Bolivia is a beautiful, geographically diverse, multiethnic, and democratic country in the heart of South America. It is surrounded by Brazil to the northeast, Peru to the northwest, Chile to the southwest, Argentina and Paraguay to the south. It shares with Peru control of Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca), the world’s highest navigable lake (elevation 3,805m).
Sometimes referred to as the Tibet of the Americas, Bolivia is one of the most “remote” countries in the western hemisphere; except for the navigable Paraguay River stretching to the distant Atlantic, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked nations in the Americas. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of its population being of pure Native American ancestry.
Bolivia, named after independence fighter Simon Bolivar, broke away from Spanish rule in 1825; much of its subsequent history has consisted of a series of nearly 200 coups and counter-coups. Comparatively democratic civilian rule was established in the 1980s, but leaders have faced difficult problems of deep-seated poverty, social unrest, and drug production. Current goals include attracting foreign investment, strengthening the educational system, and waging an anti-corruption campaign.
The current President is Evo Morales who won majority in a 2005 election and inaugurated at the historical Tiwanaku archaeological site. Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism, were re-elected in 2009, with another majority. There are often large protests in Bolivia considering issues like environmental protection, logging, hydrocarbon extraction, auto imports, mining, construction of highways, as well as other issues. These protests often cause the shutdown of streets in La Paz, specifically the area surrounding the Plaza Murillo, and the creation of blockades along major inter-city travel routes. If travelling between cities by bus it can be common for the trip to be stalled by several hours due to these protests.
Bolivia’s climate varies drastically with altitude and from one climatic zone to another. It ranges from humid and tropical to cold and semiarid. In most parts of the country winters are dry and summers are somewhat wet. Despite its tropical latitude, the altitude of cities like La Paz keeps things cool, and warm clothing is advised year-round. The summer months in Bolivia are November through March. The weather is typically warmer and wetter during these months. April through October, the winter months, are typically colder and drier.
Bolivia has 37 official languages -of which Spanish (often called Castellano), Quechua, and Aymara are the main ones. In rural areas, many people do not speak Spanish. Nevertheless, you should be able to get by with some basic Castellano. Bolivia is one of the best places in which to learn or practice your Spanish because of their very clean, deliberate accent. There are many options for studying Spanish in Bolivia, and they are usually very good (often, the program includes a very good homestay component).
- The Death Road (North Yungas Road including the old section): from La Cumbre to Coroico. A mountainbike tour of 64km where you’ll be able to see the diversity of Bolivia. Leave from La Cumbre at 5000mts, in a cold and windy environment, and get to Coroico, in a wet and tropical environment. You can take an organized tour with one of the companies (i.e. Downhill Madness) from La Paz or ride it on your own bike. If you ride on your own, be very careful (ride down in-line one after another, keep safe distance from the rider in front of you, slow down before the turns), use a good mountain bike (at least with front shock absorber), helmet. If you take the tour, you’ll get the equipment, instructions and guiding, but you probably won’t be allowed to stop to take pictures wherever you want.
- Explore the Provinces: Bolivia is a place to explore; it is mostly still untouched. The people are friendly in the countryside. There are hundreds of off the map, mostly out-of-the-guide places to go in Bolivia, and far more exciting than what the tour agencies and guide books offer. In the La Paz department for example you can easily catch transport to places like Pelechuco, the east side of Lake Titicaca, Achacachi, Isla del Sol, or Quime… not to mention scores of other villages and small towns. The free govt. tour agencies at the Plaza Estudiantes or Prado can help you find transport anywhere and tell you about it.
The cuisine of Bolivia might be called the original “meat and potatoes” — the latter (locally called papas from the Quechua) were first cultivated by the Inca before spreading throughout the world. The most common meat is beef, though chicken and llama are also easily found. Pork is relatively common. Deep frying (chicharron) is a common method of cooking all sorts of meat, and fried chicken is a very popular quick dish; at times the smell permeates the streets of Bolivian cities. Guinea pigs (cuy) and rabbits (conejo) are eaten in rural areas, though you can sometimes find them in urban restaurants as well. A common condiment served with Bolivian meals is llajhua, a spicy sauce similar to Mexican salsa.
Some notable Bolivian dishes:
- Pique a lo macho – grilled chunks of meat in a slightly spicy sauce with tomatoes and onion, on potatoes
- Silpancho or Milanesa – beef pounded to a thin, plate-sized patty, served on a bed of rice and potatoes, with a fried egg on top (Similar to wiener schnitzel).
Street food and snacks:
- Anticucho – Beef hearts grilled on a skewer, served with potatoes and a spicy corn sauce
- Salchipapa – Thinly sliced sausage fried with potatoes
- Choripan – Chorizo (spicy sausage) sandwich, served with grilled onions and lots of sauce
Mid-Morning snacks typically consists of any of several of meat-filled buns
Juice bars appear at most markets. Shakes (either with water or milk) are 2-3Bs. Locals can be seen drinking Vitaminico, an egg, beer, and sugar concoction or “Vitima” which includes coca leaves.
- Licuado – Water or milk blended with your favorite fruit combination. A big spoonful of sugar will be added unless you specifically ask them not to. Try the milk and papaya licuado.
- Vitaminico – Don’t ask what’s in here. Many fruits, milk, sugar, a shot of beer, and, if you wish, a whole egg (with shell).
- Mocochinchi – A drink made by brewing peaches and spices together in water. Very good but some people are turned off by the shriveled peach which is typically served with each glass.
- Api – A traditional corn base drink usually found in the open-air markets. If you didn’t know it was corn you’d never guess it though because this stuff is good.
- Chicha de camba, chicha de maiz, chicha de mani – non-alcoholic chichas, made from corn and similar stuff. Very popular in the East of the country.
Offering a favorable exchange for Western tourists, lodging can be found at very reasonable prices throughout the country, from hostels to luxury hotels. One traveller to Bolivia reports that during a 4 week trip in 2012 they stayed mainly in hostels with the average rate per night c. USD6.50. The most basic accomodation facilities are Alojamientos (at BOB20/25 per night).