Travelling to Bolivia
Now armed with knowledge about Bolivia’s history, let’s look at some places to see and experience in this South American nation.
6. Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol
Any itinerary to Bolivia should include South America’s second largest lake (after Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela), the wellspring of empires that once ruled Bolivia. On the lake rests the sacred island of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), said to be the birthplace of the Incan Sun God. The island can be reached by a 90-minute boat ride from lakeside Copacabana.
Remnants of the ancient civilisation are scattered all over the island, a picture of perfect tranquillity with the absence of motorised traffic and noise. The village of Yumani in the south is the most developed and most visited by tourists, as it has accommodations and restaurants for those wanting to spend the night. The other two settlements are Cha’llapampa and Cha’lla.
In Yumani, uphill from the ferry dock, is the reconstructed Escalera del Inca (Inca stairway) which was said to have led to the fabled fountain of youth. A little bit of youthful vigour is indeed needed to take the stairway as it gains 200 metres in elevation over less than 1 kilometre. The Museo del Oro in Cha’llapampa houses excavated artefacts, including gold ornaments from the Tiwanaku and Inca empires. Travellers can travel on foot on the old Incan road to see the ruins.
7. Laguna Colorada
This beautiful red lagoon is in southwestern Bolivia, within the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve near the border to Chile. The shallow salt lake is red from minerals and the pigmentation of algae. Flamingos abound in the area, feasting on plankton.
Travellers can take a day trip from the city of La Paz to visit the ruins of Tiwanaku near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. The ancient city, now a vast archaeological site covering four square kilometres, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000.
Re-discovered in 1549 by Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, the ancient city currently has a small indoor museum and several sites available for viewing, such as its two gates–Puerta del Sol (Gateway of the Sun) and Puerta del Luna (Gateway of the Moon)–and stepped platforms and a temple. A nearby village, also named Tiwanaku, has modern-day amenities such as hotels and restaurants, and a 16th-century church.
9. La Paz
In the city of La Paz itself, travellers can visit the four museums on Calle Jaén, a well-preserved colonial street.
- Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas displays artefacts from old La Paz
- Museo de Metales Preciosos houses silver, gold, and copper works and pieces from ancient Tiwanaku
- Museo del Litoral has historical maps showing Bolivia’s territories now lost to neighbouring countries
- Casa de Murillo was the home of La Paz Revolution leader Pedro Domingo Murillo and which displays household items from the Bolivian aristocracy. The city’s central square, Plaza Murillo, was also named after him.
Another popular tourist attraction is the Mercado de las Brujas (Witches’ Market) where folk and herbal remedies are sold, including various potions and spells that have their roots in ancient Aymaran belief. Pachamama (Mother Earth) is often the recipient of sacrificial offerings that can be purchased in this market. The yatiri (witch doctors) roam the stalls, ready to offer spiritual advice. Travellers are advised to be respectful and to ask permission first before touching the items on display and taking photos.
10. Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, covering 12,106 sq km on the altiplano, formed by salt left behind by the prehistoric lakes that have evaporated centuries ago. When a thin layer of water covers the salt flat, the surface turns into a mirror that reflects the sky, giving the illusion that you are walking (or driving) on clouds.
11. Parque Nacional Madidi
The Parque Nacional Madidi (Madidi National Park) in the upper Amazon river basin is part of the largest protected areas in the world, offering a glimpse of Bolivia’s diverse habitats and ecosystems. Spanning an area of 18,958 square kilometres, it is home to a variety of Amazonian wildlife comprising nearly half of all mammals in the Americas and more than a thousand species of birds. It is also home to more than 20,000 species of flora.
Potosi’s wealth and silver mines loom so large in Bolivian history that it survives in the Spanish saying, vale un Potosí (“be worth a Potosí”) to describe something lucrative. Though the silver has dried up, Potosi is still rich in sights, chief of which is the Casa Nacional de la Moneda (the National Mint), which tells the story of the creation of the world’s first global currency. The museum building takes up a whole city block. It was built in the 18th century to control the minting of colonial coins. The Museo y Convento de Santa Teresa (Santa Teresa Convent) founded in 1685 houses incredible pieces from Castilian artists.
The city that started the Bolivian call for independence is unsurprisingly home to many museums dedicated to Bolivian history. The Casa de la Libertad is where the Bolivian declaration of independence was signed on August 6, 1825, and the Museo de Arte Indígena and Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore display exhibits about Bolivia’s diverse ethnic cultures.
13. Bolivian: Quick Facts
The Bolivian currency was pesos until 1987, when it was changed to boliviano, divided into 100 centavos. Travellers are advised to carry some cash, especially in rural areas.
Most tourist visas to Bolivia are valid for 30 days (one entry) and can be extended for 60 more days (in Immigration Offices). Australian citizens can visit Bolivia for tourist purposes without a visa for up to 90 days. US citizens require a visitor visa, which allows them to stay for a maximum of 90 days per calendar year. Of course, rules may change, and it is best to check with your consulate and/or travel agency if you need to make arrangements for a visa before you travel.
Bolivian food may not be as well-known as other cuisines, but there are local delicacies worth trying. Salteña is a pastry similar to the empanada, oven-baked and filled with peas, carrots, potatoes, and meat, and gravy. Pique macho is a heaped plate of beef, potatoes, onions, and boiled egg, with ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. Popular snacks probably not for the faint of heart are chicharron (deep-fried meat) and anticucho (beef heart on a skewer).
Read more about Bolivia in Lonely Planet: Bolivia, which was our main reference in writing this article. Other references are linked throughout this piece.
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