South America Top 5 Countdown

3. Salar Uyuni & La Paz, Bolivia

Although Bolivia was initially planned as a transit stop from Chile to Peru, I became very intrigued by this country as I started reading up on it. Yes, it had some unique selling points for tourists, such as Salar Uyuni – the largest salt flats in the world; La Paz – the highest capital in the world; and just nearby, the most dangerous road in the world. But what interested me more were its people and history.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, has the highest indigenous population, and is a symbol of the ruthless legacy of colonialism left behind by the Spanish. The Europeans pretty much stole this nation’s minerals and in the process created a mining industry that overworked and underpaid the locals under dangerous working conditions¬†and which currently lies dormant. Yet its people are the most hospitable and humble of all the countries I visited, and their resiliency in a harsh climate (both in terms of weather and economy) is a symbol of the strength of South Americans, particularly the indigenous population.

We started a four- day Jeep tour from Chile to Bolivia and through numerous lagoons and salt flats, staying in some very humble ‘hotels’ along the way. We added some new friends: two Italian twin sisters along with their brother and father whose names I easily remembered from the Italian soccer team. Yes, we argued about whether Inter or AC was the better team throughout the journey, and it was bittersweet victory for me when we finally got to catch some live Serie A action in a restaurant and saw my team beat theirs!

While I was in Brazil I heard of the Bolivian government’s announcement to raise the price of gas, thus pushing the country to the brink of possible strikes. Knowing this could possibly wipe out the entire Bolivian/Chilean part of my trip, we decided to play it safe and organize our transportation by playing it by ear, ie resort to the unpredictable, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, mode of buses. This resulted in some unique situations, some that didn’t seem so funny at the moment. But thankfully the warmth and kindness of the Bolivian people made it worthwhile and it was definitely a uniquely South American experience!

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