This Bolivian adventure takes in some of the richest culture and most startling scenery in South America. Immersing ourselves first on Santa Cruz's UNESCO Jesuit circuit, we then travel into the mountains, visiting the former silver-mining town of Potosi and discovering the colonial architecture of Sucre. Heading onto the Altiplano, we explore the ethereal salt plains, where oddly shaped cacti live on the blinding salt desert, and fly up to the magical Lake Titicaca where we eat local food and watch the sunset over the Inca ruins.
Visit Uyuni's massive salt plains - an amazing reflective landscape that looks like it has emerged from a dream.
Watch the sun rise over Lake Titicaca as we hike around the Isla del Sol
Discover the beautifully intricate weavings of the Bolivian Andes
Explore the UNESCO Cultural Heritage sites of the Jesuit Missions around Santa Cruz.
Visit the world's highest capital - La Paz.
Day 1: Join trip in Santa Cruz; explore the city on foot and by vehicle
Arrive in Santa Cruz. For most visitors to Bolivia, we expect mountain scenery, rural settings and indigenous culture. Our arrival into Santa Cruz turns these expectations on their head - set at the foothills of the Andes on the flat plains that extend into Brazil and Paraguay, this city is not at altitude, giving us some much needed acclimatisation time. It is also surprisingly diverse, being home to a Mennonite community, a large Japanese-Bolivian population and immigrants from the altiplano as well as Santa Cruz locals.
Our Leader plans to meet us in the hotel reception at 1pm this afternoon for the welcome meeting and to take us on a walking tour of the city, exploring some of the main monuments as well as the Museum of Sacred Art, the 400-year old San Lorenzo Cathedral and the Recoba handicraft market. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Viru Viru International airport (airport code: VVI), which is approximately a 30 minute drive from our hotel.
Please note that if you wish to join the walking tour today, you must arrive at the hotel by 1pm. If you are booking your own flights, we recommend giving yourself at least 1 hour to clear the airport, plus the 30 minute drive to the hotel, so therefore the latest your flight can arrive is 11.30am. Should you miss the welcome meeting and the walking tour, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up. If arriving at the hotel before 10am, breakfast will be included for you.
Day 2: 4WD journey to Samaipata; hike to a condor viewpoint in the Andean foothills
Heading west from Santa Cruz, our destination today is the sleepy village of Samaipata, located in the foothills of the Andes mountains at approximately 1600m altitude. The town is a great jumping off point for the biodiverse jungle paradise of the Amboro National Park, home to thousands of species of plants, and hundreds of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, which we will be visiting tomorrow. Before arrival into Samaipata, we head in our 4WD vehicles to the local community of Bella Vista, which is where we will set off on our hike to a condor viewpoint. The terrain is almost alpine in its appearance - it's hard to believe that this is the same country that is home to the salt flats, the high mountains surrounding La Paz, or indeed the lush jungle in the neighbouring Amboro National Park. There are two different viewpoints of two or three hours round trip - the ascent will be steep, on rough paths, and the mountain vistas really open out in front of you, with forest covered hills stretched out for miles. The payoff is the magnificent views and the hope of spotting the majestic Condors from the top.
After our hike, we continue to Samaipata to our beautifully located accommodation where we can rest and relax.
Day 3: Visit the pre-Hispanic UNESCO site of El Fuerte; hike through giant fern forest in Amboro National Park
Close to Samaipata we find the mystical site of El Fuerte, a pre-Inca ruin that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Occupying a hilltop about 10km away from the village, the site offers astounding views across the valley. There are no standing buildings, but the main draw to the site is the 100m-long stone slab, covered with a variety of carved figures such as snakes and pumas, as well as geometric shapes and practical niches for seating and wells or waterways. At the base of the rock, archaeologists are still excavating walls that we now know represent the administrative buildings for the site, which was occupied from as early as 300 AD by people belonging to the Mojocoyas culture, before passing hands through the centuries and being occupied by the Inca themselves in the 14th Century.
After visiting the ruins, we head to the La Yunga cloudforest in the spectacular and biodiverse Amboro National Park, to walk on the trails of the giant fern forest. We'll do an approximately two hour walk, on the muddy jungle trails. The giant ferns in this part are seriously impressive, with some reaching up to 13 metres tall. This is just one of the three different eco-systems found in the Amboro National Park, one of the reasons for its incredible abundance of wildlife. Our guide will help us to spot some of the over 800 species of bird found in the park, including toucans, white-bellied hummingbirds and the cock of the rock. Big mammals, including the spectacled bear, are also found in the park but they are unlikely to be seen.
