Life in Bolivia
Bolivia is a remarkably stratified society. While the hierarchies defined by 500 years of rule by Spanish descendants are slowly starting to fade thanks to the Evo-inspired revolución indígena (indigenous revolution), your place in society and the opportunities you will have throughout life are still largely defined by the color of your skin, the language you speak, the clothes you wear and the money you have.
The National Psyche
Attitude depends on climate and altitude. Cambas (lowlanders) and kollas (highlanders) enjoy expounding on what makes them different (ie better) than the other. Lowlanders are said to be warmer, more casual and more generous to strangers; highlanders are supposedly harder-working but less open-minded. While the jesting is usually good-natured, Bolivians are acutely aware of the economic disparity between the two regions and tensions are occasionally brought to a head, when Santa Cruz threatens secession from the republic due to disagreements with the political script.
Thanks in part to Evo Morales, many Bolivians have been redefining and even questioning what it means to be Bolivian. From the beginning, Evo vigorously stressed that Bolivian identity was based on an individual’s ethnic origins. Morales has been quick to espouse the status of indigenous groups, but his opponents accuse him of political manoeuvring and of further polarizing the country according to race, class and economic status. He has been seen as favoring indigenous groups over others, including mestizos who, as descendants of the Spanish colonists and indigenous people, are also proud of their Bolivian status. Others see him as simply redressing the balance after centuries of oppression and underinvestment in the highland communities. But while the political power is shifting toward the indigenous majority, the money stays in the hands of the elite.
Bolivians tend to be suspicious of politicians, and a sense of fatalism and mistrust in government simmers below the surface in a country accustomed to centuries of corruption and misrule. However Evo continues to win new supporters as his economic policies (which were much criticized by his opponents) have taken the country forward into a boom that it has never before experienced. The question is whether or not Bolivia can sustain its extraordinary growth and whether Evo’s popularity will survive an economic downturn.
Protests are part of everyday life in Bolivia, with people taking to the streets to mark their objections over everything from political decisions and labor disputes to economic demands and regional rivalries. These protests may take the form of manifestaciones (demonstrations) or marches through the street, or bloqueos (road blocks), preventing access to and from major cities. They are often highly organized affairs, with drums, flags and banners, and can last for weeks at a time.
Day-to-day life varies from Bolivian to Bolivian, mostly depending on whether they live in the city or the country, the freezing highlands or the sweaty lowlands, and whether they are rich or poor. Many campesinos (subsistence farmers) live without running water, heat or electricity, and some wear clothing that has hardly changed in style since the Spanish arrived. But in the cities, especially Santa Cruz (the country’s richest city), La Paz, Cochabamba and Sucre, thousands enjoy the comforts of contemporary conveniences and live very modern lifestyles.
Life in this fiercely self-reliant nation begins with the family. No matter what tribe or class you come from, it’s likely that you have close ties to your extended family. In the highlands, the concept of ayllu (the traditional peasant system of communal land ownership, management and decision making) that dates back to the Inca times is still important today.
For many in Bolivia’s lower class, the day is about making enough money to eat, attending church, doing chores, ensuring the children study, plus a bit of laughter and forgetting (often involving strong alcohol). For the richer city class, there are distractions that come from economic surplus such as theater, cuisine, the arts and the ever-important country club. In these circles, your last name still defines where you can get to. Young people are increasingly flaunting these rules, but it is still relatively rare to see intermarriage between people from disparate ethnic groups or economic classes.
Homosexuality is legal in Bolivia but isn’t often openly displayed in this society where machismo is common. Despite a growing number of gay bars in some larger cities, gay culture remains fairly subtle.
Roughly 77% of Bolivia’s population professes Roman Catholicism and practices it to varying degrees. The remaining 23% are Protestant or agnostic or belonging to other religions. Strong evangelical movements are rapidly gaining followers with their fire-and-brimstone messages of the world’s imminent end, and in some areas are also putting paid to centuries of traditional cultural practices. Despite the political and economic strength of Christianity, it’s clear that most religious activities have incorporated some Inca and Aymará belief systems. Doctrines, rites and superstitions are commonplace, and some campesinos still live by a traditional lunar calendar.
Like many of its Latin American neighbors, Bolivia’s national sport is fútbol (soccer). La Paz's Bolívar and the Strongest usually participate (albeit weakly) in the Copa Libertadores, the annual showdown of Latin America’s top clubs. Professional fútbol matches are held every weekend in big cities, and impromptu street games are always happening.
