Bolivia doesn’t seem to fit in with its South American neighbors. It’s the Western Hemisphere’s highest, most isolated and most rugged nation and, as one of two landlocked countries in South America, it doesn’t even have a beach. But Bolivia is a beautiful, geographically diverse nation, with fabulous natural landscapes and a multitude of unique experiences for visitors.
Bolivia, often referred to as “The Tibet of the Americas,” offers a wide variety of natural and man-made attractions. The Andes, which cross Bolivia, are the highest mountain range outside of Asia. At 12,010 feet, Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, is the highest seat of government in the world. Lake Titicaca is one of the world's highest commercially navigable lakes, and home to the Uros, a pre-Incan people who live on artificial floating islands on the lake. The Incas and other civilizations left behind ruins that still exist into the 21st century, including the Temple of Kalasasaya in Tiwanaku.
La Paz, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, is home to nearly one million residents. Highlights for visitors to La Paz include Sagarnaga Street, just south of Plaza San Francisco, the city’s main tourist area featuring souvenir stores, quaint shops, budget hostels and cafes; the Plaza Murillo, which contains government buildings and the city cathedral; and El Also, which features a bustling street market every Thursday and Saturday, where customers can pick up vintage clothing and antiques at bargain prices. La Paz also features museums devoted to the native history and culture, and also museums devoted to Bolivian contemporary art, musical instruments, textiles, precious metals, and even the Coca Museum, a favorite of foreign tourists, which details the history and significance of the coca plant. The best time to visit La Paz is from April to October, when the warm air makes the high elevation more tolerable.
For genuine white-knuckle adventure, the Yungas Road, a 40-mile stretch that winds down through the mountains from La Paz to Coroico, is often described as the world’s most dangerous road. The narrow, muddy route, with drop-offs of more than 2,000 feet and no guard rails, claims the lives of hundreds of motorists every year. But the danger has made the road a popular destination for mountain bikers, attracting thousands every year and launching businesses that provide them with transportation, guides and equipment.
For something a little calmer, the city of Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is reportedly the highest city in the world, at 13,420 feet. The city, located near a mountain that was once thought to be made entirely of silver, is the site of silver mines that produced fabulous wealth for the Spanish Monarchy. From the 16th through the 18th centuries, an estimated 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined in the area, and Potosi became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. Today, Potosi is a city of grand churches and ornate colonial architecture, and offers tours of its still-functioning mines.
In recent years, Bolivia has become a hotbed for eco-tourism and adventure activity. The country has a strong focus on trekking along ancient Inca routes through the Cordilleras, mountaineering and jungle tours with stays in eco-lodges, lake excursions, skiing at the world’s highest ski resort, rainforest hikes in search of wildlife, and canoe tours and bushwhacking through the Upper Amazon River basin. This striking and beautifully desolate country surrounded by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and Chile is a combination of distinctive Amazonian and Andean landscapes and remnants of mysterious ancient civilizations, and half of its population maintains traditional indigenous values.
The cuisine of Bolvia is suited to its high altitude and cold climate, with lots of hot, spicy peppers. Much of the Bolivian diet in the highlands is based on carbohydrates and protein from potatoes and meat, plus trout from Lake Titicaca. In the lower elevations, freshwater fish, vegetables and fruits are more popular. Some popular dishes include chairo (lamb soup with potatoes and vegetables), carne de sol (grilled salted meat served with beans, rice and vegetables), pique a lo macho (chopped beef with onions and vegetables) and sajta de pollo (chicken in hot sauce with vegetables).
For dining out, Restaurant El Consulado in the heart of La Paz features traditional Bolivian dishes, in a serene and homey setting. Other favorites among travelers are Los Lomitos in Santa Cruz, and El Meson in Potosi. For an excellent Italian meal, check out the Pronto Dalicatessen in La Paz, with its extensive menu of pasta, meat and seafood.
Visitors to Bolivia will typically arrive at El Alto International Airport in El Alto, near La Paz. The airport serves American Airlines, which offers flights from Miami, and several South American airlines. With a limited number of airlines offering flights to Bolivia, air fares can sometimes be quite high. The high season for air fares is typically from early June to early September, and mid-December to mid-January.
The weather in Bolivia can vary drastically from one region to another. The summer months in Bolivia are November through March, when the weather is typically warmer and wetter. The winter months of April to October are typically colder and drier.
In the highlands, the weather can be very cold and temperatures frequently go below zero at night. Snow is common in Potosi during the winter, and sometimes also falls on La Paz and Oruro. In contrast, winter in Sucre, Cochabamba and Tarija on the Cordillera Real is a time of blue skies and comfortable temperatures.
The weather in the rainforest is usually very hot and is often very wet. The drier period of the year is May to October. The section of the rainforest that borders the Cordillera Real of the Andes Mountains is a bit cooler, but still very wet. As the altitude declines, the temperature rises.