When I was about to leave San Pedro de Atacama, I was chatting to the receptionist in my hostel, and he said that except for Salar de Uyuni, there is nothing much in Bolivia. He advised me to head to La Paz directly from Uyuni, do the Death Road and continue to Copacabana, and then straight to Peru. A week max. I am so glad I am an irreverent little girl who mostly does not listen to anything men tell her. I ended up spending 4 weeks in Bolivia and could have easily spent two more, had I decided to do a long trek. I willingly skipped Santa Cruz, the lowlands and the Amazons, but that is because I was not in the mood of facing or addressing my debilitating fear of huge spiders. And as much as I’d love to see tapirs, sloths and piranhas, I know I would not be able to sleep for the entire stay in the jungle, because I’d be constantly thinking about what is likely to crawl into my hammock.
Bolivia is fantastic. Less touristic than other south american countries, travellers largely disregard it on their passage from Uyuni to Peru, and it’s a mistake. It’s the perfect destination for lovers of the great outdoors, and it’s dirt cheap.
Minuses (or peculiarities)
Food. When I was leaving northern Chile, the locals pulled a serious face and warned me about how bad the food in Bolivia was. I was thinking that fried meat with french fries and fried egg on top, which is the standard dish in San Pedro, was not exactly Michelin style either and whatever culinary abomination was waiting for me in Bolivia, it could not be much worse. Truth is, Bolivian food is not bad, just boring, as everywhere in South America. There are over 350 varieties of potatoes, and you will get some with every dish. “Sin papas no es comida”, as they say here, it’s not a meal unless there are potatoes. There will also be a big portion of rice. People in this country work manually and walk long distances. Also, human body needs more calories in the high altitude. In Bolivia, carbohydrates are not evil, they are necessary. They are necessary in Europe too, people have just gone completely insane. But, every meal is prepared fresh, from good local ingredients, and although not very inventive (I don’t know how many oven baked chicken I’ve had), it’s always tasty. There is quinoa in the south, which I find delicious, and which is making the growers rich. Due to its extreme popularity in Europe caused by the latest superfood madness, it’s more convenient for the local farmers to sell the quinoa to the westerners than eat it themselves. I hope they get a good deal.
Politics. The situation is a little difficult. Evo Morales is the first indigenous to be elected President of a South American country. Three times, and the fourth term is likely. This would of course be unconstitutional even in Bolivia, so he did a little trick and changed the name of the country, and so far, he’s been twice president of Bolivia, and once of Plurinational State of Bolivia. He is largely popular in the country, even though young and educated people are starting to show some discontent. I would advice against discussing politics, however, young people will be happy to answer your questions in private. There is no doubt Morales has done a lot of things for the poorest regions of the country. There are now buses that take children to schools in remote rural areas, thus sparing them 4 hours long hike every day. There are roads and infrastructure being built everywhere. There is the new cableway system in La Paz. Everywhere you travel in the countryside, the constant election campaign is very obvious: “Si Evo” on every wall, “Con Evo tenemos futuro” – we have a future with Evo. And an occasional disillusion as “my vote doesn’t count anything”, probably written by someone who did not like the way in which Morales dodged the constitution. Protesting is Bolivian national sport. Those I have seen were mostly peaceful and as a tourist you are safe. Of course, common sense applies, should the protests escalate and become violent, just stay put. Hotels will be safe. The indigenous have a problem with each other, not with foreign tourists.
Foreign investment. Western investors fled the country after Morales renationalized gas and petroleum industry and all remaining bilateral investment treaties were not renewed upon expiration. Bolivia is extremely rich in minerals, mainly tin and lithium, but they lack the technology, therefore Morales turned to China. I am not sure how selling the country’s resources to the Chinese is any better than to the Americans, who at least employed (more likely exploited) the local population, while the Chinese bring their own workforce. Moreover, Morales engaged in some extravagant expenditures, such as launching Bolivian space program (in cooperation with China, of course). Bolivia spent billions of dollars in putting three satellites on the orbit, two of which were lost during the launch. I am not sure if a country that has serious problems with building normal roads on the ground needs a space program, but I guess short men feel the need to compensate all around the world.
Language(s). There are 38 official languages in Bolivia, the most common are Quechua and Aymara in the Andean regions, and Guarani in the Amazons. Everybody speaks Spanish, and I would recommend learning some, because English does not really work.
Safety. Yes, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world, nonetheless it is also one of the safest in South America. I have never had the slightest problem, not even in La Paz, where I walked home at night alone. No problem whatsoever. I am guessing there will be some no go zones in the periphery, but city centres of the big cities and small towns are perfectly safe.
People. Very nice, polite and friendly. If you speak a little spanish, everyone is quite keen to talk to you. I was getting some curious looks, but that was most likely caused by the haircut accident in Cochabamba.
Public transport. It is not exactly luxurious, but it goes everywhere and all the time. There is no schedule, buses leave when full and arrive whenever, but unless you are in a hurry, you will arrive where you want to. Eventually.
Nature and landscape. Magnificent. Salt flats, rock formations, mountains, everything is big, vast and beautiful. Also I was very happy with the climate in the altiplano region: mid 20s during the day (sunscreen is necessary, the sun is very strong in 4000m), and low 10s or even 0 at night. But then I hate hot and humid weather.
For your convenience, my 4 weeks in Bolivia:
day 1 – 4: Salar de Uyuni (crossing from Chile)
day 5 – 12: Sucre, including 3 days trek to Maragua
day 13 – 15: Toro Toro, Cochabamba, including transfers
day 16 – 21: La Paz and surroundings
day 22 – 24: Sorata
day 25 – 30: Lake Titicaca, including 2 nights on Isla del Sol