Most visitors spend a few days in the fascinating city of La Paz, Bolivia’s de facto capital (Sucre is its official capital), which combines a dramatic high-altitude setting with a compelling blend of traditional indigenous and modern urban cultures. La Paz is also close to magical Lago Titicaca, the massive azure lake that straddles the Peruvian border, and is a good base for trekking, climbing or mountain biking in the magnificent Cordillera Real.
Just north of La Paz the Andes plunge precipitously down into the Amazon basin through the deep, lush valleys of the Yungas. The Yungas towns of Coroico and Chulumani are perfect places to relax, while Coroico also makes a good place to break the overland journey from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The best base for visiting the Amazon is the town of Rurrenabaque, close to the near-pristine rainforests of Parque Nacional Madidi and the wildlife-rich Río Yacuma. More adventurous travellers can head east across the wild savannahs of the Llanos de Moxos via the Reserva de la Bíosfera del Beni to the regional capital Trinidad, the start of exciting trips north along the Río Mamoré towards Brazil or south towards Cochabamba.
South of La Paz, the bleak southern Altiplano – stretching between the eastern and western chains of the Andes – is home to some of Bolivia’s foremost attractions. The dour mining city of Oruro springs to life during its Carnaval, one of South America’s most enjoyable fiestas, and the legendary silver mining city of Potosí offers a treasure-trove of colonial architecture and the opportunity to visit the Cerro Rico mines.
Further south, Uyuni is the jumping-off point for expeditions into the astonishing landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a remote region of high-altitude deserts and half-frozen, mineral-stained lakes, populated by flamingos. Further south lie the cactus-strewn badlands and canyons around Tupiza and the isolated but welcoming city of Tarija.
To the north of Potosí, Bolivia’s official capital, Sucre, boasts fine colonial architecture, but the city is very different in character: charming and refined, it is set in a warm Andean valley in the midst of a region noted for its textiles. Further north, the city of Cochabamba has less obvious appeal, but offers a spring-like climate and a friendly welcome. Not far from here are the rainforests and coca fields of the Chapare region, but for most travellers Cochabamba is just somewhere to break the journey between La Paz and Santa Cruz, the country’s eastern capital. Completely different in character to the highland cities, Santa Cruz is a brash, modern and lively tropical metropolis. Though it has few attractions itself, the city is a good base for exploring the Eastern Lowlands, including the rainforests of Parque Nacional Amboró and the idyllic town of Samaipata. Scattered across the lowlands east of Santa Cruz, the immaculately restored Jesuit missions of Chiquitos provide one of Bolivia’s most unusual attractions, while a train line heads east to the Brazilian border and the wildlife-rich wetlands of the Pantanal. Santa Cruz is also the jumping-off point for trips to the remote and spectacular Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado.