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Discovering Bolivia could take a lifetime. Entering into the unexpected world of this virgin country can feel like embarking on an intergalactic voyage, where landscapes seem otherworldly or at least as we imagine those worlds might be. The Valley of the Moon, the Salt Desert of Uyuni, the “alien” ruins of Tiwanaku, not to mention the other worlds that Bolivia has to offer: the spiritual, the emotional, the superstitious. All those other dimensions that we can feel but can’t touch are also a part of the Bolivian experience. 

When you arrive in La Paz, Bolivia, it is essential to start with the “tranquility treatment” and slowing-of-the-pace, in part to handle the effects of the altitude and also to prepare yourself to discover a new world that must be caressed slowly and softly, like a lover whose skin reveals a surprise with each touch.

"It must be noted that, since little is known about this civilization, many believe it dates back to 10,000 B.C. and consider its origin to be extraterrestrial."

The highest city in the world, the one that “touches the sky” at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, makes us want to stop time, at least for the first day, so as not to fall victims of the soroche, or altitude sickness. Rest, lots of liquids, coca mate tea, a little bit of food, not a single drop of alcohol — at least during the first 24 hours — and Nuestra Señora de La Paz will receive us with open arms. As folk wisdom in Bolivia states: “Walk slowly, eat little and sleep alone.” These are the unwritten rules during the acclimatization process.

Located in a basin, surrounded by the mountains of the Andean Plateau, the city has spread upward, creating colorful neighborhoods as it climbs the hills such as El Alto, which surpasses 13,000 feet in altitude. Due to population growth caused by migration from rural areas, El Alto has become its own independent city.

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Diverse churches are sprinkled around the “Plaza Murillo,” named in honor of the first leader of the revolution of July 16, 1809, who fought for the region’s independence from the Spanish. The church and convent of San Francisco, dating from the 16th century, are the greatest examples of the style known as Mestizo-Baroque.

In the most central point of the city, we encounter the Witches’ Market, an extended complex that stretches in three directions, lined with stands along the street, with all kinds of artisanal textiles, exotic wood carvings, and every type of cream, potion, concoction, amulet and artifact imaginable to help us change our destiny, dispel evil spirits, attract good ones and find fortune, health and love.

With a population that surpasses 1 million inhabitants, more than half with Quechua and Aymara roots, La Paz speaks in various languages and lives in a constant mix of surprising traditions, dances, music and religious beliefs that mingle with one another to create a completely new world awaiting discovery. The Moon Valley in the south, a few minutes away from the center, has extraordinary natural formations; craters carved out by erosion can truly transport us into what we imagine the landscape of the moon to be like.

After stopping at the Kili Kili overlook, from which we can enjoy the best panoramic views of the city, we relax and recover at La Peña Huari in La Paz. The place is filled with history and tradition. While enjoying a grilled llama steak and a delicious quinoa, the super cereal and diet staple of the Andean plateau, we watch some of the best folkloric dances the city has to offer, such as Diablada, Morenada, Caporales and Saya.

We make an early retreat to the centrally located Ritz Carlton Hotel to rest, so we can wake up early the next morning for our adventure to the salt flats of Uyuni. It’s crucial to hire a local company that can provide an all-terrain vehicle equipped to handle any type of contingency, and expert guides and drivers with sufficient experience to manage all kinds of situations. Our choice of tour guides is Tourmakers Bolivia.

Bolivia is safe and beautiful, with an untouched perfection that’s so hard to find nowadays. Consequently, access to several off-the-beaten-path places is tricky, due to the absence of paved roads and accurate signage.

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The Great Salt Desert of Uyuni
If the Valley of the Moon reminded us of the surface of the celestial body it’s named after, the salt desert transports us to paradise. Following the rain, the flat desert, covered in ultra-white salt, is overlaid with a thin layer of water. The sky and the clouds reflected on this wet mirror create a landscape where the sky and the earth are indistinguishable. The lack of a horizon dividing the earth from the sky creates a sense of oneness. There’s neither up nor down, and the landscape seems to extend into infinity. Colchani is a town that makes its living from salt. It’s home to an artisanal processing factory where one can learn how salt is extracted.

The Train Cemetery is a must-see. The old machines sleep in the middle of the plateau, after years of hard work transporting salt and minerals from the area. Over their rusty bodies, the piling on of graffiti gives the cemetery the appearance of a futurist scenario lying in ruins, as if it were the result of a world destroyed after a cataclysmic war.

We spend the night at the Palacio de Sal Hotel, where everything is constructed with salt: walls, floors, steps, sofas, beds, tables and ceilings. The room is made with blocks of salt placed on top of one another to form a dome. We close our eyes, feeling as if we’re in the middle of a salt capsule, and dream about the white desert.

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Rocky formations and bodies of water make an integral part of the Bolivian plateau’s landscape. The Valley of the Rocks seen from far away can look like Manhattan in ruins. From close up, towering formations sculpted by the harsh climactic conditions in the region demonstrate nature’s power in all its splendor.

