Bolivia is a country that takes your breath away. Both literally and figuratively! Its largest city La Paz sits at greater than 3,600m above sea level which makes it the highest unofficial capital city in the world (Sucre is its official capital, but La Paz is the country’s seat of government). Whilst acclimatising to the altitude can prove tricky, it’s well worth the trouble.
Although most famous for its salt flats, that’s not all Bolivia has to offer. Beyond the salt flats there are equally breathtaking lagoons, mountains, deserts and lakes. The true beauty of Bolivia we experienced is in the variety of landscapes we passed through and richness of experiences on offer. It’s the only country on our trip where we’ve managed to experience -18°C degrees at geysers above 5,000m and mountain bike through tropical forest climates within the same week.
There is a wealth of activities to do in Bolivia, but below are our 5 favourite must do things in Bolivia.
1) Take a 3 day tour of the salt flats and surrounds, departing from Uyuni
Most people have seen at least one photo of the infamous Bolivian salt flats with its mirror effect or mind deceiving endless plains of white salt. At over 10,582 square kilometres in size, it’s the largest salt flats in the world, with Neil Armstrong famously spotting it from the moon and mistaking it for a giant glacier.
It’s so popular now that Japanese tourists are even known by locals to fly for over a day just to reach the salt flats, stay for 3 days taking photos before promptly flying back home again! (We call that dedication to the gram)
All that aside, it’s an absolute must visit when in Bolivia. Rather than merely doing a 1 day salt flat tour though, we’d highly recommend taking the 3 day tour through the salt flats and surrounds. Note it may say ‘3 day salt flat tour’ but typically tour companies only spend 1 day on the salt flats with other 2 days spent exploring other equally impressive and beautiful Bolivian landscapes.
Although it is extended periods of driving each day, there are many stops along the way, and the driving will be worth it in the end 😊
- Most tour companies will stop at key sites such as the red lagoon, arbol de piedra, antiplanic lagoon and hot springs, however not all visit the lesser known black lagoon. This lagoon with it’s cute long eared rabbits was the highlight for us in the 2 days outside the salt flats!
- A 3 day tour takes you into some of the most remote places in Bolivia, away from big cities and lights. It’s therefore a perfect time to do some night shots of the sky, if you have the right equipment. You can check out some tips to do this here.
Look out for our tips and tricks post for Bolivia coming soon with things to look out for when booking your tour operator!
2) La Paz cable car
When we arrived in La Paz, our first impressions of the city as we drove through the congested, dirty streets was somewhat lacking. Considering it is Bolivia’s largest city, home to over 2.3 million people it lacked the beauty and expanse one usually finds in a major city. But rest assured, you can find this in La Paz if you ride their extensive Teleferico (cable car) system.
To see and appreciate the beauty of La Paz, you have to go high! High above the streets where you get a birds-eye view of the valley across which the city is sprawled.
Opening in 2014 as a means to improve congestion and reduce travel time for locals between La Paz and El Alto, the Teleferico is an easy system of coloured aerial cable car lines and an inexpensive way to see the city. Costing only 3 Bolivianos per ticket per line (~AU64 cents), you can ride the cable car system in a circular route around the city in a few hours.
When we were there in May 2019, the Teleferico was never congested and with its prominent coloured lines, dead easy to navigate.
- The red (linea roja) and yellow lines (linea amarillo) give the best birds-eye view of the city, so they’re a must-see. Hop off at the stop El Alto and perhaps if it’s a Thursday or Sunday peruse the supposedly largest outdoor market Mercado 16 de Julio in South America. It’s a giant flea market with everything from pots and pans to car parts.
- The newer white line (Linea blanco) travels through downtown city buildings too, so provides a different and unique perspective to the other lines.
- The cable car system opens late, so grab your camera and take the purple line (linea morada) to El Alto to get some great night shots of La Paz!
3) Visit Potosi mine
Located to the south east of La Paz (2.5 hr flight or 8 hr drive away) lies the seemingly mundane but historically significant town of Potosi. First founded in 1546, it was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world and larger than Paris and London at the time. Potosi as a silver mining town was established by the Spanish and for 473 years has produced over an estimated 60,000 tonnes of silver. In the second half of the 16th century alone, Potosi accounted for over 60% of all silver mined in the world.
