Among so much more, Bolivia is known for its astonishing sights such as the Uyuni Salt Flats and Lake Titicaca, its quaint historic towns like Sucre and Potosí, and its impressive ethnic and linguistic diversity. The landlocked country in Central South America is the perfect destination for adventure-seekers who want to keep away from crowds.
As part of our series on the best of South America, we’ll focus on this beautiful and intriguing country named after liberator Simón Bolívar.
Ready to start exploring Bolivia? ¡Vamos!
A short introduction to Bolivia
Let’s cover the main things Bolivia is known for before diving into specifics.
1. Plurinational & Multilingual
Bolivia changed its official name to “Plurinational State of Bolivia” in 2009, when it adopted its current constitution. The new document sought to prize Bolivia’s astonishing ethnic diversity and give more power to indigenous nations. It granted official status to 36 local languages as well.
Those were important steps toward a more inclusive democracy, as almost 40% of Bolivians don’t have Spanish as their first language, and 20% identify as indigenous, one of the highest percentages in the region.
2. West vs. East
Some folks call this the two Bolivias issue. Whereas we commonly associate Bolivia with its western Andean landscapes, the Amazon rainforest covers most of the country’s territory. The eastern regions of Bolivia, which are where its humongous gas fields lie, are overall richer than the mountains.
So it’s not hard to understand why easterners resent the west’s relatively disproportionate political and cultural power and international fame. The easternmost provinces (and especially the Santa Cruz department) represent the fiercest opposition to Bolivia’s left-wing government and have been fighting for increased autonomy in recent years.
3. Complex politics
Palacio Quemado’s popular name translates as “Burnt Palace”. That’s probably a chilling warning to every single one of its occupants. The building has served as the seat of the Bolivian government since independence and earned its nickname in 1875, when a furious crowd broke into the adjacent cathedral and burned the palace down by throwing torches into it.
The consequential episode is emblematic of Bolivia’s political instability. In little less than 200 years, the country has had 19 constitutions, 89 administrations, and 15 coups d’état (the most recent of which in 2019, against then-President Evo Morales).
The military interfering in civilian affairs is the n. 1 cause of deposition of Bolivian presidents, yet the people forced a President to resign at least once. In 2003, Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada fled the country amid weeks of protests and riots over natural resource policies.
4. A booming economy
Like many other nations in Latin America, Bolivia has historically faced alternating boom-and-bust cycles. Plus, it’s always been the poorest South American country.
But thanks to stabilization reforms and the implementation of a nationalist industrial policy over the last 15 years, among other measures, it went on to double its GDP per capita and become the fastest-growing economy in the region. Not bad!
Cholitas are a common sight in towns across Andean Bolivia. They’re indigenous women who take pride in their culture and wear a mix of traditional clothing and fashions from the colonial age.
Long victims of discrimination and forced to work low-paying jobs, cholitas are increasingly treated as the smiling face of this new, prosperous Bolivia. They now have representation in Parliament, and some even take part in wrestling.
Bolivia is known for its major cities
The intense gold mining in Bolivia during the Spanish colonization left behind a rich architectural heritage (and not much else, in fact).
6. La Paz
At 3,650 meters (11,975 feet) above sea level, La Paz is the highest national capital on Earth. So don’t freak out in case you feel dizzy and short of breath upon landing there. Just sit back, pull a Pope Francis and sip at your coca tea, and you’ll be feeling better in no time.
After that, you’ll be confident enough to go higher still and reach neighboring El Alto through (arguably) the longest cable-car system in the world. Up there, you’ll soak up the views of majestic Mount Illimani overlooking the whole area.
While La Paz is a lot bigger and the seat of both Congress and the Executive Power, Sucre is actually Bolivia’s official capital and where the Supreme Court is. That means we can positively say Bolivia has two capital cities!
The White City, as it’s been dubbed because of the suggestive color of its prominent buildings, is as quiet as it is imposing and, like the next city on our list, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sucre is also home to Cal Orck’o, the largest fossil bed on the planet.
Potosí developed around an elevation that is called Cerro Rico (i.e. “rich hill”) for a reason: locals extracted about 80% of the world’s entire supply of silver from it! The Inca used it as a source of wealth in the pre-colonial era, and it then allowed Potosí to become one of the richest towns on a global scale under Spanish rule.
Of course little stayed in Potosí besides the colorful Baroque palaces and townhouses, yet the Cerro Rico remains an active silver mine to this day and even features in Bolivia’s coat of arms. Guides from the miners’ coop take you on a tour of the safer tunnels and outline the hill and Potosí’s history.
Watch out for the altitude, though: at 4,090 meters (13,420 feet), it’s one of the highest cities on Earth.
Bolivia is known for a few unusual things too
If you associate words like controversial, dangerous, outlandish, and straight-up crazy to Bolivia, you’re not alone, I promise.
9. Coca leaves
The Andean first nations have been growing coca since far before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. In addition to being a traditional medicine, the leaves are symbolic of the identity of those peoples, who commonly chew them throughout the day to help endure hard labor.
