The Amazon rainforest is as phenomenal as you’d imagine – for the experience of being in a rainforest. If you want to see wildlife, you need to move all those pesky trees – and that’s where the Pampas comes in. Out in the grasslands, anacondas, capybaras and caimans are abundant – while pink dolphins and piranhas splash around your boat. Magic.
Bolivia’s constitutional capital is overshadowed by the chaos that is La Paz, yet it couldn’t be more different. Whitewashed, leafy and peaceful, it’s reminiscent of Andalucia, and at 2,800m altitude it has the perfect springlike climate, between jungle heat and the Andean freeze. Markets and indigenous culture still abound – but so do cute cafes and pretty plazas.
South America’s largest lake sits at over 3,800m altitude, straddling the Peru-Bolivia border. The islands of Sol (sun) and Luna (moon) are a jumble of Inca ruins; take a boat to the islands and their Aymara residents. Stay overnight to witness one of the most breathtaking sunrises you’ll ever see – and you’ll understand why the Inca believed this to be the birthplace of the Sun God.
One of Bolivia’s smallest parks, Torotoro has remained off the tourist trail so far – which makes discovering it all the more wonderful. Its treasures are geological, archaeological and historical, with over 2,500 dinosaur footprints etched into its karst landscape; a cave huge enough to house waterfalls and blind fish; a lush, tropical canyon and flocks of macaws and parakeets.
There’s something about being immersed in the lungs of the world that never ceases to enchant. And you are truly immersed – ancient trees in the virgin rainforest stand 60 or more metres high. Squeals and hoots fill the chokingly humid air, and indigenous communities along the riverbank will show you how to harvest – sustainably – from this natural larder.
Bolivia’s most recognisable landscape is a salt crust stretching over 10,000km2, distorting all perspective. At 3,656m above sea level it’s also bitterly cold, with blisteringly fierce sun and blindingly white. But this brutality makes it all the more fascinating – and you’ll marvel at the Aymara communities eking out a living in the surrounding villages and the cacti-filled “island” of Incahuasi.
La Paz, at a lung-busting 3,800m altitude, makes you rethink your idea of “capital city”. Forget malls and offices, this indigenous stronghold is a colourful chaos of bowler-hatted ladies and witches’ markets selling all manner of ancient potions, all against a vertiginous backdrop of buildings scaling the seemingly vertical Andean slopes.
Bordering four of South America’s best-loved countries, plus the more off the beaten track Paraguay, Bolivia is well placed for an overland adventure. These are some epic border crossings – the Altiplano past volcanoes into Chile and Argentina, through the Amazon into Brazil and across Lake Titicaca into Peru. Leaving Bolivia til last lets you acclimatise at a sensible pace.
The coca leaf may be a legal and longstanding symbol of Bolivia’s indigenous culture, but its potent derivative, cocaine, is most definitely not. However, from the notorious drug bars of La Paz, to covert cocaine tours in the jungle, it’s easily accessible. But if the thought of Bolivian jail isn’t enough to put you off, then the human trafficking and violence resulting from it definitely should.
There’s only one way we like our wildlife – and it’s not skewered, skinned or roasted. Some tourists would disagree, however, and hunting – of leopards, peccaries, monkeys and more – is becoming big business in the Amazon. However, it’s also illegal. Tours are not publicly advertised, but if you notice anything that hints at a hunt – report it.
Bolivia is by far the cheapest destination in South America, with rooms available for a couple of quid. But rather than going ultra shoestring, why not use this as an opportunity to treat yourself to what you might not be able to afford elsewhere? Bolivia has a largely impoverished population, and travellers scrimping on the Bolivianos won’t do much to help.
After more than a decade of trying – and failing – to turn a profit, McDonalds left Bolivia in 2013. It turns out that Bolivians – who have plenty of their own tasty, freshly prepared street food – weren’t keen on this imported, tasteless, artery-clogging alternative. Poncho-wearing president Evo Morales was also rather delighted to see the back of this symbol of capitalism and colonialism.