Bolivia is full of surprises from the high altitude salts and lakes to the dense amazon jungle. This trips crosses the country from the northwest Isla del Sol to the southeast Santa Cruz and the border with Brazil.
- Region: South America
- Country: Bolivia
- Trip duration: 30 days
- Time of year: July 2012
The main arrival ports to Bolivia are the airports in the largest cities of Santa Cruz and La Paz. However, land arrivals are rather common when traveling in the region while traveling from neighbor countries. The most used borders are the crossing to Peru on the northwest side, to Chile on the west, and to Brasil on the southeast. The route of this specific trip starts in Lake Titikaka to the northwest and ends to the east crossing the border to Brazil on the southeast.
Isla del Sol – Copacabana – La Paz
Highland to Lowland
La Paz – Camino Nor Yungas – Coroico
Coroico – Rurrenebaque
Pampas and Jungle
Rurrenebaque – Santa Rosa (Pampas) – Madidi National Park (Jungle)
Salts and Deserts
La Paz – Uyuni – Laguna Colorada
Uyuni – Sucre – Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz – Concepcion
Train to Brazil
Santa Cruz – Puerto Quijaro/Corumbá
Highlights – Part 1
Isla del Sol
Camino Nor Yungas & Coroico
Rurrenebaque, Pampas, Madidi
Highlights – Part 2
Salar de Uyuni
The photos used in this post are available in larger size in the separate post: Bolivian Heights – Gallery in section Galleries.
Bolivian Heights – Part 1
Isla del Sol
Isla del Sol is an island in the Bolivian side of Titikaka lake. It has wonderful views and a very rural lifestyle. It is reasonably small such that it is possible to hike around in a few hours and is sparsely populated.
There are several excellent historic ruins sites to visit scattered around and the views are spectacular all over. The most memorable sight is the snow-topped mountain range in the horizon over the lake which are a charm at sunset and sunrise.
Several walking paths cross the island. At one or two places, someone with a small gate will be requesting a small fee for passage. This seems to be informal local villagers organizing to get some money, not completely obvious if it is legal or illegal but the money stays in the community.
If you stay longer than 2-3 days for relaxing in Isla del Sol, I recommend to check with local boat owners to get a ride to the nearby Isla de la Luna (just in front) for a change of scenery and even more basic stays.
The gateway to reach these islands is Copacabana, a small Bolivian town with a great street food scene. Try out the local very fresh fish from the lake at one of the small very basic food street tables by the market.
La Paz is special in many ways, its altitude above 3600m make it sometimes hard to adapt when you first reach coming from the sea level. The arrival to the city is impressive since you start descending from the high altiplano, you will be presented with great views of La Paz when going down from the El Alto into the lower part of the city
The most interesting aspect however is that it the city has a strong culture and tradition that make it very unique with its colorful flags and traditional dressing. Make sure to have space in the luggage for shopping, it is a dream place for wonderfully crafted local clothes and handcrafts. In the city center there are several squares with beautiful colonial style buildings where the main official offices are located.
While in La Paz you will often encounter lively gatherings whether these are festivities or workers demonstrations. Bolivia population maintains strong pagan believes, so you will find in La Paz a lot of shops selling small crafts for good luck and there is of course the alternative medicine mecca, the El Mercado de las Brujas (The Witches’ Market) in Cerro Cumbre. This market is a big place to buy natural medicines and crafts used in traditional rituals.
A quite interesting geological structure to visit in La Paz is the Valle de la Luna, which is a maze of canyons and large rock formations with a desert look. Easily reachable with public bus a few km from La Paz downtown.
One of my favorite views of La Paz is the nightscape from one of the high sides to look over the unique shape of this large city that extends from 3600 to 4000m of altitude.
Coroico and Camino Nor Yungas
Coroico is a sleepy town northeast of La Paz. It is a great place to hang around for a few days enjoying the colorful houses, a beautiful town center, and taking up really nice hikes in its valley green surroundings.
One of the nicest way to reach Coroico is to go wild-crazy and bike down the old road of Los Yungas, also known as Camino Nor Yungas and often named as the death road. This used to be one of the most dangerous roads with yearly very sad bus causalities due to its narrowness, large traffic and the steep cliffs. A new much safer road was built to access Coroico from La Paz and towards northern Bolivia, so this old road is rarely used by traffic nowadays besides the touristic bike rides.
This road is incredibly beautiful and you’ll find in La Paz many operators running bike descents to Coroico using it. Starting at an almost freezing temperature at above 3500m, you will end in the very humid and hot lowland weather near Coroico. The biking ride is a pretty safe activity to do as long as you know how to bike, go with a reputable company, check the bike brakes often, and do not do stupid stuff.
The road itself is in very bad conditions, some rocks may make your bike bump if you are not careful. Make sure you go slowly which also better allows to appreciate the amazing scenery and the change of weather which is real fun.
