As T.S. Eliot once said, “The journey, not the arrival, matters,” and nowhere is this truer than travelling in Bolivia. Here, we've picked five of the most beautiful travel routes through the country. Follow these to witness some of the finest scenery Bolivia has to offer.
Mode of transport: Bus
Length of journey: 3.5 hours
Suggested season: Any. Cloud cover is greater in the rainy season, Nov–April
As the road first approaches Lake Titicaca, the adobe brick of the slum settlements of El Alto, on the brow of La Paz, disappear into yellowed-grass and sparse farmland. Small settlements line the shore, dipping into the sparkling azure waters, and the bus sweeps into the winding hills which skirt the edges of the lake. At each bend, passengers can admire the impressive backdrop of the hazy mountain-giants of the Cordillera Real – La Paz’s most iconic landmarks – as they loom over the water and finally recede into the distant background.
Those lucky enough to arrive in Copacabana in the early evening will also be treated to an exquisite sunset. The final rays outline the boats bobbing on the silent waters, as the sun returns to what the Inca’s believe was its birthplace: the Isla del Sol.
Mode of transport: Cargo boat and 4x4
Length of journey: 3–5 days
Suggested season: Dry: April–Oct
Travel by cargo boat deep into the Amazon jungle is the ultimate adventure. Persuade a captain in Puerto Almacén, near Trinidad, to give you passage on his cargo boat and pack your waterproof clothing for the inevitable jungle showers. What makes this journey unmissable is the clamour and closeness of the jungle which encompasses the craft on its voyage, and the opportunities for sighting toucans and kingfisher in the boughs along the shoreline.
Before returning to Trinidad, spend a few days of descanso (rest) in Santa Ana. Convince a local to take you by canoe up smaller tributaries on the hunt for caiman or to spot howler and capuchin monkeys. When finally you return to Trinidad by 4x4, it’s worth the discomfort of the unpaved road. The land here is pampas – fertile, wet lowlands – and home to lounging, roadside capybara and venues of vultures who scatter as you pass.
This route back also includes a lake crossing by wooden car ferry: twenty minutes of calm reflection as the boat navigates the watery landscape.
Mode of transport: Bicycle
Length of journey: 3–4 days
Suggested season: Dry
If exploring El Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flats – on an organised tour doesn’t appeal, then this journey is for you.
The 300km route between Uyuni, El Salar de Uyuni and El Salar de Coipasa by bike is a unique alternative. Camp overnight on Isla de Pescado and sign the visitor’s book for cyclists. If you’d rather pitch up away from civilisation, a further 20km will bring you to Isla Pescador, a rarely-visited spot providing unrestricted views of sunset and sunrise across this surreal salt plain.
Continue further north to reach El Salar de Coipasa; tourist-free, appreciate here the emptiness and desolation of the seemingly limitless expanse of salt. Finish in the small town of Sabaya, roughly 100km from the city of Oruro, and recuperate with good food and a pleasant hotel.
This is a journey only for the well-equipped: sun protection and long sleeves will safeguard you from the worst of the reflected sun’s rays, while camping gear (with warm layers for night-time) and a compass or GPS are indispensable. Sufficient water and food are essential as few shops exist along the route.
Mode of transport: Foot
Length of journey: 2 days
Suggested season: Dry as river crossings are required
The Inca trails crisscrossing Bolivia continue to attract visitors who desire to walk in the footsteps of these ancient ancestors, and for good reason. The almost fully-paved trail between the lagoons at Tajzara in the Reserva Biologica Cordillera de Sama and Los Pinos, near the southern city of Tarija, promises striking vistas of verdant valleys and Andean wildlife such as vicuñas, llamas and condors.
Not for the inexperienced walker – as the path is occasionally unclear – the trek involves a six to eight hour descent from 3400m to 1400m down the Incan pathway. Add a day at the beginning to explore the often flamingo-inhabited lagoons, and spend a night camping on their shores beneath an unblemished canvas of stars.
Make sure you visit the Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas office in Tarija to register and obtain a map before leaving.
Mode of transport: Buscarril or ‘Ferrobus’. Departing from El Tejar station in Sucre or Potosí’s Estación Central.
Length of journey: 8 hours
Suggested season: Any
Essentially a bus modified to run on train tracks, the ‘buscarril’ travels at a leisurely 30km per hour, winding between the Cordillera de los Frailes. Offering unmediated encounters with rural Bolivia as it stops in each village along the route, it also wins points for novelty: passengers may be required to wait while market stalls set up on the track are removed to allow the vehicle to pass.
Top image © Shanti Hesse/Shutterstock