Things to do in Bolivia

The Top 16 Things to Do in Bolivia

Things to do in Bolivia

Bolivia is one of the most diverse countries in all of South America in terms of landscapes. It’s a landlocked country, so it doesn’t offer any cliffs or beaches. But instead you’ll find dramatic mountains, lush rainforests, swamps teeming with wildlife, and the otherworldly lunar landscapes of the southern part of the country.

Bolivia is also arguably the South American country where the indigenous culture remains most alive and vibrant. Around 90% of the nation’s people are of Amerindian or mixed ancestry, with only 10% Caucasian.

The streets of La Paz are a whirlwind of colors: You’ll see campesinas with long plaits and elaborate traditional clothing, selling homespun textiles and handcrafted merchandise in markets with goods from all over the country, all framed by the majestic peaks of the Andes Mountains.

So let’s have a look at our picks for the Top 16 Things to Do in Bolivia during a custom Bolivia adventure with International Expeditions. Mind you, this is not an exhaustive list, as the number of must-see places in the country is closer to 600!

THINGS TO DO IN LA PAZ

1. Begin in the Breathtaking City of La Paz

Things to do in Bolivia

CC Image by Matthew Straubmuller on Flickr

As soon as you land at La Paz’s El Alto airport, you’ll realize that Bolivia’s largest city is no ordinary travel destination. The city will take your breath away–literally–as it sits at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet!

La Paz is wonderfully scenic, sitting in a valley surrounded by mountains and the mighty frame of triple-peaked Mount Illimani, which is capped with snow all year round.

La Paz will more than likely be your first port of call in Bolivia. It merits more attention, so spend some time wandering around for a couple of days, getting acclimatized to the high altitude, and exploring the unique mix of colonial architecture and indigenous life. Let’s have a look at some of the city’s coolest and most unusual sights to start this list of things to do in Bolivia!

2. Tour the Witches Market in La Paz

Bolivia is one of the few South American countries where ancient indigenous mysticism still survives, and most locals pay homage to Pachamama (Mother Earth) at various points in their lives.

The connection between Pachamama and regular Bolivians happens thanks to kallawayas (medicine men) and curanderos (healers). These special people are bestowed with spiritual powers and magical intuition since birth, in some cases, or after traumatic life events.

During ceremonies in honor of Pachamama, a cha’lla (offering) is usually given. If you want to know more about this, have a wander around the Witches Market, which is located right in the tourist center of La Paz.

You’ll find row after row of stalls selling odd items such as dried starfish, llama fetuses, frogs, sugar tablets, and other items used during these ancient rituals. We highly recommend visiting with a local guide, who will be able to shed light on the cultural significance of the market and the various items for sale.

3. Spend a Night With Cholitas

Things to do in Bolivia

CC Image by Jonathan Hood on Flickr

Mexico is famous for its Lucha Libre, while Bolivia has the Cholitas. The bottom line is basically the same: it’s a theatrical wrestling show, but instead of masked men in lycra you’ll find middle-aged women in traditional outfits, complete with braids, hats and petticoats!

The word cholita is a derogatory term commonly used to describe South American women of indigenous ancestry. But here, the ladies use the term with irony, while proudly reclaiming their own cultural heritage.

Wrestling became popular in Bolivia in the mid-20th century, when Mexican Lucha Libre spread all across Latin America. The first Cholita Wrestling matches only started to be seen in the early 2000s, but have since grown incredibly popular. They were initially organized partly for fun, and partly as a way for women who suffered domestic violence to express their anger and suffering.

Cholita Wrestling matches regularly take place in El Alto, La Paz’s sister city. It’s a fun and unusual way to spend a night in La Paz, and definitely deserves to be on your list of things to do in Bolivia!

4. Ride Along the World’s Largest Cable Car System

Bolivia has two capitals: Sucre is the constitutional capital, while La Paz is the seat of government. La Paz is the world’s highest capital city, located at 11,975 ft above sea level.

Both La Paz and El Alto are built right in the heart of the Andes mountains, with steep city streets and only a few major high-speed roads. If you add this to the fact that it’s impossible to build a subway due to the cities’ morphology, you’ll immediately understand why traffic here is notoriously terrible.

This was the reason behind the construction of Mi Teleferico, the first and longest public transit system in Bolivia. The system includes 10 lines and 30 stations, with five more due to be opened over the next few years.

