Why did I skip these? Things I missed out on in Bolivia

Cyclists on the Death Road, Bolivia (image from blog.brazenbraden.com)

“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

You can’t come to Bolivia and not do the Death Road!’ said one of my travel buddies when I aired my disinterest. ‘Of course I can’, I protested, ‘I’m pretty scared of heights and cliffs, I had a bad bike accident in Peru, I’m just not feeling it’.

Other tourists did the trip, got kitted out with fancy suspension bikes and cycled down the infamous road where every now and then, people still fall off and die. They all came back buzzing. The views, they told me, were incredible, the day out totally worth every penny.

They nearly persuaded me to re-evaluate, but I stuck to my guns. I don’t have to do everything touristy, tick off everything there is to do in a country, do I?

I do travel a little slower than many people I’ve met and I tend to get stuck in a place for a little while. Often, this is to the detriment of seeing all the top spots of a country – natural or otherwise – but the upside is I get a better feel for the place where I’m staying and I make some connections in the area.

Whilst I do prefer it this way, during my seven week stay in Bolivia there were a few key attractions that I skipped, some by choice, some by a sudden change to my travel plans that meant time ran out. Would I live to regret it?

  1. Cycle the Death Road. The original link between La Paz and the northern regions of Bolivia, this road was given the Death Road label after an average 200-300 people tumbled and tripped to their death every year. Narrow bends, vertical drops and impossible passing points add to the peril of this place, and chunky rocks litter the pathway with sure-fire trip up potential. Even looking at pictures of cyclists and vehicles on the road sends my stomach into a frenzy. How can you go to La Paz and not give it a go? asks Rob on his Lonely Planet blog. Erm, actually easily enough. I love some adrenaline activities but this one wasn’t for me. And it turns out that I’m not the only one opting out.
  2. Go horse riding in Tupiza in south Bolivia. I heard and read so much about the spectacular landscapes around Tupiza and the legendary resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sounded rugged and beautiful. Horse riding through the red rock canyons is the one activity that I really wish I’d had the time to do in Bolivia, although according to one blogger, I didn’t miss much. Each to their own. If I ever make it back to Bolivia, Tupiza is on my list.
  3. Take a trip down the mines in Potosi. On the way to Uyuni, my bus passed through Potosi, the highest city in the world, where it is rumoured women pack up and leave in order to conceive and give birth. The main ‘attractions’ in Potosi are the mineral mines. Ethically, I ummed and aaahhed about this one. Why visit working mines where conditions, by Western standards, are unsafe and detrimental to the worker’s health? Where children are put to work? Where the average life expectancy of a miner is between thirty and forty years of age before they die an uncomfortable death of silicosis? Whilst in Sucre, I watched a documentary called The Devil’s Miner. It is one of a few times where I’ve cried at a film and was left speechless afterwards. Why? Because I couldn’t understand how this could be going on, and because I didn’t see how I could help. Was visiting the mines the right action or the wrong thing? I wasn’t sure whether I was just judging this with Western eyes, whether the film was seeking an emotive response, whether this was a lifestyle choice or not.
  4. Sleep out in the jungle. Tourists either take the rough, twenty-four hour bus journey from La Paz or otherwise soar in on tiny, low flying planes to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the jungle and pampas of Bolivia. Having already visited the jungle back in Ecuador, I didn’t feel a huge pull to the Bolivian Amazon, because although the Bolivian jungle is rumoured to be a rich, dense habitat for wildlife and plantlife, most of the tour activities and wildlife that I would encounter were the same as what I’d already been lucky enough to see in Cuyabeno, Ecuador. And for some reason the mosquitos seem to be so much more vicious in Bolivia, providing another excuse to give the tour a miss. I met many returned tourists completely covered in raised bites, despite having worn a full covering of clothing and a good dose of antimalarial spray.
  5. Visit the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca. During my stay in Peru, I’d got so close to but just didn’t make it to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and here, in Bolivia, once again I didn’t make it near to the pure water shores. Chatback about heavy tourism emphasis on the floating reed islands of the Uros tribe did somewhat put me off, but I was still intrigued by how people live on such transient foundations. The tranquil shores and rocky terrain of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) was, however, attractive to me with its walking trails and rugged appearance. Instead, I ended up staying longer in La Paz than intended, checking out hospitals and doctors, markets and mayhem.
  6. Transfer into Chile. Although slightly aside from Bolivia, before I made a random travel decision to head back to Ecuador that put time restrictions on my stay in the country, I had really wanted to get to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and explore the Atacama desert a little. The route suggested by Olaf in Roadrunners in Samaipata was to take the Uyuni tour to San Pedro (and maybe mountain bike the Moon Valley), take the bus to Calama, bus to Arica (spend a day or two on the Chilean coast), bus to Putre (where you could do a half day tour to the National Park) and finally bus across the border to La Paz, Bolivia. Other tourists I spoke to agreed that it was a scenic route, but that it definitely required more time than I had.

The saying goes, regret only what you haven’t done, not what you’ve done. Well, I chose to go slow and stay in some places, and I don’t regret that decision one little bit.

Thanks Bolivia for all the beautiful moments and memories (and let’s pretend the bad belly bugs never happened).


Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, culture, nature, south america, uncategorized

64 responses to “Why did I skip these? Things I missed out on in Bolivia

  1. Hey, think I am the same as you. Love to travel slow, meet the local people and get a real feel for the place. I never did everything which means I have something to go back to if I ever return! Love the blogs. Logs xx

  2. I’m eager to read where you go next! I love vicariously traveling with you.

  3. I also had no desire to see the mine in Potosi. Every traveler I met told me the same thing… drunken miners throwing dynamite around and forcing you to drink shots, moving through incredibly tight spaces. After I saw the movie The Devil’s Miner, I felt there was no need to go.

    I also chose to go slow and was mentally “done” with traveling by the time I got to Bolivia. I knew that if I forced myself to rush through to see La Paz, Rurrenabaque, and Lake Titicaca, I wouldn’t enjoy those places. I am saving those places for my next trip to the region. Instead I chose to enjoy the laidback and beautiful atmosphere of Sucre and Tarija.

    • Ah, if I go back to Bolivia I would love to get down to Tarija. I’ve heard only good things about the place. For now, I’ll read up on your adventures over there instead!

  4. Eeee! The Death Road and the Amazon were the highlights of Bolivia for me (and then add the salt flats). To each their own!

  5. Beautiful post & blog! I’d love to read more into your travels, so rock on! Would you mind checking out my blog (please!) http://innamazing.wordpress.com/ smiles, INNA

  6. I have to say, I would probably want to give the death-road-cycle-tour-group-and-exact-same-photo-from-everyone-who’s-ever-done-it a miss as well. I love cycling and I love exploring new countries with challenging rides – but this over-done tour leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, there must be a better way to experience the area… Just my two cents, and if it turned out there was no other way to see it, then I would, but it seems so contrived! Nice post and congrats on your FP’ing!

    • Yep, I hear you on this… but the pics of the place do look spectacular. I could imagine that the Che Guevara trail in Bolivia might be a nice one to do on bike… so long as you also had a tent to camp out along the way. Despite the legend of Che, it was surprisingly untouristy (I was often the only gringa in the little villages and towns that I passed through). Thanks for stopping by, commenting and yeah, I’m totally happy with being Freshly Pressed! Amazing!

  7. I agree with you about slow travel, though sometimes getting to know a place better makes me realize just how much I’m missing out on seeing!

    • Yep, I guess its all a bit of a balancing act… I actually met a couple in Sucre whilst volunteering at literacy event who were longer-term volunteers and hadn’t seen anything of Bolivia other than the area around Sucre itself. They were running out of time and didn’t have the money to do the touristy things, and they were absolutely sad about it too. Sometimes I’ve been somewhere and just thought ‘what are my chances of coming back here?’ and more often then not, they’re slim (so much world to see!)… and they’re the moments when I just say ‘so it, I’ll do/see/visit X NOW’.

  8. Shane Lynch

    I bike the Most Dangerous Road. Best attraction in Bolivia!

    • The more I read about the Death Road, the more uncomfortable I feel about it… and my worries about falling off would probably raise the chances of me biking badly and actually falling off…! Glad you enjoyed it though! You’re clearly made of a stronger stuff than me. 🙂

  9. Wherever I have lived for longer, I have missed some really famous sites.Maybe it happens because I tend to stay longer and thus also work, and also I may think “I can still do this later”:
    I see and experience other things instead of course, but some missed places I do regret. For example, I lived in England for two years and have never been to Stonehenge or Avebury.
    Now after my last move to Lithuania – http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/moving-to-lithuania/ – I got the Lonely Planet and I am now making sure that at least once every week I go to some “must see” places.

    • You make a good point here – isn’t it funny how when we ‘stop travelling’ (in a touristy, moving sense) we often stop everything associated with travel, including curiosity. I know nothing about Lithuania so looking forward to some local travel tales!

  10. Unlike many a tourist, you understand the difference between insight and experience, holding a memory and holding a point of view. Good for you!

  11. Hi Finola,
    I’ve never been to Bolivia but I guess it’s a beautiful place. If you regret not visiting all those beautiful spots, then go back again.

    Lamp Lady

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lamp Lady, and for your comments. Bolivia was geographically a stunning place, so much so that if it had a coast I would probably prefer it to Ecuador and Galapagos… And absolutely, if there’s a regret for not having seen or done something, where money and health allow, we all should try go back and soak it up.

  12. That Death Road pic looks totally unnerving!!!
    I can’t wait to visit Bolivia! My mom lived there for quite a number of years and I have some family there, so it’s definitely on my list of places to travel to! 🙂

  13. How enviable. Love going to places too but my pocket wont allow me

    • I hear you and I do feel very fortunate to have been able to work in a career that allowed me to save enough to travel. Right now I’m no longer in Bolivia and I’m working whatever hours I can to survive… and to get home to visit my family some time (it’ll be near the two year mark before that’s possible!). For the time being, I’ll travel local, which is also pretty sweet. I’m intrigued by your blog and your enigmatic About page…!

  14. Great post! I absolutely loved Bolivia, and I skipped out on a few of the major must-dos too (namely Death Road… I hate a heights issue, no thanks). But I think it is alright to pick and choose when you visit a new country. Some of my best travel memories came about from doing mundane things, meeting new people in random spots, not necessarily from visiting the major tourist attractions. Keep traveling and writing, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • *have a heights issue, rather

    • Yes! – the mundane things can definitely create the most priceless moments and memories. There are a few exceptions of really touristy places that I was so glad to have visited (like Iguazu Falls) and I could understand why they were so popular… but generally, imho, just getting invovled and being part of ‘normal’ life in a different place and culture is where you connect with that country and its people best.

  15. Thanks for the post! I am in Bolivia and have been debating the tour of the mines in potosi for the same reasons… Would you do it if you could?

    • Honest answer, I’m not sure. I had the opportunity – I could have stayed over for a night – but physically I wasn’t up to it and I had all these questions floating about in my mind about whether it was the right thing to do. Those of my friends that did go really found it interesting, actually, and I did hear that there are better agencies to do the tour with who are much more about educating the wider public than providing a show. Let me if you do the tour and what your thoughts are on the whole debate.

