Bolivia. The land of strong cultural heritage, diverse environments, Lake Titicaca, Pachamama, potatoes, coca leaves and vibrant history. The official name of the country, Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, also points out a notable multicultural element, when it comes to the indigenous communities. In fact, Bolivia is home to the highest proportion of the native population in the whole of Latin America. This extraordinary cultural diversity and the fact that many Bolivians live in the extreme altitudes of the Altiplano plateau are significant attributes that define the country’s unique character, which we’re going to explore in the following guide. Except for the usual travel-related stuff, like popular places to visit, safety, transport and so on, we’ll also briefly explore the subjects of local culture, cuisine as well as some significant historical events that have shaped this incredible country.
Understanding the culture
Indigenous culture and customs
From the subtropical lowlands, up to Altiplano, with the ancient Lake Titicaca, the indigenous people of Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní and 33 other recognised ethnic groups have been living in harmony with nature, without slipping too much away from their traditions and beliefs. Even the local Christianity (76.8% of Bolivians are of the Roman Catholic faith) is mixed with indigenous symbols, celebrations and characters.
The most significant of them all would certainly be Mother Earth and the fertility goddess known as Pachamama. The whole process of Christianisation in the region was marked by an interesting phenomenon called syncretization, which is a process of blending differing religious beliefs. In case, you’re keen on cultural influences and/or anthropology, you can learn more about this rather fascinating subject here.
Even if this wasn’t a subject that interests you, the presence of the local syncretization and various spiritual beliefs are practically unavoidable elements, when visiting Bolivia as well as in neighbouring Peru. Whether it is numerous carnivals across the continent, ceremonies such as the increasingly popular Ayahuasca healing retreats or the Witches Market in La Paz, you will definitely come across multiple signs of the pre-Columbian mysticism in the region.
The languages spoken in Bolivia go in line with the country’s cultural diversity. There are apparently 36 listed languages, some of which are extinct. The major ones however are Quechua and Aymara and, of course, Spanish. The good news for the visitors is, that Spanish is often a second language for quite a few indigenous Bolivians, as a result of which, el español spoken in the country is mostly rather pure and therefore easier to understand as opposed to for example the heavily accented Chilean, Argentinian or Uruguayan Spanish.
People and life
Given the sometimes rather extreme natural conditions, life in Bolivia might appear to be hard for an observer. This feeling is boosted by the fact that Bolivia is also one of the most economically challenged countries in the region. The locals however confront that view with their somewhat positive attitude towards life with their traditional colourful outfits, bowler’s hats and coca leaves-filled-cheeks smiles.
For some people, including me, Bolivians might come across as a little shy, which is however mostly an observation for people who arrived in Bolivia from Argentina. It might be due to the fact that when travelling from Argentina – pretty much to any other country in the world, due to the friendly/extroverted nature of many Argentinians, every nation would come across as a little shy. Well, I guess except for Italy 🙂
Many people consider Bolivia a hilly country because of the Andes, however, nearly 2/3 of the country are flat-ish lowlands filled with rain forests, dry forests as well as wetlands, including part of the world’s largest wetland Pantanal. Bolivia, therefore, has an extraordinary geographical range that is also naturally reflected in the country’s biodiversity, which is yet another significant element that shaped the country’s history and culture.
The fact that 17% of the country’s land is a protected area also contributes to the fact that Bolivia is, in fact, one of the richest countries in the World, when it comes to biodiversity. For example, the country is home to some 1400 species of birds. After all, with a population density of only 9,2 people per 100km² and such a geographical range which includes the World’s 13th largest elevation span of 6542 metres (21 463 ft), one could expect tremendous wealth when it comes to forms of life in the country. More about the country’s terrific biodiversity could be found here, in case you were interested.
Basic history of Bolivia
Quite a significant portion of the pre-Columbian history of Bolivia is centred around Altiplano, with Lake Titicaca as a major centre of spiritual, cultural and economical life. Like with many other civilisations around the planet, things were concentrated around people’s ability to gather and/or harvest food.
So from the harvest point of view, for Bolivia (as well as Peru), historically there are two major plants, potatoes and quinoa, traces of which go back thousands of years. Although these crops are typical for the region even in the present day, history-wise, we’re talking about going back as far as 8000 BCE for potatoes and 2000 BCE for quinoa. By this time, the locals were beginning to produce copper and domesticate llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.
Politics, or power-wise, life in pre-Columbian Bolivia was also centred around Lake Titicaca. In fact, the lake was home to the first great Andean civilisation, known as Tiwanaku Empire which emerged in about the 4th century. The empire stretched over the highlands down to the Peruvian coast and peaked between the 7th and 12th centuries before the whole region was taken over by the Incas in mid 15th century.
Conquistadors, wealth and exploitation
The early 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Incan empire however kicked off a new historical period in the region, which was marked by the exploitation of the region’s natural resources and labour. The most notable sites of economical interest became the rich silver deposits discovered in Potosí (1545) and Oruro (1606). Administrative-wise, Bolivia became part of the Vice-royalty of Peru, which has covered nearly the whole of South America (see the pic below).
Holding the largest known silver deposits in the Western World, the whole central Altiplano area has consequently become one of the wealthiest centres of the Spanish empire. Except for the negative effects of exploitation, which mostly affected the local lower classes and indigenous communities, the wealth delivered a significant development to the region and its infrastructure, not to mention the sharp rise in the population density. For instance, by the 1650s Potosí’s population had reached around 160 thousand people, which is a comparable number to the largest European cities at the time.
Independence, wars and land loses
While the first major uprisings in the region, led by the indigenous revolutionary Túpac Amaru II took place in the late 18th century, it took a little longer for Bolivians to break free from Spain. In 1824, following 15 years-long war, the legendary freedom fighter, AKA El Libertador Simón Bolívar, declared independence on August 6, 1825.
Unfortunately, this was also a period, when the silver deposits were almost totally drained. For instance, in 1825, the country already had more than 10 thousand abandoned mines. So regardless of the wealth from other mined minerals, most notably saltpetre, the local economy was about to experience a meltdown. Furthermore, like in every other Latin American country, also in Bolivia, the independence was closely followed by political instability and power shifts that were marked by military dictators, internal as well as external conflicts, most of which didn’t go down well for Bolivia.
