Out of Office: Daniel Goes Off the Beaten Path in Bolivia

August 11, 2014 by

South & Central America

Viator’s team of travel insiders is obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere we travel. From traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, everywhere from Australia to Zimbabwe, we spend our time scouring the globe for the best tours and activities around the world.

Whether traveling for work or pleasure (or both!) our staff members are always on the go and we want to share their experiences with you! In this new series, Out of Office, we’ll bring you their stories, highlighting the best things to do and see in destinations around the world, as experienced by a real Viator Insider.

jump-photo_9470258-770tallThe Traveler: Daniel Hackett, Regional Director, Latin America

What’s your role at Viator? I contract activities and manage accounts in the Latin America region at Viator.

The trip: La Paz, Bolivia for three days in June, 2014.

Why did you choose this destination?

There aren’t many places left in the world that remain untouched by tourism and Bolivia is one of them. It’s off the beaten path, rugged, rustic and a cultural paradise. La Paz is home to over 30 official languages and is nestled high in the Andes at 12,000 feet above sea level, making it a very unique city.

What did you do on the trip?

The main purpose of the trip was for business, to do a site visit and meet with local tour operators. Viator was planning on launching La Paz as a new destination in July, so the idea was to gain more insight into why people travel here, what they do once they arrive and, of course, how could Viator give that extra bit of insider advice. Meetings were planned over the couple of days I was there, but there’s truly no better way to experience and understand a destination than by testing out activities and doing as locals do!

What was the best experience?

Titicaca Lake and snow-capped mountains in the background

Titicaca Lake and snow-capped mountains in the background

The best experience was the way I arrived into Bolivia. I was in southeastern Peru (Puno area) and I had a couple of choices on how to get to La Paz; take the bus in, fly, or take a boat. I wasn’t too pressed on time so I ruled out flying in, plus I was already flying out of La Paz, so I knew I would eventually experience flying out of the world’s highest airport (take off time takes twice as long!). I decided on the boat, a great way to experience the sacred Titicaca Lake and relax as you cruise past a stunning landscape of islands and snow-capped mountains.

The 12 hour trip across the lake is highly recommended and fun for two main reasons. The first, is that you actually get to walk across a border (Peru – Bolivia) carrying your suitcase across; that was definitely a first and an experience I’ll never forget. The second reason is that the catamaran stops at Sun Island, a popular attraction on the Bolivian side of the lake. At Sun Island, you disembark, climb to the top and experience the life of the locals. You visit the botanical gardens, watch an Incan priest perform a traditional ceremony, take a guided tour of the island’s museum and hang out with llamas. The views from the island are unparalleled, allowing for unique photo opportunities you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

The catamaran itself is comfortable, a buffet lunch is included and it’s a relaxing way to get into La Paz.

Did you take any Viator tours?

Mountain biking on the Death Road

Mountain biking on the Death Road

Of course! For the past couple of years, I’ve had the Death Road mountain biking tour on my bucket list. I’m not the world’s biggest adrenaline junkie but I had the tour booked for a Sunday and I couldn’t wait! It really met all my expectations – Death Road is an absolute thrill of a lifetime. There wasn’t a point where I felt unsafe, but I knew that one little slip and I’d be off a cliff 3,300 feet in height. Concentration was key, but you could still have a lot of fun. The great part was that it was carried out in a small group with one guide at the front and another one at the back. This allowed you to go as fast or as slow as you liked, so you could go at your own pace, stopping to take photos or even rest without feeling like you were holding up the group. The scariest part is that the road is still in use today, so while you are riding downhill you have to avoid trucks and buses coming up at you. And, on this road (unlike the rest of Bolivia), you drive on the left-hand side, which means closest to the cliff. I would recommend it to most people, however not elderly travelers or children. That said, you don’t have to have mountain biking experience to do this tour, it’s suitable for all riding levels. The company that Viator uses is extremely professional and their bikes are top quality (between $3,000 and $3,500 each). Your safety is their top priority!

I also did a short city tour of La Paz, which included a guided visit to the Valley of the Moon. It’s the perfect combination since the Valley of the Moon is really close to La Paz and you can do both in just a couple of hours. I would recommend that travelers do this on their first day as it helps you get orientated to a new city and you can ask your guide about any restaurant, shopping or nightlife tips in order to help plan the rest of your stay. The tour is private, so you can work with the local operator to customize it according to your needs; whether you want to visit more museums, do a more traditional top attractions style tour or spend more time in one place versus the other. I really liked the fact that you can interact with the locals, whether buying souvenirs at the Witches’ Market or by stopping at a café to enjoy a drink. Also, this tour has something for everyone and caters to all needs, whether geographical, historical or cultural.

Exploring La Paz

Exploring La Paz

The other Viator tour I did was the Lake Titicaca and Sun Island catamaran cruise, however departing from Puno in Peru. If you aren’t entering La Paz from the lake, you can also book this tour from La Paz, so you can have the chance to visit Lake Titicaca and the famous Sun Island. Another option is same tour but you actually stay overnight on Sun Island!

