BOLIVIA: CULTURAL ADVENTURE TRAVEL IN
Like a bewildering vista from another planet, the stunning Salar de
Uyuni mirrors the Andean landscape to perfection.
In 2001 Rutahsa Adventures discovered a little-known secret: the wet season
is THE time to visit Bolivia! The otherwise parched altiplano landscape is
verdant and abloom with wildflowers, the skies are dramatic, and temperatures
are pleasantly mild. Furthermore, two absolutely stellar attractions can be
witnessed, and indeed participated in, only in the rainy season: the famous
Carnaval de Oruro, and the amazing Salar de Uyuni in its "mirror" form.
While it is true that some of Bolivia's mountain roads can be difficult in the
wet season, roads do not present a problem for most of our itinerary, and 4WD
vehicles will do the trick where needed.
HERE'S THE ITINERARY:
THE BOLIVIAN ADVENTURES BEGIN...
DAY 1, Thurs., Feb. 7: Morning: Land in La Paz, at one of the world's
highest airports, over 4050 m (13,300 feet) above sea level. During the
transfer from the airport to our hotel we drop about 1500 feet, and get our
first views of La Paz, sprawling throughout a
valley below the plateau on which we landed, with snow-crowned Illimani
towering on the distant skyline. We will proceed directly to the Hotel
Rosario, a pleasant 3-star hotel with a good restaurant, to rest, sip some coca
tea, and begin to acclimate to the altitude. It is highly advisable to take it
easy upon arrival to avoid soroche, altitude sickness.
Afternoon: La Paz, population approaching a million, is the de facto capital
of Bolivia, which is to say that although the much smaller city of Sucre to the
south is the legal capital of the republic, most of the government offices are
located here in La Paz, and most government business is done here. We will get
oriented in La Paz by visiting a small park overlooking much of the city,
visit the Plaza Murillo with its government palaces and cathedral, and then set
out on foot to explore the incredible market complex near our hotel. Here
block after block of shops, booths, and street vendors offer an amazing and
bewildering array of goods ranging from wonderful woven goods of alpaca and
llama wool, musical instruments, antiques, foodstuffs, hardware, and all the
items a well-supplied brujo (witch doctor) might need, including herbs,
potions, and dried llama fetuses. You can even buy fake fossils from street
For supper we'll visit a peña, where Andean musicians sing and
play folksongs featuring panpipes, charango, quena and other
traditional instruments. This special welcome supper and cultural experience
is included in the tour cost (drinks extra).
DAY 2, Fri., 2/8: In the morning we'll drive a short distance out of La
Paz to the Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon), where a sort of
badlands erosion has produced a grey and tan landscape of bizarre towers,
knobs and spines. Weird, but scenic.
Returning to La Paz city, we'll visit the Tiwanaku Museum, with its fascinating
displays of early Andean cultures. Then, after lunch, we'll load up our
chartered bus and head south to Oruro, about a three-hour ride across the
Founded as a mining town in the 16th century, Oruro later became the main
center of the Bolivian railway system, which we'll enjoy later. But today we
have come to take part in the Oruro Carnaval, the most spectacular Bolivian
festival, and one that has not yet been greatly altered by tourism. Our hotel
will be the Gran Hotel Sucre, just about three blocks from the main plaza,
which should be a pretty busy place as the town prepares for the big event of
the year, Carnaval.
DAY 3, Sat., 2/9: Carnaval begins early with a spectacular entry
procession called La Entrada, starting
at 7 AM and passing along a 5-km route, and we will have grandstand seats on
the main plaza. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of teams of dancers perform. Many dances feature elaborate costumes
with grotesque masks, the most remarkable being La Diablada. Music is supplied by countless brass bands,
each trying to out-do the next. The dances represent Aymara folk legends of
both precolumbian and post-conquest origins and are strongly related to the
hard lives of the Indian miners. La Entrada is just the beginning of a
week of revelry and abandon. Tonight there will be lots of celebrating, live
music, dancing, and happy inebriation. Foreigners are welcome to join in, but
of course, some discretion is advised.
DAY 4, Sun., 2/10: Today is the day of the Gran Corso del
Carnaval, another spectacular display. And Oruro is a town with
important colonial architecture and museums, including an underground mining
museum accessed from the back of a colonial church. Old train buffs may want
to explore the yards near the station to see what's there. We shouldn't lack
for interesting things to do today. And meanwhile, the carnival continues!