In 1839, Bolivia lost a war they fought as a member of a confederation with Peru against Chile, known as the War of the Confederation (1836-1839). Only 45 years later, Bolivia become landlocked after losing mineral-rich, coastal territory in the Atacama desert in yet another conflict with Peru against Chile, known as the War of the Pacific (1879-1884). This, however, wasn’t the end of Bolivia losing its land, because, in 1903, the country lost its rubber-rich province of Acre to Brazil, and in 1935 it lost yet another territory to Paraguay after being defeated in the Chaco War (1932-1935).
This tragic war-series shit show, which also included a Civil War between the country’s two capitals Sucre and La Paz, an 1828 invasion by Peru and other smaller conflicts, has drained the country’s resources as well its people. If you look at the map below, you’ll be able to see the significant land losses Bolivia has suffered. In fact, since its independence, Bolivia has lost over half of its territory to neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, things weren’t to get much better for Bolivians in the 20th century.
20th century: Coups, revolutions, disasters and more coups
20th century Bolivia was to suffer from the consequences of its politics and the conflicts they’ve been part of and lost on many levels. The disastrous rollercoaster of tragic events, therefore, ceased to stop for most of the century. In order to illustrate the unfortunate nature of politics in 20th century Bolivia, I’ll only briefly touch upon some significant historical events.
Except for the wars with Chile and Paraguay mentioned above, 20th century Bolivia faced numerous revolutions, uprisings and coups d’états to add to the ongoing misery of the country’s population. In fact, Bolivia has experienced more than 190 military coups and rebellions since its independence in 1825. Only between 1950 and 1984, Bolivia has seen 13 coup attempts, which is more than any other country in the world. However, since 1982, when the country finally became a democratic regime, the level of coups and rebellions declined to “only” 2 since then.
I should however stress that not everything from this period of Bolivian history was just bad news. Looking for the silver lining, we’d find few improvements for the Bolivians, especially for the indigenous communities and other vulnerable segments of Bolivian society. For instance, in 1952 president Victor Paz Estenssoro introduced various social and economic reforms, that included universal suffrage and land redistribution as well as improvements in the status and education as well as the status of indigenous peoples.
1982 democracy and the major events in a timeline
- 1982: A dictator, general Celso Torrelio Villa is forced to resign. The power is handed over power to civilian administration led by a leftist Siles Zuazo
- 1984: On 30 June, Siles Zuazo is arrested for several hours in an attempt to stage yet another military coup, which proves to be a failure
- 1986: Some 20 thousand miners lose their jobs following the collapse of the tin market
- 1990: The government allocates nearly 4 million acres of rainforest to the indigenous communities
- 1997: Former dictator Hugo Banzer and participant on Pinochet-led Operation Condor is elected president
- 2001: Nearly half of Bolivia’s territory is declared a natural disaster area following heavy rains. In the same year, the farmers reject a government offer of eradication of theit coca crop in return of an annual payment of $900 each
- 2003: More than 30 people are killed in violent protests against the income tax proposed by the President Sanchez de Lozada. In protests against the government plans to export natural gas via Chile, 80 people are killed and hundreds injured
- 2004: Voters back approve exports of gas in referendum
- 2005 Rising fuel prices trigger large-scale anti-government protests and blockades in Santa Cruz and El Alto. Business leaders in the wealthiest Bolivian city Santa Cruz push for autonomy
- 2005: Socialist leader Evo Morales, backed by the coca-growers community wins presidential elections, becoming the first indigenous person to take the office
- 2006: Bolivian senate narrowly approves the land reform bill, which aims to allocate 1/5 of the country’s land to the poor landless people
- 2006: Morales issues a decree to nationalises the energy industry
- 2007: Bolivian football governing body organises a protest campaign to overturn FIFA bans international games at high altitudes, which was a large source of Bolivian glory in the world of soccer. The same year, following months of heavy rain falls that left dozens of people dead and thousands homeless, the officials are forced to declare yet another a state of emergency
- 2008: 30 people are killed in anti-government protests that escalated into violence in the east and north of Bolivia. The country expels the US ambassador, accusing him of fuelling civil unrest. Washington reciprocates. Bolivia expels DEA (US drug enforcement agency) from the country
- 2009: 60% Bolivians voted in favour of a new constitution that’s giving greater rights to indigenous majority in a referendum
- 2010: Morales‘s government nationalises 4 electricity compaies.
- 2011: Sharp increase of the basic food prices and the consequent food shortages spark violent protests
- 2012: Morales delivers his (in)famous coca speech at the UN meeting on narcotics
- 2012: The Spanish-owned electric power company REE is nationalised
- 2019: Following the opposition allegations of election fraud and the consequent rise of violence, Bolivia went through yet another military coup. Evo Morales fleeds to Mexico City
- 2020: Former Bolivian President Evo Morales’s political party MAS has claimed victory in the country’s presidential election, with Morales’s successor Luis Arce securing over 50% of the vote, according to exit polls
I apologise for being very brief in my descriptions of the above significant events from Bolivian history. I do not want to downplay the tragedy and suffering many Bolivians had to go through, especially during the wars and natural disasters. This is only due to the lack of space, a travel piece such as this one offers when it comes to the subject of history. In case you were interested to dive deeper into any of the above-mentioned events from Bolivian history, at the bottom of the post, you’ll be able to find links to the sources I was getting my information from, that provide more detailed information.
Influences and main ingrediences
It’s safe to say that Bolivia isn’t exactly famous for being a culinary destination. However, although you shouldn’t expect the savoury levels of Buenos Aires or Lima, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some highly-rated restaurants to satisfy even the picky foodies. Generally speaking, the country’s traditional cuisine does present several very yummy dishes to try out. Especially, if you like potatoes. There are apparently over two hundred kinds of potatoes in the country and Bolivians also claim that this worldwide known and important crop has its origins in their country. So brace yourselves for eating a lot of potatoes. And quinoa. And corn as well as beans, of course 🙂
To a large extent, Bolivian cuisine has been influenced by the Incan, Aymaran and Spanish culinary habits but sometimes there are also rare dashes of German, French, Arab and Italian touches, reflecting the taste of migration waves the country experienced in the past. Due to Bolivia’s natural diversity, its cuisine is split between the fruits of the Amazonian lowlands which often include fish, vegetables, yuca and the actual fruits and the spicier Altiplano. So let’s list a few meals typical in Bolivia you should consider checking out.
Popular dishes in Bolivia
- Quinoa: Take it in a yummy stew, salad, soup or as a side dish – you name it. Vege or with meat, mixed with pretty much everything, it always tastes great and it’s healthy. In case you didn’t know, please note that quinoa is the so called “superfood” or “supergrain”, meaning that it’s packed with proteins, fiber and various vitamins and minerals so don’t be shy – eat as much quinoa as you can and then have some more 😉
- Pique Macho is arguably the most typical dish in the country. We’re talking about a large and very rich mix of beef, sausage, eggs, potatoes, onions and peppers. Unless you’re about to walk a 100 miles or build a house in one day by yourself, I’d recommend to share this protein bomb with a mate
- Picante de Pollo is an aromatic and spicy chicken dish, served with chuño (dehydrates potatoes) that’s characteristic by the taste of the local cayenne peppers aji
- Silpancho is layer-based meal popular in the Cochabamba region of the country. From the bottom, we’re talking about rice, followed by a layer of boiled and sliced potatoes a layer of pounded meat and a layer of chopped tomato, onion, beetroot and parsley, topped with either one or two fried eggs
- Mondongo soup is a tasty stew (beef or pork) that’s definitely worth considering. There’s also a modongo meal, which is pork ribs cooked in a cuminy/paprika sweet and spicy sauce severd with corn, rice or potatoes
- Pampaku is another typical Bolivian meal, mainly known for it’s preparation. We’re talking about an uniquely roasted meat on wood or char coal underground served with potatoes, cassava and plantain
- Calapurka or K’ala phurka is a traditional breakfast soup from Potosí that’s made of beef or llama, of chilli, cornflour and potatoes. Originally it should be served in a rather funky way, with a hot volcanic stone in the bowl in front of you for the soup to be cooked for 10-15 more minutes after being served
- Anticuchos are skewered beef hearts marinated in red wine vinegar and spices such as garlic, cumin, and aji pepper
- Papas Rellanas literally translates as staffed potatoes. We’re therefore talking about a deep fried buttered mashed potato wrappd around a filling that’s mosstly made of minced beef, hard-boiled egg and various peppers but these ingrediences can vary from region to region
- Charquekan is a dried jerky form beef or llama and boiled corn kernels served withcorn, potatoes, cheese, boiled eggs and peppers
- Sopa de Mani is a yummy soup made of peanuts, potatoes, beef or chicked, carrots celery, spices and pasta
There are, of course, many other typical meals you could try in Bolivia, such as Fritanga de Cerdo, which is basically pork covered by a spicy garlicky red sauce served with corn and dehydrated potatoes or Chicharrón de Cerdo, which is yet another pork dish that’s long-cooked in a mixture of its fat and an alcoholic beverage made of corn called chicha.
You can also get the Bolivian versions of the Latin American classics, such as Locro, which is a thick stew made of corn, vegetables, and beef or chicken as well as Milanesa, which is a breaded slice of meat similar to Austrian Wiener Schnitzel and many more other dishes. Snack-wise, there are Salteñas and Tucumanas, which are pretty much Bolivian empanadas, AKA pastry with various fillings. Then there are also tasty beef sausages with french fries, AKA Salchipapas that shouldn’t slip away from your attention.
Vegan, vegetarian and deserts
I’m aware that with the exception of quinoa, there weren’t exactly many options available for vegans and vegetarians. For instance, I’ve had a vegan mean called Jankaquipa, which was is a thick winter soup made of potatoes, corn, onions and spices, but I’m told that the locals sometimes cook it with chicken so I guess that it depends. As far as I know, vegetarians can also munch on Plato paceño, which is a yummy meal made of beans, potatoes, corn and fried cheese. Anyway, in case you’re vegan, please click here to check out Debora‘s post, where she listed your options on her blog Minimalist Traveller.
When it comes to sweets (dulces), you might come across Buñuelos, which is pretty much a doughnut popular in the whole of Latin America, Spain and other countries. Another popular and widely available option to enjoy in Bolivia is checking out Pastel de Queso, which is something I’d describe as a very yummy cheesecake empanada. While we’re at treats, I probably shouldn’t skip Arroz con queso, although being made of rice and cheese, this is technically not a desert, it however still tastes great and it’s amazingly light, which is a property you’ll appreciate in Bolivia from time to time.
Local drinks and a imodium note
Then there are a few popular local drinks you should also consider checking out, such as Api Morado, which is a thick drink made from purple corn that’s mashed with cinnamon, orange zest and cloves. Then there’s an alcoholic beverage called Singani Sour that’s pretty much the Bolivian answer to Pisco Sour. I’m certain that it does exactly the same thing to you as its Peruvian counterpart if you have consumed higher volumes of it. If that was the case, in the morning you’d be presented with the perfect opportunity to try Mocochinchi, which is a Bolivian non-alcoholic cider made from dehydrated peaches, followed by several Multivitaminicos, AKA fruit shakes that you can find at the street juice stalls.
There’s one more thing I should probably mention when talking about gastronomical experiences in Bolivia. Many travellers, including me and nearly everyone I’ve talked to, experienced certain gastro-related discomforts in the country. Please note that I don’t mean to paint every Bolivian restaurant with the same brush – to be honest, a vast majority of the establishments I’ve visited were very clean and the ingredients appeared fresh – but as they say “shit happens”, and in this case quite literally. So just to be safe, make sure that you do have Imodium on you, especially if you’re off to the remote parts of the country – it is very likely that it will come in handy at some point.
