Walk in dinosaur footprints, across salt flats, and through red rock canyons in the center of South America.
By Stephanie Frias
What if I told you there was an idyllic country in South America specially designed for traveling with kids? A place capable of taking families to remote places ladled with dinosaur bones and preserved footprints? A relatively unknown country recognized from outer space as the “the World’s Mirror,” named for the planet’s largest salt flats that are so magnificent they can be seen beyond the atmosphere?
Our family spent three months exploring the wonderful country of Bolivia, located nearly smack in the middle of South America. Bordered by Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile it is a place often overshadowed by the other countries. We explored Bolivia independently from the back of our off-road-capable, modified vintage Landcruiser with our kids (ages 4 and 5).
Not camping? No problem. Anyone can travel to these amazing places although some of them do require a 4X4 truck to get there, depending on weather and seasonal conditions. All of the places listed below have somewhere to stay nearby – either towns or abergues – super rustic housing set up by the rural Bolivians to aid tourists in places where there are no hotels.
Read on for our favorite Bolivian destinations for getting way off the beaten track.
Torotoro National Park
It sits at the top of our list of favorites, the ultra-remote dinosaur themed village laced with direct evidence of prehistoric times. To get here is a four-hour detour from the nearest city of Cochabamba through alternately dirt or gravel roads and steep inclines. The tiny town has the same name as the neighboring park, Torotoro, and there are many hostel-type accommodations for families.
To enter the park requires a guide, which proves beneficial in navigating the vast canyons, waterfalls, caverns, and rock formations of the southern Andes – as well as in locating the impressive fossilized dinosaur footprints. The attractions and trails proved so interesting, that our little ones happily endured an 8-hour day on foot. It was a fabulous achievement for all of us, even if our youngest spent most of the day on Daddy’s shoulders. We saw, sat next to and put our hands inside the dinosaur footprints of Jurassic animals who roamed this earth some 120 million years ago. Within this park, so far, they have identified a whopping 2,500 unique prints belonging to several dozen dinosaur species. What an amazing adventure to see such remains outside of a museum and in their original place of discovery. And what an unforgettable moment in realizing that we were finally capable of completing some BIG hikes.
Uyuni Salt Flats
A close second on the list is the singular destination Bolivia is most recognized for, the Uyuni Salt Flats. The strange, tundra landscapes of the salt flats are believed to be the final remains of an ancient ocean that has since dried up – leaving behind some 4,000 square miles of glistening salt. National Geographic has touted it as one of the most remarkable vistas on earth.
Depending on the season, the flats are a sparkling carpet of salt crystals spread out in puzzle-piece designs or a mirror-like expanse of shallow salt water. Most visitors explore this incredible terrain via guided off-road tours that leave from the neighboring, dusty city of the same name, which also has dozens of lodging options.
We chose to take our own vehicle into the dizzying expanse, although closely following behind a tour. It’s easy to get lost in the world of white, or worse yet – stuck in the slushy, half-dry, half wet salt plains. Don’t do it alone unless you are confident in your off-road and navigational skills as the nights are frightfully cold, the terrain impossibly barren, and the passersby few and far between.
Beyond the incomparable scenery, Uyuni serves as the ultimate science experiment for kids. The salt looks like snow, but it doesn’t feel or taste like it, capable of eroding the soles of rainboots left unwashed or peeling the paint of a dolly’s face. It’s also capable of reflecting one of the clearest night skies in the southern hemisphere. Daytime photography is fun here too, where it’s quite popular to take perspective shots on the perfect blank slate backdrop.
Cordillera de Sama Biological Preserve
A very special place tucked into the southwestern corner of Bolivia, is a dazzling preserve not known by many. Approximately a two-hour drive from the city of Tarija is the Cordillera de Sama Biological Preserve, which offers unforgettable landscapes entirely off the tourist track. The only place to stay here is the Albergue de Pujzara.
In this little slice of heaven, our family had the opportunity to savor to the fullest, several days completely off-grid. From beyond the golden-hued hills and windswept sand dunes, are isolated saltwater lakes frequented by flamingos, vibrant water ducks, rabbits, and vicunas- a pretty, high-altitude variety of camel. Without a soul in sight, we made our way through settings so serene it seemed as if we were walking through a painting. The colors of the water were so impossibly blue and the winds of the mountains, so impeccably pure, they left a mark on us as one of the most beautiful places in South America.
Located midway between Tarija and Uyuni, Tupiza is a little Bolivian gem missed by many travelers who sleep through it on the night bus from northern cities to the salt flats. We nearly missed it ourselves, planning to stay overnight in the wild west-esque town before making our way south because it has many lodging options. We arrived earlier in the day than expected, utterly shocked by the towering red rock formations that frame the small city.
It seemed quite odd to us we had not read so much as a single mention of the impressive landscapes. We decided immediately to extend our stay for three nights, to uncover this unrevealed red rock canyon of Bolivia. In a place that closely rivals the canyons of Utah and Arizona, we explored with no other cost than the price of gas. The kids giggled over staining their hands and jeans red in the dirt while running and shouting without reservation through the echoing canyons. We marched through the Devil’s Door, climbed the Canyon of the Incas, and went offroad through ravines in colors of yellow, green, and red. Apparently less impressive to the nearby Uyuni, we feel strongly that Tupiza doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
Bolivia is a country full of surprises, a place that we wish had given us more than a 90-day visa. The above places are a just glimpse of countless incredible destinations to discover within. On a trip to Bolivia, other places that shouldn’t be missed include the following:
- Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, from the scenic coves of Copacabana.
- Hotel Museo Cayara in Potosi, possibly the oldest ranch in South America.
- Sucre for the historic district, cheap Spanish lessons, and the Cretaceous Park.
- La Paz for the highest cable car network in existence and the nearby Valley of the Moon.
- Samaipata for the scenic, European style village and the largest carved rock in the world.
Stephanie Frias – May 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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