Advantages A wealth of contrasting wonders and lesser-seen sights relatively untainted by tourism.
Disadvantages Extremes of altitude and temperature, rustic transport links.
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
This was, patently, a children's clothing stall - each and every hat I'd picked up, those tie-at-the-throat Andean bonnets, perched on top of my head like a roosting pigeon, and the only gloves I'd been able to get into were doing their job of stopping me feeling the cold, if only because they were cutting off my circulation and stopping me feeling anything much at all.
The old woman, with only her face visible above the pile of knitting, flashed a sparsely-toothed grin of approval, and a thumbs-up appeared from amongst the woollen socks. She had, though, done this for each item I'd tried on, so her encouragement was beginning to lose meaning.
Unfortunately, this was the only clothing stall open at this early hour - it was a straight choice between junior-size clothing or a giant, woven Buzz Lightyear blanket. Loos, a Dutch girl joining our last-minute tour of southwest Bolivia, choose Buzz.My first night in the country had moved me to seek out the market before leaving for the four-day journey further north by 4x4. Rejoining Simon, a medical student I'd earlier met in Argentina on the train to Tupiza, we'd found a guesthouse to stay in a couple of minutes from the town square. Ornately built and furnished like an English country home, a combination of a tepid shower, no heating and the sub-zero temperatures that come with a 3500-metre altitude made for a chilly night. With the promise of colder to come as we headed onto the Altiplano, I had decided to expand my modest clothing collection and invest in some jolly llama-patterned knitwear that really fitted me in no way at all.
It proved to be worth it, though. Although we were ultimately bound for Uyuni, a dusty town with a distinctly post-apocalyptic feel to it, our goal tourism-wise were the enormous Salt Flats that take their name from the settlement (Salar de Uyuni). For all the cold, the tiredness and the quite horrendous smell that I realised upon thawing out was me, the seemingly limitless expanse of flat perfect whiteness is a quite special thing to see.
In a part of the world not known for its political stability, Bolivia has had some particularly fractious moments in its past. As the continent's most indigineous country - with some 60% of its population of native lineage - it has felt to a greater extent than most the disparity between peoples. Che Guevara, a noted carrier of the flag of native rights, met his end here in 1967 - today President Evo Morales, the country's first indigineous leader, has made considerable strides towards correcting the imbalance.Geographically speaking, it's hard not to feel like Bolivia got the less pleasant end of the stick when borders were eventually settled. Apart from its extremes of altitude and climate, it's also one of only two landlocked nations in South America (the other, Paraguay, being even more off the tourism-radar). Oddly, though, it does have a navy, which must be unique in the world in patrolling a lake rather than oceans. It is a very nice lake, mind.
Lake Titicaca is probably Bolivia's biggest draw, although most people tend to see it from the northern, Peruvian side. The world's highest navigable lake, it's a vast serene expanse of water dotted with fascinating islands and agreeable shoreside towns. Height being an ever-present factor in visiting the country, with its western half standing at an average altitude of nearly 4,000 metres, flying into Bolivia isn't especially recommended - the transition from sea-level to the heights of La Paz can be something of a shock.One of the country's two capitals, La Paz is in many ways a typical Latin American metropolis; heaving, bustling and ever so slightly polluted. Its geography, however makes it rather different to other sprawling grids. Built up from a natural basin, the city rises up the vertiginous walls and spills out over the top to form the unattractive suburbs of El Alto ("the high one"). The plus side of this unusual topography is that it's extremely difficult to get lost in the city centre, as the main road follows the course of the original river that cut along the valley floor. As such, uphill leads away from this dissecting thoroughfare, downhill leads towards it.
Few of Bolivia's other cities demand much attention, although Potosí is an exception to this. The southern city, supposedly the highest in the world, has long been famous for the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) that overlooks it, from which the Spanish plundered tonnes upon tonnes of silver, at substantial cost to the indigineous workers. The mine has long since been exhausted of its greatest treasures, but still functions today, and tours are available if one so desires.The Inca Empire that affords Peru such a magnetic tourist-pull stretched down into Bolivia, although little is left of it today. Aside from some time-worn relics on and around Lake Titicaca, the country isn't especially rich in ruins, although there are a number of pre-Inca sites worth a visit, including Tiawanaku/Tiahuanaco, fifty miles or so west of the capital.
Bolivia's other great draw (aside from the jungle, a multitude of destinations in itself) is the aforementioned Salar de Uyuni, a surreal expanse that transforms into a vast mirror after rain. Although this is the main attraction of the south-western corner of Bolivia, the whole of this largely uninhabited region merits a visit. Great deserts and dramatically climbing hillside tracks, numerous multi-coloured lagoons populated by flamingos, sulphuric geysers and smoking volcanoes - the terrain isn't especially accessible, but numerous companies run 4x4 multi-day trips across the "circuit", typically either starting or ending in Uyuni.
There's also a limited train service that runs from the southern border town of Villazon, by the Argentine crossing, north to Oruro. With only a few departures a week, seats tend to be booked up - it certainly isn't a roll-up and ride affair. Travelling at just over walking speed, it also arrives at some wonderful times, including the two a.m. departure from Uyuni.The country's main airports are probably La Paz and Santa Cruz - a more tropical city at lower altitude. Most if not all South American capitals fly to La Paz, although less flights from outside the continent land there.
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Such dubious delights as are offered by travelling there are a relatively small price to pay for a chance to see a country that offers a variety of insights into a complex, wonderful continent. Contrasting extremes of altitude, temperature and wealth exist aplenty in Bolivia, yet with time, patience and thermal underwear, this is an off-the-tourist-track destination that rewards those who make the effort to look beyond South America's most obvious delights.
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