As the cable car swings over a city that, at 3,640m above sea level, is already one of the highest in the world, I have to suppress a wave of vertigo. From this vantage point, the views of La Paz’s urban sprawl and the snowbound peaks of the Cordillera de los Frailes are hair-raising. But sharing the cabin with me is a sight nearly as arresting: a Quechua woman in her traditional finery of bustling skirts, striped woollen shawl and a felt fedora perched on a glossy black mane that tumbles in thick plaits down her back.
Bolivia is still among the least developed countries in Latin America, and as such offers challenges – accommodation at the upper end, for example, is more about quirky idiosyncrasy than standard international cosseting. But it also has considerable charms, and while travellers are advised to be vigilant, Bolivia is regarded as one of the safest, friendliest countries on the continent. In 2017, it has reached a nice point of balance between the near-pristine state of its ancient landscapes and cultures and modernity, which is finally making inroads into its travel sector.
Marisol Mosquera is a leading light in this regard. The founder-owner of Aracari – a boutique tour operator that earned its stripes in nearby Peru – made a cunning move into Bolivia a few years ago, and now I am experiencing the country with her outfit on a made-to-measure itinerary. Mosquera is convinced that Peru’s southeastern neighbour now has serious potential as a destination for discerning travellers. Her plans for me eschew the conventional route from Lake Titicaca, but go via its less-traversed southwestern flank – the better to explore the colonial cities of Sucre and Potosí, the cultures of the High Plateau, and the salt flats of Uyuni, at 3,650m above sea level an astonishing, lesser‑known wonder of the natural world.
On the way into Sucre from the city’s brand-new airport, the countryside is wide and wild, shaded as if with a watercolour wash of soft green. There are fields of potato, maize and bushels of purplish-red quinoa, and adobe houses crouching among them. A woman in a poncho sits spinning wool on a wooden bobbin. Painted messages on every available surface shout “VOTE YES TO EVO”.
Everyone knows about President Evo Morales, but Sucre has political claims to fame of which I am shamefully ignorant. Most obviously, this city is Bolivia’s constitutional capital, though the seat of government is located in La Paz. At the Casa de la Libertad, a 17th-century building on the Plaza 25 de Mayo, a hush of reverence fills the hall where Bolivia’s Declaration of Independence is protected in a glass case flanked by two flags: the traditional red, yellow and green, and the candy-coloured rainbow design invented by the president to celebrate the “plurinational” nature of his country.
Out in the plaza, families relax in the perpetually spring-like temperatures of an evening in this highland town. Around the square lies a centro histórico of cobbled streets and whitewashed Spanish-colonial mansions, all in a fine state of preservation. I nose around churches and convents where roughly carved saints frown from gilded altarpieces. There are appealing places to stay too – none more homely than the Villa Julia, where Fernando Rodríguez and his wife Ximena receive guests at their sumptuously restored former country estate, and none more venerable than the Parador Santa María La Real, a colonial edifice owned by Lucho Rodríguez, brother of Fernando. The Parador dates from the 18th century, its arched and columned central patio painted a rich shade of Andalucian añil, with bougainvillea flaming pink against the blue.
Sucre proves to be a delightful city where the locals are courteous and softly spoken but defiantly proud of their heritage. One morning I visit a hat factory where 19th-century machines pound away amid smells of wet wool and sulphuric acid – but the sombreros, suitably for a nation of passionate hat wearers, are things of variegated beauty. Later in the day, the Museum of Indigenous Art grants me valuable insight into the complex craft of local weaving, whose techniques date back to pre-Columbian civilisations. The fabric designs are vibrant, at times strikingly modern: a poncho from Potolo, with its richly coloured stripes in mesmeric rhythms, reminds me of Bridget Riley’s op-art paintings, while the works of the Jalq’a weavers, with their intricate depictions of fantastical creatures, are masterpieces of folk art.
Two and a half hours out of Sucre, on a lonely road through a bucolic landscape, lies Hacienda Candelaria, a country estate owned by another branch of the Rodríguez family, of which Liz Rojas, my charming and efficient local guide, turns out to be a member (upper-class Bolivia is a small world). Candelaria is a rambling, romantic farm with a primitive chapel, a colonial courtyard with a dribbling fountain, and a kitchen blackened with age where Liz’s mother Elizabeth cooks up rib-sticking dishes of traditional Bolivian cuisine such as quinoa pie and picante de pollo (chicken in a dark-red, spicy sauce). If it’s high-end haciendas you’re looking for, Hotel Museo Cayara outside Potosí is a glorious example, with its antique-stuffed interiors and ochre-painted courtyards; but if you’re after rustic with genuine warmth in abundance, Candelaria will do just fine. The hacienda’s creaky atmospherics, its non-existent WiFi and precarious plumbing are a small price to pay for an experience you’ll be dining out on for years.