Which attraction did you enjoy the most, and why?

Ready to go on the Death Road

Ready to go on the Death Road

I’d probably have to say Death Road, and not strictly because of the mountain bike tour itself. The history of the road is what fascinated me the most. It was built by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War of the 1930s. Bolivia didn’t know what to do with the prisoners and they needed a road built between the Amazonian region (Yungas) and the capital city of La Paz. Many of the Paraguayan prisoners died during its construction.

The road first got the name “Death Road” in the 1940s when a political party running for power in Bolivia took the five opposing parties’ leaders to the road, bound their hands and gave them the option to either be shot (and fall off) or walk off the side themselves. All of them decided to walk off and the responsible party gained control of the country. Their rule didn’t last long, but with Bolivia having had more presidents than any other country in the world, it’s not a surprise!

In the 1990s, the road received its “the world’s most dangerous road” title from a report issued by the Inter-American Development Bank. Roughly 200 – 300 people would die annually on this road until 2006, when a new alternative road was built. The “New Road” as it’s called, has quickly become the second most dangerous road in the world!

On Death Road you can also see a house which belonged to the famous Nazi SS army captain Klaus Barbie, who emigrated to Argentina in the 1950s then to Bolivia in order to escape capture. The road is still being used today (we traveled back up it on the bus in the dark!) and is full of history!

What surprised you the most about the destination?

The law. I don’t mean that in a bad way, though. Imagine a city where there are more than 30 indigenous communities living, all of which have different customs and laws. How do you enforce one specific rule to accommodate all groups of people?  You can’t, so you have to allow different laws which were practiced thousands of years ago and not strictly humane or viewed as modern in today’s society.

One example that sticks out is what you see in the area of El Alto, a neighborhood near the airport. They have life size human dolls / dummies hanging on lamp posts with signs that say, “Burglars have been warned, you will be burned”. Shocking at first, but if you are the victim of a crime in Bolivia, you have the right to capture the offender and take your own revenge on them. If you catch someone breaking into your house, you can burn them alive and get into no trouble for it! It seems absolutely crazy, but that’s what so unusual about this country – it values the practices, customs and beliefs of dozens of communities that call the country home. Hence, its official name is the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

What sight, activity, or experience would you tell people they should not skip?

Looking down at beautiful La Paz

Looking down at beautiful La Paz

This really depends on the traveler and what kind of experience they are looking for. La Paz has something for everyone, but if I had to pick just one thing, I would say the visiting one of the city’s lookout points. Looking out at La Paz sprawled in front of you is an amazing moment to take in and the city is not short of places where this is possible. Each lookout point offers a different angle, but all of them ensure great photo opportunities of this mystical city nestled in the middle of snow-capped mountains, dry valleys and the antiplano (high plain).

What was the best thing you ate or drank?

Coffee in a bag. Yep, strange, I know. I’ve heard that places in southeast Asia sell Coke on the street in plastic bags and you drink it out of straws. Well, in Bolivia you can buy hot coffee in a plastic bag and you drink it out of a straw as well! Such a strange concept as I thought it would melt, but it didn’t!

Bolivia isn’t best known for its food, but there are some hidden secrets. Definitely don’t miss out on salteñas, an empanada-like breakfast savory biscuit that you eat with your coffee in the mornings. Another good thing is the steak, not as well-known as neighboring countries like Brazil and Argentina, but still delicious!

What are your top three recommendations to any visitor?

  • La Paz is at an altitude of 12,000 feet above sea level so even a little bit of walking takes a toll on you. It becomes hard to breathe and just the little bit of effort is strenuous. Take it easy, especially the first day, drink lots of coca tea and ease into it.
  • Interact with the locals. This goes for any country in the world, but because of Bolivia’s various communities, all the locals will have something new to teach you.
  • Brace yourself for the roads – by all means, don’t rent a car or drive yourself. Taxis are fine (and cheap) even if you do negotiate a price with the driver before getting in. But, close your eyes and hang on tight, you’ll be in for a fun ride!

What’s the best Insider Tip you can offer future visitors to this destination? 

Prepare for the unexpected. Anything flies in Bolivia and nothing goes according to plan! Don’t expect that your itinerary will go smoothly. Be prepared for the occasional road bump and embrace it for what it is!

Where are you off to next?

Funnily enough, back to Bolivia, but this time to the south of the country to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats. I’ll be attending a conference in Salta, Argentina (in the north) and from there I’ll go on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Uyuni in Bolivia. It’s going to be a fun itinerary as I’ve never been to these places before. In Salta, I plan on taking the train to the clouds, and in San Pedro, I’ll most likely visit the salt flats, geysers and hot springs. The highlight will be Uyuni though, I can’t wait to stay at one of the salt hotels!

– Daniel Hackett 

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