Tag Archives: Bolivia

Off the Beaten Path 2016


By Walker Dawson

While in no way a comprehensive list of the continent (Venezuela, Ecuador and the Guayanas are missing), these are our favorite off the beaten path destinations for 2015. Most of these destinations are a bit rough to say the least, but whoever is willing to forgo some basic comforts will be rewarded with a lifetime of great memories.

#5 La Rinconada, Peru

Tin shacks cover La Rinconada.

La Rinconada is the highest inhabited place on planet earth. At a staggering 18,000 feet above sea level, this gold mining town shows how far people are willing to go in pursuit of money and the allure of wealth. The city of 60,000 sits perched on the edge of a cliff, with glacier covered peaks at a touching distance. You can walk with incredibly friendly locals, who will be more than happy to show you the gold they’ve extracted that day, and they may even invite you to their house to meet their family and have a cup of tea.

La Rinconada should come with a word of warning; this is rough travel. 18,000 feet above sea level is no joke and the piles of trash lining most streets will turn many people away. If you are willing to look beyond the trash and brave the extreme heights, La Rinconada may be one of the least visited and most fascinating places of this planet.

#4 Goiás, Brazil

An old farmer in Ouro Verde de Goias.

 This is cowboy country, Brazilian style. Goiás is a giant state in the interior of the country and it is marked by an arid savanna like landscape, great colonial towns, incredible traditional Brazilian food, and quite possibly the friendliest locals in South America. Many travelers make it to Brasilia (which the state of Goiás surrounds), but those looking for another side of Brazil, one far from the hoards of tourists in Rio, should go to Goiás and get lost in this amazing land of red earth and cowboys.

#3 El Alto, Bolivia

A Shaman closes shop in El Alto.

 El Alto, located high above the city of La Paz, is the largest indigenous city in the Western Hemesphere, as well as the highest city in the world (13,600 feet above sea level) with over a million people. The city is a chaotic place where massive open air markets flood into the already crowded streets, where one is met with curious stares and friendly smiles. You should come to El Alto if you are interested in indigenous South American culture; this is the modern day epicenter of it all. With the indigenous Evo Morales government, Aymara natives are rapidly beginning to embrace their indigenous roots which were for so many centuries suppressed by the Spanish and Mestizo elite. This cultural renaissance has transformed El Alto into a modern, 21st century indigenous metropolis.

#2 Paraguay

Getting wild after an incredible afternoon in the Chaco. Guns, beer, and nature.
Getting wild after an incredible afternoon in the Chaco. Guns, beer, and nature.

Paraguay is lost in a bygone era. It’s a flat, hot, landlocked country in the middle of South America, whose charms come less from cobblestoned streets and old churches, but more from its people and their hospitality. There may not be many sights to check off, but that doesn’t matter when you are warmly invited to a restaurant opening complete with a fantastic blues band, taken to photography exhibitions or hosted by a family for four days for free. Most travelers skip Paraguay completely, but that’s their loss. Let them have the hordes of tourists and high prices, I’ll take my Paraguay the way it is.

#1 São Paulo, Brazil

Barra Funda is an up and coming industrialized area northwest of downtown, characterized by art galleries and music venues of all types. This display was at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, which recently hosted an exhibition on the world famous São Paulo graffiti duo, Os Gemeos.
Check out an exhibition by the world famous São Paulo graffiti duo, Os Gemeos.

São Paulo is in the midst of a renaissance. Forget Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, this is where you need to come if you want to see a true South American metropolis. With 32 million people in the metro area, there is no denying that São Paulo is somewhat intimidating. Yes, its expensive, the public transportation is crowded, and it doesn’t win many points in the architecture department, but get beyond the initial shock, and you surely will begin to fall for its dynamic energy.

São Paulo is about diversity; it has the largest concentration of Japanese people outside of Japan, there are millions of Arabs and Italians inhabitants, as well as neighborhoods where orthodox Jews rub shoulders with recent Korean and Bolivian immigrants. São Paulo’s diversity is best experienced through the gastronomic boom that is currently happening in the city. Burritos, shawarmas, curries and sushi can all be found within 5 minutes of each other.

São Paulo also has an incredibly vibrant underground culture and some of the best nightlife in all of South America. Brazilians play Mexican mariachi, jazz, blues, reggae and rock, the alternative art scene pops up everywhere across the city, old alleyways are transformed into canvases for artists, old factories are becoming galleries, and museums are constantly highlighting local Paulista artists. After a day of feasting on delicious food from around the planet and enjoying alternative art, you can finish off the night in an underground bar, where people perform improv theater, a faint scent of weed lingers in the air, and locals sip on dark Brazilian microbrews. São Paulo is hot, and you’d be crazy to miss it.

