Sonq'onman means "to the heart" in the native Quechua tongue of Bolivia, language of the Inca. This trip takes you to the cultural and geographical core of highland Bolivia, a place that has long deflected outside influences due to its rugged remoteness and the tenacity of its native cultures. Still far removed from the soul-sucking effects of mainstream tourism, western Bolivia offers a wealth of unmediated exchanges with its Quechua and Aymara inhabitants as they go about life as farmers, herders, miners and fishermen. The high plateau holds glaciated volcanoes, enormous basins with a surreal menagerie of creatures—from ostriches to llamas to flamingos—and deep canyons with stones of every hue. Read on to learn more about how you can step into a vastly different life under the bright Andean sun. *Cross the immense and otherworldly Salt Flats of Uyuni. *Experience azure waters of Lake Titicaca under the glaciers of the Cordillera Real and the lifestyle of its traditional fisherman and farmer inhabitants. *Dive into the juxtaposition of cosmopolitan and ancient culture in the world's highest capital city, La Paz. *See the smoking volcanoes, lakes of bizarre colors and scenery teeming with flamingos and llamas of extreme southern Bolivia. *Connect with Jalq'a weavers and their ancient lifestyle in the dramatic Maragua Crater near Sucre.
My name is Collin, and I am originally from Colorado. After walking across Guatemala and nearly rattling to pieces on a 125 cc Honda in Patagonia, I settled down eight years ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I am the point person for Amaru Bolivia’s English-speaking travelers. I see travel as something highly personal, so my goal when I work with travelers is to create a trip that reflects their unique identity, interests, and longings. As a citizen of Bolivia, I also aim to make sure travel benefits the local people, giving foreigners a chance to use their privilege to form a global community characterized by mutual learning and assistance.
After a 1 hour flight from Santa Cruz, there will be a cab waiting to take you from the airport to the colonial city of Sucre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits at around 9,000 feet above sea level. Its altitude and picturesque, whitewashed streets make it the perfect place to rest and acclimatize before heading higher up into the heart of the Bolivian highlands. Sucre was once the home of the Spanish aristocrats who were made rich by the silver mines of Potosí but came to this temperate valley to escape the harsh climate near the mines. You can spend the afternoon strolling around the bustling streets of this college town and pausing in quite plazas under the stone walls of centuries-old cathedrals and mansions.
After a day of resting and getting used to the ratified air of Sucre, you'll now have the spring in your step needed to ascend to the stone arcades of the Recoleta. There you can sip a coffee as you take in the sweeping view of the city and the jagged peaks of the Cordiellera de los Frailles. Or you can you straight into the heart of the city's activity by going to the central market. Don't pass up an opportunity to sample a chirimoya, a fruit that looks like a gigantic green strawberry and has a sweet, custard-like texture. Those with more cultural and historical inclinations will enjoy a visit to the Casa de la Libertad (House of Freedom), where the Bolivian declaration of independence was signed in 1825, sixteen years after Latin American's first cry for freedom from Spain rang out in the very same city. Or you can visit the ASUR museum for displays of some of the most intricate textile art in the hemisphere.
Today you'll trade the white walls of Sucre for the towering red-rock wall of the Maragua Crater and it's bizarre geology and rich culture. The greens of the plots of crops, plowed by hand with oxen, make the red sandstone strata glow even more vividly, but no scarlet hue is brighter than that of the Jalq'a tapestries hand-woven in the homes of the crater's villages. As you pass, Quechua villagers may lay down their hoe or shepherd's crook and invite you in their adobe hut to show you how they use their loom and shuttlecock to bring the complex designs into being. But as ancient as the current way the crater's inhabitants live today may seem, the crater has born witness to yet older happenings. It was here that over two centuries ago indigenous revolutionary leader Tupac Katari was executed. And to go back even further, keep your eyes peeled for fossils in the petrified Jurassic mud beds exposed by the rains and winds of the crater.
The three hour drive in a private car from Sucre to Potosí takes you deep into the gorge of the mighty Pilcomayo river and up onto the high plateau of Potosí, at 13000 feet above sea level. In its heyday several centuries ago, the city of Potosí rivaled the largest capitals of the world in terms of population and splendor, a past still visible in its ornate stonework. After lunch, the Casa de Moneda museum offers a vivid portrayal of this past. It features the mint powered by donkeys where the Spanish made the silver coins that were the world's first true global currency, among many other artifacts and artworks that tell the city's story.
Above the stone mansions and cathedrals of Potosí, and above the adobe or cinder-block walls and tin roofs of its outskirts, rises the Cerro Rico mountain, which holds veins of silver so rich that they continue to be mined 500 years after their discovery. But methods for mining have changed little in all that time, as you can experience for yourself in a tour of the mine. After loading up on coca leaves and other gifts for the miners in the market, you'll be fitted out with a hard hat, light and coveralls and plunge down the twisting, anthill passageways to where crews are hacking at the stone walls with pickaxes. If you are feeling so inspired, you can leave a gift for the Tío statue, the god of the underworld and mines to which the miners pray for safety. In the afternoon you'll take a four hour scenic drive to Tupiza, the jumping-off point for an adventure in the wild and remote lands of Sur Lípez.
