafted lodges which are basic and cold, but La Torre (00 591 2694 2633; latorretours-tupiza.com) has trips using more comfortable Tayka hotels. Four-day tours, setting out from Tupiza, start at US$450 (£300)pp.

Sucre and Potosí

If heading overland to Uyuni, consider a night in one or both of these chalk-and-cheese cities. Sucre, the official capital, has the prettiest centre, with sparkling white colonial buildings. Its manageable altitude and cultural spots make for fine sightseeing, and there's a rare hip hotel nearby – Sky Hacienda (00 591 4643 0045; skyhacienda.com), above, offers B&B for $95 (£63). Potosí feels more downtrodden and is desolate when the high-altitude cold bites. Ironically, most people come to see the site that placed 16th-century Potosí among the world's richest cities: Cerro Rico. This mountain was once abundant with silver and is still mined for tin, zinc and lead. You're observing a fairly miserable state of affairs on the claustrophobic tours, but it's unforgettable (especially the ribcage-stretching dynamite blasts). Go with the ex-miner guides of Big Deal Tours (00 591 2623 0478; bigdealtours.blogspot.co.uk), which charges B$100 (£9.50).

Something to chew on

You see the phrase on everything from T-shirts to placards: "La coca no es cocaína." For ordinary Bolivians, who rarely encounter the leaf in its super-concentrated and adulterated form, that's true. Yet coca does crop up in just about every corner of their culture, and it's this non-narcotic significance – along with some diplomatic gamesmanship on the part of President Evo Morales – that pushed the UN, in January, finally to accept the legality of Bolivian coca chewing. Many hold the leaf sacred, but the deepest roots of this symbolic potency must surely be in its sheer practicality. Whether chewed or drunk as tea, coca suppresses hunger and raises stamina. It does another job, of particular interest to tourists. When newcomers cram their cheeks with bulging bolas of leaf or crave a coca cuppa, it's rarely for the taste: they're resorting to an age-old Andean remedy for altitude sickness.

Travel Essentials

Getting there and getting around

Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) flies from Gatwick via Madrid to Santa Cruz in east Bolivia. Ameri can Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies from Heathrow via Miami to El Alto airport. A taxi to La Paz takes half an hour and costs about B$65 (£6). Most Bolivians use buses for intercity routes – they're reliable, fairly comfortable and the roads are improving but accidents are not uncommon. Even budget travellers should fly the La Paz-Rurrenabaque route; the bus ride is tortuously long but the flight is spectacular. The most reliable domestic operator is Amaszonas, while military-run TAM (00 591 2211 7987; www.tam.bo) is often cheaper. The usual form of protest is road blocking, so expect gridlock ahead of the 2014 presidential election. November to March is the wet season; in recent years January and February rains have wreaked havoc.

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