As far as adventure travel destinations go, Bolivia may not necessarily spring to mind first – if at all. But this modest South American country possesses incredibly varied climates. From tropical in the Amazon basin to cold and ice-peaked in the Andes – and not forgetting the baron and volcanic west, home to the Aticama, the driest desert in the world.
Due to these differing climates, there are major geographical extremes and an array of unbelievable natural landscapes to explore. For thrill-seekers, there are endless outdoors adventures to be had in Bolivia.
Travelling Bolivia does come with its difficulties though, but nonetheless, it absolutely rewards the adventurous traveller for going out of their comfort zone.
Whether it’s swimming with wildlife in the jungle or extreme mountain biking, Bolivia offers more once-in-a-lifetime adventures than you can imagine. It’s no wonder it’s one of my top 5 favourite travel destinations of all time, both for the wild experiences and iconic scenery.
So without further ado, here are just 8 incredible Bolivian adventures you can experience across the country:
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Mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road
In La Paz the question on every backpacker’s lips is “have you cycled down Death Road”. And just in case you somehow dodge it, you’ll see a wash of cheap and tacky ‘I Survived Death Road’ t-shirts. There really is no escaping the call of Death Road.
So what exactly is Death Road? Connecting La Paz and Coroico is 43-miles of track carved through the Cordillera Oriental mountain range, officially known as North Yungas road. It’s widely known as the most dangerous road in the world as it sadly claims 200-300 lives per year. Morbid, I know.
Bolivian driving isn’t exactly great at the best of times, let alone on a perilous road with a sheer drop to one side, and a steep precipice prone to landslides and rockfalls on the other…
But, if you’re a thrill-seeking tourist you’re able to see if it’s really as bad as its reputation – by mountain biking down it for 39 miles!
Along the way you’ll pass trucks and cars trying to squeeze past each other on the single track with gut-wrenching boldness, and even a small waterfall right across the road. Of course, there are lots of hair-raising photography stops encouraged by your guide, like dangling your legs over the precarious ledges.
But what really gives you goosebumps are the countless memorial’s and crucifixes in honour of the deceased all along the route. Oh – that and the horror stories of the most decent deaths of tourists and locals alike.
Anyway… have you really been to Bolivia if you haven’t had a brush with death on Death Road?
Touring the unique Salar de Uyuni in a 4×4
Bolivia is probably most famous for its vast, bright white and seemingly endless salt plains which are in fact the biggest on the planet.
Located in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia, the natural wonder was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes, resulting in vast leftover salt residue.
This utterly otherworldly landscape is one of the most unique sights in the world and can be experienced on a multi-day road trip tour with a local guide.
Be warned though – getting a good 4×4 tour to Salar De Uyuni is a real challenge. Unfortunately there is a big problem with the quality of the tours, vehicles but most commonly the drivers.
Drink driving is a massive problem in Bolivia, especially the rural towns, and there is generally unsafe driving anyway, as I mentioned. There are so many horror stories of tour drivers falling asleep at the wheel, driving too fast, being intoxicated or high, crashing and generally being aggressive and unpleasant.
My personal experience of a Salar tour unfortunately followed the same trend as despite doing my research, we had a driver who was incredibly rude, aggressive, miserable and was reluctant to make planned stops last any longer than about 10 minutes. He absolutely detested his job!
The fact that this tainted the trip, the scenery and atmosphere of the Salar de Uyuni utterly made up for the downsides.
One of the best times to see the Salar is actually shortly after rain, when a layer of water sits on top of the exceptionally flat surface, resulting in the illusion of a giant mirror for as far as the eye can see.
But a 4×4 off roading tour is not only about the salt flats. You also visit ancient burial grounds, stunning colourful lakes strewn with pink flamingos, incredible desert and rock formations, bubbling geysers, stark cactus islands and much more.
Although a Salar de Uyuni tour comes with its challenges, it’s one of the most memorable Bolivian adventures you can have.
Sleeping in a house made entirely of salt
On a tour to Salar de Uyuni, many travellers get the opportunity for a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience – sleeping in a house (and on a bed) made entirely from salt. Or at least, eating in a restaurant made entirely from salt.
Entrepreneurial locals have built homes and businesses solely from the naturally abundant resource all around them. The result is both bizarre and magical. It feels like you’re in an igloo or snow cave, and due to the altitude at night, it feels like you’re in one too!
Of course, there is no power (at least where I stayed) unless from a generator so in the evening, the salt igloos glow a beautiful orange from candlelight and wood fires.
Swimming with wild pink river dolphins in the Amazon
The absolute highlight of my trip to Bolivia was 4 days on a Pampas wetlands tour, a wildlife abundant boat trip taken from the fairly well developed jungle town of Rurrenabaque.
Every day we would tour the small rivers in a slim wooden boat, spotting native wildlife such as monkeys, capybaras, turtles, birds, sea snakes and fierce-looking caiman. By night, we would go out again in search of nocturnal creatures, spotting their red, green and yellow eyes emerging from the depths from the flash of our guide’s torch.
But what drove me, and many tourists, to visit the outskirts of the rainforest was the intrigue of wild pink river dolphins.
Seeing the pink, (though often more grey) freshwater dolphins is undoubtedly the highlight of a pampas tour and if you are brave enough, you can even swim with them!
Apparently caiman and the wild Bolivian river dolphin do not like each other, so when you see dolphins splashing around, you are able to slip into the water to get up close and personal!