Bolivia has historically performed poorly at international sporting events, unless they are staged in the country and altitude can be used to their advantage. As a result the government has been investing considerable sums of money in a sports development program designed to provide even the most remote settlements with sports facilities, to develop the country's next generation of champions. A well-tended cancha (sports field) is now a feature of almost every village – and you’ll be welcome to join in. Traditional communities still bar women from the field, but women’s teams have started popping up in the altiplano, where they play clad in polleras (skirts) and jerseys.
In rural communities, volleyball is a sunset affair, with mostly adults playing a couple of times a week. Racquetball, billiards, chess and cacho (dice) are also popular. The unofficial national sport, however, has to be feasting and feting – the competition between dancers and drinkers knows no bounds.
The Wiphala flag (square-shaped and consisting of 49 small squares in a grid with graduating colors of the rainbow) has been adopted as a representation of Bolivia's indigenous peoples.
Llama fetuses are used for sacrificial offerings, but llamas are not killed especially for them. About 3000 llamas are slaughtered daily on the altiplano for wool and meat; the fetuses are removed from those animals.
In October 2014 Evo Morales donned a football shirt and played against a Real Madrid 'legends' team containing ex-stars like Emilio Butragueño, Fernando Hierro and Manuel Sanchis. It was to promote the sports-development program Un gol para el desarrollo (a goal for development), which aims to improve grassroots sport education.
Bolivia is a multiethnic society with a remarkable diversity of linguistic, cultural and artistic traditions. In fact, the country has the largest population of indigenous peoples in South America, with most sociologists and anthropologists saying that over 60% of the population is of indigenous descent. Within these diverse indigenous communities a strong sense of cultural identity remains, evident in the use of traditional clothing and textiles, food and drink, festivals, spiritual beliefs, music and dance.
Bolivia has 36 identified indigenous groups. The vast majority of those who identify as indigenous are Aymará (about 25%) and Quechua (about 30%), many of whom are located in the highlands. The remaining groups (including Guaraní and Chiquitano) are located almost entirely in the lowlands.
Mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and Spanish blood) make up a majority of the population.
Political & Social Change
Bolivia’s indigenous groups historically lacked a significant political voice and made up the majority of the nation’s poor. That changed with the election of Evo Morales in 2005, who implemented a new constitution reestablishing the rights of indigenous groups within a plurinational and secular state. For the first time there were numerous high-level indigenous ministers and technocrats, many of whom came from humble beginnings. This awareness is creating a growing sense of pride within indigenous communities, where centuries-old traditions of terrace farming, respect for the land and communal decision-making still play a strong role in everyday life, along with satellite TVs, cell phones, rural schools, Westernized dress and changing artistic, musical and political attitudes.
For centuries, women of indigenous descent who lived in cities were known as cholas. Today, many consider this term to be derogatory, and some now go with the politically correct mestiza moniker. The only problem is that mestizo/a also describes people of mixed Spanish/indigenous descent. Indígenas is a commonly accepted term for indigenous peoples.
Visitors to indigenous communities, especially in the altiplano where communities are especially wary of outsiders, may be turned off by the aloofness and insular nature of these people. But Bolivia has lived under a highly structured, hierarchical societal framework since the rise of Tiwanaku and a visitor is but a distraction from the daily chores of survival. Many indigenous communities are slowly embracing tourism and a stay in places such as Curahuara de Carangas can provide a unique glimpse into these communities.
Understanding Bolivia’s Indigenous Groups
Bolivia’s myriad ethnic groups have remarkable linguistic, artistic and spiritual traditions.
Aymará The Aymará culture emerged on the southern shores of Titicaca after the fall of Tiwanaku. These strong, warlike people lived in city-states and dominated the areas around the lake. Today, Aymará live in the areas surrounding the lake and in the Yungas, with La Paz’s El Alto area being the capital of Aymará culture. They speak – you guessed it – Aymará.
Quechua Descended from the Inca, there are some nine to 14 million Quechua speakers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Argentina today. These people lived across the former Inca empire. With the decline of mining in the 1980s, many Quechua speakers moved to the Chapare to harvest coca.
Chipaya Perhaps the direct descendants of Tiwanaku, the Chipaya practiced a unique and fascinating religion of ritual sacrifices and an annual digging up of the deceased to maintain a link between the living and the dead. Christian evangelization has unfortunately all but ended these traditional beliefs, resulting in the near total loss of this ancient culture.
Kallawaya A remote tribe from the mountains north of La Paz. Pre-Inca in origin, their ancient language is now dying. They are famed as a tribe of traveling healers, wandering the Andes along the ancient foot trails, collecting medicinal herbs along the way, and are welcomed by locals who present them with their sick in the hope of a cure. They have a quite remarkable history of medical innovation and specialist healers are capable of harnessing the curative effects of up to 600 different regional plant species.
Chiquitano Living primarily in the Chiquitania tropical savanna outside Santa Cruz, but also in Beni and into Brazil, there are about 180,000 Chiquitanos in Bolivia of whom about a quarter speak Chiquitano. Before the arrival of the Jesuits in the region there were numerous disparate ethnic groups. During the evangelization they were forced to live in small townships where a common language and dress were adopted.
Guaraní This group of hunter-gatherer tribes share a common language root with the Guaraní of Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay and the Tupi of Brazil. You can connect with their fascinating culture at the Museo Guaraní in Santa Cruz.
Mojeño From the Beni department, this significant ethnic group was quite large before the 17th century, with over 350,000 people. Many were killed by European diseases, but the language and culture survives today. Many early European explorers believed El Dorado would be found in Mojeño territory.
The religious beliefs and practices of Bolivia’s indigenous groups are as rich and diverse as the different cultures they represent, but the central Andean religions of the Aymará and Quechua, which are thriving, are the ones that you are most likely to encounter during your visit.
Based on animism, the Bolivian Andean indigenous religions believe in natural gods and spirits that date back to Inca times and earlier. Pachamama (Mother Earth) is the most popular recipient of sacrificial offerings, since she shares herself with human beings, helps bring forth crops and distributes riches to those she favors. She has quite an appetite for coca, alcohol and the blood of animals, particularly white llamas. If you’re wondering about all the llama fetuses in the markets, they are wrapped up and buried under new constructions, especially homes, as an offering to Pachamama.
Among the Aymará and Quechua mountain gods, the apus and achachilas are important. The apus, mountain spirits who provide protection for travelers, are often associated with a particular nevado (snowcapped peak). Illimani, for example, is an apu who looks over inhabitants of La Paz. Achachilas are spirits of the high mountains; believed to be ancestors of the people, they look after their ayllu (loosely translated as ‘tribe’) and provide bounty from the earth.
Ekeko, which means ‘dwarf’ in Aymará, is the jolly little household god of abundance. Since he’s responsible for matchmaking, finding homes for the homeless and ensuring success for businesspeople, he’s well looked after, especially during the Alasitas Festival in La Paz.
One of the most bizarre and fascinating Aymará rituals is the Fiesta de las Ñatitas (Festival of Skulls), which is celebrated one week after Day of the Dead. Ñatitas (skulls) are presented at the cemetery chapel in La Paz to be blessed by a Catholic priest. Parish priests shy away from associating this rite with mass, but have begrudgingly recognized the custom. The skulls are adorned with offerings of flowers, candles and coca leaves, and many even sport sunglasses and a lit cigarette between their teeth. While some people own the skulls of deceased loved ones and friends (who they believe are watching over them), many anonymous craniums are believed to have been purchased from morgues and (so it is claimed) medical faculties. After the blessings, the decorated ñatitas are carted back to the owners’ houses to bring good luck and protection. This ancient Aymará ritual was once practiced in secret but, nowadays, the chapel’s head count is growing every year.
Shamans oversee religious festivals, read fortunes and provide homemade traditional cures throughout Bolivia. Your closest experiences with shamans will be near Copacabana during religious festivals, or in remote regions in the Amazon jungle where packaged-for-tourists ayahuasca healers ply their craft – be aware that ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogenic and there have been tourist deaths related to its effects.
Stone talismans are also used in daily life to encourage prosperity or to protect a person from evil. A turtle is thought to bring health, a frog or toad carries good fortune, an owl signifies wisdom and success in school and a condor will ensure a good journey. You can buy these in La Paz’s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches’ Market) and throughout the country.
Bolivian textiles come in diverse patterns displaying a degree of skill resulting from millennia of artistry and tradition. The most common piece is a manta or aguayo, a square shawl made of two handwoven strips joined edge to edge. Also common are the chuspa (coca pouch), chullo (knitted hat), falda (skirt), woven belts and touristy items such as camera bags made from remnants.
Regional differences are manifested in weaving style, motif and use. Weavings from Tarabuco often feature intricate zoomorphic patterns, while distinctive red-and-black designs come from Potolo, northwest of Sucre. Zoomorphic patterns are also prominent in the wild Charazani country north of Lake Titicaca and in several altiplano areas outside La Paz, including Lique and Calamarca.
