Thoughts on Bolivia

The girls stare out into the desert

In contrast to our high expectations of Peru we arrived in Bolivia with low or maybe mixed expectations. Bolivia is the poorest and least developed of the countries that we’d be visiting. It also has a history of poor governance, is landlocked thanks again to its previous poor governance, and nearly the whole country exists at a high altitude which I’d already discovered does not always agree with me. There was also what we’d heard from other travellers. Before starting our trip we’d heard mixed reports and during our travels what we’d heard from people who’d already come through Bolivia was that although it was an incredible and beautiful place the people were unfriendly, the infrastructure was terrible and the food was pretty dire.

Posing at the train graveyard outside Uyuni
Posing at the train graveyard outside Uyuni

As a result of this we were thinking of Bolivia as somewhere to be endured whilst seeing the sights and saving money that we’d need later. What we actually encountered when we arrived in Bolivia surprised us. Although my first memory of Bolivia is of rushing around trying to find a working cash machine, we generally found the infrastructure to be reasonable, in particular the mobile phone network was no worse than anywhere we’ve been. On top of this although the food was nothing to write home about, it was no worse than Ecuador or outside of the big cities in Peru. Finally I never found the people to be at all unfriendly. What I did find is fewer people were as overtly friendly as we found in other countries. When we got to know a few people we realised they were not unfriendly, just not as talkative. Maybe it’s because we have spent so much time in London but I certainly felt a lot more warmth from Bolivians than I’d expect from Londoners!

Playing Wally in Sucre
Playing Wally in Sucre

While Bolivia didn’t always quite live up to the standards of some of the other places we’ve been it was also cheaper, so as a result I was often more forgiving than I would have been in a more expensive country. Looking back at our costs we found that food, transport and tours were all much cheaper than the other countries that we’ve visited and accommodation was a little cheaper but not drastically so.

What I really liked about Bolivia is that it felt like the first country we’d been to where the indigenous population weren’t as overtly a second class behind the people of Spanish descent. The president is indigenous and as a result the native Cholitas in their colourful outfits are celebrated and visible on the streets of La Paz, whereas in other capital cities it seemed that indigenous people had more often adopted western dress in order to fit in. As a result La Paz felt like the truly Andean capital city.

View from the cable car, La Paz
View from the cable car, La Paz

It also felt like the Bolivian government was really trying to invest in some impressive projects for the people such as the cable cars in La Paz. The lines that have been installed so far directly connect the poorer areas of El Alto with the more affluent (but still poor) centre of La Paz.

Despite the positive signs, Bolivia much more accurately fits the description of a developing country than anywhere else that we have been. The taxis that we used we mostly older than us, and it was common to see cars passing that appeared to be held together by nothing more than string.

Alex cycling Death Road
Alex cycling Death Road

The one thing we did notice in Bolivia was the large number of extra charges that we needed to pay. These were usually tourist taxes levied by the locals. Some of these were genuine but some appeared to be additional charges that may well have been immediately pocketed by those collecting them. The most suspicious seemed to be the random charge that we had to pay to the border guards to leave Bolivia, and another one that we were asked to pay on entering Copacabana. That said both were only about 10p each so even if they were not genuine I’m not going to get too upset about them.

View back to the mainland
View from Isla del Sol back to the edge of Lake Titicaca

Our route through Bolivia started at Lake Titicaca then onto La Paz, Sucre, Potosí and Uyuni before crossing the border into Chile. I felt that this worked pretty well with the highlights for me being Lake Titicaca, Sucre and Uyuni. I should probably have included Potosí in that list but it is hard to call it a highlight since it was quite a harrowing experience, however it was unique and I’m glad I experienced it.

Bolivia is one of the two countries on our itinerary that many people skip, the other being Colombia. Despite its flaws it is an incredible and unique country and I’d advise anyone passing through the area to see it while it is still cheap and slightly off the tourist trail.

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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