Bolivia is one of the most remote countries in the world but the roads are suicidal, the food is absymal and, basically, you’re at the arse end of nowhere. Which, of course, might be just what you’re looking for.
There is a story that when an emissary of the Spanish empire first arrived in Bolivia, he was offered a wheat beer by the Bolivian king. The emissary spat the drink out in disgust, and was quickly executed by the king for his disrespect. This story is interesting not because it shows the ruthlessness of the Bolivians or the cultural insensitivity of the Spanish conquistadors, but because it shows how dismal Bolivian food and drink really are that a man would rather die than dine there.
The name ‘Bolivia,’ sounds something like ‘oblivion’ to the average westerner, and is indeed a remote country, landlocked in the center of South America, surrounded by mountains and jungle. Bolivia can be a frustrating and difficult country to travel in as roads are poor to terrible and people are often backward and difficult to understand (even if you speak Spanish). The population of the country is seventy percent Indian, and the Spanish influence is only surface deep. Some campesinos don’t even speak the language. For the average western backpacker, it can be fascinating to see the way of life of the people in the mountains or jungle and some consider Bolivia the Tibet of the New World.
Bolivia lists a number of unique attractions for travelers who are looking for something strange or unnecessarily dangerous. One of the main tourist attractions near La Paz, for example, is the so-called ‘Death Road,’ which was until recently considered the most dangerous road in the world, connecting La Paz to the town of Coroico in the cloud forest. A new paved road has recently been constructed connecting the two cities, but a sign remains at the entrance of the road keeping track of the yearly death toll. It’s an anxious moment of watching your collectivo driver chow down on scraps of chicken and licking his greasy fingers while driving partly with his knees, partly with his forearms, but travelers can relax a little, only about 45 people die per year on the road now.
Bolivia attracts a lot of budget travelers, and it is probably the cheapest place to travel or live in the Americas. Many towns are literally overrun with Israelis, and it is common to find menus in restaurants translated into Hebrew, not English. Though prices are rock bottom, so is quality. If you buy a backpack there, it will break in a day. Bolivia’s the kind of place where you can order a plate of spaghetti for $.50, but it will be prepared by a ten year old and consist of a plate of cold pasta topped with ketchup. A ‘hamburger’ will be cooked in the morning, left all day, then refried and served on stale bread when you order for dinner. Indeed, any form of quality craftsmanship is foreign to Bolivia, and the recent move toward socialism hasn’t helped. If a bridge is built in Bolivia, it will collapse. You might be wise to test your chair before you sit in it.
The real beauty of Bolivia is its remoteness. There are still large tracts of jungle and big mountains to explore. A somewhat popular tour for backpackers in the jungle is to go live with native communities and hunt wild animals with them. Granted, this puts a heavier strain on an already limited supply of game but for the average Israeli who doesn’t give a damn, it’s an incredible experience. More responsible travelers can take a guide and go trekking deep into the jungle for under $20 a day. The mountains are reasonably easy to access, and Bolivia reputedly possesses the easiest 6000 meter mountain in the world to climb, Huayna Potosi, a three day climb from La Paz. Supplies for independent hikers and climbers can be extremely difficult to find, even in La Paz, so things like water purification pills or white gas should be brought with you from somewhere else (like Peru, Argentina, Chile, or your home country).
Bolivia is not a very dangerous country compared to Colombia or Brazil, though you should still be careful what you do in the native communities in the mountains or jungle. People are extremely backward in places and sometimes don’t trust foreigners. Be very discreet about taking pictures of people and ask beforehand if possible – if you don’t want to end up with a knife to the throat.
Though Bolivia is considered the second poorest country in the Americas, it doesn’t have the desperate poverty of somewhere like Haiti. Most people own some land, can farm enough food to survive and have animals to make their own clothes. Pollution in Bolivia is limited by its remoteness, and plastic bottles and bags have yet to make the devastating impact that they have in Peru and Ecuador. Many, many people live without electricity and virtually no one has a car, but this doesn’t lead to squalor as most of the population is rural and live according to their ancestors.
Modernity is coming to parts of Bolivia, especially the biggest cities and the southern border area near Argentina, where things like hospitals and schools actually can be found. In popular traveler areas it is possible to meet educated Bolivians or score a bag of decent weed. Cocaine is the drug of choice for many, and Bolivia is famous for the world’s purest white powder. Watch out for the police though as they will take you for everything you have. It’s pretty rare to see a policeman in Bolivia, however, as the government is corrupt and irrelevant to most people’s daily lives.
Overall, Bolivia is an interesting country to travel around but can be a complete drag sometimes. Most travelers are happy to leave to nicer countries like Argentina or Peru.