|Country Information & Lifestyle|
Tibet of the Americas
Nestled high in the Andes Mountains of South America, Bolivia is a little-known retreat exotically spiced with a unique Latin and Native American flavor. A beautiful, geographically diverse, multi-ethnic and democratic country, Bolivia is surrounded by Brazil to the northeast, Peru to the northwest, Chile to the southwest, Argentina and Paraguay to the south.
Sometimes referred to as the Tibet of the Americas, Bolivia is one of the most remote countries in the western hemisphere. Since colonial times Bolivia was a mining country in which the economy was based in the mines that were located high in the mountains. The rest was frontier.
Bolivia is a republic with a presidential system of government. Its fully democratic, American-style system retains the respect of individual rights and freedoms. Bolivia enjoys a remarkably low crime rate, with violent crime being virtually unknown and theft not commonplace.
Bolivia has a huge degree of biodiversity, considered one of the greatest in the world, as well as several eco-regions with such ecological sub-units as the Altiplano, tropical rain forests (including Amazon rain forest), dry valleys, and the Chiquitania, which is tropical savanna.
The climate varies drastically from one eco-region to the other, from the tropics in the eastern llanos to polar climates in the western Andes. In most parts of the country winters are dry and summers are somewhat wet.
Bolivia is one of those countries that seduce you through sheer personality. The colorful bustle of its markets and street vendors, the liveliness of its nightlife, and the charm and friendliness of its people, make it one of the most livable places in Latin America.
Come on a Bolivian tour with us and read about the charming, old-world colonial towns, rural villages where hunting, gathering and fishing are the way of life, and the country’s most famous visitors, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the American outlaws who fled to South America in the early 1900s.
The Altiplano is the area of the Andes above about 3500m and stretches into neighboring Peru and Argentina. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and is located on the border between northern Bolivia and southern Peru. Titicaca is the ancestral home of the Quechuas, Aymaras, Uros, Pacajes and Puquinas and is praised by visitors as being one of the deepest blue and most beautiful bodies of water in the world. In Bolivia myths come thick and fast and one legend has it that the Incas have an underground network of secret passageways on an island located in Lake Titicaca.
The floating Uros Islands are made from tortora rushes, as are the houses on them and the resident’s boats, part of the tortora, can even be eaten! The islands can be moved and have been in fairly recent years. Tourism is the main economy. On the island of Qananpacha there is a post office and the owners claim is the only floating post office in the world.
Isla de la Luna is a tiny uninhabited island known for its mythological significance to the Incas. Isla del Sol is the largest island on the lake and part of Bolivian territory. An ancient holy site of the Inca, it’s easily reachable from Copacabana. Inca legend says that Viracocha, the bearded god who created the universe, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun at this location.
Isla Amantani is an island on the Peruvian side and is a very peaceful place where times seem to have taken a step back half a century ago. La Taquile is an island on the Peruvian side slightly more touristy that Amantani. Boats from Amantani stop for a few hours at the island, or why not take a tour of all the floating islands.
The capital, La Paz is in the Andes and the sight from the air as you fly in is incredible. First you see the sprawling shanty towns of El Alto, slowly giving way to the sight of La Paz itself, clinging tenuously to the sides of what looks like a large gash in the earth. The satellite city of El Alto in which the airport is located is spread over a broad area to the west of the canyon, on the Altiplano.
La Paz has narrow, streets and is an important industrial, cultural, political and economic region in Bolivia and is situated on a great basin that forms a valley on the Altiplano. It is next to imposing Cordillera Real de los Andes, with its beautiful mountains which give it a unique landscape.
Cochabamba, situated on the western Altiplano, is known as Bolivia’s granary and enjoys a great climate all year. It is situated on a broad valley and was the main mining city during the times known as “estaño”, agricultural products are the regions mains means of support. It is on the shores of Lake Poopp and is surrounded by important archaeological sites. There are “chulpares” (large ceremonial tombs) from later cultures such as the Carangas. It is the folkloric capital of Bolivia due to its famous Religious Pagan Carnival.
Oruro is a city that still lives from its mining economy. Most mines are close to the city so you may want to visit some and experience the life of an Andean miner. It is the center of the grape, wine and the “singani” (a typical drink made from grapes) of Bolivia.