Some extremely fine weavings originate in Sica Sica, one of the many dusty and nondescript villages between La Paz and Oruro, while in Calcha, southeast of Potosí, expert spinning and an extremely tight weave – more than 150 threads per inch – produce Bolivia’s finest textiles.
Vicuña fibers, the finest and most expensive in the world, are produced in Apolobamba and in Parque Nacional Sajama.
The characteristic dress worn by many Bolivian indigenous women was imposed on them in the 18th century by the Spanish king and the customary center parting of the hair was the result of a decree by the Viceroy of Toledo.
This distinctive ensemble, both colorful and utilitarian, has almost become Bolivia’s defining image. The most noticeable characteristic of the traditional Aymará dress is the ubiquitous dark green, black or brown bowler hat. Remarkably these are not attached with hat pins but merely balanced on the head.
The women normally braid their hair into two long plaits that are joined by a tuft of black wool known as a pocacha. The pollera skirts they wear are constructed of several horizontal pleats, worn over multiple layers of petticoats. Traditionally, only a married woman’s skirt was pleated, while a single female’s was not. Today, most of the synthetic materials for these brightly colored polleras are imported from South Korea.
The women also wear a factory-made blouse, a woolen chompa (sweater/jumper), a short vestlike jacket and a cotton apron, or some combination of these. Usually, they add a shawl, known as a manta. Fashion dictates subtleties, such as the length of both the skirt and the tassels on the shawl.
Some sling an aguayo (also spelled ahuayo), a rectangle of manufactured or handwoven cloth decorated with colorful horizontal bands, across their backs. It’s used as a carryall and is filled with everything from coca or groceries to babies.
The Quechua of the highland valleys wear equally colorful, but not so universally recognized, attire. The hat, called a montera, is a flat-topped affair made of straw or finely woven white wool. It’s often taller and broader than the bowlers worn by the Aymará. The felt monteras (aka morriones) of Tarabuco, patterned after Spanish conquistadores’ helmets, are the most striking. Women’s skirts are usually made of velour and are shorter in length.
Music & Dance
While all Andean musical traditions have evolved from a series of pre-Inca, Inca, Spanish, Amazonian and even African influences, each region of Bolivia has developed distinctive musical traditions, dances and instruments.
The instrument Bolivia is most known for, and understandably proud of, is the charango, considered the king of all stringed instruments. Modeled after the Spanish vihuela and mandolin, it gained initial popularity in Potosí during the city’s mining heyday. Another instrument commonplace in the gringo markets is the quena, a small flute made of cane, bone or ceramic. The instrument pre-dates Europeans by many centuries and the earliest examples, made of stone, were found near Potosí. A curious instrument known as a jaguar-caller comes from the Amazon region. This hollowed-out calabash, with a small hole into which the player inserts his hand, seems to do the trick in calling the big cats to the hunt.
Traditional altiplano dances celebrate war, fertility, hunting prowess, marriage and work. With Spanish arrival came also European and African dance traditions, resulting in the hybrid dances that now characterize many Bolivian celebrations.
Oruro’s Carnaval draws huge local and international crowds. Potosí is famed for its re-creations of the region’s tinku fight tradition, while La Paz is renowned for La Morenada, which reenacts the dance of African slaves brought to the courts of Viceroy Felipe III.
The Aymará and Quechua spiritual worlds embrace three levels: Alajpacha (the world above or eternal sky, representing light and life); Akapacha (located between the sky and hell, and between life and death); and Mankapacha (located below, symbolizing death and obscurity).
Sidebar: Further Study
- La Misk’isimi (Sweet Mouth in Quechua) Story by Adolfo Costa du Rels
- Roberto Mamani Mamani Contemporary Aymará artist
- Sayariy (1995) Film with all-indigenous cast directed by Mela Márquez
The Guaraní language is wonderfully descriptive and onomatopoeic and has been adopted for numerous regional animal names, many of which you may already be familiar with. Jaguar for example is derived from yagua (dog or more accurately 'predator'). The Guaraní call the Jaguar yaguareté (very roughly 'the true predator').
In glorious celebration of the revolución indígena (indigenous revolution) – and in homage to the president himself – a gigantic state-of-the-art museum has been constructed in Evo Morales' home town of Orinoca, south of Oruro.
The Kallawaya are strongly associated with healing and have an extraordinarily ancient history of medical practice. They were treating malaria with quinine and even performing brain surgery by AD 700, long before Western doctors dared to give it a go!
The Natural World
When people think of Bolivia they generally conjure up images of somewhere high (La Paz), dry (altiplano) or salty (Uyuni salt plains). While this may be true for large areas of the country, there’s so much more to the Bolivian landscape. The range of altitude – 130m in the jungles of the Amazon Basin to 6542m on the peaks of the rugged Andes – has resulted in a huge variety of ecological and geological niches supporting a bewildering variety of nature.
Environmentally, Bolivia is one of the most diverse countries on the continent. The country has 1415 bird species and 5000 described plant species, some of the highest numbers in the world. It’s also among the neotropical countries with the highest level of endemism (species which exist only in Bolivia), with 21 birds, 28 reptiles, 72 amphibians and 25 mammals found nowhere else on earth.
But while it may seem obvious that Bolivia’s natural resources are one of its greatest assets, not everybody values assets that don’t have a direct monetary value. From the lush tropical forests of Amboró National Park to the wetlands of the Pantanal, the scrub that obscures the Chaco gas fields and the Polylepis woodlands of the Andes, the Bolivian environment is under constant threat from destruction by economic exploitation.
As the Bolivian economy keeps on growing, and the expectations of the newly empowered populace continue to rise, the country is struggling to balance the tireless demand for progress with the need to implement a sustainable and responsible exploitation of its natural resources. With the uncertain effects of climate change thrown into the mix, the Bolivian environment is facing its biggest challenges in millennia and its populace, albeit unwittingly, is dependent on a positive outcome.
Two Andean mountain chains define the west of the country, with many peaks above 6000m. The western Cordillera Occidental stands between Bolivia and the Pacific coast. The eastern Cordillera Real runs southeast, then turns south across central Bolivia, joining the other chain to form the southern Cordillera Central.
The haunting altiplano (altitude 3500m to 4000m) is boxed in by these two great cordilleras. It’s an immense, nearly treeless plain punctuated by mountains and solitary volcanic peaks. At the altiplano’s northern end, straddling the Peruvian border, Lake Titicaca is one of the world’s highest navigable lakes. In the far southwestern corner, the land is drier and less populated. The salty remnants of two vast ancient lakes, the Salar de Uyuni and the Salar de Coipasa, are there as well.
East of the Cordillera Central are the Central Highlands, a region of scrubby hills, valleys and fertile basins with a Mediterranean-like climate. North of the Cordillera Real, the rainy Yungas form a transition zone between arid highlands and humid lowlands.
More than half Bolivia’s total area is in the Amazon Basin, with sweaty tropical rainforest in the western section, and flat cerrado savannas and extensions of the Pantanal wetland in the east. In the country’s southeastern corner is the nearly impenetrable scrubland of the Gran Chaco, an arid, thorny forest that experiences the highest temperatures in the country.
Bolivia is one of the best places on the continent to observe wildlife and even seasoned wildlife watchers will be impressed by the diversity on show.
The distribution of wildlife is dictated by the country’s geography and varies considerably from region to region. The altiplano is home to vicuñas, flamingos and condors; the Chaco to secretive jaguars, pumas and peccaries; the Pantanal provides refuge for giant otters, marsh deer and waterbirds; and the Amazon Basin contains the richest density of species on earth, featuring an incredible variety of reptiles, parrots, monkeys, hummingbirds, butterflies, fish and bugs (by the zillion!).
Of course the animals that steal the show are the regional giants: the majestic jaguar, the continent's top predator; the elephant-nosed tapir (anta) and the lolloping giant anteater. The ostrichlike rhea or piyo, the continent's biggest bird, is here too and it can be surprisingly common in some areas. You may even be lucky enough to spot the breathtaking Andean condor – revered by the Inca – soaring on mountain thermals.
River travelers are almost certain to see capybaras (like giant aquatic guinea pigs), caiman (alligators) and river dolphins. It’s not unusual to see anacondas in the rivers of the department of Beni (an endemic species hangs out here, the Beni anaconda) and a spot of piranha fishing is virtually an obligation for anybody spending time in the Amazon.
Overland travelers frequently see armadillos, foxes, jochis (agoutis) and the domesticated camelids of the altiplano, the bad-tempered llama and the fuzzy alpaca. Similar, but more delicately proportioned, is the smaller vicuña, once mercilessly hunted for its woolly coat but now recovering well.