Since Mi Teleferico opened, the traffic between La Paz and El Alto has improved dramatically. In 2018, the cable car system was awarded the LATAM award for sustainable development. Riding Mi Teleferico only costs three bolivianos, and you could easily spend the entire day hopping from one line to another, admiring the city from above.

5. Take a Ride on Yungas Road

Proudly touted as “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” by La Paz-area hotels and travel agents, Yungas Road is certainly no piece of cake.

The road initially climbs to an altitude of 15,600 feet at La Cumbre pass, which is not far from La Paz. It drops nearly 12,000 feet over the course of the 35-mile ride to Coroico, a town on the edge of the rainforest, which sits at 3,900 feet above sea level.

The road is single-lane most of the way, incredibly steep, has no guardrail, and averages around 300 deaths per year. So, you’ll quickly understand why it has earned the Most Dangerous Road moniker.

A mountain-biking tour down Yungas Road is a favorite thing to do in Bolivia among active travel enthusiasts. Just make absolutely sure that you thoroughly double-check all equipment, as you’ll definitely be needing good brakes along the way!

THINGS TO DO OUTSIDE THE CITY

6. See Surreal Rock Formations

Things to do in Bolivia

CC Image by Olga Lidia Paredes Alcoreza on Wikimedia Commons

In a country as full of natural beauty as Bolivia is, it comes as a surprise that a place like Valle de Las Animas still sees relatively few tourists compared to big-ticket Bolivia attractions such as Uyuni.

Valle de Las Animas is located southeast from La Paz under the shade of the majestic Illimani Mountain. The main attraction of the site is the unusually jagged limestone formations. Some of them resemble sharp blades jutting out of the earth, while others look like lunar landscapes or a petrified forest.

It is possible to get deep into the rock formations and visit canyons and side valleys, which makes for an unforgettable day trip from La Paz.

7. Learn About Bolivian History in Sucre

Sucre is Bolivia’s constitutional capital and arguably one of the country’s most pleasant cities. It’s much smaller and less hectic than La Paz, but it lacks the larger city’s steep mountains and sweeping vistas.

Still, it’s definitely worth checking out if only for its historical significance. There are also exceptional examples of colonial architecture, including the House of Freedom (where Simon Bolivar wrote the Bolivian constitution in 1825).

8. See the Largest Dinosaur Track Site

Lovers of paleontology shouldn’t miss the place known as Cal Orcko, which is not far from Sucre. The site is home to a wall covered with over 5000 dinosaur tracks, which date back to the Cretaceous period (about 68 million years ago).

Cal Orcko is the largest dinosaur track site in the world, with tracks made by 15 different dinosaur species. These include well-known ones such as the Titanosaurus, Tryceratops, Hadrosaurus and the T-Rex.

Some of the tracks follow a jumbled pattern: their cause remains largely unclear to paleontologists, lending the site the nickname “Dinosaur’s Dance Floor.” The best known track at the site was left by a juvenile T-Rex known as “Johnny Walker,” and it measures an impressive 347 meters long.

You can easily arrange a tour of this site in Sucre. If you want to know more about dinosaurs, don’t miss visiting the nearby museum.

9. Visit Potosì and the Cerro Rico

Things to do in Bolivia

CC Image by Danielle Pereira on Flickr

Potosì is a place that will ultimately leave you with a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, it’s a beautiful city, not to mention one of the highest in the world at 13,420 feet. It also boasts lovely colonial architecture and an outstanding collection of silver artifacts at Casa de la Moneda, the Spanish Colonial Mint.

The reason for Potosì’s wealth lies just behind the city in the Cerro Rico, a mountain so rich in mineral wealth that it was once believed to be made completely out of solid silver.

Sadly, millions of indigenous laborers have died in the tunnels beneath the mountains in the process of mining silver for the Spanish. Many of these mines are still active (although tin, rather than silver, is being extracted nowadays), and they keep claiming the lives of countless laborers every year.

Tours of Cerro Rico run by miners’ collectives are a popular thing to do in Potosí. They offer a heartbreaking insight into the lives of the miners and their cult of Tio, a mysterious, demon-like figure that is said to dwell within the depths of Cerro Rico.

10. Marvel at the Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni—the world's largest salt flat at 4,086 square miles—is an incredibly picturesque Bolivian natural wonder worth visiting all year round.

In the dry season, it looks like an endless white desert shimmering in the sun. During the rains, it turns into a giant reflective mirror, and nature lovers flock to it for photographs.

