Bolivia is a country in central South America, with a varied terrain spanning Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert and Amazon Basin rain forest. At more than 3,500m, its administrative capital, La Paz, sits on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau with snow-capped Mt. Illimani in the background. Nearby is glass-smooth Lake Titicaca, the continent’s largest lake, straddling the border with Peru
President: Evo Morales
It’s a word likely to make your parents more apprehensive than when you told them you were getting that Black Sabbath tattoo: Bolivia.
Still, it’s one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world, and should be considered a ‘must see’ on anyone’s South American journey.
The capital city is La Paz. We arrived at about midday, the sun was shining gloriously, and it was cold. The reason for this is that La Paz is the highest capital city in the world; that means that it is the city at the highest altitude, not that everyone is stoned all the time.
This fact is worth bearing in mind, as although you will probably be wearing a jacket, you’ll also need to put sun cream on your face as the air is so thin, the UV rays are very strong. I saw many a backpacker roaming around La Paz looking remarkably like Mick Hucknell after underestimating the Bolivian sun.
There’s plenty to do in La Paz, although many backpackers treat it as a ‘base camp’ for expeditions to various other destinations in the country.
There is another popular ‘extreme sport’ in La Paz, and its mountain biking. Now you might scoff, with images of spotty teenagers in lycra shorts, but when you take into account the fact that this mountain bike trip is down the world’s most dangerous road, things suddenly become a little more… well… life threatening.
It was certainly an experience. Hurtling down this mountain pass, with a sheer drop of 1000mtrs on the side of you, having to dodge cars and buses, and still trying control your bike. What makes things a little more ‘real’ is that every so often you’ll see a little plaque at the side of the road where buses, cars and bikes have plummeted to certain death off the side of the road.
There was even a plaque for an Israeli girl who fell to her death on exactly the same bike ride as we were on. It was one of the few times in my life where I’ve actually taken stock of my own mortality, and Bolivia is one of the few countries in the world where things like this are still possible.
A trip on Death Road
When we left La Paz, we decided to head to Rurrenabaque, where we were planning to head out into the jungle on a canoe tour.
As for getting to Rurrenabaque, we were confused why so many people seemed to be choosing to fly, at $50 each way, when the bus was under $5. Convinced that we had found a bargain, we clambered onto our bus and settled down for the journey.
About 45 minutes into the trip, the bus turned off the main road and onto, you guessed it, the Bolivian Death Road that we had biked down the day before. Now, if it seemed dangerous on a bike, being on the bus was in a whole other league. If I leaned out of the window and looked down, I could see straight down the ravine, there was no road at all between the wheels of the bus and the edge of the cliff.
Then, because things obviously weren’t interesting enough, when we encountered buses coming the other way, we had to reverse, until there was enough road to allow both buses to pass. This often involved our bus hanging its back wheel off the cliff entirely. Not fun.
We made it to Rurrenabaque, however, and settled into a nice guesthouse on the outskirts of the town. There is no shortage of accommodation in Bolivia, and you’ll often find that just talking to touts outside bus terminals will secure you the best value rooms. We managed to get double rooms, with hot water, air conditioning, and a small communal pool, for $8 per room per night. They also stored our luggage, free of charge, whilst we were away on the jungle tours.
If you are considering booking a jungle tour, then be aware that there are many different versions, so check beforehand. We chose to do two; a ‘nature’ tour down the waterways which was three days, and a ‘jungle’ tour which does exactly what it says on the tin. These tours included all food and a place to sleep, as well as an English speaking guide. We did piranha fishing, animal tracking and swimming with the pink dolphins and caymens.
We were assured that there had never been a recorded caymen attack on a human in this part of the river, nor had the piranhas ever attacked anyone. This was good to know.
To be honest though, it was so hot out in the open on the water that I was more than willing to take my chances if it meant I could cool down.
Accommodation on these tours is basic. You’re in the jungle, so don’t expect any running water, air conditioning, electricity, etc. It’s a back to basics experience, but one that no Bolivian trip is complete without. Hearing a jaguar prowling around underneath your hut at 3 in the morning is certainly a bit different that the usual cacophony of drunken revelers vomiting on your driveway at home.
