Bolivia: A Country of Extraordinary Culture and Geography
Among Latin American countries, Bolivia is quite unique. It’s the only landlocked nation in the continent and it’s also the country with the largest indigenous population in the region. Bolivia’s uniqueness permeates every aspect of its history and society, producing a fascinating culture like no other Spanish-speaking country in Latin America.
However, Bolivian extraordinary culture is just one half of the equation. Home to a geography of breathtaking beauty, filled with outstanding natural wonders and spectacular archaeological sites, Bolivia’s landscape impresses even the most experienced traveler.
In this in-depth piece about Bolivia, we’ll explore the intricacies of the country’s one-of-a-kind culture and some of its most amazing cultural expressions. Then, we’ll dig deep into a few of the most awe-inspiring natural marvels that Bolivia has to offer.
Culture of Bolivia
Bolivian culture is a reflection of its deeply stratified society, due to an ethnically diverse population. Bolivia’s total population stands at 11 million people, from which 68% are mestizos, 20% indigenous, 5% white, and 1% black. However, Bolivia’s society is a pyramid that draws class boundaries based mostly on race, and the whole country functions following this racial dynamics.
This diversity expresses itself through the nation’s official languages, which include Spanish and indigenous languages like Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, as well as 33 others. While it may seem like an oversimplification of a complex issue, arguably it’s the tension between different ethnic groups in Bolivia that are the source and the fuel for its multifaceted cultural expressions.
Indigenous Cultures of Bolivia
With 36 different indigenous ethnic groups identified in Bolivia, it’s hard to understate the importance that indigenous cultures have played in the construction of Bolivia’s national identity. Among the largest indigenous groups in the country, we’ll focus on learning more about three of them: Aymara, Quechua, and Chipaya.
The Aymara are mostly based in the Andean region surrounding Lake Titicaca, which is their ancient place of origin. This group makes up a quarter of the indigenous people of Bolivia. Their religion is based on animism, the belief that everything in nature has a soul, including Mother Earth, the famous Pachamama.
The Quechua people form the largest indigenous group in all of South America. Distributed between Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia, around 8 million people speak Quechua, the language of ancient Incas. The beliefs and traditions of the Quechua people are very similar to those of Aymaras, as their cultures have followed a process of syncretism for centuries.
The Uru-Chipaya is considered the oldest living culture in Latin America and one of the three oldest in the world. During 4,500 years they have survived the arrival of newer and stronger cultures such as the Aymara, Incas, and Spanish, and they’ve kept their millennial-old customs and traditions intact. In one of their most fascinating rituals the Uru-Chipaya dig up the bodies of deceased people in order to keep a link between the living and the dead.
Fiesta de las Ñatitas
Every November, different indigenous groups throughout Bolivia gather at the cemeteries to unearth human skulls and celebrate the Fiesta or Día de las Ñatitas. In a mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, Bolivians pray and give thanks to the spirits occupying these skulls.
Some people even keep the skulls at home all year round, as that provides them with a bigger source of protection and influence in life. Bolivians develop a bond with their ñatitas, but that depends on each one’s personality, that of the person and that of the ñatita.
Usually celebrated a week after the “All Saints and All Souls” days, the Fiesta de las Ñatitas has been compared to Mexico’s “Day of the Dead,” but apart from the skulls, it’s hard to see many similarities. The Ñatitas are not a way to connect with loved ones lost, as most skulls are not family members.
This is a celebration unique in itself. Its origins are attributed sometimes to the Aymara people, other times to the Uru-Chipaya who preceded them, but the reality is that it’s a window into the fascinating indigenous cultures of the Andean highlands.
Carnival of Oruro
Considered among the best carnivals in Latin America, the Carnival of Oruro has also been included in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. With over 28,000 dances and 10,000 musicians performing during its main procession, the Carnival of Oruro is Bolivia’s most popular tourist event attracting 400,000 people every year.
This carnival, like everything else in Bolivia, is a vivid example of the country’s cultural and religious syncretism. A festival dedicated to Andean gods, became a Christian tradition taking place on Candlemas. The main dance of the carnival, the famous Diablada, used to be an Uru worshiping ritual for their god Tiw.
Other important icons of the Carnival of Oruro are the Virgen de la Candelaria who the indigenous people identify as Pachamama, and El Tío, who is the most important character during the carnival. El Tío is known as the Uncle or God of the mountains where the miners work. The people would bring him food, drinks, and even coca, hoping he won’t get mad for taking the minerals out of the mountains.
This is a huge party where almost everybody is invited. Even the ancient Incas, Spanish Conquistadors, and the llama herders of pre-Hispanic times are represented in the Carnival of Oruro.
Las Cholitas Luchadoras
Las Cholitas Luchadoras, also known as “The Flying Cholitas,” is a group of Bolivia women who perform a wrestling spectacle inspired by Mexico’s lucha libre and the United States’ WWE.
The term cholita refers to indigenous or mixed-heritage races. Unfortunately for centuries, it was a slur used to keep the minorities looking down upon themselves, but in recent times it has since been adopted as a word of empowerment. A cholita represents the two largest minorities in Bolivia: indigenous people and women. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the Cholitas Luchadoras performing, as they are now proud, empowered, and independent women.
