An overview of Bolivia

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This page is dedicated to summarize what I personally think is interesting and useful when planning a trip to my country Bolivia.

Enriched by the Andean mountains, the Amazon rainforest and the Chaco dry forest Bolivia is the 28th-largest country in the world and one of the most bio-diverse. It ranks as the 7th in the world in bird species and the 4th in butterfly species.

Bolivia is almost as big as France and Spain together and is located in the middle of South America, reason why we like to describe it like the “Heart of South America”. We have a bit more than 10 million inhabitants that live in a democratic and mostly catholic country. Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in the region and a convenient place to travel through and get to know our neighbours: Chile, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay.

The most known place in Bolivia is La Paz city, the seat of the Executive and Legislative branches of our government and also the most important touristic place. The one and only capital of Bolivia is Sucre, where the Judicial branch is settled. Our official languages according to our newest constitution are 36, the most common ones are: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. Our currency is named “bolivianos” but we also use US dollars as currency, so if you buy something relatively expensive, you can either pay with US dollars or bolivianos.

 

What to expect about Bolivia?

You can expect a territory amazingly authentic and ethnic, where landscapes are often times surreal and the ways of living much different from the ones you might know. Likewise contradictions are all over.

We are a very rich country with an enormous amount of natural and cultural resources and at the same time notoriously poor, where more of 50% of the population lives under poor conditions.

We are a multicultural country. Maybe difficult for tourist to differentiate among our more than 30 different ethnic groups – with their own customs and languages – but we are not all the same. This makes our traditions, music, gastronomy and history very rich and interesting, including the mix of pre-Columbian and European cultures.

We have the highlands on the west side of the country with mountain peaks above 6.000 meters of high and the lowlands on the opposite side with a strong influence of the Amazon rainforest. In between we have valleys and dry forests. As you might expect, in the mountains the weather is mostly cold, in the lowlands is mostly hot and in the valleys the weather is mild. Our seasons are in practical terms only two: the dry season from November to April and the rainy season from May to October.

Before the Spanish came to America, Bolivia had well-established cities of the Inca Empire as well as many interesting cultures like the Tupi-Guaraní, the Moxeños, the Aymaras and the Urus, which fortunately can still be found! This is one of the biggest differences between Bolivia and our neighbour countries; we have mostly an indigenous population.

 

Getting there and moving around

To reach Bolivia from Europe, Asia and North America non-stop flights are practically non-existent. Most probably you will need to stop over in one of the South American’s international airports, like Sao Paulo (GRU), Buenos Aires (EZE) or Lima (LIM). The most important Airports in Bolivia are in correspondence with our three biggest cities: Santa Cruz (VVI), La Paz (LPB) and Cochabamba (CBB).

Many tourists prefer to come by land crossing one of our several frontiers, which is very convenient to reduce the price of your trip. Most common borders are:

  • With Argentina: Villazón-La Quiaca, Aguas Blancas-Bermejo and Yacuiba-Salvador Mazza;
  • With Brazil: Quijarro-Corumbá and Guayaramerín-Guajará Mirim;
  • With Chile: Charaña-Visviri and Abaroa- Ollagüe;
  • With Peru: Yunguyo-Puno and Desaguadero-Puno.

Moving around Bolivia is already an adventure. Flights are quite expensive (comparing with bus transportation) and our road infrastructure inefficient with some exceptions. Usually you can find bus offers from several companies, which could be confusing for locals and foreigners. My recommendation in this case would be: don’t take the cheapest option and search for recommendations.

Some facts are:

  • To travel between the main cities (La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba) is not complicated and there are several options, either by aircraft or bus.
  • Nowadays biggest Bolivian airline companies arBOA, AMASZONAS and TAM.
  • Concerning buses, we have two types of offers: Cama and Semicama. For the price difference, is much better travelling in a Bus Cama and get a reclining seat that can be converted into almost a bed with more space for your legs. This offer does not apply for connections between small towns. A new service for buying bus tickets is already online.
  • If your idea is to rent a car could be a little tricky, because we don’t have many traffic signals that are helpful to know in which direction to go or how to avoid risky areas.
  • We have two train companies: Empresa Ferroviaria Andina and Empresa Ferroviaria Oriental. Basically the first one operates the mountain area and the second one the lowlands. With the inconvenient of not many destinations and schedules, this is a very comfortable way of travelling.

 

Common concerns when planning to visit Bolivia
  • Security- Specially in big cities or in bus terminals you can have the feeling of insecurity. Just follow some logic advices and follow your common sense: don’t take a taxi on the street, avoid dark streets, don’t leave your belongings in unsafe places, don’t carry with you your important documents while walking through unknown streets, don’t take the cheapest option unless it is a recommended one, etc.
  • Political and social instability.- We are in an ongoing process of change as part of our social and economic development. Demonstrations, strikes and inaccessible streets are nowadays a daily routine and they can turn your trip into a funny adventure (or not). Usually protest groups announce with days in advance when and why they will block traffic, so it is important to keep yourself informed. If it happens that you end up blocked in a dispute area just stay at the edge of the conflict and try to enjoy your time in a respectful way.
  • Diseases.- If you come to Bolivia and stay on the mountain side (west) there is not much you should do previous to your trip against potential diseases. Anyways, the high altitude could cause severe problems to people with overweight and heart diseases due to mountain sickness. On the contrary, if you come to the east side (the lowlands) you will have to get vaccinated against yellow fewer and be aware of the enormous amount of mosquitoes and other insects that you will find (especially in summer). Some health risks are: Dengue (like a very strong cold), allergy (plenty of vegetation, high humidity levels, bees, wasps), and so on depending on what are you planning to do. My best recommendation: antihistamines and mosquito repellent within reach and up to date vaccinations against hepatitis, typhoid, tetanus and polio.
  • Language barriers.- In Bolivia we all speak Spanish, but some do it as a second language after their native mother tongue like Aymara, Quechua, Chiquitano or Guarani. Not many people do speak English or any other foreign language. Basically, it is important to have a basic to good Spanish level if you want to move around easily. If you don’t possess this knowledge, stay well-informed in advance about your options and learn some useful communication tips.
  • Absence of laws.- Bolivia has a lot of very well done laws for almost everything we need. The problem lies in the lack of control and the extreme corruption in the judicial system. I will highly recommend not getting into illegal stuffs in Bolivia for two reasons: Firstly, doing things in a foreign country that usually you wouldn’t do in your own country is very disrespectful, don’t blame afterwards if someone starts insulting you. Secondly, if you are caught doing something illegal in Bolivia (drug dealing or consumption, money laundry, prostitution, smuggling, murder, etc.) you could stay in one of our beautiful prisons and under our corrupt system for… who knows how long…
  • Drugs.- We are traditional consumers of Coca Leaf, which has great medicinal properties. The coca leaf was sacred during the Inca Empire and only priests and kings had access to it and for ceremonial purposes. Nowadays, the consumption of the coca leaf (not cocaine) is spread and became popular among the working class and peasants in Bolivia, which are the majority of the population. Statistically we are the third biggest producer of coca leaf in the world and the illicit cocaine production has been a problem in the last 20 years or more. My personal position about this topic is: “I find unfair to judge the producer country stronger than the consumer countries, and we are producers”. Please be sensible about this subject and do not come to Bolivia to consume drugs, don’t become part of the problem!!

 

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