The setting is perfect - wedged between the jagged foothills of the Bolivian Andes and the impenetrable expanse of the Amazon rainforest, the open grasslands of the Reyes pampas are home to poncho-wearing cowboys, known as vaqueros, who spend their lives on horseback rounding up the cattle on their vast estancias (ranches).
Visitors are welcome at the ranch house where they stay alongside the vaqueros. For the next few days, you can accompany the vaqueros as they milk the cows, prepare traditional (and very filling!) meals and ride horseback through the exquisite tropical forests and lagoons filled with exotic birds, monkeys and caimans!
It's a fascinating insight into a really unique way of life, and an unexpected way to spend your time in the Amazon. I'm no expert at horse riding, but I really felt at home with my new cowgirl lifestyle by the end of the trip!
Reyes is just a couple of hours' drive from the town of Rurrenabaque.
Tours to the estancias (from one day to several weeks) can be tailored and booked with Lipiko Tours. If you are in Rurre, stop by their office (and delicious French cafe!) on Av. Santa Cruz.
Google map: bit.ly/t4QGAw
Take a trip to the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi, once famous for silver. In the mines it is claustrophobic, hard to breathe and hot but a trip down these narrow tunnels gives an emotional insight into the miner's world and their way of life. Mouths stuffed with coca leaves, they slave on for hours spurred on by the gifts of drinks and dynamite that tourists bring from the miner’s market. Tours are run by ex-miners who talk about the history and legends of the mines, including ‘El Tio’, a figure who the miners make offerings to, to keep them safe. The tour is not easy, but definitely worth it to see how the miners work. You will definitely appreciate your own job more!!
Koala Tours: Calle Ayacucho #3, 33 Potosí, Bolivia.
One of the highlights of my travels in South America has to be cycling Death Road. After leaving La Paz, the ride begins at 4,700m above sea level and the first 25km is downhill on tarmac so you can really build some speed up. After that the road is a narrow, windy, dirt track clinging to the cliff side with massive sheer drops but fantastic views. As you descend the vegetation becomes greener and more jungle-like and you rapidly begin to lose layers as it gets hotter. It is the world’s most dangerous road, but luckily it is mainly only bikes that use it now, and it is so much fun.
Downhill Madness, La Paz: www.madness-bolivia.com/downhill
Mention the words carnival and South America and you will probably think Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. However, the carnival in Oruro, an old mining town in Bolivia, is gaining ground and becoming a popular destination for tourists.
The Oruro Carnival is the second largest carnival in Latin America. UNESCO was so impressed with it that they declared the Oruro Carnival an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001. It made us locals very proud.
As a native of Oruro I may be biased but to me the Oruro carnival is the place where fantasy, reality, religion and mysticism blend together and come alive for a week long celebration.
Oruro is a small, sleepy (and dusty) old town high in the Andean plateau at over 3700 metres above sea level.
Thousands of dancers and musicians in amazing and sometimes outlandish costumes descend (or rather ascend) to the town of Oruro the first week of February or March (depending on when Lent is) and party for nearly a week. But the preparations for the carnival start in late October or November the year before with dance rehearsals and plenty of partying every Saturday.
The actual carnival comprises of many different types of dances and music from different regions of Bolivia. There are dancers representing the Andean regions, the valleys and the rainforests of Bolivia. The centre piece of the carnival however is La Diablada or the Devils’ dance.
The dancers have to be very fit as they have to dance for about four or five kilometres in full costume. Some of the costumes (like the ones from the Diablada or Morenada) weigh upwards of 25 kilos depending on the complexity of the design and embroidery of the costumes and design of the masks.
When I was growing up in Oruro one of my favourite things about the carnival, apart from the dancing, were the water balloon fights. So take plenty of changes of clothes, buy yourself a water gun, water balloons and join in the water fights.
Also due to the altitude going to Oruro is not for the fainthearted. Make sure when you go there you first acclimatise to the altitude for a few days prior to the carnival; otherwise it will be very difficult for you to walk fast let alone dance along with the parades of dancers.
Three hours from La Paz by coach. Get in touch with travel agents with plenty of time because Oruro is a small town and hotels get booked very quickly.
Google map: bit.ly/eKYeKA
Last year I was volunteering with Bolivia Volunteers in a local orphanage, and it was Carnival time in Oruro.
I went on their organized weekend break to Oruro, and had a blast!
Theyrre arranging the same thing again this year if anyone´s wanting to go to Carnival in Oruro.
The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is one of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever seen. If you're into your landscapes, forget Peru and Machu Picchu, head instead for Bolivia and for US$90 you can spend three days in paradise.
Serere lodge is the ecology project of Madidi Travel to recover a reserve of flood plain in the Bolivian rainforest (one of the Amazon's major tributaries).
We spent four blissful days at the lodge, got to within a stone's throw of various monkeys, snakes etc. and some of the most amazing flora I've ever seen. However, the kicker is every penny of your money goes into the project and helps re-establish the community and wildlife from a shadow of its former self.