About midway between Cochabamba, Oruro and La Paz, Quime is in a deep forested valley surrounded by high peaks of the Andes. A hidden, practically unknown town with secret valleys, lost gold and elfin forests at the beginning of the Coca Trail, the region is on of the steepest in the Bolivian Andes and the center of biodiversity of both Andean Bolivia and South America. Quime is the center for hiking and exploring the Cordillera de Quimsa Cruz, an untouched area of Bolivia.
Sub-Andean Bolivia is a region of highland valleys in the south central portion. Cochabamba is the capital and largest city set on a plain surrounded by mountains and is often called Bolivia’s “The City of Eternal Spring”. There are numerous small, charming villages and towns such as Totora, a distinctive and famous village on the way to Sucre. Torotoro is the main town in the Potosi department and the statue of Cristo de la Concordia is just a bit higher and larger than the one in Rio de Janeiro and offers a great view of the city. The city is the paragliding capital of Bolivia and is famed throughout Bolivia for its pretty, well-kept center and agreeable climate.
Potosi, a historic city which has more than 30 colonial churches that combines their mysticism with the more than 30,000 mine entries. Also known as “The Imperial Villa”, Potosi since colonial times was the center of silver mining exploitation and to this day maintains its high production.
Sucre is probably the most tranquil city in Bolivia (or perhaps South America). Sucre is the historic capital of Bolivia and is known as the cultural center of the Americas. It was declared by UNESCO as Human Cultural Patrimony with its houses painted with white walls and red colored tiled rooftops.
Situated on the eastern Amazonian tropical part of Bolivia, Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the largest city in Bolivia and principal center of development of the country. The city’s historic old quarter maintains its colonial architectural inheritance with corridors and arches along its side walks. It is situated on a great prairie with transitional forests from the Amazon to Chaco, to other rivers such as Pirai and Rio Grande.
It is the center of oil production of the country and a city with a lot of life and diversions. Up until 50 years ago the town was very poor until a paved road was opened and the town became prosperous. It lies at one end of the Death Train’s line. Most people spend late afternoons on Boulevard Cruceno and Equipetrol is the neighborhood where all the night life happens.
Trinidad, the capital of Beni, also called the “Jewel of the Amazon”, is a very eye-catching town, Riberalta has a serious frontier-like feeling set in the northern Bolivian jungle and Rurrenbaque, on the banks of the Rio Beni, is a popular base for trips to the jungle in the Madidi National Park and pampas trips. You can cool down in the Balneario el Ambiabo, speed through the canopy on a steel cable, go horse riding, and play golf all only 15 minutes outside of the town.
It is possible to stay in the jungle, take a nocturnal walk, the best time to spot wildlife such as jaguars and black caimans. One of the unique experiences to be had in the Pampas region is swimming with pink river dolphins that are very sociable and eager to interact with humans.
25 km from Riberalta is Tumichucua, where there is a beautiful lake with a tropical island in the centre. Las Piedras about 5 km from Riberalta is a small town with some Inca ruins in the forest, it is actually a fort and a wall where the river used to pass.
In the southwest are the large salt mines of Coipasa and Uyuni, gateway to Bolivia’s greatest natural wonder, the vast flatness of Salar de Uyuni, with its colorful lagoons. Uyuni is quite isolated and just outside the town lies the train graveyard. Her lies the remains of dozens of steam engines, dumped when the railways in South America were dismantled, it is literally the end of the line. These beautiful old steam engines lie unloved and rarely visited, preserved by the dry air of the cold desert.
In the oriental part of the Andes is where you will find the rich sub-tropical area of humid cloud forests known as the Yungas. One of the most bio-diversified hot spots in the world where a never-ending distinct products grow in abundance, like the sacred Inca leaf known as the coca leaf. In the extensive valleys in the central region is where you will find permanent granaries, it was for the Inca a very important part of its empire.
The large virgin forests of the Northern Amazon is where you will find the Maldadidi or Noel Kempff Mercado National Parks, unique and biologically diversified. Down south is the Plata Basin in the Chaco region. It is a dry habitat and birthplace of the Guaraní culture, among others.
The Chiquitania region receives its name from the native inhabitants of this area, the chiquitos or chiquitanos. Here Jesuit Mission towns were settled between 1691 and 1760 and they remain in time as an extraordinary legacy because they are the only Jesuit missions in South America which were not destroyed after the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish colonies.
