Bolivia will put you under its spell.
Endless Martian landscapes and white salt flats rolling past your window—this is how Bolivia bewitches you. You’re crossing the Andean desert in a 4×4 and it’s a bumpy ride, but as the sun sets, you forget that part. Your guide leans back to tell you the legend of mountains reigning over the Andes as living gods, and by that time you’re already convinced. This country is magic.
At least, this is how you come to see Bolivia when you’re on a 3-day adventure tour of the salt flats and Andean desert with Intrepid Travel. (If you don’t know them, you’re going to want to. They’re a small group adventure travel company with sustainable travel and hyperlocal experiences at their core.) Along the way, you’ll see things you couldn’t fathom. Your local guide will alert you to the mystic-yet-modern, surreal-yet-raw and challenging contradictions of this country. Here is all the proof you need that magic exists in Bolivia, and how Intrepid’s tour will put you under its spell.
You Can Buy Witches’ Cure-Alls
Before you embark on your journey from La Paz, you’ll make your way through the chaotic streets to explore the spine-tingling Witches’ Market. You know you’ve reached it when you spot llama fetuses hanging from the doorways of the cavernous shops, the smell of incense strong. Indigenous Bolivian women (cholitas) beckon you in to buy cure-alls, love potions, and revenge spells. We can’t attest to the potions’ effectiveness, but we can guarantee you will be mesmerized by the selection.
You Can Walk on the Sky
Most travelers come to Bolivia for your first stop on the tour: to see Salar de Uyuni, a glittering expanse of salt as far as the eye can see. In Bolivia’s rainy season (December-March) the flat floods with water, creating a mirrorlike surface that, when photographed just right, blurs the lines between the sky and ground. If you turn the photo, you won’t know which side you’re standing on (and, quite frankly, the whole thing feels like a hallucination).
The Intrepid advantage: There are plenty of tour guides that go to the flats. But Intrepid is added assurance it’s going to be a solid trip. You won’t be stuck with a Spanish-speaking tour even though you asked for an English one, for example, and your local guide will actually get down on his hands and knees to take the best photos and videos for you. And, in general, Intrepid tends to attract like-minded travelers who are naturally curious, prioritize interacting with locals, and like to travel in an eco-friendly and responsible way.
You Can Wake up in a Desert and Swim Next to Flamingos
If you lost your mind in the salt flats, you won’t find it in the desert. With only a Jeep separating you from the harsh world outside, like a spaceship, you’ll feel the sun beating down, leaving you somehow hot and cold at the same time. You’ll think to yourself, “How can a desert so unforgiving support so much life?” But there they are, rising up like a mirage: flamingos, vicuñas, and llamas gathering at the striking red and green lakes in the middle of the desert. It’s like walking into a screensaver.
INSIDER TIPIntrepid tours include a stay outside one of the colorful lagoons, where you can swim in natural baths just past the flamingos. Yes, you will have to pinch yourself.
Your Mind Plays Tricks on You
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s highest salt flat at 11,975 feet above sea level—and that’s not even the highest point on the trip. The Laguna Colorada is more than 14,100 feet (for perspective, Everest base camp is 17,600 feet). Altitude this high does funny things to the brain: it makes your heart race, food tastes funny, and convinces you you’re in some kind of perpetual trance. Then, if you’re lucky enough to avoid becoming physically ill, the oxygen-deprived dreams set in—illogical fever dreams that will make your head spin. So what if your dream self is chugging peanut butter and running a marathon with a fur coat on? It’s a small price to pay.
You Can Float Over the City
Okay, you can’t actually float over La Paz, but its cable cars levitate over the city in a way that feels pretty magical. Never has public transportation felt more like a Disney ride. The cars are a great way to glimpse all the neighborhoods in the city stacked together like colorful Legos, set against the towering Mount Illimani—all for just 3 Bolivianos per ride. But the most magical quality of the Mi Teleférico system, only a few years old, is that it’s bridging gaps between the people at the top, El Alto, to the people at the bottom in Zona Sur, and all over the city, starting to level the playing field by facilitating access for those who previously couldn’t get around.
You Might Just Spot Extraterrestrials
UFOs are often reported in Bolivia’s red desert—seriously. But even if you don’t buy into supernatural alien life, consider this: The area is so inhospitable to human life and so Martian in quality and appearance, that NASA actually uses this area to test its rovers. Areas of La Paz are named for their celestial resemblance, including the lunar rock formation Valley of the Moon.
The Locals Are Superheroes
Andeans are superhuman. Your guide may stop your group after pointing out some Seuss-like plants you’ve never seen (and breaking off the top to reveal a salve he puts on his lips like Chapstick). He’ll stick out his index finger and poke it. It’s red, which means that he, like all of his ancestors, has a lot of hemoglobin in his blood, helping him breathe at this altitude.
La Paz Is Like a Time Machine
Bolivia’s biggest city is a world of opposites. Its traditional roots are strong, yet the city is increasingly modern, and you’ll see contemporary luxuries set among ancient practices everywhere you go. There’s a brand new cable car system, yet many houses still have slat roofs; business men walk among indigenous folks dressed in traditional garb of tall bowler hats and long wide skirts. You’ll hear new reggaeton music and traditional flute-like songs interchangeably. It’s like living in two time periods at once.
The Geysers Are Hypnotic
Beautiful though the natural geysers at Sol de Mañana are, they are deadly and to be revered. All the bubble bubble toil and trouble is a warning, despite a lack of ropes or barriers, not to step close to the boiling mud spitting up from the ground. This is a place you shouldn’t go without a knowledgeable local guide who knows the area like the back of their hand. And they will shout at you if you get too close.
The Food Has Healing Properties
If you’re nauseous from the altitude, the secret is to sip on a soothing cup of coca tea—like a magic concoction, it’ll help bring your head down from the clouds. If you want to experience the food of the city, take a food tour like Intrepid’s Urban Adventures Food With Altitude—it’s a great way to see what locals eat.
Luxury Loses Its Appeal
If you’re like us, you love luxurious stays. There are places in Bolivia to find that, such as the Atix Hotel in La Paz or the Luna Salada Hotel & Spa outside of Salar de Uyuni. But the magic of Bolivia is that it can completely change your perception. It’s maybe the only place where roughing it is better than staying in a fancy hotel, where rolling with the punches rewards you by connecting you to the land.
INSIDER TIPThis is not a tour for luxury travelers. You’ll stay in basic dorm-style hostels with your small group, the major advantage being that it’s a communal space to meet lots of other travelers on the same kind of trip. You’ll love the style of travel if you like road trips, getting your hands dirty, packing a sleeping bag – and in return, getting an authentic slice of Bolivia from locals who know it best.
The Mountains Are Alive
There’s a Bolivian legend that says four mountains—living gods—ruled over the Andes. They feuded for hundreds of years; eventually, one was beheaded and became the Sajama volcano; and another, Illimani, still reigns over La Paz. If you’re lucky, at the end of your tour, Mount Illimani will poke out from behind the clouds to say goodbye.