Because the one method of making cocaine is by extracting it from coca leaves, the herb has been banned and demonized in much of the West. But in the past two decades a movement championed by President Evo Morales (pictured above), himself a former cocalero (or coca farmer), has been fighting to rehabilitate the plant’s image and expand its legal market.
10. The Death Road
Connecting the La Paz region with the green slopes heading toward the Bolivian Amazon, this single-lane, foggy, cliffside bike route used to be an actual highway. A safer alternative finally opened in 2006, only to give way to mountain biking circuits.
Though bikes obviously have an easier time than cars sharing the Death Road, almost 20 tourists have died there in the last 20 years or so.
11. Freddy Mamani’s architecture
Bolivia’s thriving economy brought about the emergence of a new class of successful entrepreneurs, centered mainly on the city of El Alto in the outskirts of La Paz. Freddy Mamani is the man behind the buildings these folks live in and run their businesses from today.
With their flamboyant designs and strong colors, the multipurpose constructions have been reshaping an otherwise brownish town. Critics label them as tacky and “ornament-not-real-architecture”, yet Mamani doesn’t seem to care. He argues the motifs recall those favored by his and his customers’ Aymara ancestors.
Controversial as Mamani’s architecture is, he’s been attracting international attention and was the subject of a documentary three years ago. The style he created has even a name of its own now: Neo-Andean Baroque.
12. Traffic zebras
Depending on where you’re from, you may call crosswalks “zebra crossings”. Back in 2001, La Paz’s municipal authority introduced human zebras as a fun way to raise awareness about transit rules and improve the flow of the capital’s chaotic traffic.
20 years on, traffic zebras have taken over other cities in Bolivia, won awards, and were granted local heritage status.
Its landscapes are mind-blowing
Bolivia is known for being home to the widest section of the Andes. That of course means it boasts countless one-of-a-kind natural wonders.
13. The Altiplano
The huge plateau that makes up the widest section of the Andes Mountains is home to tons of natural wonders and the location to pivotal events in History. Civilizations like the Tiwanaku Empire were born, potatoes were first grown, and llamas were domesticated there. Bolivia shares the Altiplano with Peru, but a great deal of it is within its borders.
14. Lake Titicaca
The Titicaca is at the very heart of the Altiplano. The highest navigable lake on the planet and the biggest in South America is truly a magical place. From floating islands, to stunning sunsets and ancient civilizations, Lake Titicaca has it all.
15. Uyuni Salt Flats
I’m sorry to tell you that one visit to the largest salt flat in the world won’t do. You’ll have to see it in the wet season, when the floor seamlessly mirrors the sky, and in the dry one, in which everything around you is just a boundless expanse of white.
On top of being an asset to the tourism industry, Uyuni is a precious source of lithium and (duh!) salt for Bolivia.
16. Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve
This natural reserve in southwestern Bolivia is where you’ll find the lunar landscapes of Siloli Desert and its wind-carved rocks like Árbol de Piedra (i.e. “stone tree”), as well as the dazzling colorful lagoons, the most famous of them being Laguna Colorada (or the Red Lagoon).
17. The Bolivian Amazon
As we don’t want eastern Bolivians to be mad at us for our bias toward the Andes (verdict: guilty), let’s highlight the beauty of Bolivia’s chunk of the biggest rainforest on the planet, its warm climate, and ethnic diversity. Madidi National Park is among the attractions you can’t miss in the area.
Brazil annexed vast swaths of the country’s landmass following a war at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, less than 8% of the Amazon basin are within the Bolivian borders. Still, the region is definitely worth a visit. Apart from seeing some amazing sights, you’ll get a glimpse of the two Bolivias issue.
Bolivia is known for its hearty cuisine
Make the most of it after the altitude sickness wears off, you’ll deserve it!
Hispanic South America is notorious for its dreamy empanadas, a kind of baked turnover. Bolivia’s popular variation of the recipe is quite possibly the juiciest of them all.
Stuffed with slow-cooked meat (normally beef or chicken), boiled eggs, and vegetables, salteñas will give you enough energy to face the Bolivian heights with your eyes shut.
These are a delicacy Bolivia share with neighboring Peru. While anticuchos may look like regular kebabs, they’re in fact made with beef hearts! Strong-flavored and greasy, they’re not for everyone, but taste their best if you eat them with roast potatoes and peanut sauce.
Bolivia’s national liquor is a sort of brandy that is produced by distilling Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Spanish monks who were a little more creative than usual when making their altar wine (because why not?) invented it in the 1600s. Singani is hands-down the greatest company for a cold night on the Altiplano.
I’m sure being confident about answering the question “what is Bolivia known for?” is a good feeling. But a travel guide can’t hold a candle to seeing all that live, trust me! What are you waiting for?
Also, when you’re finished with Uyuni, don’t think twice before crossing the border to find out what Chile is about. You’ll be literally at the edge of the Atacama desert anyway!