The ultimate Bolivia itinerary: gay La Paz, Torotoro NP, Cochabamba, Salar de Uyuni and more

Wickedly underrated and wonderfully diverse, Bolivia lays humble as the least travelled country in South America, overflowing with hidden Inca ruins and unexplored mountain wilderness. Besides the rich cultural carnival on show in big cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz, Bolivia at large wows visitors with a magical display of death-defying Andean peaks charmed rainforest and Amazonian savannah illusions. From the stark salt flats of Uyuni to the lesser-travelled ancient Inca trails of Cordillera Apolobamba, Bolivia unravels an endless stream of colour and intrigue, leaving you reluctant to ever leave. Discover Bolivia’s best bits with us today.

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On an independent journey customised by local experts for just you and your companions, marvel at the spectacle of a truly pristine wilderness, strolling among Magellanic penguins, exploring rugged Torres del Paine National Park and viewing the astonishing Perito Moreno Glacier.

Salar de Uyuni | Photo: Kal Visuals

LGBT Travellers in Bolivia

Though gay marriage and same-sex unions remain illegal in Bolivia, somewhat remarkably the nation was among the first countries in the world legislate against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Though protection under the law should give you some peace of mind while travelling, bear in mind that conservative attitudes prevail and homosexuality is still met with some stigma. PDA is ill-advised while in public particularly in more rural parts.

Within the big cities is where gay Bolivia truly shines. The Bolivia gay scene is the most active in Santa Cruz and La Paz, with a discreet community sharing mixed spaces around La Paz’s Plaza San Francisco. The pride of La Paz gay scene is La Familia Galán, a gender-bending theatre group aiming to educate locals on sexuality and gender through performance. Check out Open Mind Club for events and schedules. Otherwise, Santa Cruz is where you’ll find the most progressive minds, a city home to various LGBT+ rights organisations and the host of the country’s first Gay Pride march since 2001.

For all travellers, it must be said that while Bolivia is not without its share of drug-related crime and political instability, in comparison to the rest of the region, the country remains among the safest – not to mention cheapest – options for travellers.

When to go

Landlocked in the centre of South America, Bolivia stretches across diverse landscapes and climates to become one of the most thrilling terrains in the region. This means that ‘when’ becomes more a question of ‘where’, as temperatures and climates vary wildly depending on topography. To the west, the Andes sweeps along two long parallel ridges split by the gusty deserts of the Andean plateau – these are the chillier climes. Move down into the valleys however and you’ll soon reach the warmer lowlands, lush with vegetation on course to the Amazon rainforest.

More generally speaking, seasonal changes are still noticeable. The long winter from May to October is dry season and noted as the best time to visit the lowlands for milder temperatures and less humidity, though rain is still a year-round possibility in these parts. This is also high season so prepare for busier attractions and higher prices. In the months of June and July meanwhile, hiking and climbing become the top draws thanks to clear skies and sunny days. Later on between July and August, Patagonian winds chill the nation – even the Amazon – while from late August to September agricultural fires spring up, making for suboptimum views and possible respiratory troubles. Asthmatics be warned!

Photo: Hugo Kruip

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Lying within a hollowed canyon way up on the Andean Plateau, La Paz comes backed by the snowy peak of Mount Illimani and flanked by steep valley slopes laden with ramshackle residences

1. La Paz

An astounding city located 3,640 meters above sea level close to the troposphere, La Paz may leave you both literally and figuratively breathless. What the city lacks in oxygen levels it more than makes up for in picturesque natural beauty, however. Lying within a hollowed canyon way up on the Andean Plateau, La Paz comes backed by the snowy peak of Mount Illimani and flanked by steep valley slopes laden with ramshackle residences. The majority of the city sits within the crater, where boutique hotels and carnival parades take over the sunnier spots, while meanwhile, in the shadows of El Alto, the city shows its cooler, grittier character. As well as acclimatizing to the altitude, visitors must grow used to a cacophony of honking traffic while moving past machine-gun-wielding bank guards and balaclava-clad ‘lustrabota’ shoe-shiners, towards vibrant plazas where old-world architecture and concrete jungle collide.

Stay out of the shadows and exhaust fumes and La Paz is able to amaze with its skyline of Gothic spires and glittering hotels, all connected by a modern sky railway that helps make this hilly metropolis somewhat more accessible. Jokes aside, altitude sickness is a very real possibility while staying in La Paz, so travellers with pre-existing medical conditions should seek medical advice before arriving.

La Paz | Photo: Sofia Khlebnikov

Photo: Stephan Medina

2. Cochabamba

A fast-growing city renowned for its gastronomy in a fertile hilly region of central Bolivia, Cochabamba is one for us foodies. Translating as ‘swampy plain’, Cochabamba sits in a lush crater beside Cerro Tunari, the region’s highest peak, and is the perfect base before heading out to Parque Torotoro. The upper Cochabamba Valley is the city’s most densely populated area, known as the breadbasket of Bolivia, thanks to its mild springtime climate and fertile fields of maize and wheat. Here you’ll find a population of outward-looking peasant farmers, as well as new communities of students and young professionals among aspiring districts where new restaurants, bars and gay Cochabamba clubs pop up daily.