Highlight: Coroico / Los Yungas
Safe bike adventure – make your research and select a reputable bike tour company to cycle down the Camino Nor Yungas, a spectacular road trip from high altitude freezing cold to low altitude sweating warm.
Rurre (Rurrenebaque) is a small rural town which has grown to cater the touristic influx to the two main attractions nearby: the jungle of Madidi national park, and the pampas near Santa Rosa.
The arrival to the town is magical, whether you arrive by plane or with a full-day/night bus, surrounded by green landscape and the river Beni. There are many tour operators in town catering tours to the jungle and pampas. This is the best hub to access the Amazon basin.
Jungle – Madidi National Park
The jungle is one of the most incredible places on earth with the most biodiversity you can find. There are several options to stay and overnight in camps in the forest and guides to walk you around. The jungle treks happen inside Madidi National Park, dense forest that is strongly alive both during day and even more spectacularly at night.
The access to Madidi national park is done first by boat from Rurre via the river Beni. Along the river you will spot dense forest and passing boats carrying agriculture products from regions accessible only by the river.
The extremely dense and tall vegetation makes it very hard to see animals. So the hikes involve many hours of walking until a larger animal shows up, but the flora abounds as do smaller animals like spiders. The jungle treks can be quite demanding physically since they involve long walks under hot humid environment and sometimes up and down.
One of the most rewarding experiences is to listen to the night sounds of the jungle, very loud and intense in a pitch dark setting.
Highlight: Madidi National Park
Eco Lodge in the Jungle – Great ecolodge and operator with top-notch guides: Mashaquipe Ecolodge. My two days jungle tour and stay at the Mashaquipe Ecolodge have been the best trip in Bolivia.
Pampas – Santa Rosa
Pampas are open wetlands in the Amazon’s area perfect to spot wildlife from slow driving boats in narrow water canals or short land walks.
To reach the pampas from Rurre, you will need to drive or take a hitch to Santa Rosa. There are many people taking a hitch from lorry drivers to do this route, though this would not be the safest way to travel. You will have more comfort drive with the mini buses used by all the tour operators.
The pampas areas are close to a river that floods out during the summer wet months, leaving the soil very rich when the river comes back to its course in the winter dry months.
Since the area is open, it becomes easy to spot animals that come to eat close to the water, hence prepare your cameras, once you are in the boat or walking out. Plenty of birds, turtles, caimans, piranhas, and loads of other animals will be easily spotted. This is a paradise for bird watching. It is also not very physical demanding, since most of the time you are taken by boat for the sightseeing with only occasional walks.
Isla del Sol – transport, accommodation
To get to Isla del Sol, you’ll have to take a boat from Copacabana. Copacabana can be reached with a few daily mini buses to La Paz and from the land border to Peru.
Once in Isla del Sol, it is easy to find simple rooms when disembarking from the boat from Copacabana, you will be approached sometimes insistently. Note that most of the accommodation is really simple, no heating, no hot water. But on a very positive note, you can be lucky enough to have excellent views from the window which compensate for the lack of comfort.
Coroico – transport, accommodation
Getting to Coroico from La Paz is straight forward. There are a few scheduled buses per day, otherwise you can reach here by ending in Coroico the bike tour that descends Los Yungas (skipping the ride back to La Paz).
For accommodation in Coroico, you can ask in the tourist info office for vacant rooms as they will know and give contact of quite cheap options.
To head to Rurrenebaque from Coroico, you need to get a mini bus to the main road (La Paz to Rurre) and wait there for the daily bus that drives through the night to Rurre. Reserve the ticket in the tourist/info office in Coroico central square. The bus to Rurre passes in the crossing close to Coroico in the afternoon and arrives in the early morning of the next day.
Rurrenebaque – tours, lodges, guides
For the best experience, do prior research of the tour companies to jungle and pampas to make sure you go with guides that protect the nature and do not interfere with wild life.
Jungle tours – Check carefully the tour company since not all have permission to enter the park. The trips usually start by boat up the river, and then spending the days walking in the jungle and exploring trees, flowers, finding spiders and wild pigs. Recommendation: a great eco-lodge and operator is Mashaquipe Ecolodge. And an excellent guide that I deeply recommend is Wilmar Janco Cäceres (cellphone 77724994). The guide’s knowledge of local fauna and flora, and his carefulness and respect for the nature truly impressed.
Pampas tours – Most of the tours for the the pampas in Rurre will drive you to Santa Rosa and then you board a boat in the river Yacuma. Once in the pampas area, you will spend the day in slow boat trip in river canals and watching animals at the shores. The lodges are mostly made on wooden platforms by the water canals with hammocks to sleep and are great to watch sunset/sunrises with animal watching on the shore in front.
Next post in this series: Bolivian Heights and Jungle – Part 2
Highlights – Part 2
Salar de Uyuni