DAY 5, Mon., 2/11: Possibly some of our group will want to sleep late
this morning, depending on how late they partied last night. Perhaps they can
if street noise isn't too much. But around mid-morning we board a passenger
train that will carry us across a bleak but impressive landscape featuring
plains, mountain ranges, playa lakes, mirages, mining towns, herds of alpaca
and llama, and scattered villages. The train service is excellent, with
comfortable reserved seats, dining service, and other amenities. It is a real
pleasure to rock along with the fascinating landscape gliding by. A short
distance from the city of Uyuni the rail line parallels the bed of what was
once a great intermontane lake comparable to Lake Titikaka, but which has since
evaporated away to form the remarkable Salar de Uyuni: some 10,582 sq km
(4085 sq mi) of snow-white salt in the dry season, and the world's largest
mirror when covered with a thin layer of water in the wet season.
Vicuña, the smallest of the four Andean cameloids are commonly seen
along the margins of the salar, and occasionally flocks of pink
flamingoes flap slowly by over the erstwhile lake.
Our hotel for the next two nights is the amazing Palacio de Sal situated on the salar itself, and built
entirely of rock salt quarried directly from the salar!
Inside the Salt Palace everything is made of
salt. The only exceptions: mattresses (thank goodness!), toilets (double
thank goodness!!), stove and pool table. Truly an amazing, imaginative and
DAY 6, Tues., 2/12: During the dry season it is an easy matter to
drive at highway speeds out across the hard, flat salt to
cactus-covered Isla Pescado. Once an
isolated island of basalt far from the shores of a vast lake, Isla Pescado is
home to several endemic species of cacti, a variety of birds, and a colony of
vizcachas (a large rabbit-like animal with a tail like a squirrel). However,
during portions of the wet season, rains flood the salar and Isla
Pescado becomes a real island again. Incredible as it sounds, this does not
always prevent visits to the island: if the water is shallow (less then 18
inches) intrepid drivers still cross the 80 km of salar in 4WD vehicles to bring visitors to the
island, but not at highway speeds. Under these conditions it requires three
hours to reach Isla Pescado, but oh the vistas en route!
Imagine driving for miles across a gigantic mirror surface-- the sky and
clouds reflected to perfection; volcanic
cones soaring up in the distance also soar down into the depths; flocks of
pink flamingoes flap slowly by overhead while their looking-glass twins stroke
in unison down below; rain falls down, rain falls
up; when you drive across the salar you have the impression of
flying, with clouds above and below. Or
perhaps of being on another planet, the scene is so
un-earthly. Or perhaps of having somehow
fallen inside a gigantic kaleidoscope. And
just like a kaleidoscope, the scene is constantly changing: the preceeding
six photos were all taken on the same day! It really beggars description--
you just have to see this!
It is precisely in hopes of experiencing this mind-boggling scene, as we were
privileged to do in Feb. 2001, that Rutahsa Adventures has scheduled our 2002
trip for the wet season again..
Upon returning from Isla Pescado we will overnight again in the Palacio de
DAY 7, Weds., 2/13: After a breakfast in the Salt Palace we board
our 4WD vehicles and head out on an adventurous gravel road across a series of
Andean ranges to reach fabled Potosí. Our route takes us through the
old mining town of Pulacayo where, amazingly enough, there is a railroad
graveyard that features a train held up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Somewhere along the route we'll stop for photos and perhaps a snack. Then, if
none of the river crossings delays us, we'll reach the famous mining city of
Potosí in time for a late lunch at the Restaurante San Marcos, an old
mine mill converted into a restaurant cum mining museum. Quite a place!
Our hotel will be the Hostal Colonial.
DAY 8, Thurs., 2/14: The coat of arms of Potosí bears the legend
"I am rich Potosí, the treasure of the world, the king of mountains, the
envy of kings." According to legend, silver was discovered at Potosí in
1544 by one Diego Huallpa who had climbed a mountain in search of lost llamas.
The Spaniards were quick to investigate rumors of Indians with silver, took
possession of the mountain peak, soon to become known as Cerro Rico
("Rich Mountain"), and Potosí was founded in 1545. Within 25 years it
was the largest city in the New World, with a population of 125,000. Riches
poured out of the mountain into Spanish coffers, changing the financial
structure of Europe. Potosí itself was awash in wealth; Spanish
aristocrats in Potosí built themselves palaces, and dozens of baroque
churches. But all this came at a terrible toll of human misery, as the mines
were operated by enslaved Indians who died by the thousands in the bowels of
This morning, after fortifying ourselves with a hearty breakfast including some
strong coffee or hot chocolate, we'll head for Cerro Rico, the mountain that made Potosí. This peak, now
stripped barren and plundered inside and out, is still being worked by hundreds
of miners, and we will find out what it's all about by going underground into
the Candelaria Mine. First, a necessary stop is at a market to buy
appropriate gifts for the miners and for El Tio: bags of coca leaves,
strong black cigarettes, perhaps some rum, or you could even buy dynamite and
blasting caps, which no doubt the miners would truly appreciate, but let's not
tempt fate. At the adit we will be issued carbide lamps and hard hats, perhaps
a slicker, and then duck our heads as we enter the dark underworld.