Tourism in Bolivia
In spite of the massive potential, Bolivia is one of the less-visited countries in Latin America. The tourism industry in the country is however on the rise. For instance, when we look at the economy, the tourism industry currently makes 6.8 % of the country’s GDP, at least according to the Knoema website. This makes tourism one of the top 5 most important industries in the country, and its economic significance has been steadily rising, together with the amounts of tourists visiting Bolivia since the mid-90s, with the exception of the pandemic years, of course.
So tourism in Bolivia is on the rise. The infrastructure is being built as we speak and the positive impact of tourism on the local communities is visible by a naked eye of a tourist visiting the country’s attractions that include 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites. We should however put things into perspective, rather than wrapping them in some sort of cherry-picking political speech phrases. In practical terms, only 30-40 years ago, there was hardly any tourism infrastructure to speak of and although things have significantly improved ever since there’s however still a long way to go.
I’m talking about the quality of the roads, accommodation and transport options and so on. If compared to the country’s northern neighbour Peru, which has a rather developed tourism infrastructure, Bolivia is nowhere near that level in those areas. However, its emerging tourism industry is closing the gap, especially when it comes to services as well as the efficiency of exploiting its tourism potential.
One should therefore expect a wee bit rougher conditions, especially when it comes to transport and accommodation. This isn’t however given only by the state of the Bolivian tourism industry. It’s a combination of many factors that include the economy and most of all also the natural conditions of the Altiplano Plateau. We’re talking about conditions that take place at 3 650 metres (12 000 ft) above sea level on average, which means things are harder to get done and once they do, the weather can’t be exactly called ideal for durability of the roads and other structures.
However, for a nature and/or culture lover, those minor inconveniences, like driving on a rougher road or sleeping in more modest places are altogether a small “tax” to pay for the rewards the visitors will benefit from by experiencing incredible natural beauty. Furthermore, due to the fact that Bolivia hasn’t been exactly overrun with tourists the general visitor’s experience feels more genuine and pure, which often demonstrates itself by the friendly attitude and unmissable hospitality of the locals.
When to visit Bolivia
As mentioned above, Bolivia spans a multitude of microclimates from the Andes to the Amazonian jungle, which consequently brings multiple climatic zones to consider, when planning your trip. Most guides would recommend visiting the country in its dry season (May – Nov), although it’s also Bolivian winter, which can make the highlands rather cold.
If you were however planning to visit the lowlands, the colder temperatures might be a plus for you in the humid jungle. Personally, I’m a big fan of shoulder seasons because they bring fewer tourists and often also lower prices, I’d say try aiming to visit Bolivia between April and May or October and November.
Safety is always a tricky subject to address because it somehow involves generalisations and those often aren’t the scientific method to work with when thinking about safety when travelling. The whole of Latin America has a somewhat shady reputation when it comes to safety and yes, the crime rates in some areas of Latin cities could be high. But then again, for instance, St Louis has been lately regularly featured in the list of the 50 most dangerous cities, and while it might have a few dodgy hoods, one would rather avoid at night, we can’t say that the whole of St Luis is a no go zone, can we?
In the same context, it would be good to point out that most violent crime takes place away from the areas where the usual tourist would go to check out the popular attraction. If we stick with stats, according to the Global Peace Index, the list conducted by Visions of Humanity, Bolivia comes 105th, which is for instance 17 positions above the USA and among the safest countries in the Latin Americas. But stats are stats and shit can happen anywhere, you might think and you’d be right.
So while Bolivia is considered a fairly safe country to visit and from my own personal experience, it does feel that way, it doesn’t mean that you should walk around flashing your valuables to advertise them to potential thieves. Tourist hotspots are always going to invite pickpockets and other opportunists but the usual precautions of the average street-smart person should do the job. Furthermore, there are always friendly locals to remind you of watching your back if you were going to certain areas, such as El Alto, nearby La Paz.
That’s safety when it comes to threats from other humans. But then there’s Mother Nature, AKA Pachamama. As mentioned above, the natural conditions in Bolivia could get rather tough and hostile, whether it’s in the highlands or in the jungle. I don’t mean to sound patronising or something like that but it’s always a good idea never to overestimate your abilities when it comes to trekking and be adequately prepared for the extreme conditions, especially, if you’re about to go trekking without a guard. You might not be as lucky as Yossi Ghinsberg, whose story you might have seen in the 2017 film Jungle.
Places to visit in Bolivia
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Bolivia’s landmass covers an area of 1 098 581 km² (424 165 sq m), which makes it the 5th largest country in South America. To give you an idea about Bolivia’s enormous size, the country is about 2 times bigger than France or about 1.6 times bigger than Texas. You can therefore imagine that there’s plenty to see in such a large and diverse country. In the following section, we’re going to cover the most visited places in the country first and then we’ll slowly venture into less and less visited areas popular with the more adventurous travellers.
Uyuni Salt Flats
Salar de Uyuni is without a doubt the most visited location in Bolivia by tourists for a number of good reasons. It’s not that we’re talking about the largest salt lake in the world, with an area of 10 582 km2 (4086 sq m), the flats are also located at the altitude of 3 663 m (12 thousand ft) above sea level, which makes the local nature very unique.
This is mainly due to the process of how its mineral-rich soil reacts to the extreme weather elements, which is making some spots in the area very colourful and therefore a visually very stimulating spectacle. Then there also are the magnificent volcanoes that go up to nearly 6 000 metres, not to mention the unique local flora and fauna, that includes 80 species of birds. The flats are also conveniently located in relatively close proximity to the Chilean Atacama desert and Argentinian provinces of Salta and Jujuy.
If you’re a nature lover and fancy seeing something rare and marvellous, Salar de Uyuni might just be the place for you to explore. If you fancy discovering more facts about this place, please click here, where you can find everything you need to know about the flats. In case you wanted to know about taking an organised tour in the area with the local company, please click here to read a little report from my 3-day Uyuni Salt Flats 3 day tour from the Chilean San Pedro de Atacama.
