Seeing the world, one country at the time

Bolivia in a Nutshell

Bolivia is rich in poverty, making it a backpacker’s paradise. It holds the honorary place of “cheapest country in South America”. Budget travelers flock there to see the birthplace of the Incas on Lake Titicaca, to bike down the world’s most dangerous road, to off-road in the Uyuni Salt flats and surrounding desert, and to do jungle treks and animal safaris in the pampas of Rurrenbaque. Bolivia has barren highlands, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, La Paz, (the highest capital in the world), Titicaca, (the world’s highest navigable lake), and the original Copacabana. It has the best fleece tailors (super cheap also, we learned), the biggest salt desert, the hardiest flamingos and the friendliest deer. On the other hand, it has the worst infrastructure, the worst transportation system and the worst hot dogs (street food). Think pink playdough. Tip of the day: Just because hundreds of people line up at a food stand doesn’t mean that the food is edible.

Lars and I went to Bolivia on a whim, after hearing so much about it on the gringo trail. It had a bit of everything for the budget traveler: cruises on Lake Titicaca, an animal safari similar to Brazil’s, a jungle trek similar to the Amazon’s, adventure trips, cheap shopping, a salt desert even bigger than Chile’s and landscapes equal to Argentina’s. Some of these claims were true, but mostly, Bolivia took second place. It was the poor man’s South America, used to substitute the places people can no longer afford. In fact, it has plenty of its own treasures to offer, but not as big a marketing budget as its neighbors. And the worst part? It has no coast, so no beach tourists. This complaint is ageless, as is evidenced from Paul Theroux’s conversation in the 1950’s in his novel The Old Patagonian Express:

“We have one problem in Bolivia.”
“Only one?” I asked.
“One major problem,” he said. “The sea. The Chileans ought to let us have a bit – or the Peruvians. We need a seaport of our own. It is because we don’t have one that we have so many other problems. What can you do without a seaport?”

This is the Bolivian’s general war cry: Chile and Peru stole our coast and they should give it back! They have even gone to war on these grounds but they were defeated and remain landlocked.

We entered Bolivia through Copacabana, where we took a boat to the Sun and Moon Islands of Inca fame and saw colorful vehicle baptisms at the Cathedral, a major pilgrim site. From there we continued to La Paz, where breathing was labored and the air was cold. We continued on to our main destination, Uyuni. We were going there to fulfill a promise to our friend Shobha to visit the largest salt desert in the world. Indeed, it’s huge and feels surreal to see nothing but white in any direction, yet know that it’s not snow. We spent four-days in a jeep with two friendly couples from Israel and Germany before separating at the border as we moved on to Chile.

* Our condolences to the recently murdered backpackers, victims of a fake police gang.