Within the drifts we'll visit with miners working
veins with hand tools, under conditions that are very 19th century by
modern mining standards, but which are still a far cry from the awful
circumstances endured by the Indian slaves in colonial times.
Each of the many mines under Cerro Rico has a shrine to El
Tio, the miner's god of the underworld, who must be placated if his mineral
wealth is to be extracted and the miner to return safely to the world of
sunlight above. We will save a portion of our gifts of coca and cigarettes to
leave before the statue of El Tio as we
exit the mine.
Back again in sunshine and fresh air, we'll ponder the toil we witnessed
underground as we take our lunch and get ready for an afternoon tour of the
Wending our way through narrow streets
overhung by balconied colonial homes we will visit the Casa de la
Moneda, a colonial mint turned into a splendid museum. Then, depending on
how long we spend at the Casa de la Moneda, we'll move on to the
Convento de Santa Teresa, with its museum, and the San Francisco
Convent for the best rooftop view of Potosí.
One of the interesting things to note as you pass along the streets is the
variety of highly distinctive men's hat styles affected by the cholitas
(Indian women who have adopted a highly stylized western mode of dress).
Overnight again in the Hostal Colonial.
DAY 9, Fri., 2/15: Morning: Free time to stroll (as best as low-country
gringos can stroll at nearly 4000 m!) about the city, enjoy the colonial
ambiance, visit the market area, or even sleep in for a change.
In the afternoon we leave Potosí behind, headed for beautiful Sucre, the
legal capital. Although there's lots of mountain scenery to pass through, it's
an easy three-hour drive over one of Bolivia's best highways. We'll be there in
time to stop at a turn-of-the-century mansion called Castillo de la
Glorieta. This amazing home was built by a wealthy Bolivian merchant to
show his fellow countrymen what fine European architecture was all about, which
he did by using as many styles as possible in a single building!
Our home for the next two nights is the very pleasant four-star Hostal Su
Merced, within easy walking distance of the central plaza.
DAY 10, Sat., 2/16: Today will be a relaxing all-day stay in Sucre.
Founded in 1538 as La Plata, the city was renamed in 1825 in honor of General
Sucre, the first president of the new Republic of Bolivia (which itself was
named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator). But
Sucre is popularly called La Ciudad Blanca, or "The White City" due to
the tradition of whitewashing all the buildings in central Sucre. It is
generally agreed that Sucre is Bolivia's most beautiful city, with a relaxing
atmosphere, and just a very pleasant place to be.
In addition to enjoying the colonial charms of Sucre, along with its
marketplace, museums and shops, we will have a special geologic treat here: a
huge quarry on the outskirts of the city where thousands of Cretaceous-age
dinosaur tracks march up the near-vertical beds exposed in the quarry walls.
DAY 11, Sun., 2/17: Those who have fallen under the spell of Sucre can
explore the central portion of the city afoot, easy walking from our hotel.
Those who are willing to board our bus for a few more kilometers can make a
day trip to the village of Tarabuco where local Quechua people still wear
traditional costume of multi-colored ponchos, chuspas (woven bags for
carrying coca leaves), elaborate axsu (overskirts) for the women, and
helmet-like headgear (apparently derived from conquistadors helmets) for the
married men and women. Sunday is the normal market day in Tarabuco, but on this
Sunday, the first Sunday after Carnaval, the market is a small one.
Nonetheless there is local color to be seen, and the scenery en route is fine.
This afternoon we fly back to La Paz at 5 PM (flight ticket is included in the
cost of the excursion). If the weather is favorable we'll be treated to some
jaw-dropping Andean scenery below. Our final night in La Paz will be at our
old familiar haunt, Residencial Rosario. And another supper at a
peña might be in order.
DAY 12, Mon., 2/18: Copacabana is our goal and Lake Titicaca our very
special thrill today. We take a chartered bus north from La Paz to a small port
town to board the modern catamaran that will transport us in style across the
beautiful and grand lake to Copacabana. You can watch the scenery glide by
from a sun deck atop the vessel, or from within the main salon through picture
windows while sipping a cocktail. A fine lunch will be served during the
cruise. Titicaca, famous as the world's highest regularly navigated lake at
3856 m (12,651 ft), is stunning, and you will be amazed at the extent of ancient
agricultural terracing evident on the hillsides all around the lake.
