The Cholitas with their pleated skirt, shawl on the shoulders, two long braids, hat on the head and huge multi-coloured cloth bag on the back,
The coca and hamster cheeks,
The dogs with their jackets against the cold,
The traditional celebrations almost every day, with bands, Caporal dances and orgy of alcohol,
The lama foetus, alasitas and numerous offerings to the Pachamama,
The blankets with their kitsch tiger or dog decorations that Bolivians always carry with them in the bus,
The never-finished brick houses,
The lamas and their earrings,
The public toilets and showers (but not for free) always available,
The hostels that never provide toilet paper,
The mercados at every corner,
The food and drink street vendors at each city toll and bus terminal,
The fresh fruit juices for a few cents,
The winning trio rice / potatoes / noodles,
The chicken as main meat,
The meat that dries on a clothesline,
The giant popcorn,
The delicious and caloric combination api and buñuelos,
The chicha, traditional drink made out of fermented corn,
The uncountable varieties of different potatoes, including the chuño (dehydrated potatoe),
The wastes everywhere (especially the plastic),
The black exhaust gas of the buses, trucks and cars,
The truffis (minibuses) that can be stopped everywhere
The bus terminals where every seller keep on screaming the name of its destination,
The bus drivers that drive like mad,
The deliciously kitsch decoration on the front on the buses,
The tens of fragrant trees hung in the truffis but still packed in their plastic bag,
The list could go on for a while like this. Bolivia is a small but fascinating country, with landscapes of a huge variety and stunningly well-preserved traditions. If the visa was not limited to three months, no doubt that I would have stayed even longer!
Here, traditional clothes are not only worn on celebration days but on daily life. Except maybe for Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a big city that is more Occidentalised, cholitas can be seen at every street corner throughout the whole country.
There isn’t a single day passing without hearing or crossing a band celebrating an umpteenth national, regional or local festivity. And judging by the amount of children parading, learning to play a music instrument or to dance, we can definitely count on these customs to be preserved for a while!
Some prejudices about Boliviea
Bolivians are unfriendly
So many travellers had warned me before my arrival about the Bolivians being unpleasant and impolite, but how wrong they were! That Bolivians may be shy, that I could hear… but unfriendly, no! Of course it happened to me to interact with some rude merchant but this also happens to us to France and we don’t make a fuss about it.
I will definitely more remember about the kindness and generosity of many Bolivians that I met: Sebastian’s family that welcomed us so proudly in Sucre, Macario, who gave us this unique opportunity to volunteer in Mondragón, Jorge, Jazmin and her family with we explored the region of La Paz, our guides during the tour in Uyuni, Torotoro or the ascension of Huayna Potosi… and so many other meetings along the trip that I couldn’t list.
Food in Bolivia is a disaster
RIGHT AND WRONG
I have to admit that from a vegetarian point of view, the Bolivian gastronomy is not really suitable. All the soups and meals systematically contain meat and the only veggie option that is offered is always rice, potatoes, noodles and some salad… which is quite repetitive and limited after a while!
But at the same time, I was really happy to see the big variety and quality of fruits and vegetables being offered on all the markets. Local, fresh and non-treated products, with real taste… so it was not a problem for me to cook some good meals and I was delighted to discover new fruits (big crush on the cherimoya)!
I was also in love with all the kind of juices that could be found everywhere for a few cents. If only we had this culture in Europe…
It is useless to go to Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Indeed this metropolis doesn’t have a beautiful architecture like Sucre or Potosi for instance, but it offers another perspective on Bolivia, showing a more “Occidentalised” face of the country. And most of all, it is worth a visit only for it regional park Lomas de Arena, with amazing and unknown dunes.
I then went to Tupiza, from where I did a four-day trip in the Sud Lipez and Uyuni, crossing the most incredible landscapes I had ever seen with lagoons, geysers, volcanoes, deserts and salt flats. Back to Tupiza, I explored the area around this little town, which is surrounded by rocky mountains that remind of the United States.
After that, I went to Potosí, the highest mining city in the world (4 000 m above sea level), where I met again my friend Juan, that I then joined for an unplanned volunteering experience in Mondragón. The occasion to learn a lot about Bolivian traditions, while enjoying the region amazing mountain environment.
I then started travelling together with Juan, first to the beautiful city of Sucre, where we had the chance to spend four days with a lovely Bolivian family. We then went to the village of Samaipata before visiting an uncle of Juan in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. A city that is generally not visited by travellers but where some hidden gems can be explored though!
We then went on to the jungle in Villa Tunari and had a short visit in Cochabamba, from where we left to the village of Torotoro, famous for its dinosaurs’ footprints. Back to Cochabamba, we directly head off to La Paz, where we stayed for almost two weeks so to have enough time to explore its region and climb on Huayna Potosi summit, 6 088 m above sea level.
