Bolivia is a land of diverse clashes: from ice-capped peaks, coloured lagoons and flamingos, to rugged lowlands, Amazonian rainforest, beautiful valleys and colonial cities, the innate magic of this country will not fail to dazzle. Landlocked at the heart of Andean Latin America by Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, Bolivia is dominated by its varied geography, the soaring Andes and its distinctive culture.
Throughout its three centuries of colonial history, Bolivia was known as ‘Upper Peru’, and lost almost half its territory (including its Pacific Coast to Chile), until Simón Bolívar led the country to independence in 1825, when it was named in his honour. Now, it could not be more different to its neighbours. Those who venture beyond the mass tourism of Peru and the European-like cities of Chile and Argentina will find a country offering a far more authentic take on Latin American culture. Indeed, Bolivia’s mysterious exoticism remains the main attraction for travellers who dare to go off the beaten track.
While upscale hotels and international-standard restaurants do exist, there are also plenty of long bus journeys along rugged mountain passes, rough-and-tumble jeep trips across empty landscapes and chilly nights at high altitude in low-frills hotels under llama wool blankets. Though rich in natural resources, Bolivia remains one of Latin America’s poorest countries. The infrastructure may need some work, but the country's inherent charm and unwavering spirit lives on despite its overwhelming poverty.
Its charm lies in its staggering breadth of contrasts. The de facto capital La Paz (the official capital is Sucre) mixes both traditional and modern culture in a frenzy of collisions. Weave your way through the maze of streets where European restaurants and lively bars mix with witch markets, peaceful protests and hectic minibuses. Similarly, La Paz’s Eastern counterpart Santa Cruz offers much of the same but in a tropical, low-lying metropolis. The colonial cities of Sucre and Potosí are a chronicle of Bolivia’s past – white wash houses and historic plazas – while Tupiza and Uyuni offer something different altogether: the somewhat tragic and isolated culture of Altiplano towns.
Bolivia’s endless geographical diversities cause it to feel almost otherworldly. From jungle greenery to vast white salt plains and a bustling capital city set in a mountain valley, the sweep of landscapes can be impenetrable: one day you can find yourself walking through a canyon of rock formations, the next volcanic geysers and endless stretches of white salt. It is this smorgasbord of remarkable features which keeps trips to Bolivia varied, alive and unforgettable.
With around two thirds of the population being of indigenous origin – the largest percentage in any Latin American country – the authentic culture has not been watered down, still breathing through its cities. Native religions, dialects, traditional dress, music, medicine and the sacred coca leaf all form part of the daily life on the street. While the Spanish influence is still evident in the colonial architecture and language, Bolivia remains close to its roots.