Bolivia’s raw beauty calls to travelers looking for adventure
The sights in Bolivia include the colorful gondolas and markets of La Paz, top left and bottom right; the wildlife and salt flat of Salar de Uyuni,bottom left and center; and Potosi’s silver-laden mine, Cerro rico, top right.(Clockwise from top left: Benji Fernandez; Jamie Marshall / Getty Images; Danita Delimont / Getty Images/Gallo Images; JTB Photo / Getty Images; Hilary MacGregor / For The Times)
La Paz’s public transportation system Mi Teleferico features color-coded gondolas that have solar panels that supply power for lights, doors and Wi-Fi.(Benji Fernandez)
The stalls in La Paz, Bolivia, are a good stop for souvenir hunters.(JTB Photo / Getty Images)
La Paz’s Mi Teleferico cable-car transportation system is uniquely suited to the steep, gridlocked city.(Theo Fernandez)
A miner enters the silver-laden Cerro Rico in Potosi.(Danita Delimont / Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Potosi’s Cerro Rico -- called Sumaj Urqu (majestic hill) in native Quechua -- fueled the Spanish empire for hundreds of years. At one point the mountain was 80% silver. Today, miners still extract silver and zinc and brave tourists can visit the mines.(Aizar Raldes / AFP/Getty Images)
The salt deposits in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni make interesting shapes amid an ethereal landscape.(Art Wolfe / Getty Images)
Rocks sculpted by wind in the Altiplano. Temperatures drop below freezing during the winter months of July and August.(Hilary MacGregor / For The Times)
Tourists on a three-day Jeep tour from Uyuni through Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa stop to chase llamas.(Hilary MacGregor / For The Times)
The salt flat of Salar de Uyuni, which stretches for more than 4,500 square miles, and the surrounding mountain peaks make for stunning optical illusions.
Jeep tours take adventurers on a three-day circuit of Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat that stretches foron top of the world in the southwest corner of Bolivia near Chile and Argentina.(Hilary MacGregor / For The Times)
Bolivia may be the hottest ticket in South America.
With President Evo Morales’ election to a third term in November 2014, Bolivia has enjoyed nine years of political stability — one of the longest stretches in its history since its independence from Spain in 1825. That has led to unprecedented financial growth; Bolivia’s economy grew by 6.5% in 2013, making it the fastest-growing in all of South America.
Every traveler we met had a Bolivian tale to tell: bad food; crime in La Paz, the seat of government; debilitating altitude.
On that last matter, the Altiplano plateau, which makes up about a third of this landlocked country, is so high that it would give any Angeleno a splitting headache. We were below 11,000 feet only one day in two weeks.
Western countries blast Morales for being a socialist, but his nationalization of certain industries and investments in roads and a stunning new public transportation system in La Paz, as well as in airports and telecommunications, make travel safer, easier and more accessible for visitors. Many of the changes are so new that they were not reflected in our 2015 Bolivia guidebooks.
La Paz’s Mi Teleférico — as the system of airborne cable cars or gondolas is called — opened three lines in 2014 (red, yellow and green, for the Bolivian flag), and six more are planned. The city finished the first of three phases of airport modernization in July. The winding road between Sucre and Potosí was repaved in the last three years, making it faster and safer.
And the airport in Uyuni, formerly just a landing strip, now has a terminal, a runway and has multiple flights a day from La Paz, making a trip to the salt flats easier.
We had planned more, but Bolivia is still unpredictable despite the investment in its tourism infrastructure.
Despite our fears, we were able to do it all, plus spend five days at Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, and a night in Sucre, Bolivia’s capital known for its whitewashed colonial buildings.
What we saw left us craving to see more of Bolivia’s culture and dramatic, varied landscapes.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
From LAX, American, LAN and Copa offer connecting service (change of planes) to La Paz. Restricted round-trip fares from $799, including taxes and fees. Amazonas and BOA offer nonstop service from La Paz to Uyuni and Sucre; restricted round-trip fares from $156 and $70, respectively, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 591 (the country code for Bolivia) and the local number (seven digits for land line, eight digits for cellphone. It is often easiest to book online — even within the country. We carried a computer with us and booked ahead for each leg.
There is bus service to most major cities, trains run to some and the number of flights between cities has increased. For well-traveled legs of the trip, say from Potosí to Sucre, you can hire a taxi for an affordable price.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Rosario La Paz, 704 Avenida lllampu, La Paz; 2-245-1658, www.hotelrosario.com. In the heart of everything in downtown La Paz, just five minutes from museums. Luxurious hotel with touches of Quechua and Aymara decor. Excellent buffet and a very helpful staff. Doubles begin at $79, breakfast included.
Las Olas, 1-3 Michel Perez, Copacabana; 7-250-8668, www.hostallasolas.com. Magical hotel on the hills above Lake Titicaca: Every room and suite is unique, with views of the sacred lake and llamas grazing outside your window. Fantastic food next door at Hotel La Cupula. Doubles from $45.
Hostal Carlos V Imperial, 42 Linares, Potosí: 2-623-1010. Ideal location in colonial part of the city a block from the main square and the Casa Nacional de la Moneda. The rooms are very small, but the suite is fantastic. Doubles from $25, small breakfast included.
WHERE TO EAT
The food in La Paz is not very memorable. We stuck mostly to pastries, pizza and saltenas, the ubiquitous breakfast empanadas. Ever-present tourist fare such as pizza is probably your safest bet. For that, try Martiani Pizza, 738 Illampu. Good toppings, good crust, good food. Clean and friendly.
El Tenedor de Plata, Plaza 10 Noviembre, No 1 Calle Tarija, Potosí. This quaint former French restaurant on the town square offers European staples and Bolivian specialties such as pique macho, a heaping plate of bite-size pieces of meat, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and more. Good wine, good service, delightful atmosphere. Mains, $6-$10.
TO LEARN MORE
Ministry of Tourism, www.bolivia.travel
Get inspired to get away.
Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.