El Alto and La Paz, Bolivia (Pictures)

It is begining to sound like a cliche in South America, but La Paz really is a city of contrasts. Imagine local folks drinking espresso while checking their iPhones on a sidewalk cafe, then imagine dried llama fetuses being sold next to indigenous healers and soothsayers who can whisk away your problems with a prayer and a dime.

The socialist Evo Morales government of Bolivia has attempted to tackle many of the cities problems by building a series of gondolas connecting the many disjointed parts of this city. The popular gondola system whisks locals from deep in the valley to El Alto on the valley’s rim. It connects the have and have nots and most importantly eases the horrendous traffic.

High above La Paz, sits an even larger city called El Alto. El Alto is the largest indigenous city in the Western Hemisphere, with well over 85% of the population claiming indigenous roots. El Alto is as close to the intensity and chaos of India as one can get in South America. Mini vans turned into public buses fight for a space to pick up riders and young men and women shout out their destination at the top of their lungs.

Some visitors may never leave La Paz, and locals may tell you not to visit El Alto, but if you are ready for an adventure and willing to take a few steps off the beaten path, take that teleferico up the hill and give El Alto a chance, you won’t regret it.

Ice and Fire, Wind and Salt in Bolivia (Pictures)

We spent two weeks traveling across southern Bolivia through some of the most spectacular landscapes on planet earth. After nearly being denied entry into Bolivia and getting told to “get your backpacks and get the fuck out of here” by the Bolivian border guard, we eventually made it in.

We ascended into the Andes to the capital city of Sucre. Sucre is a pleasant city with lots of Spanish colonial architecture, and one of the largest middle classes in Bolivia.

From Sucre we climbed even higher to the silver mining city of Potosí, located at 13,342 feet above sea level. Potosí has a more gritty feel than Sucre, with silver miners flooding the street after work, and brutal temperatures with frequent snowfall. The surprisingly bustling Potosí was founded by the Spanish in 1545 who bankrolled their empire by mining the Cerro Rico. Centuries later the same silver mines are still active, and adventurous travelers can tour them. Although Potosí is not an easy city to visit, it is certainly one of the most authentic cities in Bolivia.

Next we started our three day Salar de Uyuni jeep expedition. We drove across salt flats, passed smoldering volcanoes, bright green, red and pink lakes, and climbed over 16,000 ft passes, and took a sunrise dip in a steaming hot spring. Most people come to this part of Bolivia for the salt flats, but the most impressive part of the journey was the day after. Geographically speaking, this is one of the most spectacular places on earth.

Exploring the Bolivian Altiplano

By Nick Neumann

We arrived in the town of Uyuni sick and beaten down by the altitude. There is nothing to see or do in Uyuni and the hostels ($10 for a dorm) and restaurants ($15 for a pizza) are nothing special and expensive. The only reason anyone visits the town is because it is the jumping off point for the Bolivia’s extraordinary Southwest Circuit.

The sleepy town of Uyuni.

Walker got even more sick, so we ended up spending three nights. While he was in bed, I attempted to stream the Giants playoff games and some football, with little success. There really is nothing more frustrating than terrible internet. We learned the hard way that no one should spend more than one night in Uyuni. If you are planing on going, book your tour when you arrive, have dinner at Minutemen Revolutionary Pizza, an awesome restaurant run by Chris, a friendly Bostonian, and his Bolivian wife Sussy, then hit the hay and leave in the morning.

Kicking it at the start of the Salt Flat. The Dakar Rally has been held in South America since 2009.
The Dakar Rally has been held in South America since 2009 because of unrest in Mauritania.

Picking a Tour Company

There are over 80 tour agencies in Uyuni. Each one offering basically the exact same tour and they all have a myriad of bad reviews online because drivers were hungover, drunk, or there were problems with the vehicles. In the end we decided to go with Cordillera Traveller and we are glad we did. The price was midrange at $125, which covered food, lodging, and a guide for three days. Our guide, Jorge, was young and energetic, and didn’t drink on the job! There were six people total in our Toyota Landcruiser; a Dutch couple, a German guy and an Argentinian girl.