We finished in Copacabana and Isla del Sol, where our roads had to split as Juan’s visa was coming to an end and I was very late on the blog. I needed a few days to stay only working on it before leaving to Peru.
The tops and flops
Hard to make a selection after living such varied and intense adventures, but if I had to choose…
Huayna Potosi’s climb
Climbing a summit more than 6 000 high, an experience that I’m not going to forget! Huayna Potosi has the advantage to be relatively accessible for a first ascension of this kind. The landscapes are amazing and worth all the efforts. It’s better to choose the three-day tour rather than the two-day one to put the odds on one side.
The landscapes of Sud Lipez et Uyuni Salt flats
I am not really a fan of organized tours (it was my first one since the beginning of this trip) but this one is really worth it. The landscapes in this region are simply mind-blowing and with such a variety… it is stunning from the beginning to the end. Leaving from Tupiza rather than Uyuni offers the advantage to enjoy the tour in better conditions (smaller groups, less people at each stop…).
The dunes of the Regional Park Lomas de Arena
I already mentioned them earlier but these dunes really struck us with Juan. A real treasure that the guide books don’t even mention and that the inhabitants of Santa Cruz themselves don’t even know, even though it is located less than one hour from the city centre! These dunes really give the impression to be at the entrance of a desert, although they are at the doors of the city… I can promise you that you’ll feel euphoric face to this huge sand area.
The unknown region of Potosi
Most of travellers only stop for a day or two in Potosi before going on to Sucre or Uyuni (depending on where they were before). I had the chance to discover some treasures of this region during my volunteering in Mondragón: rocky valleys and canyons with infinite hiking possibilities, hot thermal waters, clear and starry skies…
An afternoon with the monkeys in Villa Tunari
Much better than a zoo as they are free and come to see you only if they want to, Machia Park was a great experience. A whole afternoon close to the monkeys, watching them jumping from one tree to another, cuddling close to us, having them into our arms… a moment that was suspended in time!
The inexistant management of waste and pollution
Wastes are thrown everywhere, which is unfortunately a huge problem in Bolivia. It is typical from countries where plastic arrived in mass (it is indeed used for the smallest things) but where there is no awareness or education made towards the population, nor any effort to recycle.
I almost got to the point that I was not surprised anymore after three months to see amazing landscapes being spoiled by wastes, or to see rivers completely white with foam coming from the products being thrown inside…
A typical but stark example seen at the end of my stay: during the sunset, a little girl threw a bottle from the top of the Cerro Calvario in Copacabana. Her parents and grand brother reaction: they watched where the bottle had fallen and laughed all together… no comment.
In the same environmental topic, the vehicles pollution is another catastrophe in the whole country. The trucks, buses and truffis belching their black smoke every time they start (or even all the time) is a common scene that one can’t get used to, especially when one’s walking in a steep street of La Paz or Potosi, where one already lacks of air with the altitude!
The inaccessible parks without a guide
Most of Bolivian national parks cannot be visited without a guide, which is an obligation we are not used to in France and which considerably increase the price of every visit. For example we didn’t visit the apparently amazing Amboró National Park close to Samaipata, mainly for this reason. As for the one of Torotoro, not only it is not accessible without a guide, but also the entrance is for four days or nothing… which is the best way to force you to pay for a guide for several days, so to make the most of your ticket!
The cumbia chicha
A Bolivian typical music that is so unbearable for me… a haunting child voice, a repetitive cumbia rhythm and a never ending high-pitched keyboard… having to listen to it non-stop during the Fiesta del Christo de Manquiri didn’t help, but still, I don’t think I could ever get used to this music! I let you judge by yourselves:
The budget is definitely a great advantage in the country. Bolivia counts among the less expensive countries in South America, and it’s a real blessing for backpackers travelling on a budget!
A big glass of fruit juice for 0,50€, one complete menu for about 1,50€, one hostel night for 4€, a several hour bus trip for less than 5€… one has to learn to negotiate (easier with several people) as prices depend on the client (they are almost never written) but it is worth it. Do not hesitate to ask before to locals about the average prices (especially for transports) so not to be fooled when you’ll have to negotiate.
My final budget in three months is of 856€. The most important expense category is “Admission” (40,1%), which includes the Uyuni tour, the visit in the Torotoro Park and the ascent of Huayna Potosi (it then counts the cost of the guides and parks entrance fees, but one also has to take into account that accommodation, meals and transports are included in these tours). Then come accommodation (24,4%),, food (17,2%) and then transports (10%).