Bolivia Travel Guide

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Titicaca Lake

Titicaca Lake

André Ricardo Guenzen

The historic heartland of Bolivia lies on the 3700 meters high plains around Lake Titicaca. This is the cradle of Altiplano civilisation: the sacred Lake gave birth to the founders of the Inca Empire, and at its shores lays Tiwanaku, where the roots of Andean culture were invented. When the Spanish arrived, attention shifted to the South. The biggest bounty of their colonial plundering was found there in Potosi. The amount of silver found in the Cerro Rico was enough to create a city bigger than London and richer than Paris at an altitude of 4000 meters, and is believed to have fired off the industrial revolution in Western Europe. As still is the case today, profits left the country at an alarming rate. When the mine started to run out, Bolivia was left with two poor cities in the most wonderful of clothes. Potosi is still struggling to survive, whereas nearby official capital Sucre now is the most cosy and developed city in the country.

As the silver ran out, attention shifted to trading centre La Paz, the other capital: the most scenically located city, and the highest capital in the world. Today it’s a poor but bustling metropolis with almost two million inhabitants and a rich traditional and modern cultural and gastronomic scene.

Capital of agriculture used to be Cochabamba, the city with the best climate in the world (alt. about 2000 m). A good place to live, the city doesn’t offer too much for tourists, but it’s a good base to visit the Chaparé jungle or the Toro Toro national park.
Economically, attention shifted from the highlands to the flat and fertile lowlands. Integrating its development with Brazil, agriculture surged since the 1950s. Complemented by finds of gas and trade in cocaine, this made the city of Santa Cruz the new economical capital. Roughly similar in size to La Paz, it stays a relatively quiet and well-organized town, with a lot of modern day comforts. It’s also the base to head to the jungle at the Andean foothills in Buena Vista or Samaipata and the start of the train to the Pantanal on the frontier with Brazil (the northernmost easy crossing between Brazil and the Andes).

Bolivian modern day culture is a unique mix of thousand year old traditions, Spanish influences and globalisation. Capital of folklore is the Altiplano mining town of Oruro, where there is a citywide party going on at least once a week, but which complete explodes with music, dancing and drinking for Carnival in February. Don’t miss it if you’ve got the opportunity. At 5 km from the city is the Uru Uru lake: you can drive through it with the train to the South or go flamingo spotting at the Puente Español.

The best and cheapest jungle tours of South America are in Rurrenabaque, at the first ripple of the Andes. Starting at 15 US$ a day you can visit the Amazon forest, where you’ll see several types of monkeys, 10% of the worlds birds species and even pumas if you’re lucky,… In the nearby wetlands you can spot the biggest rodent in the world (the capybara) or take a chance and swim with the river dolphins (which scare the harmless caiman away).
On the road there, you first cross the Cordillera Real de los Andes, with several peaks over 6000 meters high, before plunging into the jungle. Here you’ll find the small capital of relaxation, Coroico. The 2000 people village is blessed with an excellent subtropical climate, forested mountains, million dollar views, great hotels and restaurants, several Inca trails and a lot of walking and cycling opportunities.
A good base for short and long treks in the Cordillera Real is the northern village of Sorata.

One of the biggest tourist attractions of the country lies in the Southern Altiplano: the South-West Circuit is a surreal four day experience along a colourful desert, flamingo filled lakes and the largest salt flats in the world. No excuse is valid to miss it. The small southern city of Tupiza is a good place to wave goodbye to Bolivia. The landscape comes right out of a Western, and lends itself to the best horseback riding in South America with excellently bred and kept Argentine horses.



Bolivia is one of two landlocked countries in South America; Paraguay is the other. Bolivia is bordered by Peru and Chile in the west, Argentina and Paraguay in the south and Brazil in the north and east.  The western 1/3 part of the country consists of the Andean Highlands where the two ranges of the Andes mountains divide to form a high altitude plain called the puna or altiplano. Here you’ll find (from north to south) Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku, La Paz, Oruro, Sucre, Potosi, Salar de Uyuni and Tupiza.
The lowland eastern portion of Bolivia, also called the Oriente, is the tropical Amazon basin which has a hot, humid climate. Economically progressive Santa Cruz is the largest city in this area. Other important places are Trinidad and Rurrenabaque. Dividing the cold highlands from the tropical lowlands are the Andean valley areas including the Yungas (see Coroico) and Cochabamba.

Bolivia has the distinction of having the highest capital city in the world.  La Paz sits at an altitude of between 3700 and 4100 m. Potosi is even higher. Santa Cruz on the other hand, is located at only 416 m above sea level. Within a matter of hours, it is possible for overland travellers to pass through three and even four climatic zones.

Bolivia is essentially an Indian nation. The population of the country is for the most part of indigenous origin. Approximately 40 percent are Quechuas, the descendents of the Incas. Another 25 percent are Aymara who populate the area around Lake Titicaca, the Yungas and Oruro. They are believed to be the (proud and stubborn) descendents of the Tiwanaku culture. Another 5 percent consist of the Guarani and other groups in the Amazon basin. 20 percent are mestizos, persons of mixed indigenous and European heritages. These individuals live primarily in the cities and larger towns of the country, especially in the lowlands. The remaining 10 percent of Bolivia's inhabitants are of European heritage, primarily Spanish but with significant clusters of German Jews, Canadian Mennonites, and Okinawa Japanese. 

Bolivia is essentially an Indian nation. The population of the country is for the most part of indigenous origin. Approximately 40 percent are Quechuas, the descendents of the Incas. Another 25 percent are Aymara who populate the area around Lake Titicaca. Another 5 percent consist of the Guarani and other groups in the Amazon basin. Another 20 percent are mestizos, persons of mixed indigenous and European heritages. These individuals live primarily in the cities and larger towns of the country. The remaining 10 percent of Bolivia's inhabitants are of European heritage, primarily Spanish but with siginificant clusters of German Jews, Canadian Mennonites, and Okinawan Japanese. 

The Vice-Ministerio de Turismo's slogan is Lo autentico aun existe which roughly translates as "The real thing still exists". This refers to the fact that many aspects of Bolivia have changed very little over the centuries. The country is underdeveloped which means that it still has virgen forests, pristine waterways, and untouched rural landscapes. Many indian groups have maintained their cultures, languages, and folk traditions. Colonial architecture in places such as Potosi, Sucre, Tarija, and Cochabamba have not given way to modern development.  Since 1982 the country has had a democratic government and relative political stability. This means that Bolivia is now able to offer international visitors a unique, safe, affordable, and extremely interesting place to visit.

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February 21, 2007 change by joosts (4 points)

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