The Salar de Uyuni is an absolute must-see if you travel to Bolivia. It’s a dreamy landscape in which giant cacti appear out of the salty expanse, and you can take perspective-defying pictures that will leave your friends wondering how on earth you got that shot.

11. Visit a Train Graveyard

If you’re planning to join a tour to the Salar de Uyuni, chances are you’ll also be paying a visit to the Cementerio de Trenes (Train Graveyard). It’s located just outside the town of Uyuni, on the way to the salt flats.

In the 19th century, Uyuni was one of Bolivia’s main transport hubs, with railway lines connecting the four corners of the country. There were plans for the city to become a major station on a Pan-American railway, but those never materialized due to political and economic difficulties. As a result, Uyuni’s railway eventually fell into a state of disrepair.

In the outskirts of Uyuni, you can now find over 100 train cars dating back to the early 20th century, which were left to rust in the salt-laden desert air. The train cars can be explored independently, and you can even climb to the their roof. But if you do so, please exercise extreme caution, as there are no safety barriers.

The late afternoon is a good time to visit the site for the best photos, as most tour groups visit in the morning. Don’t miss this unique opportunity in Bolivia!

12) Explore the Altiplano (a.k.a. Andean Plateau)

Things to do in Bolivia

Located near the Salar de Uyuni, the Altiplano (Spanish for “high plain”) stretches all the way to Bolivia’s border with Chile.

The planet’s second most extensive area of high plateau (#1 is Tibet) offers surreal scenery complete with geothermal pools and high-altitude deserts. You’ll also find lagoons in a diverse array of colors, from the milky Laguna Blanca to the blood-red Laguna Colorada and the green Laguna Verde.

The Laguna Colorada definitely needs to be on your list of places to visit in Bolivia. The red color of its waters is due to algae, while salt and borax deposits on the surface create large white pools. Yet the Laguna Colorada is probably best known for its Flamingoes.

Seeing them in such large numbers may lead you to believe they’re very numerous. But in fact they are Puna (or James’) Flamingoes, a native Andean species that was believed to be extinct before being rediscovered in this area.

The Altiplano is really an incredible place, with flocks of Flamingos bathing in the lagoons under a sapphire sky and herds of Vicuña (a camelid related to the Guanaco) crossing the plains. Three-day tours of the Altiplano between Uyuni and Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama are a great way to explore this area.

13) Hike Around Rurrenabaque and Madidi National Parks

Did you know that the Amazon rainforest stretches all the way into Bolivia?

The town of Rurrenabaque, in the country’s northern region, provides the main access point to Madidi National Park. One of the coolest ecotourism hotspots in Bolivia, Madidi offers incredible biodiversity, both on land and within its rivers.

Bolivian Amazon rainforest tours and stays can be arranged from Rurrenabaque. They are especially recommended during the dry season, which lasts from April until October.

14) Boat Around Lake Titicaca

Things to do in Bolivia

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. It’s also one of the best places in Bolivia to visit in order to get in touch with the country’s indigenous cultures.

The jump-off point to visit Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side is called Copacabana, but it has nothing to do with Brazilian beaches!

From this quaint lakeside town, you can book a tour or jump on a boat to Isla del Sol or Isla de la Luna, where you can easily arrange a homestay with local families.

15) Watch Wildlife at Otuquis National Park

The Bolivian Amazon arguably offers the largest biodiversity to be found in the country. However, spotting wildlife is difficult due to the abundant vegetation, with a canopy so thick that it almost hides the sky from view.

The best place in Bolivia to see wildlife is arguably Otuquis National Park, which is located in the Bolivian Pantanal near the border with Brazil.

The Pantanal area is a wetland with lagoons and floodplains that increase and decrease with the seasonal rains. There are few trees there, making it much easier to spot animals. At Otuquis, you’ll likely be able to spot capybara, caimans, hundreds of different birds and even jaguars if you’re lucky!

16) Get Closer to Nature at Lauca National Park

Another must-see place for mountain lovers is Lauca National Park, which lies in the north of Bolivia, near the Peruvian border. 

The park’s gorgeous landscape is comprised of lovely lakes and majestic mountains. Most of these are actually volcanoes, with their conical, snow-capped peaks standing in stark contrast with the brilliant blue sky.

The park sees far fewer annual visitors than the Salar de Uyuni or the Bolivian Amazon region, so it’s an ideal place for hikes and bird watching, with several iconic species (including the massive Andean Condor) spotted fairly regularly.  –Margherita Ragg

BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She’s passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs the travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian photographer. Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition.