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Your Vacation in Lights - A Reader's Trip to Bolivia

During a tour of Lake Titicaca, Mike Frederick's wife, Shannon Gipson, left, and their guide, Marcelo, admire the beautiful Bolivian scenery.
During a tour of Lake Titicaca, Mike Frederick's wife, Shannon Gipson, left, and their guide, Marcelo, admire the beautiful Bolivian scenery. (By Mike Frederick)

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mike Frederick of Gaithersburg is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

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THE TRIP: Eight days in Bolivia, with visits to La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Sucre and Potosi.

WHO: My wife, Shannon Gipson, and I.

WHY: We'd heard that the country was an "unspoiled" and "authentic" South American destination and that Bolivians are friendly and hospitable. All true.

WHEN: April '08

GETTING THERE WAS . . . more expensive than all of the other trip expenses combined. Airfare on American Airlines was $860 each round trip from Washington Dulles to La Paz, via Miami. Hotel, breakfast, air between La Paz and Sucre, and three tours was $460 per person. (We booked the land portion through Peru Bolivian Tours, http://www.perubolivian.com).

IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . we got high. Not by chewing wads of coca leaves, of course, but by going to the outskirts of La Paz and looking out over the city. At almost 12,000 feet, it is the highest capital in the world.

I GRITTED MY TEETH THE HARDEST WHEN . . . after dark, on the winding, sometimes treacherous road between Potosi and Sucre, we came very close to hitting a cow. Fortunately, we had an alert driver, because the animal refused to budge. We had to hold onto our seats as he slammed on the brakes.

I CAN'T BELIEVE I . . . didn't get to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, an unbelievably white plain of pure sodium that covers more than 4,600 square miles.

BEST BED: Parador Santa Maria La Real in Sucre, which put us in a large, plush suite. The downside: The courtyards of these old converted mansions are also places for congregating. You can't help but hear breakfast conversations and late-night guests returning from dinner.

FAVORITE MEAL: Lunch in the garden at Huerta, a light and airy restaurant on the outskirts of Sucre. Our meal included a salad bar with unusual vegetables (Bolivia has dozens of varieties of potatoes), fried fish, onion rings, rice, creme caramel and super-strong coffee.

COFFEE JOLT: Bolivian breakfast coffee is not for the faint of heart, nor the uninitiated. It's thicker than motor oil and a tiny bit goes a long way: about one part coffee to nine parts milk. I learned this the hard way.

COOLEST ATTRACTION: The Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia (National Mint of Bolivia) in the colonial mining town of Potosi. At one time, the Cerro de Potosi mountain produced most of the world's silver. The museum's gigantic wooden pressing machine, once turned by teams of mules one floor below, is the only 17th-century example left in the world.

I COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT . . . being foggy-headed from the altitude. Walking around La Paz, which has many hills and narrow streets, is a challenge. Add the heavy traffic and air pollution and you have a situation ill-suited for travelers with breathing problems.

I WISH I'D BROUGHT: Trekking poles. They would have come in handy on the hills, especially in La Paz and the Island of the Sun (Isla del Sol) on Lake Titicaca.

CHEAPEST THRILL: The Witches' Market in La Paz. Shops display all manner of exotic products that the indigenous people believe have spiritual powers: dried bats and frogs, armadillo carcasses and nude figurines of couples in, shall we say, interesting positions. Cameras are not welcome.

BIGGEST SPLURGE: A day trip to Potosi (overland from Sucre), an add-on we made in-country. Round trip with guide, driver, tour and lunch was $105 per person.

BIGGEST CULTURAL SHOCK: The stores selling mining equipment in Potosi. All the dynamite and blasting caps you can carry, no questions asked.

FAVORITE SOUVENIR: A pitcher that cleverly incorporates a hollowed gourd with a spout and handle made of Bolivian silver. We purchased it at a small gift shop at the Valley of the Moon, a natural attraction of limestone formations outside La Paz.

MOST SOBERING FACT: There were half a dozen Yanks on the tour of the mint in Potosi. The guide said that was the most he'd seen in seven years on the job.

WHAT I'D DO DIFFERENTLY: Stay longer! In addition to the cities of the Andes Mountains, Bolivia has regions that contain parts of the Amazon rain forest and, as someone interested in colonial history, I'd add a tour of 16th-century Jesuit missions.

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To submit, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own; for a list, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/vacationinlights), and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail vacationinlights@ washpost.com.


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