Things to Do in Altiplano
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Renowned for its intricate façade, San Francisco Church (or, Basilica de San Francisco), is one of the best remaining examples of baroque-mestizo architecture in La Paz. The original 1548 structure had collapsed during a heavy snow, and so current church mostly dates to the mid-18th century, and part of the convent is now dedicated as a museum.
Though located in an accessible and touristic section of La Paz, the Witches’ Market lacks anything resembling a souvenir. Here, vendors sell exotic herbal remedies, amulet, candle, and the raw ingredients (such as myriad dried animals) for potions, spells, and traditional and spiritual rituals performed by the indigenous community of the Aymara people.
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.
More Things to Do in Altiplano
The colorfully painted Presidential Palace is the official residence of the President of Bolivia. Locally the mansion is known as Palacio Quemado, which means “Burnt Palace,” a reference to it nearly burning to the ground during a fieryxa0 uprising against the country’s leadership in 1875. The palace has been architecturally enhanced several times since.
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.
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.
Located in the Amazon basin along the banks of the Yolosa River, La Senda Verde Wildlife Sanctuary is a privately run organization that has offered refuge to over 350 animals rescued from illegal trafficking and abuse. These monkeys, bears, ocelots, tortoises, and birds roam the 30-acre (12-hectare) nature reserve freely, and are cared for by a team of volunteers.
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.
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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