Often overlooked in favor of the glamorous Incan past of its northern neighbor Peru and the charm of its southern neighbor Chile, Bolivia is a surprisingly tourist friendly destination. This land-locked country is diverse, with highlights including the altitude heights of the Andean highlands and La Paz, the vast salt-pan plains of Salar de Uyuni and the Amazon rainforest with its stunning wildlife. One of Bolivia's greatest advantages is that fewer tourists visit, prices are generally lower and with less exposure to western influences, you end up with a more culturally authentic Southern American experience.
Each year since 2001, Dr Ric Finch and his team at Rutahsa Adventures (tel. 931/520-7047; www.rutahsa.com) have been running a sensational Bolivian tour that coincides with Carnaval. This year's tour promises to be even bigger and better, but like their previous trips, you'll need to book early before places sell out. Starting in Santa Cruz in the Amazon lowlands, the tour visits Concepción, home to historic 18th century Jesuit missions; Sucre, the magical white city; the indigenous market of Tarabuco; Jatún Yampara; the Andean city of Potosí; the altiplano town of Uyuni; Pulacayo; Salar de Uyuni (the surreal 3,861-square-mile salt desert); Colchani; Isla Pescado; the magical Carnaval of Oruro, the most spectacular of all Bolivian festivals; Sajama National Park; La Paz; Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley); Lake Titicaca; Challapampa; Copacabana; and the pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku.
Apart from three days celebrating the color and pageantry of Carnaval, the highlight of this tour is a flight over the Salar de Uyuni in a classic DC-3. The Salar is spectacular on the ground and promises to be equally so from the air. This incredible 19-day journey takes you off the tourist trail and into the best of Bolivia, encountering the indigenous Quechua and Aymara cultures to discover the heart and soul of the country.
Based on a minimum of 11 participants (with a maximum of 16), the cost of this excursion is $2,778 per person based on double occupancy. With 16 participants the cost falls to $2,526 per person. The trip cost includes all lodging, transportation (including airport/hotel transfers, ground transportation by private bus, by 4WD vehicles, catamaran across Lake Titicaca, air transportion from Santa Cruz to Sucre and from Uyuni to Oruro), entry to all sites and museums, daily breakfasts, nine lunches, five suppers, a bilingual local guide service and a tour conductor. Add $310 for single supplement. International airfare to Santa Cruz and return from La Paz is additional as is the Bolivia departure tax of $25. Rutahsa recommends booking your airfare to Bolivia through Solar Tours (tel. 800/388-7652; www.solartours.com). Speak with Patricia at #558 and tell her you're taking the Rutahsa Adventures' 2006 Bolivia trip.
For a shorter foray into Bolivia, Adventure Life (tel. 800/344-6118; www.adventure-life.com) is offering an 11-day "Bolivia Backroads" tour starting and ending in La Paz priced at $1585 per person (with a single supplement of $120). Travel highlights include visits to La Paz, Sucre, the Tarabuco Market, Hacienda Candelaria Potosí and the Uyuni Salt Desert. The tour includes six nights in comfortable hotels, three nights in rustic guesthouses and one night on a train; most meals; and transportation on one local flight, four-wheel drive, public buses and a train. The flight from La Paz to Sucre is an additional $85, as is the international airfare to Bolivia and airport transfers. This tour departs on October 21 and November 18, 2005, and the following dates in 2006: May 5, June 2 and 30, July 28, Augusts 25, September 22, October 20 and November 17.
Its seven-day "Chalalan Lodge Bolivian Amazon" trip starts and ends in La Paz and is priced at $895 per person with a single supplement of $150. The Chalalan Ecolodge lies in the heart of Bolivia's pristine Madidi National Park. The comfortable accommodation is surrounded by 4.5 million acres of protected wilderness and is owned and managed entirely by the indigenous Quechua community. Quechua guides lead visitors on searches for macaws, tapirs, monkeys and caimans, and teach guests how rainforest plants and trees are used for medicine, tools, and food. Included in the trip are three-nights rainforest lodge accommodation and three-nights in hotels (please note that Chalalan Lodge does not have electricity or hot water). Most meals are included, as is daily breakfast, two local flights and trip in dugout canoes. The round-trip flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque is not included (add $130-$140). The emphasis of this trip is on wildlife, natural history, and indigenous culture. This is for the adventurous Bolivia traveler looking to journey deep into the Amazon jungle so be prepared for hot, humid and sometimes rainy weather and rooms with shared bathrooms at the lodge. These prices are based on a 3% cash discount.
Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) also has a "Chalalan Ecolodge" trip. This five-day/four-night trip is offered on an individual basis and can be booked at any time. Priced from $399 per person, it includes transfers, transportation to and from Madidi National Park (round-trip airfare from La Paz to Rurrenabaque is approximately $130 - $140 additional). You will visit the heart of Madidi National Park, the Tuichi River, and Chalalan Lake and Chalalan Ecolodge. Staying at the Ecolodge will directly benefit and support the village of San José de Uchupiamonas, a Quechua-Tacana ethnic group. The community preserves the rainforest that belongs to them and was inherited from their ancestors. Their operations are developed under standards that respect local culture and traditions as well as the amazing natural surroundings. The park is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, 44% of all species of mammals and an estimated 38% of neotropical amphibians.
Gap Adventures (tel. 800/708-7761; www.gapadventures.com) has an 11-day "Bolivia Discovery" tour starting and ending in La Paz. Set high in the Andes, experience 11-days of discovery in the Bolivian Altiplano. Travel across the largest salt lake in the world, visit a historic mining town and the charming colonial city of Sucre. Meet the friendly people of Bolivia and discover the stark and beautiful contrasts of its countryside. This tour is priced at $550 plus local payment of $200. It includes airport transfers, internal flight to Sucre, Potosí, three-days exploring the Uyuni Salt Lakes by four-wheel-drive vehicles, train and bus back to La Paz, the Tiahuanaco ruins, the Valley of the Moon and Chacaltaya..This is in ideal tour for anyone wanting to experience Bolivian life in the Altiplano region. Accommodations for nine-nights are in basic hotels and one-night is on a train. All meals while visiting Uyuni Salt Flats are also included. Maximum group size is 12 people.
Enjoy Bolivia Travel (tel. 888-223-6772; www.enjoybolivia.com) features two Bolivian tours. The "Best of Bolivia" tour is a nine-day/eight-night trip priced from $976 per person based on dual occupancy. This tour is the perfect introduction to archaeology and history, featuring visits to La Paz, the Andes, Lake Titicaca and Tiahuanaco ruins -- the origin of Andean cultures. Also visit Sucre and Potosí, the best examples of the wealthy Colonial period. As an option, you may also visit the fabulous Uyuni salt flats. The tour includes eight-nights accommodation, private transport and a bilingual tour guide.
The four-day/three-night "Sucre and Potosí: Two Colonial Cities" tour is priced from $357. Visit these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites with stunning Colonial period architecture built during the height of silver mining in the area. Sucre is called the "White Capital" of Bolivia due to the dominant white houses with and red roofs in its historic center. Time seems to stand still in the White City where outstanding examples of baroque architecture are found on every corner. The tour includes three-nights accommodation, private transport and a bilingual tour guide.
Airfares to Bolivia range in price from approximately $580 to $720 depending on the day of the week and season. Use the flexible dates option on Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) as a starting point for airfare purchase.