In Bolivia you learn to expect the unexpected. This is where flamingos feed from red and green lakes rimmed by volcanoes, where Dali-esque rock structures dot the Altiplano like a baby giant’s building blocks, and where waterfalls crash down on vehicles on one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
With close to a thousand peaks over 5,000m, it is no surprise that Bolivia has the highest capital in the world. Even the airport is 4,000m above sea level. The capital, 500m below in a deep canyon ringed by snow-peaked mountains, is a giant street market, where indigenous women in traditional bowler hats and brightly-coloured skirts will sell you absolutely everything you could possibly need – from a cheap pair of designer jeans to a dried llama foetus.
Despite this, most of the country is made up of tropical lowlands, a lush carpet stretching all the way to Brazil. Twisting roads thread their way down from the high Andes to steaming jungles, providing excellent – if dangerous – mountain biking. The 70km route from La Paz to Coroico is like sliding down a giant helter-skelter. Without the safety barrier.
A trip into the hinterland demonstrates that the rest of Bolivia is on a similar scale. To the north, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, and nearby Sorata is surrounded by mountains that locals insist are the site of the original Garden of Eden. South of La Paz is the old colonial town of Potosí, complete with silver mine, while a train graveyard lies on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s highest and largest salt flat.
Three hours west of Santa Cruz, Amboró National Park encompasses three ecosystems – the Amazon basin, the foothills of the Andes and the Chaco plain, and is home to thousands of species of insects, birds and plants. The park contains more butterflies than anywhere else on earth. In the remote eastern corner, Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is said to be one inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Madidi, in the far north, is a pristine Amazonian watershed. And what’s more, the lodges in this region provide some of the best examples of indigenous ecotourism in all of Latin America.
From the ancient Tihuanaco to the 21st century, humans have left their mark on Bolivia, but they are only scratches on the country’s vast surface – leave the modern world behind as you gaze down over the world’s highest forest on the slopes of Sajama volcano, or glide in silence down the Beni river with only fireflies for company.