With massive government investment in the road network, getting around Bolivia is now easier than ever, and the country is experiencing a minor revolution as an exotic bird-watching destination, with more remote areas becoming newly accessible. This is thanks in no small measure to a series of gloriously charismatic endemics such as the blue-throated and red-fronted macaws, which have the star power to pull twitchers halfway across the globe for the chance to tick them.
Though anteaters and jaguars get all the headlines, these species are widespread throughout South America and the most threatened members of the Bolivian fauna are not necessarily the most conspicuous or famous. There are exceptions of course: the endangered Chaco peccary, an enormous piglike creature known only from fossil remains until 1976; the elusive spectacled bear; or the Golden Palace titi monkey, which hit the world headlines when a Canadian casino paid a fortune for the rights to name it.
Among the most threatened wildlife in the highlands are the little known deer, the North Andean huemul, the Andean hairy armadillo and the endemic short-tailed chinchilla, sought after for its luxurious fur. The windswept lakes of the Southern Altiplano are the exclusive habitat of the rare James flamingo, while the charming Cochabamba mountain finch has a total range of just 3500 sq km, perilously close to the city of Cochabamba.
The Amazon Basin may be famous for its pink river dolphins, but rather less well known is the blue-throated macaw (barba azul) a species considered critically endangered and thought to number fewer than 300 individuals. The mythical unicorn bird of the Yungas, more properly known as the horned curassow, is critically endangered and can only be found in Bolivia. This is also the haunt of the wondrously colored Palkachupa Cotinga, gilded with gold and black.
In the Pantanal region the golden spear-nosed bat lives only in a handful of caves, while the hyacinth macaw has suffered for its comical appearance through capture for the pet trade. Another eye-catching parrot, the green, red and yellow red-fronted macaw of the dry inter-Andean valleys around Vallegrande, is also on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 4000 remaining.
Some of Bolivia’s most remarkable threatened species aren't so pretty. Consider the bizarre marsupial frogs of the genus Gastrotheca, which includes five species in Bolivia that are all threatened with extinction, and the Jabba the Hutt–like Titicaca giant frog, confined to Bolivia’s most famous lake. The latter can weigh up to 400g and is under extreme pressure because of a local belief that drinking the juice from the liquidized amphibian has aphrodisiac properties. More information is online at www.bolivianamphibianinitiative.org.
Because of its enormous range of altitudes, Bolivia enjoys a wealth and diversity of flora rivaled only by its Andean neighbors. No fewer than 895 plants are considered endemic to the country, including 16 species of passion-fruit vines and at least three genera of orchids.
In the overgrazed highlands, the only remaining vegetable species are those with some defense against grazing livestock or those that are unsuitable for firewood. Much of what does grow in the highlands grows slowly and is endangered, including the globally threatened genus of Polylepis shrubs which form dense, low forests at altitudes of up to 5300m, making them the highest growing arborescent plants in the world.
The lower elevations of the temperate highland hills and valleys support vegetation superficially reminiscent of that of Spain or California. The area around Samaipata is particularly rich in endemic plants, including the cactus Samaipaticereus and the bromeliad Tillandsia samaipatensis, while the gigantic Bolivian mountain coconut Parajubaea torallyi of the inter-Andean valleys is the world’s highest growing palm.
The moist upper slopes of the Yungas are characterized by dwarf forest. Further down the slopes stretches the cloud forest, where the trees grow larger and the vegetation thicker. Northern Bolivia’s lowlands consist of islands of true rainforest dotted with vast wetlands and endangered cerrado savannas, while the Amazon Basin contains the richest botanical diversity on earth.
National Parks & Reserves
Bolivia has protected 18% of its total land by declaring 22 national protected areas and additional regional reserves under what is known as the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (SNAP). The system is one of the most extensive on the continent, but despite covering much of Bolivia’s most amazing landscapes, the reality is that most reserves are only nominally protected. Pressure continues to build on the protected areas system as the remote frontiers of the country are opened up to development, and the age-old technique of protection through inaccessibility is becoming less effective.
Management of the system of protected areas is by the government-run administrative body Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas. To try to address the chronic financial and staffing issues that this body faces, local and international NGOs have worked with Sernap to create innovative ways to preserve select habitats, with varying degrees of success.
Such projects have typically aimed to encourage local involvement and comanagement of protected areas in an effort to attract tourists to community-based, ecotourism experiences, as well as to produce commercially viable natural products, including medicinal patents.
