• Bolivia
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  • Bolivia
    © Flaperval / 123RF
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Bolivia

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile
Bolivia, sheltered between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, has landscapes one can hardly believe are real. An electric capital city set 3,500m above sea level and salt flats that are so unique to the country that they have become a symbol for it. From the Amazonian rain forest to the salt deserts, a place where you will see people in traditional South American dress all over the country, you will have an incomparable trip in such a distinctive place.

Travel guide

La Paz, way up high

Located in the lull of a beautiful, mountainous valley, La Paz will make you woozy with excitement. Not just because of the altitude sickness, but also due to the quirky, colourful side of the capital city. The buildings are jam-packed along the dusty streets, every turn bringing you to a new, slightly straggly yet authentic market selling authentic goods like leather backpacks and threaded carpets. These markets are among the highlights of a visit to Bolivia's capital, along with the famous cathedral and Calle Jaén museums. The cathedral may be a newer addition to Bolivia's religious sites, only being built in 1835, but its sheer intensity makes it a brilliant spot to visit. Constructed on a very steep hillside, the thick stones, abundance of beautiful stained glass windows and the impressive dome will leave you in awe. The group of museums clustered along the first colonial road of La Paz is another wonderful place to get a feel for Bolivian culture as they contain many artefacts like historical maps and original gold, as well as being located in such an interesting part of the city. Not far outside the city centre is a natural wonder that must be checked out: the Valley of the Moon, where you will find strange rock formations.

Take your picture at the Uyuni Salt Flats

One of the main reasons visitors to Bolivia cross the border from Chile and Peru is to see the magnificent piece of nature that is the Uyuni salt flats. Once a pre-historic lake that dried up and left behind a desert-like formation of bright white salt with random formations of cactus and salt islands. Known to be a famous place to take a fantastic picture due to the flatness of the land and the reflective salt surface, many tourists love to think of a clever or funny set up to take a picture of; many involving a beer bottle or a shoe!

Orururo festival

The annually held carnival takes place in one of the grittiest cities in Bolivia. Despite it being a dirty, crowded mining town where people have had it tough, visitors seem to find the straight-up attitudes of the locals endearing, and the way they celebrate around Easter time with such a huge festival welcoming many visitors from Bolivia and around the world is something to be admired. There are decent museums, beautiful salt lakes nearby and a huge amount of completely authentic heritage to take in considering 90% of inhabitants are of indigenous background. The carnival takes place around the ten days before Ash Wednesday and is worth being there for due to the sheer effort and amazing music and dancing you will experience. The opening ceremony takes up to twenty hours because there are that many people involved. It is interesting, loud and infectious.

Ride the Road of Death into National Parks

Starting close to La Paz heading into the rainforest, the Road of Death is infamous for its horrendously high, sharply meandering roads that provide enough adrenaline for any dare devils. With only a matter of metres between one side of the mountain's road and the extreme decline into the Andean valley there have been plenty of accidents.

Rios blanco y negro

Rios blanco y negro wildlife reserve is located on the other, more northern side of Bolivia but if you're border hopping around South America it is worth visiting the vast, lusciously green area of Bolivia where the fauna and wildlife are rare and stunning. Very close to the Amazonian Park of Kempff and encompassing 2.3 million acres of land, the wildlife reserve is home to giant otters, Amazonian river dolphins, jaguars, puma, deer and many birds just to mention a few. As well as the animals to see there are lots of activities to take part in and it is a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of large, energetic cities.

Tiwanaku

Out of the limelight and far from crowds that afflict Machu Picchu, Bolivia is quietly promoting its very own ancient city. Arriving at Tiwanaku bears no resemblance to the long queues that form at the entrance to Machu Picchu. There are no security guards here, no personalised passport stamp, not really anything official at all. A lone cholita has set up shop outside and sells the typical array of Western products designed to catch the eye of the spendthrift traveller, but that's about it.

The Tiwanacotas were the great civilisation of the altiplano between 400 and 900 AD, and the city of Tiwanaku - a name assigned posthumously to this city as there is no recorded original name - was the epicentre of the tribe's 600,000 km² reach. The original site spanned an area of over two square miles, however only a small portion of the ancient city has been excavated. An estimated 90% still lies underfoot.

