We saw wonders in Bolivia, a remarkable plain of salt, the capital of an ancient empire, rare birds. In between those high points we flew around La Paz in a gondola, then drove across miles of altiplano where we passed quinoa fields, grazing herds of cows, horses, sheep, llamas, alpacas, vicunas and even pigs. We saw an Andean condor with its 8-10 ft wingspan as well as the bird I called a “flying peach”. We had one of the best dinners of our lives in La Paz and ate as much excellent Bolivian chocolate as we could in Sucre. Why do I plan never to return?
- Altitude. More than half of Bolivia is tropical, but the best known part of Bolivia is the altiplano, a grassland area between 3500-4000 m above sea level, about 11,500-13,000 ft. My head ached most of the first week. Jonathan’s asthma made him short of breath. We both had trouble sleeping. Adjusting to high altitude takes time and flying from Lima at sea level to the El Alto airport in La Paz (4,050 m), in less than two hours, was a huge shock.
- Getting to the wonderful places in Bolivia takes a lot of effort. Our usual scheme of renting a car and driving around was perfect when we wanted to pull over at a shallow lake and look at birds, or stop to check out ruined chullpas, ancient burial towers. Driving in major cities was nerve-wracking and it was very nearly impossible to find our way. Maybe we’re just getting too old for this. We hate the thought, but it’s out there. By the end of our trip we were both tired, ready for a well-seasoned, properly cooked meal where the hot dishes were hot and the cold dishes cold followed by a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed–one of life’s great pleasures that is not usually available on the road.
Good Things About Bolivia
Cell phone service and data worked very well and cost us about US$10 each for a month of service, a bargain. We used Entel because it appears to have better coverage in Bolivia and had no trouble. We didn’t make many calls, but used the data for mapping our routes.
Gasoline was inexpensive, where else can you say that? The Bolivian government subsidizes gasoline, and resists making regular increases. We spent less than US$20 to fill the tank of our rental RAV4. It costs about triple that to fill up in Peru.
Food costs are low and there is a wide variety of products available, many coming from the lowland portion of the country that is focused on agriculture (and removing tropical forest…).
Textiles. If you want weaving, Bolivia is for you. We found the most interesting and highest quality weavings in Sucre and the Tarabuco market, in the Tarabuco and Jalqa styles. There are many other styles from different regions. Typical of Bolivia, there are specific markets and towns that sell the greatest variety of each. There’s a lot of travel involved.
Wildlife. We saw vicuna grazing by the side of the highway, and a lot of other animals, too. You have to be careful not to hit them with your vehicle. Bolivia has a tremendous variety of birds, too. There is lots to see every day, and specialized tours for anything specific you want to find.
- The google maps algorithm for directions works very poorly in South America so far. In both Peru and Bolivia, it sends us on unnecessarily complex routes and detours. We have to critique and second-guess every route that is not highway point-to-point.
- There is no international mail service. I took my postcards to the Post Office and the man behind the window looked at me blankly. “We have no directions for this process at this time.” What? No international mail.
- You have to give your name and passport number every time you get gas, part of a vain government effort to prevent smuggling of petroleum products.
- To pay for a service by putting money in a specific bank account, a common practice in parts of South America, you not only have to provide your name and passport number, but an explanation of what the payment is for (e.g. lodging), but also where the money comes from. I had to explain that I am retired and receive a pension.
- US citizens require a visa. Don’t forget to fill out the forms and pay your $160.
- The final indignity was having our luggage stay behind in La Paz when our flight left for Lima. Two days later it all turned up safe. Just one more Bolivian moment.