Environmental issues are becoming an increasingly pressing issue in Bolivia. Environmentalists are concerned that accelerating economic growth is not being tempered by the necessary measures to maintain a sound ecological balance. Besides extensive land clearing for agricultural monocultures (particularly soybean), ranching and hydrocarbon exploration, there are also concerns about the future of freshwater supplies, with glaciers melting and the rivers increasingly polluted, especially in areas where mining is the major industry.
Many local nonprofit groups are working on countrywide environmental conservation efforts.
El Chaqueo: the Big Smoke
Each dry season, from July through September, Bolivia’s skies fill with a thick pall of smoke, obscuring the air, occasionally canceling flights, aggravating allergies and causing respiratory strife. This is all the result of el chaqueo, the slashing and burning of the savannas (and some forest) for agricultural and grazing land. A prevailing notion is that the rising smoke forms rain clouds and ensures good rains for the coming season. In reality the hydrological cycle, which depends on transpiration from the forest canopy, is interrupted by the deforestation resulting in diminished rainfall.
Ranchers in the Beni department have long set fire to the savannas annually to encourage the sprouting of new grass. These days, however, the most dramatic defoliation is occurring along the highways in the country’s east, the new agricultural frontier. Here the forest is being consumed by expanding cattle ranches and pristine natural habitat is being replaced by seemingly endless monocultures. Although the burned vegetable matter initially provides rich nutrients for crops, those nutrients aren’t replenished. After two or three years the land is exhausted and it takes 15 years to become productive again. That’s too long for most farmers to wait; most just pull up stakes and burn larger areas.
As the rural population increases, so do the effects of el chaqueo. Despite the fact that this burning is prohibited by Bolivian forestry statutes, the law has proved impossible to enforce in the vast Bolivian lowlands. The long-term implications aren’t yet known but international pressure to reduce the negative effects of the burning has seen the Bolivian government implement a program encouraging lowland farmers to minimize el chaqueo in favor of alternatives that don’t drain the soil of nutrients.
Lago Poopó was Bolivia's second-largest lake, but in 2015 it dried out completely, leaving swaths of dead fish on the cracked ground once covered by water.
More than 40% of the Bolivian territory is affected by desertification caused by climate change, population increase and indiscriminate forest felling.
The Andean condor, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, has a 3m wingspan and can effortlessly drag a 20kg carcass.
The national flower of Bolivia is the kantuta; not only is it aesthetically beautiful, but it also reflects the color of the country’s national flag.
At 1,083,300 sq km, landlocked Bolivia is South America’s fifth-largest country, 3½ times the size of the British Isles.
In 2017, Evo Morales signed a law reversing the 'untouchable' status of TIPNIS, allowing the construction of a much disputed highway through the center of the park.
Music in Bolivia
Music in Bolivia has long been an important expression of identity for its peoples, and in many ways the depths and complexities of this country might be best understood through its music. From traditional Andean folk music to the country’s emerging young artists taking on social themes in their work, Bolivia is reflected in its song. Ever present (especially on the radio) is cumbia, with its melodramatic tales of everyday life.
Traditional Bolivian Music
Traditional music in Bolivia varies widely, and is often closely linked with dances, festivals, costumes and beliefs.
Saya originated with the African-Bolivian population of the Yungas. The genre has its roots in the drum rhythms brought by enslaved Africans from their homelands, and is sometimes accompanied by the Andean flute. The song takes the form of call and response between soloists and a chorus of musicians, accompanied by dancing. Traditionally, the song lyrics were a way of storytelling and transmitting oral history, and saya is viewed by African-Bolivian groups as an important expression of cultural heritage.
Tinku & Jula Jula
An Aymará cultural tradition from northern Potosí, tinkus (ritualized fights that are best understood as a way of releasing tensions between rival groups) are preceded by a war rhythm performed with charangos (a traditional string instrument made from an armadillo shell) and accompanied by female chanting. Linked to the tinku ritual is the playing of jula julas: among the most recognizable sounds of the Bolivian Andes, these melodies are played on pairs of three- and four-tube bamboo pipes. Tinku fights take place on May 3.
If you spend any time on the road in a bus or taxi in Bolivia, you’re likely to hear cumbia. The genre is a form of folk music that originated in Colombia, with African (the rhythms and drums), indigenous (the caña de millo wooden flute and whistles) and Spanish (the verses) influences. Since the 1960s cumbia has become popular throughout South and Central America, especially in Bolivia, Agrentina, Ecuador and Peru, with cumbia musicians and songwriters in each country creating their own regional variations of the genre.