  16. SighYuki

    Hi! I think that’s great you didn’t go out and all the touristy things to be honest. Out of that there, I wouldn’t have done at least half of the things either. Risking death and setting myself up for mosquito bait are two things in particular I am not up for. A similar things happened to me when I was in Japan, in that I didn’t go to Tokyo. Or Osaka. Not that anyone commented on me missing Osaka, but Tokyo was the one that everyone was surprised I missed (even though I always said I was never that interested). Why? Because it’s the most famous city to the outside world, and most outsider’s imaginations of Japan involve either Tokyo streets or old culture (probably in Kyoto). I’m still glad I did my own thing and not all the touristy things, because I’ve come back with a not-so-stereotypical story.

    • I’m curious to find out how you choose where to go? Whether you purposefully avoid the known spots of not? With regards to not risking death and avoiding being mosquito bait, when it’s put so blatently it makes perfect sense! But some of us get our kicks out of dangerous, daring and bizarre things when on our travels, I guess.

      • SighYuki

        Well, most of the places I chose to go were arranged by the university I was on exchange with, to be honest! They weren’t typical excursions either, so it was really awesome. I did end up doing a few things that are relatively touristy (like visiting the Hiroshima War memorial and Kiyomizu temple), but they weren’t purposely done, and they weren’t marred by tourism anyway. Seriously, *nothing* can take away the absolutely eerie, solemn and still feeling you get from walking around the memorial. There’s just a strange compelling force to be silent and take it in. Tokyo in general was a deliberate avoidance but most of that was not honestly knowing what to do there that was more authentic and worth the travel time and money (I was based in Nagoya). Haha yeah some people are crazy with doing the dangerous things, but there’s a certain line I draw at things like that, just because I want to be alive to experience more in the future!

      • Yep, that’s kinda how I weigh it up too – you have to be alive to be able to experience all the world has to offer (crazy or mundane or whatever). The memorial visit sounds intense but memorable… I totally get the silence thing, how it just happens.

      • SighYuki

        Definitely. The memorial was something I’d actually wanted to see for ages but forgot I’d wanted to – I’d wanted to see the memorial from the Sadako + 1000 paper cranes story I’d heard as a kid, which is part of the overall museum. Safe to say, when I remembered and saw all this, it was pretty intense! You don’t always need to risk life to have a heart-racing experience, that’s for sure.

  17. woow… so fresly location.

  18. great attitude Finola has. Others will leave with a memory and you will gain a cultural experience. Enjoy your stay and be happy.

  19. I’ve been twice at Bolivia, it’s a beatiful country. I missed out ( except Potosí ) all your proposals, but instead I was in Oruro, Uyuni, Copacabana and Titicaca Lake, all the places at the NW side of the country, at the altiplano.
    Writing you from Spain, Gabriel from Uruguay, South America

    • Hi Gabriel, thanks for visiting my blog! I totally agree that Bolivia is a beautiful country… at times the landscapes took my breath away. I didn’t make it over to Copacabana but also heard that the NW side of the country is pretty spectacular. Next time… 🙂

  20. Hey Finola, I just have to chuck in my ’50 cents’ on this one, Bolivia always provokes a passionate response from me! I totally admire avoiding the well-trodden backpacker trail and missing some of the supposed ‘highlights’ of Bolivia.

    That said, some of those things I did, and they were in my opinion awesome. The death road was great fun, but it was raining so heavily you could barely see the massive drops so perhaps that made it easier. Of course all the waterfalls on the road also made it more dangerous, so can understand missing that one.

    The mines in Potosi turned out to be one of the best (and most terrifying) things I’ve ever done. We spent a couple of days in Potosi agonising over whether to do it or not, but so glad I did. By bringing in coca leaves and fizzy drinks you make an immediate difference to the miners working down there who you can tell really appreciate (and need) these gifts. This is no tourist circus, its a dangerous environment where people die all the time. We were caught in a rock fall in a tunnel and one of our group got smacked by some falling rubble. Scary as f*ck but what an experience.

    Rurrenebaque is a great place (we cheated and took the plane), so laid back and so nice and warm compared to the Andes. Mosquitos were insane, and 100% deet doesn’t do anything, but if you’ve done it perhaps revisiting is not worth the bites!