Fly from La Paz on Amazonsas or TAM
Sprawled across Calles Jimenez and Linares is the best and bizarrest market that I have ever been to. You won't find plastic witches' fingernails, toy broomsticks, plastic pumpkins or daft monster masks here... this is proper Witchyness! The hundreds and hundreds of stalls sell all manner of potions and lucky 'charms'. The biggest seller, found swinging from the frames of most market stalls (mind your head) is dried llama foetus. Considered to be good luck if you are moving house... the idea being that you bury it in the garden or the foundations of the house (can't see it catching on with Barratts) and it will bring you prosperity.
Sadly llamas are not the only animals considered to have healing properties or be considered lucky - dried turtles, monkeys and even beaks of certain tropical birds are displayed to entice.
It's an eye-opening experience and I'd argue that to miss it is to miss an important part of Bolivian culture. I wouldn't recommend it to the faint hearted or for youngsters who might be expecting their own Latin America Diagon Alley... this place is definitely more Lord Voldemort than it is Professor Dumbledore.
Calle Jimenez, Calle Linares, La Paz Bolivia
Sustainable Bolivia provides volunteer placements, family-stay opportunities, Spanish and Quechua language classes and sustainable ecotourism excursions throughout Bolivia. All the people at Sustainable Bolivia were extremely friendly and always looking to help me in any way necessary. I volunteered for 4 months and it was an experience I will never forget. In this time I lived with a family who treated me as if I was their own son. I only took two weeks of language classes but I was extremely satisfied with the instruction and professors. Additionally they have their own travel agency and provided invaluable travel tips.
Generally speaking I had a wonderful experience and if anyone is looking to travel, volunteer or take language classes in South America, I recommend you contact Sustainable Bolivia.
Calle Alfredo Michel No. 1174
Zona Las Cuadras
In and around Tupiza the landscape is very similar to the wild west in the USA. Lots of weird rock formations and bold colours. The best way to view all of this is on horseback.
There are quite a few different options for people who have never been on a horse, and some for the experienced rider. You can also do a walk-bike-horseride-jeep combination which is quite challenging but very good. The only problem with Tupiza is that there are few restaurants to choose from, but it does have one or two good ones, and an internet cafe.
Tupiza is south Bolivia, near the Argentinian Boarder and there are many places to book activities, usually at hotels which are all central.
Volunteer Bolivia offers tours of Cochabamba department, home stays, Spanish classes and volunteer work. They are extremely professional, they have the best teachers in Cochabamba for Spanish. My family was very nice and helpful and became a second family to me. They work with small organisations so their volunteer work is specialised and you will be the only gringo there. To have a "real" experience of Bolivia, there is no one better than Volunteer Bolivia.
Just outside Uyuni, and on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, is the Train Graveyard - a collection of rusting hulks, former trains from as far afield as the UK, that have now been left to the elements. Dust devils whirl around you and the silence is eery.
Uyuni, easy to take in as part of a tour of Salar de Uyuni.
The Cerro Rico mine is one of the last fully-functional mines in Bolivia. As long as you are fit, healthy, and not claustrophobic in the slightest, you can climb down into the damp, dark chambers and experience what life is like for the miners. In exchange for being gawked at by tourists, you can bring the miners gifts of coca leaves and cigarettes.
Arrange a tour with your hostel/hotel and you will be picked up in a minibus. The entrance to the mine lies just outside the city and you must go with a guide
The view from the bell tower of the cathedral is awe-inspiring. You can see the entire city, which is not very big, and the surrounding hills and mountains against the backdrop of the permanently clear blue sky. It really makes you feel like you are 4070 metres above sea level!
The shady side of the central plaza
A couple of agencies in the main tourist/backpacker areas run bike trips down to Coroico. From a pass above La Paz (4800m altitude) the road passes through the mountains and into the tropical jungle for 60-odd km to the lovely village/town of Coroico (1800m altitude) You are on the bike with guides all the way. Bring sunglasses to protect against the dust, and strong wrists to keep the brakes locked on...it's an awesome experience.
but a few operators run this trip
A really friendly but quiet little place, which, while slightly on the expensive side for mains, is unmissable for the chocolate cake – the best in Bolivia I've found (five months and counting…)
Sucre, about two blocks away from the plaza - just ask someone
This is possibly one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. Central La Paz lies in a valley, or chasm (make no mistake, this "valley" is still at an altitude of 3,500m), surrounded by a high plateau.
Get a cab way before dawn and ask to be dropped off at a panoramic point somewhere halfway up the mountain: the views at sunrise are breathtaking, and due to La Paz's unique geographical location this experience will probably stay with you for a long time.
Obviously you should not do this alone or take valuables.
Ask a cab driver, preferably one that has been recommended by your hotel or hostel, to drop you off at a panorama point that he knows and recommends. This should be about halfway up the mountain, between central La Paz and the city of El Alto at the top
A very friendly, non-profit making language school providing lessons in Spanish, English and Quechuan along with many volunteering opportunities as a teacher or as a much needed assistant in one of the town’s nurseries and orphanages.
Calle San Alberto 30, 2nd Yard; www.foxacademysucre.com
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