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.
Where to go in Bolivia
Most visitors spend a few days in the fascinating city of La Paz, Bolivia’s de facto capital (Sucre is its official capital), which combines a dramatic high-altitude setting with a compelling blend of traditional indigenous and modern urban cultures. La Paz is also close to magical Lago Titicaca, the massive azure lake that straddles the Peruvian border, and is a good base for trekking, climbing or mountain biking in the magnificent Cordillera Real.
Just north of La Paz the Andes plunge precipitously down into the Amazon basin through the deep, lush valleys of the Yungas. The Yungas towns of Coroico and Chulumani are perfect places to relax, while Coroico also makes a good place to break the overland journey from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The best base for visiting the Amazon is the town of Rurrenabaque, close to the near-pristine rainforests of Parque Nacional Madidi and the wildlife-rich Río Yacuma. More adventurous travellers can head east across the wild savannahs of the Llanos de Moxos via the Reserva de la Bíosfera del Beni to the regional capital Trinidad, the start of exciting trips north along the Río Mamoré towards Brazil or south towards Cochabamba.
South of La Paz, the bleak southern Altiplano – stretching between the eastern and western chains of the Andes – is home to some of Bolivia’s foremost attractions. The dour mining city of Oruro springs to life during its Carnaval, one of South America’s most enjoyable fiestas, and the legendary silver mining city of Potosí offers a treasure-trove of colonial architecture and the opportunity to visit the Cerro Rico mines.
Further south, Uyuni is the jumping-off point for expeditions into the astonishing landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a remote region of high-altitude deserts and half-frozen, mineral-stained lakes, populated by flamingos. Further south lie the cactus-strewn badlands and canyons around Tupiza and the isolated but welcoming city of Tarija.
To the north of Potosí, Bolivia’s official capital, Sucre, boasts fine colonial architecture, but the city is very different in character: charming and refined, it is set in a warm Andean valley in the midst of a region noted for its textiles. Further north, the city of Cochabamba has less obvious appeal, but offers a spring-like climate and a friendly welcome. Not far from here are the rainforests and coca fields of the Chapare region, but for most travellers Cochabamba is just somewhere to break the journey between La Paz and Santa Cruz, the country’s eastern capital. Completely different in character to the highland cities, Santa Cruz is a brash, modern and lively tropical metropolis. Though it has few attractions itself, the city is a good base for exploring the Eastern Lowlands, including the rainforests of Parque Nacional Amboró and the idyllic town of Samaipata. Scattered across the lowlands east of Santa Cruz, the immaculately restored Jesuit missions of Chiquitos provide one of Bolivia’s most unusual attractions, while a train line heads east to the Brazilian border and the wildlife-rich wetlands of the Pantanal. Santa Cruz is also the jumping-off point for trips to the remote and spectacular Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado.
Top image © Loredana Habermann/Shutterstock
Coca: Sacred leaf of the Andes
Nothing is more emblematic of Bolivia than coca, the controversial leaf that has been cultivated for thousands of years in the Andean foothills. To ordinary Bolivians, coca is at once a useful stimulant to combat hunger and tiredness, a medicine for altitude sickness and a key religious and cultural sacrament with magical powers used in rituals and offerings. To the outside world, however, it is infamous as the raw material for the manufacture of cocaine (as well as, reputedly, still a key ingredient of Coca-Cola).
Thousands of farmers depend on coca for their livelihoods, and President Evo Morales – who remains head of the biggest coca-growing union – has repeatedly stressed that the leaf is an intrinsic part of indigenous Andean culture. Although Morales has promised a policy of “zero cocaine but not zero coca”, Bolivia remains the world’s third-largest producer of the drug, and cocaine use within the country has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2011 the country renounced a UN anti-drug convention because it classified the coca leaf as an illegal drug.
• They look similar at a glance but alpacas have shorter legs, necks and snouts than llamas, and also have a fluffier fleece.
• Named after Simón Bolívar, Bolivia won its independence in 1825, after nearly three centuries as a Spanish colony.
• In 2001 the highest football match in the world was played on the top of the 6542m Sajama volcano.
• A bridge stretching from Potosí to Spain could reputedly have been built with the silver extracted from the Cerro Rico mines during the colonial period.
• Since independence, Bolivia has lost almost half its territory, including its Pacific coast, which was captured by Chile in 1879.Despite being landlocked, the country still has a navy.