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Bolivia

More Information About Bolivia

The official name of the central South American country of Bolivia is the “Plurinational State of Bolivia”, a nod to its multiethnic population of about 10 million people of Amerindian, Mestizo, European, and African descent. The main language is Spanish, although Aymara and Quechua are prevalent as well, along with other indigenous languages. This cultural heterogeneity has given birth to rich folkloric traditions in art, literature, music, and cuisine.

The country boasts tropical rainforest as well as snowy Andean peaks. Many visitors enjoy trekking among the high Andean plains and peaks to admire the rare and elegant vicuña and the world’s largest bird of flight, the endangered Andean Condor. The Amazon jungle and marsh region are also popular for their wealth of tropical birds and other animals. Important archeological ruins, especially Tiwanaku near the southwestern coast of Lake Titicaca, are also a major draw, as our unique geological marvels such as the world’s largest salt desert, the Uyuni Salt Flats.

  • Geography
  • Economy
  • History

Geography of Bolivia

Landlocked Bolivia lost its maritime coast to Chile after the War of the Pacific, although it maintains its official declaration of its right to access to the sea. It is bordered by Brazil, Paraguay and Argentine, Chile and Peru. In the west, massive Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, and the Central Andean peaks dominate the landscape; the highest being Illimani and Sajama. Here high plains boasting many lakes and rivers and is enclosed by the Andean Range, Lake Titicaca, and the Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest in the world. The high Andean plains give way to the hot, semi-arid eastern lowlands of the Gran Chaco in the Amazon Basin. The high amount of altitudinal variation ranging from snowy Sajama 6,742 meters about sea level to 70 meters for the Paraguay River allows Bolivia to shelter a huge biodiversity in climates that spans from the altiplano high Andean plains to tropical rainforests, dry valleys to Los Llanos tropical savanna. Overall, there are 32 ecological regions with 199 ecosystems. Several reserves seek to protect this natural resource, including Madidi National Park and the Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.

Economy of Bolivia

Bolivia is the least developed country in Latin America despite a wealth of natural resources that include the 2nd largest natural gas reserves in South America and 70% of the world’s lithium reserves in the Uyuni Salt Flats; subsistence farming is still widespread throughout. Bolivia’s main economic activities are agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, refined metals and petroleum, and mineral exploitation, especially tin. It suffered from major decreases in financial aid from Western nations after the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although rated “repressed” by the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, the country is currently experiencing a higher rate of growth than in the preceding 30 years, a moderate decrease of inequality, and growing trade.

History of Bolivia

The Pre-Columbian Era

The region now known as Bolivia has been occupied for over two millennia; its earliest inhabitants were the Aymara, who would build Tiwanaku up from a small farming village around 1500BC to the center of the Kingdom of Tiwanaku starting around 600AD. As it grew into an urban power, pilgrimage site of cosmological prestige, and predatory state, it expanded through politics, trade and force throughout Bolivia and into Peru and Chile. Around 1000AD drought caused Tiwanaku to disappear, but scattered groups of Aymara, such as the Uros Tribe of Lake Titicaca’s famous Floating Islands of Uros, survived to this day. The last great expansion of the Inca Empire conquered the region between 1438 and 1527, and thus Western Bolivia became part of the largest Pre-Columbian American state, the Inca Empire, for a brief period.

The Colonial Period

The Spanish Empire conquered the region the mid-16th century, ushering in a colonial period in which it was under the administration of the Viceroyalty of Peru and was known as Upper Peru.

It grew in prestige due to the founding of the silver mining town of Potosí in 1545, which soon became the New World’s largest city thanks to the wealth extracted by indigenous forced labor. In 1776 Upper Peru was shifted to the Rio de la Plata Viceroyalty. Five years later the indigenous rebellion under Túpac Katari laid siege to La Paz, causing the deaths of 20,000 people but eventually failing.

Life as a Republic

Independence was declared in 1809, followed by 16 years of war before the Bolivian Republic was established in 1825. Wars with neighboring countries in the period following independence caused Bolivia to lose over half its territory, with the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific against Chile causing Bolivia to lose its access to the sea.

