Cycling across the Altiplano (Shutterstock)
List 18 February 2019

5 alternative reasons to visit Bolivia

You voted it one of your favourite emerging destinations in our Reader Travel Awards. Here, Melanie Stern shares her reasons for crossing the plains and heading off-track in beguiling Bolivia

1: Experience first-class trains at third-class prices

Train tracks running across the Salar de Chiguana (Shutterstock)

Train tracks running across the Salar de Chiguana (Shutterstock)

Any UK resident who commutes to work by train can forget the gnawing rage of exorbitant prices for late, cancelled, dirty and overcrowded trains. Bolivia's train network is tiny – most of the network has fallen into disuse because the bus network is so vast and convenient – dirt cheap, squeaky clean, and takes you through two completely different, dramatic landscapes. The seats are well padded, recline a little, the toilet is clean and stocked with paper (more than can often be said for the UK's local trains).

One trip visitors should enjoy: going north from Tupiza (the stopping off point to horse-ride in the lonely, ferrous quebrada where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have made their last stand), take the train to Uyuni, the town where tours across the famous salt plains begin. The train leaves around 6.30pm arriving in Uyuni around midnight. The benefit of an evening train is that, amid the endless lunar-like, uninhabited landscape, the unimpeachable darkness draws your eyes upward. You're rewarded with an incredible soot-and-diamonds skyscape.

Bring a blanket for the ride (buy a good fleece in the market at Tupiza, and treat yourself to a polar jacket while you're at it; they're dirt cheap and very useful in high-altitude Bolivia). Then cosy up and keep taking in the big chunk of star-gazing that this train trip affords you.

2: Unmissable markets and unique food

Small stall at a local witch market in El Alto, Bolivia (Dreamstime)

Small stall at a local witch market in El Alto, Bolivia (Dreamstime)

In Bolivia, market food stalls are an unmissable part of a visitor's experience. Take the salteña, Bolivia's answer to the pasty (and incomparably tastier). It's a palm-sized, American football-shaped baked pastry shell consisting of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken or beef, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices, and parsley. Grab a handful of serviettes with your purchase; part of the experience is that the juice inside the shell runs down your hand as you munch. After a few goes, you'll master it.

La Cancha market in Cochabamba, a city that marches on its stomach, is good for a tasting trip. Try silpancho, meat schnitzel with rice, fried plantain, onion and beet salad and a lively picante sauce. Wander through the vegetable market taking in all the colours and varieties of the freshest produce that you just don't find in even the biggest supermarkets.

If you're up for a beer made from corn fermented by human chewing, get your hands on some chicha – it's a traditional beer but has an acquired taste!

3: The chance to volunteer somewhere really different

Shepherd family in Bolivia (Shutterstock)

Shepherd family in Bolivia (Shutterstock)

There are many volunteering and gap-year companies operating in Bolivia, as well as lots of NGOs. These are a good way into volunteering in Bolivia: and you’ll come away with new skills and a wealth of experiences.

Want to help build an eco-farm for Chapare residents as an alternative to the cocaine trade? Want to see inside Bolivia’s health system and lend your expertise? Want to work with animals that only exist in this part of the world? Bolivia does it.

While you’re volunteering, you’ll work with local people, and regardless of your level of Spanish, you’ll be taken under-wing. You’ll eat together, party together, hear about real life there for better or worse, learn how to swear in perhaps several indigenous languages, and get golden tips on travelling onwards to places that tourists usually miss.

Bolivians are well aware that their world and your world are very different; ask them the questions about Bolivian life, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong friendship. You’re no hostel guest – they want to spend time with you.

4: The widescreen landscapes

Bus passing by dramatic red cliffs near Tupiza (Dreamstime)

Bus passing by dramatic red cliffs near Tupiza (Dreamstime)

So many tourists only pass through Bolivia for a couple of days, on their way to Peru or elsewhere. Intrepid travellers should extend their stay and jump on a bus to see a bit more. Most Bolivians use the bus network to travel the country and the wider Latin American region. With such incredible biodiversity, and such diverse ways of living (houses on sticks in the rainforest, self-built apartments on the city limits, crumbling colonial outposts in the ancient cities and in the Eastern missions area, gated and guarded villa-style mansions for the wealthy), bussing it doubles up the learning experience.

Each city has a big bus terminal with all the bus companies selling tickets from little offices next to one another: visit a few to ask how much they charge (ida is one way, ida y vuelta is a return), and ask to see the bus if you want to know what you’re getting into.

Trips may be several hours or they may be overnight, or all day. On smaller routes going through villages and isolated areas, you can expect to travel alongside campesina (indigenous) women in pollera and pigails, transporting anything from chickens to potatoes or clothes for sale in the markets, other foreigners, and locals of all persuasions. The ladies selling snacks will be there if your bus is an overnight one.

Enjoy the scenery, the hairpin bends and the craggy mountain passes, or the steamy cloud forest climbs – as well as long tracts of Inca road or Spanish colonial pebble dash that makes the bus rumble. Take your polar coat, a big bottle of water, some biscuits, your iPod, a little torch and some toilet roll (toilet stops on the way won’t stock it). 

Any bus traveller coming into La Paz at first light will be open-mouthed at the sight. As the bus begins to descend from the mountains into the valley of El Alto, the sheer scale and steepness hits you in the face: millions of tiny houses battling gravity to cling to the mountainside, and a million lights blinking with promise.

More locally, Bolivian city transport relies on colectivos (shared taxis) and micros (minibuses) – always have a few Bolivianos in change handy to pay, and have your camera ready to take snaps of the carnival-styled micros that look more like they're ready to cart diablada dancers. The designated stops that micros have are known to locals but not marked on the road; to ask a driver to stop you need to holler "en la esquina, por favor!" ("the corner, please!") to them in enough time for them to stop. It's not always a corner they're stopping at, but that's a catch-all term for a stop. Be loud or be unheard.

5: The unique colonial culture

Potosi Unesco (Dreamstime)

Potosi Unesco (Dreamstime)

The city of Potosi in Bolivia’s south (the world's highest city at 4,000 metres above sea level) is a must-do if you want to understand more about Bolivia's people and history. A rdown-at-heel little town at first sight, Potosi was the centre of the Spanish empire for 500 years because a little mountain there, Cerro Rico, continuously produced enough silver to bankroll the expansion of Spanish power across the continent and to Asia.

Today, old churches are the lone representatives of the grandiosity and wealth that characterised the colonial city. You can enter the mines in Cerro Rico (still in operation) with a guide who is a former miner and a local, who can bring to life the story of the mine and the ruinous legacy for the Bolivian and indigenous people making up the mining community – as well as for the Bolivian national personality. In the centre of town is the Casa de La Moneda, the site of the old colonial mint, now a museum for the mint's original technologies and for an incredible collection of colonial religious art which, interpreted by a guide, complements your understanding of how silver and Catholicism refashioned Bolivian society.

The main market in Potosi might freak you out: butcher women hang man-sized slabs of meat over flaking, high beams of wood, with no sanitation equipment to be seen. But don't miss a chance to have lunch in the market – try the broth, a sort of minestrone with jumbo-sized pasta or loaded up with quinoa. Bolivians certainly know how to use spices and flavour to perk up any food.

Melanie Stern is a business journalist and is currently completing a Master's degree in Latin American studies at University College London, focused on Bolivia. You can read more of her reporting on Bolivia at her blog, melstern.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @melvstern.

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