Lago Titicaca is a massive lake with an area of 8 372 km² (3232 sq m), which makes it the largest lake in South America and 18th in the world. While the lake’s natural surroundings offer numerous amazing spectacles that are also due to Titicaca‘s 3810 m (12 500 ft) altitude, the fact that this ancient lake, with a history of human presence that dates back to approximately around 10 000 BCE, which later turned to area into an important spiritual place for Tiwanaku and Inca cultures before the arrival of conquistadors, makes the whole region a very special location to explore.
So if you are fond of unique nature and places that are rich in culture and history, Lake Titicaca should make it to your bucket list. The lake is located at the border between Bolivia and Peru. In order to explore its major attractions, such as Tiwanaku ruins, Copacabana, Isla del Sol, Uros floating islands and other spots you will therefore need to visit both of these neighbouring countries. In case you were interested in getting more information about the lake, please check out Quaint Planet‘s comprehensive guide to Lake Titicaca here.
La Paz and Sucre
Bolivia is among 15 countries that have two or more capitals, and as one could expect, there’s a story behind that, which you could find, together with some basic tourism-related information in this comparison post. Overall, we’re talking about two rather contrasting cities. While Sucre is a much calmer charming place with a nearly provincial vibe, La Paz is a massive, busy vibrating metropolis with a more than 6 times bigger population than Sucre.
Sucre stands out for its well preserved colonial architecture, pleasant climate, tranquil atmosphere and decent café, restaurant and bar scene, which makes it one of the favourite destinations in Latin America to study Spanish for many students and/or backpackers.
From the landmarks’ point of view, the most prominent structures in the city to admire are its churches, most notably Basílica Metropolitana, San Felipe Neri, La Merced, Santa Clara and La Recoleta. Sucre is also home to several museums to consider, like the Museum of Indigenous Art, Children’s Museum Tanga Tanga and Casa de la Libertad. Outside the city, there are also some great trekking opportunities just outside, some of which could be combined with visiting some of the pretty colonial villages in the region. In case you were interested, here‘s Massimo‘s post on his Just Bolivia site with more details about the city.
La Paz, on the other hand, is a very different story and you’d know it right upon your arrival once you see the massive canyon filled with tens of thousands of red brick houses. Due to its relief, the city offers spectacular views from multiple viewpoints, as you can see in the picture below. La Paz is also very high, it’s actually the highest capital in the world (3 640m / 11 942 ft), which is an altitude, where you can really feel the altitude, especially if you land at its international airport that’s at 4 062 m.
La Paz is of course also home to numerous landmarks from the colonial days. Among the most iconic, there would be the San Francisco Church, the La Paz Catedral, Plaza Murillo or the colourful Jaén Alley with nice restaurants and cafés. The city is also known for its unique markets, particularly the Witches Market in the centre.
If you’re keen on knowledge and museums, Nuestra Señora de La Paz, which is the official name of the city, has a lot to offer in this department. Among the most popular museums to check out are The National Museum of Art, the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, the National Museum of Archaeology or the Museum of Coca and many others. Some tourists like to check out the Cholitas wrestling parody show when Inca ladies fight in a ring, which could be fun for the first 15-20 minutes.
Another popular attraction and one of the icons of the city is La Paz‘s cable car system Mi Teleférico, which is apparently the longest aerial public transport system in the world. As for outside the city, taking a bike tour on the impressive Death Road, visiting stunning Valle de la Luna and/or in case you were fit, you could challenge yourself to climb a 6000m peak Huayna Potosí. For more tips about what to do in La Paz, place click here for Massimo‘s informative post on Just Bolivia.
Officially called the North Yungas Road connects the town of Coroico with La Paz. It earn its dark nickname due to the estimated number of between 200–300 commuters who died here each year, prior to the 2006 competition of the safer replacement highway Bolivian National Route 3. Currently, the road is only used by locals living in the area and the bikers, taking a popular tour.
The tour itself is a 70 km long downhill fun bike ride that cuts through a stunning steep valley, with an unbelievable 3450 metres of descent that goes up from the cool Altiplano terrains down to the hot and humid rain forest. Overall, we’re talking about a narrow single unpaved track only, with many sharp turns with blind spots, so while your guides will do their best to keep you safe, the road is still dangerous and you should definitely approach it with caution. In case you were interested, here‘s a report from the tour with more information, including many practical tips.
As mentioned in the history section above, in the mid 17th century, Potosí was one of the richest cities in Latin America and the city’s population of 160 000 people was comparable to the largest European cities back then. While the days of glory are long gone, a considerable amount of the city’s colonial architecture has been preserved, which is a reason why it was designated as the first-ever Bolivian UNESCO World Heritage Site. With an elevation of 4 090 metres (13 420 ft), Potosí is also one of the world’s highest cities in the world.
From the tourism point of view, Potosí isn’t exactly the most visited place in Bolivia. Even the more curious travellers often opt for a 2-3 day visit only, most often to do a tour of Cerro Rico‘s active silver mines and check out the pretty colourful city’s centre. Except for the rather depressive and claustrophobic mine tours inside Cerro Rico, where one can observe the terrible, nearly colonial days-like conditions, among the most popular attractions to visit are Casa Nacional de Moneda Potosí, where you can learn more about the history of silver production and use.
Another major attraction in the city are its churches, some of which allow visitors to reach their towers and/or rooftops, offering excellent viewpoints, such as Torre de la Compañía de Jesús, San Lorenzo de Carangas, Catedral de San Francisco, Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. Other spots not to miss are Plaza 10 de Noviembre, Obelisco Potosí and the market-loving people also seem to like the vibe of Mercado Central. To learn more about the city, please click here to check out Massimo‘s piece on his Just Bolivia site.
Oruro is another former silver mining town located between Sucre and La Paz at 3 702 meters (12 150 ft). While in the past, the city played a second violin, if compared to the wealth of Potosí during the silver mining era, following the 17th-century silver deposit decline, unlike its southern mining rival, Oruro managed to bounce back with the new and profitable tin mining, only to remain one of Bolivia’s better off cities up to a present day.
