Bolivia: Grand Lake Views and Ruins of an Ancient Civilization

March 22, 2020 Updated: March 22, 2020
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Bolivia is not usually one of the places that come to mind when you are thinking about where to visit next.

Try to think of something that you have always wanted to see that happens to be in Bolivia. Have you ever even heard much about the country? Ever noticed it on any of those lists of where to find great bargains?

So you probably don’t think it would be an interesting place to visit, right?

My thoughts exactly—until recently.

But on a particularly pleasant day, as I dined on some delicious seafood at a restaurant outdoor table high up on a bluff overlooking a scenic vista of Lake Titicaca and the Royal Range of the Andes, I was very pleased that I had decided to visit Bolivia.

Lake Titicaca and many of its islands are a delight to the eye. What most people who have heard of this 3,200-square-mile lake 12,580 feet high up in the Andes Mountains usually know that it is called “the highest navigable lake in the world” (although, in fact, there are a couple of small lakes in the Andes of Peru and Chile higher still upon which you can navigate a small boat).

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A Bolivian Andean Indian fisherman in his reed boat, which is made of held-together bundles of reeds. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Tiwanaku: Bolivia’s ‘Lost Civilization’

What few people seem to know is that by the shores of this lake—South America’s second-largest—there once stood one of the biggest cities in the world, part of a civilization that both pre-dated and surpassed that of the Incas and is considered the most important civilization that developed during the pre-Colombian period.

That’s what drew me to Bolivia—the chance to walk among the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku (just as often spelled Tiahuanaco) and learn about this great civilization that is said to date back to 1500 B.C.

Long ago, around 200 B.C., Tiwanaku was a flourishing place, with an extensive system of roads and a highly sophisticated agricultural system that featured terraced planting surfaces set among a network of irrigation canals that retained heat, thereby keeping crops from freezing during cold Andes nights. At the same time, algae and aquatic plants grew in the canals and were used to organically fertilize the crops. In the late 20th century some Bolivian Andean farmers experimented with copying the ancient Tiwanaku system and increased their crop yields by doing so.

Some archaeologists say that in many aspects Tiwanaku was as advanced as ancient Egypt. It faded into “lost civilization” status sometime around 1200 A.D. for reasons not certain, one theory being that a drop in the level of Lake Titicaca left the settlement too far removed from a shoreline.

The capital of La Paz, with mountains in the background
The capital of La Paz, with mountains in the background. (Dudarev Mikhail/SHUTTERSTOCK)

While the ruins at this World Heritage Site may not rival a site such as Ephesus, they are very impressive. But this is not a place the normal traveler should experience without a good guide. Nor for that matter is Bolivia.

For the traveler who would like to see Bolivia but hasn’t seen Peru, and especially for anyone who would like to see Tiwanaku but hasn’t seen Machu Picchu, a great idea would be to take the trip that brought me there: Abercrombie & Kent’s highlights of Peru with Bolivia extension tour. In 12 days, traveling in comfort with a small group, you take in many of the most memorable sights of both countries, enjoy the best accommodations, and learn from guides who know their subjects in-depth and go out of their way to make your experience truly enjoyable.

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The sparkling white cathedral of Copacabana. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Other Highlights

Tiwanaku may be the highlight of Bolivia for some, but for others, it will be shopping in La Paz, Bolivia’s largest and the world’s highest capital city, or experiencing Bolivian landscapes and culture while traveling on Lake Titicaca or around the stark Altiplano (high plateau) region.

After flying into La Paz, Bolivia, following our visits to the Peruvian sights of Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Cusco, our A&K tour headed straight to Lake Titicaca.

First we visited the Altiplano Museum, where we learned a bit about the archeology and anthropology of the high plateau region, then came the Andean Roots Eco Village, featuring the folkloric heritage of the area’s local Indian communities. This included demonstrations about how they built the reed boats for which the Lake Titicaca area has so long been famous. These are the people who built the boats that Thor Heyerdahl sailed in his epic Pacific expeditions.

Epoch Times Photo
Surviving members of the Uru Iruito tribe like this man and woman live as their ancestors did on Lake Titicaca—on “floating islands” or thick floating mats made from papyrus, a reed-like aquatic plant. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Here we saw up close and learned about Andean wildlife such as llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. In the evening we met with a local shaman, one of the natural medicine doctors who believe you have to first heal the soul before you can heal the body and who are equally authorized as MDs to practice medicine here.

A day-long tour of Lake Titicaca aboard a large hydrofoil boat included stops to visit the town of Copacabana, situated on a picturesque bay, and a visit to an unusual place where surviving members of the Uru Iruitos tribe live as their ancestors did—on floating islands that are sort of thick floating mats made from papyrus, a reed-like aquatic plant. Their floating island is not only a truly unusual experience but also a good place to shop for native handicrafts.

Shopping

When it comes to shopping, La Paz is Bolivia’s gem. This city of a million has its interesting sights, including an appealing contrast of Spanish colonial-era architecture adjacent to modern; a huge Indian market right downtown; but it’s the shopping opportunities that truly set it apart from other big South American cities.

If you think leather goods are a great bargain in Peru, Ecuador, or Argentina, just wait until you shop in La Paz. And nowhere else in South America have I ever come across such great bargains in Alpaca sweaters.

Bolivia may not be a destination that you have ever given much thought to, but you might want to think again. It’s a very interesting destination.

A young girl leads a llama on Sun Island, Lake Titicaca.
A young girl leads a llama on Sun Island, Lake Titicaca. (Thomas Wyness/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If You Go

For information about Abercrombie & Kent’s highlights of Peru with Bolivia extension tour, or other South American destinations, call 1-800-554-7016 or visit AbercrombieKent.com

Travel tip for peace of mind: Especially when you travel to remote spots, think of this: If you ever had to be medically evacuated, it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Many plans that claim they cover this fall far short. We cover ourselves against this with membership in MedjetAssist, which takes effect anytime we are more than 150 miles from home. Surprisingly, two-thirds of their medical evacuations occur in the United States.

Travel Guides: There aren’t many travel guides for Bolivia. “The Rough Guide to Bolivia” receives more favorable comments than others.

Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. To see his work, visit EckertGallery.com