Oh, Bolivia. This is a place where everything converges—mountains, water, desert, cities, the sky, diversity, poverty, jungles, witches, surreal beauty, friendships. Sadly, Bolivia is often overlooked in favor of neighboring Peru, which is also incredible but certainly not a substitute for the two countries truly have different offerings.
Bolivia is a country of extremes. The numbers seem to hold it back: it is the poorest country in South America, and it is landlocked. However, Bolivia also has the largest indigenous population in South America and is incredibly diverse—in terms of both its peoples and its landscapes. In other words, Bolivia has struggled, but it is truly a wonder.
For travelers, there are some significant benefits to visiting Bolivia. The country is very cheap. It is possible to see an awful lot in a short amount of time (though you will always want more time). There is enough tourism infrastructure to be useful when needed, but it is also not as overwhelming as in other countries. If you’re willing to rough it just a bit, you’ll see some of the most remarkable sights, and meet some great people. And you’ll think about South America’s history. All too often we overlook the brutal history of conquest in the Americas, we see Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins as crumbling stones to take photos of rather than the haunting ghosts that they are. But in Bolivia, the ghosts are alive and staring you in the face, smiling, working, guiding you, kindly making you custom bracelets unasked.
Before I met the people-who-aren’t-ghosts, I treaded on the land-that-still-is. Our first stop in Bolivia was Copacabana and from there, Isla del Sol. My friend Rachel and I endured an overnight bus from Cusco to Copacabana during which we struggled through a border crossing as the only two U.S. citizens on the bus. But the cumbersome entrance into the country was worth it. We knew this as we laboriously scaled uneven stairs with the crowds of Bolivians and tourists to the overlook the town and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. This is truly a special place.
We then took a boat over the lake to Isla del Sol, Island of the Sun, the supposed birthplace of the Incan sun god. The island is scattered with ruins, the land is still terraced in true Incan farming style, and there are no motor vehicles. It is a curious blend of modernity and history, and a remarkable place to visit—that is, once you conquer the stairs. We landed at Yumani, one of a couple towns on the island. To get from the dock to the town, you must ascend a long set of stairs cut in the face of the island, which is not the easiest at altitude. But as with so many other places, the view from the top makes you forget your troubles in getting there.
Lacking endless time, Rachel and I wandered around the island near Yumani, over the hills and their terraces, through town, past various comical animals, up a hill to some ruins. From Isla del Sol, you can gaze over the lake and realize just what Bolivia holds. Nearby is Isla de la Luna, Island of the Moon, home to the Incan Temple of the Virgins. Behind the lake stretches on, but through the clouds you can glimpse the mountains that tower over all from afar.
And in special places, surrounded by items that have been of significance for thousands of years, Rachel and I pondered what was special in our own lives. We talked about why we traveled, about judgment from others, about our relationships which were precariously but successfully founded on long-distance. Our lives pale in comparison to everything, but they’re still ours to share and to build bonds between. When traveling, there is somewhat of a push to accelerate the process with newfound friends that you know you will not be with for long. We walked, we found dinner, and we watched the sunset and an incoming storm from the porch of our hostel.
In the beginning in Bolivia, we walked beneath the close and enormous cloud-ridden sky, and everything—land, history, and our own lives—came together. Bolivia is a place where everything is important, everything is examined, everything touches. The sky touches the water, our outsider lives brush through living history, and it all grabs on to each other.
One day on the island is not enough time. Two weeks in the country is not enough time. But it is something. And for me, there’s still a few years left on my visa. If you’re thinking about South America, consider Bolivia. It holds many of the extremes of the earth, and if you want to learn from it all, you easily can.