Stretching from the majestic icebound peaks and bleak high-altitude deserts of the Andes to the exuberant rainforests and vast savannahs of the Amazon basin, Bolivia embraces an astonishing range of landscapes and climates. This mystical terrain boasts scores of breathtaking attractions including stark otherworldly salt pans, ancient Inca trails and towering volcanic peaks. Landlocked at the remote heart of South America, Bolivia rewards the adventurous travellers and encompasses everything that outsiders find most exotic and mysterious about the continent.
The country’s cultural diversity and ethnic make-up are equally fascinating. Three centuries of colonial rule have left their mark on the nation’s language, religion and architecture, but this is essentially little more than a veneer overlying indigenous cultural traditions that stretch back long before the arrival of the Spanish. Though superficially embracing the Catholic religion, many Bolivians are equally at home making offerings to the mountain gods or performing other strange rites, such as blessing vehicles with libations of alcohol. And although Spanish is the language of government and business, the streets buzz with the cadences of Aymara, Quechua and more than thirty other indigenous languages.
Geographically, Bolivia is dominated by the Andes, which march through the west in two parallel chains, each studded with snowcapped peaks; between them stretch the barren, windswept expanses of the Altiplano. Reached via a series of lush valleys, the country’s lowlands range from dense Amazonian rainforest to vast plains of dry thornbrush and scrub. The geographical extremes are fascinating to explore, but can take their toll on travellers. This varied topography supports an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna from condors to pink freshwater dolphins– Parque Nacional Amboró, for example, has over 830 species of bird, more than the US and Canada combined. The country’s underdevelopment has in some ways been a blessing for the environment, allowing vast wilderness areas to survive in a near-pristine condition.
Though it covers an area the size of France and Spain combined, Bolivia is home to just under ten million people, who are concentrated in a handful of cities founded by the Spanish. Some of these, such as Potosí and Sucre, were once amongst the most important settlements in the Americas, but are now half-forgotten backwaters, basking in the memory of past glories and graced by some of the continent’s finest colonial architecture. Others, like La Paz and Santa Cruz, have grown enormously, and are now bustling commercial centres.
Despite these attractions, Bolivia remains one of South America’s least-visited countries. Some blame Queen Victoria, who after a diplomatic incident is said to have crossed the name from a map and declared that “Bolivia does not exist”. Among those who have heard a little about Bolivia, meanwhile, it has a reputation for cocaine trafficking and political instability. These clichéd images have some basis in reality, though the 2006 election of Evo Morales has reduced the instability to a certain extent, and Bolivia remains one of the continent’s safest countries for travellers. And for those who make it here, the fact that Bolivia – one of the continent’s least expensive countries – is still not yet on the major tourist routes means you’re unlikely to find yourself sharing the experience with hordes of other foreign visitors.