Arrive in La Paz at any time. There are no planned activities so check into our hotel and enjoy the city. Founded by Alonso de Mendoza in 1548, La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz (the City of Our Lady of Peace) is the highest capital in the world. Although Sucre is the official capital, La Paz is the Bolivian centre of commerce, finance and industry, and the de facto capital. This is a busy modern city, with its centre at the base of a canyon 5 km (3 miles) wide and sprawling impromptu housing all the way up the surrounding hillsides. The city is at nearly 4000 m (13,120 ft) above sea level, so visitors should be prepared for cool evenings and mornings. Explore the city’s many fine museums or its historic ecclesiastical structures, such as the Iglesia de San Francisco, whose architectural details reflect the indigenous and mestizo heritage of modern Bolivia. The city is also renowned for its many markets, including the Mercado de Hechicería (Witches’ Market), where Paceños and visitors may purchase potions and incantations made from all sorts of herbs, seeds, and secret ingredients to remedy any number of illnesses (real or imagined) and protect from evil spirits. With streets lined with market stalls and vendors, the pace on the street and the vibrant atmosphere is an incredible experience. There is also a thriving black market and a Carnaval market, where locals purchase carnival costumes. You’ll also find a wealth of shops selling all sorts of handicrafts, mainly alpaca wool products, silver jewellery, woven textiles and leather goods. Optional activities in La Paz include museums or a visit to the world’s highest ski resort, Chacaltaya (5600 m/18,368 ft). To the south of the city is the Valley of the Moon, with crater-like formations made of sand.
Travel to Uyuni by bus/train. Next spend three days exploring the stunning landscapes between the Salar de Uyuni and Chile’s Atacama Desert by four-wheel-drive vehicle. Piercing blue skies contrast with blinding white salt as you drive across the flat lakebed. The area’s unusual landscape of mountains, active volcanoes, and geysers is like nowhere on earth. Despite its isolation and challenging climate (cold and blustery most of the year), Uyuni has earned the nickname of Hija Predilecta de Bolivia (Bolivia’s Favourite Daughter). Most of its hardy residents are either public sector workers or salt miners in the dried out lakebeds, with tour operators a close third. The main attraction in town is the Train Cemetery, a collection of rusting railway relics just southwest of the present train station. Uyuni is the starting point for our 3-day 4X4 excursion through the spectacular Salar de Uyuni. Twice submerged by a large high-altitude lake, the salt flats now cover a total area of over 12000 square km (7440 square miles) and today serve as one of the country’s main salt mining centres. The last large lake dried up about 8000 years ago, leaving the small lakes of Poopó and Ururu, as well as the salt flats of Uyuni. Absorb stunning views of the salt-encrusted lakebed surrounded by golden-hued mountains, snow-capped peaks and an endless azure horizon that will forever engrave itself in your memory. The tour takes us through Laguna Colorada (4278 m/14,031 ft), a large red lagoon whose colour is the result of algae & plankton growth in the mineral-rich waters, and Laguna Verde (5000 m/16400 ft), a lake that owes its striking blue-green colour to high concentrations of lead, sulphur, copper and other minerals. The numerous geysers, boiling mud pools, thermal baths and Licancabúr volcano (5960 m/19549 ft), which looms just behind the lagoon, are clear evidence of the region’s volcanic activity. Surprisingly, both wildlife and flora manage to survive and even thrive in the desolate landscape, including vizcachas (of the rodent family), flamingos (3 varieties), and assorted varieties of cacti.
Sitting at 4070m (13,350 ft), Potosí is the highest city of its size on earth. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its tragic history as a silver mining centre during the time of Spanish colonization. Potosí provided a large share of the silver mined and shipped back to Spain until the early 1800s, when both the supply of silver and world market prices began to decline; it’s said the silver taken out of Cerro Rico (rich hill) propped up the Spanish empire for over 300 years. Working conditions for miners were appalling, and the indigenous population was decimated. African slaves were brought in to replace the native workers, and it is estimated that as many as eight million indigenous people and Africans died in the mines during the first three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Though sometimes distressing and uncomfortable because of the harsh working conditions, the optional trip underground into the mines of today is an experience that should not be missed. Afternoon bus to Sucre.
Often referred to as Bolivia’s White City, the country’s official capital, Sucre, is situated at nearly 2800m (9184 ft) above sea level, offering its visitors and inhabitants a more moderate, comfortable climate than many of Bolivia’s cities at higher elevations. Before the conquest, military, religious and political leaders of the local indigenous population made their homes on the present day city site. Later, the city became the headquarters for the Spanish Royal Court, which by the late 1700s ruled over colonial Paraguay, parts of Peru, Argentina, Chile, and most of Bolivia. In 1825, in the wake of the Latin American independence movement, the city was renamed Sucre after Simon Bolívar’s second-in-command, General Antonio Jose de Sucre. The city’s fine museums, colonial buildings and ties to the independence movement make it a city of great historical interest. Optional activities include a visit to dinosaur footprints, an old tin baron’s mansion, a textile cooperative, mountain biking and hiking.
A local flight takes us to Santa Cruz, located close to the Cordillera Oriental foothills. Once a backwater frontier town, it has now grown into Bolivia’s second largest city and is our gateway to an overnight train ride to Puerto Suarez, on the Brazilian border.