Day 1

10:30 AM – Finally Leave Uyuni… First stop was just outside of town at the old train graveyard. It was basically a just a photo-op with some cool old trains. Then we drove about an hour to a rest area at the beginning of the salt flat. Jorge set up a delicious lunch of rice, salad and some tasty slaps of llama meat.


1:00 PM – Start heading straight into the salt flat. The sky above was clear, but billowing clouds lined the horizon, which reflected them and the distant mountains like a mirror. At 4,086 sq miles, it is the world’s largest salt flat. Once a prehistoric lake, it is now a ridiculously flat salt covered plain. The altitude only varies by three feet across its entirety. Bolivia is rich in natural resources. The salt flat is exceptionally rich in Lithium, containing 50%-70% of the world’s lithium reserves. However the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has denied foreign companies access to these reserves.

The crew and the Landcruiser in middle of Salar de Uyuni.
The crew and the Landcruiser in middle of Salar de Uyuni.

During the rainy season when the salt flat is covered in a layer of water it reflects the sky seamlessly, like the world’s largest mirror. During October it is dry and crusted over, but you can still take advantage of the flatness and take some funny pictures.

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2:30 PM – After driving for hours with no change in our surroundings at all an “island” appeared in the distance. Incahuasi island is a strange outcropping completely covered in giant cacti. We spent an hour walking and staring in awe at the otherworldly landscape that enveloped us.

Incahuasi Island is covered in giant cacti.
Incahuasi Island is covered in giant cacti.

5:30 PM – As the hot sunny day turned into a cold, windy, moonlit night we arrived at the salt hotel where we would spend the night. The hotel was made entirely of hardened salt blocks, about the size of a cinder block. The salt floor was covered in a white salt dust. After another good meal and a bottle of wine we went to bed, but we were viciously attacked by bed bugs living in the porous salt walls. I’ve never seen so many bed bugs in my life. They were everywhere. I ended up finding an empty room that wasn’t infested and Walker slept in the hallway.

Nick in Salt Hotel
The salt hotel high up in the Bolivian Altiplano.

Day 2

7:30 AM – Day two was full of lagoons, flamingos and volcanoes. The landscape transformed into a desert moonscape. Giant volcanoes loomed over head all day as we traversed bumpy roads from lagoon to lagoon. The Bolivian Altiplano is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. The shallow, salty lagoons are perfect for flamingos, so we saw many in each lagoon we passed.

salar 1 (1)
One of many shallow salt lakes with flamingos.

2:00 PM – We ascended to 15,500 ft onto a high desert plateau with no vegetation at all. It seemed as if even the clouds were below us. While the salt flat is the most famous part of the tour, the journey through the desolate, stark land of volcanoes dotted with colorful lagoons was the highlight for me. It’s a totally bizarre, unique world like nothing I have seen before.

On top of the world at 15,500 ft.

4:00 PM – The final stop was the Laguna Colorada, a strikingly beautiful blood red lagoon fringed by volcanoes. We learned that what initially appeared to be floating ice was actually a series of borax islands and that the brilliant red color of the water was caused by red sediments and algae pigmentation.

Laguna Colorada in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.

8:30 PM – We all went to bed early in a six person dorm near the Laguna Colorada. We were at such high altitude that other tour groups brought oxygen tanks. Due to the lack of oxygen it was nearly impossible to sleep.

Day 3

5:00 AM – We ate a quick breakfast and began driving as an eerie red glow appeared beyond the horizon. Just as the sun was rising we arrived at a series of steaming geysers. I reluctantly got out of the car because the temperature was still below freezing. I felt like I was on the set of some crazy action movie. There were no safety precautions so we were able to walk freely on the precarious earth between boiling mud pools and holes billowing sulfuric steam.

The hot springs were amazing.

7:00 AM – Freezing and tired, our next stop could not have been more appropriate. It was a natural hot spring on the edge of another large salt lake. We lounged in the hot water for an hour, warming our bones in a state of euphoria.

9:00 AM – The Laguna Verde was a our final stop. The green lake is turquoise in color due to arsenic in the water and changes shades depending on the disturbance of the wind. It is overshadowed by Licancabur, a 19,420 ft extinct volcano at the southern most part of Bolivia on the Chilean border.

Laguna Verde with the 19,420 ft volcano, Licancabur, in the background.

7:00 PM – After a full day of driving we completed the loop and returned to Uyuni sore, tired and still trying to take in everything we had just seen. It was an amazing journey, and definitely one of the highlights of our South American odyssey. If you are ever in this part of the world, don’t miss it!