Bolivia was one of the most interesting countries during my trip to South America. Besides the salt flats, there was a lot I didn’t know about Bolivia. I am happy to say it completely blew me away in terms of diversity, uniqueness and untouched beauty.
Then there are the people. As the poorest country in South America, I was told the people were cold, unfriendly to foreigners and sometimes hostile.
I never found this once, I found many people in difficult situations who made the most of what they had. They had a great community spirit and a love for their country, despite the many problems that they face.
Spending just over five weeks here I barely scratched the surface, but I was a little too eager to move on to Peru. Luckily this just gives me an excuse to return at a later stage. Bolivia has a lot to offer. This article aims to inspire you to visit and educate you on things that you might not know about Bolivia.
One thing which is very true about Bolivia is the altitude and some of the problems that go with it. It is not just the altitude but the change in elevation from place to place that really brings on bouts of altitude sickness.
For example to Bolivian salt flats lie at about 3,600 meters rising from 2,850 in a short time. Potosi lies 4,067 and from here the next major city is Sucre at 2,800, these can be reached within a few hours drive. This isn’t ideal when you are not used to the conditions.
Plus at those heights, it can be extremely cold a huge facet of South America which disappointed me. I was not prepared for the coldness at that elevation but I got over it. Plus altitude sickness gives you the opportunity to try Coca leaves. That plant which causes so many problems throughout the world grows naturally in abundance here.
Take whatever medication you feel is necessary when visiting Bolivia and heed the warnings of locals who know the effects.
Shortness of breath can also be a little draining, especially when strolling around La Paz. It felt like one of the most uneven cities in the world.
Pink dolphins live in Bolivia
For a country that is landlocked, you will be surprised to discover that Bolivia has pink dolphins. These are obviously much cooler than regular dolphins, but extremely ugly creatures. I would guess they think the same about me, so it is only fair.
The dolphins live within the Amazon and can be found in almost every country in South America in which the Amazon reaches.
When I visited the Bolivian Pampas this was one of the animals that we were guaranteed to see. They aren’t afraid of people and actually come to play with you when you’re in the water. Their bites can hurt though. With big snouts and oddly shaped head, they are not the most beautiful animals. But swimming with dolphins is swimming with dolphins.,
Coca leaves are part of a staple diet
One thing that will be offered to you in one form or another in South America is Coca leaves. Either these beneficial healthy plants or the powdered chemical induced form which causes a lot of problems around the world.
I for one would at least recommend the planted form as they are great at getting rid of altitude sickness. Plus a lot of the other negative aspects that go along with it.
The leave of the coca plant has been used for centuries by indigenous groups to counter a whole host of ailments and that continues to this day. You will find locals chewing the leaves, making tea and putting it into ointments and other uses. You will find huge bags of the plant sold in both Peru and Bolivian markets especially in areas with high altitude.
Of course, it uses outside of this do cause issues but there are no high or effects similar to cocaine.
Bolivia has Amazing food
One thing that kept coming up as I made my way to Bolivia was the fact that the food quality was going to get worse. Many people said that meals consisted of maize and simple soups. While these dishes did exist, of course, there was also amazing food that I discovered in restaurants and markets throughout the country.
Menu del Dias is the best way to save money and try some authentic Bolivian dishes. Costing only a few Bolivianos for soup, veg and a meat dish they were tasty and filling.
The range of spices and sauces was definitely the most surprising to me. There is a strong use of spices in their cooking and as someone who loves spicy food, this was a welcome surprise.
It was also the first county in which I got to try llama meat which is actually really really good. I know they are cute but when you try it you will understand what I mean. If you don’t go searching yes you will find the food bland in parts but I was more than happy and I am sure you will be too.
Transport in Bolivia is an inconvenience
Another thing that is true about Bolivia is the fact that transport is probably the worst in South America. At least from the places that I visited. Transport in Bolivia can be long, cold, uncomfortable and dangerous depending on the route and bus company that you decide to go with.
The country doesn’t have a death road for no reason and accidents are quite common. This is mainly due to the bad road infrastructure and the mountainous terrain of the country.
