Bolivia - South America's underrated gem

While it’s a common inclusion on South American backpacking routes, unlike its more illustrious neighbours, Bolivia has never really acquired the status of “tourist destination” in its own right.

That’s slowly starting to change as people discover the myriad of delights this country has to offer. Here’s why it’s an underrated gem that should undoubtedly be on your radar.

Incredible Natural Wonders

Salar de Uyuni, better known as the Bolivian salt flats is one of the most incredible and surreal sights you’ll ever witness. Over 4,000m² of pure white salt stretching out around you as far as the eye can see makes you feel like you’re on another planet. Up until the recent fires, many people weren’t even aware that the incomparable Amazon Rainforest snakes its way into Bolivia. Then there’s the stunning Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at a lung busting altitude of over 3,500 metres. The diversity and depth of nature on show in Bolivia is astounding.

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Captivating History

While it’s widely presumed that Cusco, Peru is where the Inca civilisation originated, don’t try and argue that to a Bolivian. Legend here dictates that it was in fact in Bolivia, at the aforementioned Lake Titicaca that the first Incas were born. Beyond that it was the first country in South America to begin the fight for independence from Spanish rule and the last to achieve it. Bolivia’s past is frequently characterised by turmoil. But while its narrative is heartbreaking, tragic, often infuriating and will undoubtedly stir up some negative emotions, it’s never not interesting.

Fascinating Culture

Traditional clothing is on show everywhere, particularly among women. In fact, perhaps Bolivia’s most enduring image is one of the Mestiza dress worn by so-called “Cholitas”, with precariously balanced bowler hats on centre-parted hair fashioned into two long plaits.

An estimated 60-80% of the population is of indegenous descent, the highest of any country in South America and one of the main reasons for its completely unique culture. It’s an enchanting mix of ancient traditions, Spanish colonial influence, and a rapidly modernising younger element of society.

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Great Food

Bolivian food gets a bad rap in some parts. It’s variously labeled as bland, stodgy, and unhealthy. But while staples do include corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans, this is doing it a massive disservice. If you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll discover a delicious and interesting cuisine.

Set lunches, or menu del dia’s, provide an amazing value midday feast, often starting with a quinoa or peanut soup and followed by hearty, spicy meat stews. Trout is a speciality and cooked a million different ways, particularly around Lake Titicaca. While you’ll also find European influenced foods like chorizo and salteñas served up on street corners all over the country.

Friendly and Welcoming People

I generally like to steer clear of making broad, sweeping statements about an entire country’s people. But it’s fair to say that Bolivians are overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming, and inquisitive people.

Personally we’ve had nothing but positive experiences with people that we’ve met, with many going to great lengths to help us in any way possible. And it’s often said that the people you meet on your travels can be equally as important as the destination itself.

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