From the tourism point of view, Bolivian 5th largest city (population 265 000 people) is also enjoying more attention than Potosí. Except for its convenient location on the so-called Gringo trail, Oruro also benefits from hosting one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity, Carnaval De Oruro, which is one of the most popular annual festivals in all of South America. This extraordinary colourful and lively religious event usually lasts 10 days, kicking off on the weekend before Ash Wednesday.
Other than the carnival, the city holds several, IMHO rather mediocre places of interest to check out, most notable of which would perhaps be its Archaeological Museum and the main square Plaza de 10 Febrero. The mediocrity however could not apply to the beautiful Sajama National park, with hot springs, abandoned churches and rather rich endemic life. More information about Oruro could be found here, on Encyclopedia Britannica.
Cochabamba & Tunari and Torotoro national parks
While the 3rd largest Bolivian city Cochabamba has a nice historical centre that’s worth exploring, most particularly for its main square Plaza 14 de Septiembre and the surrounding area as well as an iconic viewpoint El Cristo de La Concordia, most people visit this “gastronomical capital of Bolivia” to use it mainly as a gateway to explore the natural beauty of the region. One of the major locations in the region to keep in mind is the “Bolivian Grand Canyon”, which is a little ambitious but not exactly an unfaithful description of the stunning Torototo National Park with great treks, massive dinosaur footprints, caves and more.
In case you feel ready to take upon the high altitude challenge, you can opt for a day trip to conquer the dominant hill in the area. Cerro Tunari is over 5000m (16 480 feet) above sea level and on a good day, it offers (literally) breathtaking views of the whole region. Learn more about Tunari National park here on Bolivia Travel Site, here about Torotoro on the National Parks website and here, about the city of Cochabamba on Encyclopedia Britannica.
Rurrenabaque and Madidi National Park
Rurrenabaque or Rurre, as the locals call it is Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon, more particularly to its upper basin. While the town itself has lately turned into a considerably vibrant backpacking hotspot, due to the above-mentioned film Jungle with few attractions up its sleeves. Except for beautiful views, there are tremendous opportunities for bird watchers and general wildlife observation and those who seek to learn about local culture could also enjoy the friendly locals and their indigenous culture.
Whether you’re a Daniel Radcliff fan or just an ordinary nature-lover, you should definitely consider checking out the nearby Madidi National Park, located deep inside the tropical rainforests of the Tuichi River. Learn more about the Madidi National Park here, on the National Parks website and if you want to find more detail about the city, please click here to check out the informative Bolivia Travel Site post.
Off the beaten path places to visit in Bolivia
- The Cordillera Real. If you are a trekking enthusiast and prefer enjoying the beauty of nature in less touristy areas, you’re in for a treat. As Jen Rose Smith pointed out here in her CNN piece, Cordillera Real is “an uncrowded alternative to the Inca Trail”. That’s provided that you’re fit enough to manage long treks in the high altitudes of Altiplano.
- Tarija. Rather than for hikkers, Tarija would be more attractive for wine-lovers. This little town, located just north of Argentinian border, also attracts visitors with its pleasant Mediterranean-like climate and nice colonial architecture and its annual festival. More details could be found here, on Bolivia Bella website.
- Tupiza. Under 100 km west of Tarija, there’s another location worth your attention. Fans of the old Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid Western movie might know Tupiza, due to the fact that the these two infamous outlaws were allegedly killed in a nearby town of San Vincente. Whether this is true or not, there’s a whole industry that runs tours into beautiful landscapes, reminiscent of the Western movies, that surround the city, that usually includes the picturesque Canyon Trail. Tupiza is furthermore a southern gateway to the incredible Uyuni Salt Flats. More info about the town could be found here on Wikivoyage.
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra. While the largest Bolivian city doesn’t sound like your typical off the beaten path destination, Santa Cruz isn’t exactly a touristy city. Nor it is exactly a place you’d nickname “urban pearl”, in fact, it is rather messy, loud and disorganized place, but it’s conveniently located for those who want to explore the Eastern Bolivian lowlands that offer quite a few treats, when it comes to tourist attractions. The city itself however has its own historical centre that’s worth checking out, decent nightlife scene and, if you’re like me and love sloths, please note that Santa Cruz is nicknamed a “Sloth Capital of the World” as these supercool creatures could be seen on the trees even on the outskirts of the city. More info about Santa Cruz could be found here, on Bolivia Bella site.
- Samaipata. If big cities weren’t your cup of tea, especially if they’re rather messy like Santa Cruz, you could also decide to explore the lowlands from an expat-favourite Samaipata, a charming cobbled-street colonial town with pleasant climate and plasant tranquil atmosphere. More details could be found here, on Bolivia Online website.
- The Chiquitos Circuit. A great package consisting of beautiful scenery, friendly locals and UNESCO-listed places could be achieved while exploring the Chiquitos Circuit UNESCO Jesuit Missions, which is about half a day’s worth ride from Santa Cruz. UNESCO’s page that explores the sites in more detail could be found here.
- Amboro National Park. A nature-lover should also definitely consider checking out the stunning Amboro National Park that stretches from the Andes’ foothils to the Amazon Basin, offering rather extreme variety of climate and ecosystems. A guide to explore this incredible park that’s only about 40 km away from Santa Cruz could be found here, on Bolivian Life site.
- Lomas de Arena. Another great attraction that’s in close proximity (25 km) to the largest Bolivian city is Lomas de Arena which is a rather bizarre natural phenomenon consisting of 3000 ha of sand dunes surrounded by a tropical jungle, providing some excellent wildlife spotting opportunities, that are certailny worth a day trip from the city. More info here on Bolivia Online site.
- Valle Grande. Except for being famous for being the final resting place of Ernesto Che Guevara, who was executed in the village of La Higuera in 1967, Valle Grande also offers incredible scenery and tranquile atmosphere. Few more details could be found here on Bolivia Travel Site.
Even more remote locations to consider
- Kaa Iya National Park is one of the truly remote areas to visit in Bolivia. The country’s largest national park that covers a tremendous area of 34,5 thousand km² (13 320 sq ml) is located in a hottest region in Bolivia, close to Paraguayan border. In exchange for a very thin tourist infrastructure, Kaa Iya National Park gifts the nature lovers with one of the largest diversity of mammals in South America. An informative guide to visit this park could be found here on Bolivian Life website.
