The taxi from El Alto international airport soon left the high, flat Altiplano and dropped down towards La Paz, nestled in the canyon below. It was 4am and altitude sickness had hit me like a hammer. Yet even though my head was in my hands, the driver still pulled over and implored me to admire the view. At that moment the distant pool of twinkling lights only made my headache worse, but once I acclimatised I began to relish the trips in and out of La Paz, goggling at the joggers who chose to pound an uphill stretch of one of the world’s highest cities.
Although it sits at more than 3,500m above sea level, I didn’t see any snow in La Paz during my visit. But on one early-morning bus journey, which climbed up to the canyon rim, the city’s rapidly growing neighbour El Alto was flecked all over with white. It was a through-the-looking-glass moment.
For travellers in Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest high-altitude body of water, can appear miraculous. The country’s most visited areas are notoriously arid – plains of wind-carved stones, lakes of salt, dusty towns – so the presence of so much water at such a great height can seem like an act of god.
The Incas (and the civilizations that came before them) were similarly moved, attributing great religious significance to the region. And if you visit Isla del Sol, in the middle of the lake, and stand by the rock from which the Inca creator god, Viracocha, is said to have summoned the sun and moon, you can almost feel the old legends coming life.
Although they are only separated by a 40-minute flight, the climatic contrasts between La Paz and the Amazonian town of Rurrenabaque are huge. I boarded the propeller plane in a sweater, jacket and hat, and got off into a mosquito-rich heat that quickly set my brow sweating.
Tours of the pampas are the reason most people come to Rurre, but consider treating yourself to a stay at Chalalán, a renowned eco-lodge run by an indigenous Quechua-Tacana community who might otherwise make a living from illegal logging.
It requires a five-hour boat ride from Rurre along the Beni and Tuichi rivers, and even if you don’t spot any swimming jaguars, just watching the boatman in the bow is a spectacle. Standing alert for much of the journey, he probes and navigates the shallow sections with a wooden pole, flashing up a hand when the propeller needs to be tilted out of the water by his mate in the stern.
Salar de Uyuni
They warn about snow blindness when you come to the world’s biggest salt lake, so white and relentless is this 9000km square expanse. But it was a kind of aesthetic blindness that struck me – I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. There’s no warning, no sense of a barrier or border crossing – your tour group’s 4×4 will be racing along scrubby ground one moment and then suddenly you’re upon it, this seemingly endless white flatness, with mountains appearing to hover on the distant horizon.
Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa
Most tours to the Salar de Uyuni also visit this nature reserve. After a first day exploring the startling salt lake, day two sees you hit the Eduardo Avaroa and its huge, bright red Laguna Colorada. At a bone-chilling 4300m above sea level, the lake’s colour, which is caused by algae, contrasts with shores and islands of white borax and colonies of flamingos.
On day three you visit hot springs, stinking geysers and wind-carved rock formations. By the end of the tour, you might even be craving a banal sight to give your eyes a rest – and in this respect at least, the nondescript town of Uyuni, where most tours start and finish, doesn’t disappoint.
Neil McQuillian is the author of the Bolivia chapter of the forthcoming third edition of The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Find hostels in Bolivia here, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.