Culture

Bolivia Is The Most Fascinating Country I’ve Ever Visited. Here’s Why

Before visiting Bolivia, I knew very little about the country. If I’m honest, the only reason I went was because it was part of the South American tour I booked, and I had heard the salt flats were cool.

After ten days there, however, not only was I convinced that there was way more to this place than its salt flats, but I was certain it was the most fascinating country I’d ever been to.

Here are five reasons Bolivia is the most interesting destination you’ll visit:

#1 Their main prison was once a major tourism site

 

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Looking on from the outside, San Pedro prison in La Paz seems pretty ordinary. All I saw while standing in the centre of the city (talk about real estate) were neutral walls lined with barred arch windows. But inside, this is like no other jail.

Over those walls lie busy cafés, children playing soccer and inmates – often quite dangerous ones – strolling around casually.

I learnt about San Pedro during a walking tour of the city. My guide informed us that the facility was built to house a few hundred prisoners, but that these days, it’s home to some 2,000 people… not all of whom are criminals.

You see, at this jail, felons move in with their wives and children and rent or buy their cells from other inmates. If you’re incarcerated at San Pedro you’re charged with covering the cost of living yourself, so prisoners work as cooks, cleaners and drug dealers to pay for that.

Weirder still, there was a period in the ’90s where inmates were running tours through the grounds.

Intrigued travellers would pay to walk through the prison, eat at the cafés and hang out with the prisoners… there was even an option for an overnight stay. As I’m sure you can imagine, some shady happenings led to the end of this period.

#2 You can buy potions from witch doctors

 

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I discovered witch doctors, or shamans, while exploring the Mercado de las Brujas (the witches’ market) in La Paz. This strip of kooky street vendors is where superstitious Bolivians go to buy love potions, magic powders, dried llama foetuses and candy.

Thrown by the llamas and candy? I was too.

As it turns out, these items are used for offerings. My guide explained that shamans give gifts of booze, candy and llama foetuses to Pachamama (Mother Earth) when locals want something blessed.

My education turned creepy, however, when I was told about the rumours of what used to go down when a large offering was needed.

According to the stories, when locals needed something like a building blessed, shamans would find homeless people, get them drunk to the point of passing out and bury them alive on the construction site. This was to ensure the size of the offering matched the blessing being given.

Whether this is just a way to spook people out of getting plastered in public or not, I couldn’t tell you. But I certainly didn’t wander around the market alone after a couple of pisco sours, that’s for sure.

#3 There is more to Bolivia than its salt flats

A green lake near Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Image: Stephanie Nuzzo

While the salt flats at Salar de Uyuni, are as incredible as every backpacker you know has told you they are, they’re only one example of Bolivia’s gobsmacking scenery.

I spent three days in a 4×4 driving from Salar de Uyuni towards Chile and in this time, visited an island covered in cacti, a hot spring surrounded by mud pools, and two brightly-coloured lakes (green and red).

My camera definitely got a workout.

#4 Local women will knock you out if you touch their hats

 

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Listen, I would never do anything like touch a local person or their clothing without their express permission, even accidentally. But one thing I’ll never forget hearing my guide telling me was: “If you knock a cholita’s hat off, run. Even if it was an accident.”

“Cholita” is an affectionate nickname for the indigenous women of Bolivia. They’re easy to spot because they wear bowler hats and bright skirts with full petticoats. Of course I’d never dream of doing something like knocking their hats off even without that warning, but it turns out the hats are an important part of the local culture.

These hats are a point of pride for cholitas. They’re used to show a woman’s relationship status – wearing it in the middle of the head means you’re married and wearing it to one side means you’re single – and knocking it off is a sign of disrespect that may land you a punch in the nose.

As always, the best travellers are those who respect local people and their customs – they’re the ones who enjoy their travels the most, too.

#5 It’s home to one of the world’s most dangerous roads

 

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One of the places I heard mentioned most was North Yungas or Death Road.

The two-way road starts at 4700m high and is known for being incredibly narrow and steep. Death Road has very few rails protecting travellers from a fatal fall and back in 2006, the BBC reported that 200 to 300 people were killed on it every year.

While I would sooner face an angry cholita than attempt this route, mountain-biking tours are popular with adrenaline-junkies and many groups try their luck with it every year.

If you’re considering Bolivia as a travel option, know that it’s way more than one site that’s great for the ‘gram. It’s a beautiful country with a fascinating/creepy history that’s seriously unlike anywhere else.

(Lead image: Cycling North Yungas on a tour with Bolivia HopBolivia Hop / Facebook)