Even though Bolivian wrestling has existed since 1950, the Cholitas started (and became hugely popular) in the early 2000’s. Interestingly enough, it all started as a way for abused women to express their frustrations.
Nowadays, Cholitas fight every Sunday wearing Bolivian traditional dress (including the distinctive bowler hats) in front of hundreds of people, showing to the world a new and stronger image of Bolivian women.
Geography of Bolivia
Bolivia’s geography parallels its culture in its diversity, although, surprisingly, the country hasn’t a single beach. However, it boasts an extraordinary combination of landscapes that go from the highlands of the Andes to the Amazon Basin.
Amazingly, 17% of Bolivia’s land is protected by the creation of national parks and natural reserves. We are talking about a nation with over 1,400 bird species and nearly 300 mammals. One of its national parks boasts more than 4,000 flora species and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The spectacular geography of Bolivia includes the “Lost Garden of the Incas,” dinosaurs, salt flats, flamingos, archaeological sites, geysers, llamas, and much more. So, without further ado, let’s dig deep into the five natural wonders you shouldn’t miss when visiting Bolivia:
Lake Titicaca is special for so many reasons that it’s hard to know where to start. Sitting at 12,506 feet (3,812 meters) above sea level, it’s the highest lake in the world. It’s also one of the oldest lakes in the world, thought to be three million years old!
It’s been called the “birthplace of the Incas” and it’s currently on the tentative list to become a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Titicaca is the largest lake in South America whose shores shoulder some of the highest snowy peaks in the Andes.
More than 40 islands scatter about the lake, some of which house several Incan ruins. Others are artificial floating islands made of reeds that are home to the Uru-Chipaya people who predate the Incas in the region.
Finally, Lake Titicaca also functions as the border between Bolivia and Peru. The lake is divided into two smaller lakes by the Tiquina Strait: Lake Huinaymarca on the Bolivian side, and Lake Pequeño in Perú.
The best time to visit Lake Titicaca is from April to November and you can reach it on a day trip from La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. Not far from the lake, you will find the archaeological site of Tiwanaku.
An empire capital in the Andes that is not Incan? That’s Tiwanaku, an impressive archaeological site of what once was the highest city in the ancient world. During the peak of the Tiwanaku empire, it had a population of between 30,000 and 70,000 residents.
The Tiwanaku culture thrived within the basin of Lake Titicaca between the years 200 BCE and 1000 CE. Tiwanaku, the city, was the spiritual and political center of its people, and it holds an outstanding universal value, according to UNESCO that declared it a World Heritage Site in 2000.
A severe drought in the region led its populace to abandon the city by 1000 CE. As other pre-Columbian cultures, the Tiwanaku were great astronomers, but they never developed a written language.
These days, the Aymara people still celebrate the New Year in Tiwanaku on June 24. This is a good time to visit on a day trip from La Paz.
Uyuni Salt Flat
Just like Lake Titicaca is the highest in the world, the Uyuni salt flat is the largest in the world. It stretches for over 4,050 square miles of hexagonal tiles produced by the crystalline nature of salt.
From November to April, the salt desert becomes a salt lake, and incredibly enough, it’s traversable by boat and truck at the same time. The shallow water formed by the rainwater of the wet season creates fascinating images of reflection, in which no one can tell where the land ends and the sky begins. National Geographic has called them one of the “most remarkable vistas on Earth.”
To visit them you can fly from La Paz to Uyuni or hop on an overnight bus. You can also book a tour from nearby Chile or Argentina, however, the distances are big and that implies 3 or 4-day trips.
Madidi National Park
This is the place “where the Amazon meets the Andes.” A huge protected area of over 7,000 square miles that extends from the Amazon Basin at barely 600 feet above sea level, all the way to the Andes mountaintops sitting at 20,000 feet above sea level.
The New York Times makes the case that Madidi could be the world’s most diverse national park, and bring the numbers to support it. The Identidad Madidi project in 2015, found out that the park is home to 8,524 species of wildlife (without including insects). Amazingly, 124 of the species and 8 subspecies were new discoveries for science.
Another estimation puts the number of insect species living in the park at 120,000. And if you can handle one more mind-blowing piece of data, consider this: as much as 14% of the bird species identified in the world live at Madidi.
The best time to visit is during the dry season, from April to October, and the best way to get there is flying from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.
By now, you might be sensing a trend here. Bolivia has the highest lake in the world, the highest ancient city in the world, the largest salt flat in the world, and the most diverse national park in the world. Now it’s the turn for the “most dangerous road in the world.”
As a road, how do you get that label? Well, with a 2,000-foot abyss on one side of the road, low visibility, rainy weather, and a lack of guard rails, the perilous road had caused an estimated 200 to 300 annual deaths until 1994. These days, the infamous “Death Road” is available only to tour buses, bikers, and tourists who deliberately choose to risk their lives for the thrill of it.
Yungas Road climbs 15,260 feet above sea level before starting a long downward stretch into the Amazon rainforest. If you are of the adventure kind, this is a worthy challenge. Several tour companies offer the trip from La Paz all year round.
If reading about Bolivia has impressed you as much as it did me as I wrote this article, you might be looking for flights to Bolivia right now. If you plan to discover the wonders of this diverse and exciting country, sign up for a free class with one of our native Spanish-speaking teachers to practice your Spanish skills and prepare yourself for the trip of a lifetime.
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