But then, Bolivia provides a number of such experiences. There is the drive on Route 5 from Potosí to Uyuni, for instance, sweeping upwards and westwards through the virtually treeless but craggily mountainous Altiplano. (Dizzy heights are so called for a reason; my altitude-related nausea is only relieved by a flask of Windsor-brand coca-leaf tea.) Herds of llama graze on patches of pasture beside slow-flowing streams, raising their inquisitive heads to reveal bright ribbons comically adorning their ears.
As recently as the mid-Noughties, the Salar de Uyuni salt flats were a serious off-road adventure option: the town itself was down on its luck, with none of the salt-safari agencies that now crowd its dusty streets. The Dakar Rally, which has passed through Bolivia since 2014, has given the Salar a useful blast of global publicity. But if the area is witnessing a tourist boom, competing with Lake Titicaca for the title of Bolivia’s number one destination, it’s mainly thanks to the Japanese, who come in their droves in the rainy season to admire the sublime reflections of rainbows, stars and sunsets in the flooded flats.
At 12,000sq km, the Salar de Uyuni constitutes the world’s largest salt flat; it is truly the “salt of the earth”. Nothing can prepare you for the exhilarating strangeness of this great white desert, nor its brutal and relentless beauty. On the two-hour drive by 4x4 towards the bizarre “island” of Incahuasi with its colony of giant cacti, the salt sparkles in the clear air like hoarfrost on a winter morning. Holes in the crust open into crystal caverns inundated with ice-blue water, and when an angry storm rolls in from the north, the world is suddenly divided into turbulent dark grey above the horizon and blinding white beneath.
A novelty in Uyuni is the trio of “salt hotels” built from salt blocks in the manner of the Nordic ice hotels (the most interesting of these being the Palacio de Sal). But there’s only one great place to stay here, and it has wheels. Crillon Tours’ three classic Airstream camper vans – recently brought over from Florida by Darius Morgan, the Romanian/Bolivian entrepreneur behind the hydrofoil trips on Lake Titicaca – can be parked either on the shore of the Salar, in the shadow of the volcano Tunupa, or right in the middle of that dazzling whiteness.
The comforts of my mobile home are manifold: there is hot water and central heating (necessary in the cold desert nights on the salt flats), an iPod dock, and beer in the fridge. There are fresh cotton sheets on my double bed and a fluffy robe as white as the Airstream’s backyard. Isaac, my private chef, whips up a perfectly cooked chateaubriand steak for my dinner along with a bottle of red Terruño, part of a growing contingent of quality Bolivian wines. I could spend days in cosseted contemplation of the Salar’s zen-like surroundings – but next morning the spell is broken. By dawn I am on a plane bound for La Paz, and by lunchtime swinging down from El Alto on the brand-new teleférico.
La Paz is the humming metropolis that, of all Bolivia’s towns and cities, best resists the idea of the country as a sleepy South American backwater. Rural people still wear their hats, shawls and long pollera skirts in its brick-built, traffic-maddened streets, but the 21st century is growing up through the cracks in the pavement. Gastronomy is a particular strength of the new, improved La Paz. At Gustu, the epoch-making restaurant opened in 2013 by Claus Meyer of Copenhagen’s Noma, I nibble a coca-leaf brioche and a sensational tartare of raw llama meat with unripe peach and mustard greens while one of its staff tells me about the 13 cookery schools Meyer’s foundation has set up across Bolivia and Colombia, the 2,700 people who have graduated from them, and the new wave of chef-driven restaurants – Ali Pacha, Propiedad Pública, Los Qñapés, Humo – currently galvanising the city’s dining scene.
Gustu occupies a warehouse-like space given warmth and character by upcycled furniture, indigenous fabrics and fine modern glassware to match the high-tech cuisine. But this cutting-edge interior is hardly unique in up-and-coming La Paz. Atix, in the well-upholstered suburbs of Zona Sur, is billed as La Paz’s very first design hotel, and successfully combines low-impact modernism with indigenous weavings and gaudily coloured sculptures (very Bolivian) by acclaimed local artist Gastón Ugalde.
More excitingly still, a forthcoming hotel in the downtown zone, Altu Qala, is set to transform the fortunes of this down-at-heel district. More than 10 years ago Bolivian/German entrepreneur Boris Alarcón bought a late-18th-century neoclassical mansion in the old town, later converting it into a 10-suite hotel in which brass bedheads and 1960s-esque chairs in the style of Bertoia set off the high ceilings and modernista floor tiles. In the post-steampunk interior of Altu Qala’s ground-floor coffee bar – which is already attracting the cool seekers and Monocle readers of Zona Sur – Alarcón fills me in on the “sexy” new La Paz, with its design galleries, edgy bars and chic coffee shops. Bolivia may not yet be a front-rank global destination, but as I listen to him, I can’t help feeling that moment might well be just around the corner.