Things to Do in Altiplano
Plunging from high-altitude La Paz to the lush forest of the Yungas region, the North Yungas Road—often called Death Road—is a dramatic downhill route through constantly changing scenery. Popular as a bike tour, the road has an elevation loss of more than 11,800 feet (3,600 meters) between La Cumbre Pass and the lowland town of Coroico.
At the Train Cemetery (Cementerio de Trenes) on the outskirts of Uyuni, hollowed out locomotive shells from Bolivia’s Gilded Age sit out in the open, many heavily corroded from the salt of the nearby Salar de Uyuni—the world’s largest salt flat. The train bodies are climbable, and one has even been converted into a swing.
In Bolivia’s Altiplano, Salar de Uyuni—a 4,086-square-mile (10,582-square-kilometer) stretch of land encrusted with thick etchings of salt—is the world’s largest salt flat. Salar de Uyuni is famed for its massive scale and mirror-like appearance during the wet season, an effect that has lead it to be named a natural wonder of the world.
The Llama and Salt Museum (Museo de la Llama y la Sal) sits just outside of Colchani on the way to the famous Uyuni salt flats. The small museum displays a collection of llama statues, many of them made from salt harvested from the nearby flats. Vendors are often outside the museum selling small salt sculpture souvenirs.
La Paz’s Plaza Murillo is a pigeon-filled public square steeped in history, conquest, conflict, and tragedy. Surrounded by imposing buildings such as the Presidential Palace, the La Paz Cathedral, and the National Congress of Bolivia, many of the country’s most notable political events have taken place on the large, open square.
High on the Bolivian Altiplano, the city of Tiwanaku sits like a frozen time capsule of Andean history. One of the most fascinating and mind-boggling sites in South America, the UNESCO-listed ruins are believed to be the ancient capital of the Tiwanaku Empire, which once stretched across Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Minutes from the packed metropolis of La Paz is the mesmerizing desert landscape of the Valley of the Moon. Over time, wind and rain have eroded the soft clay canyon, and have created this surreal landscape, full of dramatic hoodoos and stalagmite-shaped formations.
The multi-hued cone of Tunupa Volcano rises 17,457 feet (5,321 meters) above an expanse of white salt. Though reaching the frigid summit requires some mountaineering, a more accessible viewpoint at 15,500 feet (4,724 meters) offers sweeping views of Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni).
The San Francisco Church, or the Basilica de San Francisco, is one of the best remaining examples of baroque-mestizo architecture in the city and is renowned for its intricately carved façade. The first version of the church was constructed in 1548 but subsequently collapsed during heavy snow sometime around 1610. The church seen today was constructed in the 1740s, and part of the convent is now dedicated as a museum.
The church's façade is a beautiful mix of native and Catholic art, decorated with ornate elements like snakes, dragons, birds, and masked figures. Once inside, the influence of baroque architecture disappears and neoclassical takes over with its cedar wood altars inscribed with gold leaf.
Be sure to wander the Plaza de San Francisco in front of the church. It is one of the busiest places in La Paz, with souvenir streets, bus and taxi stops, and a number of small snack bars and stores. Here you will also find a modern stone sculpture paying homage to Bolivia’s three cultures – the ancient Tiwanaku, the Incas, and the modern day Bolivians.
Visit Cerro Cumbre, a mountain clearing of Bolivia that locals believe to be holy, and you will find the Witches’ Market. Also known as La Hechiceria and El Mercado de Las Brujas, it is a popular tourist attraction in La Paz.
Dozens of vendors line the streets, selling a variety of obscure and very strange products, ingredients and whatever else may be necessary to carry out traditional spiritual rituals from the Aymara world. The Aymara are indigenous people that live in the Altiplano and Andes regions, with nearly two million in Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Local witch doctors known as yatiri run the market, and goods sold include a variety of potions, dried frogs, medicinal plants like retama, and armadillos. Other products are owl feathers, dried turtles and snakes, herbs, candles, amulets, soaps, and various other folk remedies.
