Bolivia is one of the few landlocked countries in the world, surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in America on the West and by the beginning of the Amazon rain forest on the East. Any trip within its borders is a challenge and it makes you wonder if the members of the Survivor Show could really survive here!
For years, my friends have been telling me about Bolivia, a country where adventures take place, the unknown is always around the corner, and even the most basic bus trip could take days.
You see, I am originally from Argentina, and the thought of traveling to Bolivia never crossed my mind, especially when stories about sparkling electrical showers in crumbling hotels and 15-hour rides in buses without washrooms (or drivers that don’t have the courtesy of stopping for you to let you do your business) were the norm. Hence when the opportunity of taking a 20-day trip came up, it took me some time to decide. Even after having purchased the ticket I couldn’t believe I was going to embark on this journey.
The flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s largest city and its unofficial economic capital) takes about three hours. I arrived excited despite the fatigue not knowing what to expect. As soon as I left the airport, I knew right away that this was going to be a different trip than what I am used to.
The first thing I noticed was that that the ethnic composition in Santa Cruz was primarily Euro-centric. For starters, Bolivia is a multiethnic country composed of Amerindians, Mestizos, Europeans, Asians and Africans. Although Spanish is one the official languages, Aymara and Quechua plus other 34 indigenous languages are recognized as official as well.
This large number of different cultures within Bolivia has contributed greatly to a wide diversity in fields such as art, cuisine, literature, and music.
This cultural richness became clear as I traveled along the country. Each city and town has its own cultural flavour and personality. From the contrast between Sucre’s and La Paz’s architecture, to the difference in gastronomic flavors between Potosi and Copacabana, every new city I visited offered me something new.
After having traveled through Santa Cruz, I moved along to Sucre – “La ciudad blanca”, the White City, as it is known. The constitutional capital of Bolivia is famous worldwide for its 16th century Spanish constructions (becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991). Sucre impressed me with its architectural beauty. My two days in the city gave me the chance to explore its many churches and the beautiful central square. The whiteness of the constructions standing against the green of the surrounding mountains was simply striking.
It took us approximately three-hours by car (in a newly built highway) to get to Potosi. As I walked around the city, the ever-present Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”) acts as a constant reminder of the oppression and exploitation Latin America went through under Spanish domination. Millions of lives were lost because of the ambition and greed of the Spaniards, who built their kingdom with Potosi’s silver and left leaving nothing behind. After 500 years, it’s the mining co-ops that run the mining industry, slowly restoring the power to the thousands of miners working and living in Potosi.
Another memorable experience: my visit to Uyuni. The entry point to the biggest floors of salt in the world – Salar de Uyuni. Here nature besieged my senses. It’s hard to describe the vastness of this place. The salar is virtually devoid of any wild life and vegetation; however every November Salar de Uyuni is the breeding grounds for pink flamingos. After 3 days (most of them spent in a 4×4 truck) with the most basic accommodation, limited access to food and water, and extreme weather conditions, I left Uyuni feeling and knowing that I had the privilege of exploring an extraordinary place.
The journey continued in Copacabana, Bolivia’s only beach. Located on the edge of lake Titikaka (shared with Peru) a stunning backdrop to some of the most unique experiences that can be lived in South America.
As my trip was coming to an end, my final destination to visit was La Paz. Contrary to Sucre, the architecture in La Paz does not seem to follow any particular style. On the contrary, La Paz is a city that is constantly growing with no urban planning – and the houses are built with exposed bricks, a foreign concept in North America.
Here in La Paz, I took my final adventure “the Road of Death Ride”: A 40-mile downhill bike ride on a dirt road with a cliff on one side, an imposing mountain on the other, and plenty of inexperience tourists in the way – And as I took the ride, and the wind hit my face, this road to me was the perfect metaphor for the entire trip: that most experiences in life, can only be fully lived when you let go, a symbol for what life should be all about.