The lakes are also dreamlike; the Red Lagoon, with its red-tinted waters, feeds the famous “James Flamingos,” a unique species in the world. The Green Lagoon, with its emerald-colored waters, has as its imposing backdrop the Licancabur volcano. The populace knows it by many names, including “the mountain of the people,” “the father of all volcanoes,” “the watcher and protector” and “the restorer.”

Our lodging for the night is tucked into another grouping of huge boulders close to the town of Villa Mar. Those rocks frame the Malki Cueva Hotel, whose décor is inspired by the rustic Andean regional architecture. Tonight we’ll dream of crags draped with salt.

The Sacred Lake
Superstitions, animist traditions and the Catholic religion live together in harmony in a colorful amalgamation. In January, the Alasitas Fair is celebrated, an artisanal congregation in the city of La Paz that specializes in the sale of miniatures for rituals. The belief is that these miniatures will eventually become real. The deity Aymara Ekeko, god of abundance, presides over the celebration. The miniatures, or alasitas, which represent what is desired — a car, a house, a boyfriend — are burned after the aforementioned ritual. Curiously, the tradition is that if the wish comes true during that year, the blessed will visit one of the statues of the Virgin Mary, such as the Virgin of Copacabana, to show their appreciation and provide an offering of gratitude. In this, as in any ritual, the coca leaf is an important part; it’s burned, chewed and offered to guests at weddings, baptisms and funerals. There is no life in the plateau without it.

After participating in the rituals at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Copacabana, we immerse ourselves in the other side of Bolivian spiritualism: Lake Titicaca and the sacred Island of the Sun, which we reach by boat. During the time of the Incas, it was a sanctuary with a temple of virgins dedicated to the sun god, Inti. Today, the island is inhabited by Quechuas and Aymaras who making a living from agriculture, tourism, crafts and herding.

Steps lead to the Inca Fountain, where a spurt of fresh, pure water greets visitors with the hope of eternal youth. The town of Yumani, scattered across the high parts of the island, offers the best possible view of the lake and the Royal Andean Range.

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Back in time: Tiwanaku
When visiting what remains of Tiwanaku, we seemed to go back in time to the year 1580 B.C. It was the cradle and main ceremonial center of the Andean culture. The enigmatic carvings of “man birds” have inspired legends of beings who came from other planets. Not much is known of this ancient culture. But the archaeological excavations reveal their mysticism and spirituality, their search for balance and harmony and suggest this was not a warrior culture. It must be noted that, since little is known about this civilization, many believe it dates back to 10,000 B.C. and consider its origin to be extraterrestrial.

The Chakana, or Andean cross, is prevalent on many of the surfaces and demonstrates a superior astronomical knowledge. The symbol is a reference to the Sun and the Southern Cross constellation. Its shape, similar to a pyramid with steps, can also symbolize ascension or steps leading to a higher place. The Sun Gate is further evidence of these ancients’ knowledge. On Sept. 21, the spring equinox, at around 5 o'clock in the morning, the first rays of sun enter directly through the gate.

The ritualistic significance of the area is so important to the Andean people that President Evo Morales, who is himself an Aymara, was inaugurated there on Jan. 21, 2006. It is believed the ceremony enabled him to receive energy from his ancestors. He was crowned as Apu Mallku, or “supreme leader,” by various indigenous towns in the Andes.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera married TV presenter Claudia Fernandez in a traditional ceremony at Tiwanaku in front of the Akapana pyramid and the Gate of the Sun. The ceremony included an offering to the gods of fertility and harvest. The groom offered alcohol to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and the bride offered wine. A llama fetus was also part of the offering. Llama fetuses are plentiful at the Witches’ Market, as they are a normal offering by average Bolivians seeking to attract blessings, fertility or a good crop yield.

The archaeological ruins are still being explored, and every day there are surprising findings. One of the most impressive ones is the semi-underground temple that descends more than 6.5 feet below the rest of the construction. The interior walls create what might look like a plaza today. These walls are adorned with 175 heads that differ from one another, each showing distinct features from different ethnicities. Some of them appear to be aliens with large eyes and no eyelids or eyelashes. This is yet another thing people point to when they assert that Tiwanaku was built by a civilization of extraterrestrial origin.

It’s time to return to Earth from the heights of the cosmos and the star-filled night sky of the Bolivian plateau. But we come back to the world of the ordinary with our soul enriched and a commitment to turn our eyes toward the heavens much more frequently.

Useful Information
Ritz Carlton Hotel in La Paz

Jardines de Mallku Cueva Hotel in Villa Mar

Palacio de Sal Hotel in Uyuni
Tourmakers Bolivia

Restaurant and show in Peña Huari
Calle Sagárnaga N 339. La Paz.
(591)  2  316-225 or  (591) 2 318-037

General information on Bolivia