Bolivia is one of my favourite travel destinations in the world. It is so absolutely unique and wonderful! This huge South American country has no exit to the ocean, but plenty of non-marine attractions to offer its visitors. The spectacular Andes make up a good half of Bolivian landscapes, but as you head east, they slowly convert into tropical rainforests and low hot plains close to Brazil and Paraguay.
But the landscapes are not all. The cultural heritage of Bolivia makes it even more worthwhile, as you begin to explore the new cosmovision of the indigenous peoples who make up the majority of the country’s population. Here are my 6 top places to visit in Bolivia.
A word of caution – Bolivia rarely means luxurious travel. Some places on this list, while becoming more and more popular among travellers, are somewhat off the beaten path. Hygiene standards are usually lower than one would like and accommodations can be quite basic. The high altitude in some of these locations can also be tough on travellers. All that said, it is absolutely worth going on a Bolivian adventure – just go prepared!
1. Uyuni Salt Flats
If you go nowhere else in Bolivia (which would be a mistake), then Uyuni is the top place to visit. Simply because you will hardly find amazing landscapes anywhere else in the world. While the salt desert is what you will mostly see in photos, there is more to a tour of Uyuni Salt Flats than the vast whiteness and fun reflective photos.
In fact, you will normally only spend one morning in the salt desert. From there, tours head further south, towards the Chilean border. The jeeps roam through cactus islands, colourful lagoons where flamingos have made their homes, stunning rock formations, unbelievably beautiful landscapes and even geysers located at 5,000 meters above sea level. For those looking to head further south, you can actually cross the border into Chile and visit the Atacama Desert – I haven’t been, but I’ve heard it also worth it.
One of the lesser-visited towns in Bolivia, Tarija is near the border with Argentina in the southernmost part of the country. A beautiful quaint colonial town, Tarija makes for the perfect place to relax and unwind. It is quiet, not so plagued by tourists and is home to Bolivia’s wine region.
The area produces some of the most delicious cheeses, meats and salteñas as well. From here, travellers can take two routes. One option is to head over the border to Argentina and explore its northern countryside.
But those who haven’t visited Uyuni yet can actually do so from Tarija. You will need to go through Tupiza, another stunning location for shocking landscapes in Bolivia. Then, rather than do a circular route from Uyuni town and back, you can make your way north from Tupiza to Uyuni town and then further to Oruro, Sucre or La Paz.
I spent about 4 months living in Sucre for work. It is the perfect colonial town of South America – with white houses, red roofs and plenty of history. It is also the constitutional capital of Bolivia, even though it’s nowhere near as big as La Paz or Santa Cruz.
However, you can learn plenty of history here. For example, the Freedom House or the Casa de la Libertad on the main square offers regular guided tours, which I found very informative and helpful in understanding more about the country. Sucre and its surroundings are also home to many people of Quechua origin. They proudly sport their indigenous clothing and follow Pachamama rituals. Nearby towns like Tarabuco are great for handicraft shopping and seeing local arts and crafts.
4. La Paz
The administrative capital of Bolivia is La Paz. Located at about 4,000 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest large cities in the world. It also makes for a difficult adjustment for those who suffer from altitude sickness – so make sure you get some sorochi pills at the local pharmacy. As far as cities go, La Paz is definitely my favourite in Bolivia, and one of the top large cities in Latin America.
It’s big and chaotic but also has a certain level of tranquillity and beauty about it. The old centre of the city boasts stunning colonial architecture and wonderful markets where you can easily get lost (in a good way). Since La Paz is nestled in a valley and completely surrounded by mountains, the city’s borders are built on mountain slopes. To get around and have a spectacular view of the entire metropolis, take a cable car to El Alto, one of the highest points of the city.
5. Toro Toro
Toro Toro is a hidden gem, although I am afraid that it’s become less and less hidden. About 6 hours on winding roads from Cochabamba, Toro Toro is a tiny village nestled in the Andes. It is located on the edge of the Torotoro National Park, which offers some spectacular scenery and adventure activities.
Here, you can go hiking through the mountains, descend into ancient caves and walk around a canyon (if it’s not rainy season). Near the town, you can even see dinosaur footprints – how cool is that? What I really love about Toro Toro, besides its sheer beauty, is how lovely the atmosphere of the village is. You can grab food at the local market, see locals go about their daily life and generally get a feeling of real Bolivia here.
6 . Titicaca Lake
The famous lake with a funny name is another must-see in Bolivia. The lake is shared by Bolivia and Peru, and it’s worth it to visit both sides since they are quite different. In Bolivia, you will need to head to Copacabana, the main city on Lake Titicaca. But this is not where you want to stay! It is a bit of a tourist trap and while the lake is still beautiful, it’s much better to head over to Isla del Sol.
Not only is the island pretty spectacular in itself, but it is also said to be the birthplace of the first Inca. It has cultural, historical and religious significance for many Bolivian people. In fact, you can explore the Chincana ruins on the northern tip of the island.
So here you have it – my list of top places to visit in Bolivia. Keep in mind that this is not nearly everything you can do in the country. There are also some great tropical forests like the Madidi National Park, Samaipata and Villa Tunari. In the eastern part of the country, nearby Santa Cruz, you can find Jesuit mission churches that date back to the 17th century. There are also plenty of hikes, adventure sports, colonial villages and towns, and more!