After leaving the red-rock canyons of Tupiza, the road winds upward through spires and over a causeway of rock with sheer drops on either side. The broken edges of the high plateau of the Andes rise to vast basins bordered by hulking volcanoes. On the barren slopes of one volcano is the wind hisses through the abandoned stone city of San Antonio de Nuevo Mundo, once a booming silver mining center in the 1600s. The road continues across rivers and llama-filled plains to Quetena, a village of herders set among slot canyons with startling green Andean peat-bogs. Above it is the Uturunku volcano, the highest in the area, and, according to an international study, a supervolcano sitting atop a pool of magma the size of Lake Superior.
Rise early and head to the Sol de Mañana geyser field, where you can jump through plumes of warm steam hissing up through subterranean cracks and wander alongside scalding mud pots. The streams with no geothermal source may be iced over and sparkling like jewels strung out across a desert, but you won't have to suffer from the cold. The waters of the Polques hot springs will be steaming and welcoming. After a relaxing soak, the journey continues on through the Dali desert, with strange formations and pure lines that inspired the painter's surrealism. Beyond the desert are the emerald waters of the Laguna Verde. The massive Lincanabur volcano, on the Chilean border, sometimes sends gusts of wind down its flank that beat the green water to a foamy arsenic froth. The day ends at the Laguna Colorada, a blood-red lake where you can see thousands of pink flamingos feeding and filling the silence of these harsh lands with their cacophonous din.
At dawn, we again skirt the edges of the Laguna Colorada before continuing on to the Arbol de Piedra (the tree of stone) and other twisted rock formations sheltering mounds of dazzling green moss so hard it seems to be another kind of stone itself. The route passes by other high lakes, each with their own distinctive coloration and waterfowl: Cañapa, Hedionda, Chiarkota, Honda and Ramaditas. As the route descends slightly and leaves the harshest high-elevation terrain behind, keep your eyes peeled for the vicuña, a sleek, wild cousin of the alpaca and llama, or the ñandu, an Andean ostrich. The backdrop for these animals becomes more an more magnificent as you near the Ollague volcano, a massif on the Chilean border belching great clouds of sulfurous smoke. After crossing the salt flats of Chiguana, you'll arrive at the village of San Juan for the night.
From San Juan, journey across the Salt Flats of Uyuni, an immense white expanse the size of Connecticut and the flattest place on planet earth. The flatness provides an opportunity to take pictures that play with perspective, and the reflection off a skiff of water can make for ethereal, floating-in-the-sky photos. You'll stop of at the cactus-studded "island" of Incawasi, and you can climb through the spines and twisted boulders to the island's peak to appreciate the vastness of the Salar. The route then continues on to Uyuni, where you will take an eight-hour sleeper bus to La Paz.
A day to catch your breath (or have it taken away!) at 12,000 feet above sea level in La Paz, one of the wildest capital cities on the planet. A jumble of tradition and modernity, where cholitas (women in typical dress) travel in the world’s most modern urban gondola system, this city of ceaseless activity will transport you to another dimension of Bolivia. There are activities for all tastes here: museums, historic downtown, markets, “witches’ alley” or wrestling cholitas (think native Andean women meet WWF) in La Paz’ sister city, El Alto.
After driving along the shores of the lake under the glaciers of the Cordillera Real, and crossing the Straights of Taquina on rustic barges, you'll arrive at Copacabana. The main port town on the Bolivian side of the lake, Copacabana has an ornate basilica with a black Virgin Mary. From Copacabana, you'll take a boat to the Island of the Sun and ascend the 500 steps of the staircase of the Inca rising up over the azure waters. A local guide will take you along the crest of the island above the terraced slopes, still farmed by the Aymara people, recounting legends and myths. As the light fades, you can enjoy the sunset over the highest navigable lake in the world.
After visiting the Inca temple of La Chinkana, the most important Inca ruin on the south side of the Island of the Sun, you'll take a boat to the lesser-traveled Island of the Moon, the female counterpart of the Island of the Sun. Here you can share a traditional "potluck" meal (called apthapi) with the Aymara community, and see the landscape and archaeology of the island. You can also participate in the ancient reed-net fishing methods of the lake-dwellers. At nightfall the starry fire of the Milky Way wheels bright over the high waters of the lake and the darkness of the island.
A private boat ride form the Island of the Moon brings you to the villiage of Yampupata on the the mainland. From here you can walk on the ancient stones of a Pre-Colombian path. The three hours of the hike take you through the villiages of Sampaya and Jinchaca, untouched by tourism, whose residents will be hoeing their fields of purple-flowered broad beans or tending to their flocks of llamas between the bright blue expanse of the altiplano sky and the sparkling waters of the lake. A private car will take you from the hike's end back to Copacabana, where you will board the return bus to La Paz. A final evening in La Paz will give you another chance to sample its culinary and cultural array, from the novo-Andean restaurant Gustus to the wild folkloric nightlife at Gota de Agua or the frenetic rhythms of the Afro-Bolivians at Malegria.
The ride up to the highest commercial airport in the world is a journey in and of itself. On the gondola, you rise up out of the deep chasm of La Paz under the great glaciers and rock spires of Mt. Illimani and into the controlled chaos of El Alto. If the day is clear, you will see all of the apus, the mountains worshiped as deities, standing guard over the vast plateau. As you’re plane rises, you’ll have one last look at the wild waterfalls and rivers raging through the rain forest and down to the Amazon on one side of the mountains, and of the shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca in the distance on the other.
All lodging included
All breakfasts accept for Day 1, all lunches and dinners when outside of cities.
All transportation, including domestic flights, is included.
Private departures, for just you and your friends or family