There is an ever-shrinking club of countries that still qualify themselves as countries for the adventurous traveler. Bolivia remains a chapter member and leads visitors to an authentic South American experience of Indian cultures and dramatic superlative landscapes.
There is no danger of falling into a tourist trap when traveling anywhere in Bolivia. Bolivia is a country of outstanding contrasts. You can get lost in the crowds of the downtown Indian Market of La Paz, or you can stand alone from all earthly things in the silence of the Pre-Columbian monoliths of Tiwanaku.
The climate ranges from extreme dryness of the plains of the Chaco in the Southeast, to the dense humidity of the rain forests of the Eastern foothills.
Bolivia is the breathtaking beauty of Lake Titikaka in the North and the brackish salt beds of the Salar de Uyuni in the South. And, while the country has a navigable river system, it is one of the two South American landlocked nations (Paraguay is the other). It borders Brazil on the North and East. Paraguay and Argentina on the South, and Chile and Peru on the West.
It’s a country which claims the highest navigable lake in the world, the highest commercial airport, the highest golf course, the highest ski run, the highest capital, one of the newest and wildest frontiers, one of the oldest ruins, and what is said to be the highest concentration of cosmic energy on earth. Bolivia is also a nation of contrasts which led a French explorer scientist to call it the “microcosmos of our planet”. It has every type of geological classified land, flora, fauna, minerals and tropical products.
The people
Between 50 and 60 percent of Bolivian people are descendants of the Aymara and Quechua pre-Columbian indigenous cultures. Thirty-five (35) percent of the population is mestizo and fifteen (15) percent is of foreign descent. Socially, the country is in a constant state of change. The once still social structure of the nation was destroyed by the 1952 social revolution that took political control from a small white oligarchy and passed it to the indigenous majority, under white and mestizo middle class leadership.
A short History
At Tiwanaku, near Lake Titikaka, stand the impressive ruins of a Pre-Inca civilization. The Aymara-speaking Indians in this area emerged around l000 BC into a civilization characterized by massive stone buildings and monuments, exquisite textiles, pottery and metalwork. This place seems to have been terminated abruptly by some unexplained calamity, which greatly reduced the size of Lake Titikaka, around AD 900. When the Quechua-speaking Incas of Cusco conquered the area around AD 1200, they found the Aymara’s at Tiwanaku living among ruins they could no longer explain. The Aymara’s resisted obstinately and were not conquered until the latter part of the 15Th Century under the reign of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui (1471-1493). Even so, they kept their traditional social structures and language, and fought against the Incas under their own leaders. Only religion was formally imposed by the Incas.
Francisco Pizarro landed in Peru in 1532. Six years later Spain conquered Bolivia, and the next year Sucre (then Charcas), still the official capital, was founded.
Revolutionary movements against the colonial rule of the Spaniards began early, around the 16Th Century. Finally on August 25th, 1825, Bolivia was declared independent.
Since its independence, there have been 77 governments, half of them elected democratically and the rest imposed through coups. Weak governments made Bolivia vulnerable to the aggressive purposes of neighboring countries. Several border disputes have dominated the nation’s history, subtracted 1/4 of its territory and left it landlocked.
After the last border dispute and war against Paraguay, young officers and indignant intellectuals began to examine the nation’s conscience and solutions. The result was the formation of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) that gained power in 1952 and launched the first fundamental reforms in the nation’s history.
The 1952 revolution is perhaps the most important political and social event in this century and one of the four most important revolutions in Latin America. It resulted in the nationalization of private mines, evicted the tinhorns, the enactment of universal suffrage and land reform legislation that significantly altered the political forces in the country.
During the last decade Bolivia suffered one of the highest inflation rates in history. In the 1985 elections, Dr. Victor Paz Estenssoro from MNR was elected President by Congress for the third time and implemented drastic economic reforms to end hyper-inflation, at that time the highest in the world. The economic reforms succeeded and now Bolivia is a model in South America for its economic stability and strengths of democratic institutions.

