Bolivia began at the 1994 World Cup, watching the nation make its historic first appearance. Like all relationships, we’ve had our ups and downs – I experienced every level of emotion living in La Paz from 1999 to 2000, riding the turbulent wonder of everyday life. Bolivia wouldn’t let me go: I love its birds (the ones that fly), I love its food, and I love the endearing and easily.Rough around the edges, superlative in its natural beauty, rugged, vexing, complex and slightly nerve-racking, Bolivia is one of South America’s most diverse and perplexing nations.
Bolivia is so new to scientific endeavor that unique species are being discovered to this day. Tiptoe into caves of tube-lipped nectar bats, their 3in tongues probing the darkness. Tread lightly on the terrain of the poisonous annellated coral snake, deadly in look and effect. Listen for the cackling call-and-response of a dozen different macaw species (among the 1000 bird species) including the world’s rarest, the bluebeard, which only lives here. Multihued, brilliant butterflies and moths flit at your feet in the jungle; lithe alpacas and vicuñas stand out in the stark altiplano.
Bolivia is not for the faint of heart: rattling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road into sultry Yungas; soaring breathless above verdant La Paz valleys in a paraglider; pulling a catfish that outweighs you out of an Amazon river (and maybe cooking it for dinner!). Whether your tools are crampons and ice-axe for scaling 6000m Andean peaks or a helmet and bravado for jumping into the abyss on a glider, Bolivia’s rocks, rivers, and ravines will challenge – nay, provoke – you into pushing your own personal limits.
Bolivians love a parade, and hardly a month passes without a procession of brightly costumed celebrants honoring an important historical date or deity. You’ll hear them from blocks away before the brass bands and whirligigging dancers approach and then envelop you (you may even get to join in). Amateur archaeologists can delve into a rich, multilayered treasure trove of artefacts – Bolivia has South America’s largest percentage of indigenous people, so the culture is still alive and well on the streets, too. Get to know them better by participating in community-based tourism and hiring local guides when you can.
Food and Drink
Ever had a llama tenderloin? Here’s your chance: maybe with a glass of up-and-coming Tarija wine, or artisanal coca or quinoa-based beer. The daily bread varies from the Frisbee-like mama qonqachi cheese bread of Cochabamba, big as your head, to the sourdough-like maraqueta hard roll, staple of paceña breakfast, to Santa Cruz’s mouthwatering cunapes (cheese bread balls). Vegetarians can feast on sonsos, the yucca-and-cheese pancake of the camba, and savor tropical fruit juices like maracuya (passionfruit) and chirimoya (custard apple). Fresh Amazon surubí tastes like it leaped onto your plate. Yungas coffee and chuquisaceña (Sucre) chocolate complete a perfect postre (dessert).
Why I Love Bolivia
My two-decade love affair with Bolivia began at the 1994 World Cup, watching the nation make its historic first appearance. Like all relationships, we’ve had our ups and downs – I experienced every level of emotion living in La Paz from 1999 to 2000, riding the turbulent wonder of everyday life. Bolivia wouldn’t let me go: I love its birds (the ones that fly), I love its food, and I love the endearing and easily understood Spanish and the charming folk who speak it. On holiday, your possibilities are nearly limitless. I keep my charango tuned, because I know I’ll be back.
Known as the Tibet of the Americas, Bolivia is a relatively remote bolthole, being one of only two landlocked countries in South America (the other is Paraguay). Wander along Calle Jaén, in Bolivia’s administrative capital, La Paz, for a slice of South American life under Spanish colonial control – the street is home to some of the city’s best preserved colonial buildings, whitewashed façades and ornate black grilled balconettes. It’s also where you’ll find a cluster of museums, including the former home of Pedro Domingo Murillo, who lead forces during the La Paz Revolution of 1809. See them all for the grand total of 40p and pick up your bumper bargain ticket from the Museo Costumbrista, which houses a ceramic depicting the hanging of the aforementioned revolutionary.
As if that weren’t enough (there’s more to life than museums?!) Bolivia perhaps boasts the best value food and drink in all of South America. For example, a bottle of Paceña beer generally costs less than £1 and a bowl of chairo (potato soup) about the same. Pack plenty of layers for when the sun goes down; although Bolivia generally endures hot and humid tropical summers, La Paz is surrounded by the altipano mountains and so stays cool all year round. Looking to turn up the heat? Head to Oruro, a city in the heart of the altiplano famous for its Carnival, held each year in February or March to honour the Virgin of Candelaria. Three hours by bus from La Paz and you could be taking part in this UNESCO protected presentation of indigenous and religious Bolivian culture, with more than 48 folk dance performances and a traditional parade.
Stretching from the majestic icebound peaks and bleak high-altitude deserts of the Andes to the exuberant rainforests and vast savannahs of the Amazon basin, Bolivia embraces an astonishing range of landscapes and climates. This mystical terrain boasts scores of breathtaking attractions including stark otherworldly salt pans, ancient Inca trails and towering volcanic peaks. Landlocked at the remote heart of South America, Bolivia rewards the adventurous travellers and encompasses everything that outsiders find most exotic and mysterious about the continent.
The country’s cultural diversity and ethnic make-up are equally fascinating. Three centuries of colonial rule have left their mark on the nation’s language, religion and architecture, but this is essentially little more than a veneer overlying indigenous cultural traditions that stretch back long before the arrival of the Spanish. Though superficially embracing the Catholic religion, many Bolivians are equally at home making offerings to the mountain gods or performing other strange rites, such as blessing vehicles with libations of alcohol. And although Spanish is the language of government and business, the streets buzz with the cadences of Aymara, Quechua and more than thirty other indigenous languages.
Geographically, Bolivia is dominated by the Andes, which march through the west in two parallel chains, each studded with snowcapped peaks; between them stretch the barren, windswept expanses of the Altiplano. Reached via a series of lush valleys, the country’s lowlands range from dense Amazonian rainforest to vast plains of dry thornbrush and scrub. The geographical extremes are fascinating to explore, but can take their toll on travellers. This varied topography supports an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna from condors to pink freshwater dolphins– Parque Nacional Amboró, for example, has over 830 species of bird, more than the US and Canada combined. The country’s underdevelopment has in some ways been a blessing for the environment, allowing vast wilderness areas to survive in a near-pristine condition.
Though it covers an area the size of France and Spain combined, Bolivia is home to just under ten million people, who are concentrated in a handful of cities founded by the Spanish. Some of these, such as Potosí and Sucre, were once amongst the most important settlements in the Americas, but are now half-forgotten backwaters, basking in the memory of past glories and graced by some of the continent’s finest colonial architecture. Others, like La Paz and Santa Cruz, have grown enormously, and are now bustling commercial centres.
Despite these attractions, Bolivia remains one of South America’s least-visited countries. Some blame Queen Victoria, who after a diplomatic incident is said to have crossed the name from a map and declared that “Bolivia does not exist”. Among those who have heard a little about Bolivia, meanwhile, it has a reputation for cocaine trafficking and political instability. These clichéd images have some basis in reality, though the 2006 election of Evo Morales has reduced the instability to a certain extent, and Bolivia remains one of the continent’s safest countries for travellers. And for those who make it here, the fact that Bolivia – one of the continent’s least expensive countries – is still not yet on the major tourist routes means you’re unlikely to find yourself sharing the experience with hordes of other foreign visitors.