The towns are situated in a remote part in eastern Bolivia and remained hidden for nearly two centuries until the release of the movie “The Mission” which awoke interest in the region and made it internationally known.
They are not ruins but villages full of life, with people who still go to mass in the same majestic churches or to enjoy the same baroque music concerts, in the same way they used to do when the Jesuit ruled these missions three centuries ago.
San Javier is 137 miles from Santa Cruz and was the first mission in the Chiquitania. San Xavier is a quiet place, no discos, theaters, or shopping malls; and the people who live here work the land in one way or another and the town is proud of its milk-processing plant which makes cheese, predominantly mozzarella, and the area’s gastronomical treat, canapés, a type of hardened cheese bread.
Concepción has a Jesuit baroque style church considered as the jewel of the region, watching it at sunset is an unforgettable view. The Baroque-style church at San Ignacio is part of the first Jesuit mission in Chiquitos founded in 1691. Santa Ana de Velasco, founded in 1755 was one of the last Jesuit Mission towns to be built, and has the only complete original church still intact. Santa Ana is a quiet little town with barely 280 souls and with a timeless feel to it.
San Miguel de Velasco, is one of the smaller towns on the circuit and time seems to have stood still here for the past three centuries. San Rafael de Velasco is well-known for its “sarao” and “viejitos lanceros” dances. San Rafael is very small and possesses a timeless charm, tranquil lifestyle and can be visited on a day trip from San Ignacio where nearly everyone stays the night.
San Jose de Chiquitos was established in 1696 and is one of only four missions that has retained its original location. The town is quite peaceful, wide dusty streets straight out of a Hollywood western movie complete with cowboys, ranchers and a charming main square with a beautiful church. Located about 230 km east of Santa Cruz it is an important cattle ranching region.
Every region of Bolivia has their own specialty when it comes to food. The three staples of Bolivian cuisine are corn, potatoes and beans, combined with a number of foods brought by the Spanish, such as rice, wheat and meat. Lunch is the most important meal of the Bolivian day, so much so that daily life tends to revolve around it. Long lunches are traditional throughout the country.
Typical dishes can be trout from Lake Titicaca, Silpancho, a meat dish with rice and potatoes, Mjao, rice with beef, eggs and fried bananas, Pacumutu is beef, breadcrumbs and spices mashed into a meatloaf, and Sajita de pollo, chicken in hot sauce with chunoas, vegetables. In the cold Chairo, a lamb soup with potatoes and vegetables or Saice a spicy meat soup go down a treat. For a snack try delicious Pukacapas, spicy cheese pasties, empanadas, or Salteñas, meat and vegetable pasties, usually eaten in the morning.
The story of Butch Cassidy and his sidekick, the Sundance Kid, is one of the great tales of the American Wild West. The film turned the tale of the Wild Bunch outlaws who fled to South America into the stuff of Hollywood legend. Although legends have grown up around this pair of bank robbers, it is almost certain that they met their end in the isolated small mining town of San Vincente on November 7th 1908.
End-of-the-line San Vincente is a jarring three-four hour jeep ride along a rough road heading north to the town of Uyuni, here some of the Union Pacific trains that they robbed lay rusting in an eerie train cemetery. En route the only signs of life are the odd llama caravan and occasional zinc mine in this wild, unyielding scenery. A less hospitable place is hard to conceive.
If you do make it to the end of the trail you will find the small town of San Vicente amid the Cordillera Occidental mountain range, lost and forgotten, remaining isolated from civilization, home today to the Pan American Silver Mine. You are rewarded by a small museum known as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Memorial Museum which has pictures and explanations of the lives and deaths of these two heroes.
Today a scrappy unmarked grave in a remote Bolivian pueblo offers little hint to the romantic notions of the bandit’s escapades. But the truth behind the legend is harder to find. Stories still circulate that the bodies in San Vincente cemetery are not those of Butch and Sundance.
San Vincent desperately needs international funding from a NGO to develop a legitimate tourist infrastructure to preserve the legacy of Butch and Sundance. Even today, this isolated pueblo of 300 people has no clean running water, one public telephone for the whole community and relies on deliveries of fresh fruit and vegetables by truck from Tupiza four hours away.
Well as Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid “Next time i say “Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” Let’s GO someplace like Bolivia.