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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

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15 DAYS FROM $3,895 • $ 260 / DAY
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PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Bolivia: La Paz, Lake Titicaca & Uyuni

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

5 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,395

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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Easy

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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Moderately Easy

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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Moderate

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.

Activity Level 4:

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Moderately Strenuous

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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