Bolivia has long been known among travellers as the ‘Tibet of the Andes,’ a phrase that brings to mind snow-capped peaks and barren high plains. Because of this image, many people are surprised to learn that 2/3 of Bolivia is tropical lowlands and jungle. Often called the poorest and least developed country in South America, Bolivia is in fact full of wealth and culture.
From the heights (over 6,000 meters) of the Cordillera Real to the steaming jungles of the Amazon basin; from La Paz, a city of over a million people, with its Hyuano Potosí (6,088 meters); to the world-renowned Lake Titicaca whose deep blue waters offset the dry grasses of the wind-swept altiplano -- you are welcome in Bolivia.
You can visit Sucre, a bucolic colonial city that houses Bolivia’s national museums – and then travel to Potosí, once the largest urban area in South America, now a testament to the destruction that Spanish colonization wrought in its voracious appetite for silver.
The country has three major cities: La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba. La Paz (at 3500 meters) is a bustling cosmopolitan city situated in a bowl and surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. The streets are full of life, every neighbourhood has a vibrant local market, and the pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku are a day-trip away. In June you will enjoy the cultural and social event of the year: the Gran Poder festival with its non-stop dancing.
To the east, tropical Santa Cruz is known as the economic center with its agro-industrial businesses. Rapid growth has given the city a hodgepodge look, making it a less charming place for most travellers -- but it is the jumping-off spot for sights well worth visiting. One of these is Parque Nacional Amboro, probably the most accessible of the national parks and the site of beautiful cloud forests. East of Santa Cruz the flat plains are home to the Chiquitano people and dotted with the exquisitely reconstructed Jesuit mission churches.
Last but not least is the less-visited city of Cochabamba. Situated in a fertile valley surrounded by small family farms, it produces an almost endless variety of vegetables and fruit. This fact translates into an extensive local cuisine and the local saying: “We live to eat, not eat to live.” The city is a perfect place for studying Spanish or Quechua -- or just relaxing and getting to know the people. A number of local groups offers volunteer-work opportunities, and many a traveller has stayed “un ratito mas,” as Cochabamba is truly is a hard place to leave.
Thanks to Nick Buxton for some of the photos.