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Affordable, Small Group Tours to South America: Bolivia It or Not!

January 9, 2004 -- Giant-sized, land-locked Bolivia in South America is rarely visited by...anyone. As we report in Frommer's South America, the country sees only 300,000 tourists a year -- and that's a good thing. Fewer visitors equals less exposure to global pressure to conform creating a much more original experience on the ground. We found two trips (for small group tours, of course) that will grant you access to this seldom seen land, educate you immensely, yet still leave Bolivia largely unspoiled.

While teaching geology for 25 years at Tennessee Tech, Dr. Richard Finch ran field trips to Latin America for his students. Now retired from the classroom, his small company (headquartered in his barn's redecorated horse stall) offers fantastic opportunities to anyone who wants to experience places like Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru and similar spots down under the equator. For 2004, one of his highlights is a 21-day Rutahsa Adventure tour to Bolivia, costing from $2,330 to $2,515, land only.

The trip, limited to 16 participants, starts in La Paz on July 22, but it is recommended you come one day early in order to adjust your body to the higher altitudes before setting out on the trip -- much of the trip takes place at elevations above 10,000 feet. On the day following, you first take a private bus to Oruro, then board a train for Uyuni, for your second overnight stay. You'll start a four-day travel adventure in a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles to explore the world's largest salt flat (over 4,000 sq. mi.) that sometimes acts as a gigantic mirror. Along your journey, lakes, geysers and the desert, with birds such as flamingoes, horned coot and Andean goose may be seen, as well as the Isla Pescado and the mummies of Coquesa. You will also visit the Salt Palace, a hotel made of blocks of rock salt. Included is a visit to Potosi, where you stay overnight before visiting nearby haciendas to meet local residents. On the ninth day, there will be a visit to the working mine called Candelaria, where laborers still use hand tools to excavate, and the mint. Days 10 through 16 have you touring Sucre (the "legal capital"), a local Quechua village (Tarabuco), flying back to La Paz, and visiting Lake Titicaca.

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On Day 17, you fly to the Amazon lowlands, to the banks of the Rio Beni (an Amazon tributary), where you visit the Madidi National Park, a 4.5 million acre wilderness filled with over a 1,000 species of birds, mammals (44% of all New World species are found here), and about 38% of all neotropical amphibians. Here you spend three days absorbing the real tropical jungle until your river journey and flight back to La Paz, where you end the trip on Day 21.

If 12 to 14 people book, the cost is $2,515 per person, double occupancy, not including airfare to and from Bolivia. The package does include, however, almost everything else, including all lodging, all transportation within Bolivia (including transfers, bus, train, four-wheel-drive, catamaran, three internal air flights), daily breakfasts, 12 lunches, seven suppers, all entries to museums and other sites in itinerary, bilingual local guides, and bilingual tour conductor. The price falls to $2,330 per person if 15 or 16 people sign up. (If internal airfares change before the trip, your price may be adjusted accordingly.) The single supplement is only $245, not bad for a trip of this length. Dr. Finch and his wife will help you find inexpensive airline tickets to Bolivia from your nearest gateway.

For more information about Rutahsa Adventures, contact them at 931/520-7047 or e-mail rfinch@tntech.edu. Their website is www.rutahsa.com, where you will find extensive information.

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Elder Treks

Also visiting Bolivia is Canada-based Elder Treks, which specializes in adventure travel for people over 50. Their package also includes Peru, so you have a chance to visit Machu Picchu (the lost city of the Incas), as well as La Paz and Lake Titicaca. In addition, you get a three-day Amazon adventure, starting with a canoe ride up the Tambopata River out of Puerto Maldonado. You then fly on to Lima and continue along the coast to the Paracas Peninsula, where you board a boat to the volcanic island of Ballestas. This is home to a wildlife refuge of sea lions, Inca terns, Humboldt penguins and large flocks of gannets and pelicans. You finish up with a 90-minute flight over the famous Nazca Lines, a remnant of early civilizations to most observers, but pictures drawn by alien visitors to a few.

This is a 19-day land adventure, all-inclusive, costing $3,795, including the three domestic flights. Airfare to and from South America is not included. Also limited to 16 participants with no mandatory single supplement fee for those willing to share rooms. There are two departures this year (March 20 and October 2, 2004) and one next year (March 19, 2005). For more information, contact Elder Treks at 800/741-7956, website www.eldertreks.com.

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Have you traveled with Rutahsa or Eldertreks? Been to Bolivia? Give your opinions on our Bolivia Message Boards today.


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