As a travel writer, one of the questions I get asked all the time is: “What is your favorite country?” My typical answer is that I don’t really have favorites as such. And if I do, these change with my mood and the phase I’m going through in life. But, somehow, always, I end up mentioning Bolivia. And every time I do, people get surprised. Some quickly shuffle through their mental maps to place Bolivia, others know exactly where it is but seem surprised to hear it mentioned in this context. So I devote this post to some of the reasons Bolivia holds a special place in my heart, to hopefully inspire adventurous travelers to head to this landlocked South American country.
What I love about Bolivia is the fact it lies well off the mainstream tourist radar, allowing it to be as is, without the ugly consequences of mass tourism. There is still the gringo trail but luckily, you can stray off it without too much effort in Bolivia.
The country’s layers are varied and many, including a rich and colorful culture. Bolivia has 36 indigenous groups, which makes it the most indigenous country in South America. It even has an indigenous president for the first time in history, the controversial Evo Morales who was re-elected for his second term in December 2009. I love the fact Bolivia features such a thriving indigenous culture, which is visible in its numerous markets, in the way people dress, and in many aspects of everyday life.
Bolivia also showcases some of the most remote landscapes of any I’ve seen on my worldwide travels. There was an afternoon last February when I found myself on Salar de Uyuni (see first photo above), which resembles an exercise in surrealist painting. I had hired a driver to take me around the Salar in a 4WD, in order to discover new spots of interest for the Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook I was researching (which just came out, by the way!). So that afternoon, as I stood on a hillside with an open grotto housing pre-Incan graves behind me, I looked over the spectacularly desolate landscape of salt and petrified cacti stretching endlessly before me. The remoteness of it really struck me, etching this moment indelibly in my mind.
I love Bolivia’s small towns, which often feel like the last frontier. There’s Tupiza in the country’s southwest (this is Wild West at its best, with great horseback rides, hikes and 4WD trips); Rurrenabaque in the Amazon (the laid-back gateway for trips deep into the rainforest); and Samaipata in the eastern lowlands (a sleepy and mystical little place). While all of these are well on the gringo trail, they don’t feel overrun with backpackers. And there are plenty of spots in the surroundings to truly get lost in.
And this brings me back to why I love Bolivia. It’s a place where you can really get lost and let the rest of the world slip away. If you do have an adventurous spirit, there’s much to discover in Bolivia. Those who do venture there need to be prepared for often skimpy tourist facilities and poor infrastructure. The Bolivian roads are treacherous; they almost turned an agnostic like me into a devoutly religious person, that’s how much I prayed to all the gods out there to ensure I survive the many hair-raising bus journeys. What you get though – that distinct sense of discovery all of us travelers seek – makes all the sacrifices worth it.