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Bolivia - Attractions


Goods for sale at the Witches' Market

La Paz

La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, looks like a moon crater. The city is 4km (2mi) above sea level, situated on a canyon floor which shows only a hint of greenery. Even oxygen is at a premium. Fortunately, the life and colour of La Paz is found in its people and culture, not its landscape. Find a good vantage point and simply watch the passing throng: women wearing bowler hats (worn on the side if they're single and on top if they're married) and voluminous skirts; white-shirted businessmen and politicians; machine-gun toting military; and beggars asleep under awnings, wrapped up like sarcophagi.

People congregate around the splendid Iglesia de San Francisco (construction began in 1549) with its arresting blend of mestizo and Spanish styles. Behind the church is the Witches' Market, where you can buy a bizarre assortment of goods including amulets, potions, delicately crafted silver jewellery, sweets and dried llama foetuses. La Paz also has a number of museums, including the Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas, which contains some superb dioramas of the city, and the Museo de Metales Preciosos Pre-Columbinos, which houses three impressively presented salons of pre-Conquest silver, gold and copper works. Standing guard over all this is Illimani (6460m/21,188ft), some 60km (37mi) to the east, which is arguably Bolivia's most famous peak.

Most of the budget accommodation and cheap eateries can be found in the area between Calle Manco Capac and the Prado. For entertainment, there are folk-music shows, bars (generally with incoherent patrons), several good discos and numerous cinemas. Because of the often chilly temperatures, warm clothing is essential throughout the year.

Around La Paz is the aptly named Valle de la Luna, which is an eroded hillside maze of miniature canyons and pinnacles 11km (7mi) east of the city; the spectacular Zongo Valley, 50km (31mi) north of the city, which has ice caves, turquoise lakes and the peak of Huayna Potosí and the historical ceremonial centre of Tiahuanaco, 70km (43mi) west of the city, which is Bolivia's most important archaeological site.

Cochabamba

Reputed to have the world's most perfect climate and Bolivia's most hardcore drinkers, the city of Cochabamba occupies a fertile green bowl in a landscape of fields and low hills. The city, founded in 1574, is Bolivia's largest market town and was once the nation's granary. It is still prosperous and progressive, and has a clutch of historical and archaeological attractions, including the 400-year-old cathedral, the Convento de Santa Teresa and the Museo Arqueológico.

Lake Titicaca

Traditionally regarded as the highest navigable body of water in the world (though there are higher lakes in Chile and Peru), Lake Titicaca is immense: its dimensions measure 233km (145mi) from northwest to southeast and 97km (60mi) from northeast to southwest. The lake has an indented shoreline, 36 islands and exceptionally clear sapphire-blue water. Titicaca is revered by the Indians who live on its shores, and the Islas del Sol and Islas de la Luna, two islands in the lake, are the legendary sites of the Inca's creation myths. The main town in the area is Copacabana, which has a sparkling white Moorish-style cathedral and is host to the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria. Isla Suriqui is world-renowned for its totora reed boats, Isla Kalahuta for its stone tombs and Isla Incas is reputed in legend to have an underground network of passageways linking it to the old Inca capital of Cuzco in Peru.

Travellers should wear protective head gear around the lake because the thin air results in scorchingly high levels of ultraviolet radiation. Half of the lake lies within the borders of Peru; Puno is the principal settlement and main centre for excursions on the Peruvian shore of the lake.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has long been reputed to be a drug trafficking centre, but this is apparently on the wane. It's now enjoying something of an agricultural boom. Over the past four decades, this big city near the edge of a retreating wilderness has mushroomed from a backwater cow town of 30,000 to its present position as Bolivia's second-largest city. Though growth continues at a phenomenal rate, this cosmopolitan city retains traces of its dusty past. A hub of trade and transport, it has direct flights to Miami and Europe, but forest-dwelling sloths still hang out in the main plaza. Visitors enjoy the tropical ambience and frontier feel, and use the city as a base for exploring nearby rain forests and 18th-century Jesuit missions.

Sorata

Often described as having the most beautiful setting in Bolivia, this sleepy town sits at an elevation of almost 2700m (8856ft) in a valley beneath the towering snowcapped peaks of Illampú (6362m/20,867ft) and Ancohuma (6427m/21,080ft). The lush valley and vegetation attract a steady stream of travellers, nearly all of whom fall in love with the place. Most visitors make the 10km (6mi) walk to Gruta de San Pedro to see the cave and underground lake.

Tupiza

Tupiza, located in the heart of some of Bolivia's most spectacular countryside, is a real gem for anyone who loves desert landscapes. It's a young, cultured city which lies in the narrow valley of the Río Tupiza. It is surrounded by the rugged Cordillera de Chichas, whose attractions include multi-hued rocks, mountains, chasms, clear rivers, cactus forests, brilliant skies and wide open spaces.



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