Country Facts – Bolivia
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Bolivia Country Guide
From the world’s largest salt flats to what is allegedly the most dangerous road in the world, Bolivia is a larger-than-life country sure to surprise and impress. Rich in natural resources, and boasting a well-preserved cultural heritage stretching back through time, Bolivia is a country that never fails to leave visitors wanting more.
Bolivia is a surprisingly diverse country thanks to the great differences in altitude experienced here. High up, snow-capped Andean peaks may be experienced, as well as the Altiplano; the arid mountain plateau which is largely bereft of wildlife. Closer to sea level other habitats make themselves felt; from topical savannah to dense jungle. This huge climatic diversity is also reflected in the nature that may be found here; Bolivia is considered one of the most “megadiverse” countries in the world.
At last count, over 70% of the world’s bird species could be found in this one country, together with almost 400 species of mammals and numerous reptiles and amphibians. This makes Bolivia a world-wide hotspot for bird watchers and nature fanatics alike, not to mention the home of some natural wonders that may not be found anywhere else in the world.
Of these, Salar de Uyumi is possibly the most famous. As the world’s largest salt flats, covering an area of over 4,000 square miles, this area is rich in natural resources seldom found elsewhere. For one, these brine pools act as key breeding grounds for pink flamingos. For another, it has been estimated that up to 70% of all the lithium in the world may be found here, though as yet the Bolivian government has declined to mine it, in favour of preserving this area of global importance.
In addition to lithium, Bolivia also benefits from extensive tin and silver mines; historically two of the country’s biggest exports. It is also considered to be the second largest producer of natural gas in South America.
To help protect the wealth of natural resources found here, in 2010 Bolivia passed its so-called “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” which aims to offer similar legal protection to nature as is afforded to the human population. As a result, Bolivia is one of a tiny minority of countries which is actively protecting its wilderness areas with such vehemence.
It has been estimated that 60% of Bolivia’s population is made up of native Amerindian populations. Here, dozens of different tribes are recognized, each with their own unique languages and cultures.
Added to this ethnic mix come those of Spanish origin, descendants of the Conquistadors that arrived in the 16th century, as well as Afro-Americans descended from the slaves the Conquistadors brought with them to work in the fields.
All this has created a huge cultural melting pot, with very fine gradations and clearly observable differences even over small geographic distances.
Despite all the natural resources, life in Bolivia hasn’t always been easy. Political and civil unrest has become a recurrent theme in Bolivian society, with numerous coups that have occurred over the years, not to mention the various politicians that have bowed out in response to alleged fraud.
Today, much of Bolivia is painfully poor. The Index of Economic Freedom has classed Bolivia as economically “repressed” and it has been estimated that 23% of the Bolivian population suffer from malnutrition. On the upside, Bolivia has a growing economy and income from tourists makes up an important part of the country’s income. Your tourist dollars therefore really can help to make a difference to people’s lives here.
The variety of native Amerindian tribes represented in Bolivia have created a fascinating mix of languages.
Spanish is the most commonly-spoken language of all, with 88% of the Bolivian population using it either as a first or second language. However besides Spanish there are currently an additional 38 different official languages, each with a different cultural heritage behind it.
Secondary to Spanish, the most commonly-spoken languages are Quechua, Guarani and Aymara; all native languages that have been present in the area for millennia.
The lack of wealth found in Bolivia means that public services, such as transportation, are far less developed than in many other South American countries. Generally speaking Bolivia is characterised by wide open spaces and poor road conditions which can make travel somewhat problematic.
A network of buses criss-cross the country and represent one of the most cost-effective modes of transport. That said, the buses are typically slow and unreliable and, thanks to road conditions, are not the safest mode of transport. Not only are accidents commonplace on Bolivian buses but they can also represent a hotspot for petty crime such as pick-pocketing. As a result visitors to Bolivia are advised to demonstrate caution when travelling by public bus so as to avoid any unnecessary attention.
Rather safer and more reliable are the taxis found in many of the larger towns and cities. Unregistered taxis should generally be avoided as they have repeatedly been the site of robberies and muggings. Instead, using one of the registered “radio taxis” is recommended. These taxis typically display a taxi firm name and telephone number. It is generally considered safest to order local taxis by phone rather than flagging down a local driver, so as to be certain you are dealing with a reputable firm. Experts suggest jotting down the number plate of any taxi before you get in as an added source of protection.
