Our trip to Bolivia was one of the most interesting trips that we’ve ever taken and we had a lot of wonderful experiences while we were there. As with all countries, Bolivia is a very complex nation with a lot of contradictions, aspirations, and impediments to success. Everyone we met along our journey was extremely nice and helpful, but they all expressed a similar impression of their country. It is a land rich with potential, but that potential is being squandered due to mismanagement and corruption from the political leaders who rule the country.
Despite the success of surrounding countries like Peru, Chile, and Argentina, Bolivia seems to be stubbornly holding onto the past, which is great for a visitor, but not necessarily good for its people. While these other countries have embraced tourism, the people of Bolivia may want travelers to come to their country, but seeing the sites that the country has to offer is not an easy endeavor. Just getting from one place to another can be risky and life threatening or is often very expensive. Because of that, we were able to only see a fraction of what the country has to offer, but it isn’t going to deter us from visiting Bolivia again, as we truly want to see more of this wonderful country.
From our conversations with people in the United States, people often know nothing or very little about Bolivia. Usually the conversation goes something like, “isn’t that where they wear the bowler hats?” or “that’s where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed, right?”. Perhaps they’ve heard of La Paz, but few associate it with the Inca empire or relate to the ruins the same way that they might refer to Machu Picchu in Peru. As far as the bowler hats, people are partially correct. There are three major tribes that trace their ancestry back to before the Incas and each has their own traditional dress and language. In fact, as you venture out of the cities and into the countryside, you are likely to meet people who speak no Spanish at all, the standard language of Bolivia and South America, but who speak their ancestral language. We saw people from two of those major groups, Aymara and Quechua. Outside of Cochabamba, where we spent our first week in Bolivia, the people are Quechua and the women wear white hats, while outside of La Paz the people are Aymara and are the ones that where bowler hats.
Seventy percent of the land in Bolivia is covered by jungle and rainforest, while the rest is either high in the Andes mountains or on open plains, such as the Uyuni Salt Flats. In fact, the salt flats are probably Bolivia’s biggest tourism draw at the moment, but something that we didn’t get the opportunity to see during our trip because we simply didn’t have the time or money to make it there. Road conditions in Bolivia are horrendous and travel by bus can take days or even weeks to get places. You can fly to some smaller cities, but the prices are usually outrageous. However, to and from the major cities, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz, flights are not only convenient, but they are cheap as well. In fact, we flew with BOA (Boliviana de Aviación), which had flights from La Paz to Cochabamba leaving about every hour and a half and it was one of the best airline experiences we’ve ever had. Our round-trip tickets cost the two of us a total of less than $150 USD and our flights were on time and the service was excellent.
The ancient ruins that we were able to see, both Inca and pre-historic, were definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Oddly though, the Bolivian people don’t have much of an interest in their own history and therefore these sites are not as fully examined as they would be in other countries and because there isn’t a lot of tourism, they aren’t visited often. Being the only people at a site, just us and our guide, made seeing them even more enjoyable, but at the same time made us rather sad that these historical sites were not being relished and cared for in the way that they truly deserve. They are very proud of the fact that they haven’t rebuilt any of the sites in order to show what they might have looked like, but there are also probably many more buildings and ruins left undiscovered and buried beneath the land. Other than the time that we spent in Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we saw very few tourists anywhere during our trip. And the people that we saw in Copacabana were most likely just passing through on their way to or from Peru, which is on the other side of the lake.
The other common perception of Bolivia, at least in the United States, is that it is the country where most of the cocaine comes from. Unfortunately that is true and growing coca leaves is one of the largest crops that Bolivia produces, much of it legally, but there is also a fair amount of illegal growth as well. It is common to see people chewing on coca leaves and it was even on our breakfast buffet at the hotel in La Paz. Other than coca leaves, the country grows everything that it needs in very fertile soil, including potatoes, strawberries, bananas, tangerines, lemons, and quinoa. Unfortunately, the demand from other countries for the cocaine that is made from the coca leaves has made that the largest cash crop in the country. It has also created the culture of political corruption as well as a desire not to have prying eyes from tourists, which is probably part of the reason that they make it difficult for tourists to visit the country.
Bolivia truly is a fascinating country with plenty to offer the world. Right now it is like a gem that has yet to be polished to reveal its true splendor, but there will likely come a day in the near future when tourists flock to Bolivia to see all that it has to offer. From the animals of the jungle, the amazing Amazon river, the high ranges of the Andes, dinosaur tracks, ancient ruins, humble cities and friendly people, there is much to see and do in Bolivia, if people are willing to venture there. We had heard a lot about petty crime and pickpockets before we left and were on our guard everyplace that we went, but we found that our concerns were pretty much unnecessary. Every country has places where crime is prevalent and people should be wary, but we didn’t find Bolivia to be any worse than any other country that we’ve visited. We hope that more people will visit this incredible country and we will definitely return again. Maybe on our next trip we won’t be the only foreigners that we see as we explore the many treasures that Bolivia has to offer.