But beware – parts are piranha infested and well, you can’t exactly guarantee a hungry caiman won’t pass by, attracted by the commotion. You’ve really got to go with your gut about whether to go in the murky water or not. The tour guides will certainly encourage you and assure you there is nothing to worry about!
The water is brown, smelly and the bottom is squidgy underfoot so you can’t actually see the dolphins unless they breach the surface. They’re playful as you would expect, but not necessarily friendly. They kept nipping one of the ladies I was with on the bum! Luckily they didn’t come that close to me…
Although swimming with pink river dolphins is a little risky, it’s an adrenaline-inducing Bolivian adventure within an otherwise serene and truly memorable wildlife experience.
Surfing sand dunes where desert meets jungle
Peru is well known for its sand boarding and it seems as though its neighbour Bolivia has also caught onto this super cool adventure activity.
From Santa Cruz, tours will take thrill-seekers to the famous Lomas de Arena, a 34,000 acre reserve where striking sand dunes meet the lush jungle.
With a company like Nick’s Adventures, you’ll be provided with all the gear you need to surf, and some guidance on what to do if you’re a snow/sand boarding rookie. Sit down, stand up, tackle 12 metre high dunes or start small to build up your confidence – you choose your style!
Just make sure you keep covered and wear sunglasses as protection from the sun and dust – it can get really windy and you will no doubt have a tumble or two!
You may also want to consider bringing swimwear as there are some lovely lagoons in the reserve which you can bathe in to wash the dust away and cool down in the summer.
Alternatively, many travellers who just want to see and photograph this stunning location can hire a cab and walk 4km to the dunes. Or if you’re experienced with off-roading, there’s the option to hire a 4×4 vehicle to tackle the (somewhat treacherous) sand solo.
Mountain Trekking in the Andes
With the world’s longest mountain range accessible from wherever you are in the country, keen adventurers should absolutely challenge themselves to a multi-day hike in the majestic Bolivian Andes.
Unlike other destinations in the South American Andes, seclusion is what sets the Cordillera Real mountain range apart. Whilst hiking its raw and rugged scenery, often the only other humans you see are a local farmer or two. You can’t get much more serene and magical than that.
For avid mountaineers, the tough 8 day Apolobamba Circuit – walking in the mountains in high altitudes with a descent into the Amazon Basin – offers an utterly rewarding experience.
Those who want a memorable hike but not as long or challenging as the Apolobamba Circuit, there is the 3 – 4 day Hichukhota to Condoriri Bolivia mountain trek available April – October. You’ll skirt midnight blue lakes, stark white-blue glaciers and scale striking mountains to admire the Condoriri Range, named as such due to the three peaks resembling a condor lifting its wings just before take off.
The most popular hike from La Paz is undoubtedly to the summit of Huayna Potosí, a 3 day beginner-friendly trek up 6,088 metres, often on snow and glaciers. Due to well established base camps, it is an accessible hike taken at a moderate pace to allow altitude acclimatisation.
For only a taster in a day if there’s no time to be fully submerged in the Andes, there’s always the ancient Inca pilgrimage route around Lake Titicaca, a 6 hour hike with the Cordillera Real Range as your backdrop.
High speed Zip lining over the Amazon Jungle
In the heart of Rurrenabaque is Canopy Villa Alcira, an eco-tourism project managed by the native Tacana community. Their 1,500 metre long zip-lining adventure across 9 different platforms, allows you to zoom right through the treetops in the heart of the lush Amazon jungle.
Although I highly recommend any trip to Bolivia includes a stop in Rurrenabaque, if you don’t find yourself in the north of the country, there are plenty of other similar safe and fun half day zip-lining experiences from La Paz, such as at Forest Adventure and Zzip the Flying Fox.
Zip lining is certainly a unique way to admire the landscape – if you can face looking down!
Chasing big cats in the Kaa-Iya National Park
Did you know you can go on a safari in Bolivia – yes really!
The Kaa-lya National Park is the biggest national park in Bolivia, and in fact the second biggest in South America. It’s also the only park in the Americas established and administered by Indigenous people. Amazingly they first protected the land as a grassroots organisation and then in the mid 90s, after a lot of work, managed to convince the Bolivian government to award it a protected status.
Due to its remoteness, Kaa-lya presents one of the best places for nature lovers to experience an abundance of rare native plants and animals.
From Jaguars to Pumas to Tapir, there are many incredible species roaming freely in their natural habitat which you chase both day and night in a 4×4 vehicle with an experienced guide.
There have been over 1000 wild cats spotted in the park so there’s a high chance you’ll see them, but there are also many other cool animals such as monkeys, wolves, ocelots, giant armadillos and the capybara. In fact Kaa-lya is one of the only places left in the world where the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, can be found in its native habitat.
If you’re willing to slum it a bit (there’s only camping), can cope with the heat and a busy constantly-chasing-wildlife itinerary, you will be rewarded with some of the most incredible nature sightings practically all to yourself.
So forget Africa – consider a once-in-a-lifetime wallet-friendly safari in Bolivia instead!
From jungle to salt flats, desert to ice-capped mountains, there are an abundance of Bolivian adventures to be experienced in different landscapes all over the country. I hope this snapshot of some cool outdoor activities have proven what a fantastic destination Bolivia is for adventure travel!
Going travelling Soon? Don’t forget these essentials!
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For some travel inspiration for your next trip, how about Lonely Planet’s top 500 places to see… ranked?
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