The Constitution vests executive power in the President, elected by popular vote for a term of 5 years, who cannot be immediately re-elected. The legislature consists of a Senate (27 seats) and a Chamber of Deputies (Representatives), with 130 seats. There are nine departments; each is controlled by a delegate appointed by the President.
Bolivia has, in fact, two capitals. Although Sucre is the legal capital, La Paz, is in almost all respects the actual capital being the seat of Government and Congress. On the other hand, the Supreme Court still holds its sessions in Sucre.
There is a great range of climate depending on the altitude. Winter is generally dry and sunny in the Altiplano, subtropical in the Yungas, tropical around Oriente. Best time to travel is May through November.
Bolivia has a remarkable variety of Flora and Fauna. In the Andes you will easily find llamas and alpacas. The rare species, vicuña, is usually preserved in special places. You will see armadillos and condors in their own special habitats. To the Southeast of La Paz, in Comanche, there is also the “Puya Raymundi” plant that takes one hundred years to flower and reaches a height of 30 feet. In Lake Titikaka there are salmons, trout, atherinas, large frogs (with export-quality legs), and a wide variety of birds.
In the tropical part of Bolivia, which covers nearly two-thirds of the country, there is a rich variety of fauna. There are monkeys, wild turkeys, pigs, ocelots, piranhas, and alligators as well as several million heads of cattle. Mahogany trees spread skyward. Another interesting tree in Bolivia is the cotton tree that reaches some 100 feet upward and sprouts a bulb of cotton-like material as large as a cantaloupe and which can be used for making clothing. There is an abundance of other flora, which, together with the fauna, makes Bolivia, the heartland of the continent, something wonderful to see.
Potatoes, and quinoa, a high protein grain, are native from the Bolivian Andes, and thousands of dishes are based on these and other products.
In terms of fruit it is hard to equal the variety found in Bolivia. Because of the country’s proximity to the Equator, in Andean cities you will find a wide selection of valley and tropical fruits.
Bolivia also has a thriving beer and wine industry. The beer made here by German descendants is superb, as many Europeans and Americans have attested to. Good and full of flavor, this beer is sold throughout the country.
Bolivia’s wine industry is based in Tarija, Camargo, and other Southern Bolivian regions.
Spanish, Quechua and Aymara are also spoken. English only spoken in hotels.
Predominantly Roman Catholic, but freedom of worship is guaranteed by law.
The official and “black market” exchange rates are around 7.2 Bolivianos per American dollar. The official and the black market rates are almost the same, therefore it is advisable to exchange dollars in the exchange houses or the hotels. Travelers checks are easy to exchange. The official exchange is revised daily but it changes very little. Dollars can be used for many transactions and many places accept Visa, Master Card and American Express credit cards.
Shops open at 9:00 a.m., close at 12:00, reopen at 2:30 p.m. to close again around 7:00 p.m. Many shops are also open on Saturday morning.
Banks open at 8:30 a.m. and close at l2:00, reopen at 14:30 p.m., and close at 18:30 p.m. The post office is open from 9:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.
New Year’s Day 1 Jan La Paz Day, 16 July
Carnival (Feb-Mar), two days. Independence Day, 6 Aug.
Holy Week, Apr. Columbus Day, 12 Oct.
Labor Day, 1 May All Souls Day, 2 Nov.
Corpus Christi, May Christmas Day, 25 Dec.
Only a passport is required for citizens of the Western European and Scandinavian countries, the USA and Israel. Citizens from most other countries need a visa.
La Paz runs on both 220v. and 110v. current. The rest of the country is 220v. The current is 50 cycle AC.
Despite Bolivia’s reputation as an unstable, coup-inclined country, - a reputation it no longer deserves - it is the safest country to visit in South America. There are periodic strikes but now they only shut down mines and some factories. Foreign diplomats who have served at other Latin American posts say that Bolivia is one of the safest and friendliest countries in the Third World. Mugging is extremely rare.