Bolivia, The Hidden Gem of South America
Bolivia is a beautiful place. There isn’t much known about it here in the UK, save that it’s an extremely poor country and there are some pretty impressive Salt Flats, but in reality it has so much to offer. A rich culture steeped in history, some stunning natural features, and some of the most generous and hospitable people I’ve ever met. I spent two months there and went to multiple areas as part of my gap year volunteering trip, but for now this post is just going to focus on three places in Bolivia’s tropical South East that provide some great possibilities for the intrepid traveller. If you want to check out some others after reading this then head to www.theclassicistwithanatlas.co.uk for more.
Samaipata is a small town on the edge of Bolivia's jungle region, situated between the cities of Sucre and Santa Cruz in the East of the country. It's relatively small and very laid-back, but it acts as a perfect gateway to loads of must-sees for those keen on Bolivia's incredible nature and history. In terms of the town itself, it’s a beautiful place to have a relaxed wander or sit with a coffee whilst enjoying the idyllic setting. The architecture is pretty simplistic but beautifully Latin, with plenty of whitewashed houses and red tile roofs and if you position yourself right, you can also get a great perspective over the surrounding mountains and green jungle-esque expanses. There are multiple accommodation options available – we stayed in Hostal Andoriña, which I can fully recommend for great facilities including comfortable dorms, a lounge with films on offer, and a mirador with stunning views. We also rather enjoyed the La Bohème bar as a favourite spot for food and drink - best G+T I ever had! Happy hour is 5-7 pm, and they have a deal with a restaurant around the corner which means they also offer some amazing food, in particular some really good burgers.
Samaipata is also a great base camp for visiting loads of amazing places in the surrounding area, such as El Fuerte. Often described as 'the Machu Picchu of Bolivia', El Fuerte holds a huge amount of historical significance as both a ritual and residential site. Firstly, the Mojocoya people and then for the Incas, who made it a provincial capital. It’s honestly pretty surreal – the ceremonial part of the site is basically a huge (and I mean HUGE) monolith with the most amazing carvings from both the Incan and pre-Incan periods. As well as this, there are niches and alcoves everywhere and the remains of some animal/‘retail’ enclosures. I really recommend it; a visit to El Fuerte offers not only a unique experience of the past, but also some absolutely breath-taking views over the surrounding valley and jungle, and on top of that, it's inexpensive and not nearly as packed as somewhere like Machu Picchu. I recommend getting a guided tour, as you learn a lot more about the site than you would just from the information boards.
Las Cuevas is another top attraction accessible from Samaipata. Don't be misled by the name, though – Las Cuevas is not a collection of caves, but waterfalls! Part of a very pretty reserve. A guided walk takes you to the three falls of Las Cuevas, all of which are stunningly beautiful, and you can even swim in the third one! As with El Fuerte, there are very few tourists around; we practically had the place to ourselves! It was absolutely one of my favourite experiences from our whole two months in Bolivia. I’d never been waterfall swimming before but had always wanted to try it, and it was absolutely amazing. The sensation of the water crashing down on top of you is so strange but absolutely in the best way (plus you feel squeaky clean afterwards – most intense shower ever!) Once combined with doing it all with friends and in the Bolivian sunshine, it’s guaranteed to be up there with some of your favourite travel memories. You can also climb it without too much difficulty (so I’m told by the two in our team who did – not my cup of tea…), If you’re up for more exercise then you can walk in the river a bit further downstream, which brings you into some lovely jungle-esque surroundings.
Amboró National Park
This place was a particular personal highlight. Just a 40-minute drive from Samaipata, Amboró National Park has a huge amount on offer, including expansive cloud forests, a rich variety of wildlife, and extremely diverse plant species. You are only allowed to enter with a guide, but the more there are in a group, the cheaper the tour, and it is 100% worth it.
We were fortunate enough to spend a night at Refugio Los Volcanes, a beautiful ecolodge in the heart of the park. Just looking out from the lodge’s veranda, you can see both jungle and mountains, you can hear the river, and there’s a good chance you’ll see one or two animals on the grass too! It’s unbelievably peaceful there – it’s so far from cities and main roads of any kind so there is utter tranquillity, and because there is zero light pollution, the night sky is absolutely teeming with stars.
Three meals are included per night booked (the food is so good) and in the main building there is also a café service on offer during the day with a comfortable lounge area, which also has some books available for you to have a read of if you fancy a chilled hour or two. Resident guides can take you wild swimming at Elvira Creek, which has some very sweet cascades, or hiking around the park. The 3-hour walk we did was truly incredible. Although there are dirt pathways, you’re still in some pretty dense jungle, so don’t forget the bug spray! There are hundreds of plant and bird species to marvel at, and there’s a fairly good chance you’ll see some animals such as jaguars, tapirs, bears, and monkeys. We didn’t see many animals save a couple of snakes and a few lizards, though I guess it’s always down to chance, and it didn’t put a downer on the experience by any means. The only thing I would change about our time there would be to extend it!
Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Santa Cruz is one of Bolivia's most beautiful cities, lying in the tropical eastern lowlands. It was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and is much more cosmopolitan than other places in Bolivia. As you walk around it’s easy to feel the combination of colonial, native, and modern influences, especially in the architecture. We only had about three days there in total and had little time to truly explore it, but it did not disappoint.
Santa Cruz offers some great places to eat, stay, and wander around, and the market on the main square was a definite highlight. I think it’s only there on certain days, so best to check out when it’s there before you plan your day around it! There’s a huge amount on offer, including various stands with tourist-orientated souvenirs and crafts from local artisans, which are particularly good if you’re finding gifts to take home for family and friends (or for you – I firmly believe that the phrase ‘treat yourself’ can never be over-used in places like that!). Markets in general are the best places, in my opinion, to truly get a feel for a new country, and Bolivia is no exception. I think especially because so much of the population either lives in rural farming communities and/or has trades that are centred around traditional crafts, markets are obviously super important for the economy, and as such they really present you with the real Bolivia: vibrant colours; warmth; and people who are both well-grounded and overwhelmingly rich in spirit.
Unfortunately, our three days there didn’t give us much scope to do much more than have a walk around (a good chunk of that time was either off the back of travelling or trying to organise travelling so we were pretty whacked for most of it), but if I went back then visiting the natural attractions in and around Santa Cruz would absolutely be first on my list! There really is a lot there, such as the Espejillos Cascades and Kaa Iya National Park, as well as biocentres such as Guembe, the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens, and La Rinconada Eco Park, all of which look stunning. There are also several museums and old churches to visit, as well as multiple small towns not too far away that would make a fun day trip!
Tips for visiting Bolivia
If you can connect with the locals, absolutely do it. Bolivians, as is the case with most Latin Americans, are so friendly and hospitable and they are often very keen to show off their beautiful country to visitors. If you have the time then it's definitely worth doing a volunteering programme that gets you involved with local people.
It is 100% possible to do on a budget. The cost of living in Bolivia is very low so food, accommodation, and transport are all very affordable for tourists- £1 is roughly 9-10 Bolivianos, which is the average cost of a taxi ride there.
Don't ever drink water from the tap. Always buy bottled water or make sure it's filtered.
Don't flaunt your expensive belongings such as cameras and phones, they could easily get stolen if you're too careless.
Don't pet the dogs. Obviously, there is a much higher risk in countries like Bolivia that dogs will have rabies, but more generally, dogs are trained as guard dogs and are not often kept as just pets. This means that many of them can become quite aggressive if you come too close, so it's not really a good idea unless you're absolutely sure that it's friendly.
When taking candid photos that feature locals, be aware that some of them may ask you not to or to delete the ones you've taken. This is rare, but there is a belief that some people hold which is that a piece of their soul is stolen if you take their photograph.
Get into Bolivian food. Some of it looks and tastes a bit strange, but a lot of it is great. My personal favourites were salteñas (a bit like small empanadas/pasties), plátano con leche (bananas blended with milk and sugar), buñuelos (large doughnut-like flatbreads eaten with sugar, honey, or syrup), and sopa de quinoa (soup made with quinoa and vegetables).
Important things to remember about hygiene: always wipe your cutlery with a napkin before you eat in a restaurant, and don't buy meat or pre-cut fruit from street sellers as it's often exposed for most of the day in the heat. I genuinely saw a woman selling pre-cut pineapple from an uncovered wheelbarrow once - that cannot have been hygienic! Also, washing your hands as much as you can and as thoroughly as you can is super important if you want to avoid getting ill.
Only get into registered taxis. Only official taxis have the registration number printed on the side of the car - don't just rely on a taxi sign in the window! Also, always make sure the taxi driver knows where they’re going and agree on a price before you get in – we had more than one experience of being driven around aimlessly then being asked for more money than previously agreed!
Bolivia is a country close to my heart and having the opportunity to explore so much of it was incredible, so I hope you've enjoyed this whistle-stop written tour and gleaned some useful info. For more on the rest of the country, take a look at the post I wrote for my own website Lockdown Travel Reflections, Bolivia.
Happy travelling, amigos!
A massive thank you to Amelia the brain behind Classicist with an Atlas. Her website www.theclassicistwithanatlas.co.uk aims to give objective views of every destination Amelia has ever been too. If you loved reading this post it is a great example of her other writings as well as her debut appeareance for The Travel Story Society, Machu Picchu Standing on Top of the Incan World. She is going to be successful on the travel blogging scene for a long time to come and will be featuring on this blog regularly.