Nonetheless, the site that stands is magnificent. There is something of the Stonehenge about Tiwanaku, objectively beautiful but, more than that, historically and culturally significant. Like Stonehenge, too, when you see some of its constructions, your only response can be disbelief. With the technology available over 1,000 years ago, and the crippling altitude up here, the scale of this ancient city is truly astonishing.

Our Editorial team's advice

Due to the size of the country and the vast choice of possible excursions, it is best to plan your itinerary before going. There is a lot to see and even though it is not as large a country as Argentina and other South American countries, it takes a lot longer than you would expect to dash over from one place to the next. Try to adapt your plans to transport and weather conditions as this will help you to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps missing particular festivals or markets that only take place once a week.

Bolivia, in general, as a tourist destination is quite cheap. However, plan your budget accordingly if you would like to go and discover the Amazon or the National Parks, because this will involve spending a little more money due to agency fees and guides.

An important factor to always keep in mind is the sheer altitude of the country, because this can seriously affect your trip if you do not travel prepared for it. It is suggested to avoid going to La Paz and the highest points in Bolivia with really small children because it can be very difficult to completely enjoy yourselves at such an altitude if they are being sick. There are plenty of preventative medicines to take to ensure the altitude sickness is kept at bay, so pack some just in case your body is particularly sensitive to such heights.

The temperature is affected by your location but also definitely by seasons. If you are planning to visit when it is really sunny the best time to go is during their summer, from November to March. It can get exceptionally hot and humid during the days, while in the evenings it can be absolutely freezing! Their winter is from May to October, and the weather does not change drastically. It can get bitterly cold for short periods of time between May and August.

pros

  • +The large native Indian population has conserved all of its traditions.
  • +Our summer holiday period corresponds with big festivities there.

cons

  • -The infrastructure and transport often lack comfort.
  • -The high altitudes can pose problems for some people.

Traditions

Like many other South American countries, Bolivia has a wonderfully rich history of Colombian and Andean ancestry and their relics have been left behind for centuries for the world to see. Their culture has been shaped and influenced by both the 30 native ethnic groups, and Spanish immigrants alike.

There are many Catholic churches throughout the cities and towns of Bolivia, but there are also many temples and pagan celebrations that you will see or experience. The traditional aspect of Bolivian culture is extremely diverse which makes it such an interesting place to visit. Along with many festivals being celebrated throughout the year, Bolivians are extremely traditional in their dress. There will be plenty of people you see as you roam around La Paz, for example, or even just wandering in the northern valleys through small towns, wearing traditional dress robes and classically authentic Bolivian ponchos and outfits.

Food

Despite negative connotations with Bolivian food, of it being somewhat bland and unhygienic, they have many delicious, varied dishes which are a fundamental part of their culture. Bolivian food is the perfect combination of Spanish cuisine and traditional Andean dishes, mixing lots of spices and meats on beds of vegetables and potatoes in the northern areas of the countries, while in the lowlands and Amazonian regions fish dishes are very popular.

There are popular national dishes that you will be sure to come across, in restaurants or at street markets; either way, be sure to have a taste in order to understand and connect with the Bolivian locals. Papas Rellenas are quite literally stuffed potatoes, delicious balls of potato mash and a centre of spicy meat filling or boiled egg, coated with sometimes spicy flour batter and very commonly found in the Andes regions. Saltañas are basically Bolivian pasties, usually stuffed with perfectly aromatic, spiced meats, vegetables, eggs, olives and a rich sauce. Other specialities include Choripan, a large sandwich filled with sausage, Mondongo, a crispy fried pork dish in an appetising sauce, and Bolivian chocolate of course!

Do not forget to try some local beers as well, beautifully brewed and a source of great pride for the locals they will be a refreshing taste of Bolivia!

Souvenirs

La Paz, Sucre, Potosi and Santa Cruz give you a good idea of what the country does well. Bolivian craftwork is very rich. You will of course find the inevitable li'uchus, the Andean hats, the t'ilingos, the miniature coloured figurines in pottery, and the bowler hats worn by the women. The fabrics are particularly gorgeous and very varied. Jumpers made of alpaca and angora wool clothes will be useful while there. In Santa Cruz, you will find replicas of wooden items from Jesuit missions. As Bolivia is the birthplace of Andean music, the instruments are sold at very good prices. The shops are usually open from 8:30am to 12:00pm and from 2:00pm to 6:30pm from Monday to Friday.