While there are few car rental firms in Bolivia, it is possible to hire a car in the bigger cities. Note that during the rainy season (typically November to March) landslides are commonplace and this can make driving somewhat treacherous, with roads being blocked off or washed away on a regular basis.
In addition, many Bolivian vehicles are not maintained to the same level you might expect, and driving standards can be somewhat haphazard. Lastly, be aware that many roads in Bolivia are little more than dirt tracks so, given the option, it is highly recommended that you select a 4-wheel drive vehicle to afford you the best chance of getting around in some degree of comfort.
In order to drive in Bolivia you will need an international driving license. These may be obtained within Bolivia in exchange for the production of your existing driving license, but the process can be lengthy. Travellers and expats considering driving in Bolivia are therefore encouraged to arrange for an international driving license before arriving in the country so as to speed up the process of gaining legal access to a vehicle.
Lastly it is worth noting that there are numerous internal flights in Bolivia. These are typically very reasonably priced, even when booked at short notice, and are quite safe. Many travellers therefore find that air travel can be one of the best ways to get around the country.
As a relatively poor nation Bolivia is not known for its standards of healthcare. Indeed, the levels of health experienced by the general populace is consistently among the lowest in the world. While some hospitals and surgeries may be found in major cities (La Paz or Sucre, for example) in more rural areas you are likely to struggle to find a suitable medical centre. Even within the major cities standards may be lower than what you are used to and waiting times for treatment can be considerable.
This is vexing, as Bolivia poses a number of significant threats to travellers. Most notably yellow fever, malaria and dengue fever may all be found here, alongside the rather rarer Chikungunya fever. It is likely that you will therefore require a number of vaccinations before visiting the country and travellers are encouraged to begin their immunisation program in plenty of time to enable full immunity before visiting the country.
Visitors to Bolivia should also note that the country is unfortunate enough to still see rabies cases on a regular basis. As a result care should be taken around dogs, especially in cases where they seem to be salivating excessively or behaving strangely.
The official currency in Bolivia is the “boliviano”. Unsurprisingly, for such a mouthful, this is often just shortened to “B’s”.
ATMs and banks are found all over the country, especially in larger cities, so it is reasonably easy to gain access to funds. Small currency exchange offices (“cambios”) may be found all over the major cities and normally represent decent exchange rates. These can be handy for breaking the large notes often produced by ATMs. Local shops and taxi drivers have a nasty habit of claiming they have no change, hoping you will leave them with the difference, so the cambios can be useful for aiding your budget.
Note that very few businesses accept credit cards outside of urban areas, and even here it is only the more “upmarket” establishments that offer credit card facilities.
The education system in Bolivia experiences a severe rural/urban split. In urban areas schooling is considerably more advanced, with the school day being split into two halves. Students are assigned either “morning” or “afternoon” lessons in order to pack as many students as possible into the under-funded schools. Even these schools are considered disorganized and lacking in discipline, with teachers regularly going on strike.
In more rural areas the problems are even more extreme, with as many as 60% of students dropping out of studies in order to begin working. As a result, educational standards in Bolivia are considered lax by Western standards.
As a result of these difficulties most expats opt to send their children to private international schools, which offer a standard of education far closer to that enjoyed in the USA or Europe. Such schools typically follow the US school year and mimic their curriculum. So marked is the difference that these private educational establishments are often in great demand and can have waiting lists measured in years. Expats moving to Bolivia with children are therefore advised to start planning as early as possible to ensure enrolment occurs as soon as possible after arrival.
Bolivia does have a number of universities, though it is interesting to note that more than two thirds of the universities present are privately-funded.
Food & Drink
Food in Bolivia has a typical Latin American theme. Foodstuffs like yucca and plantains abound, as do cheap sources of carbohydrates like quinoa and rice. Potatoes, too, fair prominently, though this is hardly surprising for a country which produces an astonishing 4000 different types of potato within its borders. This carbohydrate base is most commonly supplemented with locally-produced meat and seasonal vegetables, producing a simple yet hearty menu.