There was another activity worthy of note on these tours, and that is ‘anaconda hunting’. This is probably not something that most people would put on top of their ‘to do’ list, but it’s a cracking adventure. Wading through swamps up to your chest, feeling with your feet for the tell-tale lump of the world’s largest snake.
Our guide was called Jose, and he had two teeth. He also only spoke Spanish, which is probably worth bearing in mind, as you may find it difficult to pick up an English speaking guide for this particular activity.
Anyway, I was following Jose through the swamp, when he stopped dead. Then suddenly he plunged into the swamp, and emerged ten seconds later clutching what I could only assume was a prop from a horror film.
What Jose had grabbed was a very large snake. So large, that he couldn’t wrap his arms around its body. My shock grew further when I realized that he was actually saying “can kill a man, can kill a man”, whilst having a bit of a wrestle with it.
Once the snake was safely back in its swamp, I emerged, victorious, and stepped back on to dry land.
What I had actually stepped onto was an Amazonian wasp’s nest. So as soon as I had stepped back onto the bank, I was swarmed by hundreds of angry wasps, who were not content with stinging me once, or even twice, but over 60 times.
By the time I had outran them I was lying in a pool of water a few hundred meters away, panting and generally trying to work out which bit hurt the most, when Jose arrives… laughing.
Bloody toothless Bolivian, if I’d had the strength I would have fed him to the snake.
Highest city in the world
We arranged a flight back to La Paz from Rurrenabaque, as we didn’t much fancy another excursion up the road of impending doom. There are plenty of places to book flights in Rurrenabaque, and if you’re flexible with your dates, you can get a pretty good deal. We flew for $40 each.
We then organized a bus trip down to Potosi (reportedly the highest city in the world), but we stopped off at Sucre along the way. There’s nothing quite as exciting as wrestling anacondas in Sucre, but it gives you a real feel of what colonial Bolivia must have been like. If you’re interested in Bolivian history, then the museums here shouldn’t be missed.
Potosi is a mining city. The vast wealth of silver bought miners from all over the world, and you can still visit the mines today, and see the harsh conditions that the workers endure. The mines of Cerro Rico are, in my humble opinion, worth a trip to Bolivia in themselves.
The architecture in both these cities is outstanding. The cathedral in Potosi is an especially impressive piece of architecture dating back to the 1600s.
If you’re down that way, then you should definitely consider a detour to Cochabamaba on the way back. The statue of Christ that stands imposing over the whole city is larger than the Cristo Del Corcovado in Rio, and the view from the top is simply astounding.
Once safely back in La Paz and, thankfully, back on tarmac roads, we settled into our hostel and, culture vultures that we are, had a Burger King.
A trip to prison
Suitably re-familiarized with our Western ways, we set about trying to visit the prison in La Paz, San Pedro.
This prison is quite unlike any other in the world. For a start, prisoners have to buy their cells. They have their own keys, and can decorate them how they wish. This has the effect of the drug barons living in luxury penthouses, whilst the poorest people sleep on the floor in the courtyard; often in sub-zero conditions.
Inmate’s wives and children can live with them, and every morning the gates open for all the children to head off to school.
San Pedro is also renowned for producing the finest cocaine in Bolivia. Seriously.
It’s very difficult to actually get into the prison. If you’re really determined and can speak Spanish and have all the necessary bribes, then you can. As we had two girls with us, however, we decided that taking them to see a load of rapists, murderers and drug dealers probably wasn’t the best way to spend an afternoon.
Our final stop in Bolivia was at Lake Titicaca, en route to Cuzco in Peru. The lake is an intensely spiritual place (the lake is shaped like a puma), and as you pass the fisherman on the lake you can actually smell the spirits rising from their suspiciously cone-shaped cigarettes.
The lake is an amazing place to end your Bolivian experience, just chilling out by the shore, or renting a pedalo and bobbing along. A word of warning though, the lake is 290m (nearly a 1000ft) deep, and the pedalos are remarkably unstable. Make sure you’re close enough to the shore to swim back if required, or you might find yourself having to complain to the pedalo man about how dead you are.