- Otuquis Reserve/National Park located in the nearly unpopulated southeastern corner of Bolivia that borders Paraguay and Brazil, Otuquis National Park takes the remoteness even a notch further if compared to Kaa lya National park. Also known as the Bolivian Pantanal, we’re talking about a large wetlands area with an incredible wildlife. More info here on Bolivia Bella site.
- Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. According to UNESCO, Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is “one of the largest (nearly 16 thousand km²) and most intact parks in the Amazon Basin“. Largely unexplored Huanchaca Plateau is often only accessible by chartered plane, making it the most remote and adventurous location on our list. The park boasts of grasslands, numerous creeks and waterfalls and dry woodlands, Amazon rainforests, palm forests, swamps and the consequent unbelievable wildlife. An informative guide to the park could be found here, on Bolivian Life website.
In case you’ve made it all the way down here, you now know that for an inquisitive traveller, Bolivia has a lot to offer. We’ve talked about certain minor inconveniences a traveller will have to encounter in Bolivia, such as a lack of tourist infrastructure but we also said that in return, your payoff will be more than worth it because of the country’s tremendous nature, cultural as well as natural diversity and overall authentic feeling a visitor will experience do more than just re-balancing few road bumps and an occasional modest hotel bed.
If you are a first-timer who might be used to a wee bit more comfort on your travels, I’d recommend sticking with the Gringo Trail locations, like taking a Uyuni Salt flats tour, hanging around La Paz for a few days, driving a Death Road and then spending a night or two on Lake Titicaca first, which is doable in about 10-12 days in a semi-effective mode. I’m certain that you’d still get a unique experience, depending on what you’re into and where you have travelled in the past.
If you are a bit more experienced traveller or if you just fancy a bit more adventure, you should then definitely consider adding some of the more remote locations to your itinerary, such as Madidi National Park and if you have time, please also consider checking out Eastern Bolivia. Wildlife-lovers, birdwatchers and everyone who’s into pristine and nearly untouched nature or a person who’s keen on local cultures, are guaranteed to gain a truly unique unforgettable memory.
Sources, references and possible further details for a curious reader
Demography, culture, nature and tourism
- Demography of Bolivia: Here‘s Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on the country’s demography
- Altiplano: Read more about the Andean Plateau here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Bolivian indigenous ethnicities: More information about the 36 recognized indigenous peoples in Bolivia could be found here, on Minority Rights website
- Languages spoken in Bolivia: More information about the 36 official languages in Bolivia here on Wikipedia
- Pachamama: Read more about the Andean deity here, on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Syncretization: Read more about the mixing of Christian and Andean spirituality here, on AP News by Carlos Valdez in his piece about the subject and Witches’ Market in La Paz
- Witches’ Market: A nice piece about the mystical market could be found here, on National Geographic by Elizabeth Unger
- Ayahuasca: Get more information about the shamanic rituals here, on Ayahuasca.org website
- Bolivia’s biodiversity: Here‘s a post about the country’s incredible biodiversity, on American Museum of Natural History website
- Quinoa: Read more here about the plant and it’s superfood nutritional qualities here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Potato: Here‘s an interesting piece about how the humble potato changed the world by Diego Arguedas Ortiz for the BBC
- Pantanal: Read about the world’s largest wetland here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- The World’s top emerging tourism destinations: Here‘s a post on La Paz‘s Institute for Advanced Development Studies website about how Bolivia made it to the list
- Tiwanaku Culture: Here‘s UNESCO’s page that talks about the famous ruins as well as the culture itself
- Aymara culture: Here‘s World Culture Encyclopedia‘s article about Aymara people
- Simón Bolívar: Learn more about life and legacy of the Spanish/Venezuelan freedom fighter here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- War of the Confederation: Read about the 1836-39 Guerra de la Confederación or Guerra contra la Confederación (depending on who’s speaking) between Chile and Bolivia with Peru here on Global Security website
- War of the Pacific: Read about yet another war between these 3 countries from 1879–83, which made Bolivia a landlocked country here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Chaco War: More details about the 1932–35 conflict between the German general Hans von Kundt led Bolivia and Paraguay could be found here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Post 1952 regimes in Bolivia: Learn more about on what was going on in this turbolent perion in the country here in Encyclopedia Britannica
- The world of coups since 1950: Adam Taylor writes for Washington Post about the global coups here
- Operation Condor: Learn more about the 1970s and 80s, US-backed plot of 8 Latin American dictatorships to cross-border kidnappings, torture, rape and murders of hundreds of their political opponents here on The Guardian website
- Coup against Evo Morales: Here‘s more info on the 2020 coup in Bolivia from the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, Mark Weisbrot on The Guardian website
Food, incl recipies
- Papas Rellanas: Here‘s a recipe for the stuffed potatoes on the Bolivian Life website
- Quinoa: check out the recipes for stew, salad or soup made of this superfood on Grocery Coop, respectively Spice Breeze and Archana’s Kitchen websites
- Pique Macho: Here‘s Alison Donald‘s recipe for this rich meal on Bolivia Bella website
- Picante de Pollo is here‘s Camila‘s recipe for the Bolivian national chicken dish on Ingmar website
- Silpancho: Emily describes the recipe for this nutritional layer-based meal here on Food website
- Mondongo soup: A recipe for this tasty stew could be found here on Taste Atlas website
- Calapurka: Read how to make the traditional breakfast soup from Potosí here on Recetas website (in Spanish)
- Anticuchos: Here‘s the recipe for skewered beef hearts on The Spruce Eats by Marian Blazes