While Bolivia is a land-locked nation thanks to the War of the Pacific, in which it lost its ocean-frontage to Chile after an ill-fated political move, seafood can still feature in the diets of Bolivians. This is largely thanks to the vast wealth of fish that are to be found in the freshwater lakes that abound here. Most famously Lake Titicaca is the largest and as a result the surrounding area can be considered a hotspot for locally-sourced fish.
Under this nationwide mantle though there are a range of more regional foods that have evolved, and it is here that the cuisine of Bolivia starts to come into its own, demonstrating the wide cultural diversity on display. Popular, for example, are the so-called “saltenas” – essentially a pastry shell filled with meat, vegetables and hard-boiled egg.
Keep an eye out for the locally-made chilli sauce known as “ilajua” which may be served with virtually any meal. Indeed, it can form an important ingredient in a number of local recipes.
Visitors who dislike spicy foods are advised to check the presence of the sauce in foods before purchase to avoid a fiery surprise.
Sadly, upset stomachs are commonplace in Bolivia, partly due to the lack of hygiene and partly due to the altitude. It is recommended that travellers avoid tap water, which is not considered safe. Instead, rely on bottled water, though check that the seal has not been broken before imbibing. There have been reports of some locals refilling bottles with tap water and then selling them on to unsuspecting tourists.
The general lack of money present within the Bolivian population can unfortunately sometimes make itself felt in the guise of crime – especially toward foreign visitors. Pretty crime abounds in busy urban areas like marketplaces and bus stops so visitors are advised to take great care and ensure that valuables are carefully concealed so as to avoid attracting attention.
There have been a number of recent cases of “express kidnappings” where the victim may be held for hours or days at most. Generally speaking you will be expected to hand over cash to pay for your release.
In the case of problems, it is reassuring to note that there is a specialist Tourist Police office, whereby English-speaking visitors can expect their problems to be dealt with efficiently. This department may be reached from inside Bolivia on 800-14-0081; visitors are encouraged to record this number and carry it with them at all times in the case of emergency.
Speaking of the Bolivian police, you should be aware that Bolivia is the third-largest producer of cocaine in the world. Take great care to ensure that you avoid the drug entirely during your stay and do not allow others access to your bags when travelling. The penalties for drug-related incidents are severe and best avoided at all costs.
Lastly, visitors are reminded that much of Bolivia exists at very high altitudes. A measure of altitude sickness may be experienced when first arriving in the country. Visitors are advised to allow their bodies time to adjust to the thinner air and ensure they drink plenty of fluids to mitigate the risks of sickness.
Places to Visit
Bolivia offers visitors a vast range of natural wonders, many of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Such activities help Bolivia to stand out from its South American cousins and make this a very special country indeed. Here are some of the most unique experiences on offer to visitors arriving in Bolivia.
Isla del Sol
Translated as “Island of the Sun” this island sits within Lake Titicaca. It is notable not just for its beauty but also the 80+ ruins found here, many of them dating from the time of the Incas. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing stroll, the perfect photo opportunity or the chance to dive headlong into Bolivia’s long and impressive history Isla del Sol makes a worthy trip.
Parque Nacional Sajama
One of many national parks in Bolivia, Sajama is special as the ancestral home of the Aymara tribe who still reside here. It is also home to a unique tree known as the Queñoa De Altura, and these two factors have resulted in UNESCO World Heritage status being given to the reserve recently. It is considered a model of ecotourism, whereby the land is successfully managed for both local tribespeople and wildlife thanks to the tourist dollars generated by the park.
Worryingly known by another moniker – “Death Road” – this is purportedly the most dangerous road in the world. Cut into the side of a mountain range, connected La Paz with Chulumani, the road is narrow and the drivers are fast. Add to this the near-vertical drop should you make a mistake and the regular landslides and it is easy to understand why so many Bolivians have lost their lives here.
For the visitor looking for a truly “Bolivian” experience however a visit to the road is essential – even if you don’t have the desire to actually travel along it.
The capital of Bolivia has much to offer visitors. For one, of course, Sucre is the cultural centre of the country, offering a range of museums and monuments to help you better understand the Bolivian people. However Sucre also has architectural merit; the Basilica of San Francisco and the House of Freedom (dated 1621) are just two such examples. Try hiring a guide and taking a walking tour around the city to really make sure you visit all the most memorable sites.
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Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Argentina please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.