Among the many sites to be seen in Bolivia, there are three in particular that are visited more than the rest: Salar de Uyuni, Lago Titicaca, and Madidi National Park. Sure, the dizzying treks through the Andes and the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku draw their share of visitors, but these three are the most established on Bolivia’s Gringo Trail.
Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni is by far the most visited destination in Bolivia. With its otherworldly salt flats, immense dunes of the Siloli Desert, Uyuni’s train cemetery and the beautiful lagoons filled with flamingos, it is surely a must see when traveling to Bolivia. Just outside the town of Uyuni is the train cemetery. Dated skeletons and relics from the once booming mining exploits of European prospectors, these locomotives were left behind in the early 1900s along with dwindling mineral reserves. Climbing on to their large metal shells, you can imagine what history may have been like with the coming of these European entrepreneurs.
The Siloli Desert is another site to be seen. Large dunes of fine sand are traveled via truck as you take in the seemingly infinite amount of surrounding grit. Along the way are the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) with the immense Licancabur Volcano settled behind its waters as a backdrop, and the Laguna Colorado (also known as the Red Lagoon) with its flocks of James Flamingos tip-toeing through the shallows. This geological hotspot is a must see when coming to the region. The Salar – or salt flat – of Uyuni is the largest and highest in the world, stretching over 10,000 sq. km. (3,861 sq. m.) at an elevation of 3,656 km. (11,995 ft.) above sea level. Once a massive, prehistoric lake, the depths of salt are all that remain of the dried body of water. This vast, dream-like stretch of the earth may be something you’re more accustomed to seeing in a fictional movie rather than bear witness to.
Without many landmarks, views of this vast expanse of white are largely unobstructed, begging visitors to reevaluate their equilibrium as it can sometimes be disorienting. During the wet season, water collects on the flat salt bed, effectively turning the dull white into a perfect reflection of the skies above: This means double the sunsets and double the sunrises making for a photographer’s dream. In the stillness of dusk, with the sun’s last vivid rays dipping over the horizon before stars appear and darkness ensues, it is difficult to distinguish where the earth ends and the heavens begin.
On the salt flats are a few hotels to choose from to make your stay at Uyuni last a little longer. Most are constructed of the salt themselves including the tables you eat on, the chairs you sit on, and even the beds you sleep in.
High in the Andes, between Peru and Bolivia, is the second most visited place in Bolivia: Lake Titicaca. It is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,812 m. (12,507 ft.) above sea level. Five major river systems empty in to the lake; the Ramis, Coata, Ilave, Huancané, and Suchez along with twenty other smaller streams. The lake is littered with forty-one different islands including the Isla de la Luna and Isla del Sol, as well as home to the charming town of Copacabana.
Isla del Sol (Sun Island) is the most popular tourist destination on the Bolivian side of Lago Titicaca. Home to three indigenous communities and a plethora of archaeological sites, it is much larger than its counterpart, Isla de la Luna. The moderate, four-hour hike across its rugged terrain brings you past Incan holy sites and temples with a beautiful view of the lake off to your side. Isla de la Luna, or Moon Island, is a 2 km. long island inhabited by a small, indigenous community. Once used as a prison during the dictatorship in Bolivia, Moon Island provides stunning vistas of the lake.
According to Inca mythology, the island is the site where the god Viracocha commanded the moon to rise into the sky. The island is scattered with ancient Incan holy sites, ceremonial temples and agricultural terraces. In the center of the island is huge amphitheater, where a former Incan palace once laid its foundations for the Virgenes del Sol (Virgins of the Sun): Where the chosen daughters of Incan nobility were sent to be educated and study the fine arts.
Copacabana, Bolivia’s seaside resort tow, is a laid-back, slow-moving place overlooking the blue waters of Lake Titicaca. Flanked by two large hills, visitors can stroll through the lazy streets of town, poking their heads into merchant shops or stopping in to one of its many small cafes for a quick bite or a refreshing reprieve from the sunshine. There is also Copacabana Beach, where travelers can relax after a long day’s hike alongside the crisp waters of the lake.
Madidi National Park
In the lowlands of the Bolivian Amazon, resides one of the largest protected areas in the world: Madidi National Park. Among the most bio diverse plaes on the planet, it is the simple variety of habitats that contribute to this wonderland of biodiversity. From the towering, frigid, cloud-covered Andes to the steamy tropical jungles and savannah towards the northern border. There are an estimated 900 species of bird, 12,000 plant species, ten species of primate, five species of cat (including an abundance of jaguar and puma), giant anteaters, Andean condors, freshwater dolphins and a multitude of reptiles.
Madidi National Park is also known as an international model for sustainable ecotourism. Indigenous communities have taken initiative in preserving their lands. Ecolodges set up and operated by locals serve as sanctuaries for visitors in the jungle’s unforgiving habitat. Indigenous guides walk with you through the jungle, pointing out the plants’ medicinal uses and the immeasurable array of animal species.
Travel to Madidi National Park and experience the sheer volume of wildlife as you trek through untamed jungle and uninhibited waterways. Not only is this a wonderful trip to view one of the most important and protected areas on earth, but a wonderful way to engage with, and help to support the centuries-old communities of the Amazon River Basin.