Beautiful and mountainous but poor, Bolivia literally takes your breath away the moment you land. This is a country of dizzying contrasts: of steamy jungles and snow-capped Andean peaks; of indigenous women in bowler hats and grubby-faced children; of dynamite-laden miners and 2.5 million llamas. It's also rich with superlatives, with the world's highest capital (La Paz) and lake (Titicaca), most dangerous road (Coroico) and biggest salt flat (Salar de Uyuni). More than anything, Bolivia's extremes evoke laughs, tears, joy, and sadness -- the dizzying, exhilarating gamut of emotions.
Clinging to a canyon and 12,000 feet above sea level, La Paz is a mosaic of clay houses and markets selling rainbow-colored ponchos and witches' potions. Catch your breath in laidback lakeside Copacabana, or glimpse Bolivian mummies in the agricultural capital Cochabamba or sugar-white colonial buildings in Sucre. Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Potsoí filled conquistadors' coffers with silver, but you can crawl through the mines with gifts of dynamite and coca for the miners.
Bolivia is an expansive, landlocked plateau of barren plains, lush jungle, and fertile highland valleys. Blink in wonder at the seemingly infinite 4,086 square-mile salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, from cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi. The geysers of moonlike Sol de Mañana smolder further south. In the tropical north, take a riverboat tour down the Amazon in Madidi National Park and spot rare river dolphins, howler monkeys and giant anteaters in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park on the Brazilian border.
Eating and Drinking
Fixed almuerzo (lunch) menus are ubiquitous and cheap. Slurp spicy chairo (soup) in La Paz and bite into salteñas (pastries stuffed with meat, olives, egg and potatoes) in Salta's thronging markets. Eat beef jerky, yucca and tropical fruits -- jungle-style -- in the Amazon. Llama and cabrito (goat) stews are served with tasty tubers like chuño (dehydrated potato) in the Altiplano. Wash it all down with mate de coca (coca leaf tea), sipped through a metal straw.
Mountains and Lakes
In the south, the treeless mountains of the otherworldly Altiplano change color as clouds scud across the bluest of skies. Flamingos drink from crimson-tinted Laguna Colorada. Cruise Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol, mythical birthplace of the Inca sun god. The daring can climb the Cordillera Real's volcanic cones, including 21,000-foot Sajama, or dice with death on the corkscrewing Camino de la Muerte from La Paz to Coroico.