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Country of the Week: Bolivia

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

With a history of empires long before the Spanish ever arrived in the New World, there’s a lot more to discover about Bolivia than you might think!

  • Capital: Sucre, La Paz
  • Largest City: Santa Cruz de la Sierra
  • Population (2016): 10,985,059 (81st)
  • Total Area: 1,098,581 km² (28th)
  • Official Languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, and 33 others
  • Currency: Bolivian boliviano (Bs. or Bs) (BOB)
llamas mountains bolivia landscape altitude alpine

Llamas are a common sight in Bolivia

History of Bolivia

Prior to European colonization of South America, there were a variety of different native powers that called Bolivia home. The most famous were the Tiwanaku, who grew from a local force to a regional empire. They expanded not always through violence, assimilating nearby tribes and using diplomacy to eventually rule over a vast swathe of land. The Tiwanaku were at their height in 950 CE, however only a few decades later the empire vanished – due predominantly to dwindling food reserves. After centuries of little to no habitation, the Inca claimed a portion of the country in the 15th century. This wouldn’t last long however.

Spanish Colonization

Beginning in 1524, the Spanish took about 9 years to conquer the entirety of the Inca empire. As a result, Bolivia was under the jurisdiction of Lima and was referred to as ‘Upper Peru’. Natural resources played a huge role in Bolivia’s early Spanish history, with the mining town of Potosí becoming the largest city in the Americas for a time. While silver and other minerals brought wealth to the Spaniards, the brutal slave conditions, oppression, and poverty stoked the fires against imperial rule.

An Independent Bolivia

The revolution began in 1809 and quickly grew into a greater movement. A subsequent revolution led to a claim of full independence and a prolonged struggle began. The Spanish and their supporters won back the country multiple times. However, after 16 years of bloodshed, independence was finally achieved in 1825.

Of course this wasn’t the end of strife in the country. Bolivia soon formed a confederation with Peru, and become embroiled in further regional conflicts – chiefly with Chile and Argentina. Bolivia-Peru won the War of the Confederation, however a later defeat led to the breaking of the alliance. Typically, Bolivia and Peru soon found themselves at odds in the mid 1800’s, though a peace treaty was later reached. The latter half of the 19th century saw further trials for Bolivia, as the country lost large amounts of land to neighbouring powers. Despite losing land and resources, silver kept the country afloat and relatively stable as the 19th century drew to a close.

Onward to the 20th Century

As silver dried up, tin became the country’s main export and source of wealth. There remained social and political problems, which culminated in a revolution by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) in 1952 – after they were denied victory in the election. The populist party ruled for 12 uneasy years until a military junta overthrew it in 1964. Other military dictatorships, coups, sketchy elections, and popular uprisings continued for decades. It was also during this time that the revolutionary Che Guevara was killed by the CIA and members of the Bolivian army. Needless to say, it was a chaotic and violent time in Bolivian politics.

Modern Bolivia

In the 80’s, the country began to reform and transition towards democracy. Privatization increased and other economic changes were made. It hasn’t always been smooth. Economic crisis hounded the country throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, while political scandals, protests, and resignations remained fairly common. The current President is Evo Morales, who has the unenviable job of keeping a lid on constant political and social tensions. Still, Bolivia seems to be making progress, though the work is far from complete.

titicaca lake boats houses village bolivia

Boats and houses at the famous Lake Titicaca

Bolivian Culture

Unsurprisingly, Bolivian culture is based off a mix of Native American traditions as well as those from the Spanish colonists. There are essentially three different cultural periods that have influenced the country today. There’s pre-Columbian (the native population), colonial (the period of Spanish imperial rule), and republican (the fostering of an independent Bolivia and identity). This is reflected in everything from historical architecture to art to dance.

Bolivian Cuisine

Bolivian cuisine is predominantly a mix of Spanish and Native palates, however a wide array of other influences can be found – including Argentine, German, Italian, Russian, and even Arabic. Corn, beans, and potatoes are the cornerstone of the diet however rice and various meats (pork, beef, or chicken) are used on top of those. Lunch, also known as almuerzo, is the day’s most important meal and can often shut down the country between 12 and 3. An afternoon tea break () is taken around 4, while a light dinner (la cena) is enjoyed later at night, around 8.

Sports in Bolivia

The most popular sport in Bolivia is, without a doubt, soccer. One of the oldest clubs in South America (Oruro Royal) is located here, founded in 1896. The national team isn’t one of the most successful on the continent, only qualifying for one World Cup since 1950. However, they have had some success in the regional Copa América.

amazon hills bolivia sunset rainforest

The Amazon rainforest covers a large portion of the country

Geography of Bolivia

Bolivia is a landlocked country (one of only two in South America). There are three distinct geographical regions within the fairly large land area of the country. There are the famous Andes, which also includes the recognizable Lake Titicaca. The Sub-Andean region is known for its valleys, while the Llanos region covers over half of the country and includes flats, plateaus, and ample rainforest. Within these three regions the climate changes considerably – and includes arid landscapes, polar temperatures, and the humid tropics.

One of the most important cities in Bolivia is La Paz, which is commonly referred to as the capital (though it is technically just the administrative centre). It is known for its incredibly high elevation, sitting at about 3640 metres. Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the largest city in the country, and one of the world’s fastest growing. The country’s second largest city, El Alto, is part of the largest metropolitan area alongside La Paz. Finally, Sucre serves as the constitutional capital.

la paz bolivia mountains altitude alpine

High in the mountains you can find the city of La Paz

Facts About Bolivia

  • Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3810 metres
  • The country has a standing navy, in case it re-conquers the Pacific coastline from Chile
  • The name of the country comes from the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar, who led 5 different countries to independence from Spain
  • The Tinku festival involves people fighting for multiple days
  • The Camino de las Yungas is considered the world’s most dangerous road. Don’t believe us? Check THIS out!
  • Lake Poopo is the country’s second largest lake
  • The world’s largest butterfly sanctuary is in Bolivia
  • Guinea pig is a local delicacy
  • La Paz was initially powered by llama dung
  • Bolivia is the largest exporter of Brazil nuts
  • The clock in La Paz’s main square moves backwards
  • The average height of females is 4 feet 10 inches
  • A dried llama fetus is considered good luck
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A common view in Bolivia

Last Word

Stay tuned this week as we explore the country’s amazing sights and sounds in our Travel Guide and later delve a bit deeper into the currency and economy in the Currency Spotlight!

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

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