In Bolivia, cumbia is particuarly influenced by cumbia chicha from Peru, with sentimental lyrics that narrate the emotional dramas of everyday life; themes usually concern falling in and out of love, but there are other more humdrum topics, such as an ode to beer. The 1980s were marked by the emergence of a new strand of cumbia in Bolivia: techno cumbia. Names to look out for are Wally Zeballos, Miguel Orías, Jorge Eduardo y los 4:40, David Castro, Los Brothers, Los Ronisch and FM y Silvana.
Techno cumbia is still popular today, but there are other contemporary forms emerging that combine cumbia with various musical genres. Andrek Ortiz is a musician from La Paz and the man behind Villa Victoria Sound System, a project that mixes cumbia and electronica. Originally from Cochabamba, Pablo Pachacutik is a music producer whose work combines Andean folk music, cumbia and reggae. Sweden-based Bolivian DJ Jallallalacumbia produces mash-ups of cumbia and hip-hop, while Las Florecitas de Mizque is a group of three female singers whose sound is a purer form of Andean cumbia.
Perhaps Bolivia’s most well-known band is Los Kjarkas, a legendary Andean folk ensemble who have toured internationally. The band was formed by guitarist and songwriter Gonzalo Hermosa González and his two brothers in 1965, and has been releasing records ever since, with a rotating cast of band members. They have also founded folk-music schools in Ecuador and Peru.
Founded in La Paz in 1984, K’ala Marka is considered one of Bolivia’s most important folk bands. Their music uses a wide range of traditional Bolivian rhythms.
Wara is a folk-rock band from the shores of Lake Titicaca, whose first album El Inca was released in 1973; the band uses a mix of traditional instruments such as charangos and zapoñas (pan pipes) as well as guitars, bass, drums and synthesizers. Their lyrics capture the Bolivian landscape.
Rock & Metal
Rock band Lou Kass was popular in the 1990s; founding members Llegas and Krauss now have solo careers. Hailing from La Paz, iconic rock-band Atajo has had hits with songs portraying the struggles of everyday life in their native city. Almost 20 years after their first album was released, in 2017 they announced they were to split. Look out for solo projects by band member Pinchi Maldonado. Also from La Paz is metal-band Alcoholika. Their 1990s hits have heavily influenced some of Bolivia's emerging young musicians.
Bolivian Music Today
Today Bolivia’s music scene is diverse, with plenty of exciting new artists emerging in a wide range of genres. There aren’t many female hip-hop artists in South America, but Imilla MC is one worth looking up for her soulful melodies and message of female empowerment and social change in Bolivia; check out her song 'Criaturas'. Octavia is a pop-rock band from La Paz, whose catchy hit about their native city, 'La ciudad que habita en mi' (The City that Lives in Me), will stay in your head for days. Querembas (the Guaraní word for warriors) is a metal band from Santa Cruz, with a unique sound that combines industrial metal, symphonic metal and new metal. Reggae artist Matamba’s lyrics have a strong social message; his song 'Alerta roja' gives a flavor of his work. Look out too for Avionica, a band from Cochabamba headed by rocker José Mrochek.
Feature: Bolivia's Baroque Music
The Jesuit priests who arrived in the jungles of the Chiquitania region in the 17th century left an important legacy in the mission towns they established: the baroque music tradition. Music was viewed as a tool for evangelism by the Jesuits, who also valued education, and they taught local people to play, make their own instruments and compose scores. Baroque music continues to be played and performed by orchestras and choirs and is taught in music schools in the Bolivian lowlands. An international festival held every two years in the Chiquitanía region attracts more than 50 baroque ensembles from within Bolivia and beyond.
Sidebar: Alfredo Dominguez
Born in Tupiza in 1938, Alfredo Dominguez was a singer, composer, artist and master guitar player. From humble beginnings he went on to achieve considerable success, touring Europe and the US with his folklore band Los Jairas. Look for his statue in Tupiza’s Plaza de la Independencia.
Sidebar: Festivals & Events
- Carnaval, Oruro
- Fiesta de Moxos
- Fiesta de la Cruz
- Fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupiña
- Feria del Charango
Sidebar: Llorando Se Fue
Bolivian folk band Los Kjarkas's most famous song is 'Llorando se fue', released in 1981. The melody will no doubt be familiar, but you might be recognizing the 1989 megahit 'Lambada' by French-Brazilian band Kaoma. Los Kjarkas successfully sued the group for plagiarism in 1990.
A tarqueada is a melody played using a tarka, a thick, angular wooden flute. The accompanying dance is one of the highlights of Oruro’s Carnaval.