Despite three centuries of Spanish rule, Cochabamba – like much of Bolivia – maintains the deep-set traditions of its indigenous people, with a population that in one breath embraces Catholicism and in another looks to ancient mountain deities for guidance. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupiña in mid-August is a fine example of this cultural mix, a celebration luring upwards of 500,000 visitors each year for a costumed procession and eating extravaganza to mark the famed local sighting of the Virgin Mary who is said to have ascended from heaven in the early 19th century. Going deeper, however, the fiesta in fact links back to Quechua culture and pre-Christian belief, referring to an Incan moon deity conflated as the Virgin Mary by Spanish settlers. The town of Quillacollo – a popular place to experience the fiesta –  translates as ‘mountain of the moon’ in reference to the female moon deity, and is the main site for locals to light candles for the Andean earth goddess Pachamama as a way to bring about health and prosperity.

Cochabamba | Photo: Nicki

3. Santa Cruz

Coming down from the sky city of La Paz and recovering from the foodie feasts of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz is the next city to uncover, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities and the most populated city in Bolivia. Merging business with pleasure, Santa Cruz brings a classy mix of suited tradesmen and rather more casual communities of international settlers. Diverse in its makeup, with enclaves of Japanese, Brazilian and Russian cultures, Santa Cruz will surprise newcomers with its lowland location in proximity to the rainforest and countless other natural attractions. After getting used to the higher humidity and tropical temperatures, travel beyond the city’s borders to see regional wildlife at the Biocentro Guembe or sleuth sloths in the jungle on any number of river and waterfall hiking trails. The nearby sand dunes are also a popular attraction and the perfect way to end the day before returning to the city centre for a great selection of restaurants and nightlife downtown to the west of the San Lorenzo River.

4. Sucre

Somewhat overlooked by travellers searching for the biggest and best Bolivian cities, Sucre is actually a true jewel of a city, bursting with charm and a whole host of colonial heritage up on an eastern-edge highland valley on the Andean Plateau. Once the centre of Spanish Empire in Alto Peru and the post-independence capital, Sucre has since relinquished much of its past power to La Paz while keeping its aristocratic ways. Entering Sucre is like stepping back in time to the 19th century, to a world of ornate churches, monasteries and mansions concentrated around the UNESCO-listed historic centre, a site founded in the 16th century and since preserved in white paint as ‘La Ciudad Blanca de las Americas’; ‘the White City of the Americas’.

Though refined, Sucre is softened by its large student population who attend one of South America’s oldest universities within the city. Mapped out in ever-impressive colonial styles with a spring-like climate all year round, Sucre is surprisingly cheap and uncrowded, allowing visitors to easily explore on foot among its many cultural sites and plazas. Set some 2,700 metres up, Sucre and the surrounding area is home to a number of Quechua-speaking indigenous communities. Take a trip to any of these rural towns, such as Tarabuco in the southeast, to witness their beautiful weaving skills for yourself or simply visit the Museo de Arte Indigena on an afternoon.

Sucre | Photo: Pedro Basagoitia

Photo: Tobias Jelskov

5. Potosi

Around 160 kilometres south is the former colonial centre of Potosi, once one of the biggest cities in the world owing to its foundation upon the silver-laden Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). Though today Potosi’s economic importance has dwindled significantly, the city is still very much worthy of a visit, offering travellers insight into the nation’s colonial past and murky mining history. Take a guided tour of the mines to learn of the abject conditions within one of Bolivia’s most notorious mines, a site in operation since 1545 and bankrolled by the Spanish Empire.

What wealth Potosi once had has long since dried up, with the city having survived decline and poverty before once again resurging in the 21st century, thanks in part to increased tourism. Mining continues to be one of the region’s biggest industries but conditions are sadly not much more favourable than before. Regardless of Potosi’s shady side, it remains to be said that the grand churches and ornate architecture of this ‘Imperial City’ make it a very worthy stop-off. Again, as in La Paz, be sure to consult your doctor if you are worried about altitude sickness – at 4,090 metres Potosi outranks the capital in height and is named one of the highest cities in the world.

Photo: Marco Torrazzina

6. Torotoro National Park

When journeying into Bolivia’s remote realms, there’s one place that sticks out as a must-visit destination. Torotoro National Park is his name, nestled deep in the valleys of the Andes just 130 kilometres south of Cochabamba, famed for a diversity of landscapes despite being the smallest national park in Bolivia. Spanning 164 kilometres around the village of the same name, Toro Toro Bolivia brings all manner of attractions within your grasp, including waterfall-filled canyons, hanging valleys and limestone rock formations lined with caves and fossils. Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs on an adventure through the eroded Torotoro Canyon, peering into the bordering caves of Umajallanta for a glimpse at ancient rock paintings beside pre-Inca ruins. If hiking is on your to-do list, then expeditions to the fortress of Llama Chaqui is a top choice, allowing for sightings of brightly coloured macaw, flocks of parakeet and vultures in the woodlands and ravines surrounding the trail.

