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BOLIVIA

Landlocked Bolivia is as diverse as it is inspiring. Outside the cosmopolitan streets of La Paz, ancient tribal customs and traditions breathe life. With such a variety of fauna such as flamingos and pink river dolphins, and an astounding myriad of landscapes with stark expanses of salt flats and deep jungle, Bolivia was made for those with a heart for adventure.

Bolivia has been inhabited for approximately 3,000 years by various indigenous tribes, around 36 of which survive today throughout the country. The Tiwanaku civilization, whose capital shares their name, held dominance until the Inca arrived in around the 15th century. After conquering the Inca in the 16th century, the Spanish amassed vast wealth in silver found all over Bolivia.

In the 19th century a 16-year bloody civil war brought independence to Bolivia. Wars with Chile and political instability raged through the 20th century, including the death of iconic Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967. Now, Bolivia enjoys a progressive democratic government increasingly sensitive to the needs of indigenous people, yet is still one of the poorest countries in South America.

The topography of Bolivia is as complex as its past. Along with thick humid jungle throughout, Uyuni offers a nearly limitless plane of stark white salt flats. La Paz, a city atop the Altiplano, is the highest-elevation capital in the world at more than 12,000 feet. The craggy spires and rugged canyons of the Valley of the Moon create a barren, moon-like expanse: all these features and more create a patchwork of landscapes perfect for myriad adventures.

Bolivia is a land of contrasts. Whether exploring its complicated post-colonial history, or catching a glimpse of the rare spectacled bear while hiking the Andes Mountains, Bolivia’s varied wonders are sure to enrapture. The words of John Steinbeck could have described Bolivia’s impact on an adventurer: “People don’t take trips, trips take people.” 

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La Paz

While the constitutional capital of Bolivia is in Sucre, the seat of political power is in metropolitan La Paz. Surrounded by mountains its people call apus—“protective spirits”—La Paz is quickly becoming a modern cosmopolitan hub with chic restaurants, boutique hotels, and increasingly diverse shopping. Overlooked by the triple-peaked Mount Illimani, a mountain hike is not far off after enjoying coffee in a street side café.

Red and green cable cars travel high above La Paz: the city currently has the longest overhead cable-car transport system in the world, serving over 90,000 passengers a day. Beyond its infrastructure and commerce, the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore offers an intimate look at Bolivia’s mosaic of indigenous cultures. Housed in the 18th-century Marquis de Villa Verde Palace, exhibits such as “3,000 Years of Textiles” explores the elaborate weaving traditions of the Tiwanaku and Inca civilizations. One of the museum’s trademark displays holds 50 brilliantly-colored festival masks of the ancient Uru-Chipaya tribe, a small and endangered tribe who lives on the Altiplano.

As with most of Bolivia, ancient traditions still run thick. In the “Witches’ market” one can find such tribal remedies such as dried frogs and toucan beaks—believed to cure sickness and protect against harmful spirits—as well as witch doctors ready to give fortune-telling services.

La Paz has it all—whether enjoying a chic modern fusion restaurant, negotiating at a street side market, or partaking in ancient traditions at the Witches’ Market, the city brings all the best elements of Bolivia’s past, present, and future, in one city.

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Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku is the 3,000 year old capital of the Tiwanaku Empire, a people wiped out by the Incas almost 700 years ago. Largely built with adobe—meaning “mudbrick” in Spanish and comprised of earth and organic material—many monoliths, temples, aqueducts, and the sacred “Gate of the Sun” still survive today.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tiwanaku is believed to have been a city of artisans. Researchers consider the city a cosmological and moral center of the Tiwanaku Empire as evidence shows it was the site of major pilgrimages. Underground irrigation systems and the remnants of nearly 50,000 agricultural fields indicate a sophisticated farming economy.

The well-preserved images of religious iconography and enduring architecture of Tiwanaku create an immersive experience through the story of one of the greatest pre-Spanish empires in South America.

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Uyuni

On the edge of a 4,000 square-mile salt flat, Uyuni is a small city of just over 10,000 amid an other-worldly landscape. An extensive street market comprises the heart of Uyuni, where one can find all kinds of goods including cultural souvenirs, toiletries, and clothing.

As far as the eye can see, white glistening plains of salt, punctuated sparingly by tiny islands of dirt and shrub trees, are the remnants of Lago Minchín—an evaporated prehistoric salt lake. Buildings in the city are made with blocks of salt from the flats, and it is harvested both for animal salt-licks and ordinary table salt.

A trip to Uyuni would be incomplete without visiting the harrowing Train Cemetery. Built by a diaspora of British engineers in the late 19th century, the railways in and around Uyuni once served as a commercial route between Bolivia and Chile. The trains, now long dilapidated and covered in rust, were once the target of attacks from indigenous people who believed the tracks intruded on their simpler way of life.

