Bolivia seems to attract a certain type of traveler. Geographically diverse, multiethnic, remote, mysterious, and relatively poor - even by South American standards, the country has a distinctive personality which strikes a resonating cord with many starry-eyed wanderers from around the globe.
Visit the pre-Columbus ruins of Tiwanaku or Samaipata or walk in the footsteps of the great Che Guevara after ambling through the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their infamous last stand. Bolivia delivers a romantic and unique South American experience.
The land’s remote, handsome ruggedness is mirrored in its people, who, although extremely friendly, can sometimes appear to belong to another time and place. The unmistakable grandeur of its Spanish colonial history can be seen everywhere, with the best examples found in the capital of La Paz.
This magnificent city, founded in 1548 by Spanish conquistadors has a population around one million and a fascinating mix of Spanish colonial, modern, and Native American influences. High-rise buildings give way to Spanish style villas, townhouses, and impressive palaces, all under the gaze of the magnificent Illimani Mountain, which lies just to the south.
La Paz and other large cities in Bolivia have a good selection of hotels from budget to upscale; however, once in the countryside, options become limited. Prices tend to be reasonable when compared to the same level of comfort in western countries, but costs vary from place to place. For example, a mid-range room in Santa Cruz in the east may be noticeably more expensive than a similar room in Coroico or Sorata, where competition keeps prices in check.
The high tourist season is from June to September due to the climate and the festival season, but the best time of the year for a visit is the cool, dry period from May to October. The rainy season from November to April, can make traveling difficult. Visitors are, however, advised to check the specific conditions of their destination since Bolivia’s weather can vary significantly from region to region.
Currency: The Bolivian Boliviano
Official language: Spanish
Long before the arrival of Europeans, sophisticated Indian societies inhabited the Andes region of South America. Remains of these people, especially the Tiwanaku civilization, are strewn throughout the countryside and serve as a reminder of the first great Andean empire in Bolivia.
Tiwanakan dominance lasted until 1200 AD when the regional kingdoms of the Aymara emerged as the most powerful of the ethnic groups living in the densely populated region surrounding Lake Titicaca. Power struggles continued until 1450, when the Incas incorporated upper Bolivia into their growing empire.
Spanish conquistadors first caught sight of the New World in 1524. Fueled by fantasies of El Dorado (the legendary lost city of gold), they became more aggressive in their colonization and had several spectacular victories against the Incas before the civilization managed to fight back. In 1538, the Spaniards defeated Inca forces near Lake Titicaca, allowing full-scale expansion into central and southern Bolivia.
Although some resistance continued, the conquistadors pushed forward, founding La Paz in 1549 and Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Santa Cruz) in 1561 as Bolivia’s first official cities. In the region known as Upper Peru, the Spaniards found the next best thing to a city of gold; a city of silver – Potosi.
In the mid-18th century, Spanish control in South America began to weaken. An Inca-inspired revolt in 1780 led nearly 60,000 Indians to rebel against the Spaniards near the Peruvian city of Cuzco. Spain ended the conflict in 1783 with an execution of thousands of Indians, but the revolt showed just how precarious Spain’s grip on Bolivia really was.
In 1809, Upper Peru saw one of Latin America’s first independence revolts. Although defeated, the radicals set the stage for more successful rebellions. After this time, Spain never fully regained control of the region and it became an area of prolonged conflict between Spain and the newly independent Argentine Republic.
By 1817, Spain had suppressed Argentina’s independence, but it proved to be a short-lived victory. In 1820, conflict re-emerged in Upper Peru and this time, rebels led by the iconic Simon Bolivar Palacios claimed victory and finally brought Spain’s rule to an end.
During the remainder of the 19th century, Bolivia was plagued by political instability, the rule of authoritarian regimes, and poor economic growth. The army takeover of the government in 1964 started a prolonged period of oppressive military rule in Bolivia. Throughout the 1960’s and ‘70s, successive military governments focused on maintaining internal order, modernized the mining sector and defended the country’s sovereignty.
In 1967, the Bolivian Army won great praise in the US when it captured Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and some of his guerrillas in the remote Villagrande region. The guerrilla band, dispatched from Havana, Cuba tried unsuccessfully to incite a peasant uprising among Bolivia’s Indian population.
In the late 1970s, Bolivia’s military regime came under pressure from the US and Europe to introduce democratic rule. With international opposition from civilian groups mounting, a presidential election was announced for 1980. However, two subsequent military coups delayed the transition to democracy. In September 1982, the military finally handed over power to a civilian administration led by Hernán Silas Zuazo and Bolivia became a democratic nation.
Like the land itself, Bolivia’s culture is diverse, and depending on which region you are in, it can vary substantially. In the Andes, you can see some of the customs that existed during Inca times, which are particularly evident in the indigenous population of the Altiplano region.
In the southern part of Bolivia such as in Tarija, the cultures and customs are related to the close proximity to Argentina. In many of the larger cities of Bolivia, many of the Spanish-speaking inhabitants follow western customs, dress, and music.
Festivals are a big part of the Bolivian culture, and no matter where you are in the country, some kind of party is likely in progress. In true Bolivian style, these events involve lots of drinking, dancing, and laughter.
The Altiplano region (the highest region in Bolivia), including La Paz and Lake Titicaca, is typically cold and considered to have a semi-arid climate. Since it is at such a high altitude, the region retains little heat and is quite dry. Cool temperatures and strong winds can sweep over the area. Weather year round is cool to mild, with the average temperature in summer being 72°F (22°C) and in winter, 59°F (15°C).
East of the Altiplano lie the central highland valleys. The main cities in this region are Cochabamba, Sucre, Tarija, and Potosi, which are considered to have the most comfortable climate in Bolivia. Temperatures are pleasant during the day, usually between 62 and 80°F (17 and 27°C), with cool nights. Since the region is not as high as the Altiplano, the weather is Mediterranean-like year round.
Bolivia gives a visa on arrival to most of the western countries (excluding the USA), to other South-American countries such as Chile and Peru, and India. But you can only get the Bolivia visa on arrival if you land at Santa Cruz or La Paz airports, and this visa costs USD 55.
Cities in Bolivia can be difficult places to move around, with the best option for getting from point A to point B often by taxi. Cabs can be found anywhere at any time in almost any city or town and are a cheap and safe option. Most taxis are not equipped with meters so a fare should be negotiated with the driver before departure. Before you get into a cab, it is a good idea to ask a local or the hotel staff an estimated cost to your chosen destination. A few well-known and widely used taxi companies are El Alto Airport (+591-102-2810-122) in La Paz, Casablanca Taxis (+591-64222230) in Sucre, and Moto Mendez (6644480) in Tarija.
Bolivia’s internal train network is limited, but offers a safe and comfortable alternative to road travel. You can find two main rail hubs; one in western Bolivia and another in the east, in the city of Santa Cruz. The trains in the east are controlled by Ferrocarril Oriental, which run two lines; one from Santa Cruz to the border of Brazil and the other from Santa Cruz south to the Argentinean border. The main train station in the west of the country is at Oruro on Calle Velasco Galvarro and Calle Aldana.
There are two types of trains: the more comfortable and faster Expreso del Sur trains and the cheaper, but slower Wara Wara del Sur trains. Expreso del Sur trains offer first-class cabins, a bar, waiters, and food; three different classes of service; and amenities of varying cost and comfort, none of which would be considered expensive by western standards.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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