Its isolated, land-locked locale lends it a cultural richness unparalleled in any other South American nation. It boasts one of the planet’s lowest population densities and most dramatic geographic extremes. The peaks of the Andes soar to some 19,000 feet. Glassy surreal salt flats shimmer under the sun. It is home to the highest navigable lake in the world. And that’s only part of the story.
You might ask why you would explore Bolivia with a Discovery Tours small group. But with its many-layered cultures, remarkable history, and astonishing natural wonders, the real question is, “Why wouldn’t you?”
La Paz: City of Peace
All three of Bolivia’s show-stopping qualities – culture, history, and nature – converge in its bustling capital. Its setting is truly breathtaking: nestled in a vast canyon carved out by the Choqueyapu River and spread at the foot of Mt. Illimani, one of the highest Andean peaks. To get a full view of the city’s splendid urban and mountain vistas, just board one of the Mi Teleférico aerial cable cars, said to be the longest and highest-altitude such system in the world. From its heights, the entire patchwork of La Paz unfurls below, from its red-roofed villages clinging on hillsides to its glittering glass skyscrapers, all encircled by a ring of spectacular mountains.
Where architectural treasures meet. Of course, to experience the city fully, you’ll need to come down from these lofty heights. A central place to begin exploring is the Plaza Murillo. This vast city square was named for national hero Pedro Domingo Murillo who, in 1809, likened the revolution against Spain to a growing flame that no one would be able to extinguish. He was right. A local uprising here in La Paz kickstarted the liberation of all of South America.
Still, many monuments to Spanish colonialism remain as an important part of Bolivia’s past. On the square, the Presidential Palace (known to locals as the “Burnt Palace” for the number of times it has caught on fire) is home to the nation’s leader. Adjacent, the La Paz Cathedral is a stunning example of neoclassical and baroque ingenuity. The National Congress building, with its stately façade, was a convent and a university before it was transformed into a house of legislature. Nearby, the distinctive San Francisco Cathedral is a stunning blend of baroque and mestizo style—the epitome of indigenous-influenced colonialism.
Where ancient and modern cultures converge. The cultural gems of La Paz are, in a word, spellbinding – especially at the Witches’ Market in the Cerro Cumbre district. Browsing its stalls, you might think Hogwarts of Harry Potter fame was transplanted right here in the Andes. If you wish, you may visit with the local yatiri, indigenous Aymara witch doctors with their tell-tale black hats. Perhaps you’ll purchase dried frogs, armadillos, or potions and talismans that promise good luck and long life.
For an outing with a more modern flair, visit the many museums along the city’s famed Jaén Street. This historic neighborhood looks much as it did when the Spanish ruled here. Today, it boasts ten different cultural institutions. To glimpse ancient history, visit a replica of a semi-subterranean temple from the Tiwanaku culture that thrived in Bolivia from around 100 to 800 AD. And to feel the pulse of the city’s heart, head to El Prado, the main avenue where families stroll, merchants sell their wares, and cholitas don traditional bowler hats as they go about their daily errands.
Beyond La Paz, Astonishing Nature and a Long History
North of La Paz, the highest navigable lake in the world straddles the border with Peru. Lake Titicaca sits at 12,500 feet above sea level and has witnessed some of the region’s most stirring and pivotal history. On the Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun—a short boat ride from the mainland town of Copacabana—Inca ruins date to the 1400s. The island is said to be the birthplace of Inca civilization; more than this, they believed it was also the birthplace of their sun god. Ample evidence of the Inca can be found among the island’s terraced gardens, ancient temples, and even a reputed fountain of youth. Much of the island’s pre-Columbian past is chronicled at the Inti Wata Cultural Complex. Here, you can witness a Kallawaya ceremony and the ancient craft of weaving the lake’s tortora reeds into water-tight boats. Today, the island’s rocky and hilly terrain hosts just 800 families who live off the land, the lake, and tourism.
South of La Paz, a surreal landscape unfolds in the Valle de la Luna, the Valley of the Moon. The land here is composed of clay, not rock, which has left it prone to dramatic erosion. Tall, craggy spires and countless canyons have been carved by strong winds and rains over millennia. Its mesmerizing palette of colors is explained by the varying minerals of the earth here.
The town of Colchani is our gateway to the magnificent Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Stretching some 4,000 square miles, the salar is covered with several feet of salt which covers a pool of brine below. Over the entire surface, its elevation only varies by a few feet; this means that rainfall leaves a thin layer of calm water, creating the world’s largest mirror. During your visit, head out to an “island” in the flat to see its thousands of giant cacti standing as high as 26 feet and stop to explore the remarkable Chiquini Cave, formed underwater before the lake that covers the salt flat dried up.
From the history and culture of La Paz to the beguiling beauty of the planet’s largest salt flat, we can’t think of a reason not to visit Bolivia with Discovery Tours. And you can, when you join our new Natural Wonders of Bolivia & Chile small group tour! Join us!