While the first four entries in Part 1 centered around some unique Bolivian cities, my top 3 'Things to do in Bolivia' are all about mother nature - Pachamama as she is known by the Andean people. The top 3 highlight individual, spectacular experiences that not only shine in Bolivia, but are world-class natural experiences that you simply cannot find anywhere else on the planet.
So without any further ado, let's kick off with number 3...
3. Lake Titicaca
Known as 'the birthplace of the sun' by the Andean people, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest body of water in South America. Spread across the borders of both Bolivia and Peru and boasting a surface area of 8,372 square kilometers, Titicaca combines vibrant blue skies, fresh Altiplano nights and some of the oldest highland cultures in the Americas.
The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is easily accessible by buses which depart twice a day from the city of El Alto. The lake's shoreline, as well as some of it's 42 islands, are tranquil areas packed with ancient Inca relics and picturesque hiking trails. The glistening crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca under the majestic backdrop of snowy mountain peaks really are a highlight of any Bolivian itinerary.
Accessible by boat from the beautiful Bolivian lakeside town of Copacabana, the Isla del Sol (Sun Island) is the undisputed highlight of the region. A 3-4 hour hike across the island from north to south is the way to go, and can be done in either a single day or across 2 days. The latter is combined with a night spent with locals on the island, who will put you up for as little as $3 per person.
Less-than-budget accommodation for a money-can't-buy experience. Perfect.
2. Madidi National Park
Established in 1995 and covering an area of 18,958 square kilometers, Madidi National Park is a jungle paradise situated in the the upper Amazon river basin of Bolivia. Home to a record breaking number of species and plants, the park is not only one of the most diverse ecological hot spots on the planet, but one of the largest protected areas in Bolivia.
Ranging from the glacier-covered peaks of the Andes mountains to the tropical rainforests of the Tuichi River, Madidi is home to over 20,000 species of plants as well as an incredible 1,254 bird species - 14% of all species worldwide. In addition, the park also accounts for:
Madidi National Park is also home to 46 indigenous communities from six different tribes, many of whom today make a living from the park's growing eco-tourism as well as from small commercial ventures such as handicrafts, fishing, and agriculture.
Madidi is accessible from the town of Rurrenabaque, aptly known as 'the gateway to the Amazon'. Many jungle and pampas tours are available departing from Rurrenabaque, ranging from a single day experience to packages involving 5 nights camping in the jungle. Higher tour prices usually mean tour staff are paid well, guides are professional and knowledgeable, accommodation is comfortable, and profits go back into conservation work.
Offering up some of the most spectacular scenery in the country if not in the world, Madidi National Park surrounds, encapsulates and ultimately blows away all who venture there. A most essential addition to any bucket list that does not already have it.
1. Salar de Uyuni
From strange islands in a sea of blindingly bright salt to delicately colored mineral lakes in the Andean mountains, the Salar de Uyuni truly is an unforgettable Bolivian landscape. The largest salt flat in world spanning an incredible 12,000 sq km, the Salar has an equally mind-blowing elevation, located at a breath-taking 3,656 meters above sea level.
Formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes, the Salar consists of an outer salt crust up to 3 meters thick in some places, which covers a pool of brine exceptionally rich in lithium - so rich that the Salar alone contains 50% to 70% of the entire world's known lithium reserves.
The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano, and is also a major breeding ground for several species of flamingos. Borders and islands in and around the Salar are dominated by giant cacti, with the largest of the latter being Incahuasi or 'Cactus Island', which is actually the top of an ancient volcano submerged in one of the prehistoric lakes roughly 40,000 years ago.
The savage beauty of this vast salt desert makes it one of South America's most awe-inspiring spectacles. The landscape is home to the world's first ever salt hotel, and is populated by road-tripping tourists all year round. The small, shanty town of Uyuni lies right on the edge of the Salar and is the most common departure point, however it is also accessible by venturing up from Argentina in the south, or across from Chile in the west.
And with tour operators abounds, there are opportunities to experience the Salar 365 days of the year. An early departure/late return day trip is the most convenient tour of choice, however many visitors indulge in a three-day tour (or longer) that includes the surrounding Altiplano deserts, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and high-altitude lakes to the south.
So there you have it! Quite possibly the most remarkable vista on the planet, the Salar de Uyuni takes out the number 1 spot on the list of experiences not to miss in Bolivia.
A country that draws you in, challenges your perceptions and spoils you incredibly for choice when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, Bolivia is an entire country full of natural wonders. Whether you're catching your breath (or simply just trying to) in the crisp, high altitude air of La Paz, or swimming with pink river dolphins in Madidi National Park, there truly is something for anyone with a sense of discovery and adventure.
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Written by Steve Connors
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