During the early 20th century Bolivia grew as it exploited its mineral wealth under a succession of governments headed by economic and social elites and advancing laissez-faire capitalist policies. In the 1950s the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) rose to power and introduced universal suffrange and sweeping land reform. This turn to the left was followed by a military junta dictatorship, initiating decades of political turmoil between leftist revolutionaries and the CIA-backed Bolivia

Main Touristic Destinations in Bolivia

La Paz

Although Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, the city of La Paz (officially Nuestra Señora de La Paz) is the country’s administrative capital. Located in Western Bolivia in a bowl surrounded by snow-capped Andean peaks, the most prominent being the majestic Mt Illimani, which dominates the city’s skyline. It is the world’s highest capital at 11,975ft above sea level.

Copacabana

Copacabana lies along the shore of the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca; it’s the country’s principal access point for the lake as well as the first stop for many upon crossing the frontier from Peru to Bolivia. A small and quaint but scenic town, it’s become something of a backpacker resort town over the years, as the cafés and souvenir shops of its main street Avenida 6 de Agosto and the main square Plaza 2 de Febrero will attest.

Although it was believed that Copacabana was derived from Kota Kawana, the Aymara words for “view of the lake”, it’s now believed that the name actually refers to Kotakawana, the androgynous god once believed to reside within Lake Titicaca. Copacabana’s Basilica was built upon the site of the Kotakawana’s main fertility temple, although remnants of other sacred pre-Inca ruins have survived and can be visited with just a short boat trip to some of the islands off the shore.

Potosí

The Department of Potosí boasts two of Bolivia’s most famous attractions, Uyuni Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, and the Siloli Desert. Its capital is the city of Potosí, whose history of Potosí has been dominated by the legendary Mount Potosí, at whose foothills it lies. More popularly known as Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, it has been the largest and most prosperous silver mine in the history of the world. According to oral tradition, the name Potosí itself is rooted in the onomatopoeic Quechua word potoq, which reproduces the sound of a hammer striking ore.

The narrow streets of Potosí are lined with a wealth of baroque churches (as many as one every couple of blocks) and stylish colonial mansions. These, among them architectural wonders such as the gothic Potosí Cathedral, and the 18th century Torre de la Compañía convent date back to the city’s legendary heyday and reflect the splendor of that period. Arguably one of the most important colonial buildings is the the Casa Nacional de Moneda, which was once the royal mint and now houses one of South America’s best museums, boasting an expansive religious art and contemporary art collection and artifacts from its colonial history. The architectural and historical wealth are also the main reason that in 1987 Potosí became the first place in Bolivia to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rurrenabaque

The small town of Rurrenabaque, often simply referred to by Bolivians as Rurre), is located on the banks of the Beni River in the Bolivian Amazon Basin, about 20 hours from La Paz by bus and 3 hours from Coroico, although road conditions during the rainy season can make trip times vary widely. One can reach Rurrenabaque by plane as well; flights leave daily and take just under an hour. Its wealth of wildlife, flora and indigenous culture has made it an eco-travel hub in recent years.

Rurrenabaque acts as the entry gate for both the jungle, especially for the most important protected area for visitors, Madidi National Park, and the Pampas, or the tropical marshlands. For many travelers a visit to Bolivia is incomplete without an excursion into one of these ecological zones. As a variety of local indigenous communities, such as San Miguel del Bala and Chalalán, live within the parks, visitors can stay in community-run eco-lodges. One of the benefits of staying within a local community is that aside from normal activities, from exploring jungle paths to piranha fishing, visitors can also learn about life in Amazon, learning the traditional medicinal uses of local plants and ancient hunting and trapping methods that are still in use.

The town itself has some nice viewpoints showcasing the surrounding rivers and greenery, such as La Cruz Lookout and the Butterfly Pool Lookout. Eco-travelers looking for a fun way to spend some time in town before continuing on to Madidi or the Pampas, can opt the canopy zipline for a thrilling high-speed way to see the area! If you have a little time to spare and inquire at the harbor, you can even take a boat 1km upstream to visit El Chorro waterfall and pool, where you’ll see a serpentine engraving which functioned as an ancient warning to travelers; when the water level reached the serpent, the Beni was considered not navigable.

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