Puerto Suarez is Bolivia’s gateway into the Pantanal area and has great potential…but unfortunately not much to offer yet! We cross Bolivia’s eastern border at the frontier town of Corumbá, Brazil, on the edge of the Pantanal, an immense wetland area famed for its profuse wildlife. Less well known outside of Brazil and South America, the Pantanal, a largely flat, wetland area about half the size of France, is still one of the best places in the continent for observing wildlife. This vast alluvial plain, seasonally flooded by the Paraguay River from October to March, is all that remains from an ancient inland sea which began to dry out 65 million years ago. Today it is an area rich in bird life such as macaws and Jabiru storks. With luck and appropriate weather you may spot capivara (capybara), howler monkeys, caiman, giant river otters, anacondas, anteaters and gauchos also known as the Brazilian cowboy. The area is sparsely populated and what few roads exist are in poor condition. Most people use small airplanes, 4-wheel-drive vehicles and motorized canoes to get around, so expect some rough travel and more rustic accommodations while visiting the area. The area’s Transpanteneira, an elevated dirt road, which extends 145km’s (91 miles) from outside Pocone to Porto Jofre, becomes an island during the wet season. We take a two-day wildlife excursion to fully appreciate the area’s beauty and bounty. Unfortunately, as in other areas, poachers continue to do damage, and official government resources to protect the zone are scarce. This, combined with corrupt officials and a lack of commitment on the part of the government, have resulted in widespread poaching; latest estimates indicate that anywhere from half a million to two million animals are killed annually in the Pantanal.
Bonito, as the name (“beautiful”) implies, is a great place for nature lovers. Just outside the Pantanal area, this is water and jungle country with abundant colourful fish in the area’s crystalline rivers. Explore nearby underwater caves and waterfalls, go rafting or snorkelling, or simply spend a lazy day by the river. Next we ride a night bus through the vast cattle ranches of Mato Grosso do Sul en route to the magnificent Iguassu Falls.
At Iguassu there are 275 individual falls in all, spread over a 3-km (almost 2 mile) area. Some are over 80m (264 ft) in height, making these cataracts both wider than Victoria Falls and higher than Niagara! UNESCO declared the region an International Heritage Area in 1986. On Day 17 we will visit the Brazilian side of the falls and have a free afternoon to be able to rest after our long journey in or to visit the Bird Park home to species such as the Hyacinth macaw and tucans. The following day we cross the border to Argentina to visit the Argentine side of the falls. With an extensive series of catwalks and optional boat rides to the base of the falls we will easily have enough to fill a full day here before returning to the Brazilian side for the night and a free morning before our overnight bus ride to Paraty. Note: If you have booked the Iguassu Falls Boat Ride Theme Pack, you will do it on day 18 or 19 when visiting the Argentine side of the falls. The falls were originally “discovered” by the Spaniard Juan Alvar Nuñez in 1541, when he named the falls Saltos de Santa María; the name we use today means “great waters” in the Tupi-Guarani tongue. Film buffs know Iguassu as the site of several scenes from “The Mission,” and not far from the falls, the ruins of the Jesuit missions of the era can still be visited on a day trip. Also of interest is Itaipú, the largest hydroelectric complex in the world. The best time of the year to view the falls is from August to November, as during rainy season flooding often prevents closer viewing from the catwalks.
Our next destination is Paraty, an architectural gem famous for its churches. Located on Brazil's Costa Verde or "Green Coast," UNESCO World Heritage Paraty is known equally for the cobblestone streets and cafés of its historical centre, the natural beauty of its surroundings and its excellent cachaça. A fun option during your time here is a “booze cruise” around the picturesque beaches and coves of the area. 125 miles from Rio de Janeiro, on the edge of picturesque Ilha Grande Bay, Paraty is a lovely colonial town. On the border between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states, it is a favourite with those looking to ‘get away from it all’—Brazilians and visitors alike. Considered one of the world's most important examples of Portuguese colonial architecture by UNESCO, the historic centre is a well-preserved national historic monument, and today has been closed to vehicles to preserve its laid-back colonial ambience. During high tide the Portuguese cobblestone streets are partly flooded by seawater, adding to the fairy tale atmosphere. Located between the lush green mountains and the sea, Paraty (sometimes spelled Parati) was once a place of significant economic importance due to its sugar cane mills. At its peak the city was home to over 250 distilleries, and the name Paraty was synonymous with world-class sugar cane rum. Founded in 1531, the original settlement was on the opposite side of the river, where a church was erected to their patron "St. Roque." Around 1640 the Indians who used to live here were driven away and the town moved to where it stands now. The founders named it Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, with Our Lady of the Medicines as the patron saint, and they built the main church in her honour. Enlarged and remodelled over the years, the church is now the focal point of the annual Festa de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios on September 8. The festival has been celebrated for over 300 years since a wealthy and reverent benefactor, Maria Jácome de Mello, donated the land to the town for the church, requesting only an annual mass in return. The mass has grown into a procession of the wooden effigy of the Virgen though the town, adorned with gold and silver jewellery. In the 1700s when the mines of Minas Gerais were pouring out gold, the perfect bay of Paraty was a busy port, the second most important in Brazil during the ‘Golden Century.’ The best pinga or cachaça (sugar cane liquor) of Brazil was produced here and the name Paraty became synonymous with the liquor. Later, coffee was brought from the valley of Paraiba to be shipped to Portugal, sparking another economic boom. In 1888 with the abolition of the slavery, Paraty became almost forgotten in time, and a large exodus left only a population of around 600, a considerable difference from the 16 000 of the town’s prime. In 1954 a road was opened linking the town to the rest of the country through the valley of Paraiba, but it was not until 1973-75 with the opening of the highway BR-101 that Paraty’s rebirth as a tourist town began. Paraty was declared a national monument in 1966. Paraty's bay is filled with over 65 tropical islands and dozens of beaches, each offering something different, and all covered with vegetation that remains lush and colourful year-round. The water of the bay is always the right temperature for swimming, diving and snorkelling. The national parks that encircle the town are filled with trails, wildlife and waterfalls. Hiking or horseback riding, for the sports minded, or a jeep or van tour are both excellent ways to appreciate this natural wilderness.