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Valley of the Moon

Millennia of strong winds and weather blasted away prehistoric mountains, leaving the jagged and flinty landscape of the Valley of the Moon. One part desert, one part lunar landscape, the valley was given its name by Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on Earth’s celestial Moon.

The Valley of the Moon’s soil and rock formations are saturated with a rich variety of minerals which paint the stark landscape deep hues of red, purple, and beige. Just over six miles from La Paz, this destination has left many, including Armstrong, speechless.

Traversing the Valley of the Moon offers a physically challenging—and rewarding—experience. Uneven paths, sharp edges, and narrow trails through the valley make for a true excursion off-the-beaten-path.

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Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America, covering an area of more than 3,000 square miles, and is the highest navigable lake in the world, straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia within the Andes mountain range at an altitude of 12,500 feet above sea level.

Its beauty is the stuff of legends, and is a holy place in the Inca religion; in their lore, the god of civilization, Virachocha rose from its depth and willed the sun, moon, and all of creation into existence. Religious and folk traditions of all types are still powerful here; Puno, a city located on the shore of the lake, is considered the folkloric capital of Peru, and is the scene of numerous festivals and celebrations honoring the old indigenous religions, as well as Catholic traditions brought over by the Spanish.

The area was, and still is, inhabited by the indigenous Uros people. Centuries ago, when the Inca encroached upon their lands, they retreated onto the lake itself, constructing entire floating islands out of reeds. Today, around 40 manmade islands still exist where the Uros follow their traditional way of life, centered around fishing and handcrafts.

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Isla del Sol

According to Incan folklore, the great creator deity Viracocha rose from the central depths of Lake Titicaca and traveled to Isla del Sol, giving birth to Manco Capac and Mama Occlo—the “Adam and Eve” of the Inca—as well as the revered sun god Inti. This story was in reality created to justify an invasion of the island, then controlled by the Tiwanaku. One of the remnants of these ancient times is Chucaripupata, a Tiwanaku ritual site built into the side of a rough crag.

Covered in eucalyptus trees on rugged terrain, driving on Isla del Sol is an impossibility. Without navigable roads, this farming and fishing community of about 800 families travels largely on foot. A slower and more provincial lifestyle, Isla del Sol offers a welcome respite from bustling La Paz or the rigors of Bolivia’s nature. Here, life runs on “island time.”

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Most Popular Films

Films featuring Bolivia from international, independent filmmakers

A Quest for Luck in Mystical La Paz

Meet a Bolivian shaman and uncover the ancient spirituality that endures in La Paz.

This video was first published on BBC.com Travel. Produced by Aric S. Queen.

This video was first published on BBC.com Travel. Produced by Aric S. Queen.

Bolivia's Subway in the Sky

Bolivia's new mode of transportation is a point of pride for its citizens.

Produced by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky and Poh Si Teng

©2014 The New York Times

Altiplano

Soar above the luminous landscapes of Chile's Atacama Desert and Bolivia's Altiplano Plateau.

Produced by Ignacio Palacios

Bolivia: Month-by-Month

There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.

Bolivia in November-February

Bolivia experiences two main seasons: wet and dry. The wet season kicks off in November, bringing heavy rains and frequent, powerful thunderstorms—often producing mesmerizing lightning shows in the process. A benefit to the heavy rainfalls is the glowing green of a healthy countryside, which blooms with an abundant growth of native plants and flowers. Evenings—which tend to be dry, particularly in the highlands—are an especially pleasant time of day for exploring. Another benefit of the wet season: fewer tourists and lower prices.

Holidays & Events

  • November 1: Todos Santos, or All Saints Day, honors all saints in a joyous celebration of life. 
  • December 24-January 6: Navidad, or Christmas is celebrated from Christmas Eve to January 6th. It is a holiday with deep religious connotation in Bolivia and the most important night during this celebration is Christmas Eve, with many attending Midnight Mass. 
  • January 24: Alasitas Festival; this celebration commemorates the 1781 siege of La Paz, where locals wish for prosperity and happiness by purchasing small figurines as an offering to the god of abundance. 
  • February 2-5: Festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria; this festival honors the Dark Virgin of the Lake, revered for a series of miracles believed to have occurred in 1576. 
  • Saturday Before Ash Wednesday: Carnival de Oruro is a religious festival dating back hundreds of years featuring up to 20 hours of continuous revelry. 

Must See

Like many Catholic nations, Bolivia celebrates Todos Santos. Businesses and stores are closed on this day, and many Bolivians attend Mass. The following day, November 2, is known as Dia de los Muertos, when Bolivians visit deceased relatives at their graves.

With Catholicism as the main religion in Bolivia, Navidad is an important (not to mention sacred) celebration. Most locals attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (called the Misa de Gallo), followed by the main Christmas meal. Gifts are sometimes exchanged, but this is not very common. If gifts are exchanged, it most likely occurs at Epiphany (on January 6), when the Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus.