The meanings behind some of the products are intriguing. Dried frogs are used for good luck with money, and if you stick a cigarette in the frog’s mouth, your chances of getting rich will improve. Naked ceramic couples are believed to improve your sex life, while fixing issues like fertility and impotency, and Bolivian armadillos are affixed to the entrance of homes to deter thieves. And the cute ceramic couples embracing? Well, those are amulette d’amor, and they help improve your chances of getting married.
If you’re curious how to spot one of the witch doctors that frequent the market area, look for individuals wearing black hats and carrying coco pouches. These pouches have amulets, talismans, and powders that bring luck, beauty and fertility.
More Things to Do in Altiplano
Linking the borders of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake, and at 12,510 feet (3,813 meters), it’s also the world’s highest navigable body of water. From the colorful town of Copacabana to windswept islands, Lake Titicaca dazzles with proud culture, reflected Andean peaks, and hearty meals of fresh-caught trout.
With worn cobbles and candy-colored buildings, Jaen Street (Calle Jaén) is a historic haven in the midst of downtown La Paz. Along with cafés and shops, the street also boasts five small museums, which cover topics ranging from musical instruments to precious Pre-Columbian metals.
At Bolivia’s National Museum of Archaeology (Museo Nacional de Arqueología), visitors can view artifacts dating back as far as 1500 BC and trace the history of the landlocked country’s indigenous tribes and cultures. Located in central La Paz, the archaeology museum offers an insightful look into the mystifying relics of Bolivia’s past.
The privately owned Museum of Musical Instruments (Museo de Instrumentos Musicales) houses the most extensive collection of its kind in Bolivia. You’ll see native Bolivian volcanic rock flutes; thousands of percussion, string, and wind instruments; and much more.
Bolivia’s Presidential Palace, or Palacio Quemado,was built in the mid-19th century and has been through a lot, now serving as the official residenceof the President of Bolivia.Its name means “Burned Palace,” which originated after the site was set on fire and nearly burned to the ground during an uprising against the president in 1875.Despite the fact that the palace has been rebuilt and redesigned multiple times since, the name just stuck.
The inside of Bolivia’s Presidential Palace is neo-classical. Its exterior has brightly painted walls, contrasting white window frames, stately columns, and lengthy balconies. If you look on top of the building, you will see the Bolivian coat of arms and an Andean condor flying above it.
The marble staircase inside is nothing short of impressive and leads to important rooms like the President’s office, the Mirrors Halls, the Presidents Hall, Red Hall, and the Presidential bedroom.
La Paz Cathedral stands side by side with the Presidential Palace on Plaza Murillo, a historic space that draws everyone from strolling families to political protesters. While it’s less frequented than the nearby Church of San Francisco, the La Paz Cathedral’s lofty ceilings and brilliant stained glass are well worth a detour.
Since it opened its doors in 2003, La Senda Verde has offered refuge to over 350 animals rescued from illegal trafficking or abusive owners and today a varied population of monkeys, bears, ocelot, tortoises and birds roam the 12-hectare nature reserve, cared for by a team of dedicated volunteers. Located in the Amazon basin on the banks of the Yolosa River, La Senda Verde is perfectly located for discovering Bolivia’s rainforest and the wildlife reserve offers both day tours and overnight stays in their forest eco lodges, as well as opportunities for short and long term volunteering.
The monkeys are undeniably the star of the show at La Senda Verde and there are around 70 free-roaming primates, including spider, capuchin, howler, squirrel, owl and tamarin monkeys, but equally varied is the birdlife, with species including macaws, parrots, parakeets and toucans.
Displaying Bolivian art from the colonial era through the present day, the National Museum of Art (Museo Nacional de Arte) is one of the country’s premier art collections. The 18th-century palace where the artwork is housed is just as remarkable, with intricate baroque detailing in the building’s soaring courtyard, alabaster fountain, and galleries.
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