Bolivia brims with unique and barely-visited landscapes and cultures. It offers everything from the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, to the Parque Nacional Madidi – one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, plus a wealth of ancient indigenous customs and traditions.
But despite this plethora of attractions, the country rarely features top of most travellers’ South American itineraries.
So could there be some truth in Bolivia’s reputation as the world’s least friendly tourist destination? In 2013, Bolivia ranked last globally for the “attitude of population towards foreign visitors”. That year the country received only 800,000 international visitors compared to 5.6 million in neighbouring Argentina.
We think this captivating country has just been misinterpreted. Here, Steph Dyson, winner of our writing competition, tells us why you need to make time for South America’s most misunderstood destination.
Image by Barnabas Kindersley (c) Dorling Kindersley
Misconception #1: given that ranking, the local people won’t be friendly
Visitors may find themselves ignored in the market, or frustrated as they struggle to be understood in basic transactions. But this unresponsiveness – sometimes bordering on rudeness – stems from the fact that many people do not speak Spanish as their native tongue.
Instead, over half of the population speaks one of the indigenous languages – Quechua or Aymara, with Spanish as a secondary language.
In addition to this language barrier, poor quality English teaching has resulted in few Bolivians being equipped with the linguistic skills to communicate with English-speaking tourists.
Unless you’ve invested time into learning key phrases, you may be met with a lack of patience, masking the warmth and kindness of the majority of the people you will encounter.
Misconception #2: you’re likely to get robbed
We all hear the anecdotes, or read the warnings on the travel forums. But let’s face it: we’re far more likely to share sour experiences from our trips than how safe we felt throughout.
In the de facto capital La Paz, stepping outside of the tourist hotspots or hopping onto public transport is one of the best ways of exploring the city. However, many tourists work themselves into such a frenzy that they stick to the centre and the sanitised – and ludicrously expensive – tourist transport. This starves travellers of a real insight into Bolivia.
As with all big cities in South America – and indeed across the world – due caution and awareness of your surroundings is your best protection. But locals here will often look out for you, kindly reminding you to keep your bag close or warning you of potential scams. Taking heed of this advice, as well as taking basic precautions, will increase your feeling of safety.
Misconception #3: it could be difficult to travel
Tourism is underdeveloped in Bolivia – but the country rewards adventurous souls, offering the rawness lost in more seasoned tourist destinations.
Travel in the larger cities along the well-etched tourist trail is rarely difficult, with many companies now recognising the need for English-speaking staff.
In rural areas, you’ll need some grasp of Spanish, although this shouldn’t put you off. Bolivian Spanish is one of the easiest to understand due to its clarity and speed, and taking a few classes before you travel – or spending a week or two studying in stunning Sucre – will give you the best chance to get the most from your time in Bolivia.
Fundamentally, what visitors must understand is that the development of tourism is hindered by the fact that many Bolivian people cannot yet see its benefits. Few companies work with or directly profit small communities, meaning that tourism may appear an invasion into local peoples’ lives, rather than a means of earning money to support community development.
You can help to change this: take tours run by companies who promote responsible, local tourism, such as Condor Trekkers in Sucre. This will ensure your legacy is positive, helping communities to use tourism constructively for their own needs.
These tours will also guarantee a more positive reception during your travels, and give you a closer understanding of the indigenous and Andean traditions maintained by the Bolivian people.
Image by Dreamstime.com: Laumerle
So what does this mean for you?
Bolivia offers incredible rewards to travellers who ignore its past reputation. Its diverse range of landscapes is mind-blowing, and the country is packed with ancient landmarks – from the birthplace of the Inca dynasty to one of the cradles of Andean civilization.
You will discover a population who – despite what you might hear – are friendly and welcoming. Most importantly, travellers who go the extra mile will discover how hospitable Bolivians really are.