Culture and Etiquette in Bolivia

Particularly in the highlands, Bolivia is quite a formal country, and old-fashioned values of politeness and courtesy are still widespread. It’s normal to greet everyone you talk to with a formal “good morning/afternoon/evening” (“buenos dias, buenas tardes/noches”) before starting conversation; indeed, failure to do so can be taken as rude. In smaller towns and villages, you’ll find even strangers exchange greetings as they pass on the street. “Please” (“por favor”) and “thank you” (“gracias”) are also very important. Bolivians in positions of authority expect to be treated with due respect, and can make things difficult for you if you fail to show it. Generally, it’s best to call people señor or señora, especially if they are older than you, and to use a formal title such as doctor or mayor when addressing someone who has one (or affects to, as many Bolivians do). Many Bolivians are generous, but apt to take offence if you don’t accept what they have offered you, particularly when it comes to food and drink. As for alcohol, escaping a drinking session after just one or two is difficult to achieve – it can be better to just slip away rather than announce that you’ve had enough.

Race is a very sensitive issue in Bolivia, both politically and on a day-to-day basis. Indigenous people should never be referred to as Indios (Indians) as this is considered racist and deeply offensive. Indigena is much better, but most refer to themselves by their specific ethnic or linguistic group – Aymara, Quechua, etc. Religion – both Christian and indigenous – is also a serious matter, and you should always ask permission before intruding on ceremonies, and act with due respect and sensitivity inside churches and at fiestas or ritual events. Similarly, always ask permission before taking anyone’s photo, as some Bolivians find this offensive, or expect to be paid.

Attitudes to what constitutes appropriate clothing vary sharply between the highlands and the tropical lowlands. Bolivians everywhere are used to foreigners wearing shorts, but in the conservative highlands it’s not the done thing to show off too much flesh. In remote villages in particular this can cause real offence. In the hot and humid lowlands, on the other hand, it’s acceptable to strip down to a bare minimum of shorts and sleeveless vest. Santa Cruz is particularly liberal in this respect.

The sexism and machismo characteristic of Latin America is arguably less prevalent in Bolivia than in many other countries, but it can still present an annoyance for foreign women, particularly those travelling alone or accompanied only by other women. Generally speaking, everyday sexual harassment is less of a problem in high-altitude cities like La Paz, where indigenous cultures predominate, and worse in lower, warmer cities like Santa Cruz, where Latino culture has more of a hold. Harassment usually takes the form of whistling and lewd cat-calling in the street: most Bolivian women just walk on and ignore this, and you’ll probably find it easiest to do likewise.

Many women find this problem increases in February and March in the run-up to Carnaval, when the usually good-natured custom of water fighting is used by some men as an excuse to harass women with water bombs. Sexual assault and rape are not common in Bolivia, but there have been a number of incidents reported by female travellers. It’s best to exercise at least the same degree of caution as you would at home.

Most Bolivians do not have a very liberal attitude to homosexuality: though legal, it is frowned upon and kept under wraps. Though gay travellers are unlikely to suffer any direct abuse, it’s best to be discreet and avoid public displays of affection. Larger cities have a handful of gay bars, but these tend to be fairly clandestine to avoid harassment.

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