Ute Junker experiences a natural high in Bolivia
At Ecolodge La Estancia, every room has the best view in the house. Perched on the highest slopes of Isla del Sol, the island revered by the Inca as the birthplace of the sun, each of the lodge’s 16 adobe cottages enjoys panoramic vistas across Lake Titicaca.
Sitting 3,800 metres above sea level, gazing out at the shimmering blue waters of the highest navigable lake on the planet, you feel literally on top of the world.
Visiting Isla del Sol
Isla del Sol is an unusual island. Not only is it car-free, but its 70 square kilometres are also entirely unencumbered by roads.
The 800 families that live here make their way around following ancient walking trails; you will trace some of those tracks from the jetty where the boat drops you up to the lodge. (Don’t worry, there are donkeys standing by to carry your bags.)
Most visitors come here to see the island’s 80 or so Inca sites, including the ruined complex known as Chincana and the sacred rock of Titikala, which is shaped like a puma.
However, this serene island is also the perfect place to wind down after a compelling trip through Bolivia, one of South America’s most colourful, surprising and unforgettable countries.
About twice the size of Spain, Bolivia contains a huge variety of different climates, stretching from the snow-capped Andes down to the lush Amazon basin.
Its charming colonial towns are another highlight; don’t miss Sucre, which has received a World Heritage listing for its beautifully preserved whitewashed architecture.
Bolivia is also home to some of South America’s most thriving indigenous cultures. Around two-thirds of the population descends from at least one of the country’s 36 indigenous groups, with the highland Quechua and Aymara among the most numerous. Each group has its own distinctive textiles, featuring vibrant colours and intricate patterns.
Above all else, Bolivia boasts astounding natural landscapes. Visitors to the Altiplano, the desert-like plateau set high in the Andes, will encounter bubbling thermal pools and mineral-rich lakes that come in spectacular colours, from moss green to icy blue.
The most striking is the blood-red Laguna Colorada, its crimson waters lapping against a yellow shore. Visit in the morning and you may find an added dash of colour courtesy of a flock of flamingos stuck in the ice formed during the freezing temperatures of the previous night.
The birds seem surprisingly unruffled by their captivity. “It happens every night,” my guide explains. “After the sun rises, the ice starts to melt and they can move again.”
Salt flats in Uyuni
For more remarkable landscapes, head to Uyuni, several hours’ drive away. Your first stop will be a train graveyard straight out of a Mad Max movie, where visitors can clamber over abandoned steam engines rusting slowly in the arid air. From here, you’ll head out to the area’s most famous sight: the world’s largest salt flats.
Stretching for more than 10,000 square kilometres, the salt flats were once a vast lake. Now, all that remains is the thick salt crust coating the ground. From a distance, the otherworldly terrain looks as featureless and flat as an ice-skating rink.
Once you crunch across the surface, however, you realise that the salt forms natural ‘tiles’, each one a perfect hexagon. The area’s best hotel, Palacio de Sal, is constructed entirely of salt bricks; you can feel the salt crystals when you run your hands over your bedroom walls.
La Paz: a city on the rise
Bolivia’s other must-see destination is its largest city, the vertiginous La Paz. It’s not just its soaring 3,650-metre altitude that makes La Paz so extraordinary, but the way that the city tumbles down the sides of an incredibly deep valley.
There are few straight roads. Instead, they switchback across the steep slopes, detouring around the large rocky outcrops that stud the ground at regular 05 intervals. No surprise, then, that La Paz suffers from notorious gridlock. However, it is easy to rise above it on the city’s sleek Mi Teleférico system, which is not just the highest urban cable car in the world but also the longest, and the views are magnificent.
A popular attraction is the colourful Witches’ Market, where stalls are laden with amulets and charms. (The most gruesome are dried llama foetuses, which are buried in the foundations of new buildings as an offering to Pachamama, the earth goddess.)
Also worth a visit is the Tiwanaku ruins, left by a pre-Incan civilisation that built monumental temples using 13-tonne stone blocks. Incredibly, these may have been transported across Lake Titicaca in reed boats.
Gourmet La Paz
The city is a great destination for foodies. Street food favourites include salteñas, an empanada-like snack, and api morado, an addictive smoothiestyle drink made with purple corn, cinnamon and cloves.
For a touch of fine dining, head straight to Gustu, the brainchild of culinary visionary Claus Meyer, one of the founders of Copenhagen’s iconic Noma restaurant.
Gustu employs young people from impoverished backgrounds and showcases local ingredients such as cured Lake Titicaca trout served with achoccha, an Andean vegetable similar to a cucumber. To accompany the meal, try some of Bolivia’s underrated wines.
There are also some stylish places to rest your head, with new boutique hotels springing up across town. Try the contemporary Atix Hotel, where guest rooms feature native stone and wood, as well as striking artworks by Bolivian artist Gastón Ugalde