- Charquekan: Here‘s is a dried jerky dish recipe on Caserita Info website
- Sopa de Mani: If you fancy making the creamy peanut soup, here‘s the Together Women Rise website recipe
- Salteñas: Here‘s a recipe for Bolivian empanadas from Happy Mommyx4 on All Recipes website
- Salchipapas: This is how to make the tasty beef sausages with french fries, according to Crista A. Rubio on We Are Cocina website
- Plato paceño: Here‘s a recipe for this yummy snack on A Recetas website
- Vegan guide to Bolivia: Check out Debora‘s post, where she listed your vegan dining options on her blog Minimalist Traveller
- Buñuelos: Lizet‘s recipe to make the popular donuts could be found here on the Chipa by the Dozen website
- Pastel de Queso: If you fancy making the Bolivian cheescake empanada, please click here to check out Betsy Carter‘s recipe on Tasty.co website
- Arroz con queso: Here‘s a simple recipe how to make the rice and cheese, if you fancied that
Places to see
- Uyuni Salt Flats: More facts about Salar de Uyuni is here and a report from a 3-day Uyuni Salt Flats 3 day tour from the Chilean San Pedro de Atacama is here
- Lake Titicaca: A comprehensive guide to Lake Titicaca could be found here
- La Paz and Sucre: More history as well as tourism-related information about both cities could be found in this comparison post
- Death Road: Here‘s a report from the tour with more information, including many practical tips
- Potosí: Here UNESCO website for the site and here‘s Massimo Hernandes‘s guide on Just Bolivia website
- Oruro: More information about Oruro could be found here, on Encyclopedia Britannica, while here‘s UNESCO’s page about its carnival
- Cochabamba: Read more about the city here, on Encyclopedia Britannica, while UNESCO’s page on the gastronomical capital of Bolivia could be found here
- Tunari National Park: Learn more about Tunari National park here on Bolivia Travel Site,
- Torotoro National Park: Learn more about the Bolivian Grand Canyon here on the National Parks website
- Rurrenbaque: More details about the town could be found on Bolivia Travel Site here
- Madidi National Park: Learn more about the Madidi National Park here on National Parks website
- Cordillera Real: Jen Rose Smith writes about the Cordillera Real here for CNN
- Tarija: More details about the twon could be found here, on Bolivia Bella website
- Tupiza: More info about the the southern gateway to Uyuni Salt Flats and the alledged kill site of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid could be found here on Wikivoyage
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra: More info about the largest Bolivian city could be found here, on Bolivia Bella site
- Samaipata: More details about this charming town could be found here, on Bolivia Online website
- The Chiquitos Circuit UNESCO Jesuit Missions: UNESCO’s page that explores the sites in more detail could be found here
- Amboro National Park: Further details about this national park could be found here, on Bolivian Life site
- Lomas de Arena: More info about this popular attraction could be found here on Bolivia Online site
- Kaa Iya National Park: An informative guide to visit this park could be found here on Bolivian Life website
- Otuquis National Park: More info about the remote Bolivian wetlands could be found here on Bolivia Bella site
- Valle Grande: Read more about the resting place of Che Guevara here on Bolivia Travel Site
- Noel Kempff Mercado National Park: An informative guide to this amazing Amazon basin park could be found here, on Bolivian Life website, while here is its UNESCO page.
Other Country Guides to explore
- Chile: popular as well as off the beaten path places to see, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety and more
- Argentina: places to see, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety, off the beaten path and more
- Uruguay: places to see, off the beaten path, general travel tips, history, culture, cuisine, safety and more
- and there’s more guides to come in the future…
Some general tips about travelling in Latin Americas
- Budget: in case you were interested, here‘s an article listing the country-by-country basic expenses for a traveller in Latin America
- Safety: Few safety tips on how to secure your valuables, what to watch out for and more could be found here
- Transport: Information, safety and some other practical advice regarding public transport in Latin America can be found here
- ATM withdrawal charges: Some practical info, including the list of free-of-charge ATMs in Latin America, can be found here
- Border fees: To find out how much will you have to pay to enter or exit certain countries in Latin America, please click here
- Pre-trip preparations: Few things you can do ahead of time before you’ll become frantically busy prior to your departure are listed here
- Packing list: What to take with you for an extended trip as well as some security tips could be found here
- Cheap Flights: few tips on how to score a cheap/er flight, better seat on a plane, where to get a nap at a particular airport and so on
Latin American locations covered on Quaint Planet
Santiago de Chile ► Valparaíso ► Santiago de Chile ►Punta Arenas – Ushuaia – Punta Arenas ► Puerto Natales – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales ► El Calafate (Perito Moreno Glacier, Arg) ► El Chaltén (Los Glaciares National Park) ► Chile Chico (Ch) – Puerto Rio Tranquillo (Marble Caves) ► Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – (Carretera Austral) ► Puerto Chacabuco – Quellón/Castro ► Puerto Varas – San Carlos de Bariloche (Arg) ► Buenos Aires ► Colonia (Ur) ► Montevideo ► Punta del Diablo – Cabo Polonio ► Montevideo ► Salto ► Concordia (Arg) ► Puerto Iguazú (Iguazú Falls) ► Salta ► San Salvador de Jujuy ► Tilcara ► San Pedro de Atacama (Ch) ► Uyuni Salt Flats Tour (Bol) ► Uyuni ► Sucre – La Paz (Death Road Tour) ► Copacabana (Lake Titicaca) – Isla del Sol – Copacabana ► Cusco (Per) ► Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) ► Cusco ► Lima ► Máncora – Montañita (Ecu) ► Puerto López ► Quito ► Ipiales (Col) – Pasto ► Tatacoa Desert ► Bogotá ► Medellín ► Villa de Lleyva ► Santa Marta – Cartagena – Rincón del Mar Necoclí ► Capurganá ► Puerto Obaldía (Pan) ► Panama City ► Las Lajas ► Cerro Punta ► David ► Bocas del Torro ► San José (Costa Rica) ► San Juan del Sur (Nic) – Ometepe ► Granada ► Managua – El Rama – Bluefields – Corn Islans ► Léon ► El Tunco (El Salvador) ► La Antigua Guatemala – Lake Atitlán ► Lanquín (Semuc Champey) – Flores (Tikal) ► Belize City ► Bacalar – Tulum – Playa del Carmen – Mérida – Valladolid – Cancún ✈️ .