Day 4: Return to Santa Cruz by 4WD; fly to Sucre and discover the city
Departing Samaipata this morning, we drive directly to the airport at Santa Cruz, and fly to Sucre. Here we get our first taste of real altitude, and at a reasonably low 2800m it is a good place to adjust. Arguably Bolivia's most beautiful, and certainly most charming, city, this gloriously whitewashed town is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and is perfect for wandering amid the tranquil streets and plazas. The colonial buildings with their wrought-iron balconies are reminiscent of a Spanish town, but there is a large indigenous population here in Sucre and we are sure to see ladies walking the streets, often carrying babies or food purchases slung across their backs, swaddled tight in a brightly woven scarf. We discover the main sights, including the Casa de la Libertad on the main square, where the Act of Independence was signed. We visit the peaceful Bolivar Park, which is a nod to the city's aristocratic aspirations in its French-style tree-lined paths. There are even replicas of the Arc de Triomph and the Eiffel Tower, the latter designed by Gustav Eiffel himself especially for the city. The park is a good place to get food from the nearby street vendors, such as 'papas rellenas' (stuffed potatoes), a tasty snack of boiled egg encased in potato and fried. A final important stop on our tour is the museum of Indian Textiles, where weaving demonstrations are often given among the exhibitions of past and present work. Indigenous handicrafts have been historically viewed as 'second-class', and this museum aims to promote the importance of this work as a testament to Bolivia's ethnic and cultural heritage.
Day 5: Day at leisure; optional trip to see dinosaur footprints
Around the Sucre area there is a lot to explore, and we have several options today. For some, it may be the perfect opportunity to stay in the city and visit some of the colourful markets, such as the Mercado Central - a real local food experience, with freshly squeezed juices being sold next to hunks of freshly slaughtered goat or lamb and bags of all different types of grains and pulses piled up in a haphazard fashion. Alternatively, you could take a half-day trip to nearby Cal Orcko to see the incredibly 100m wall that contains hundreds of dinosaur footprints from the cretaceous period, an amazing record that paleontologists and geologists are studying to understand the prehistoric landscape in Bolivia. There is also the chance to do a four hour hike outside the city, with the aim of reaching the cave paintings of Incamachay and Pumamachay. The hike itself is stunning, taking you through the barely-inhabited mountains surrounding Sucre, culminating in the 2000 year-old rock art that was discovered in the early 1900s. Finally, you could take the bumpy drive up to the small indigenous village of La Candelaria, visiting the 200 year-old hacienda that is so key to this tiny community. The hacienda is full of rich history, with artefacts dating back to the 1700s. You'll also have the opportunity to visit some of the village homes, which is a really privileged experience.
Day 6: Travel to Potosi by public bus
Setting off from Sucre this morning, we take a three hour public bus journey to nearby Potosi, a UNESCO site that is integral to the history of Bolivia and indeed the entire Spanish empire. Although the conquistadors never found the fabled 'El Dorado', the legendary city of gold, they did manage to get their hands on Potosi, a town in the shadow of the nearby mountains that the Inca population were already exploiting for its silver. The most famous mountain of all, 'Cerro Rico' (Rich Hill), would effectively bankroll the Spanish empire, and during Potosi's most lucrative years it became the largest and wealthiest city of the Americas, which is something to be said for a small town at over 4000m altitude. However, once the silver had almost dried up, the city went into decline. Nowadays, the ore is still mined, along with tin and lead, in appalling conditions.
This afternoon is completely free to rest and acclimatise. It's a great town to stroll around, taking in the grand churches and ornate colonial architecture, but take it slowly because we'll be over 4000m of altitude.
Day 7: Visit Potosi's famous mint; drive to Uyuni
This morning we will explore the town on foot. Our local Leader will talk to us about the importance of the mining heritage as we explore the historic Mint and the Casa de la Moneda, with the Cerro Rico looming over us at all times.
This afternoon we drive in a private bus to Uyuni, a journey of 3 hours that takes us through the Andean chain onto the altiplano - an ethereal high altitude plateau that seems endlessly barren, with llamas and vicunas sporadically popping up in the distance.
Day 8: Discover the salt-flats and the cacti-covered Incahuasi Island
Exploring Bolivia's immense, other-worldly salt-flats is an unforgettable and surreal experience. Heading into this natural wonder the sky seems to almost disappear into the land through the reflections of the blinding-white plains. Flamingos inhabit the shoreline, whilst the snow-capped peak of Volcan Tunupa (5400m) looms far in the distance. We explore this land today.
Before we arrive at the salt-flats we pass through the train graveyard on the deserted outskirts of Uyuni, a collection of early 20th century train carriages rusted by the salt and left for dead after a major transportation project failed. Crossing the salt flats we head for Incahuasi Island, where we find an expanse of huge cacti occupying an isolated island in the heart of the flats. The cacti have been here for millennia, and the tallest towers 9 metres above the floor of the plains, no mean feat given that it is estimated that they only grow one centimetre a year! We move on to Colchani, driving across the desert pans to visit a salt works, where villagers have sent piles of salt to be ground and iodised before being sold. We head back to Uyuni this evening.
