A brief overview of the political situation
Bolivia, much like most of the American continent, is a place whose history will bring about tears to those empathetic enough. Probably one of the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, it is currently the poorest country of the continent thanks to centuries of authoritarianism that benefited only a chosen few.
Thankfully, things are improving now since Bolivia elected its first indigenous (understand “native”) president, Evo Morales, more than 10 years ago. The country is now called the Plurinational State of Bolivia and with that change came a stronger recognition of the historical origins of the country as well as more rights for its many ethnic groups. While president Morales does not seem to want to leave power, it is undeniable that the average Bolivian now benefits more from its country’s wealth than ever before.
The Bolivian Culture
Bolivia, along with Peru, is the most “authentic” country you will be able to visit in South America. Contrary to most other countries on the continent, the majority of the population is from pre-colombian origins, Quechua (the language of the Incas) or Aymara (the language of the empire before the Incas) are still spoken today and old religious practices and beliefs survived colonization and Christianization.
You will, for example, find a “witch market” in the capital, La Paz, where you can buy everything you need to make offerings to Pachamama (mother earth) to bring you luck and good karma, that includes fetuses of Lamas, as big requests demand big offerings (like building a house). A local story tells of the practice of human sacrifice for the construction of large buildings. Homeless people can apparently be lured into a party, where they will be offered free alcohol until so drunk they will never wake up again and will end up buried under the construction site of such buildings.
The local women dress in a mix of modern and traditional fashion with a colorful multi-layered dress usually accompanied by a bowler hat too small for their heads. The fashion of wearing what would be considered men’s hat in most of the rest of the world apparently comes from a shipping mistake back in the days that left an entrepreneurial Brits with hats to small to sell for men and which he managed to sell off to local women as cutting-edge fashion from Europe. It worked so well it is now an essential element of a local woman’s neo-traditional outfit.
A local “cholita” (as such traditional woman are called) usually carry around a large colorful piece of fabric that is used to carry on their shoulders everything from large quantities of fruits and vegetables to babies. The amount they can carry is impressive and the street saleswoman trying to sell you a scarf will usually astonish you with the amount of other products she pulls out of there in an effort to lead you to a purchase. Respect!
It is worth noticing that men do not wear much of a traditional or neo-traditional outfit however.
Traveling across Bolivia
Traveling around Bolivia is awesome. It is not used to having that much tourism and therefore only very few places are geared for it. You rarely feel oppressed by local tourism agencies trying to sell you tours as you walk the street (hello Peru!) or that you are walking into a village that transformed itself to cater to the foreign crowd (hello San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!).
People are authentic; they are not overly nice but not particularly aggressive either. Yeah, they are normal, basically, potentially curious but otherwise rather intent on minding their own business while you mind yours.
It is better to speak Spanish to get along nicely as very few people speak English. You’ll otherwise have to make a good old use of the international language of using your hands and facial expressions to demonstrate your willingness to communicate. A fun experience always!
Patience is required in Bolivia (like in most of the continent), mini-buses leave when full, not whenever they were supposed to leave, things don’t always look as advertised, and you are usually guaranteed positive or negative surprises at one point or another of your trip. This makes it all the more rich and human however and you will usually come out of the experience happy to have witnessed it (like coming to a city under local blockade to protest some policy, great for the cultural experience, demanding for your feet as transportation in and out gets extremely disrupted).
What you will find in Bolivia
Bolivia also boast an impressive diversity of things to do and of landscapes to see. It has a respectable chunk of the Amazon forest to visit in Rurrenabaque. You’ll be able to choose your pick of technically-accessible mountains to hike up to, reaching more than 6000m without requiring mountaineering experience, a few hours from La Paz. For adventure junkies, going down El Camino de la Muerte on a bike is a thrilling experience (People used to die when this was still a road for car but now bikers mostly get broken bones and only occasionally do some die in a fall of several hundred meters, it adds to the fun but stay away if you are naturally anxious about safety and risk-prevention).
Cities offer different charms as well, from more colonial Sucre to very bricky La Paz (you’ll understand what I mean the first minute you arrive there). Santa Cruz is the more modern, Western-like city and can be the beginning of your trip that will give you a progressive acclimation of the Bolivian way. Potosi will however show you the more ugly side of Bolivia and its history, do visit the mine with old miners but be prepared for a potentially traumatising experience.
You’ll also get more natural parks and amazing nature to walk in that you can possibly hope for. Parque National Amboro near Brazil and the Amazon displays the very rare Elechos Gigantes, ferns that look like old wise men (they also take hundreds of years to grow) and can only be found in 3 places in the world. The gigantic Salar de Uyuni, salt desert of epic proportions and its surrounding regions will show you mountains of colors you never knew existed in nature and geysers and natural baths to relax around.
Lago Titicaca, mythical place in Inca ideology, especially for being the birthplace of the first Inca emperor. The chilled and beautiful atmosphere of Isla del Sol (the Sun Island) and the local dishes of quinoa and trout will provide you with a great opportunity to rest after more demanding activities.
In a few weeks, you’ll be able to go from sea-level to record heights, cross several different climates, each with their own culture and local dishes as well as gorgeous nature. The only thing missing in Bolivia is access to the ocean which was taken by Chile a few centuries ago, you’ll however not be left wondering what to do and will actually probably wish you came for longer to enjoy fully all this beautiful country has to offer.
It is definitely my favorite country on the continent and is also the cheapest country on the continent so well big up for that as well!