A lot of people go to South America for different things. Some go for the beaches and the Amazon of Brazil. Everyone dives into Peru and Macchu Picchu. Both are excellent reasons and worth all of it. I had the opportunity to do these but I always like to look at some of the paths less taken. So I turned a bit of focus onto the other countries and fell upon Bolivia and what it could offer. What I found both intrigued and surprised me, so I decided to venture out.
First thing about the country I have to mention is the altitude. Having travelled around and being in certain degrees of elevation, I know that I don’t do well with altitude. A lot of this country sits on a plateau averaging above 3500m above sea level. So once I flew into LaPaz one of the first things getting off the plane that I noticed was my lack of air. So much so, that just walking the streets downtown, which is nestled in a canyon so most of the streets feel like you are in San Francisco, left me stopping to catch my breath and hold a wall about every 20 steps. I survived my experience but I know now that in the future I may investigate altitude sickness medication before I leave if I know that I am going to areas like this.
Walking around the city of LaPaz was stunning. The location of it in a canyon was just so interesting geographically. The airport lies on flats above the canyon walls so you see the entire city just disappear below you as you fly in and take the roads down the canyon wall into the heart of the city. Also in the distance is the face of the second highest peak in Boliva, Illimani. Towering over 6400m at the end of the canyon, it makes for a magnificent backdrop over the city for stunning pictures.
Once I got my fill of LaPaz, I took a train south for my main reason to come to this country, the salt plains of Uyuni. These salt flats are best visited from the neighboring town of the same name, Uyuni. From here you can take day trips or arrange to stay in the flats overnight at one of the many salt hotels. Either way you are in for a treat.
The flats themselves are 10500 square kilometers (4000 square miles), and a few meters deep the entire way around. It is also strangely flat. From one side you can see the mountain ranges protruding out the other side. We booked a tour that took us into the flats where there are numerous spots to hit for photo ops. For example, there are a few pieces of land in the middle of the flats. They are remnants of left over underwater volcanoes from when the area was submerged over 40,000 years ago. They are rocky outcrops that have coral like features to them and also grow vast cacti all over them, some hundreds of years old. Also, there is a salt hotel which you can stay at and get souvenirs at. Close by is a small salt collection area where they gather the salt for use and you can take some shovels for photos like you are helping out.
Depending on the time of year you go, you can get two very different experiences. There is a wet season, which typically spans the North American winter, and a dry season, which spans North American summer. I happened to go during the dry season as you can see by my picture above. The flats literally dry up and have a very unique pattern to them. I have a friend that went during the wet season and his pictures are perfect reflections of the sky that it is hard to see where the horizon is. I happen to stumble along a few places that had s sliver of water left on them which made for glorious pictures during sunset like the one below.
One thing I didn’t get a chance to do when I was there, and perhaps may even venture back if I get the chance, is the fabled ‘world’s most dangerous road.’ I have seen pictures and read about the road that spans east leaving LaPaz. I also know now that this is the well known dangerous road, but I will contend that there are more that are less ventured. Leaving Bolivia from Uyuni and heading south into Argentina, we were forced to take some back roads that left me breathless more than a few times. When you are high in the Andes, on a one way gravel road, with no guard rail, over looking what has to be a 350m drop and you meet a school bus that somehow barely passes you on the outside, your heart just stops for a moment. Yikes!!
Bolivia was an incredible trip. The people were extremely welcoming and are happy to see travelers to their countries as it is just beginning to get on the map as a place to go. Don’t wait until it is overrun. Jump now while it is still untouched.