For the least taxing itinerary, it’s possible to take a day trip starting and ending in Cochabamba (such as the Ciudad de Itas or Cueva Humajalanta tours). These bus tours usually take travellers passed the fossils and into the caves for fully-equipped (though often muddy) explorations of the best cave systems.

Photo: Virginie K55

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Long renowned as one of the best places to visit in Bolivia is Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest of its kind in the world

7. Salar de Uyuni

Long renowned as one of the best places to visit in Bolivia is Salar de Uyuni, otherwise known as the Bolivian salt flats, the largest and highest of its kind in the world at 10,000 square metres in size and 3,656 metres above sea level. To embark on your Salar de Uyuni tour you must take a bus, train, plane or combination of the three to the town of Uyuni, the nearest town found 360 kilometres southwest of Sucre. Though inconvenient, you’ll soon realise the necessity of your journey upon first sight. Flatter than flat, the huge expanse within the Eduardo Avaroa National Andean Wildlife Reserve is a year-round spectacle, mirroring the sky during the rainy season from December through April and messing with your grasp on perspective at all other times. Get playful with your camera during the day or wait until sunset for Salar de Uyuni night tours to experience a four-dimensional, 360° view of the Milky Way, with you at its centre.

As Aymaran legend would have it, the Salar de Uyuni was formed by the mountain gods of Tunapa and Kusku mountain. According to the myth, Tunapa and Kusku were married but Tunupa deserted his wife for the perkier peak of Kusina. It is said that the jilted Kusku, in endless heartache, cried so many tears that she formed the salt flats we see today.

Uyuni Salt Flat | Photo: Samuel Scrimshaw

8. Sorata

From the flats to the fertile valleys, our next stop is to the adventurer’s town of Sorata Bolivia. Although most travellers come here to engage in some of Bolivia’s best trekking, climbing and downhill mountain biking experiences, there’s another side to Sorata that allows for relaxation amid the snowy mountains and forested slopes of the region. Semi-tropical and gifted with year-round sunshine, Sorata lies just 55 kilometres north of Achacachi and serves as the gateway to both the Amazon Basin and the gold mines and chocolate farms of Alto Beni at the foot of Illampu Massif. Sorata, coming from the Aymará words ‘shuru ata’ or shining peak, is way up at 2,695 metres above sea level, allowing for some head-in the-cloud-type strolls through the village to learn of colonial history and the neo-Inca rebellion in which the village was purposefully destroyed by river flooding, before once again being rebuilt as one of the main Yunga trade routes in the 19th century.

9. Lake Titicaca

Maintaining altitude and travelling some 75 kilometres northwest of La Paz, you’ll eventually meet the shores of the world’s highest lake; Lake Titicaca. The vast site straddles the border to Peru at around 3,800 metres above sea level flanked by the Andes chains on the Andean Plateau. Arrive at the tourist hub of Copacabana for the best first impression, where you’ll not only find a bustling party town but also daily opportunities for island excursions, hiking tours to secret coves and all kinds of insight into regional culture. Towards the southeast, catch sight of the Cordillera Real mountains, a hikeable granite peak topped with glaciers some 125 kilometres across. If the hike sounds too much like hard work, simply sit back and enjoy the view from countless traditional villages that line the lake’s edge. From here you can also listen to the Inca legends of the region, learning of how Lake Titicaca is said to have played a role in the birth of their civilisation.

More sacred stories can be had on any number of the Lake Titicaca Islands, such as Isla de la Luna and Isla del Sol, the latter offering the chance to hike across in three hours, passing Inca ruins backgrounded by stunning lake scenery, believed to be the birthplace of the sun and moon. Other attractions around the lake include floating village markets and views of the Peruvian border from Isla Taquile.

Lake Titicaca | Photo: Pixabay

10. The Cordilleras

Moving north along the border takes us to our final stop and the trekking capital of the nation; the Cordilleras. The Cordillera range is comprised of several epic peaks, with the Cordillera Real being the highest and most sought-after of them all among the Cordillera Oriental chain. While Real is the one for hard-core climbers (reaching over 6,000 metres up), it’s Cordillera Apolobamba that might appeal more to non-climbers, for its untouched natural environment on a protected area of almost 500 square kilometres. Explore the region in proximity to rare birds such as eagles, condor and caracaras, as well as the odd puma and spectacled bear if you’re lucky on the upper eastern slopes. Sticking to the high plateau of Ulla Ulla meanwhile and herds of majestic vicuña may also make themselves known! Though there are Aymara communities dotted throughout the Cordilleras, the only real towns around Cordillera Apolobamba are Charazani and Pelechuco, both accessible from La Paz by bus with the option to trek between both on the five-day Trans-Apolobamba Trek.

Photo: Onapujadas

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