    Isla del sol was great, and so much better than the tourist-orientated floating villages in Puno, Peru. Spent a night in a room with an amazing view for pennies! Atacama was also epic, and totally recommended.

    I think the problem with Bolivia is you need so much more time than the 30 day visa allows! But that’s just a good reason to go back 😉

    • Yep – 30 days tourist visa is too short, although extending it was easy enough and didn’t cost (as far as I remember). There were only a handful of people who were dipping into Bolivia from elsewhere to check out the salt flats and then get out before they got sick or robbed or whatever other scare stories they were buying into! The idea of the Death Road in the rain is even more terrifying to me, probably because when I was in Peru I was cycling down in the rain when I had a crash into a concrete runoff and smashed myself up a bit… at least there was something there to catch me! Anyways, like you say, there are plenty of reasons for me to go back. Maybe down the line the Death Road will seem more appealing… (or pretty likely, still not!). Thanks for commenting!

  21. Traveling! Love it! Never been to Bolivia but loved reading about it on your blog. By the way, I really love the layout on your site. It’s very clean. And, I didn’t know you could add a donate bottom. What a great idea! Love it. I’m new at this blog thing and wish my blog was as awesome as yours. My blog is “hideouz” as Esqueleto would say (Nacho Libre) 🙂

  22. As a matter of fact, I’d be willing to pay or donate which ever if you’re willing to make my blog as cool as yours, I couldn’t get the tweet thing work and I’d love to have the donate button on mine as well. Only if you’d like. Let me know.

    • Donate is simply an image with a link to PayPal (you can find the info on there). And the blog is nothing fancy other than one of the standard WordPress layouts with a background and a few widgets thrown in and a link in to Twitter (also on widgets tab). I wanted to keep my blog clean but lively looking too. There are a few things I’m less keen on but it’s a free blog so can’t complain!

  23. Nice! I’m totally sharing with my friend who spent some time in Bolivs!

  24. It’s always easy to have regrets when you travel–that’s just a sign that you want to go back. 🙂

  25. mysweatyshirt

    I’d skip Death Road too, not something that I can take. 😛 Thanks for sharing.

  26. Traveling slow…uh, I miss that.

    • It’s a bit of a luxury, for sure (although also a necessity to make the funds stretch). Looks like you’ve done a good load of travelling though! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read this post.

  27. Pingback: Freshly Pressed: who cares? | travelola

  28. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I agree you can’t do everything when traveling, and I subscribe to your philosophy of lingering in a place and truly getting a feel for it! Keep your own philosophy close at heart. I love your Alain de Botton quote by the way. The Art of Travel is one of my favorite books of all time!

    • Thanks! Cheers for your ongoing readership and support. In terms of lingering in a place, you definitely know how to do it properly by working and immersing yourself in a country. Oman is somewhere I’m fascinated by so I’ll have to read up more on your blog. And regrarding the quote, – I always find Alain de Botton’s work really accessible and relevant and I definitely want to revisit the Art of Travel.

      • You’re welcome; it’s certainly a pleasure to follow your adventures! I love living vicariously through fellow travelers! I don’t know much about South America and so need to explore the southern hemisphere. And I too should read The Art of Travel again, just for fresh inspiration!

        Feel free to visit in Oman while I’m there in the next year! 🙂

  29. Finola, I absolutely love your attitude. No matter how long you stay, or how much you do, you WILL miss things – whether by fate or choice. But the things I treasure are the experience and observations I never could have predicted or planned. That’s what the journey is all about. Congrats on the FP – very well deserved. All the best, Terri

    • I’m so glad that you stopped by my blog and commented and liked some posts… because I then went over to your site and had an explore. So many countries (and other information), beautiful photography, reminders of Peru and inspiration for a whole load of other places… Well done also on the Freshly Pressed! I look forward to reading more of your travel tales. Enjoy your adventuring 🙂

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