While trinkets may not be common around Christmastime, they certainly have a place at the Alasitas Festival. Held just before Carnival, this month-long event draws Bolivians to La Paz to purchase everything from cars, houses, clothing, and food—in miniature. These items are given as an offering to Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance, with the hope of bringing them happiness and good fortune.

Carnival arrives with a bang throughout Bolivia. But the biggest celebration can be found in the small town of Oruro, where 400,000 people descend for folk dances, elaborate costumes, music, and crafts.

Around the same time, people from all over the world travel to Lake Titicaca to celebrate the Festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria. This festival, which honors the Patroness of Bolivia, includes music, dancing, and lots of food and drink.

Bolivia in March-April

Driving rain and powerful thunderstorms continue well into March. But Bolivia's regions actually experience the season somewhat differently: The highlands receive less rain, days tend to be cool and overcast, and evenings are often dry and pleasant. Meanwhile, the lowlands experience more flash flooding and humidity (and more mosquitoes as a result). Flooding can cause road closures, especially in the lowlands, but most roads traveled by tourists are not adversely affected. The shoulder season (which begins in April) is an ideal time to visit, as prices are still relatively low and the rain has begun to subside.

Holidays & Events

  • Third Sunday in March: Pujllay Festival; honors the liberation of the town of Tarabuco from Spanish forces and those who died to gain their independence.
  • Mid- to late-March: Semana Santa, or Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday with the height of celebrations taking place on Holy Thursday, when churches open their doors for worshipers to light candles, pray and sing. 

Must See

Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter, is celebrated throughout Bolivia. But the most elaborate affair can be found in Sucre. The event begins on Palm Sunday with processions and the singing of hymns are common. But the most important event takes place the following Thursday—the walk to Churuquella Hill to the statue of Christ the Redeemer at the summit. Along the way, worshipers stop to hear the twelve Stations of the Cross.

Bolivia in May-July

Unsurprisingly, Bolivia’s dry season is also its high season: Reliably sunny days and clear blue skies make overland travel more accessible and outdoor activities more enjoyable during this time of year. Nights can be cool throughout the country but especially in the highlands, where temperatures can drop below freezing. Beginning in May, occasional cold fronts from Patagonia sweep across Bolivia, sending daytime temperatures plummeting, even in the Amazon—so be sure to pack a warm jacket.

Holidays & Events

  • Late May: The Fiesta del Gran Poder (or Festival of the Great Power) is a dramatic religious festival that takes over the streets La Paz for two days with revelry. 
  • June 21: Aymara New Year is celebration of the winter solstice. 
  • June 23: San Juan Festival; this country-wide winter solstice celebration includes bonfires and roasted panchitos, or hot dogs.

Must See

With lower humidity, fewer mosquitoes, and active wildlife, the dry season is a great time to visit the Bolivian Amazon. 

For a more cosmopolitan experience, consider the two-day Fiesta del Gran Poder. Held each year in La Paz, the festival, which mixes Catholic and indigenous Aymara traditions, features costumed dancers parading through the city streets. This is one of the most popular events of the year, so it’s best to book accommodation early. 

Aymara traditions are also on full display on June 1 during Aymara New Year. This relatively recent (and controversial) addition to the Bolivian calendar of public holidays is designed to recognize the indigenous Aymara people who live in western Bolivia. While some feel the holiday imposes the beliefs of a minority group on the country as a whole, many are happy to participate in the festivities, which celebrate the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

Bolivia in August-October

While days continue to be sunny and comfortable through October, August and September can be marked by thick smoke, as local farmers clear overgrown forested areas with fires. This can make it difficult to breathe in Bolivia’s more rural regions. Smoke aside, these months are consistently rated a great time to visit the country, and higher prices reflect the season’s popularity with tourists.

Holidays & Events

  • Late August: Urkupiña Festival; a fusion of Catholic and Andean traditions, this celebration of the Virgin Mary is marked with three days of festivities. 
  • Early September: Virgen de Guadalupe Festival; a combination of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism, this festival features a Mass in the main plaza in the city of Sucre, as well as music, dancing, and a lively parade.

Must See

Each year, the small town of Cochabamba hosts the Urkupiña Festival in honor of the Virgin Mary, who is said to have once visited a shepherd girl on the hills outside the town. This colorful celebration features folk dances, lively parades, and—for the more religious attendees—an overnight pilgrimage.

A few weeks later, the normally quiet city of Sucre transforms into a boisterous party town during the annual Virgen de Guadalupe Festival, which honors Sucre’s patron saint with costumed performances, traditional street foods, and a joyful parade.

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Bolivia: La Paz, Lake Titicaca & Uyuni

DAYS IN BOLIVIA
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See the Valley of the Moon
Discover Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on Earth
See Tiwanaku, Bolivia's most important archaeological site
Visit La Paz

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PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Bolivia: La Paz & Lake Titicaca

DAYS IN BOLIVIA
5

See the Valley of the Moon
Discover Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on Earth
See Tiwanaku, Bolivia's most important archaeological site
Visit La Paz

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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

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Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

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Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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