Day 9: Fly to La Paz; city tour and cable car
Leaving Uyuni we fly this morning to the lofty heights of La Paz. Standing at 3636m above sea level, La Paz is cupped in the palm of two magnificent mountains and surrounded by the high altiplano. Its poetic nickname of 'the city that touches the sky' is well earned. We enjoy a tour of the city's many sites, including the fascinating witch market with its rows of bottled llama foetuses and other gruesome items, as well as handicrafts and weavings. The gold museum, San Francisco Church and Murillo Square are also highlights of the old colonial town, as well as the outdoor replica of the Tiahuanaco temple. We take the new cable car down to the southern part of the city before heading 10km out of the centre to the surreal landscape of the 'Valley of the Moon. We walk the narrow trails around the giant clay spires and deep canyons of this geological wonder, which rise out of the ground in bizarre formations.
Day 10: Free day; optional trip to Tiahuanaco archaeological site
Today is free to explore the city. You may wish to take half a day to visit the Tiahuanaco ruins, one of the most important pre-Inca civilisations and considered to be one of the most developed in its time. The Kalasaya Temple, the Gate of the Sun, the Akapana pyramid are amongst some of the buildings to explore and this can be followed by visiting the nearby pottery and stoneware museum. Alternatively, a really great thing to do in the city is to take a walking tour with a difference. Our supplier in Bolivia is partnered with a collective of local shoe-shiners, who can take you through more local neighbourhoods and markets of La Paz, including the popular 'Belen dining room' where rows of food stalls sell lunches very cheaply to the working population in the area. It provides a fascinating look at this mad city, outside of the usual tourist routes, and will get you closer to one of La Paz's most thriving working communities, which is also one of the most misunderstood. Our local Leader will be on hand to translate from Spanish if you choose this option.
You could also escape the city with a half-day hike in the atmospheric Valley of the Spirits. There is a three hour hike into Palca Canyon, starting with a roughly 5km downhill across farmland paths, descending into the gothic spires and rock formations of the canyon, before following the roughly 3km long rocky path through the canyon floor.
Day 11: Drive to Copacabana; boat to Isla del Sol
From La Paz we head towards the deep blue waters of Lake Titicaca. At 3810m it is the highest navigable lake in the world and its sacred waters have long been a site of religious ritual and devotion for the Aymara and Quechua populations that make the lake their home. Our journey takes us to the town of Copacabana, a place of mystic reverence since the times of the Tiahuanaco, and now a pilgrimage site for many Christians. We explore the Virgen Morena and its church before boarding our boat to the Island of the Sun, landing in Huacani port. Here we are treated to a typical 'aptapi' - a traditional indigenous lunch usually involving potatoes, corn, lima beans, trout or chicken, cooked up and served on a communal table. After lunch we jump back onto the boat where we land at the Pilkokaina Ruins and walk up to our eco-lodge (approx. 200m ascent and 1-1.5hrs of walking at high altitude), where we will be spending the night. You will be carrying an overnight bag with you on this walk and we will have the assistance of mules or donkeys. In order to not overload the animals, we will bring only what is necessary for one night and leave any extra luggage in Copacabana.
Day 12: Boat to the Island of the Moon and visit to ruins; drive back to La Paz and fly to Santa Cruz
The Isla del Sol is the largest of the islands that lie dotted around this spectacular lake, lying just off the Copacabana Peninsula. The island is covered with nearly 200 archaeological sites that attest to the importance placed on this site by the ancient Incas. This morning, we take a short hike in the morning to discover the vistas over the lake, before walking down to the port and taking a boat to the neighbouring Island of the Moon. Here, the ruins of Inak Uyu (Temple of the Moon) are a very well preserved nod back to the island's ancient history, and an excellent place to take a hike up for more stunning views over the islands. We continue by boat back to Copacabana, drive to La Paz Airport and catch our flight back to Santa Cruz. We say goodbye to our local Leader here, and we are picked up in Santa Cruz by a local guide, who will transfer us to our final hotel.
Day 13: Trip ends Santa Cruz
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Santa Cruz.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Santa Cruz at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Viru Viru International Airport (airport code: VVI), which is approximately 30 minutes away from our hotel.
Why Book this Tour
Many other trips visit only the salt-flats of Uyuni, and perhaps Sucre or Potosi. Our trip is a comprehensive Bolivian exploration, visiting not only the most well-known highlights but also the country's many hidden gems.
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We had waited some time to visit Bolivia, and it lived up to our expectations. Alan and his team worked hard to make it a great trip.
We had waited some time to visit Bolivia, and it lived up to our expectations.
Alan and his team worked hard to make it a great trip.