In keeping with true colonial fashion, the spoils of Potosi were promptly shipped back to Spain where the wealth of the city funded the Spanish colonisation of the New World. It is famously quoted “You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out”.
A visit to Potosi mine itself is an incredible opportunity to learn about the history of the town, the process of silver mining and importantly get a glimpse into the modern Potosi miners life. We will warn you though that a mine visit is not for the claustrophobic as to first enter the mine, you need to crouch down and walk through a small mine shaft opening. Once inside, the tunnels do open up to standing height however it is never what you would call spacious!
It is a surreal feeling standing in a mine shaft dug out and still standing from colonial times. The most eye opening part of the tour is being able to see first hand the conditions and working life of the modern Potosi miner. It’s harsh, back-breaking work in what can only be viewed as unsafe conditions with minimal safety equipment, large pits on the side of narrow walkways descending stories down and blasts of dynamite echoing in seemingly close chambers. Hearing about teenage workers and the alcoholism amongst miners is a sobering and sad experience, and one we’ll remember for a long time.
In total, we descended approx. 100-200m into the mine for about 45 minutes, but trust us when we say it felt like much longer and further and never have we been happier to see day light again.
- We highly recommend taking your tour with a miner collective, so all tours are run by miners and profits shared amongst them.
- Wear comfortable clothing. You’ll be given a thin protective jumpsuit, face mask, hard hat with torch and gumboots for the tour.
- Visit the National Mint of Bolivia too in Potosi to learn more about the cities fascinating history and see how silver was minted into currency in colonial times. Whatever you do though, don’t forget to bring a jacket as it’s the worlds coldest museum as our tour guide liked to joke!
4) Visit Bolivia’s capital city Sucre
What La Paz lacks in beauty and grand buildings, Sucre makes up for as the political capital of Bolivia. With a population of only 300,000, it is perhaps the antithesis of La Paz, being a relaxed, congestion free city and pedestrian friendly – relative to La Paz! Being lower in altitude at only 2,800 m above sea level, during winter it also has a warmer climate than other cities such as La Paz, Potosi or the salt flats, so can be a welcome warm relief.
Try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria.
Known as the ‘white city’ for its fondness of whitewashed buildings, Sucre is a beautiful showcase of colonial architecture and a definite must for those looking for a few relaxing days!
- For great views of Sucre visit the recoleta, a little piazza close to downtown that overlooks the city and close to downtown, and Convento de San Felipe. A beautiful old monestary, climb to the top at sunset and stand on the roof for a beautiful view of Sucre.
- For something different check out Parque Cretácico located 5 km from the city centre. Accidentally discovered in 1994, over 5,000 dinosaur tracks preserved in what use to be the banks of a river, were slowly revealed after the top layer of sediment from a mining area eroded. It currently covers an area of 1,200m x 110m and is one of the largest deposits of footprints in the world, and is interestingly seen as a vertical wall now, thanks to tectonic plate shifts.
- It is rather odd walking down to a historical site that is located right next to a cement quarry, but it is definitely cool seeing footprints from 65 million years ago up close. The park provides tours in English as part of the entry ticket and if you decide to go, be warned – there are a lot of stairs!
- My personal favourite – try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria. They have delicious flavours, but my favourite is the yoghurt ice cream with honey and quinoa pops. It’s so refreshingly it honestly feels like you’re eating a breakfast snack, so your guilt factor is way less!
5) “You have to do death road!” -Biking down the notorious North Yungas road
Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”, the reputation of North Yungas Road precedes itself. Nicknamed death road, there have been many write-ups about this infamous road, but perhaps the main thing to note if you are considering embarking on this 70km bike ride is that in 2006 a new much safer road was opened for cars. This meant the part of North Yungas road most famous for car accidents and deaths is now largely left to just cyclers and quad bikers as cars now take the safer route. Thankfully on our ride, we didn’t have to compete against cars for space on the narrow dirt road.
Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”
That being said, it is still dangerous and if you have never ridden a bike before, Bolivia’s death road is perhaps not the time to start. If however, you are a competent rider, this bike ride is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the views you get are genuine showstoppers.
The most common response I got from people who had visited Bolivia when I told them we were going was “You have to do death road!”. Now that I’ve joined these ranks of people, it’s my turn to say it.
We’ll be posting a detailed write up on death road and our experience shortly so stay tuned for it! In the meantime check out our gallery here.