Long distance journeys, of course, have the most problems, couple that with the speed people drive at it can be an inconvenience. Luckily I never was involved or witnessed an accident but I have met quite a few people who did.
Take the more expensive and recommended option when necessary, saving a few dollars and risking your health is not worth it.
Most definitely fly when you can, especially from Lap Paz to Rurrenabaque should you choose to visit. If you get a travel package from Lap Paz it will save you a long dangerous road journey.
For any Bolivia trip in which your using google maps be sure to add at least two hours for accidents or mishaps that may happen along the road.
Most of the roads are almost dirt tracks, especially in rural areas. Luckily though the city and town transport is relatively safe and on time.
The truth about Marching power
Marching powder has grown as one of those cult travel books read by many many backpackers. It would venture to say it is up to there with ‘The Beach’ in terms of cultural popularity. Though this is a true story and one which has had a marked effect on Bolivia and La Paz in particular.
There are plenty of true crime and prison books from naïve and over jealous travellers who thought they could cheat the system, for example, the Hanoi Hilton. Marching Powder is another one of these. It was released in 1996 and caused a storm throughout the world as people learned that you could live with your imprisoned loved ones in Bolivia and that they effectively ran the prison
Authorities had to curb some of the prison activities and stop prison tourism. Especially after a number of tourists were attacked and robbed among a host of other nice things.
Visitors still flock to La Paz to see this infamous building and as it is quite central it is easy to find although they don’t appreciate the notoriety any longer. You will find that the prisons main export of cocaine still continues, guards are still corrupt and the locals see this is a fact of life in the city.
The stories in marching powder from all accounts are true and still continue but as the book is over 20 years old it shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of everyday life in Bolivia.
Miners work independently in Potosi
The city of Potosi was founded and has grown due to the fact it is located near what was once one of the largest silver mines in the world. Also home to many more mineral Cerro de Potosi has been able to feed the city and its workers for centuries. It is also one of the bleakest and most intimidating places that I have ever visited.
A failed social experiment in the 1970s left any miners without any option but to continue mining the mountain in small self-organised groups. There are no companies or infrastructure to support the miners and to this day the locals prefer doing it themselves.
At least with this everything they mine is theirs to keep. But it is fraught with danger. There are no safety standards, the mines are dark, unstable and constantly being dynamited. So entering the shaft was a little nerve-racking when I and some friends decided to go.
We learned about the history of the mine, how the miners stay underground for up to 12 hours a day with little or no food. They survive on strong alcohol, cocoa leaves and fizzy drinks. They either work individually or in small groups to mine the minerals from the rock and haul it to the surface where it is then shipped to plants.
As it was begun under colonial rule millions are believed to have died on the mountain due to mistreatment and the harsh conditions of the mines. To this day people continue to be injured and killed, thankfully not the same extent.
When visiting you have the opportunity to buy dynamite and other essential items to help the miners save money and continue working. It was truly an eye-opening experience of what some people have to do in order to make money for their family.
You can visit a real-life witches market in La Paz
How much this is actually taken seriously by locals I am not sure. It most definitely does exist and is a strange and interesting place to visit. There are no cauldrons but there are plenty of potions, shrunken fetuses and animals parts in many stores around the market.
Alongside this, of course, are an abundance of souvenir stores and trinket shops so I am not sure if this has existed all the time or begun as a market to entice tourists.
Our guides were quite adamant that people did use the potions. I doubt that they worked. Still though like Salem in Massachusets, it’s fun cool to visit these odd places.
Bolivians generally don’t like Chileans
This is mainly due to losing access to the ocean. This which has had a major impact on Bolivias unstable government and economy for decades. Throughout the last century, Bolivia was involved in a number of wars all of which resulted in it losing land.
Losing access to the sea has left a bitter memory for Bolivians toward Chileans. This is similar to quite a few other countries in South America towards Chile for a number of reasons.
One sad aspect of, this is that Bolivia maintains a navy. I did see bases close to Lake Titicaca and in La Paz. I guess this is in the hope that one day they will be able to access the sea once more. Then the Navy will be of some use, I really hope that they have come boats.
So with everything you know about Bolivia know, would you consider visiting?