Before reaching Copacabana we will dock at the Isla del Sol (Island of
the Sun), the legendary birthplace of Manco Capac, the first Inca, and his
sister-consort Mama Ocllo. Here we will see Inca stonework at a sacred spring,
visit a very well done visitor's complex owned by the same company that
operates the catamaran. The complex features an excellent small museum,
crafts and dance demonstrations, and a chance to see llamas, alpacas and
vicuñas up close. Most importantly,
and dramatically, an Aymara shaman will
ceremoniously bless us to ensure that we have a smooth return trip home to
the U.S. at the end of our Bolivian adventure.
After leaving Isla del Sol we cruise around to the opposite side of the
Island of the Sun to the village of Challapampa. The villagers here welcome
visitors to enter their school, chapel, and even into their homes. They have
created a small museum for the benefit of foreign visitors, and often put on
folkloric demonstrations. We will also have time at Challapampa to go for a
short hike along Inca trails to the ruins of an Inca temple.
Once back aboard our catamaran we will have supper in the salon, served by
candlelight. After supper, if the weather is favorable, sitting and conversing
in fresh air and moonlight on the upper deck will be a pleasant pastime
before going to bed in our cabins below decks.
Day 13, Tues., 2/19: We hoist anchor in the morning, and while having
our breakfast, sail the remaining hour to Copacabana, a charming lakeshore resort town.
However, Copacabana is more than just a resort town. It is the site
of Bolivia's most important religious shrine, an impressive
Moorish-style cathedral built in 1610-1620.
Many miracles have been attributed to the Dark Virgin of Candelaria or
Copacabana, a black wooden statue of Mary housed in this great church.
Although many pilgrimages are made to Copacabana for many reasons, one of the
more unusual practices is for the owners of newly purchased automobiles to
bring their vehicles here to be blessed by a priest and then showered with
After visiting the basilica, we will board another private bus and return by
land to La Paz, enjoying scenic altiplano vistas all along the way.
En route to La Paz we'll visit the impressive pre-Incan ruins of
Tiwanaku. This site is famous for its
monolithic gateways and giant idols. Tiwanaku was the capital of what
archeologists believe to have been the longest surviving empire of all the
precolumbian Andean civilizations, flourishing for over a thousand years.
Later Inca rulers are said to have visited Tiwanaku and been inspired by its
In La Paz we'll settle in for one final night at the Hotel Rosario.
DAY 14, Weds., 2/20: Time to board your return flight home, carrying a
million memories of unforgettable wonders seen, new friends made, and the
determination to return someday to Bolivia.
COST OF THE TRIP: The costs listed below are based on a minimum of eight
excursionists, in double occupancy rooms. Single room accommodations are
available at an extra cost.
HOW TO GET ON BOARD: Let us know you are interested by e-mailing Dr. Ric Finch
at Rutahsa Adventures. We will put you
on our mailing list for trip up-dates and/or send you the appropriate
application blank(s), as you request.
- At the time of this writing (July 20, 2001) the trip fee is tentatively
set at $1934 per person in double room accommodations. This price includes:
all lodging; all transportation (including transfers in from airport to hotel
and vice-versa; ground transportation by private bus, by train, and by 4WD
vehicles; catamaran transport across Lake Titikaka; air transport from Sucre
to la Paz); all entries to museums and other sites specified in the itinerary;
daily breakfasts, 6 lunch and 5 supper meals; bilingual local guide service;
and tour conductor.
- NOT INCLUDED: Air fare from home starting point to La Paz and return;
meals not specified in the itinerary; alcoholic beverages; medical and
personal expenses; souvenirs; tips; Bolivia exit tax of $25.
- Although we do not sell airline tickets we can help you find economical
flights. We highly recommend Solar Tours of Washington, D.C. for flights to
Latin America. Call 1-800-388-7652 and ask for Patricia at extension 558;
Patricia is familiar with our plans, so be sure to tell her you plan to
go on Rutahsa Adventures' Bolivia trip. We also recommend you compare prices
at MENA Travel of Chicago; call 1-800-536-6362 and ask for John and tell him
Rutahsa Adventures sent you.
- N.B.: DUE TO EXTREMELY HIGH DEMAND FOR HOTEL ROOMS FOR THE FAMOUS
CARNAVAL DE ORURO, BOLIVIA TRAVELERS NEED TO SIGN ON AS EARLY AS
- Travelers preferring single room accommodations will pay a supplementary
charge for the accommodations: in 2001 this singles supplement was $278.
- Return to beginning of webpage.
- To see other fine trips available through Rutahsa Adventures, click here:
Photos on this website by Janie and Ric Finch, @copyrighted.